TODAY a memorial will be unveiled in Ventry to an incident that made international headlines 70 years ago. A German submarine, the U35, dropped off 28 Greek seamen at Ventry on October 4, 1939.
On seeing the U-boat a couple of days earlier the Greek seamen had panicked and abandoned their ship, taking to lifeboats in heavy seas off the southwest coast of England. One of the lifeboats overturned, throwing the men into the sea, but the crew of the submarine rescued them.
The other crew members were then invited on board before the U35 sank their ship, the Diamantis, which was bound for England. The Greeks were offered beds and told to make themselves comfortable. They were given cigarettes, tea and other refreshments. They later expressed appreciation for the way they were treated.
“When the Greek sailors said goodbye to me on the conning tower they went on their knees and kissed my wedding ring as if I was a bishop,” the U-boat captain, Werner Lott, recalled. “I did not want this but they said we owe our lives to you. You have treated us very nicely.”
One boy, just home from school that afternoon, rushed to the scene on seeing the U-boat. He was amazed at the attitude of the Greek sailors towards the Germans who had sunk their ship.
“German skipper, goot man,” they kept saying.
On October 16, 1939 the landing was featured on the cover of Life, a popular photographic magazine with a huge international circulation. This became a distinct embarrassment to the Dublin government because it lent credence to wild stories about U-boats using Irish waters.
“Frequent reports coming about submarine bases on the west coast of Éire,” Guy Liddell — the head of counter intelligence at Britain’s MI5 — had noted in his operational diary 12 days earlier.
“Éire’s neutrality is rapidly becoming a farce,” he added on October 12. “German sub sailed into Dingle for repairs.”
There was no truth to this, or to a MI6 report on January 12, 1940 about a supposed U-boat base near the mouth of the Doonbeg river in Co Clare.
“A submarine comes in three times a week and is camouflaged with a canvas screen,” Liddell recorded.
U-boat stories got further credence in June 1940 when two German spies were landed separately from U-boats on the Dingle peninsula. Walter Simon was arrested within hours of landing near Dingle, but Willi Preetz managed to stay at large for eight weeks before he was arrested in Dublin. By then the British media seemed ready to believe any story about U-boats around Kerry. A Daily Mail correspondent reported that he heard stories in the remote bogs of Kerry about local fraternisation with U-boat crews that “would make any Briton’s hair stand on end”.
He did not suggest the U-boats were surfacing in bog holes, but that seemed to have been the implication. He added that he was shown a pub in Dingle where a U-boat captain proposed a toast to the downfall of John Bull.
In another pub a man told him that a U-boat called regularly at a jetty on one of the islands to purchase fresh eggs and vegetables. “Come on, Maggie,” the submarine commander used to shout, “hurry up with those cabbages.”
The gullible journalist may have been paying for drink, and the more he bought, the more exotic the stories became. After investigating the U-boat stories for his book In Time of War, the distinguished journalist and author Robert Fisk noted that the officer in charge of coast-watching on the Dingle peninsula told him he believed that most of the subs “had been seen in pubs.”
After the war, Bob Davis, an American comic writer, wrote a novel entitled, The Dingle War. It was about a fictional character, Devin Ryan, who supposedly supplied “Irish hams, sweaters and whiskey” to the crews of U-boats that supposedly called regularly at Dingle during the war.
Ironically the first belligerent craft to arrive in the area was a RAF seaplane, which set down in Ventry harbour at 9am on September 14, 1939 with 12 men on board. The pilot, Lt Edward J Brooks, and a mechanic, went ashore with a broken fuel pipe, and a passing motorist gave them a lift to Dingle where the mechanic repaired the pipe in a garage.
It just so happened that Taoiseach Eamon de Valera was meeting Sir John Maffey, who was about to become the first British representative to Ireland. Two RAF seaplanes had set down off the Dublin coast on the first day of the war. The captain of one had gone ashore and made some telephone calls from the garda station in Skerries before the two aircraft took off again.
Despite a blackout on news coverage, those landings still prompted widespread comment. “How could this continue?” de Valera asked Maffey.
Suddenly the telephone rang and, after answering it, de Valera turned to Maffey. “There you are!” he said. “One of your planes is down in Ventry bay. What am I to do?”
The Taoiseach said he would have to intern the crew. “It was quite obvious he found this course most unpalatable,” Maffey reported. Both were therefore “much relieved” about an hour later when there was another call to report that the aircraft “had been allowed to get away”.
Even though de Valera planned to stay out of the war, Maffey was convinced he wished “to help us within the limits of that neutrality to the full extent possible”.
When the U35 returned to Germany in October 1939, the crew were celebrated, and Werner Lott was decorated with the Iron Cross. On its next mission, however, the U35 was sunk in the North Sea on November 29, 1939.
DAMAGED by depth charges, Lott brought the stricken vessel to the surface and ordered the crew to abandon ship. The commander of the pursuing British flotilla, Lord Louis Mountbatten, ordered that the German submariners should be picked up. It was only afterwards that he learned they were the crew of the U35.
Lott was in the cold water so long that he was too weak to hold on to the rope thrown to him, so the British took the extraordinary step of stopping and lowering a boat with men to lift him out of the sea. They did not usually stop to pick up the enemy in the water, so Lott was lucky, but then he really deserved that luck.
Some days later Lott got a chance to express his appreciation to Mountbatten. “I thanked him for the extraordinary efforts his destroyer made to pick us up,” Lott recalled.
“That is how life is,” Mountbatten replied. “You were extraordinary picking up the Greeks.”
“I could not help thinking,” Lott later wrote, “why are we fighting each other?”
All too often the gore and barbarity of war are remembered and the humanity is forgotten. This afternoon in Ventry the German ambassador, Dr Busso von Alvensleben, and the mayor of the Greek Oinousses Islands will celebrate the shining example of humanity exhibited by the crew of U35 in an era of so much depravity.
It is also a timely reminder for ourselves of a period of crisis when we had real leadership.
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