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IN THE CROSSHAIRS— PART 1 OF A 2-PART SERIES
MV Kerlogue at War
Serving Neither King Nor Fuehrer, But Humanity
By Marie-Claire McGann
But perhaps the most sublime testimony to the heroism of the crew came from a grateful Nazi German government, in the aftermath of the ship's peril-filled rescue, on December 29, 1943, of 168 German sailors from the huge swells of the Bay of Biscay.
Months later, a letter from the German ambassador to the Irish government, Dr. Eduard Hempel, was delivered to the Kerlogue's captain, Thomas Donohue, in which he expressed his thanks:
"... To you and your crew my profound gratitude as well as my high appreciation of unhesitating valiant spirit which has prompted you to perform this exemplary deed, worthy of the great tradition of Irish gallantry and humanity ..."A silver cup, later held by Donohue in a photograph taken in the National Maritime Museum of Ireland, was later presented to Donohue with the words 'Bay of Biscay' engraved upon it.
Between MV Kerlogue's maiden voyage in 1939, until the war's end, in addition to undertaking one of the most heroic and successful rescue efforts of the war, the ship suffered a withering attack by British forces, who claimed to have mistaken her for a French ship, and damage from an acoustic mine. Through this, she continued to act as a cargo ship, sailing as a neutral, with the tricolour and EIRE painted large on her sides and deck, out of convoy, with full navigation lights.
The Kerlogue was the smallest of three ships belonging to the Wexford Steamship Company. She was built in Holland, just prior to the war's outbreak in September 1939. Intended for coastal work, she was a mere 142 feet long, and able to carry up to 335 tons, but at that, her freeboard loaded was less than one foot.
On April 2, 1941, German bombers attacked a British convoy. A crippled collier, the Wild Rose, out of Liverpool, was left behind. The Kerlogue at the time was under the command of Captain Samuel Owens of Carrickfergus, County Antrim, and was on passage from Wexford to Cardiff.
October 23, 1943, would prove to be a particularly trying day for the little ship. On passage from Port Talbot, a Welsh port where she loaded on coal, en route to Lisbon, the Kerlogue was attacked, about 130 miles south of Ireland, by two unidentified planes. These were later determined to be RAF Mosquitoes from 307 Polish Squadron.
Then-Captain Desmond Fortune had both legs fractured. Second Officer Samuel Owens had shrapnel fragments embedded in his chest and Second Engineer James Carthy sustained a gaping back wound, to name but a few of the grievously injured. Chief Officer Denis Valencie then took command.
The 25-minute attack left Fortune relying on crutches and suffering from wounds he received for the rest of his life, and severely damaged the ship. The entire bridge was destroyed, both lifeboats were broken, along with her compass and radio transmitter, and water was overwhelming the engine room. Thankfully, the pumps were able to keep the inflowing water under control and she slowly limped into Cork.
It was the Kerlogue's cargo of coal that saved her. Shells that ripped through her deck lodged in the coal and did not reach her hull. Remnants of cannon shells were later found and taken away for examination and were found to be of British origin.
"They (the British) informed us that the attacking plane did not identify the ship as Irish, and at the time of the attack Kerlogue was sailing off course. ... The British government for that reason will not accept responsibility for the attack, but are prepared to make a payment ex-gratia to the injured men."The Kerlogue was repaired in Cork after the attack, and Donohue took command. It was under his experienced captaincy that the Kerlogue made her greatest rescue. (He also commanded the Lady Belle and Irish Oak when both were attacked by German forces.)
On a routine passage on December 29, 1943, while sailing to Dublin from Lisbon, a German long-range reconnaissance aircraft repeatedly circled the Kerlogue, signalling 'SOS' requesting for help from the small ship and its 11-man crew. She altered her course to the plane's request. TO BE CONTINUED.
Marie-Claire McGann was awarded a B.A. (honours) degree in History and Classics by University College Dublin, in December 2003. She is a member of the Maritime Institute of Ireland.
This page was produced by Gerry Regan, with research assistance from Clem McGann and WGT UK Correspondent Kieron Punch.
Copyright © 2004, GAR Media.