Bestic and the bombing of ILV Isolda

In a follow up to an earlier article on the life and times of Irish Master Mariner Albert Bestic, author David Carroll affords a second installment of Bestic’s career -the tragic sinking of the Irish Lights Vessel Isolda on 19th December 1940. Take it away David:

Earlier this year I wrote about Captain Albert Bestic and his survival from the sinking of RMS Lusitania in 1915. Twenty-five years later, he was again involved in another tragic sinking of a vessel. This time it was off the Saltee Islands, while he was Master of the Irish Lights Vessel ‘Isolda’.  My father considered Captain Bestic a heroic figure and held him in the highest esteem. My interest in his story, therefore, was sparked at an early age.

Albert Bestic aboard the ILV Alexandra in 1922. Source Kicking Canvas – Evans Publishers

“The seas off the south-east and south coast of Ireland remained the location for German attacks through the winter of 1940.”

‘Guarding Neutral Ireland.’ [1]

The south-east of Ireland had certainly seen the viciousness of the war throughout 1940.  On August 26th, the peace of the small village of Campile in County Wexford had been shattered, when a lone German bomber appeared without warning and dropped four bombs on the creamery of Shelburne Co-op, which employed approximately 150 people. Sadly, three young women lost their lives.  Guarding Neutral Ireland records that on July 28th, the SS Rockabill, the Clyde Shipping vessel that was much regarded in the Waterford area, was attacked by an aircraft off the Saltee Islands. Because it was outside Irish territorial water, the British registered vessel was able to open fire with her own anti-aircraft gun.  The bombs missed and the Rockabill made it safely into Waterford. The German aircraft continued to circle the area and then attacked the Belfast registered SS Carnalea, a collier, outward-bound from Waterford but without success.

The SS Ardmore was not so lucky. She was on passage from Cork to Fishguard in South Wales on November 12th, 1940, but never reached her destination. She had a full cargo of livestock on board, mainly cattle and pigs. A total of twenty-four lives were lost. When her wreck was finally discovered in 1998, it was found that the hull bore evidence of a massive explosion and it is believed that the ship may have hit a magnetic mine.

In addition, off Co Cork coast, the Irish-registered SS Kerry Head was attacked off Kinsale while on a voyage from Swansea to Limerick on August 1st. The Kerry Head escaped damage in this attack but was not so lucky on October 22nd. Coast Watchers on Sheep’s Head, Co Cork could only look on with horror as a German aircraft dived low over the ship. An immediate explosion was followed by a big cloud of black smoke. The plane was not seen again. The ship sank in a few minutes. There were no survivors from the crew of twelve.

The Weekly Irish Times of December 28th, 1940 carried the following report:

GERMAN CLAIM TO HAVE SUNK SHIP OFF WEXFORD

On December 20 The German High Command communiqué stated: – The German Air Force yesterday carried our armed reconnaissance flights over Great Britain. In St. George’s Channel south of Carnsore Point, (Wexford, Eire), a ship of 1,200 gross registered tons received a direct hit and sank’’.

The report was accurate.  The ship was the Irish Lights tender SS Isolda, which on the morning of December 19th 1940, left Rosslare Harbour at 08.50hrs, with a crew of twenty-eight and seven relief men for the Barrels and Coningbeg lightships to provide them with crews and Christmas provisions. After placing the first crew at the Barrels lightship, Isolda then headed towards the Coningbeg lightship. But she didn’t make it very far, as three miles out, Isolda was attacked from the air by a German Condor aircraft and sank with a loss of six men.

Kenneth King’s iconic painting of the bombing of the Isolda. Image courtesy of Cormac Lowth.

Irish Lights, operating the lighthouse service, was considered neutral during World War ΙΙ and Isolda had ‘Lighthouse Service’ clearly painted in large letters on both sides of the hull. Royal Irish Academy historian, Dr Michael Kennedy has stated that the Isolda was carrying buoys, which viewed from the air may have been mistaken for mines. [At a recent online lecture Elleesa Rushby (granddaughter of William Rushby) discussed several theories, and seemed to lean more towards the fact that Isolda, registered in the UK was flying the blue ensignit is now published online by the National Maritime Museum and is highly recommended viewing]

In command of the Isolda was Captain Albert Bestic, the same person who was Junior Third Officer on RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7th, 1915.  Captain Bestic had entered the service of the Commissioners of Irish Lights on November 24th, 1922, and was appointed 2nd Officer of the SS Alexandra.  September 1934 saw him being appointed 1st Officer of the SS Ierne and in 1939, he became 1st Officer of the SS Alexandra.[2] These lighthouse tenders maintained, supported, and provided supplies to the lighthouses and lights vessels around the Irish coasts and facilitated crew changes.

In 1935, Captain Bestic was granted three months leave from Irish Lights to accompany the salvage ship Ophir as it attempted to find the wreck on the Lusitania. Also, aboard was another survivor of the disaster, Mr Robert Chisholm, formerly second steward of the Lusitania. A newspaper report stated that Captain Bestic was familiar with every passage and deck on the lost liner and knew exactly where on the Lusitania to find the thirty-two-ton safe where passengers deposited their valuables and money on the ship’s last voyage and his knowledge would save divers much time in searching the wreck.[3]

A large crowd had witnessed the Isolda being launched from the Dublin Dockyard on January 26th, 1928. Amongst those in attendance was Captain Bestic, who recalled in a newspaper article in the Irish Independent on June 26th, 1946:

“I saw the Isolda, gay with coloured bunting, launched at Dublin in 1928. Little did I think then that, thirteen unlucky years later, I would be jumping into the water from her deck as, crippled and burning, she disappeared into the insatiable maw of the sea. Never will I forget those appalling ten minutes before she went to her doom— those annihilating explosions, the deafening roar of the plane as it zoomed overhead almost as low as the mast trucks, a veritable zoom of death.”

ILV Isolda, built at Dublin Dockyard and launched January 26th, 1928. She was 198ft in length and 734 tons. Image courtesy of Irish Lights.

Captain Bestic, who was a prolific contributor of articles of maritime interest to Irish newspapers and periodicals, continued to give a personal and graphic description of the sinking:

It was the 19th, December 1940. The weather was perfect. The sun sparkled on a blue and undulating sea and everybody on board was in good spirits for to all appearances we would be back in Dún Laoghaire for Christmas. Ahead of us we could see the Coningbeg lightship, whose leave party awaited our arrival to take them ashore. On our starboard beam less than three miles distant, lay the Saltee Islands, off Co Wexford.

Coningbeg’, the lightship that Isolda never reached on December 19th, 1940.

The Coningbeg lightship was established in 1824. It marked the rocks of the same name off Wexford’s Saltee Islands. Despite several efforts, Coningbeg confounded attempts to build a permanent structure there. It was replaced by a “superbuoy” with a 14km radius light and several smaller navigational aids in 2007. It was one of the last of an original fleet of eleven lightship stations moored around the coast.

Photo: Courtesy of Brian Cleare

About 11, as I was sitting in my cabin, a messenger from the bridge suddenly appeared at my doorway; “There’s a ‘plane in sight, Sir,” He said.

‘Planes, those days, should they have any hostile intentions, did not leave much time for deliberation. Although, I did not anticipate any attack, as we were in neutral waters, I snatched up my cap and hurried on to the bridge.

The ‘plane, about a quarter of a mile distant, was cruising in the same direction as ourselves on our starboard beam, and not more than fifty feet above the surface. Apparently, he was taking stock of us to see if we were armed. Having satisfied himself to the contrary, he prepared to attack.

Accelerating, he encircled our bows until he was on the port beam with the sun directly behind him— and then came straight for us. His intentions were now unmistakable.

Take cover!” I yelled and with one accord, the Chief and Second Officer, the lookout and myself dived into the concrete bullet-proof shelter, better known as the “funkhole” which had been erected on the bridge in case of emergency. This house also protected the helmsman.

Like some diabolical bird that had escaped from an evil world, the ‘plane roared over the bridge and above the noise, I heard two hard thuds. “He’s hit something up aloft” I shouted to my companions. He had made a hit all right, but not in the place I thought, for the thuds were bombs and about five seconds later their explosion seemed to lift the ship about half a foot out of the water.

I stepped out on to the bridge to survey the damage. To my consternation, I saw that the ‘plane had turned and was racing towards us for a second attack. Once again, the dreadful roar as he passed over our heads—to be followed by the ominous thuds as the bombs hit us. I held my breath. Crash!

The ship jumped like some wounded animal, and almost immediately developed a list to starboard. The list, together with the roar of escaping steam from the engine-room as well as volumes of smoke, told me the worst—the ship was finished.

Realising that nothing could be done to save her, I passed the order to abandon ship. The men sprang to the falls and were lowering the boats when that portentous roar I had grown to dread increased again. The ‘plane was coming back.

Once again, a repetition of the fearful ordeal. The order to” take cover,” the darting into the “funk hole”, the same significant “thud, thud”, another nerve-wracking upheaval – death, destruction— and a heavier list.

The survivors, realising that the ship was making water fast, sprang to the boats, lowered them away, and tumbled in. Our troubles were not over yet over. Even as my companions and I prepared to follow, I saw that the ‘plane was sweeping round to bomb us from a stem to stern angle.

Diving for our “funk hole” was becoming quite a routine and once more we sought the shelter of this well-tested refuge. The bombardment which followed seemed to me to be more devastating than any of the previous ones, as the bombs hit us just in front and just behind the bridge. The subsequent explosion was terrific. The bridge seemed to bound furiously up and down and then subside piteously.

Blinded by smoke and fumes, we instinctively staggered aft— to emerge suddenly into clearer atmosphere. To us it breathed a hope of life anew. We could see our boats standing some distance off, but we knew that nobody in them could hope that anybody on the bridge had survived the last fearful bombing.

Time was precious. The ship, fast settling down in the water, felt as though she might take her last plunge at any moment, and were a boat recalled, it might become engulfed in the vortex. Under the circumstances, we decided to get the remaining boat away ourselves but alas, it filled directly as it reached the water.

A boat awash, however, is better than none and we tumbled in—only to find her sinking. To add to our predicament, the funnel, owing to the vessel’s list hung precariously over our heads.

Keen eyes in the motorboat, however, had spotted us despite the smoke and steam. Quickly she sped towards us, and, with her coming, we abandoned our hazardous craft and swam towards her. Within minutes, willing hands had hauled us aboard.

Then came the roll call. Six had been killed outright, while six*, who had been wounded, were with us in the boats. Realising that nothing further could be done we sadly made for Kilmore, our nearest landing place, and, in a couple of hours were receiving that wonderful hospitality which is always accorded to the shipwrecked sailor.

Observers in the lookout post, LOP 14 at Carnsore Point, and crewmen on the Limerick steamer Lanahrone, only eight miles away, witnessed the massacre.  RNLI records show that both the Kilmore Quay and Rosslare lifeboats were launched.

At 10.45hrs, the Kilmore Quay lifeboat was launched after information was received by the coxswain Jack Walsh that a ship was on fire southeast of the Saltee Islands. The coxswain had heard the bombs exploding and saw an aeroplane over the Saltees, but the disaster was behind the small island and not visible from Kilmore. In the meantime, the survivors of the Isolda were heading to Kilmore Quay on a course that would take them west of the Saltees, thus missing the lifeboat.[4]

The lifeboat crew continued and found wreckage in the area but no sign of life. On learning that the survivors had made their way to Kilmore Quay, they returned to the station.

The six crew members of the Isolda who were killed were all from Dún Laoghaire.  There were very harrowing scenes at the railway station in Dún Laoghaire as families and loved ones waited for the survivors to return from Wexford by train. The men lost were; William Holland, Patrick Shortt, Jimmy Hayden, William Rushby, Paddy Dunne and Patrick Farrell.

The Coningbeg was serviced for the remainder of the war by William Bates of Kilmore Quay who provided crew exchanges and supplies in his fishing boat Saint Joseph. James Bates provided the same function to the Barrels with his boat the Pride of Helvic.[5] For more information on the rescue and immediate aftermath at Kilmore Quay consult John Powers “A Maritime History of County Wexford Vol II” pp326-330

Later, while serving as 1st Officer on the Irish Lights vessel SS Alexandra, Captain Bestic was seconded to Royal Naval Reserve as Lieutenant from April 28th, 1942 – January 1st, 1945, when he re-joined Alexandra as 1st Officer. He retired in 1949. This remarkable and distinguished mariner died in Bray on December 20th, 1962. [6]

Sam Williams was the last surviving member of the crew of the Isolda. He was only 18 years of age when the vessel was sunk. He died on August 26th,2014 and had been coming to the annual commemorative service in Kilmore Quay, every year up until 2013, to lay a wreath for his six lost comrades.

Kicking Canvas was a memoir of Bestic’s first trip to sea on the SV Denbeigh Castle. It’s still available to buy online, and I can highly recommend it.

REFERENCES:

  1. Guarding Neutral Ireland, Dr Michael Kennedy, RIA, Four Courts Press 2008.
  2. Information on Captain Bestic kindly made available by Irish Lights.
  3. The Irish Times, Tuesday, July 9th, 1935
  4. ‘When tragedy struck twice off the Saltees’, by Elaine Pepper, Wexford People, August 11th, 2020.
  5. Details provided by email correspondance with Dick Bates
  6. Bray People, April 29th, 1999, ‘Looking Back’ by James Scannell.

*All articles, read by this writer, relating to the loss of the Isolda give seven as the number of crew members that were injured. Captain Bestic in the 1946 newspaper article gives the number as six.

A fitting tribute and short video, narrated by Dr Kennedy, commissioned in December 2020 by the Commissioners of Irish Lights to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the loss of the Isolda, may be accessed on this link:

I would like to thank Niamh Collins, Archivist at the Commissioners of Irish Lights, Maritime Historian Cormac Lowth and Marine Painter Brian Cleare for their assistance with this article.


 

 

 

 

 

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