Pat Hanlon, Cheekpoint sailor, WW II POW and unsung hero

On the 5th October 1939, Coolbunnia man Pat Hanlon (able seaman) was captured as part of the crew of the SS Newton Beech by the German pocket battleship Admiral Graff Spee. No one could have foretold what would lead from the event, but by February 16th 1940 it would turn Pat into a celebrity at home and make naval and military history.

The Graff Spee was the pride of the German naval fleet at the time and at the commencement of World War II she was dispatched to the South Atlantic under the command of Captain Hans Langsdorff.  Langsdorff was an old fashioned sailor, and despite the fact that his orders was to disrupt and sink as much allied shipping as possible, his views were that he would not kill fellow seamen.  As a consequence the Graff Spee modus operandi was to approach allied shipping with the French flag at her stern, and once alongside run up her colours and put a crack boarding party aboard the allied ship.  The crew were then transferred, or if close to land, were given the option of rowing to shore in their ships lifeboats.  Charges were then set and the ships sent to the bottom.  As a consequence, he probably sank less ships than would have been possible, but of the nine he did sink, no crew man died.

The SS Newton Beech was from Newcastle-Upon Tyne and was built in Sunderland in 1925. She was an average sized tramp of her day (4615 GRT) owned by Tyneside Line with a crew of 21 Tynesiders and 14 from other areas including Cheekpoint.  She was under the command of Captain Jack Robison and had departed Cape Town on September 7th heading home with a cargo of Maize.  Her last resting place is recorded here.

SS Newton Beech
Photo via Pat O’Gorman

Aboard that fateful morning was Pat Hanlon one of the eleven children born to  Fisherman Martin O’Hanlon and his wife Margaret nee Murphy who was originally from Mooncoin. They lived in Coolbunnia on the main road below the present school.  Pat like so many from the area “went to sea” to earn a living.  Pat was a brother to our  current eldest resident Annie Phelan nee Hanlon in the Mount Avenue.

Hanlon homestead in Coolbunnia today

As the sinkings escalated the numbers of prisoners grew and they were transferred to the Graff Spee’s supply vessel the tanker MV Altmark who shadowed the battleship and hid under a Norweigan flag and fake name SS Sogne.  As the allied net closed on the Graff Spee and her ultimate fate, it was decided that the Altmark would break away from the scene and return to Germany.  Working hard to avoid capture her Captain, Heinrich Dau, headed northwards towards the Artic and nursed her towards the Norweigan coast.

Aboard conditions were tough, but apparently very fair.   An example of the regime:
7 a.m., turn-out and wash; 7.45, breakfast; 8.30-9.15, on deck for fresh air; 11.30, dinner; 2.30-3, fresh air on deck; 5.30, tea; 9 p.m., lights-out.  The Altmark was a large ship of 20858 GRT and prisoners were held in various sections, Pat being unluck to be 25 feet down in one of the holds.  It was dark, cold and very uncomfortable.  At one stage Pat got in trouble as he tried to send an SOS in a tin over the side, in the hope of raising their fate to the outside world. 

MV Altmark

He need not have worried however.  British naval intelligence was aware that prisoners had been taken and were busy trying to track likely vessels.  As the Altmark approached Norweigan waters, the navy demanded she be searched.  Despite three boarding parties of Norweigan navy personnel on three separate occasions, nothing was discovered.  British suspicions were obviously aroused however and she was tracked down by a spotter plane.  The Altmark was confronted by HMS Cossack, a destroyer and challenged whilst still in Norweigan waters.  The resulting diplomatic incident became so heated that none other than Winston Churchill, gave the order to interecept and board the Altmark.  She ran aground in a fjiord and was subsequently boarded by the Navy where hand to hand combat was used, in case gun shot would harm any prisoners. 

HMS Cossack

When the hold containing Pat Hanlon was thrown open, with a call of “The Navy’s here” he was first out of it, and risked falling back off the ladder such was the surge from below. Pat O’Gorman reminded me that in the same situation he would have tried to do the same…sailors would have expected the ship to be scuttled, and would have been keen to get on deck and grab anything to help them float off.  “The Navy’s Here” would later become the catch cry taken up by the press and media and used throughout the war as a symbol of naval potency. 

All the freed “Prisoners of war” were taken aboard the Cossack and she departed for Leith the following day.  Some footage of their Ariving back to England was taken by the Pathe News.  I fancy I can make out Pat, but I could be wrong. 

HMS Cossack arriving to a huge welcome at Leith

The incident created history in that it was the last naval boarding undertaken by the British navy.  It also led directly to the invasion two months later by Hitler of Denmark and Norway, as he determined that the Norwegians were not prepared to stand up to the British on matters of neutrality.  The incident was widely reported in the media and Pat found himself on the pages of several newspapers including the Irish Independent and the local Munster Express.

Despite his experiences Pat returned to sea not long afterwards and he along with hundreds of fellow Waterford men and thousands of Irishmen plied their trade with the merchant navy all through the horrors of the war.  Unfortunately the consideration of Captain Langsorff was uncommon and tens of thousands of merchant men died, one piece I read put it at 50,000,  some of whom were from Cheekpoint and many more from Waterford and the rest of Ireland.  Its worth remembering they put to sea in ships with little or no way of defending themselves and were unsung hero’s in a war where they played a crucial part, and got little by way of recognition for their bravery.

Thankfully, Pat survived the ravages of the war and afterwards got married and started a family in Liverpool and continued to work as a seaman. He died in Liverpool in 1994 at the age of 89 and his ashes were scattered on the Mersey.  

Thanks for various pieces of information to

Jim Doherty
Michael Farrell – Barony of Gaultier Historical Society
Tomás Sullivan
Pat O’Gorman
Captain Jim Murphy
The work of Con McGrath first published in the Irelands own November 2013
Anna Phelan for the personal family pieces included

More reading here:
Altmark incident explains how the situation developed and the implications for Norway

a full account from the German perspective can be had here:

Diary of Captain Brown of the SS Huntsman who was prisoner aboard the Altmark

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