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:


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.


  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.






Carnage on the seas, January 1862

A stormy January in 1862 saw tremendous seas and howling gales that created havoc in the Irish seas and beyond.  As ships do, they sat it out where possible and then when it passed, they raised anchor and got underway.  The gales however had not gone, merely abated.  The local Waterford paper, the New & Star was so gripped by the problems that it caused for shipping that it devoted half a page to describing the impact, almost totally in relation to Waterford ships or incidents in the harbour or on our coast.  From what I have read at least six ships were lost in Waterford that month and many more were damaged.  This week I thought I would bring you part of the actual reportage from the News & Star, and their unnamed journalist, to give a sense of the time. 

“The details of the disastrous effects of the terrible weather of the past week arrive with intense impact upon this part of Ireland, as the fury of those gales made our lee shore the sorrowful and fatal alternative of many fine ships and many gallant, free-hearted, and generous mariners, whose lives have at length fallen victim to the untimely fate which the majority of chances are in favour of those who choose to plough the ocean in search of bread and independence—the former hardly earned, and the latter so seldom attained by the achievement of what is indispensable to that coveted prize, independence.

After the storm of Thursday and Friday last, Saturday opened up beautifully fine, and although the wind continued about SE giving a note of unsettled weather, the sea bore a comparatively tranquil aspect, looking, on our visit to Annestown, as if its mighty jaws had never engulfed a human life, or swallowed up or torn to fragments the most stupendous work of man’s ingenuity and ability in naval architecture, showing though everlasting and warning superiority of nature over man’s greatest creation. In the midst of the ruin that was there, and the painful rumour we had heard the previous day of the probable immense destruction of human life here, it was gladdening to tho heart to hear hopes expressed that the dreadful fears were unfounded, and subsequent intelligence dispelled the gloom which the horrors of the loss of an emigrant vessel’s crew and passengers had awakened in the hearts of those who had for a time laboured under the sad impression.

The great misfortune attendant on this storm was, that a large number of vessels bound to Irish harbors and the Atlantic Ocean, had been tempted, to leave their ports of departure in England and Wales by the fine weather prevailing at the other side, in the early part of last week, and thus, when the severity of the gale broke upon them, the Channel may be said to have been ‘chock full’ of shipping. Nothing can better show the severity of the gale than the fact of the Coningbeg light-ship having been dragged for several miles from her mooring, to which, during many storms, she has for many years before held firm. On the Ballast Board in Dublin hearing of this casualty, which was so likely to prove fatal to the shipping heaving in night, not knowing the changed position of the light, and which, in fact, was near proving disastrous to a passing steamer for this port, another light ship was at once sent off, and on Sunday was moored in the proper place to mark those dangerous rocks, about twelve miles S. E. of Hook Tower, and off the Saltee Islands. The buoy which marked the South end of Long Bank, and also that of Splaugh Rock, on the Wexford coast, were washed away by the fury of the seas. The new steamer Pladda, which left this port on the 21st inst for Glasgow, was caught in the height of the gale on the 22nd, and after being 62 hours at sea, was obliged to run for Kingstown harbour, where also the steamer Troubadour, for Wexford sought refuge.

SS Pladda via Andy Kelly Collection

Amongst the disasters to Waterford shipping reported, we regret to hear of total loss, near Miltown, County Cork, of the fine schooner Prudence, Thomas, master, on her voyage from Limerick to London, laden with oats, melancholy to add, the  Captain and three of the crew were drowned, three others being saved. The Prudence was owned in this city by Capt Thomas Angel, and was formerly well known as on of the fast liners between Waterford and London, which in those days of sailing commerce, used to attract general attention in the Thames for their beauty of model and their  adaptability for trade.  Captain Thomas was well known here as bold and skilful mariner, and he left a. wife and two children to mourn over a good and kind husband and father. The others drowned were belonging to this city, and have also left families….

…The Flying Dutchman, Clarke, master, which arrived here on Monday from Llanelly experienced a terrific passage, and was driven up St. George’s Channel as far as Holyhead. The Captain saw a large ship, apparently a barque, with loss of mainmast, and crew lashed to the pumps, scudding before the gale off Arklow banks, but could not render any assistance. The Newcastle schooner, Whelan, of this port, arrived here last week, lost main boom and bulwark and became leaky in the gale.

The wreck at Annestown – the Indian Ocean.  We have ascertained the following additional particulars of the loss of this fine Australian vessel, on Benvoy Strand, at Annestown, on the morning of Friday 24th inst as briefly noted in last news. The Indian Ocean, one of the Slack Hall line of Australian packets, commanded by Capt. Russell, with a crew of twenty five men and a valuable cargo, but no passengers, left Liverpool on the previous Monday for Sydney N. S. W.  On Monday and Tuesday fine weather was experienced, but on Wednesday arose the gale to which on Friday this noble vessel fell victim. In the course of Wednesday, when about twenty miles from the scene of the disaster the vessel lost her bowsprit and rudder, and consequently became perfectly unmanageable. In this helpless condition she drifted coming nearer and nearer the rock bound coast toward which the fury of the gale was directed. Very early on Thursday morning, the brig Europa, from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Liverpool, Captain Welsh, owner, in command, came up to the drifting vessel and tried, but in vain owing to the tremendous seas running at the time, to take her in tow.  The Europa remained alongside until the evening, when her Captain intimated to Captain Russell, of the Indian Ocean, that he could not remain by the ship any longer with safety, and that the latter, seeing there was no possibility of rescuing his ship and justly fearful that longer delay would be to the destruction of his crew, abandoned his own vessel, and went on board the brig, which took all hands into Liverpool in safety where they arrived on Saturday morning, receiving on the voyage every attention from Captain Welsh which their destitute condition required.

A three master of the era to give a sense of scale
Wilhelm Hester [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On Friday, at about three o’clock, an alarm was given to Mr John Short, coast guard officer in charge of the station at Annestown, that a large vessel was drifting rapidly into the bay, and would, in a short time be on the rocks. Immediately Mr. Short and his men repaired to Benvoy Strand, distant about half a mile from Annestown, and there saw the noble vessel advancing to her destruction iu the raging surf, the wind blowing S. W. fearfully at the time, on a shore that offers nothing but immediate obliteration. She for some time, struggled with her impending fate but suddenly with a fearful surge, she was cast on the rocks which are everywhere apparent on this iron-bound coast, two of her masts going by the board with a tremendous crash, the third having previously gone over.  For a short time she lay in this condition, her timbers groaning and parting, when about half-past three am she quickly gave way to the fury of the waves and the merciless rocks, and went to pieces, her wrecked hull and cargo being driven far in onto the beach by the tempest during the morning.  Throughout the scene the ultimate anxiety was felt as to the crew and passengers supposed to be on board, but as none were perceived it was surmised that the vessel had been abandoned, which fortunately proved to be the case. During the day, the beach became crowded with the villagers and inhabitants of the locality, all desirous to see the wreck, inspect whatever cargo might be driven ashore, and, if possible, learn the name of the vessel and the fate of her crew, then supposed to be drowned.  The paper alluded to last day, dated at Bombay, January 2nd, 1861, signed W. Nicholl and Co., and addressed to the commanding officer of the Indian Ocean, picked up on the strand, revealed the name of the ill-fated vessel by and bye portions of her cargo turned up. A large number of ale casks, completely new, were cast on shore, most of them stove in and emptied of their contents. Of that number, there were found twelve casks of ale unharmed, one of rum, and one of illuminating oil, in the same condition. The casks were stamped Burton Weir Brewery; brewed expressly for Australia; Marian, No. 1, 2,3.  The oil was stamped Gambriel, Brandon, and Co’s illuminating oil.  The rum being from R. W. Princeton, Liverpool.  There were also found eight bales of different coloured wrapping and printing paper, the brown of which was considerably damaged, the remainder in very good condition.  They were consigned to an establishment in Sydney.

Everywhere along the beach and among the rocks were seen the proofs of the destruction done to this nobel ship. At the further end of the strand, jammed  between some high rocks, a distance from the cliffs and in the water, were seen the stern of the vessel, keel uppermost, without her rudder. Her name Indian Ocean, appeared on the stern, painted in yellow letters on a green ground, and the name ‘Liverpool’ encircled the rudder.  Her hull had been sheathed with yellow metal, and was strongly fastened with iron knees and copper bolts. The timbers, masts, spars and gear, all piled in a heterogeneous mass on the strand, proclaimed her a new and powerful American built vessel well suited to her work, and a noble craft when afloat. From the moment of the disaster the coastguard under the direction of Mr. John G. Short, were on the spot taking care of the wreck, which, with the other property on shore, was taken in charge by Lloyd’s agent at this port, Mr, Josiah Williams, and his sub-agent at Waterford, Mr. Thomas Walsh, auctioneer, who has been most indefatigable in the discharge of a very onerous and disagreeable duty, rendered peculiarly so on this occasion by the number of juveniles of both sexes who crowded the beach on Friday and Saturday, and who plied hammers and pincers, where possible, to take off the metal and rip out nails. In this task Mr. Walsh was well aided by Mr. Short and his men. We also learned, whilst on the spot, that the ill-fated schooner Active, of Bristol, which struck in the same locality on the previous day, almost instantly went into fragments, and the five men on board, who were seen in the rigging crying for help, received no mercy on earth, but were in a moment swept into eternity, since which none of the bodies have been seen…”

The extract above is taken as written and using the language of the day from the Waterford News and Star 31.01.1862, page 3

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