Menacing mines in Waterford Harbour

Floating mines were a feature of both World Wars.  Deployed at sea or around the coast, the target was primarily the shipping that sustained the allied side or to thwart naval incursions.  Although the sailors that suffered on merchant ships were non combatants, the mines also threatened those who fished and even those who lived beside the sea, and Waterford and Wexford endured its fair share.  

I
recently recalled the tragic loss of life at Dunmore East in 1917, when a
German U Boat was destroyed.  The U Boat, UC-44 was deploying mines at the mouth of the harbour between Dunmore East and
Hook Head in Co. Wexford.  At the time, it
was a regular occurrence, as was the efforts of the Admiralty to clear
them.    However the allies were
also deploying mines, most of the access points to the Northern and Southern routes
to the English coast were blanketed by minefields in a futile attempt to thwart
the U Boat menace. The first Irish casualty of the mines in WW I was the SSManchester Commerce which was sunk off Donegal 26th Oct 1914.  It would be the following July before the admiralty were satisfied that the estimated 200+ mines had been cleared from the area. Maintaining access to Waterford became a job of constant vigilance against the
mine laying subs, which included patrols by Sub Chasers, overhead surveillance
and constant clearing of the harbour by Mine Sweepers.

An American Sub Chaser anchored above Passage East.
The Americans entered the war in April 1917
Passed on to me by Paul O’Farrell
An interesting ancedote from the times

Mines
were also a feature of WWII but this time Ireland was neutral and the country was not directly targeted.  However, it was the Irish who mined Waterford
harbour at this stage, which operated between Passage East and Ballyhack from
1941. The mines were deployed in the channel,
and were operated by control from Ballyhack, known as command detonated mines.  If any threat was seen, the mines were to be detonated
by the shore watch. (1)  I’d
imagine the minefield was directed more towards protecting Ireland from a
German sea borne attack, which also led to something I’ve written about previously, the removal of all road signs
During WWII
mines became more sophisticated.  The German side were the first to
develop magnetic mines that detonated as a ship passed close to them. Mines
were also deployed from airplanes, which meant the seas around Ireland became a
target after the fall of France.  Mines were reported regularly from
ships, shoreline walkers and the lookout posts, operated by the Marine and Coast Watching Service from Sept 1939, that lined the coastline. (2)
Many
injuries and fatalities were associated with them.  When a mine beached on the other side of the
Hook at Cullenstown in 1941, four members of the LDF died and another was
injured.  While a lighthouse keeper on
Tuskar Rock died after a mine washed up and another man was injured.  19 men died (largest loss of life nationally)
when a mine was spotted on a Donegal beach in 1943.  While waiting for a bomb disposal team an onlooking crowd refused to move back to a safe distance. (3)
The Great Western in camouflage during WWII
Posted by Tommy Deegan on the Waterford History Group Facebook page

The above loss of life gives some context to the following story shared by Noreen
Kane on the Waterford History Group on 24th June 2016.  Its based on recollections of her dads (Liam
Lundon 1934 – 2009) childhood in Passage East

“Even though there was a war on school was fairly uneventful. There was one
particular incident when one morning my father who was the local Garda came in
to the school and informed the teacher that the school had to be evacuated as
a mine had been spotted on the strand directly underneath the school.
It was a glorious spring day we were all marched up the back road to Garret
Meades house. We spent the rest of the day there until the “all
clear” was given. To this day I don’t know how the mine was disposed
of”
The school at that time was further out the Crooke road, where the building still stands over looking the harbour. (It closed when the new school opened in 1969) But was the mine disposed of, or just made safe?  Graninne
Flanagan commented on our own Facebook page recently about an old mine that was
on the beach between Crooke and New Geneva, where apparently her mother used to picnic. My Brother in Law, Bernard Cunningham recalled the mine and said it was the same, his mother Eileen (RIP) often recalled the incident. That having been made safe it was left on the beach. However, it was removed in recent years by a scrap merchant.  I’ve also heard of another mine that beached at Passage and that was taken away which made the Munster Express in late 1941, and a virtual raft of other incidents down the harbour and all along the coast and along the Wexford shoreline.  They even travelled as far upriver as Mooncoin! There were questions asked in the Dail about a delay in clearing a mine from a packed Tramore Beach in the summer of 1941 and the naval vessel Muirchu was a frequent visitor, called to dispatch mines using gunfire to detonate the threat.
A major incident concerned the Barrow Bridge which had to be closed in March 1946 after a mine drifted too close to
the structure.  It was spotted by two
Cheekpoint men Heffernan and O’Connor. They reported the sighting to the Garda station in Passage East
and a unit from the Curragh was dispatched under Comdt. Fynes to deal with the
threat.  Locally it was always said that the boys had thrown a lasso
around the mine and towed it away from the bridge as a train approached, saving
countless lives as a result.
A
more sober account can be found in that weeks Kilkenny People.  The mine
grounded between Snow Hill Quay and Drumdowney Point as the tide went out and once settled on the mud, a rope was
tied around it, to prevent it floating away. (and no less heroic to my mind, if
a little less dramatic) Although the Boat train departed from Waterford that
evening, it was decided to close off the line to rail and shipping on the
Saturday. The
bomb disposal unit had to wait for the tide to go out before they approached
the mine. The unit managed to make safe the mine by 4pm that evening,
meaning the 5pm train could depart with safety.
My own
brush with a mine came while I was herring fishing in Dunmore East.  The details are sketchy I’m afraid, as I
could find no record in the newspapers.  However I remember a particularly
nasty SE wind and a trawler coming in off Dunmore, but refused entry.  The
trawler was being towed if I recall correctly.  The mine was trapped in
the nets and part of the nets had fouled the screw. Holding off Dunmore,
a team of army bomb disposal experts arrived in Dunmore that day.  I
vividly recall their energy and enthusiasm as they jumped out of a dark green
jeep with large kit bags and boarded the pilot boat Betty
Breen
to go out to the trawler.  However, they were back after an
hour, green in the face and much less energetic.  The trawler was sent
over under the Hook and the decision was taken to await a team from the Navy to
deal with the issue.
You might
think that such problems no longer exist.  However the most recent article
I could find for Dunmore was the Irish Independent of March 2005 and the most
recent nationally was August 2007 in the same paper, this time a mine trapped
in nets off Co Cork.  Be careful out there, you never know what secrets
the sea might give up, particularly on a stormy day.
 (1) & (2)   MacGinty.
T.  The Irish Navy.  1995.  The Kerryman. Tralee
 (3)        Kennedy. M. Guarding Neutral Ireland.  2008. Four Courts Press. Dublin

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
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Mining Waterford Harbour

Two weeks ago we looked at the mine incident that closed the Barrow Bridge in 1946.  It was a floating mine, the origins of which was not identified, but it had been in the water for some time.  It might conceivably have dated to WWI.  At the time the mouth of the Harbour was regularly mined from German submarines hoping to interrupt allied supplies.  The allies were also deploying mines, most of the access points to the Northern and Southern entry points to the English coast were blanketed by mines in a futile attempt to thwart the u boat menace.
The German mines at the time were a contact mine which were deployed initially from ships but from June 1915 were planted from U Boats.  The mines were anchored by cable to the seabed and with enough draft to stay below the waterline.  They were pear shared, 3ft in diamater and filled with 350lb of TNT.  The top of the mine had 5+ horns, with a glass tube inside, which when a ship depressed, it broke and released a chemical to detonate.

US Sub Chaser SC-272 moored in the harbour circa 1918
Minaun in the distance
with thanks to Paul O’Farrell who passed on the image to me

The first Irish casualty of the mines was the SS Manchester Commerce which was sunk off Donegal 26th Oct 1914.  It was December before the admiralty realised it was the victim of a minefield and it would be July 1915 before they were satisfied that the estimated 200+ mines had been cleared.  Gives some sense of the difficulties posed.

Local readers are probably well aware of the story of Kapitanleutnant Kurt Tebbenjohanns and UC-44 which was sunk off Dunmore in 1917.  The U-boat was replanting a minefield between the Hook and Dunmore East, when it struck a mine.   Some might say ironic, but as it happens it was anything but, a story I will return to next week
accessed from http://www.digitalhistoryproject.com/2012/06/
submarine-mines-in-world-war-i-byleland.html

Tebbenjohannes and his colleagues were regular visitors to Waterford Harbour, trying to interrupt the flow of resources to allies. Deployed at night from a submerged sub, the task of clearing mines fell to converted trawlers and their crew with a token naval presence aboard.  Two boats would work together drawing a metal rope between them in an effort to locate the sunken bombs.  The risks were high and any mistake would see the loss of the boat, and most probably the crew.  For example in the weeks previous to the arrival of Tebbenjohannes, one boat was lost, but the crew of the minesweeper was rescued by fishermen from Dunmore.
According to Wikipedeia the total number during the whole of WWI was 235,000 sea mines and clearing them after the war took 82 ships five months, working around the clock.  Somehow I doubt they found them all.
Mines were also a feature of WWII but this time Ireland was a neutral and the harbour area was not directly targeted.  However, readers might be interested to know that it was the Irish who mined Waterford harbour at this stage!  There was a minefield operated between Passage East and Ballyhack from 1941. The mines were deployed by the Irish government forces in the channel, and were operated by control from the shore (Ballyhack) also known as command detonated mines.  If any threat was seen, the mines were to be detonated by the shore watch.  I have no further information on it, but would love to hear any other accounts.  (MacGinty: P.61) Personally I’d imagine the minefield was directed more towards protecting Ireland from a German sea borne attack.  The Irish government had been informed by an Admiral Fitzgerald of the Royal Navy to expect same via the harbour at an early stage of the war. (MacGinty: P.32)
During WWII mines became more sophisticated.  The German side were the first to develop magnetic mines that detonated as a ship passed close to them. Mines were also deployed from airplanes, which meant the seas around Ireland became a target after the fall of France.  Mines became a constant hazard, and ships and fishing boats and indeed walkers along the coastline were asked during the emergency to maintain a constant vigil.  There’s a fine photo of the Great Western in camouflaged colours in the harbour.  For anyone thinking that seems a little far fetched, especially as a neutral country, they would do well to remember that mistakes are commonplace in war and every time the ship went to sea, the seafarers would be justified in thinking it might be their last trip.  This must have been heightened as most of those aboard would have known personally family bereaved by such war casualties as the Conningbeg and the Formby.  I’ve mentioned before the perils faced by the Hanlon family from Coolbunnia.  150 sailors died in WWII on Irish registered ships. It’s estimated that up to 4,000 more died on allied ships.(MacGinty: P.58)
SS Great Western in her war time colours
Accessed from Waterford History Group
posted by Tommy Deegan originally

Mines were reported regularly from ships, shoreline walkers and the look out posts, operated by the Marine and Coastwatching Service from Sept 1939,  that lined the coastline.  The interception and dealing with the menace of mines on the seas became a job for the newly formed Irish Marine service (now Navy). (MacGinty: p.26)

Ironically it was the navy’s approach which caused many of the difficulties as experienced by the newly developed inshore fishing fleet in the post war years.  The methodology employed was to approach floating mines and detonate them by shooting one of the protruding “horns”  A distance of 80 yards clearance was required.  However it was realised that when the mine casing was holed, the mine filled with water and sank.  The naval personnel naturally assumed that the salt water would corrode the detonators and explosives, however that would not be the case.  Up to 183 mines were destroyed by the navy during the war.  (Macginty: pp63-5)
Any cursory search in the Irish newspapers will highlight the scale of instances since WWII of mines being brought up in nets.  Had the naval personnel realised the longevity of the metal mine and or perceived how post war fishing practices would develop and the scale of bottom trawling they may have reconsidered their disposal strategy.  Dozens of these articles relate to Dunmore East and vessels out of Dunmore and I was present in the 1980’s for one such adventure.
The details are sketchy I’m afraid, as I could find no record in the newpspers.  However I remember a particularly nasty SE wind and a trawler coming in off Dunmore, but refused entry.  The trawler was being towed if I recall correctly.  The mine was trapped in the nets and part of the nets had fouled the screw.  Holding off Dunmore, a team of army bomb disposal experts arrived in Dunmore that day.  I vividly recall their energy and enthusiasm as they jumped out of a dark green jeep with large kit bags and boarded the Betty Breen to go out to the trawler.  However, they were back after an hour, green in the face and much less energetic.  The trawler was sent over under the Hook and the decison was taken to await a team from the Navy to deal with the issue.
You might think that such problems no longer exist.  However the most recent article I could find for Dunmore was the Irish Independent of March 2005 and the most recent nationally was August 2007 in the same paper, this time a mine trapped in nets off Co Cork.  Be careful out there, you never know what secrets the sea might give up, particularly on a stormy day.
Thanks to Tomás Sullivan for loaning me his copy of The Irish Navy
MacGinty. T.  The Irish Navy.  1995.  The Kerryman. Tralee
Drew some information on the mines from:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_mine#Contact_mines

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales