On the 1st September 1942, the SS Irish Willow rounded Hook Head and steamed for Dunmore East. With her destination Waterford port, it was a familiar course. But rather than being met by the pilot boat, this time she was intercepted by the local life boat Annie Blanche–Smith. For not alone had she a cargo of wheat for Halls Flour Mills in the city, she also had 47 souls clutched from the Atlantic, the crew of the torpedoed SS Empire Breeze.
The Irish Willow (1941-46) was originally built in America in 1917 as part of that country’s emergency fleet expansion to cope with the extra demands for shipping during WWI. In 1941 she was chartered to the newly founded Irish Shipping Co., in an attempt to keep supply lines open to Ireland. She had departed Cork in June and via Wales for bunkers had taken on a cargo of wheat at St Johns NB and was en route to Waterford.
|Irish Willow 1946 via Frank Cheevers WHG 2013|
The Empire Breeze departed Liverpool on August 15th as part of convoy ON 122. On August 25th the convoy was attacked by German U Boats and both U-176 and U-438 fired torpedoes in the direction of the Empire Breeze. It was later clarified that U-176 fired the fatal shots, the other sub’s missile having missed their target.
The crew took to the lifeboats and rowed away from their stricken ship, but not before an SOS was sent. However the rules about stopping in convoy were well understood by her crew and as a dense fog fell, they were left on their own in the middle of the Atlantic. Two ships did try to locate them, but the fog was too dense and they were passed off. When the crew spotted their stricken vessel still afloat, it was decided to return and temporarily board her from where hot drinks and extra supplies were sourced and a further distress call sent.
This signal was picked up by the SS Irish Willow, they immediately responded. However, the decision was not without a lot of risk to the neutral vessel. They had a fix on the ship using dead reckoning, in other words, they knew the direction the men were in, but not the distance. In a situation of thick dense fog, by traveling too fast they could collide with the stricken ship and risk their own. They could also risk colliding with the life boats. But they also risked the arrival of another U Boat, determined to finish off the job. As they sailed towards the survivors, all these thoughts must have been with the crew. Those not on watch were posted on deck as extra lookouts, and every two minutes whistles were blown as a signal to the stricken sailors.
|Fishermen’s Hall, Dunmore East|
Eventually, the wreck site was reached and the men rescued, and the Irish Willow made the crew as comfortable as possible while making haste towards home. A message was sent forward to alert the Irish government of the situation and the local Red Cross began to make preparations at the Fisherman’s Hall in Dunmore East. A reception centre was set up with food, clothing, beds, and medicines.
At 1.30pm the Annie Blanche–Smith put to sea, with doctors and ambulance men on board to meet up with the Irish Willow. In two trips the lifeboat landed the 47 survivors and returned to her station at 3.45pm.* Two of the wounded were transferred to the Waterford City & County Infirmary.
|Original Painting of the event
posted by Brian Cleare to WMH page Sept 2015
Apparently, coal was in so short a supply in the country at this stage, that the trains were no longer running. As a consequence, Sean Lemass (Minister for Supplies) had to authorise two buses to be dispatched to bring the crew to Dublin.** I’m sure from there they were returned to England, and just like my story of Pat Hanlon, were back at sea within days.
The SS Irish Willow continued to Waterford where she was discharged and continued to keep the country fed for the rest of the war. I know there was most likely Waterford men aboard, but don’t know any of the names I’m afraid. Bill Gunnip (RIP) who was our neighbour sailed with the company and did the Duffin family and I know the Heffernans, Hearnes and Walsh’s of Passage East were with the company too. Paddy Roche mentioned in a comment that his Grandfather Jim Roche of Ballyhack was aboard the Willow, but was not sure if it was at the same time. My own grandfather was at sea too. I’ve read recently that Irish ships saved the lives of 521 sailors of all nationalities and neutral Irish ships were attacked (by both sides) 41 times. 149 Irishmen died and 38 were injured, many permanently.*** That does not include those that sailed under other flags.
Growing up, my war hero’s were gleamed from comics and movies and tended to be military men who managed against all odds to do the impossible, and usually with a lot of gunfire. But as an adult you see things a little differently. The crews of such ships as the Irish Willow could only turn into danger on hearing an SOS, but that neither diminishes nor fully explains their decision to do so. They could do no other, but that in itself is very often heroic, especially when the sea is involved.
* Taken from “The Story of the Dunmore East Lifeboats” Brendan and Mary Glody made a present of a copy of it to me during the week.
**McShane. M. Neutral Shores. Ireland and the battle of the Atlantic. 2012. Mercier press. Cork
*** Bolger. D. The Lonely Sea and Sky. 2016. New island. Dublin