The Second World War heroes who died in Cork Harbour

The Second World War heroes who died in Cork Harbour

A painting from 1943 of the MTB Boat M1, of the Irish Marine Service protecting the 'Irish Poplar' by Kenneth King. Pic: Collection of Irish Naval Services

The ‘Dog Nose’ is the green No.5 buoy in the middle of Cork Harbour, between Camden and the approach to Whitegate.

Historic references to it go back as far as ‘The Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland’, in 1846, when it was “a white buoy which stands southward of Fort Camden, upon Dog’s Nose.” 

A Seaman’s Guide, in the early 1900s, described how the entrance to Cork Harbour could be seen from the sea by approaching ships: “Roche’s Point is bold, as is Dog’s Nose.”

A navigation mark for the harbour’s shipping channel, the Dog Nose is used as a racing mark by sailing clubs and is a spot for sea angling.

This Saturday, it will be remembered in another context, a tragic one, which cast a gloom over Cobh and the harbour at Christmastime in 1942, when World War Two raged in Europe.

A previous commemoration at the Irish Poplar memorial. On Saturday morning at 11.30am the Cobh branch of O.N.E. – the Organisation of National Ex-servicemen and women will recall the tragedy
A previous commemoration at the Irish Poplar memorial. On Saturday morning at 11.30am the Cobh branch of O.N.E. – the Organisation of National Ex-servicemen and women will recall the tragedy

Ireland was a neutral country, but an island on the edge of Western Europe needed shipping to supply its needs.

The Irish Poplar was one of the first vessels in the urgently-assembled Irish Shipping fleet, when government, in 1941, after two years of war, realised that Ireland was isolated by the warring nations and needed its own ships. It was not easy to acquire them, when there was a big loss of shipping from submarine and aircraft attacks. 

Built in 1912, the Irish Poplar had a history. Of 3,282 tons, 352 feet long, it was the Greek-owned Vassilios Destounis, when attacked by German aircraft, salvaged by fishermen, and taken into the northern Spanish port of Aviles.

It was in need of repair, and the Irish government got it for £142,000. After repairs, it went into service and, in December 1942, landed cargo at Dublin.

Then, in ballast without cargo, the ship headed for Cork, for further refit work at Rushbrooke dockyard, the top of her rudder and some of the propeller above water level.

On arrival, she was instructed by Cork Pilotage to wait at Dog Nose for a pilot and port control officer. All ships entering and leaving were inspected under wartime regulations. This applied, despite the Irish Poplar being a State-owned vessel.

According to descriptions, December 12, 1942 was a night of “vicious stormy weather.” Port control, under the State Marine Service of the time, the precursor of the modern Navy, would have to put an inspection officer aboard and the harbour commissioners a pilot.

Two boats were involved: the harbour pilot boat, Carraig-an-Cuan, which left from the Camber, in Cobh, about 6pm, and the launch, Eileen, from the Haulbowline Marine Service base.

Pilot, Patrick Lynch, and chief petty officer, Frank Barry, of port control, were put aboard Irish Poplar in “extreme weather conditions.” The pilot would stay aboard and his launch would stand by until inspection was completed, then collect him and return to base.

What happened subsequently has been the source of different descriptions, but it seems that, as the two boats pulled away from Irish Poplar, which resumed course towards Rushbrooke, they had difficulty in the conditions and were forced backwards, possibly collided, and were dragged towards the propeller of the ship.

When CPO Barry finished his inspection, he did not see his launch. When another was sent out, the tragedy was realised. Ballycotton Lifeboat was called and battled the weather conditions for four hours to get to Cork Harbour.

“One of the worst nights of bad weather ever experienced,” the lifeboat crew reported.

Five men — John Higgins, Patrick Wilshaw, Frank Powell, William Duggan, and Frank Lloyd (four from the marine service and one from the harbour commissioners) — were killed in the tragedy. The oldest was 45 and the youngest 25.

One man survived: James Horgan, who had been on the pilot launch, swam from the Dog Nose Buoy to Spike Island to raise the alarm. It was an amazing swim in the awful conditions.

Around midnight, some debris was found along the waterfront, including two caps, identified as belonging to Frank Lloyd and Frank Powell. More wreckage was found later. An inquiry concluded that damage to both vessels was consistent with being struck by the propeller of Irish Poplar.

Those who died are remembered by a monument that stands outside the Old Town Hall of Cobh at Lynch’s Quay. There, on Saturday morning, at 11.30am, the Cobh branch of O.N.E. – the Organisation of National Ex-servicemen and Women — will recall the tragedy. Wreaths will be laid by the relatives of those who died, and by the Naval Service, Cork Harbour Pilots, O.N.E., the Royal Naval Association, and the National Maritime College.

“Those men lost their lives on service to the nation. They were the only people that lost their lives on active service to the country during the Second World War. Unfortunately, some of those who died in this tragedy were never found, but we will go on remembering them for as long as we can and pass on that memory to others,” the Cobh branch of the O.N.E. say.

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