IN the early hours of September 1, 1939, the German pocket-battleship Schleswig-Holstein quietly entered the mouth of the River Vistula near the city of Danzig — modern Gdansk, in Poland.
She was sailing under the guise of a ‘training ship’ and was ostensibly on a friendly visit, so the unsuspecting Polish garrison on the island of Westerplatte, a sea-fort located at a strategic point on the Baltic Coast, allowed the battleship to sail deep within its defences.
Then, at precisely 4.47am and without the slightest warning, the Germans, acting on the code-word ‘Fishing’, opened up with their massive 11-inch guns and fired at almost point-blank range at the island.
Shortly afterwards, hidden ‘shock troops’ disembarked and launched an attack on the garrison. At the same time, thousands of Adolf Hitler’s German troops were pouring over the border into Poland.
That day signalled the start of World War II , and two days later, the UK and France declared war on Germany.
Later that day, September 1, 1939, the Schleswig-Holstein was joined by its sister ship, the Schlesien, also sailing under the flag of a ‘training ship’.
The two ships’ overwhelming fire power, backed up by waves of Stuka dive-bombers and troops, remorselessly bombarded the Westerplatte fortifications. The gallant Polish defenders managed to hold out for five days.
However, just six months before that infamous day, the Schlesien had sailed into Cork Harbour.... and was delivered an almighty snub by the Lord Mayor of Cork himself.
One surprising element of this story — to modern readers at least — will be the reason why the Lord Mayor of Cork in 1939 — Alderman Jim Hickey, who was serving his third year in the role — refused to extend to the German ship’s officers and crew the courtesies that were usual in such circumstances.
The Labour Party member’s snub was not because of the abhorrent Nazi policies — it was because Germany had grossly insulted the Pope!
In 1939, relations between the Vatican and Nazi Germany were toxic, despite the so-called Reichskonkordat agreed in the dying days of the Weimar Republic — an attempt by the Pope to secure the rights of the Church in Germany.
As Hitler consolidated his power, however, Pope Pius XI became an outspoken critic of Nazi ideology, condemning the racial and nationalist idolatry of the new German regime, culminating in the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (‘With deep anxiety’), written in German.
Copies of it had to be smuggled into Germany so that they could be read from the pulpit. It criticized Hitler and Nazi persecution and condemned the paganism of the regime and the myth of blood and race.
Infuriated, the Nazis responded by intensifying their campaign against the Catholic Church. There were mass arrests of clergy and Church presses were closed down. These events in Germany were widely reported in the international press, including in Ireland.
Then, a fortnight before the battleship Schlesien was due to call to Cork, on February 10, 1939, the Catholic world was plunged into mourning by the announcement of the death of Pius XI.
The Cork Examiner devoted several pages, framed in black, to the event.
The German News Agency, however, was less deferential, describing the late Pontiff in disparaging terms.
For Lord Mayor Hickey, a staunch Roman Catholic, this was the last straw. For him, the logic was simple. The Pope was Christ’s Vicar on Earth, and whoever insulted the Pope, by definition, insulted Christ.
The Lord Mayor’s mind was made up. When the German vessel arrived in Cork in a fortnight’s time, he would refuse to meet them...
Fifty-three-year-old Jim Hickey was a native of Ballinagar, near Mallow in north Cork, one of 12 children.
At the age of 27 he had moved to Cork and secured employment with the City of Cork Steam Packet Company, later moving to John Daly and Company, manufacturers of the famous beverage beloved by generations of Corkonians, Tanora.
It was at this time that he joined the Labour Party and became a trade union official.
In 1931, Hickey married Eileen Kiernan from Northern Ireland and they lived, variously, at Anne Street (off Washington Street) and at St Luke’s. The couple had four children.
Now, in February 1939, as Cork’s First Citizen, Hickey was about to make arguably the most controversial decision of his political career; a decision that would grab international headlines and be reported around the world.
And Nazi Germany would not be pleased.
Under the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I, the Germans were permitted only to retain eight obsolete battleships to defend their coastline. Among them was the Schlesien (pronounced ‘Schlee-see-en’), named after a province in the German kingdom of Prussia, now Silesia in Poland.
A veteran of the Battle of Jutland in 1916, in 1935 she was converted into a ‘training ship’, her formidable armament comprising four 11” guns, ten 6” guns, four 3.5” guns, four 1.5” guns and an array of anti-aircraft guns. Her crew consisted of 31 officers and 875 other ranks, including cadets.
From the mid-1930s, the German High Command and Abwehr (Secret Service) began to gather intelligence on the fortifications of these islands for the coming war with Britain, which the Nazis deemed inevitable.
Fall Gruen (Case Green), the invasion of southern Ireland, it was envisaged, might comprise part of those plans.
For hundreds of years, military strategists had been well aware of the adage, ‘He that would England win, must with Ireland first begin’. It is not unreasonable to assume that the newly-reconstructed German Navy, the Kriegsmarine, was involved in intelligence-gathering during its many ‘courtesy calls’ to various foreign ports.
In April, 1937, the Schleswig-Holstein had sailed into Dún Laoghaire harbour on a five-day visit. Every courtesy was extended to the Germans, including being entertained at Army GHQ by Minister for Defence Frank Aiken and the Chief of Staff, and at the Mansion House where they were received by the Lord Mayor, the ‘Shaking Hand of Dublin’ himself, the redoubtable Alfie Byrne.
Dublin soccer team Bohemians played a team from the German ship at Dalymount Park, the final score being Bohs 2, Schleswig-Holstein 1. The Irish Independent noted that the visitors ‘had no big guns in the for’ard turrets’.
At the end of the visit, thousands of people lined the waterfront at Dún Laoghaire as the ship departed, its band ending the proceedings with the strident notes of Deutschland uber Alles followed by Amhrán na bhFiann carrying over the waters of the harbour.
The courtesy call to Cork by the Schlesien in February, 1939, was not so well-received.
At 7am on Saturday, February 25, the vessel steamed into Cork Harbour on a week’s visit. She came, according to a press release from the German Consulate, “on the order of the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, and the Greater German Reich, as a harbinger of peace, to find new friends, and to confirm and deepen friendship with old and true friends. We come to understand and get acquainted with your nation with all her sorrows and joys”.
After hovering around the mouth of the harbour, the ship moved into the inner harbour at around 8am, and as she passed beneath Fort Carlisle (now Fort Davis), the vessel fired a salute of guns. The Irish responded with a full salute of 21 guns.
As a portent perhaps, of the frosty relations with the Cork city authorities that were imminent, her captain — Kapitan sur Zee Lindenau — rashly chose to ignore the Harbour Commissioner’s pilot and the anchorage that had been prepared for him between Deepwater Quay and Haulbowline. Instead, he dropped anchor close to the Spit Bank lighthouse, two miles from Cóbh pier.
Shortly after the ship’s arrival, she was boarded by Capt Power, Liaison Officer from Army GHQ in Dublin, the German Charge d’Affaires Herr Thomsen and the local German Consul, Mr O’Keeffe. When the party arrived back on shore, it was obvious to the waiting reporters that something was wrong. Where was the Lord Mayor of Cork?
Capt Power refused to answer any questions and directed all enquiries to the Government Information Bureau. All the others would say was that a number of social visits which had been provisionally arranged had now been cancelled.
Lord Mayor Hickey, however, had no intention of beating around the bush regarding his reason for refusing to meet the Germans that day.
In a statement to the Cork Examiner (and widely reported elsewhere) he said: “I have been approached and asked to welcome the officers and crew, but in view of the insult given to the Catholic world on the death of the Pope, when the German Press termed our Holy Father a ‘political adventurer’, I cannot see my way to give any recognition, whether in my public or private capacity, to representatives of the German Navy.
“I hope and feel that I am interpreting aright the views of the citizens of Cork in taking this action. This is my protest against the official German view, and not against the masses of the German people, who, I am sure, would be slow to offer such an insult to the Catholic world.”
The Lord Mayor found a ready ally in the formidable Roman Catholic Bishop of Cork, Dr Daniel Cohalan, who congratulated him on his stance, noting that “the head of the German State, himself a nominal Catholic, when he went to Rome did not even pay the homage of a visit to the Holy Father”. (It was true that Hitler did not meet Pope Pius, but not for the reason implied in the bishop’s statement. The pontiff, upon learning that Hitler was to visit Mussolini in Rome, promptly left the city in order to avoid the two dictators).
Despite Cork’s blatant official snub of the Germans, the authorities in Cobh and the Irish Army felt they had little option but to extend the normal civic courtesies to the ship’s company. At Cobh, the officers were given a civic reception at the Town Hall by the Chairman of the Urban District Council, Séamus Fitzgerald, and later were guests of the Minister for Defence, Frank Aiken, at the Officers’ Mess at Collins Barracks, Cork.
A team from the 4th Battalion challenged the Germans to a basketball match in the gym and, gamely, the visitors took up the offer and, according to the Examiner, “gave a surprisingly good display”.
The next morning, a Sunday, almost 200 cadets paraded to Mass in St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, and on the way back enthralled the people of the town with their rendition of stirring marching songs.
That afternoon, the German ship was open to visits from the public, and again on the following Wednesday. Bus trips were organised for some of the ship’s company to the beauty spots of West Cork and Kerry, where they stayed overnight, while others got the train to Cork or explored the harbour town.
The weather gods, however, did not smile benignly on the Germans; their visit was marred by incessant rain. A number of sporting events had to be cancelled. Capitan Lindenau recalling that, on his previous visit to the town, in 1912, as a young cadet, he had witnessed a hurling match to which they had been invited by GAA official and nationalist activist, J. J. Walsh (later to become the first Postmaster-General in the Irish Free State).
At noon on Friday, March 4, the Schlesien weighed anchor and began her voyage home to Wilhelmshaven, the chief naval base on Germany’s North Sea coast, after an absence of four and a half months.
The ship was taken out of the harbour by the pilot, who left when it was three miles’ south of Roche’s Point. Earlier, Captain Lindenau spoke warmly of the hospitality they had been shown by the Irish people and expressed the wish that they would return again some day.
Lord Mayor Hickey was inundated with ‘phone calls, telegrams and letters congratulating him on his snub of the Germans, many of which came from the UK.
The German press, however, was indignant. One Corkonian returning from Berlin recalled reading a newspaper that assured its readers that the Lord Mayor’s real name was ‘Icki’, not Hickey, and that he was actually a Polish Jew; the insinuation being that no self-respecting Irishman, traditional enemies of Britain, would have carried on like he did. The incident would not be forgotten, the paper asserted, and the day of reckoning for ‘Icki’ would come sooner rather than later.
It is not recorded whether Jim Hickey was unduly worried about falling into the Nazi hierarchy’s bad books. He went on to have a successful political career, serving as Lord Mayor of Cork on four occasions in total, and was elected to the Dáil several times, the last at the 1951 general election.
In 1954, Hickey was nominated to the 8th Seanad by Taoiseach John A. Costello. He passed away in 1966, aged 80, and was laid to rest at Rahan Cemetery near Mallow.
The Schlesien, which partook in the opening salvoes of the war in Poland six months later, remained in a secondary role throughout the conflict due to her age.
On May 3, 1945, as she steamed to Swinemunde to evacuate 1,000 wounded soldiers, she struck a mine. She beached in shallow water, much of her superstructure, including her main guns, still visible. At the cessation of hostilities, she was broken up, though some parts of the ship could still be seen as late as 1970.