Jimmy Fenton greets former U-boat commander Werner Lott near where Lott's U-35 landed the 28-man crew of the Greek merchant ship 'Diamantes' in October 1939. The photograph was taken when Lott visited West Kerry in 1984 to meet the people to whom he had entrusted his captives.
The second world war
only gradually impacted on Ireland. Initially the British, French and Germans just waited for the other side to attack. After the precipitate fall of Poland, the conflict settled into what became known as "the phony war." Little happened on the western front for over six months until the Germans moved into Scandinavia.
The one place where the war was being conducted was in the Atlantic. German U-boats attacked shipping bound for Britain, while the RAF attacked the submarines in order to protect the shipping.
The first direct involvement that people in Kerry had with the war was on the morning of September 14, 1939 when an Royal Air Force sea airplane set down in Ventry Harbour with engine trouble. It has been on patrol protecting shipping off the south coast. There were twelve men on board the aircraft. The pilot, a Lt. Brooke and a mechanic went ashore with a broken fuel pipe, and a passing motorist — Brendán O'Connell, an civil engineer with Gaeltacht Services — drove them to Dingle, where a garage mechanic repaired the pipe.
It just so happened that the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera was having his first meeting that day with Sir John Maffey, who was shortly to become the "British Representative to Ireland". De Valera noted that a couple of British seaplanes that had set down for a time off Dun Laoghaire and Skerries eleven days earlier, on the afternoon of that Britain declared war on Germany. He knew that the British could not tolerate German aircraft or submarines sheltering in Irish waters, but he warned that the Irish government could not keep out the Germans and give the British a free access.
"His intention was to be helpful," Maffey noted. "He wanted to oblige us by having strict rule about submarines. He understood that suited us."
The incidents at Dun Laoghaire and Skerries had the subject of considerable public comment. "How could this continue? If he enforced rules against submarines what answer would he have to the Germans about our planes?" Maffey wrote.
De Valera told Maffey that it would be necessary to intern British airmen who came down in this country. At that point the Taoiseach's telephone rang, and he had a brief conversation with somebody. "There you are!" he said, turning to Maffey after he hanging up. "One of your planes is down in Ventry Bay. What am I to do?"
He felt that he was going to have to intern the men. "It was quite obvious he found this course most unpalatable," Maffey reported. "I said that in view of the Skerries precedent he should warn the British Government before introducing internment in any such cases. The men concerned had probably had no warning of any such possibility."
"We were both much relieved when the telephone rang again an hour later to report that the plane had managed to get away - or rather had been allowed to get away," Maffey noted.
"On the subject of the neutrality of Eire," Maffey continued, "Mr de Valera said that two-thirds of his people were pro-British, or at any rate anti-German, at the moment. But there was a very active minority. Personally he had great sympathy with England to-day." He assured Maffey that he wished to help Britain "within the limits of that neutrality to the full extent possible."
It was presumably in response to the earlier landing that an Irish Air Corps plane flew over Ventry Harbour later that afternoon. But the aircraft developed engine trouble. The pilot who was flying with four observers made a forced landing in a small field near Ballyferriter. The crew had a virtual miraculous escape. After touching down the plane crashed into a stone wall, which sheared off the under carriage, while the fuselage continued on belly landing in an adjoining field. Nobody was injured and the engine was even undamaged in the crash.
The first U-boat to arrive in Irish waters during the war actually surfaced three weeks later in same harbour where the RAF seaplane had set down. At 5.30 on the evening of Wednesday, October 4, 1939, the residents of Ballymore, a fishing village three miles west of Dingle, noticed a strange craft heading for the rock at Ventry Harbour. They rushed towards the shore and to their amazement found that members of the crew of the German submarine, U-35, were landing two Greek sailors from a rubber dinghy.
Young Jimmy Fenton had just returned home after the day at the local National School. "I spotted a submarine on the surface of the sea at the entrance to Ventry Harbour, which was steaming towards land from the southwest," he remembers.
After landing the men, the German sailors rowed back to the U-boat and brought in two more men, and they continued to make the trip seven times in all. The twenty-eight men being put ashore were survivors from a Greek freighter, Diamantes which had been bound from Freetown to Barrow-on-Furness with 4,000 tons of iron ore when it was intercepted by the U-boat off south of Ireland the previous day.
At the time the official explanation by the captain of the Diamantes was that the sea was so rough at the time that the German Werner Lott commander felt the ship's lifeboats would be unsafe, so before he torpedoed the Diamantes, he invited the crew to come on board the submarine.
But Lott, who spoke fluent Greek and English, told Marese McDonagh of The Kerryman a very different story on a visit to the area in 1984. Displaying a kind of chivalry that virtually disappeared long before the end of the war, Lott wished to determined that the freighter was carrying contraband before attacking it, but the sea was too rough to send a boarding party to examine the ship's papers. He therefore signaled the Diamantes to follow him. "I wanted to go to the Irish coast where I knew there would not be such rough weather," he explained. "It did not follow me so I fired a shot from my gun at the bow of the ship. This had the result that the crew panicked and jumped into the small boats." When the boats began to overturn in the rough seas, the submarine picked up all 28 members of the crew. "It is almost unbelievable," he said, "but we picked them all up."
The Greek crew were offered beds and told to make themselves comfortable. The Germans supplied them with cigarettes, tea, and other refreshments. Some of the men later expressed their keen appreciation of the way in which they had been treated. "When the Greek sailors said good-by to me on the conning tower they went on their knees and kissed my wedding ring as if I was a bishop. I did not want this but they said we owe our lives to you. You have treated us very nicely."
Young Jimmy Fenton was amazed at the attitude of the Greeks towards their German captors. They kept saying: "German skipper, goot man," even though he had sunk their ship. Paderas Panagos, the master of the Diamantes, explained that the Germans treated them with the greatest courtesy. "They gave us their beds," he explained. "The gave us their food and their cigarettes. They could not do enough for us. Lott asked us where we wished to be landed and we hold him England. But he refused. "No, to Ireland, our friend," said the German commander. "He then told us he would take us into Dingle Harbour and that we would be picked up by one of the fishing boats there," Panagos said. The U-boat came about a 100 yards from the shore and a number of people witnessed the ferrying of the Greeks seamen to the beach.
The ship-wrecked crew gave some of the German cigarettes to the local people and they were treated hospitably at Maurice Cleary's in The Cuisin, Ballymore. Five of the crew were suffering from shock and they were taken to Dingle hospital, where they spent the night. Next day all of them were well enough to travel by bus to Tralee, where they attracted a fair bit of attention. A curious crowd gathered at the railway station to see them off on the afternoon train to Dublin. Panagos said that they were planning to sail to Britain from Dublin and spend some time in London before returning home.
After dropping off the Greek seamen, the U-boat left Ventry Harbour at a very slow speed, some of the men, all of whom looked young, walked about the deck wearing oilskins and sou'westers. Others were on the conning tower, looking at the receding shore. They waved to everyone. The U-boat submerged as moved westward through Dingle Bay. "Perhaps it was a coincidence but a number of us heard a plane in the vicinity within an hour of the event," noted James Fenton, who now owns of The Forge restaurant in Dingle.
There were a number of submarines sighted off the coast during the war, and people frequently heard the sound of airplanes shortly afterwards. This was because of a secret arrangement. The messages from the Irish coast watchers were radioed to Dublin on a frequency agreed with the British, who monitored the radio traffic. The British did indeed send an RAF plane on an unsuccessful search for U-35.
All kinds of rumours began circulating afterwards. One story that was later to cause some problems for the authorities was a rumour that the U-boat commander had shouted to those on shore as he was leaving, "Give my best wishes to Mickey Long." Every Michael Long in the peninsula was then checked out to learn if he had any Nazi connections.
Lott was reprimanded when he got back to Germany, because he was deemed to have endangered his crew and boat by picking up the Greeks. Two months later the U-35 was sunk off the Norwegian coast by a British destroyer. Lott and his crew manager to make it to the surface, where they were rescued by the British. He sought out the British officer in charge. "I thanked him for the extraordinary efforts his destroyer made to pick us up and he said 'that is how life is. You were extraordinary picking up the Greeks'."
After the war Lott made friends with the British officer and used to corresponded with him until he was killed in a bomb explosion in Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo, in 1979. The man was, of course, Earl Louis Mountbatten.
The story of Greek seamen was to cause problems for the de Valera government. For one thing it was proof that a German U-boat had entered Irish waters, and this afforded a degree of credence to unfounded yet persistent rumours throughout the war, that U-boats were being refueled and supplied at secret Irish bases on the west coast.
Even before the arrival of U-35, Winston Churchill, the new First Lord of the Admiralty, had already warned the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff of the danger of German submarine off the Irish coast. "There seems to be a good deal of evidence, or at any rate suspicion that U-boats were being succoured from West of Ireland ports by the malignant section with whom de Valera dare not interfere," Churchill wrote. "If the U-boat campaign becomes more dangerous we should coerce Southern Ireland".
At a cabinet meeting on October 24, 1939 Churchill argued that the Dublin government should be told that "the use of the ports in Ireland by the Royal Navy was essential to the security of the Empire, and that the present attitude adopted by Ireland in that matter was intolerable". He wanted to invade and seize Irish bases, but Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain warned that this "would have most unfortunate repercussions in the United Sates and India, where it would be hailed as a high-handed and unwarranted action."
In May of 1940 Chamberlain was replaced as Prime Minister by Churchill who posed a real danger, because he was ever ready to believe rumours about Irish U-boat bases.
Some of the British newspapers carried the most ridiculous rumours of Germany activities of the Kerry coast. One Daily Mail reporter wrote that in the remote bogs of Kerry he heard stories about fraternisation with U-boats that would make any Briton's hair stand on end. Could anyone have been so stupid as to believe that submarines were surfacing from bog holes?
The same man reported that he was shown a pub in Dingle where a U-boat captain proposed a toast to the downfall of John Bull. In one pub a man told him that a U-boat called regularly at a jetty on one of the islands and purchasing fresh eggs and vegetables. "Come on, Maggie," the submarine commander used to shout, "hurry up with those cabbages."
The journalist was probably paying for the drink, and the more he bought, the more exotic the stories became. Indeed, it would later be suggested that most of the German subs were actually seen in pubs.
Those stories posed a real danger, however, if only as an excuse for the British to invade on the pretext of stopping the supposed Nazi collusion in Ireland.
After the war an American named Bob Davis wrote a comic novel entitled The Dingle War about a fictional character, Devin Ryan, who was supposedly supplying "Irish hams, sweaters and whiskey" to a fleet of U-boats that used to call into Dingle during the war.
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