Shape a Course for Fastnet

Attacks on Merchant Ships by U-boats during the Great War where the Survivors landed in Kerry and West Cork


The U-boat war against allied commerce reached the west coast of Ireland on 14 March 1915 when the S.S. Atlanta was sunk off Mayo. The U-boat did not waste a precious torpedo. Operating on the surface it ordered the merchant ship to stop, and instructed its crew to abandon ship. A boarding party then placed explosive charges on board which sent the Atlanta to the bottom. It was to be the first of many ships to be sunk off the south and west coasts of Ireland. Two weeks later the R.M.S. Falaba was sunk off the south coast by a single torpedo. The war had come to the south and west coasts of Ireland with all its horrors.

It is important to realise that throughout the First World War the term ‘submarine’ is a misnomer; ‘submersible’ would be a more accurate description of the U-boats. The submarine of this period was basically a surface craft. It hunted on the surface, closed for the kill on the surface, and usually attacked and made its escape on the surface. When surfaced, it had the advantages of being faster than most merchant ships. It had a good range of vision, while being itself difficult to find, and it had a choice of weapons. The deck-mounted gun, and the placing of scuttling charges, were the weapons of choice. The submarine usually submerged only to avoid attack from a Royal Navy vessel or to attack a warship or an armoured merchant ship. If forced to attack submerged, the U-boat quickly exhausted its supply of torpedoes and then faced the long and hazardous return to Germany, or to Zeebrugge in Belgium. In response to the first period of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1915, the Royal Navy had developed a policy of patrolled zones. Ocean-going vessels would make landfall at one of four designated points and would then pass through one of four intensely patrolled areas. All available naval resources were focussed on intensive and aggressive patrolling to seek, find and kill, a concept that fitted in with the ethos of the Royal Navy – actively to pursue the enemy. It was a total failure. The patrol zones were too big, and the patrol vessels were easily spotted by the U-boats, which simply submerged and waited for the patrol boat to pass and then surfaced to continue in search of a suitable target. It was worse than a failure. By concentrating merchantmen in a number of areas it facilitated the task of the U-boats. They simply patrolled the four zones and attacked suitable targets. The man charged with countering the U-boat menace in Irish waters was Vice Admiral Lewis Bayly, Cosat of Ireland Command, with his headquarters at Queenstown (Cobh). He used any available vessel, and by 1917 had over 400 ships at his disposal. Few of these were purpose-built naval craft. The vast majority were requisitioned trawlers, drifters, and motor yachts, manned by reservists deemed too old or unfit for service with the fleet.

This book is presented in two parts. In the first part the author gives a clear account of how the use of the U-boat as a weapon of war evolved during the conflict. Before the outbreak of the war, naval theorists saw the U-boat as primarily a weapon of coastal defence. That very quickly changed on 20 September 1914, when U-9 sank three British armoured cruisers, the Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy, with the loss of 1,459 officers and men. A month later the use of U-boats against mercantile shipping was approved. The area of operations soon included the coasts of Ireland. At first it was assumed that the U-boats would operate under cruiser rules: a target ship would be stopped, searched for contraband, and the safety of the crew ensured before the ship was sunk. These rules were soon ignored, and sink on site became the norm whether it was the Lusitania or a fishing boat. The crew, if they were lucky, might have time to launch the lifeboats and ‘shape a course for the Fastnet’.

Part two is the core of this remarkable book. It tells the story of each ship sunk in cases where the survivors landed in Kerry or West Cork. The history and fate of each of these ships is given in detail. There are photographs of virtually every ship and often the crew and the master. The courage of the seamen who maintained the supply routes to the United Kingdom is beyond doubt, and this book is a tribute to them, many of whom were Irish. In the first three months of unrestricted submarine warfare, February to April 1917, almost 500 ships were sunk in the Western Approaches, many in the area covered by this book, and Germany came near to winning the war. As we know, the belated introduction of convoys defeated the U-boats, but it was a long and bitter struggle.

The author comes from a family with a long and distinguished record of service in the Irish Lighthouse Service. Like many Irish maritime families, his family suffered directly during the 1st World War. Initially he was going to base his book on the records of the Irish Lighthouse Service, but he extended his research to other sources, all of which are listed in the bibliography. The collection of photographs is unrivalled, and the meticulous detail with which the fate of these men and of their ships is chronicled, reflects years of research. By focussing on a restricted geographical area, the author gives a unique snapshot of the war, a picture that is unmatched in its detail. This book is a very welcome addition to the historiography of the war at sea around the coasts of Ireland. The book is produced to a very high standard, and is to be commended to everybody with an interest in Ireland’s maritime story, especially the war at sea during World War I.

Patrick McCarthy, The Irish Sword, No 126, Winter 2018

Gabriel King has produced a massive study of the ships torpedoed and sunk off the south west coast of Ireland during the Great War. He has covered the loss of nearly 150 ships sunk by U-boats off the Cork and Kerry coasts. The feature of the book of stunning photos of the ships augmenting the meticulous detail of each sinking. It brings out the human story of the seamen from all nations who fought at sea against the U-boat menace.

Meticulous detail of each of the ships is included from construction to the circumstances of loss and their lot was made much worse by the British action of renouncing the cruiser rules. Ships were armed, Q-ships fitted out to trap U-boats who surfaced, and captains had orders to ram U-boats. This opened the seas to unrestricted submarine warfare. Inevitably more lives were lost when crews were sunk without warning.

Each event is documented fully with all details of the event and the fate of the crew. It will be a valuable resource for family research. Gabriel is from a family of Irish lighthouse keepers, and has the sea in his blood. This is an example of how the Great War at sea off the Irish coast needs to be documented, and sets the standard for any future extension of the work.

Edward Bourke, Subsea, Autumn 2017