Kriegsmarine U-boats and the neutral Eire
During a ceremony at the little port of Ventry near Ballymore in the county of Kerry in southwest of Ireland on 17 October 2009 a memorial stone was unveiled to commemorate an event during the first weeks of World War II. At the FTU Annual General Meeting 2010 at Cuxhaven our Irish friend Denis Martin presented a small scale replica of the memorial stone to Horst Bredow, the founder and managing director of the German U-boat Museum. See enclosed a picture of the memorial stone at Ventry, Denis´s lovely daughter, Dr. Paula Martin, makes the picture more attractive. We are most grateful that Denis has also helped to compile this essay.
The memorial remembers at the sinking of the Greek 4,990 GRT freighter Diamantis on 03 October 1939 by the German U-boat U 35 some 40 nmi southwest of Cornwall, and the subsequent rescue of the vessel´s 28 Greek sailors by the U-boat. The Commanding Officer of U 35, Kapitänleutnant (= Lieutenant Commander) Werner Lott, had taken the sailors on board after their life boats had capsized, and he sailed with them into the territorial waters of the neutral Eire (the name “Eire” or English “Ireland” describes the Southern part of the island of Ireland and is often colloquial used as “Republic of Ireland” to differentiate this part of the island from Northern Ireland, which still remains a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) to arrive at the entrance of the fishing village of Ventry on the Dingle Pensinsula in the southwestern Irish county of Kerry, arriving there at the afternoon of the 04 October 1939.
About 90 meters from the shoreline he lowered a rubber inflatable, which brought the 28 sailors to safe ground in Eire by 14 short passages. After U 35 had delivered the Greeks safely on land, the U-boat departed from Ventry, observed by many onlookers on land, waving to one another between the crew and the spectators on land.
This rather unusual story about an actual entering of territorial waters of Ireland (Irish name = Eire) by a German U-boat is mentioned repeatedly when talking about myths of alleged presence of other Kriegsmarine U-boats in Ireland, ranging from simple evasions into Eire´s territorial waters, to actual liberty by U-boat sailors, to refueling stops and covert dropping of agents. Literature and documents related to these themes are sparsely, also because much has been kept secret for a long time. With that, an ideal fertile ground is provided for the cultivation of myths. Noteworthy, however, the chapter on dropping operations by U-boats for German agents in Eire by the authors Günter Gellmann in 1997 and Jak Mallmann-Showell in 2000 (see below: literature).
After the December 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty (in force as of 06 December 1922) the southern part of Ireland was given then special status “Autonomous Dominion” (“Self-governing dominion”), whereas the six counties of Northern Ireland remained being part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. By that, this part of Ireland (= named “Eire”, English “Ireland”) de facto gained independence and the then Head of Government of Eire, Éamon de Valera, declared the country to be neutral in WW II. The time of war is described in Irish history by using the term “The Emergency”. Eire´s constitutional situation during WW II was governed by the “Emergency Powers Act” of the Parliament on 03 September 1939. On the other hand, the military means of Eire to supervise and enforce its neutrality within and close to the territorial waters was very limited. In 1939, the “Marine Service” at the Naval Base of Haulbowline near Cork operated just 2 motor torpedo boats, and in the course of the war there were never more than 10 smaller vessels available, the total manpower of the service comprised a mere 300.
By and large, the neutrality of Eire was respected by the German Reich, there was e.g. a “Standing Order” by the U-boat High Command (BdU) of 04 September 1940 to strictly observe the neutrality. Nevertheless, violations happened and some attacks by Kriegsmarine U-boats were carried out against vessels registered in Eire or flying the flag of Eire, some of them were even sunk. 16 vessels were lost by air attacks, U-boat attacks or mine damage, from a total of 61 ships which ever were registered in Eire, or did fly the flag of Eire, or were chartered by Eire (in Irish history the contribution of the Irish merchant fleet to the survival of Eire is called the “Long Watch”) to transport the supplies and goods needed to keep the country alive.
Among the sinkings of Irish merchant vessels flying the flag of Eire by German U-boats well documented are the losses of the Leukos by U 38 (09 March 1940), the Luimneach by U 46 (04 September 1940), the Clonclara by U 564 (22 August 1941), the Irish Pine by U 608 (16 November 1942), the Kyleclare by U 456 (23 February 1943) and the Irish Oak by U 607 (15 May 1943), some 73 sailors were lost in total. Also, in 1940 and 1941 the German Air Force carried out several bomb raids against targets in territorial waters and even ashore (among those attacks in the area of Wexford and Dublin). Among the more than 150 military aircraft that were shot down or had to execute emergency crash landings in Eire there were many Luftwaffe aircraft. Irish neutrality was breached by the British as well in a number of cases, but sometimes exceptions from observing Eire´s neutrality were granted by the Irish government. As an example: It became known much later, that the government of Eire permitted the RAF to use the “Donegal Corridor”, i.e. British warplanes were allowed to overfly the territory of the neutral Eire en route to their Atlantic patrols, and were witnessed e.g. by the people in the coastal village of Ballyshannon in county Donegal.
There are no entries in the war diaries of Kriegsmarine U-boats about unintentional, let alone ordered entering of territorial waters of Eire, which could have been a possible source. Dropping of agents at various shores has never been mentioned either, at best such missions were noted in the war diary of a particular combat patrol in short simply as “special mission accomplished”. Also, the war diaries of the U-boat High Command (BdU) do not mention U-boat missions which involve penetration of Irish territorial waters, although sometimes such missions are noted as “Special Operation”.
Therefore, U-boat documents open to the public nowadays do not provide any help to answer the question about possible operations by German U-boats within the territorial waters of Eire. If one believes the reports from eye witnesses about the usual “guard mounting” of the complement, i.e. the swearing in of an entire crew to enjoin utmost secrecy about a special operation tasked to penetrate Irish territorial waters (inter alia by written pledges to keep absolute confidentiality, which was threatened by death penalty in case of breaches), this was consequently adhered to. Even during reunions of veterans no such story has come out, if ever they were mentioned at all.
What is true now with regard to the alleged penetrations of Eire´s territorial waters?
Besides the above mentioned event of U 35 and her rescue of Greek sailors on 04 October 1939 there are reports in literature about several sinkings of merchant vessels by U-boats “near to or in sight” of the Irish coast. If one crosschecks the actual positions of such sinkings reported no direct violation of Irish territorial waters can be established. Given just 3 nm of territorial waters at that time approaches of U-boats up to visual range from the coast could well have occurred, without having committed a violation of Irish neutrality.
A clear exception to that is represented by the known delivery operation of agents, which will be explained below. A second example apart from U 35 in 1939 of proven intentional penetration of territorial waters of Eire is not that of an U-boat but of its crew on 12 March 1945, when U 260 was scuttled by its crew probably after struck by a mine about 5 nm off the port of Glandore/ Union Hall at the Irish southern coast in the county of Cork. The U-boat was damaged badly and unable to return to its homebase. The 48strong crew then scuttled the U-boat and escaped to shore at Glandore, to be interned in Eire afterwards. Today this event is often being reported about in Eire as “The Glandore sub”. Since the mid-1970ies the wreckage of U 260 is a popular object for expeditious divers.
What is true now with regard to the alleged dropping of agents at Eire by means of U-boats? As mentioned above, the chapters in two books have revealed rather firm facts about three operations where German U-boats were involved in shipping agents to Eire, i.e. U 37 in February 1940, U 38 in June 1940 and U 65 in August 1940. Although there are rumors about even more attempts for such operations, nothing with regard to that could be verified yet.
Therefore, it is advised to follow the findings of the two books mentioned seeking any clarification of the myths about German U-boats and their agent droppings in Eire.
On 28 January 1940 the type IX A U-boat U 37 under the command of Korvettenkapitän (= Commander jg) Werner Hartmann left Wilhelmshaven for another combat patrol, on board: agent Ernst Weber-Drohl. During the first leg of the patrol he actually witnessed the battle activities of the U-boat, when it sank a Norwegian and a British freighter. Following unsuccessful attempts at Donegal Bay and Sligo Bay, U 37 entered Killala Bay at Eire´s western county of Mayo during the night 09/10 of February 1940. By means of a small rubber inflatable Weber-Drohl eventually was brought ashore. He managed to stay undetected for just a few weeks and was caught in early April 1940 in Dublin. U 37 returned to Wilhelmshaven on 27 February 1940 sinking a total of 8 vessels. Its dropping of an agent was noted in the war diary simply by stating “Special mission accomplished, oral report to follow”.
The type IX A U-boat U 38 under the command of Kapitänleutnant (= Lieutenant Commander) Heinrich Liebe left Wilhelmshaven on 06 June 1940 also for combat patrol, but it carried two agents additionally. Walter Simon, disguised as naturalized Australian citizen “Karl Anderson” and Willy Preetz, disguised as Irish of Eire named “Paddy Mitchell”. During the night 12/ 13 June 1940, U 38 dropped both agents at Brandon Bay at Eire´s southwestern county of Kerry again by means of a rubber inflatable. Whereas Simon was caught shortly afterwards when arriving in Dublin by train, Preetz managed to find shelter in Dublin and executed for about three weeks his mission to send regular weather reports from Eire to Germany, until he eventually was caught as well. On 22 June 1940 the censored media in Eire reported about suspicious activities by foreigners in Eire, indirectly referring also to Preetz and Simon. On 02 July 1940 U 38 returned to Wilhelmshaven after it had sunk 6 vessels, all carried out after the dropping operation. On 08 of August 1940 the type IX B U-boat U 65 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Hans-Gerrit von Stockhausen left Wilhelmshaven to execute “Operation Taube” (= Dove), which was to be the transport and dropping of two Irish men with some connection to the IRA, although with significantly different background.
Through adventurous operations Sean Russell and Frank Ryan were brought to Germany and put onboard U 65 to be dropped probably in the Southwest of Eire to rejoin the IRA in its fight against the British. However, the voyage was ill-stricken. Not only that U 65 was hit by a number of technical problems and heavy weather, but also that Russell suddenly experienced severe health problems, to eventually die of an ulcer perforation on 15 August 1940 about 120 nm northwest off Dingle Bay at the southwestern edge of Eire. Von Stockhausen sent a message to the U-boat High Command “Special mission abandoned”, gave Russell a sea burial and diverted his U-boat without any further combat engagements to Lorient due to ongoing technical troubles, arriving there on 19 August 1940. Frank Ryan vanished later on in Germany and died 1944 in Dresden. Meanwhile, the above events are confirmed stories of agents on board German U-boats bound for Eire.
What is true now with regard to the alleged refueling stops by Kriegsmarine U-boats using fuel storage sites in Eire, and to the alleged “excursions” ashore of U-boat sailor to obtain provisions? A recent article of Robert Fisk, published on 17 September 2011 by the British newspaper “The Independent” might help to finally kill the myths about refueling operations in Eire by Kriegsmarine U-boats during World War II.
The author refers to documents recently released by the British government which state that, although there is no clear evidence about fuel supply facilities being established in Eire for German U-boats, certain indications exist of possible liberty of German U-boats sailors in Eire for “relaxation and obtaining fresh provisions”.
More specific sightings of U-boats are reported in 1939 near Bundoran in the northwestern county of Donegal, later in time possibly also in Bantry Bay in the county of Cork at the Irish southwestern coast, and several in the estuary of River Doonbeg in the county of Clare at the Irish west coast.
Fisk clearly states that there is absolutely no solid proof of such stories other than mere fantasies which have gained some momentum. He believes that the alleged “proofs” of fuel supply facilities and the presence of U-boat sailors are possible simply mistaken identities with the smuggling activities between Eire and Northern Ireland at that time and with the clothing of the military of Eire, which resembled to some degree that of German uniforms. And, what about those German U-boat sailors coming ashore in Eire ? The author believes even this myth might be caused by another mistaken identity with British Naval personnel, which was known to have made the occasional leisure trip from Northern Ireland into the bordering county of Donegal.
Since so much has been kept secret about the connection of German U-boat operations and Eire for a long time, some myths have come into exist, quite naturally. Some of these have enjoyed a healthy life until today, although most of them can be qualified as such, meanwhile. Therefore, the incidents of unintentional or intentional entering of Irish territorial waters by German U-boats are restricted to just a few events, which range from U 35 in October 1939, to few actual droppings of agents at least in 1940, to finally the escape of the crew of U 260 to Irish shore in March 1945, after the men scuttled their U-boat just a few mile off the coast.
Hence it follows that just a few events of penetration of Irish territorial waters have actually taken place, whereas there is absolutely no evidence of either any refueling operations of German U-boats and/ or the installation of fuel supply facilities for them in Eire.
- The Kerryman of 21 September 1984, The Irish Examiner of 30 December 1999,
- Blair, Clay: Hitler´s U-boat War, Vol. I (The Hunters 1939-1942), Random, New York 1996, Vol. II (The Hunted 1942-1945), Random, New York 1998
- Fisk, Robert: German U-boats refueled in Ireland? Surely not, in: The Independent v. 17.09.2011,
- Forde, Frank: The Long Watch, Dublin 1981, reprint by New Island Books, Madison 2000
- Gellermann, Günter: Der andere Auftrag – Agenteneinsätze deutscher U-Boote im Zweiten Weltkrieg, (pg. 8- 18: Das Irlandspiel) Bernhard & Graefe Verlag, Bonn 1997
- Mallmann-Showell, Jak: U-boats At War – Landings On Hostile Shores (pg. 14 – 24: Irish Fiascos), Naval Institute Press, Annapolis 2000
- Stephan, Enno: Spies in Ireland, Stackpole, University of Michigan 1965
www.wikipedia.org – www.u-35.com – www.uboat.net
www.uccie.academia.edu/MervynODriscoll/Papers/1116606/Keeping_Britain_sweet_Irish_wartime_neutrality_political_identity_and_collective_memory www.uboat.net – www.uboatarchive.net/BDUKTB.htmText and Picture: Deutsches U-Boot-Museum