‘Men that came in with the sea’: the Coastwatching Service and the sinking of the Arandora Star

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2008), The Emergency, Volume 16

Annagh Head, near Belmullet, Co. Mayo, where bodies from the torpedoed Arandora Star were washed up in August 1940. In the foreground are the remains of its lookout post. (M. Kennedy)

Annagh Head, near Belmullet, Co. Mayo, where bodies from the torpedoed Arandora Star were washed up in August 1940. In the foreground are the remains of its lookout post. (M. Kennedy)

On 6 August 1940 Garda William Cullen of Belmullet station received a phone call from coastwatchers at the nearby Annagh Head lookout post (LOP). He learned that the Atlantic currents had washed ashore the dead body of a British soldier. Cullen cycled to Annagh Head to investigate. With the coastwatchers he searched the body. Among the dead man’s few possessions they found an English halfpenny piece, a lead toy soldier, letters and photographs. From his army pay-book Cullen identified 21-year-old Pte Donald Domican of the 5th Battalion, the Welsh Regiment. Domican was from Cardiff and had enlisted in October 1939. Two chevrons were found among his meagre belongings. He had recently been promoted to lance-corporal but had died before sowing the insignia onto his uniform sleeves. On the evening of 6 August Domican’s body was brought to Belmullet hospital. An autopsy concluded that he had died from asphyxia due to drowning.
The following day, as Domican was buried in the Church of Ireland cemetery in the town, Belmullet gardaí received a further call from Annagh Head—another body had been found. From a service book on the body Garda Sergeant Burns identified 27-year-old Trooper Frank Carter of the Royal Dragoons, a career soldier and a married man, from Kilburn in London.
From the reports from Annagh Head LOP and from LOPs north to Tory Island in Donegal, gardaí and the Defence Forces knew that 21 bodies had been recovered along the coast of Ireland in the previous ten days. Set up as an anti-invasion watch, the recovery and identification of the dead of war was fast becoming a routine task for the men of the Coastwatching Service.

Neutral Ireland’s front line

From 1939 to 1945 the coastwatchers kept an unbroken watch along Ireland’s marine front line in the Battle of the Atlantic. They were neutral Ireland’s frontline troops. As the danger of invasion diminished, they became an essential source of information on the progress of the Battle of the Atlantic off Ireland’s western and southern coasts. Their reports to military intelligence (G2) were analysed and circulated as the ‘Daily Reports Summary’, a top-secret document sent to key Defence Forces officers, senior civil servants and a restricted group of government ministers.
Daily reports for August 1940 made grim reading. More corpses were washed ashore along the north-west coast in the days after Domican and Carter were found. Coastwatchers, gardaí and members of the public from Blacksod Bay to Malin Head reported the silent arrival of these ‘men that came in with the sea’. Like Domican and Carter, the dead all came from one vessel, the Arandora Star, torpedoed off Bloody Foreland four weeks earlier on the morning of 2 July.

Grave of Private Donald Domican in the Church of Ireland cemetery, Belmullet. Two chevrons were found among his meagre belongings. He had recently been promoted to lance-corporal but died before sowing the insignia on to his uniform sleeves. (M. Kennedy)

Grave of Private Donald Domican in the Church of Ireland cemetery, Belmullet. Two chevrons were found among his meagre belongings. He had recently been promoted to lance-corporal but died before sowing the insignia on to his uniform sleeves. (M. Kennedy)

‘Collar the lot’
Communities along the west coast were witnessing the final chapter of a story that began at 4.00am on 1 July when the Arandora Star left Liverpool for St John’s, Newfoundland. Designed to carry 500 passengers, the luxury liner was crammed with 1,300 German and Italian internees and their military guards. The internees were portrayed as a security threat because of their ethnic backgrounds and British fear of a ‘fifth column’. Those on the Arandora Star were among the c. 8,000 men rounded up across Britain after war broke out and herded into internment camps such as Warner’s, a former holiday camp at Seaton on the Devon coast near Lyme Regis, or Butlin’s at Clacton-on-Sea, Essex. ‘Collar the lot’, Winston Churchill had ordered.
They were men like the tall, dapper, 28-year-old Hans Moeller, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, and 60-year-old Italian Ernesto Moruzzi, a fish-and-chip-shop owner from Neath, Glamorgan. Standing on the dockside at Liverpool on 30 June 1940, they expected a short trip to the Isle of Man. Unwanted in Britain, they were instead bound for Canada. Within 48 hours both men would be dead, along with over 800 of their fellow internees.

Ship a death-trap

The Arandora Star began her Atlantic crossing during what U-boat crews called ‘the Happy Time’, when U-boats sank Allied ships with impunity off the Irish coast. Sailing at a cruise speed of 15 knots without escort, painted battleship grey and with her upper decks festooned with barbed wire, the Arandora Star zigzagged to avoid U-boats. Captain Edward Moulton knew that his ship was a death-trap. If it were to sink, ‘we shall be drowned like rats’, he protested before setting sail.
At 6.15am on 2 July, 75 miles north-west of Bloody Foreland, Co. Donegal, a torpedo from Gunther Prien’s U-47 hit the Arandora Star’s engine room. She sank within an hour. Four hundred and seventy Italians and 243 Germans drowned, as did 37 guards, including Domican and Carter. Adding crew members killed, it was a combined death toll of 805 from a total of 1,673 on board. There had been no instruction in emergency drill.
When Moeller’s badly decomposed body was found on 29 July at Maghery, Dungloe, Donegal, gardaí found in his wallet, on a slip of headed notepaper from Jermyn Street shirtmakers Turnbull & Asser, a note reading: ‘Label handkerchiefs. Wash stockings’. They also found in the wallet a songbook, ironically titled Holiday Songs and inscribed ‘In memory of many a sing-song whilst making nets in hut D21, Warner’s Camp, Seaton Doon, 7/4/1940’.
Through the London Metropolitan Police, gardaí discovered that Moeller’s fiancée, Dora Lucas, worked at the Jermyn Street shop. Lucas explained that she and Moeller had lived together in Hammersmith before Moeller was interned in November 1939. Lucas’s statement to the London police suggested that Moeller had fled Germany to escape the Nazis: he had no next of kin in Britain, and she asked for his effects to be returned to her. It was only on Lucas’s statement that Moeller’s body was firmly identified. The Department of External Affairs did not honour Lucas’s request; instead, they sent Moeller’s few possessions to the German minister to Ireland, Edouard Hempel. Moeller was, after all, a German national, and External Affairs cared little about his personal life. Moeller was buried in the remote graveyard at Termon, Maghery, Donegal. His body was later reinterred in the German war cemetery at Glencree, Wicklow. It was a strange twist of fate for a refugee from Nazi Germany, but a reminder of the universal suffering of war.
Moruzzi’s body was found on 30 July 1940 at Cloughglass, Burtonport, Co. Donegal. A small, stout man with thinning grey hair and a dark moustache, he was identified by his political leanings—the receipt for his yearly subscription to the Neath Constitutional Club. It was the only item in his wallet, save for five religious medals and a small crucifix. Survivors recalled how many older men like Moruzzi simply stood waiting on the decks for the sea to take them as the Arandora Star sank. He was buried with others from the Arandora Star in the graveyard on Cruit Island, Co. Donegal.
Moeller and Moruzzi were symbolic of the two types of internees on the ship. Those like Moruzzi had come to Britain in the early 1900s as economic migrants seeking to make a new life and had integrated into British society. Moruzzi was interned on 11 June 1940, the day after Italy declared war on Britain. Refugees like Moeller sought haven in democratic Britain after fleeing Nazi Germany. Neither had any rights in wartime Britain.

Grave of Luigi Tapparo, one of the 470 Italians to die on the Arandora Star, in Termoncarragh cemetery, Belmullet. (M. Kennedy)

Grave of Luigi Tapparo, one of the 470 Italians to die on the Arandora Star, in Termoncarragh cemetery, Belmullet. (M. Kennedy)

It took almost a month for bodies of the dead from the Arandora Star to reach land. Moeller, Moruzzi, Carter and Domican were amongst the first. The last body known to be from the Arandora Star was that of 21-year-old Pte Edward Lane of the 7th Battalion, the Devon Regiment, recovered from the sea at Ballycastle, Mayo, on 21 August. His watch had stopped at two minutes past eight, 47 minutes after the Arandora Star rolled over and sank.
At least the five men above were identified. Forty-eight hours before Domican’s body had come ashore, coastwatchers at Annagh Head retrieved the body of a white European male from the sea, most likely an internee from the Arandora Star. Aged about 40, he was wearing black trousers and a well-worn green woollen shirt. The only property found on the body were two shillings and three and a half pence—not surprising, as the internees were relieved of their possessions when they boarded the Arandora Star. The body was never identified and is buried in Termoncarragh cemetery, outside Belmullet, in an unmarked grave. Forty-four unidentifiable bodies, including the man buried at Termoncarragh, were found on the Irish coast in the two months after the sinking.

Muddle and ineptitude: Britain’s internment policy

British official opinion blamed the great loss of life in the sinking on fighting onboard and on panic and cowardice amongst the internees as the Arandora Star began to sink. In the House of Commons the shipping minister, Ronald Cross, gave credence to these views. Parliamentary questions soon brought to light the real story. The conditions in which the internees were kept had contributed to the high death toll. Italians, mostly older men, on the lower decks were unable to make their way to the deck of the listing liner. The Germans and Austrians on the upper decks had a much higher survival rate; Moeller’s body, for example, had been found wearing a lifebelt. The distress caused by the loss of life was amplified when it was discovered that there was no accurate list of passengers and that embarkation papers had been swapped amongst internees.
The sinking of the Arandora Star was the fourth worst British merchant shipping disaster of World War II and was the subject of an inquiry by Lord Snell. As a result of his findings, British internment policy was relaxed and deportation overseas was abandoned. Snell’s report, however, was a whitewash that hid the muddle and ineptitude surrounding Britain’s internment policy in 1939 and 1940. In the rush to intern dangerous characters, many harmless individuals were picked up. The Arandora Star was supposed to carry only known fascists and Nazis, but selection was at best random. Many of those who died should not have been on board. Snell’s report was never published.
Proclaiming its neutrality in World War II, Ireland sought to stay out of the conflict between Axis and Allies, but it could not stay out of the war. The Battle of the Atlantic was fought off Ireland’s shores and the coastwatchers saw it at first hand. The almost 350 graves of the dead from that battle, military and civilian alike, dotted along Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard included 34 known casualties from the Arandora Star.

 

Adjoining graves of Hans Moeller (No. 56) and Hans Denes (No. 57), who both died in the sinking of the Arandora Star, in the German War Cemetery, Glencree, Co. Wicklow. Despite being a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Moeller had been interned by the British as an enemy alien. (M. Kennedy)

Adjoining graves of Hans Moeller (No. 56) and Hans Denes (No. 57), who both died in the sinking of the Arandora Star, in the German War Cemetery, Glencree, Co. Wicklow. Despite being a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Moeller had been interned by the British as an enemy alien. (M. Kennedy)

Michael Kennedy heads the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series.

Further reading:

F. D’Arcy, Remembering the war dead: British Commonwealth and international war graves in Ireland since 1914 (Dublin, 2007).

M. Gillies, Waiting for Hitler: voices from Britain on the brink of invasion (London, 2006).

M. Kennedy, Guarding neutral Ireland: the coast watching service and military intelligence, 1939–1945 (Dublin, 2008).

C. Wills, That neutral island (London, 2006).

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