Menacing mines in Waterford Harbour

Floating mines were a feature of both World Wars.  Deployed at sea or around the coast, the target was primarily the shipping that sustained the allied side or to thwart naval incursions.  Although the sailors that suffered on merchant ships were non combatants, the mines also threatened those who fished and even those who lived beside the sea, and Waterford and Wexford endured its fair share.  

I recently recalled the tragic loss of life at Dunmore East in 1917, when a German U Boat was destroyed.  The U Boat, UC-44 was deploying mines at the mouth of the harbour between Dunmore East and Hook Head in Co. Wexford.  At the time, it was a regular occurrence, as was the efforts of the Admiralty to clear them.    However the allies were also deploying mines, most of the access points to the Northern and Southern routes to the English coast were blanketed by minefields in a futile attempt to thwart the U Boat menace. The first Irish casualty of the mines in WW I was the SSManchester Commerce which was sunk off Donegal 26th Oct 1914.  It would be the following July before the admiralty were satisfied that the estimated 200+ mines had been cleared from the area. Maintaining access to Waterford became a job of constant vigilance against the mine laying subs, which included patrols by Sub Chasers, overhead surveillance and constant clearing of the harbour by Mine Sweepers.
An American Sub Chaser anchored above Passage East.
The Americans entered the war in April 1917
Passed on to me by Paul O'Farrell


Mines were also a feature of WWII but this time Ireland was neutral and the country was not directly targeted.  However, it was the Irish who mined Waterford harbour at this stage, which operated between Passage East and Ballyhack from 1941. The mines were deployed in the channel, and were operated by control from Ballyhack, known as command detonated mines.  If any threat was seen, the mines were to be detonated by the shore watch. (1)  I'd imagine the minefield was directed more towards protecting Ireland from a German sea borne attack, which also led to something I've written about previously, the removal of all road signs

During WWII mines became more sophisticated.  The German side were the first to develop magnetic mines that detonated as a ship passed close to them. Mines were also deployed from airplanes, which meant the seas around Ireland became a target after the fall of France.  Mines were reported regularly from ships, shoreline walkers and the lookout posts, operated by the Marine and Coast Watching Service from Sept 1939, that lined the coastline. (2)

Many injuries and fatalities were associated with them.  When a mine beached on the other side of the Hook at Cullenstown in 1941, four members of the LDF died and another was injured.  While a lighthouse keeper on Tuskar Rock died after a mine washed up and another man was injured.  19 men died (largest loss of life nationally) when a mine was spotted on a Donegal beach in 1943.  While waiting for a bomb disposal team an onlooking crowd refused to move back to a safe distance. (3)

The Great Western in camouflage during WWII
Posted by Tommy Deegan on the Waterford History Group Facebook page
The above loss of life gives some context to the following story shared by Noreen Kane on the Waterford History Group on 24th June 2016.  Its based on recollections of her dads (Liam Lundon 1934 – 2009) childhood in Passage East
“Even though there was a war on school was fairly uneventful. There was one particular incident when one morning my father who was the local Garda came in to the school and informed the teacher that the school had to be evacuated as a mine had been spotted on the strand directly underneath the school. It was a glorious spring day we were all marched up the back road to Garret Meades house. We spent the rest of the day there until the "all clear" was given. To this day I don't know how the mine was disposed of"

The school at that time was further out the Crooke road, where the building still stands over looking the harbour. (It closed when the new school opened in 1969) But was the mine disposed of, or just made safe?  Graninne Flanagan commented on our own Facebook page recently about an old mine that was on the beach between Crooke and New Geneva, where apparently her mother used to picnic. My Brother in Law, Bernard Cunningham recalled the mine and said it was the same, his mother Eileen (RIP) often recalled the incident. That having been made safe it was left on the beach. However, it was removed in recent years by a scrap merchant.  I've also heard of another mine that beached at Passage and that was taken away which made the Munster Express in late 1941, and a virtual raft of other incidents down the harbour and all along the coast and along the Wexford shoreline.  They even travelled as far upriver as Mooncoin! There were questions asked in the Dail about a delay in clearing a mine from a packed Tramore Beach in the summer of 1941 and the naval vessel Muirchu was a frequent visitor, called to dispatch mines using gunfire to detonate the threat.

A major incident concerned the Barrow Bridge which had to be closed in March 1946 after a mine drifted too close to the structure.  It was spotted by two Cheekpoint men Heffernan and O'Connor. They reported the sighting to the Garda station in Passage East and a unit from the Curragh was dispatched under Comdt. Fynes to deal with the threat.  Locally it was always said that the boys had thrown a lasso around the mine and towed it away from the bridge as a train approached, saving countless lives as a result.

A more sober account can be found in that weeks Kilkenny People.  The mine grounded between Snow Hill Quay and Drumdowney Point as the tide went out and once settled on the mud, a rope was tied around it, to prevent it floating away. (and no less heroic to my mind, if a little less dramatic) Although the Boat train departed from Waterford that evening, it was decided to close off the line to rail and shipping on the Saturday. The bomb disposal unit had to wait for the tide to go out before they approached the mine. The unit managed to make safe the mine by 4pm that evening, meaning the 5pm train could depart with safety.

My own brush with a mine came while I was herring fishing in Dunmore East.  The details are sketchy I'm afraid, as I could find no record in the newspapers.  However I remember a particularly nasty SE wind and a trawler coming in off Dunmore, but refused entry.  The trawler was being towed if I recall correctly.  The mine was trapped in the nets and part of the nets had fouled the screw. Holding off Dunmore, a team of army bomb disposal experts arrived in Dunmore that day.  I vividly recall their energy and enthusiasm as they jumped out of a dark green jeep with large kit bags and boarded the pilot boat Betty Breen to go out to the trawler.  However, they were back after an hour, green in the face and much less energetic.  The trawler was sent over under the Hook and the decision was taken to await a team from the Navy to deal with the issue.

You might think that such problems no longer exist.  However the most recent article I could find for Dunmore was the Irish Independent of March 2005 and the most recent nationally was August 2007 in the same paper, this time a mine trapped in nets off Co Cork.  Be careful out there, you never know what secrets the sea might give up, particularly on a stormy day.

 (1) & (2)   MacGinty. T.  The Irish Navy.  1995.  The Kerryman. Tralee
 (3)        Kennedy. M. Guarding Neutral Ireland.  2008. Four Courts Press. Dublin

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.

My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales

Comments

  1. Let's not forget the mine that washed up on the beach at Tramore in ?1943? and was taken up to John Reddy's garage in Queen's Street. Seeing the brass and copper on the outside, some of the lads started to whack bits off with a hammer and cold chisel until there was an almighty bang which blew in the door of the National School and damaged many other buildings. The blast killed a man called Coffey and injured several others including Reddy the proprietor. The army were afterwards call out when mines washed ashore and were shot at from a safe distance.

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    1. That's astonishing, hard to credit. Thanks for sharing Bob!

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