THE SINKING OF THE COMMISSIONERS OF IRISH LIGHTS VESSEL ‘ISOLDA’
The daily communique of the German High Command for 20 December 1940 carried the following news: In St George’s Channel south of Carnsore Point, Wexford, Eire, a ship of 1,200 gross tons received a direct hit and sank. It was a very accurate report and referred to the sinking of the light tender Isolda, owned by the Commissioners of Irish Lights and registered in Dublin. On her side in letters five feet high, were the words ‘Lighthouse Service’.
At da\VT1 on 19 December 1940 she had sailed from Rosslare with seven relief crewmen for the Barrels and Coningbeg Light·vessels. Her own crew numbered twenty eight, including the master, Captain Alan Bestic, who had been Third Officer on the Lusitania when the liner was torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale in 1915.
Isolda put the relief men on board the Barrels and then headed for the Coningbeg. When three miles from the light vessel she was attacked by an aircraft. Observers in the army lookout post at Carnsore Point and crewmen on the Limerick registered steamer Lanahrone only eight miles away witnessed the massacre. Three times the bomber roared over Isolda, and on the last pass released a stick of bombs which hit the ship starting a massive fire, killing six men and wounding another seven. The survivors landed at Kilmore Quay from their own lifeboats.
Copyright © 1981, 2000 Frank Forde
Richard Best and the SS Isolda
My worst memory of the war was the sinking of my father’s ship. I lived in Eire during the war. My father, Richard Best, was born and reared in Richhill, County Armagh. He was the first seafarer in the family. His uncle, Richard Best was the first member for County Armagh in the Northern Ireland Parliament of 1922, and later became Attorney General and Lord Chief Justice. My father ran away to sea from university.
In 1922 he joined the Commissioners of Irish Lights, and when war broke out in 1939 he was second engineer on their tender ’Isolda’. On the morning of 19 December 1940 the ‘Isolda’ left Rosslare Harbour, County Wexford, to carry out the light vessel Christmas reliefs of the Barrels and Conningbeg Lightships off the Wexford coast. The Lighthouse Service was considered to be neutral during the war. The words Lighthouse Service were painted on both sides of the hull in letters six feet high and she flew the blue ensign. Irish ships had ‘Eire’ painted on their hulls and flew the tricolour. The ‘Isolda’ was carrying buoys on deck and for this reason the German pilot may have mistaken her for a mine layer.
About mid-morning a German plane dropped the first stick of bombs on the ship. According to the report of Captain Bestic, who had been a junior officer onboard the SS’Lusitania’ when she was sunk off Kinsale Head, County Cork. during the first world war, ‘Isolda’ had been severely damaged. The plane circled round and dropped a second salvo. Realising that the ship was doomed, he gave the order to abandon ship. The motorboat and the starboard cutter were launched. Unfortunately one of the boats was in danger of drifting onto the propellers which were still revolving. My father went back down to the engine room to stop the engine, but on his return on deck, another stick of bombs hit the ship, and he was severely injured and left almost unconscious on deck. My father said the chief officer, Mr Thornton, saved his life. He lifted him off the deck and almost threw him into the sea. The cold water helped to bring him back to consciousness. He was picked up by the motorboat and with the other survivors of the sinking was brought into Kilmore Quay, Co. Wexford, where the local people attended to the survivors, and the ones who were badly injured were taken to hospital in Wexford. Six members of the crew were lost in the sinking.
On the 19 December the Christmas holidays had begun and I was at home with my mother when my uncle called to say he had heard that the ‘Isolda’ had been sunk off the Wexford coast that morning. My mother immediately phoned the Irish Lights Office which was then in D’Olier Street, Dublin. They confirmed that the ‘Isolda’ had indeed been sunk off the Wexford Coast. There had been some fatalities but the names were not known. The survivors would be travelling home from Wexford on the mail train that evening. My mother and I went to Dunlaoghaire railway station that evening and saw the survivors coming off the train. They were a sad and dejected crew. My father was not among them. One of the deck boys, Sammy Williams, who knew us, came over to us and told us that my father had been very badly injured and that he and the chief engineer were in hospital in Wexford.
Several days later the Irish Lights Office arranged for my mother and the Chief Engineer’s wife to travel by car to Wexford Hospital, and later that week, about the 23 or 24 December my father and the Chief were brought by ambulance to Mercer’s Hospital in Dublin, where my father had many operations to remove pieces of shrapnel and slivers of wood from the deck. Indeed he went to his grave with a piece of shrapnel still lodged in his shoulder, as he probably would have lost the use of his arm had it been removed.
After many months in hospital and recuperating at home my father returned to sea and later served as Chief Engineer on SS’Alexandra’ and SS’Granuaile’.
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