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SS Irish Oak

IrishShips_Irish-Oak_PRESS_25Oil painting by Kenneth King – adapted to sit in porthole design, also thanks to National Maritime Museum of Ireland http://www.mariner.ie

The SS Irish Oak was an Irish-operated steamship which was sunk in the North Atlantic during World War II by a German submarine.
As the West Neris she had been built in the US and operated by the United States Shipping Board. In 1941, she was chartered by Irish Shipping Limited, to transport wheat and fertilizer from North America to Ireland. Sailing as a clearly marked neutral vessel, not in convoy, she was nonetheless torpedoed and sunk by U-607 on 15 May 1943 midway between North America and Ireland. The crew were rescued.
At the time there were conflicting reports that she had not and allegations that she had warned a nearby convoy of the presence of a U-boat. The British nationality of her captain became an issue in the Irish general election of June 1943, there were diplomatic exchanges between the United States and Ireland, and questions raised in the British House of Commons. The U-boat’s captain received a mild reprimand.

SS Irish Oak – Background
At the outbreak of World War II Ireland had very few ships, and the United States instructed its ships not to enter the “war zone”. Acting for the Irish Government, Minister Frank Aiken negotiated the charter of two oil-burning steamships from the United States Maritime Commission’s reserve fleet. These were the West Neris and the West Hematite. Two Irish crews travelled to New Orleans to take over the ships, which they did on 9 September 1941.
The West Neris was renamed Irish Oak and West Hematite was renamed Irish Pine. Both were chartered by government owned Irish Shipping Limited (ISL) and managed by the Limerick Steamship Company, with their port of registry changed to Dublin. The Irish Oak was captained by Matthew Moran of Wexford; the Irish Pine by Frank Dick of Islandmagee, with Samuel McNamara of Belfast as Chief Engineer.

Initial sailing, convoys and delays
Destined to carry wheat and phosphate fertilizer, both ships sailed initially from New Orleans for St John’s in October 1941, to take on cargoes of wheat bound for Ireland. Since insurers such as Lloyd’s of London charged higher premiums for ships not in convoy, the Irish Oak and the Irish Pine were painted war-time camouflage in preparation for sailing in-convoy. Irish Pine joined Convoy SC 56 and arrived in Dublin on 11 December 1941. In contrast, Irish Oak experienced a number of serious mishaps and setbacks: Chief Engineer R. Marsh, of Dublin, suffered a heart attack and was hospitalised in New Orleans; another engineer, O’Keefe of Dún Laoghaire, was severely burned in a boiler room blow-back and hospitalised in St John; and a locally recruited Greek replacement engineer caused difficulties, was reported to the Canadian authorities by the captain, and jailed.
Initially Irish Oak sailed with Convoy SC 52, which departed from Sydney, Nova Scotia on 29 October 1941. On 3 November the convoy was attacked by U-202 and U-203 and lost four ships; it turned back for Sydney and arrived on 5 November. But neglect had left the Irish Oak in poor condition. Ships from SC 52 were merged with Convoy SC 53 and Irish Oak sailed with it, but had to return to Sydney. Her next attempt was with Convoy SC 55, which departed Sydney on 16 November 1941 and arrived at Liverpool on 5 December, but again engine problems struck and she was towed to Saint John, New Brunswick.[13] Irish Oak remained in St. John for four months while efforts were made to repair her engine. Eventually she had to be towed to Boston for repairs. The voyage from New Orleans to Dublin – including repairs – took nine months: Irish Oak berthed in Dublin on 6 July 1942.

Out of convoy sailings
The crew of the Irish Oak became acutely uneasy after her engine failed and she was left behind by SC 55, dead in the water, to wait for a tugboat; this, coupled with the experiences of other Irish ships, especially in OG 71, the “Nightmare Convoy” in August 1941, resolved Irish crews and owners to sail as neutrals, out-of-convoy. Thereafter Irish ships were clearly marked and fully lit, usually sailing out-of-convoy on a direct course, and they always answered SOS calls for assistance. Irish ships rescued 534 men; yet lost 20% of their seamen.
Irish Shipping Limited built up its fleet to 15 ships. Two ships were lost, Irish Oak, and Irish Pine, on which 33 lives were lost. The ISL ships alone saved some 166 lives.

The Stornest
At 04:44 on 14 October 1942, in very bad weather, Irish Oak received a distress call from British ship Stornest, a straggler from convoy ONS 136, torpedoed by U-706. Irish Oak answered the call and altered course. Six minutes later Stornest radioed Irish Oak that they were abandoning ship in life-rafts, having lost their lifeboats in the heavy seas. Irish Oak continued to relay Stormest’s SOS and spent ten hours searching for survivors in a westerly gale. The rescue tug Adherent, the anti-submarine trawler Drangey and two corvettes from convoy ONS 137 joined the search, to no avail. Stornest’s crew of 29 and ten gunners were lost at sea.
A week later Captain Matthew Moran was fatally injured while boarding at the Dublin quayside, when the gangway collapsed beneath him. He was replaced by Captain Eric Jones (see Crew).

Encounter with U-650
On 14 May 1943, Irish Oak was en route from Tampa, Florida, to Dublin with a cargo of 8,000 tons of phosphate fertiliser. Smoke from an allied convoy was visible ahead in the distance; in general Irish ships were sailing out-of-convoy at this time.
At 2.23pm German U-boat U-650 came alongside. There was no contact or exchange between the vessels. They continued alongside each other all afternoon. At nightfall Irish Oak turned on her lights, in accordance with her neutral status. Apparently satisfied, U-650 departed during the night. Irish Oak continued sailing astern of Convoy SC 129.
As it happened, on the same day U-642 reported that an aircraft carrier (the escort carrier HMS Biter with the 5th Escort Group) was joining the convoy; in fear of the aircraft, the stalking U-boats were ordered to “break off operations against convoy”.

Torpedoed (Oil painting by Kenneth King – also thanks to National Maritime Museum of Ireland http://www.mariner.ie)SS_Irish_Oak
As dawn broke next morning, 15 May 1943, a torpedo hit Irish Oak at 8:19am (12:19 German Summer Time). Two torpedoes were launched, one missed, the other struck her port side and exploded.
At the time it was uncertain which submarine had launched the torpedoes. Its periscope remained visible as lifeboats were lowered. The submarine waited until the lifeboats were well clear before firing a coup de grâce at 9:31 am. Irish Plane, Irish Rose and Irish Ash responded to the SOS. The survivors were located by Irish Plane at 4:20 pm.
Irish Oak lies in position 47°51′N 25°53′WCoordinates:  47°51′N 25°53′W, almost mid-way between Newfoundland and Ireland.

The survivors landed at Cobh on 19 May. They were welcomed by Samuel Roycroft, a director of both the Limerick Steamship Company and of Irish Shipping Limited. They lunched at the Imperial Hotel, Cork. On arrival in Dublin on 21 May, they were welcomed by Peadar Doyle, the Lord Mayor, and hosted to lunch at Leinster House, home of the Dáil Éireann (Ireland’s parliament), on 24 May.
It was common practice for crews’ wages to be stopped when a ship was sunk. Famed Labour leader James Larkin raised the issue of the survivors’ treatment in the Dáil Éireann. Citing the crew member who was told by the Labour exchange to ‘go and get his record card’, which was lost when Irish Oak sank, he suggested that the Dáil Éireann ask the German Consul-General to send a submarine to retrieve it.

At the time it was not known which submarine had sunk Irish Oak. The survivors knew only that it was not U-650. In the House of Commons Sir William Davidson called for a formal protest, because Irish Oak had not warned the convoy, and Douglas Lloyd Savory called for an end of coal exports to Ireland.
No official action was taken: Ireland was exporting food to Britain at the time. Also, Paul Emrys-Evans revealed that the convoy knew about the U-boat; the British stance was that, as it already knew of the presence of both Irish Oak and U-607, there was no need for Irish Oak to have warned the convoy.

During World War I the South Arklow Lightvessel Guillemot, operated by the Commissioners of Irish Lights, had given warning of a U-boat. In consequence on 28 March 1917 UC-65 surfaced, ordered the crew into their lifeboat, and sank the Guillemot. Against this background the sinking of Irish Oak became a hotly debated issue.
The Irish Government’s stance was that Irish Oak had not warned the Allied convoy of a U-boat presence, as stated by Éamon de Valera in the Dáil, and by Irish Shipping Limited. De Valera went on to say that it was “…no business of Irish ships to give any information to anyone”.
A rumour to the contrary was picked up by the Irish Labour Party. James Everett asked: “Was information given to the British convoy that a submarine was sighted the night before?” Discussion in the Dáil during the run-up to the General Election, focused on the possibility that a warning had been transmitted and demands were made to know the nationality of the captain (a British subject):
•    Bill Norton: “Would the Taoiseach state the nationality of the master of the ship?”
•    Éamon de Valera: “I do not know it.”
•    James Hickey: “I think the Taoiseach should take a deep interest in finding out the nationality of the captains of our ships.”
•    William Davin: “Is the Taoiseach aware that a recommendation was submitted that Irish nationals should get preference for these ships?”
Norton, Hickey and Davin were Labour Party members.
Luke Duffy, secretary of the Labour Party, said that the “… government was guilty of duplicity and near belligerency behind a facade of neutrality. They had placed foreign nationals on the bridge of Irish ships …”. The party issued an advertisement condemning the “criminal conduct of the Fianna Fáil Government in sending brave men to their doom on the Irish Oak”.
Responding to allegations that Irish Oak had acted in such a way as to endanger her neutral status, Irish Shipping Limited stated:
“…whether… any information had been conveyed to a British convoy that a submarine had been sighted. The company states in the most explicit manner that there is no foundation whatever for the suggestion contained in the question. No such message was sent.
Seán MacEntee (Fianna Fáil Party) placed a counter advertisement in the Irish Times titled “Licence to Sink,” saying that the Labour Party sought to justify the sinking of the Irish Oak; “But for these ships many of our people might have been hungry, would have been idle” … “If our people were hungry and idle they would be more ready to listen to their pernicious doctrines”.
After the election William Davin complained of “the unfounded allegations and the slanderous and libellous statements made against members of this {sic Labour} Party” … “had the audacity to charge members of this Party, during the recent election campaign, with having condoned the sinking of the Irish Oak. Could anything be more scandalous, or more untrue?”
Although Labour increased its representation and de Valera’s Fianna Fáil party lost seats in the General Election, Éamon de Valera remained in power with the support of the Farmers’ Party.