An Irish Road Trip
==== Our Drive up the Irish west coast ====
I recently returned from the Battle of the Atlantic 3-day (12-14 May) memorial services in Londonderry, … as one of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust (HMCS Sackville) representatives. Dave Lepine, also a CNMT trustee, and I arrived in Dublin 9 days earlier on 3 May, and we took our time driving to Derry. At least 350 dead had washed up onto the coast of Ireland during the Battle of the Atlantic. As we drove up the Irish west coast, we intended to visit locations where the northwesterly winds caused some of the human remains from the sinking of the SS Nerissa to have washed ashore … and be buried in nearby church graveyards.
One of the casualties was Ordinary Telegraphist James Hutton (age 21), Royal Canadian Navy. Hutton was one of 12 young Ordinary Telegraphists embarked in the Nerissa. His entire class had recently graduated from a long communications course at the HMC Signals School in Esquimalt. All course members had either RCNVR, Militia, communications and/or relevant technical experience before being accepted into the permanent force RCN in May 1940. Their 9-month course was extensive and a very long trades course for wartime. The comparable RCNVR (naval reserve) Ord Tels course, which was provided at the same Signals School, was only 6 weeks long. Newly trained Ord Tels were normally drafted to the Manning Pool in Halifax, prior to joining their first ship. The historical records do not indicate why the navy was sending an entire class of Ordinary Telegraphists to the UK. However, it remains a possibility that the 12 young RCN telegraphists were intended to receive “on the job training” with experienced Royal Navy telegraphists in the interception of German Enigma encoded Morse Code signals for decoding at Bletchley Park. These plans changed with the sinking of the Nerissa. The five surviving classmates were sent to the Manning Pool in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Seven of the 12 classmates were killed during the sinking of the S.S. Nerissa on 30 April 1941. James Hutton’s body is the only one which is now known to have washed ashore onto the coast of Ireland. On Sunday 7 May 2023, we visited the location where Hutton’s body was found washed ashore early on 27 May 1941. I have included a link to a photo of that still secluded beach, … which is just beyond the northern edge of Donald Trump’s “TRUMP DOOBEG” golf course.
An Irish police report records that “… the body was interred [later on 27 May 1941]… in the Clohanes Cemetery and the grave has been marked with adequate means of identification for any future reference”. However, now eight decades later, the location of the grave is no longer adequately marked and the cemetery registry offers no clues. Perhaps, we might find some clues in the cemetery.
The next day a reporter (Fiona Mcgarry) and photographer (John Kelly) from The Clare Champion newspaper accompanied Dave and I, when we visited the Clohanes Graveyard. When we arrived, a long-time local resident of the area, Senan McCarty also joined us.
Senan’s father, was the local undertaker in the 1940’s and he may have prepared the sailor’s body for burial. Senan showed us two sites where Hutton may have been laid to rest. The first site is located towards the middle of the graveyard and it has an old rusty metal cross serving as a marker. The second site is nearer to the entrance and off to left, and between the existing grave markers and an overgrown hedgerow. In this second location, Senan recalled that there was once a rusty metal cross with a circle going through it (a Celtic cross) serving as a marker. (The photos of the two possible grave locations are provided by John Kelly.)
Fiona Mcgarry wrote a very thoughtful and much appreciated article which was published online under the heading “Appeal for Information on Canadian Sailor’s Grave”. (A PDF print version is also available.)
On 9 May, while driving through County Galway, (with the help of Google Maps) we found and paid our respects at the grave of Captain George Dixon Morrow (age 27), Royal Canadian Artillery in the (St Thomas) Church of Ireland graveyard in Ballinakill.
On the afternoon of 9 May, we arrived in Ballina, County Mayo, where we would stay two days. On that first night, we had dinner with Anthony Hickey, a retired Irish journalist. I have been collaborating with Anthony in the analysis of historical records which allows identification of some bodies which had not been identified during the war. The analytical results are documented in the Addendum to my book “S.S. Nerissa, the Final Crossing”. In our analysis we were able to consider the wartime context when the bodies washed ashore, which 80 years earlier, the Garda did not know because of wartime secrecy. The most useful contextual details being (1) the casualty list from the Nerissa, and (2) casualty lists from other ships which were sunk during the same timeframe and in the same general area of the North Atlantic.
Anthony prepared a detailed County Mayo itinerary. The highlights included visiting the historic Blacksod Lighthouse, on Ireland’s most westerly point, where we learned from the grandson of Maureen Sweeney who on 3 June 1944, had observed and recorded the very slight but real reductions in barometric pressure. A bad storm was approaching. When the weather report was analysed in the Supreme Allied Command headquarters, General Eisenhower was convinced by his chief meteorologist to delay the D-Day invasion by 24 hours to 6 June 1944, after a very real storm had passed through Normandy.
Another highlight was participating with County Mayo dignitaries in a wreath laying ceremony at the Mayo Peace Park in Castlebar, in recognition of Mayo men who gave their lives as members of Canadian forces during WW1 and WW2. Piper Pat Conlon piped us and other dignitaries into the Peace Park. Dave and I were invited to speak during the memorial service. We then joined, Michael Kilcoyne, the Mayor of Castlebar, in placing wreaths at the “CANADA” memorial. Details were published in the 31 May 2023 edition of the Connaught Telegraph newspaper.
We also paid our respects at the graves of casualties from the sinking of the SS Nerissa:
- Joan Lomas (age 4) – Anthony and his network of County Mayo volunteers are funding and putting in place a proper memorial to mark four-year old Joan Lomas’ grave which will also memorialize her family. A couple weeks after our return to Canada, Anthony provided a photo of the completed memorial.
- Sub Lieutenant Barnett Harvey (age 25), Royal Canadian Navy – Anthony led us to the location of Sub Lt Harvey’s unmarked grave in the Catholic graveyard at Ballycastle. We also inspected the Church Register which confirms the location of Sub Lt Harvey’s grave.
- Wing Commander Archibald Graham Weir (age 55), Royal Air Force – We visited Wing Commander Weir’s grave in the Kilcommon Erris, Church of Ireland graveyard.
- Lieutenant Thomas Elvin Mitchell (age 20), Carleton and York Regiment – We visited Lieutenant Mitchell’s grave, which is located near Wing Cdr Weir’s grave.
With our very busy 2-day itinerary, Dave and I essentially ran out of time, and we regret that we were not able to visit the graves of two Nerissa casualties:
- On 28 June 1941, a body wearing the uniform of Merchant Navy Master washed ashore at Ashleam, Achill Sound in County Mayo. The remains were interred in the Protestant Cemetery at Ashill Sound later on the same day. Those remains are now believed to be those of the 58 year-old Merchant Navy, Master of the S.S. Nerissa, Gilbert Ratcliffe Watson. The inscription on his gravestone reads “A Sailor / of the / 1939 – 1945 / War / A Master / Merchant Navy / Found 28th June 1941 / Known unto God”.
- On 24 May 1941, the body of a woman washed ashore at Grangehill, Barnatra, Ballina in County Mayo. The remains which were interred in an unmarked grave in Termoncara cemetery are now believed to be those of Joy Stuart-French (age 35). Joy was the wife of Major (11th Hussars) Robert Stuart-French who was one of the 84 survivors. He had served as the aide-de-camp to Lord Bessborough, the 14th Governor-General of Canada (4 April 1931 – 2 November 1935). Both Robert and Joy were well known in Ottawa.
Before we departed Ballina, over a light breakfast with Anthony, we were introduced to Mark Duffy, the Mayor of Ballina. After breakfast, my travel companion Dave Lepine, who is also the Mayor of Ogden, Quebec and the Mayor of Ballina exchanged books related to the histories of their respective communities. We were then introduced to the members of the Ballina council.
The sinking of the Nerissa on 30 April 1941 is considered the Canadian Logisticians Darkest Day. Forty-four military logisticians: (one Pay Commander, Francis R.W. Nixon (age 37), Royal Canadian Navy; 33 Corps of Military Staff Clerks; three Royal Canadian Army Pay Corps; three Royal Canadian Army Service Corps; and one Royal Canadian Ordnance Corp) … and three National Defence HQ civilian auditors were killed during the sinking of the SS Nerissa by U-552. On 26 May 1941, the body of Corporal Francis Gordon Harrison (age 21), Corps of Military Staff Clerks washed ashore onto the sandy beach at Enniscrone in County Sligo. His would be the only body of a Canadian logistician which is known to have washed ashore onto the coast of Ireland. We visited Corporal Harrison’s grave in the Easky (Roslea) Church of Ireland graveyard. (It is noted that the body of a second logistician Staff Sergeant Victor Clarke (age 31), Royal Canadian Army Service Corps washed ashore onto the coast of Scotland near Ayrshire.)
- Nine members of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corpswere embarked in the Nerissa. The senior officer, Captain William Hazen Embree (age 31) was Nerissa’s duty medical officer during the transit and was lost at sea. Eight of the nine members were killed in action. The body of Corporal Duncan Bell (age 41), washed ashore on 6 July 1941. We visited Corporal Bell’s grave in the Killybegs Catholic Cemetery.
- The body of Sub Lieutenant Edward Robbins (age 21), Royal Canadian Navy washed ashore on 5 May 1941 near Dunkineely. The overgrown Killaghtee Old Graveyard is off the main road and is difficult to find. His Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone is the first marker visible as one walks through the rusted gate, past the ruins of an ancient church. In this remote overgrown graveyard, Sub Lieutenant Edward Robbins, RCN is not being “remembered”.
- Ernest Walter Winspear (age 30), SS Nerissa Steward – We visited Winspear’s grave in the Malin Presbyterian cemetery.
- Three RAF Flight Sergeants: George Edward Morrison (age 41), Graham Poock (age 27) and Edward Charles Reed (age 24) were embarked in the Nerissa and were lost at sea. The Irish police report (dated 22/7/41) records that the unidentified body of an RAF Flight Sergeant washed ashore near Malin Head on 16 July 1941 and “was interred at Malin in the Protestant Graveyard there on the 18/7/41”. We had assumed that the police report was referring to the Malin Presbyterian cemetery, where we were not able to locate a likely gravesite. However, after our return to Canada, with the assistance of David Jenkins in Londonderry, we determined that the body of the RAF Flight Sergeant was actually interred in the Malin Church of Ireland cemetery. David Jenkins visited the Church of Ireland cemetery and he found the gravesite of the Flight Sergeant, which we had been searching for. The inscription reads: “An Airman / of the / 1939 – 1945 / War / A Flight Sergeant (Pilot) / Royal Air Force / Found 16th July 1941 / Known unto God”.
Recently, on 16 June 2023, I visited the Ottawa Memorial where all Commonwealth air forces personnel, who were lost at sea, are memorialized. As we already knew, the three Flight Sergeants from the Nerissa are recorded for 1941. The memorial also records that a Flight Sergeant A. Chapman is the only other RAF Flight Sergeant who was lost at sea in 1941. However, Chapman was lost at sea, off the coast of Newfoundland, much later on 31 December 1941. With a very high level of confidence, we can now state that the body of the RAF Flight Sergeant buried beneath the headstone in the Malin, Church of Ireland graveyard, can only be from the SS Nerissa (either George Morrison – age 41, Graham Poock – age 27, or Edward Reed – age 24).
We will remember them,
William Dziadyk, CD, PEng, LCdr, RCN retired