Monday, March 11, 2013

The Diamantis

Ireland was largely spared the ravages of The Second World War. Indeed, there was no mention of the word ‘war’ and it was referred to as ‘The Emergency’. Ireland had declared itself neutral, albeit in favour of the allies. Germany could have won the war if they had cut off supplies to Britain. The U Boat campaign was vital to this and German U boats operated off the Irish coasts. The British fearful the U boat would seek shelter and even supplies in neutral Ireland and though legends abound there is little evidence that this ever happened. The war came to the south Coast when survivors of the Greek ship Diamantis were landed in Ventry harbour. The bizarre thing is that there rescuers were also those torpedoed their ship. Along with the Laconia incident it was one of two incidents where the Germans risked their live to help shipwrecked survivors. Captain Werner Lott (1907-97), commanding the U-35 had intercepted the Diamantis off Land’s End.
He signalled the ship that he needed to check if they were carrying supplies to the British, which would legally entitle him to sink the ship. He fired a warning shot across their bow and the crew abandoned ship. Although the crew had made it to the lifeboats the sea was choppy and some of the boats started to capsize. Lott was not obliged to pick up survivors. Indeed after the Laconia incident where the submarine picked up survivors and were bombed by the Americans despite the presence of a Red Cross flag, submarine crews were strictly prohibited from doing so. Lott gave the order to pick up the crew. An examination of the Greek ship's papers showed that the Diamantis was carrying 4,000 tonnes of Iron ore from South Africa to England. It was the confirmation he needed and Lott gave the order to sink the Diamantis 50 miles from Lands End. He now had a situation on his hands. Submarines were notoriously lacking in space and food. The U boot had a crew of forty three. An extra twenty eight people on board would be a tight squeeze. They had to be placed on board as RAF spotter planes patrolled the area and to stay on the surface would mean getting sunk. The Greeks requested that they be brought to England which would meant that Lott and his crew would either be captured or killed. He decided to bring them to the south west coast of Ireland. At least there they would not be fired upon. The U-boat submerged before the RAF turned up and headed towards Ireland. They resurfaced when darkness fell as a U boot travelled faster on the surface. They arrived into Ventry harbour stopping a few metres from the shore. The Greeks were brought ashore in a small boat, two at a time, while a crowd of locals looked on. None of the German crew actually set foot on Irish soil. The landing was witnessed by a twelve year old Jimmy Fenton who was amazed that the Greeks were full of praise for a man who had sunk their ship. According to Paderas Panagos the Germans gave them food and cigarettes. News of the event was reported in The Kerryman on October 7, 1939 which stated that the crew were treated hospitably at Maurice Clery's in Ballymore. Five of them are suffering from shock in Dingle hospital but are well enough to accompany the remainder of the crew to Dublin today’. The event made international headlines and Lott was widely praised for his chivalry. Though the Greeks were in his debt Lott received no thanks from his own government. The Irish Free State authorities had complained to the German government about the breach of their neutrality. It was not the first time the war had come o the Dingle peninsula. On 14 September 1939 a RAF plane which was on patrol looking out u boats was forced to land in Ventry Harbour with engine trouble. The pilot, Lt. Brooke and a mechanic went ashore with a broken fuel pipe, and waved down a passing motorist, Brendán O'Connell, a civil engineer who drove them to Dingle, where a mechanic repaired the pipe. The two airmen should have been interned but were let go. Dingle would also later be the spot where a German spy, Walter Simon would be landed by the U-38 in June of 1940. He immediately raised suspicions when he asked about the next train, not realising the line had long since closed. He was followed to Dublin where he was arrested and interned. As the far progressed such acts of humanity, on both sides would become rarer, Lotts war was of a short duration and the U-35 was sunk in November of that year off the Norwegian coast. The crew made it to the surface and were picked were picked up by the British.
Lott and his crew were extremely fortunate. Of the 35,000 German sailors who served on the u-boats 28,744 were killed in action. Lott surrendered to Lord Louis Mountbatten and the two became lifelong friends. Imprisoned in the Tower of London in primitive conditions, Lott would later help Hans von Werra escape, the only German POW to escape from the British and make it back to Germany. After the war Lott returned to Germany to look after his wife who had confined to a wheelchair after injuries sustained in a bomb blast. He devoted his life to social work and became the director of a large Rehabilitation centre. He finally set foot on Irish soil in 1984 when he went to visit the Dingle Peninsula.

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