(A Termonfeckin seaman with an active role in the Second World War)
(By Tom Winters)
(First published in our Review 2004 journal)
Captain Joseph Reynolds, who was born and reared in the small hamlet of Betaghstown, (also known as Belaveathy), Termonfeckin, was a courageous sailor who lost his life in 1941 at the age of forty-two, when his ship, the Clonlara, was torpedoed by a German U-boat, while en route from Cardiff to Gibralter.
Joseph was born on 25th April 1899 into a family with seafaring traditions going back many generations. His father, also Joseph, sailed as boy and man for almost sixty years; firstly on sailing ships and later as bosun on the Colleen Bawn and Mellifont. These were well known boats that traded for many years between Drogheda and Liverpool carrying both cargo and passengers.
His paternal grandfather was mate on the brigantine Elizabeth in the 1880’s. This ship was captained by his cousin William Reynolds from Canonstown, who drowned at Buenos Aires in 1882 when in command of the barque Salus.
Joseph’s mother was Ellen Cowan, a very compassionate and kind lady greatly loved by all who knew her. The Cowans were an established seafaring family who had sailed the world; having at one time sailed their own boats from Dunany Point. Charles Cowan, a member of this family, lost his life at sea, and James, a brother of Ellen’s, was partially crippled in his youth when he fell from the rigging of a sailing ship.
Joseph was educated in Termonfeckin when Miss Anglin was Principal there. He also served mass in Termonfeckin church when Fr. Segrave and Fr. McCulla were parish priests.
Jem Cowan and Joseph's mother Phyllis at Belaveathy
Early Days at Sea:
Joseph first went to sea as a cabin boy when aged fourteen or fifteen. One of his first long voyages as an able seaman was in 1919 on the SS Orca; a cargo carrier, built by Harland and Wolff and launched in January 1918. This voyage left Liverpool on the 30th August 1919 and called to Cardiff, Le Harve and then on to the West Indies islands of Barbados, St. Lucia, Trinidad, Grenada and Jamaica, before arriving in New York on the 3rd October. Leaving on the 18th for Colon in Panama, she then sailed to Callao in Peru and Antofagasta and Valparaiso in Chile before starting the return journey. Joseph also sailed on this ship to Capetown and Australia.
Keen to make his mark as a first class sailor Joseph studied all aspects of seafaring on his long voyages and also by candlelight in the solitude of his own room in the family cottage in Belaveathy. Soon acquiring his ‘mate’s ticket’ he qualified as a ship captain at the early age of twenty-four, probably the youngest captain in the Free State at the time. His first command was with the Limerick Steamship Company, where he was to spend the rest of his career. His two cousins, Willie and Bob McDonnell, both from Belaveathy, (whose mother was also a Cowan), would also sail with this company for many years.
The Limerick Steamship Co. bought the Clonlara in 1926 for the cattle trade from the west coast of Ireland to Liverpool, with the Lanahrone being purchased two years later. These were the ships associated with Captain Reynolds throughout his career. A typical voyage would commence at Greenore where the vessel would load several hundred tons of potatoes, then on to Dublin for three hundred cattle, followed by a six day journey to Ceuta in Spanish Morocco. There the cattle and potatoes were discharged, the holds cleaned out, and after calling to Gibralter for coal bunkers, the ship would dock at Almeria to take on a cargo of oranges. Other loading ports were Alicante and Valencia. Homewards, and the fruit was landed at Liverpool, Belfast and Dublin. Indeed I well remember my uncle leaving a crate of the most delicious blood red oranges in my father’s pub in Newfoundwell shortly before World War II.
The start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 was the beginning of a particularly difficult period for Limerick ships trading to Spanish ports. On the 29th May 1937 Republican planes based at Valencia bombed the German battleship Deutchland in Ibiza harbour, killing twenty-two of the crew. The inevitable reprisal came two days later when the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer appeared off Almeria and shelled the town. The Clonlara, with Captain Reynolds in command, was loading cargo at the time, and luckily made it to the open sea, to a background of explosions, flaming oil tanks and towering smoke clouds. In July 1938 the Clonlara sustained slight damage during an air-raid on Valencia but suffered no casualties.
If the Spanish Civil War caused problems for Irish ships World War II would be a time of immense danger. In August 1940 the Lanahrone, with Captain Reynolds in charge at the time, was involved in a rescue operation while on passage from Gibralter to Glasgow. In the early afternoon of the 27th August, when off the west coast of Ireland she sighted a lifeboat with eighteen survivors from the Goatland of Whitby; sunk by aircraft two days earlier while bound from West Africa to Manchester.
Captain Joseph Reynolds and his wife Phyllis
The Last Voyage:
The opening days of August 1941 found the two Limerick ships Clonlara and Lanahrone, which Captain Reynolds had commanded on so many occasions, berthed at Cardiff and taking coal for Gibralter. When loading was completed they sailed down the Bristol Channel and joined British Convoy OG 71. This journey would prove to be Joseph Reynold’s last voyage! At the time only one of his cousins from Belaveaty, Bob McDonnell, who was bosun and had sailed with him for so many years, accompanied him; his brother Willie luckily on leave. Irish ships had only joined British convoys during the previous months as a result of so many Irish ships, although neutral and flying the Irish flag and having the tricolour painted on the side, being sunk by German U-boats and bombers.
Lanahrone was commanded by Captain William Tyrrell of Arklow, who was making his first voyage with the Limerick company. Fifty-three years old he had spent many years on his familys’ own vessels before joining the Ellerman Line on the Mediterranean trading routes. He was home on leave in 1941 when he was offered command of the Lanahrone.
The two ship-masters, who had never met before, became acquainted as they attended meetings and conferences ashore at Milford Haven naval base in Wales. They learned that the convoy would consist of twenty-two ships with two other foreign ships as well as the two Limerick vessels. It would have a strong escort consisting of the sloop HMS Leith, the destroyer HMS Bath and six corvettes, Campanula, Campion, Zinnia, Bluebell, Wallflower and Hydrangea. The escort was commanded by Lieut-Commander E.C. Hutton, R.N. from the HMS Leith.
In the late afternoon of 12th August, convoy OG 71 sailed from Milford Haven and turned north up the Irish Sea where it was joined next day, off the Isle of Man, by Liverpool ships assigned to it. They included the Aquila, which carried the Commodore, Vice Admiral P.E. Parker. On August 15th the Scottish portion joined them off Rathlin Island and the convoy formed up in seven columns. The convoy then steamed into the Atlantic; accompanied by their escort and air support for part of their journey.
All went according to plan until a German Focke-Wulf aeroplane was sighted low on the horizon on the morning of the 17th August. There was little doubt that the course, speed, composition and escort strength of OG 71 would be reported back to U-boat headquarters at Lorient in France. There, Admiral Donitz began assembling a submarine ‘wolf pack’ to attack; with orders going out to intercept the convoy.
Dawn on the 18th August found the convoy in good order. The weather was excellent with a clear cloudless sky. In the afternoon Aquila detected submarine activity in the area. That night, at 1.10 a.m., a massive explosion signalled the first attack by the U-boats. The victim was HMS Bath, torpedoed by U204. As she went down her own depth charges exploded, causing further devastation. The corvette Hydrangea was nearest and she closed in on the sinking ship, passing through corpses and debris. Out of 122 men only nine badly injured men were picked up.
Minutes later the Scottish ship Alva was hit, having being torpedoed by U201. All but one of her crew of twenty-five escaped into rafts and lifeboats; with Clonlara picking up thirteen of these men.
For the next few hours attack and counter-attack followed as the escorts tried to locate the U-boats as well as defend the convoy. The Aquila, Commodore Parker’s ship, was the next to be torpedoed. It sank in less than a minute, with the loss of 151 passengers and crew, including the Commodore. Shortly after this the Ciscar was hit and sank in less than a minute.
Providence then came to the aid of the convoy as heavy rain squalls reduced visibility to one mile. To try and shake off the enemy a major course alteration was made. This was to prove successful as no further attacks occurred.
Death at Sea:
However three days later, on the night of the 22nd August, with the convoy west of Portugal, the German U-boat U564, under the command of Reinhard Suhren, struck. It fired four torpedoes in the direction of the convoy and then submerged. Two ships were hit, the Empire Oak and Clonlara. The only surviving officer from the Clonlara was Second Engineer Walker, who made the following statement after the event:
“The ship was struck in no.1 hold, shattering the forward part of the vessel. The captain was on the bridge and ordered us to abandon ship. The engines and dynamos had stopped and we went to boat stations. As we were getting into the boats we were struck by another torpedo on the starboard side in the boiler-room. The boilers blew up and I remember flying through the air and landing in the water. I went under and when I came to the surface I found myself under the stern of the ship, which had settled by the bows and her propeller out of the water. She sank about three minutes later. I swam towards a lifeboat about fifty yards away, which had drifted from the ship. I dragged three men, who were swimming in water, aboard and the ‘HMS Campion picked us up later.”
Bob McDonnell, Joseph Reynold’s friend, neighbour and lifetime sailing companion, later told Joe’s grieving family that the last thing he remembered seeing was of him standing on the bridge, his face blackened with smoke, giving the order to abandon ship. Bob was hit by flying wreckage and blown overboard. He remembered nothing more until picked out of the water half an hour later.
A total of ten ships and over four hundred lives were lost on convoy OG 71 with not one German casualty. This caused the Admiralty to divert the remainder of the ships to Lisbon in Portugal in case of the complete destruction of OG 71.
The City of Dublin left Lisbon on the 2nd September with six survivors from the Clonlara aboard, among them able seaman Bob McDonnell, while two men remained in hospital in Gibralter. In all eleven men from the ship lost their lives on that fateful night. Captain Reynold’s body was never found.
With the rest of the crew who perished, and all others who lost their lives on Irish ships during the war Joseph Reynolds was posthumously awarded the Marine Valour Medal with 3 Bars. It was the Irish Government’s highest decoration for service during the Second World War.
Robert McDonnell, although shaken by his experience on the Clonlara, sailed again on Limerick ships, as did his brother Willie, but unfortunately never again with their cousin, Captain Joseph Reynolds, from their native hamlet of Belaveathy, outside Termonfeckin.
The Long Watch – Capt Frank Forde.
The National Maritime Musuem, Greenwich, London.
Joseph Reynold’s personal papers.