I’ve been thinking about this subject, trying to work out what to do, a picture of a Lottery ticket, a poker hand or a set of dice. Then I thought, life is a bit of a lottery. What are the chances of being lost at sea, two days after your son was lost? Must be against the odds.
So what were the Formby and the Coningbeg? Sister ships, from the Clyde Shipping Line, working between Waterford and Liverpool. Exporting livestock, outward to Liverpool, returning with manufactured goods from England, for the Irish market. The Coningbeg was captained by Joseph Lumley, the 2nd Engineer on the Formby was his son William Lumley.
The fortunes of Waterford have always been linked with it’s river and the trade from the sea. So it comes as no surprise that generations of families, earned their livings at sea, but you don’t expect to loose your life and ruin your family’s future through that work.
The two steamers were in Liverpool, making ready for their last journey home before Christmas, a trip they had done many times. S.S.Formby left first, heading out into the Irish Sea, to be followed by the Coningbeg once it had finished loading.
The odds of getting home were somewhat shortened, by the presence of a German U-Boat in the Irish Sea. U-62 spotted the Formby off the coast of Wales on the 15th December 1917. This is what was written in the U-Boat’s log book:
Dark night, westerly wind force 3-4. Shortly before dark a big darkened freighter observed. Pursued attack position. Speed and course 230° of steamer observed.
Bow shot No.1 tube, C/06D Torpedo 2.5m depth. Opponents speed 11knots, interception angle 80°, distance 500m, hit in engine room. Vessel of unknown nationality. After clearance of smoke of the explosion 3-4 minutes after the strike, ship sinks with all hands.
The Coningbeg sat out a storm in Liverpool, before leaving for home on the 17th, the Captain not knowing of the fate of the Formby, and his son William. They entered the Irish Sea unaware of the stalking U-boat.
Very dark, westerly wind force 3 clear. Saw a large darkened vessel, 220° and steamed up to attack. Vessel loaded deep and steaming at 12 knots.
Night is so dark, target is only recognisable at 1000m with night glasses. Stern tube IV C/06D Torpedo 2.5m depth, distance 500m, angle 80°. Hit amidships. Vessel in flames, breaks in two immediately and sinks with all hands.
83 people lost their lives in those vessels, 67 from Waterford. Their families gathered on the Quay in Waterford, outside the Clyde’s office, but no news came. The body of Annie O’Callahan, Stewardess, was washed onto a beach in Wales, the only body to be recovered. After Christmas the Clyde shipping company declared that they were not coming home, what had become of them was still unknown. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that the 83 were given Service Medals, from England, allowing the families to be given War Pensions.
So, what were the odds of that happening? Well greatly increased, when you add the skill of the captain of the U-Boat, Ernst Hashagen. He could easily be seen as the villain of the piece, but even if he was just following orders, you have to admit he was very good at his job. He is thought to have come to Waterford in the 1940’s, making enquiries about the ships. He went into Phelan’s Barber Shop, run by the son of one of the victims, and told him of his time on U-62. I’ll leave you with his words.
It’s rather dreadful to be steaming thus alongside ones victim knowing that she has ten maybe twenty minutes to live, till fiery death leaps from the sea and blows her to pieces. A solemn mood possesses those few on the bridge. The horror of war silences us.
The moment that the liberating “Fire” rings out, the torpedo is already leaping from it’s tube and on it’s way. No word passes between us. Great experiences render one dumb. We know we did our duty.