Irish Mariners' Story of Nazi Brutality Gets Renewed Focus

Dear Friend,

The Dublin Dock Workers Preservation Society are a docklands-based history group who believe in digging where we stand. We believe that the history of Dublin Docks and the surrounding communities of East Wall, North Wall, City Quay, Pearse Street and Ringsend are so rich that the stories should be collected and preserved. We also believe in honouring all the men and women who worked in the docks and lived in the dockland communities. This weekend Saturday, 20th September, we are holding a Service of Remembrance in Ringsend starting with a procession from Ringsend College 7.45pm followed by an ecumenical service in St. Patrick's Church and later on a photographic exhibition. It was therefore appropriate when one of our members Joe Mooney discovered the story of a Ringsender and his story of his experience of the horrors of the Second World War (see below)

Declan Byrne 086-8138618


We were recently reading the fascinating story of Irish Merchant seamen who were taken prisoner by the Nazis during World War Two. Thirty two of them were sent to a Labour camp in Bremen, and due to the horrific conditions five of them would die there, while the rest remained there for four years until the war ended. Included amongst this number were two men from the Dublin Docks area - Valentine Harris (Pearse House) and William Knott (Ringsend –Pembroke cottages). William Knott travelled to Hamburg in 1946 to give evidence at a war crimes trial in which 12 of the camp staff were charged. Knott was one of four Irish seamen who gave evidence at the 37 day trial. He testified that the Irish prisoners named the camp doctor ‘Goat-skinner’ “...because in Ireland this is a term for the cheapest type of veterinary surgeon." If you are related to these prisoners, or have any further information please contact us to share it. (Note: Those who died are NOT listed on the Merchant seamen memorial at City Quay as the ship they were captured from was not Irish registered).

The treatment of these civilian seamen was truly horrific, as recounted by the relative of William Knox (right), one of those who died:

“Throughout their captivity, the Irish seamen consistently refused to sign an agreement to become freie Arbeiter – voluntary workers for the German Reich. In early 1943 they were again segregated, and thirty-two of them including William were moved by the Gestapo to Bremen Farge. This was one of seven satellite labour camps attached to the large concentration camp at Neuengamme in northern Germany.

According to the survivors, they were beaten by SS guards when they arrived at Farge. They were told that, since they were civilians, they were not protected by the Geneva Convention, or the International Red Cross. Their new accommodation was a disused fuel tank buried beneath several metres of solid concrete. ...

The 32 Irishmen joined more than 10,000 other slave labourers – mainly Russians and Poles who were working on Project Valentin. This operated on a 24-hour-shift system, with each shift lasting for at least 12 hours. There was one half-hour meal break for soup and black bread: the bare minimum required to keep prisoners alive. According to the survivors, the Irish seamen were assigned to some of the hardest work. Usually, this involved lifting, carrying and emptying heavy bags of cement. The prisoners would inevitably inhale some of the dust during the day, and hack it up in wet balls during the night.”

An account of their release appeared in the Irish Times on the 17th May, 1945, headlined  IRISHMAN'S STORY OF "HORROR" CAMPS

The experiences of thirty-two citizens of Eire, all merchant seamen, in an S.S. camp in Germany, where five of them died from starvation or typhus, were described yesterday to an "Irish Times" reporter by William English, of Arklow, one of the thirty-two, who has just arrived in Dublin after his liberation.

He said the camp was at Bremen Farge, outside Bremen, and that the camp commandant -- named Schaubecker -- a month ago shot sixteen prisoners after announcing that he knew he would be shot or hanged by the Allied armies, and he "would take as many as he could with him."

Mr. English saw a naked Belgian prisoner beaten to death with rubber hose for attempting to escape. A Pole was shot in the thigh while trying to escape, and the S.S. guards rubbed salt into the wound and beat him with electric cable. He walked from the end of the camp to the hospital, but a Russian doctor, also a prisoner, was refused permission to attend him, and gangrene set in. The doctor said it would be more merciful to shoot the man. The guard did so. Next morning a French prisoner who refused information was shot.

A Russian prisoner was thrown into the camp refuse heap and Schaubecker forced some of the muck from the heap into his throat with a wire before throwing him back on the heap. He was struck with a rifle butt on the head and killed. His body was left for three days on the heap.

The five citizens of Eire who died in the camp were: 

W.H. KNOX, Dun Laoghaire; 
Owen CORR, of Rush, Co. Dublin; 
Gerald O'HARA, Ballina, Co. Mayo; 
Patrick BREEN, Blackwater, Co. Wexford, and 
Thomas MURPHY, of Dublin.


Mr. English said that he was a seaman on the Blue Star liner, s.s. Africa Star, and in January, 1941, while they were bound from South America to London, they were intercepted by the German surface raider, Steinmark, which took the liner's crew aboard and then sank her. The men were taken to Bordeaux and sent to Germany to camp Stalag XB, 10B Sandbostel.

The prisoners whose homes were in Eire were segregated and questioned by German intelligence officers and urged to work for Germany. They all refused.

In September, 1941, about fifty Irishmen, all seamen, were taken to Marlag, Nilag Nord, another camp, and thirty-two of them were sent to Bremen Labour Exchange. They were brought to a factory and again refused to work.

Their guards suggested to them that, being Irish, they ought to work against Britain in the war.

They were taken to Hamburg and asked to work on German ships, but again refused, and they were returned to Bremen Farge.

In the camp they worked 12 hours a day, mostly at carrying rail tracks. Russian girls, aged from 16 to 18, were doing the same kind of work. In Bremen Jewish girls of from 15 to 18 worked in demolition squads.


Mr. English said that, apart from the effort to get them to work for German, the prisoners from Eire got no special treatment as citizens of a neutral State. They repeatedly wrote to Mr. Warnock when he was Eire's representative in Berlin, but received no answer and did not know if the letters had reached him. On August 18th last, Mr. C.C. Cremin, the new representative of Eire in Berlin, visited them at the camp, and their treatment improved. He made every effort to get them sent home.

After twenty-six months they were put on a train for Flensburg, but were forced back because Allied planes had destroyed a bridge on the route, and a repatriation ship, which they had expected to meet in a Swedish port, sailed without them. They were sent to the camp at Marlag Nilag Nord, which was captured in April by a Guards armoured regiment.

The names of the 27 men, who came out of the camp alive, are:-

William ENGLISH and C. BYRNE, Arklow;
Valentine HARRIS, Pearse House, Dublin;
J.J. MOFFAT, Rosses Point;
Bernard GOULDING, Skibbereen;
Harry CALLAN, Derry;
Noel J. LACEY, Howth;
Richard FLYNN, Tramore;
Thomas COONEY, Wexford;
Edward CONDON, Passage West, Co. Cork;
William KELLY and J.J. RYAN, Waterford;
Patrick REILLY and Patrick KAVANAGH, Wicklow;
I.C. RYAN, Tramore;
T.C. BRYCE, formerly of Clontarf, Dublin, who lived in Australia before the war broke out;
Thomas KING, formerly of Clifden, now living in Newcastle;
Peter LYDON, Tralee;
P.J. O'Brien, Armagh, now of London;
Michael LOWRY, formerly of Galway, domiciled in Scotland;
J. O'BRIEN, of Kinsale, living in Wales;
James GORMAN, Clogher Head;
P.J. O'CONNOR, Carlingford; 
Michael O'DWYER, Cork;
Robert ROSEMAN, Bray;
James FURLONG, Wexford, and
William KNOTT, Ringsend, Dublin.

See also attached obituary to one of the men, Michael O’Dwyer, who would later return to give evidence at a War Crimes Trial. As requested above, if you have anything to add to this story, particularly regarding the local men involved, please get in touch.


MV Kerlogue at War: Serving Neither King Nor Fuehrer, But Humanity

Top image: Esterwegen concentration camp in Papenburg, Germany (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Views: 1973

Tags: 20th Century Ireland, Bremen, Dublin, France, Germany, History of Ireland, Merchant Marine, Poland, Russia, WWII, More…War

Comment by Kelly O'Rourke on September 17, 2014 at 3:22am

Very interesting, Declan.  Thank you for sharing.

Comment by Jean Sullivan Cardinal on September 17, 2014 at 2:04pm

Thank you for sharing.

Comment by Geraldine Callaghan on September 18, 2014 at 12:36pm
This many years later it's hard to compretend the horror these people endured. History can be wonderful journey to the past, and, very sad too. Thanks for sharing.


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