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

Courtesy of Kenneth King
Seen here in its wartime colors, plying the seas alone, the 142-foot long Kerlogue made an easy target. The EIRE markings and Irish tricolor weren't enough to help the ship avoid a vicious attack by the Royal Air Force. This view is by noted Irish marine artist Kenneth King.


By Marie-Claire McGann
Special to

Sixty years ago this month, the 11-man crew of this Irish cargo ship braved tempestuous seas and possible RAF attack to save 168 German sailors from drowning. Her experience was emblematic of the Irish merchant fleet's intrepid service to the Irish nation and to mankind.

The plucky Irish cargo ship MV Kerlogue and its crew plied the waters between Ireland, England, Wales, and the continent on numerous occasions during World War II, courageously helping provision the people and industries of Ireland.

But perhaps the most sublime testimony to the heroism of the crew came from a grateful Nazi German government, in the aftermath of the ship's peril-filled rescue, on December 29, 1943, of 168 German sailors from the huge swells of the Bay of Biscay.

Months later, a letter from the German ambassador to the Irish government, Dr. Eduard Hempel, was delivered to the Kerlogue's captain, Thomas Donohue, in which he expressed his thanks:

"... To you and your crew my profound gratitude as well as my high appreciation of unhesitating valiant spirit which has prompted you to perform this exemplary deed, worthy of the great tradition of Irish gallantry and humanity ..."

A silver cup, later held by Donohue in a photograph taken in the National Maritime Museum of Ireland, was later presented to Donohue with the words 'Bay of Biscay' engraved upon it.

Between MV Kerlogue's maiden voyage in 1939, until the war's end, in addition to undertaking one of the most heroic and successful rescue efforts of the war, the ship suffered a withering attack by British forces, who claimed to have mistaken her for a French ship, and damage from an acoustic mine. Through this, she continued to act as a cargo ship, sailing as a neutral, with the tricolour and EIRE painted large on her sides and deck, out of convoy, with full navigation lights.

Her crew saved lives from both warring sides, highlighting Ireland's neutrality during the war, making her actions sublimely humane ones.

Perhaps the most striking factor one thinks of when dwelling on all of the Kerlogue's activities during these war years are not just the great number of lives she saved, but that she saved lives from both warring sides, highlighting Ireland's neutrality during the war, making her actions sublimely humane ones.

The Kerlogue was the smallest of three ships belonging to the Wexford Steamship Company. She was built in Holland, just prior to the war's outbreak in September 1939. Intended for coastal work, she was a mere 142 feet long, and able to carry up to 335 tons, but at that, her freeboard loaded was less than one foot.

On April 2, 1941, German bombers attacked a British convoy. A crippled collier, the Wild Rose, out of Liverpool, was left behind. The Kerlogue at the time was under the command of Captain Samuel Owens of Carrickfergus, County Antrim, and was on passage from Wexford to Cardiff.

The RAF pilots later claimed the ship they attacked was carrying a French tricolor and bore the words EMPO.

Seeing distress rockets, the Kerlogue immediately altered course and went to the aid of the Wild Rose. Due to the bomb attack, Wild Rose's engines were disabled and her two lifeboats couldn't be launched. Owens took the 12-man English crew aboard. The Kerlogue took the Wild Rose in tow and beached her on Rosslare strand on the Wexford coast. When the salvage case was heard in Dublin, Justice Conor Maguire stated that "The master of the Kerlogue had shown enterprise and courage on the occasion."

October 23, 1943, would prove to be a particularly trying day for the little ship. On passage from Port Talbot, a Welsh port where she loaded on coal, en route to Lisbon, the Kerlogue was attacked, about 130 miles south of Ireland, by two unidentified planes. These were later determined to be RAF Mosquitoes from 307 Polish Squadron.

RAF Home Page
A RAF Mosquito bomber attacking a jail in Amiens, France, on February 18, 1944, during a bold daylight mission to free French resistance troops.

The Mosquitoes' flight logs, referring to the Kerlogue, record the following: "Sighted and attacked with cannon 1,500-ton merchant vessel flying French flag and word EMPO clearly discerned on starboard side—the word France also on her bows. The vessel, which returned fire with cannon without effect, was left circling with smoke issuing from it." Nearly two hours later, a Royal Australian Air Force flying boat flew over the Kerlogue, reeling from the attack, identified the Irish vessel, while turning down the ship's request for an escort.

Then-Captain Desmond Fortune had both legs fractured. Second Officer Samuel Owens had shrapnel fragments embedded in his chest and Second Engineer James Carthy sustained a gaping back wound, to name but a few of the grievously injured. Chief Officer Denis Valencie then took command.

The 25-minute attack left Fortune relying on crutches and suffering from wounds he received for the rest of his life, and severely damaged the ship. The entire bridge was destroyed, both lifeboats were broken, along with her compass and radio transmitter, and water was overwhelming the engine room. Thankfully, the pumps were able to keep the inflowing water under control and she slowly limped into Cork.

It was the Kerlogue's cargo of coal that saved her. Shells that ripped through her deck lodged in the coal and did not reach her hull. Remnants of cannon shells were later found and taken away for examination and were found to be of British origin.

Eamon de Valera

Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera on December 2, 1943, made the following statement in the Dáil:

"They (the British) informed us that the attacking plane did not identify the ship as Irish, and at the time of the attack Kerlogue was sailing off course. ... The British government for that reason will not accept responsibility for the attack, but are prepared to make a payment ex-gratia to the injured men."

The Kerlogue was repaired in Cork after the attack, and Donohue took command. It was under his experienced captaincy that the Kerlogue made her greatest rescue. (He also commanded the Lady Belle and Irish Oak when both were attacked by German forces.)

On a routine passage on December 29, 1943, while sailing to Dublin from Lisbon, a German long-range reconnaissance aircraft repeatedly circled the Kerlogue, signalling 'SOS' requesting for help from the small ship and its 11-man crew. She altered her course to the plane's request. TO BE CONTINUED.

Part 2: SERVING NEITHER KING NOR FUEHRER, BUT HUMANITY Marie-Claire McGann was awarded a B.A. (honours) degree in History and Classics by University College Dublin, in December 2003. She is a member of the Maritime Institute of Ireland.

This page was produced by Gerry Regan, with research assistance from Clem McGann and WGT UK Correspondent Kieron Punch.


Forde, Frank, Captain. "The Long Watch," ISBN 1 902602 42 0

Oireachtas Debates, Seanad Éireann 27 April, 1994.

Roskill, S.W. "The War At Sea 1939-1945" (The official British government history of the naval war, part of the "History of the Second World War")

Additional material held in the National Maritime Museum, Dun Laoghaire.


Gallery of Irish Marine Painter Kenneth King, including striking portraits of noted wartime Irish merchant vessels.

Irish Seamen's Relatives Association, including articles and photographs about Irish seamen lost at sea.

The Royal Air Force Home Page

A Brief History of the RAF's 307 Popsh Squadron

Copyright © 2004 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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Tags: Europe, German, Kerlogue, MV, RAF, Ship, WW2, War

Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on May 14, 2013 at 12:21pm

The SS Irish Oak was an Irish-operated steamship which was sunk in the North Atlantic during World War II by a German submarine.  Read here how Irish, British, German and American Governments dealt with the disaster.

Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on May 14, 2013 at 12:24pm

The 70th Anniversary of the sinking of the SS Irish Oak is 15 May 


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