The awful day in the First World War when a German U-boat sank a local fishing fleet

Otto von Schrader as an admiral
Otto von Schrader as an admiral

Due to a quick response by several News Letter readers some interesting information is arriving in Roamer’s mailbox about two of last week’s stories.

It seems that Crocknacrieve is near Ballinamallard and that John McNaughton worked as a collector of dues on the River Bann.

Doreen McBride's Little Book of County Down

Doreen McBride's Little Book of County Down

More about those stories here in the near future.

And there’s been an intriguing follow-up to Banbridge writer Doreen McBride’s Little Book of County Down, with its local ghosts, interesting places and famous people.

At the beginning of this month I highlighted Doreen’s account of two world wars, making a short reference to the day Kilkeel’s fishing fleet was sunk by a German U-boat.

It was on May 30, 1918, and fortunately no one was injured.

Marmora, built by Harland and Wolff

Marmora, built by Harland and Wolff

Doreen’s book recounts some gripping details about the incident, taken from the memoirs of Tommy Doonan, who owned one of the Kilkeel boats called Never Can Tell.

Tommy “sighted a submarine surfacing” a little distance off his starboard beam.

There were seven or eight local fishing boats accompanying Tommy’s vessel with wonderful names like Sparkling Wave, Honey Bee and Marianne McCrum.

At first Tommy thought that the U-boat wasn’t interested in the little Kilkeel fleet until it “fired six shots across our bows.”

UB 64 sank Kilkeel's fishing fleet during the First World War

UB 64 sank Kilkeel's fishing fleet during the First World War

The U-boat then came alongside Never Can Tell and the German Commander shouted, “have you any guns?”

When the Kilkeel men collectively replied “No!”, the commander ordered, “I want to speak to your skipper” adding, not very comfortingly, “We’re coming on board.”

The German submariners jumped onto the deck of Never Can Tell, deposited explosives in the hold, and took the Kilkeel men on to their U-boat.

“When we were all aboard,” recounted Tommy, “it didn’t take long because there was plenty of encouragement in the hold – we were mustered with hands above our heads, alongside the conning tower.”

Justica, built by Harland and Wolff

Justica, built by Harland and Wolff

The submarine then took the rest of the Kilkeel fishermen off their boats and blew up each little vessel.

“With every sinking our spirits went down,” recalled Tommy.

When there was only one boat left – the Moss Rose – the Germans put all the Kilkeel fishermen onto it and sent them on their way home.

“It appears that the U-boat commander went out of his way to ensure the safety of the fishermen,” Doreen commented, giving the reason in her book.

Some of the U-Boat crew were members of a pre-First World War touring musical group.

They’d performed around Kilkeel where they’d been very well looked after.

Admiral Otto von Schrader, mid 1930s

Admiral Otto von Schrader, mid 1930s

“They received the hospitality and friendliness for which the people of Mourne are famous,” Doreen added.“Perhaps that’s why the fishermen’s lives were spared.”

One of Roamer’s (many!) maritime hobbyists has been looking into the bitter-sweet tale of terror on the waves and has come up with an interesting postscript.

According to German records, on May 30, 1918, UB 64, commanded by Otto von Schrader, attacked a fleet of fishing boats some 12 to 15 miles off Kilkeel.

The U-boat was particularly successful during the First World War.

Launched in Hamburg in June 1917, UB 64 sank nearly 30 allied ships – around 34,000 tons.

The U-boat also damaged four allied ships and captured several others.

So the Kilkeel fishing fleet had unluckily encountered a viciously-capable and very experienced enemy.

She was type UB III, of which 96 were commissioned by the German navy.

UB 64 was about 50 metres long, around 700 tons with a top speed of eight to 10 knots.

She must have been a terrifying spectacle for the Kilkeel men in their tiny fishing boats, none much over 30 tons!

UB 64 had a crew of around 34 and could dive to almost 250 feet.

She carried 10 torpedoes and the gun that fired six shots across Tommy Doonan’s defenceless bows was an 88 mm weapon capable of firing a dozen shells in as many seconds!

The Kilkeel fishing boats weren’t the first local vessels that UB 64 had encountered.

On July 19, 1918 the German submarine severely damaged the Oceanic Steam Navigation’s Justicia off Skerryvore, a remote reef off the west coast of Scotland.

Justica was a 32,234-ton vessel built by Harland and Wolff and launched on the Lagan in 1913.

Four days after attacking Justica, on 23 Jul 1918, UB 64 sank the luxurious P and O liner Marmora off the south coast of Ireland. Ten British crew died in the attack.

Marmora was a 10,509 tons armed merchant cruiser built in 1903 by Harland and Wolff.

Not only was UB 64 a well-armed and extremely dangerous submarine, but her commander, Kapitänleutnant Otto von Schrader, was a highly decorated German officer.

Born on March 18, 1888 in East Prussia he became a submarine officer in his early 20s, and later the German equivalent of a Vice Admiral and Admiral during the First World War.

He was also awarded many wartime medals including the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross of Nazi Germany.

As the commander of half a dozen U-boats during the First World War, he was personally credited with the sinking of 57 ships, a total of 54,655 tons, and damaging a further six ships, totalling 52,333 tons.

Under the command of another officer, UB 64 surrendered on November 21, 1918.

Schrader was taken prisoner of war in Norway towards the end of the Second World War and committed suicide in 1945.

Doreen McBride’s book is in bookshops and at www.thehistorypress.ie.