No. 14  NAI DFA Washington Embassy File 121

'British claims to the Irish Ports'
Memorandum on Defence Forces notepaper prepared for Frank Aiken1

DUBLIN, undated, but February 1941

Since the 5th November last, when Mr. Churchill in the House of Commons referred to the loss to Britain of the Irish Ports as bases, this topic has been debated threadbare by politicians, journalists and the man in the street.2

Reading over Mr. Churchill’s speech the average Irishman felt that the British Premier was at a loss for something to say which might direct atten tion from the real facts at the time, i.e. Britain was obtaining a first class trouncing on land and sea. Some excuse had to be put forward. Mr. Churchill did not favour in 1938 or at any time the surrender to the Government of Ireland of the Forts at Cork Harbour, Berehaven and Lough Swilly, and his speech on the 5th November could be interpreted as indicative of an ‘I told you so’ attitude. During the months of September and October British and allied shipping losses were very heavy. The sinking of the Empress of Britain (44,358 tons nett) which was set on fire by aircraft and torpedoed by submarine a few hours later about 60 miles north west of Erris Head3 called for some explanation, particularly in the light of the fact that the interval between the bombing and the torpedoing was such as to enable protective steps to be taken against the latter attack, or at least to avenge it.

The statement of the Premier coincided almost with the admission of this sinking by the British Admiralty. For the lack of a better answer to the submarine menace the cry ‘return the ports’ was then raised. While Britain had the use of all Irish ports in the last war the debate following Mr. Churchill’s speech in the Commons was inclined to the view that if Britain obtained Berehaven and Lough Swilly as bases, with supporting aircraft refuelling stations, the whole position of the submarine campaign would be transformed overnight.

To consider the question in its true perspective it will be necessary to make some comparison between conditions as they existed during the European War 1914-18 and those now obtaining.

German bases 1940 1914-18
The whole coast line from Norway to the Pyrenees is in German hands. German North Sea Ports – Zeebrugge and Ostend

In July 1940 the British Admiralty having apparently fully considered the position following the collapse of the French, decided that ocean going convoys from and to Britain must no longer use St. George’s Channel. A mine field was sown from Hartland Point along the British coast to Trevase Head. This mine field extended to the Irish coast along our territorial waters from the Tuskar Rock4 to Mine Head, Co. Waterford.5

On the 22nd July a warning notice was issued by the Admiralty to prohibit vessels entering or leaving the Irish Sea through St. George’s Channel. This warning had the effect of diverting all convoys and unescorted shipping with the exception of coasters and trawlers around the North coast of Ireland through the North Channel. Since 22nd July 1940 there has not been a single report of a convoy having been sighted from our South or West coasts. Prior to that date such reports were a daily feature, particularly from the Co. Wexford coastline. Milford Haven was up to July an assembly station for westward bound convoys. The vulnerability of vessels sailing in St. George’s Channel and the Southern approaches to England by sea, to submarine and air attack was then fully appreciated and steps were taken to compel vessels to follow a safer route.

During 1917 and 1918 Cobh and Berehaven were used by the British as assembly stations for convoys travelling westward. While the nearest German base was Ostend, there can be no dispute that these ports were admirably suited for assembly points but with the establishing of German bases on the whole coast line of France in 1940 the position changed materially.

In September 1917 the duty of providing the destroyer escorts to North Atlantic convoys fell to the Buncrana, Queenstown and Plymouth Commands and the following escort and patrol forces were allocated to each of these Commands:

Buncrana Queenstown Devonport
56 craft which included
30 destroyers,
& 13 submarines as well as a
sea-plane carrier & sloops.
62 craft
1 light cruiser,
36 destroyers (U.S.A.),
4 torpedo boats,
12 sloops,
9 mine sweepers
40 destroyers,
8 torpedo boats.


The vulnerability of Cobh and Berehaven to air attack cannot be overstressed. At the same time it can be contended that with adequate adjacent airfields the German raiding planes could be repelled without occasioning irreparable damage to these harbours and their forts. It is not proposed to debate this point but it is held that it would be tantamount to a suicidal policy on the part of the British to expose ocean going convoys to the dangers likely to be encountered from air action while steering over a course 150 to 200 miles abreast the South coast of Ireland.

The conclusion to be drawn obviously is that granted Britain had bases on the South coast of Ireland the present position would be unchanged, viz. vessels in convoy in the North Atlantic would still proceed to and from England via the North Channel or around the coast of Scotland. In fact, Cobh and Berehaven could be of no more advantage to the British from the point of view of escorts and assembly of convoys than Plymouth is to-day. Plymouth is not now used as an assembly or escort base for Atlantic convoys.

With regard to Lough Swilly, since that inlet is no longer under British control Lough Foyle is being used instead and escort craft of somewhat lesser dimensions in strength to that based on Lough Swilly 1917/18 now use the Foyle as a haven. Limavady aerodrome is on the East bank of the Foyle and it would be extremely difficult to obtain a tract of land suitable for an airfield adjacent to the Swilly to serve that Lough as Limavady serves the Foyle. In time factors, for the destroyer the Swilly is not more than half an hour more westward than the Foyle and considerably less than ten minutes westward for the aircraft. Buncrana was selected as a port of assembly for out-bound convoys during the last war. It was found unsuitable after two convoys only had been assembled there and the port of assembly was then changed to Lamlash.6 Buncrana was however retained as the escort port. Experts can no doubt put forward reasons to suit their arguments as to the advantages and disadvantages of the Foyle as an escort base when compared with the Swilly.

April 1917 was the most severe month British and allied merchant shipping experienced during the last war from submarine action.

In the Western approaches to Britain sinkings in that month were thickest in a rough quadrilateral between the parallels of 51° and 53° N and the meridians of 12° and 15° W. To combat these losses and those of subsequent months the convoy system was established in July 1917 and proved successful to a degree in so far as the sinkings were reduced gradually. In September, 1918, however, 38 vessels were sunk between the parallels 5° and 13° W. Fourteen were sunk in the Irish Sea, twelve at distances ranging from five to 300 miles south of Ireland and twelve in the vicinity of the coast of Cornwall. The adjacent British bases did not prevent these sinkings. (Vide quadrilateral referred to above). It will be noted that the sinkings by submarines during this last war were most numerous at distances ranging from 80 to 200 miles off our southwest coast. There were sinkings nearer our shores of course. There must be a number of reasons however which prompted submarine commanders to haunt one particular area. The most obvious of these would be that it was an area fruitful in targets, yes, but these targets could be encountered nearer the port of call or of embarkation so there must be another equally good reason at least.

At such a distance out in the Atlantic the submarine at the time was practically immune from detection until she surfaced. Aerial observation is the greatest enemy of the submarine, the range of aircraft was then very limited and to assist the hydrophone, spotters in kite balloons were employed in efforts by British naval flotillas to overcome the submarine menace. These efforts met with little success however. It was only upon adoption of the convoy system when sufficient escort vessels had become available and improvements were made in the hydrophone that sinkings diminished. The activities of aircraft against merchant shipping were negligible.

While in almost every instance we receive information as soon as an attack is made on a vessel in the Atlantic, the source of our information is not always such as to enable us to assume the degree of effectiveness of the attack. One thing is certain, that in about 50 per cent of the cases the attack does not mean the total loss of the vessel attacked.

From September 1939 to June 1940, 73 attacks in the Atlantic on vessels were reported. These attacks were made by submarines and 60 of them were made at distances varying from 25 to 400 miles from our South Coast. The remaining 13 took place at about similar distances from the North and West coasts of Donegal. There was not a single attack in March in April or in May; in June there were eleven.

A new phase commenced in July, viz. aircraft took a hand.

1940 Submarine Aircraft
July 13 2 All practically West-North-West. A few attacks were made by aircraft on trawlers off the >South West coast, say in a line with Co. Kerry but these were all made on the return flights of the aircraft.
August 29 22
September 22 20
October 17 12
November 15 18
December 28 17
January 6 16


In the Atlantic the field of operation of the submarine since July can be regarded as in a region from 300 to 600 miles west-north-west of our shores and the quadrilateral between the parallels 55° and 57° N and the meridians of 15° and 18° W was the area in which submarine attacks were most numerous. An occasional vessel was attacked near our shores but such an attack was an exception. In December a few vessels were torpedoed at no great distance from the Hebrides. The submarine as in the last war kept out of the normal range of British aerial patrol.

Attacks were made on shipping by German bombers from a few hundred yards from our land boundaries to a distance limit of 400 miles west of the Donegal coast. British Coasters and trawlers at sea off our coasts are left unmolested by these bombers proceeding north west on the outward journey but on the return trip of the bomber the trawler etc. may look out for squalls. On occasions it has been noticed that the coaster or trawler advises by radio all shipping of the presence of German aircraft and the direction in which the plane is proceeding. Consequently it will be seen that the British are not absolutely stuck for information of the aerial movements of the German Atlantic bomber 7 before it reaches its objective, nevertheless we do not hear of the success of interception flights in this sphere.

In April 1917 the British Allied and Neutral losses in merchant shipping amounted to over 850,000 tons gross; at a time when Germany had few allies and fewer bases. Had this figure been maintained the position for Britain would have been untenable. America, however, entered the war on her side and it then became possible to start the convoying system of merchant vessels in adequately protected convoys. At the same time with the help of the Japanese and the American craft, anti-submarine naval operations, by flotillas of destroyers formed for the purpose of stalking the submarine, were commenced.

It should it is felt be clear to the unbiased mind that the Irish ports Cobh, Berehaven and Lough Swilly cannot in any way affect the progress or ultimate result of the war for the following reasons:

(a) To counter the submarine adequate escorts for convoys must be provided.

(b) To hunt the submarine long range aircraft patrols must be available to assist the anti-submarine operations of numerous surface craft.

(c) To counter the raids of the German bomber on shipping in the Atlantic, long distance fighter aircraft must be available in numbers sufficient to perform extensive interception patrols.

(d) Attacks in the Atlantic on convoys, whether by submarine, surface raider or aircraft, have so far revealed that in no instance has the protection afforded been adequate.

The barter for obsolescent American destroyers discloses the scarcity of this type of craft and that Britain possesses no long distance fighter aircraft to combat the Atlantic bomber is no secret.

It will thus be seen that the value of the Irish ports has been grossly exaggerated with the apparent intention of diverting attention from the more obvious and real reasons responsible for the British shipping losses.

1It is not clear who was the author of this memorandum.

2See DIFP VI, Nos 324, 326 and 334.

3The Empress of Britain was sunk on 28 October 1940. An attack by a Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf Condor left the vessel powerless and she was subsequently torpedoed by U-32.

4A group of rocks situated 11.3 kilometres off the south-east coast of Co. Wexford.

5Located south of Dungarvan, Co. Waterford.

6The largest village on the Isle of Arran, Scotland.

7 The Focke-Wulf FW-200 'Condor ', an all-metal four-engine monoplane that originally entered service as a civilian airliner and in its military variant undertook long-range recon- naissance and anti -shipping roles.

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