British fleet activities in Berehaven area

The British Fleet used Berehaven as a naval base following the fall of Dunboy as a precaution of more attacks by the Spanish. Berehaven was then described, “Being entered, the tides are slack, there are a good anchorage and convenient places to bring ships on ground, and smooth water, five fathoms deep at low water mark. Towards the north end it grows much larger, is at least a league over, and of capacity sufficient to contain all the ships of Europe.”
Down through the years until 1938, Bere Island and Berehaven remained a British Navy and Army base. Last week we wrote of the attempted French Invasion of 1796.

A report in the English newspaper The Grapic of July 11th 1885, wrote of another battle which was in fact a mock battle between British ships. “The Battle of Bantry Bay – although the world at large probably prefers peace, it is not unnatural that naval men should long for a chance of practically testing the various inventions which within the last forty years have revolutionised the fleets of the civilised world.

“Happily the chance has never yet aired in a really genuine form, that is, a contest between two or more first-class Powers for supremacy at sea, but glimpses of light as to the possible conditions of modern naval warfare have been from time to time afforded. Instruction of this sort was given during the American Civil War, during the Russo-Turkish War, and perhaps, most of all, during the struggle between Chile and Peru. But, after all the information thus conveyed was meagre and untrustworthy. Bearing these facts in mind the late government wisely decided that, with a view of ascertaining whether our Navy was in as feeble and defective a condition as had been represented in some quarters, it would be well to test its efficiency as practically as possible. Hence the recent evolutions of the Particular Service Squadron, culminating in the attack on Berehaven.

“It was perhaps the most ambitious attempt to imitate sea-fighting since steam and electricity, new guns and torpedoes, came into vogue. In many respects the display was instructive, thereby justifying the large amount of money it has cost. The questions asked of the officers by Admiral Hornby in his memorandum will be answered with a degree of accuracy and precision which would have been presumptuous before the Battle of Bantry was fought.

“In spite of these advantages, one insurmountable objection remains the spectacle was magnificent, but it was not war, because the selected combatants only made believe to fight. This fact tends to lessen the value of some of the inferences, which might otherwise be derived from the mimic contest. Would a hostile fleet, for example, be able to advance under a fire which was really, and not merely pretendedly, withering? Would the Polyphemus, if assailed by live torpedoes, have survived to burst the boom?

“These questions cannot be answered with any degree of certainty. The operations, however, have helped to substantiate one very important fact. It is pretty clear that both officers and men still show the same pluck, endurance, and readiness of resource which distinguished our sailors in the days of Blake, of Rodney, and of Nelson. It is an excellent thing to have the ships and the money, but no mere collection of scientific appliances will avail, unless we have the right sort of men to use them.”
Back in the 1800s a British Navy Officer, Thomas Marsh, in a book A Naval History on the East Indies Station describes how he visited Berehaven on a Naval vessel called the Mariner which was then a new vessel with orders to go to Berehaven and it was from there they had many unpleasant experiences at various times. When at steam tactics outside in boisterous weather and heavy seas he wrote that he could recommend the West coast of Ireland for wretched weather conditions, especially when the ships were under sail with close reefed top-sails.

The Mariner was always a dirty sea boat in any bad weather as the decks were never dry. It was on this ship, the smallest ship that he served on, that he probably saw the hardest and variable three years service. This ship’s motion under bad weather conditions was very bad. Everything moveable would always have to be lashed and even then they were not always safe as the seas broke over the ship, yet the commission was a great experience he later found out. They began it in exceptional conditions and were for a considerable time kept cruising off the coast of Ireland before leaving for the station. On June 8th, 1885 the four ships left Berehaven, on the 9th they made plain sail, on the 10th they joined up with Admiral Hornby’s evolutionary squadron at sea off Bishops Rock.

There were fifteen ships in all and we were at steam tactics the next ten following days. On the 13th, 14th and 15th three more ships arrived at Berehaven, HMS Hawk, Rupert and Penelope joined up with the rest who had come in after steam tactics. On the 10th there was a night torpedo attack on the ships that had gone into Bantry Bay and again on the following night. On the 18th, the Leander struck a rock returning to harbour. She was got off and the pumps were put to work on her as she was in a leaky condition. Blowing hard and even quite rough in the harbour divers were put to work and she later left for Plymouth for overhaul escorted by the Mercury. There were now three Admirals with the squadron and other ships had joined and continuous evolutions were carried day after day. These three Admirals were Hornby, Hoskins and White.

The latest ship to join was the Oregon of the Cunard Line, fitted as an armed cruiser. She had recently made a record trip averaging 19 knots from America but was very extravagant in coal consumption. On the 27th the ship’s cook of the Express died from injuries received in bad weather by a heavy sea. For the mock battle Berehaven defended with the yard arms of ships made up as a boom and placed across the western entrance of the harbour between Bere Island and Diesert on the mainland. On several nights attacks were made from the outside in an endeavour to force an entrance. None of them were were successful. On the 30th, the Polyphemus made an attempt to jump the booms. In this she succeeded at full speed.

In his book Bere Island – A short History, Ted O’Sullivan mentions the Polyphemus. He wrote: “In 1878 the British Navy developed a new type of vessel called a torpedo ram. It was designed to sink other ships by ramming them and to cut through booms, which were used to protect harbours at the time. The first ship of this class, the Polyphemus,was sent on 1st July 1895 to Berehaven to be tested on the boom at the western end of the harbour. Many felt that this couldn’t be done, but the Polyphemus cut through the boom with ease. This feat led The Cork Examiner to declare the Polyphemus “the most powerful ship in the world”. The yards and spars were refitted the next day and the whole squadron left harbour for more experiments at Blacksod Bay.” It is interesting to note that the well known British author, Rudyard Kipling, also visited Berehaven at the same time as a guest of the British Navy, and he also noted the feat of the Polyphemus in ramming the boom at the western entrance of Berehaven Harbour. (We have a newspaper sketch of the Polyphemus cutting through the great boom the day after the attack).

Kipling later wrote: “The Irish coast is a never-failing surprise to the big Atlantic rollers. They trip and ground – you can see them check – on the shallows; fling up a scornful eyebrow and then lose their temper and shape in great lashings of creamy foam.”

Author Kipling on board
Continuing our look back at the naval activities going on in Berehaven Harbour over a century ago and Rudyard Kipling’s visit on one of the British Naval ships. ‘That’s Berehaven,’ said the bridge, indicating an obscure aperture in the jagged coastline. ‘We shall find the Fleet round the corner. The tide’s setting us up a little. Did you ever read The Two Chiefs of Dunboy? We shall open Dunboy House in a minute round the corner.’

‘And a half-nine!’ sang the leadsman, cursing the longstocked port-anchor under his breath, for he had to cast to one side of it and it stuck out like a cat’s whiskers.
We were between two rocky beaches, split and weathered by all the gales of the Atlantic, black boulders embroidered with golden weed, and beryl bays where the rollers had lost their way and were running in rings. Behind them the green, tiny-fielded land, dotted with white cottages, climbed up to the barren purple hills.

‘Ah! The ‘Arrogant’s’ here anyhow. See her puff!’ A monstrous plume of black, heavy smoke went up to the sky. We whipped round a buoy and came on the fleet. There were eight battleships alike as peas to the outsider; and four big cruisers. They were not cruising or manoeuvring just then; but practising their various arts and crafts.

The Marines fell in on the poop, and with bugles and all proper observances we paid our compliments as we ran past the sterns of the cruisers, waiting the admiral’s word to moor. ‘He’s given us a billet of our own. Under his wing too.’ An officer shot down on to the foc’sle, while the yeoman of signals, whose nose is that of a hawk, kept an unshut eye on the flag. ‘Isn’t there a four-foot patch somewhere about here? said a calm sand disinterested voice. The Navigator having brought her in did not need to wrestle with cables; and our anchors with their low, cramped davits are no treat. ‘We told ‘em about our anchors in the Dockyard,’ said the bridge. ‘We told ‘em so distinctly, and they said: “We’re very much obliged to you for the information and we’ll make the changes you recommend – in the next boat of your class.” That’s what I call generosity.’

‘Does that ship always behave like that?’ I asked. From all three funnels of a high, stubby cruiser the smoke of a London factory insulted the clean air. ‘Oh, no; she’s only burning muckings like the rest of us. She’s our “chummy” ship. She’s a new type – she and the Furious. Fleet rams they call ‘’em. Rather like porcupines, aren’t they?’ The two had an air of bristling, hog-backed ferocity strangely out of keeping with the normal reserve of a man-of-was. The Blake, long and low, looked meek and polite beside them, but I was assured that she could blow them out of the water. Their own captains, of course, thought otherwise.

All Ireland was new to me, and I went ashore to investigate Castletown’s street of white houses, to smell peat smoke and find Dan Murphy, owner of a jaunting car and ancient friend of the ward-room. In this quest, me and the Navigator mustered not less than half the male population of Cork County, the remainder being O’Sullivans; but we found Dan at last – old, grizzled, with an untamable eye, voluble and beautifully Celtic. ‘Will I meet ye to-morrow at Mill Cove at nine-thirty? I will. Here’s my hand an’word on it. Will I drive to Glenbeg for fishing? I will. There’s my hand an’word on it. Do I mean it? Don’t I know the whole livin’fleet, man an’boy, for years?’

He appeared at the appointed hour with a raw-boned horse and wonderful yarns of trout taken by ‘the other gentlemen’ in Glenbeg, the lough of our desire, fourteen miles across the hills. It was a cloudless day with a high wind – bad for trout but good for the mere joy of life; and the united ages of my companions reached forty-five. We were quite respectable till we cleared Castletown, and such liberty-men as might have been corrupted by our example.

Then we sang and hung on to the car at impossible angles, and swore eternal fidelity to the bare-footed damsels on the road, they being no wise backward to return our vows; and behaved ourselves much as all junior officers do when they escape on holiday. It was a land of blue and grey mountains, of raw green fields, stone fenced, ribbed with black lines of peat, and studded with dumps of gorse and heather and the porter-coloured pools of bog water.

Great island-dotted bays ran very far inland, and bounding all to Westward hung the unswerving line of Atlantic. Such a country it was as, without much imagination, one could perceive its children in exile would sicken for – a land of small holdings and pleasant green ways where nobody did more work than was urgent.

At last we came on an inky-black tarn, shut in by mountains, locked and lonely and lashed into angry waves by a downward smiting blast. There was no special point in the fishing; not even when the Sub-Lieutenant tried to drown himself; but the animal delight of that roaring day of sun and wind will live long in one memory.

We had it all to ourselves – the rifted purple flank of Lackawee, the long vista of the lough darkening as the shadows fell; the smell of a new country, and tearing wind that brought down mysterious voices of men from somewhere high above us. None but the Irish can properly explain away failure. We left with our dozen fingerlings, under the impression – Mister Cornelius Crowley gave it – that we had caught ten-pounders.

During the 1914-’18 World War ships of the American Navy also used Berehaven Harbour as a base. The following is an extract from The United States Marine Corps on World War 1 by Major Edwin N. McClellan, USMC, First Printed 1920, Facsimile Reprinted 1968 Historical Branch, G-3 Division Headquarters, U.S.Marine Corp. Washington, D.C.20380.

Marine detachments served on board all the American battleships attached to the British Grand Fleet and also on the American battleships which based at Castletown Berehaven, Bantry Bay, Ireland. Marines also served on board many of the cruisers which escorted the vessels transporting Army troops to Europe. The American vessels did not accompany the surrendered German war vessels to Scapa, but were detached from the British Grand Fleet on December 1, 1918; and sailed from Rosyth and proceeded with it to Portland (Weymouth).

The day after the surrender of the German Fleet the Nevada, which had been serving with Division 6 of the Atlantic Fleet in Bantry Bay, Ireland, joined Division 9, at Rosyth and proceeded with it to Portland. At Castletowberehaven, Bantry Bay, Ireland.

The Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy makes the following remarks concerning Division 6; Division 6, composed of the Utah (flagship), Nevada, and Oklahoma, was based on Berehaven, Bantry Bay, Ireland, its principal duty being to protect our convoys from possible enemy raiders. This division made two trips into the Channel, escorting convoys when enemy submarines were reported in the vicinity. Maj. Leon W. Hoyt was the division Marine officer of this division during its entire stay in European waters. The Nevada joined the American battleships of Division 9 the day after the surrender of the German Fleet off Rosyth, near Edinburgh.

Escorting the President into Brest, Division 9 joined Division 6 at Portland Bill and both divisions left that port in time to assist the Pennsylvania in escorting President Wilson, on board the George Washington into the harbour of Brest.

It is interesting to learn that in January 1915 the Admiralty pressed for 2 x 9.2” MKX Guns for a site (Brackenbury) to be transferred from Berehaven, as Harwich was liable for attack. Work begun in April 1915 and the site was ready for action in October 1915. The War accommodation was for two officers and seventy-one other ranks. Infantry was supplied and the cost was £40,000. These particular guns were erected on Bere Island but were never used and a Bere Island man once told us that the reason why they were never fired was because the result would have been like an earthquake hitting the island.

Courtesy of the Southern Star