Wings over Wexford: The USN Air Station Wexford 1918-19

Wings over Wexford: The USN Air Station Wexford 1918-19

by Liam Gaul


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In 1918, during the final year of the First World War, the USN had a force of over 400 sailors and 22 officers and 4 Curtiss H16 seaplanes based in at Ferrybank, Wexford. The base was a veritable village with accommodation, hospital, medics, post office, YMCA Hall, radio towers, electricity generating plant and very large aircraft hangers. Although only operational for a limited period, its impact on the town of Wexford was considerable and its achievements in the global conflict were significant, protecting shipping, both naval and commercial, from the German u-boats.To mark the impending 100-year anniversary of this base, this book by local historian Liam Gaul recalls this often-overlooked aspect of Ireland’s involvement in the First World War.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750983518
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 11/10/2017
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Liam Gaul is a Wexford author and historian, who has published on many aspects of Wexford history. He was chosen by Wexford County Council to write a book on Wexford’s American Connections in 2012 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the visit of JFK.

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Call to Arms

Disagreements in Europe over territory and boundaries, among other issues, came to a head with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo at the hands of Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, on 28 June 1914. Princip had ties to the secretive military group known as the Black Hand. This assassination propelled the major European military powers towards war. Exactly one month later, the First World War had begun. In 1915, the British passenger liner the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine, killing 128 Americans and further heightening tensions. By the end of 1915, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany and the Ottoman Empire were battling the Allied Powers of Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro and Japan.

Many Americans were not in favour of their country entering the war and wanted to remain neutral. The desire for neutrality was strong among Americans of Irish, German, and Swedish descent, as well as among Church leaders and women. The American people increasingly came to see the German Empire as the villain after news of atrocities in Belgium in 1914. President Woodrow Wilson made all the key decisions and kept the economy on a peacetime basis, while giving large-scale loans to Britain and France. To avoid being seen to make any military threat, President Wilson made only minimal preparations for war and kept the American Army on its small peacetime basis as more and more demands were being made to prepare for war. The president did enlarge the United States Navy.

After two and a half years of efforts by President Wilson to keep the United States neutral, the US entered the war on 6 April 1917. They joined their allies, Britain, France and Russia, to fight in the First World War. Under the command of Major General John J. Pershing, more than 2 million American soldiers fought on the battlefields of France.

In early 1917, Germany had decided to resume all-out submarine warfare on every commercial ship headed towards Britain, in the knowledge that this decision would almost certainly mean war with the United States. President Wilson asked Congress to vote on the US entering an all-out war that would make the world a safer and more democratic place. The United States Congress voted to declare war on Germany on 6 April 1917. On 7 December 1917, the US declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

With the entry of the United States into the First World War, Europe witnessed the arrival of US forces in a bid to assist the Allied cause. The German U-boats were causing havoc in the English Channel. In an effort to halt the huge losses, the British Admiralty requested that the United States establish Naval Air Stations in Ireland and Britain.

A critical indirect strategy used by both sides was the blockade. The British Royal Navy successfully stopped the shipment of most war supplies and food to Germany. Neutral American ships that tried to trade with Germany were seized or turned back by the Royal Navy, who deemed such trade to be in direct conflict with the Allies' war efforts. Germany and the Central Powers, its allies, controlled extensive farmlands and raw materials. The blockade was eventually successful as Germany and Austria-Hungary had depleted their agricultural production by enlisting so many farmers into their armies. By 1918, German cities were on the verge of starvation; the front-line soldiers were on short rations and were running out of essential supplies. The German war effort seemed to be winding down and would eventually grind to a halt.

The Germans also considered a blockade. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the man who built the German fleet and a key advisor to the Kaiser Wilhelm II, maintained that Germany would play the same game as Britain and destroy every ship that tried to break the blockade. Although unable to challenge the more powerful Royal Navy on the surface, Tirpitz vowed to scare off all merchant and passenger ships en route to Britain. He believed that since the island of Britain depended on imports of food, raw materials and manufactured goods, scaring off a substantial number of the ships would effectively undercut its long-term ability to maintain an army on the Western Front. Germany had only nine long-range U-boats at the start of the war, but it had ample shipyard capacity to build the hundreds needed. However, the United States demanded that Germany respect the international agreements regarding the 'freedom of the seas', which protected neutral American ships on the high seas from seizure or sinking by either of the warring sides. The Americans insisted that the drowning of innocent civilians was barbaric and grounds for a declaration of war.

The British frequently violated America's neutral rights by seizing ships. President Wilson's top advisor, Colonel Edward M. House, commented that, 'The British have gone as far as they possibly could in violating neutral rights, though they have done it in the most courteous way.' When President Wilson protested British violations of American neutrality, the British backed down.

German submarines torpedoed ships without warning, causing sailors and passengers to drown. Berlin explained that submarines were so vulnerable that they dared not surface near merchant ships that might be carrying guns and that were too small to rescue submarine crews. Britain armed most of its merchant ships with medium-calibre guns that could sink a submarine, making above-water attacks too risky. In February 1915, the United States warned Germany about the misuse of submarines. On 22 April, the German Imperial Embassy warned US citizens about boarding vessels to Great Britain, which would risk German attack. On 7 May, Germany torpedoed the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania, sinking her. This act of aggression caused the loss of 1,198 civilian lives, including 128 Americans. President Wilson issued a warning to Germany that it would face 'strict accountability' if it sank more neutral US passenger ships. Berlin acquiesced, ordering its submarines to avoid passenger ships.

By January 1917, however, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorffdecided that an unrestricted submarine blockade was the only way to break the stalemate on the Western Front. They demanded that Kaiser Wilhelm order unrestricted submarine warfare be resumed. Germany knew this decision meant war with the United States, but they gambled that they could win before America's potential strength could be mobilised. However, they overestimated how many ships they could sink and thus the extent to which Britain would be weakened, and they did not foresee that convoys could and would be used to defeat their efforts. They believed that the United States was so weak militarily that it could not be a factor on the Western Front for more than a year. The civilian government in Berlin objected, but the kaiser sided with his military. Germany formally surrendered on 11 November 1918 and all nations agreed to stop fighting while the terms of peace were negotiated.

The foundation of the USN Air Stations in Ireland and England, although operational for just a few short months, played an important role in undermining the dominance of the U-boats in the seas around both countries. The station at Wexford was very active and carried out many missions in search of the submarines, which operated with devastating effect in and around Tuskar Rock Lighthouse and up along the Irish and English coastlines. The presence of the American aviators was reassuring for ship owners on the coast who had been concerned about the safety of their vessels, their cargoes and especially the crews of their ships.

In 1912, John Edward Redmond MP, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was negotiating the introduction of what was to be the Third Home Rule Bill with the British Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader, Herbert Henry Asquith (1852–1928), which eventually reached the statute books on 18 September 1914. The Third Home Rule Bill had passed the House of Commons, albeit with a small majority, but was totally rejected by the House of Lords. The bill was voted on and defeated by the House of Lords again in 1913.

Dublin-born Sir Edward Carson (1854–1935), together with the Irish Unionist Party, strongly opposed the Home Rule Bill and in 1912 more than 500,000 people signed the Ulster Covenant against the passing of such a bill. To ensure that this bill was not passed and brought into law, an Ulster Volunteer Force was formed to oppose such a measure by force, if necessary.

The Home Rule Bill was passed again by the House of Commons in May 1914, when the government overrode the opposition by the House of Lords by implementing the provisions of the Parliament Act of 1911. The bill would have meant the creation of a two-chamber Irish parliament consisting of a 164-seat House of Commons and a 40-seat Senate. Ireland would retain the right to elect Members of Parliament to sit in Westminster. The bill was sent for Royal Assent. The king signed the Home Rule Bill at noon on Friday, 18 September, together with an Act suspending the Home Rule Bill from coming into effect, with all further parliamentary debate postponed until the war ended.

On his return home to Ireland on the Sunday morning, Redmond set out for his home at Aughavanagh, Co. Wicklow. He stopped his car at Woodenbridge in the Vale of Avoca, where he encountered an assembly of the East Wicklow Volunteers. Present were the two Wicklow MPs and Colonel Maurice Moore, Inspector-General of the Volunteers. John Redmond, in a short, impromptu address to the group, outlined their duty:

to go on drilling and to account yourselves as men, not only in Ireland itself, but wherever the firing-line extends, in defence of freedom and of religion in this war where it would be a disgrace forever to Ireland, and a reproach to her manhood if young Irishmen were to stay at home to defend the island's shores from an unlikely invasion.

Redmond's Woodenbridge speech became better known than his manifesto on this subject. Redmond pledged the Irish Volunteers to the defence of Ireland and called on Irish men to enlist in the army.

A clarion call had been sounded to participate in a war that would supposedly be finished by Christmas.


War at Sea

The Entente Powers – France, Britain and Russia – had a distinct advantage in the struggle to be the victors of the Great War: they had control of the seas, which gave them access to the entire globe, whereas Germany and Austria-Hungary were restricted to the areas they controlled. The British high command were convinced that the only way to end the war was to annihilate the German Army in a head-on confrontation. This decision condemned 60,000 men to certain death or maiming during the autumn in the Battle of Loos.

At sea, the battle fleets spent most of their time tied up in harbour, with occasional engagements like the Battle of Jutland fought mainly at a distance, without serious risks. The Battle of Jutland lasted from 31 May to 1 June 1916 and involved 250 ships and 100,000 men. It was the only major naval engagement of the First World War. The British Grand Fleet had a greater number of ships than the German High Sea Fleet, with 37 heavy warships and 113 lighter support ships versus the Germans' 27 heavy warships and 72 support ships. The British Intelligence Service had also broken the German signalling codes.

The Battle of Jutland began at 4.48 p.m. on 31 May, when the scouting forces of vice admirals David Beatty and Franz von Hipper began a running artillery duel at a range of 15,000 yards in the Skagerrak (Jutland), just off Denmark's North Sea coast. Hipper's battleships took a barrage of severe shelling, but they survived, thanks to their superior honeycomb hull construction. Vice Admiral Beatty lost three battleships due to fires in the gun turrets started by incoming shells reaching the powder magazines. Beatty turned his ships north and lured the German ships on to the Grand Fleet.

At 7.15 p.m., the second phase of the battle started. Admiral John Jellicoe, by executing a 90-degree wheel-to-port, brought his ships into a single battle line, thus gaining the advantage of the fading evening light. Admiral Jellicoe cut the German fleet off from its home base and he twice crossed the High Seas Fleet. The German commander Admiral Reinhard Scheer's ships took over seventy direct hits while his ships scored just twenty against the British Grand Fleet. This would have meant complete annihilation for Scheer's fleet, were it not for his three brilliant 180-degree turns away from the danger. By darkness at 10.00 p.m., the British has lost 6,784 men and 111,000 tons of shipping, with German losses amounting to 3,058 men and 62,000 tons.

On the morning of 1 June, Admiral Jellicoe's fleet stood off Wilhelmshaven with his twenty-four untouched dreadnoughts and battlecruisers. Sheer kept his ten battle-ready heavy fighting ships in port. The German High Seas Fleet had been sent home and would only be put to sea three more times on minor missions. Admiral Scheer avoided future surface encounters with the Grand Fleet due to its great material superiority and instead demanded the defeat of Britain's economic life by concentrating on the use of U-boats in the war at sea. The submarine was developed from an earlier invention by John Holland (1841–1914), from Liscannor, Co. Clare. It was brought into extensive use by Germany in the First World War in the battle for supremacy and control of the conflict at sea. This 'tin fish' created havoc for ships off the Wexford coast, destroying thousands of tons of ships and the crews who manned those vessels. The same John Holland, a member of the Irish Christian Brothers, taught science at the Christian Brothers School in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, prior to emigrating to the United States in 1872. It was there that he developed his submarine, but he died in 1914 without ever witnessing the result of his genius. Two major sea disasters happened during the First World War, namely the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on Friday, 7 May 1915 and the Leinster on Thursday, 10 October 1918, with the loss of many lives.

The Lusitania, dubbed the 'Greyhound of the Seas', made her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York in September 1907, powered by her 68,000-horsepower engines. The ship took the Blue Ribbon for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. This leviathan of the seas was secretly financed by the British Admiralty and was built to specifications set by the Admiralty. In the event of war, the ship would be consigned to government service. In 1913, as war was becoming ever more likely, the giant vessel was fitted for war service. Ammunition magazines and gun mounts were installed, with the mounts concealed under the main deck timbers in readiness for the addition of guns.

Two years later, on Saturday, 7 May 1915, the Lusitania sailed from New York, bound for Liverpool. Practically all of the ship's hidden cargo consisted of munitions and contraband destined for Britain's war effort, unknown to the passengers on board. It is probable the Germans were aware of the secret cargo being carried by the ship. The luxurious liner could travel so fast that there may have been a certain confidence that she could outrun any submarine with ease. The fear of being attacked by a submarine had reduced the number of passengers on board to half the ship's usual capacity on that ill-fated voyage. It was at 2.10 p.m. on the afternoon of Friday, 7 May, as the liner neared the Old Head of Kinsale, that a torpedo fired by the German submarine, SM-U20, crashed into the ship's side.

A mysterious second explosion ripped the liner apart. The ship listed badly as chaos reigned. Lifeboats smashed into passengers crowded on deck. So sudden was the attack and the ensuing explosions that many of the passengers never had a chance. The giant ship slipped beneath the waves, resulting in the deaths of 1,119 of the 1,924 passengers on board. Amongst the dead were 114 Americans, including Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the world, and Carl Frohman, the playwright. Both Vanderbilt and Frohman went to the ship's nursery and tied life jackets to the Moses baskets containing small babies in an attempt to save their lives and to prevent them from going down with the ship. The baskets were carried off by the rising water, but none of the infants survived.

The former captain of the Lusitania, Captain Daniel Dow, had retired from his position due to stress and had been replaced with a new commander, Captain William Thomas Turner, who was in command of the ship on this fatal voyage.

The Lusitania sank within eighteen minutes. At the time, this sinking was considered senseless slaughter as the Lusitania was a non-military passenger ship. The horrific actions of the SM-U20 submarine and its commander Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger aided Britain's propaganda efforts. Although identified as a passenger liner by Schwieger, he ordered his crew to fire one torpedo which struck the ship just below the bridge. Following the outrage against the sinking, the German kaiser was forced to apologise for this maritime tragedy, but Captain Schwieger was not reprimanded for his actions.


Excerpted from "Wings Over Wexford"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Liam Gaul.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

About the Author,
1 Call to Arms,
2 War at Sea,
3 The Yanks Are Coming,
4 The USN Air Base at Ferrybank,
5 Wings over Wexford,
6 The Officers and Crew,
7 Rosslare Listens,
8 Wexford 1918,
9 War Is Over,
10 Out of Sight,
11 The Yankee Slip — The Aftermath,

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