A parish they never knew – Arthur Beesley on the final resting place in Sligo of five British soldiers

An Irishman’s Diary

On a recent visit to a countryside cemetery in north Co Sligo, my attention was drawn to the graves of five British soldiers that date to the second World War. Who were these men? And how did they come to be buried in neutral Ireland?

In Sligo lore they perished in the Battle of the Atlantic and were washed up on shores nearby. They are buried with generations of local people in Ahamlish cemetery, set around a derelict chapel of the 1800s about a mile from Grange village in a sweeping, coastal landscape dominated by Ben Bulben.

They met their fate in the summer of 1940, soon after the fall of France, in the brutal contest between the western allies and Hitler for the control of crucial sea routes. To this day they are remembered in prayers for the dead of a parish they never knew.

The headstones show that the first casualty was Alexander Wilson, a trooper of the Lovat Scouts from Gask in Perthshire. He died aged 34 on July 2nd, the day a U-boat torpedo sank the prison ship Arandora Star, a converted passenger vessel of the Blue Star Line that was taking internees and prisoners of war to Canada from Britain.

Most were citizens of enemy countries who had been living in Britain at the start of the war.

They had been held at a camp near Liverpool but were put on the ship for deportation to Newfoundland as fears of a Nazi invasion intensified after the Dunkirk evacuation, weeks previously.

Even after 81 years, reports on the attack make for especially grim reading. Survivors spoke of panic and desperation, the chaos compounded by barbed wire around the deck and internees fighting each other in the rush for lifeboats. “When the ship disappeared there were hundreds of men on her decks,” one sailor told the New York Times. The suction dragged rafts and men under the water.

There were 712 Italian "enemy aliens" on board and 438 Germans, including Nazi sympathisers and Jewish refugees, according to Britain's national archives. Wilson was among 374 seamen and soldiers who were guarding them. More than half those on board lost their lives when the ship turned over on her side and sank, about 75 miles off the Donegal coast.

Five weeks passed before Wilson's remains were found on a beach near Grange by two local men who were out walking. According to the Sligo Champion at the time, his was one was 11 bodies "found floating in the water or left high on the rocks after the receding tides" on August 10th and 12th. Two were British soldiers, two were Italian civilians, there was one German person and six other people could not be identified.

An inquest heard that Wilson’s possessions included a pack of letters addressed to him, a pipe and tobacco pouch, a pay book, a penknife, a razor blade, two mineral bottle openers and some English and French money. There was also a watch and chain, the watch stopped at 8.17.

The other four casualties buried at Ahamlish are presumed, because of the date of death, to have drowned when the troop ship Mohamed Ali El-Kebir sank. About 120 died when it was hit by torpedo on August 7th about 250 miles west of Malin Head. More than 700 survived.

Those buried at Ahamlish included Frederick Robson (49) of Sunderland and William Rose (40) of Aboyne, Aberdeenshire. According to the Sligo Champion's contemporaneous report, they washed up at the same time at Streedagh strand near Grange and were discovered by a local man out strolling on a Monday morning. After one month and two days in the water, they were found 400 yards apart. Hector Fullerton Donald (27) of Liverpool was found some nine miles up the coast on the strand at Mullaghmore by an Irish soldier patrolling the coast at night. The other casualty was Herbert Griffin (29), a sergeant of the Royal Artillery.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission says there are 133 Battle of the Atlantic graves among the 543 second World War graves it maintains in the State. These include 17 Arandora Star casualties, 29 from the Mohamed Ali El-Kebir and seven from the SS Nerissa, a Canadian troop ship which sank about 100 miles off the Donegal coast in April 1941 with the loss of more than 200 lives.

Many are buried in other Sligo graveyards and in Mayo and Donegal. Of the other 80 Atlantic casualties buried in Ireland, 35 were unidentified.

The Ahamlish graves lie in line by the cemetery wall. Here the air is still and the ground slopes down gently. The sea is just beyond the next hill.

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