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16 October 2014
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U-Boat incident in Kilkeel, 1918

At daylight, a German submarine surfaced in the middle of the fleet and ordered the crews to come alongside.

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Article by Bill Quinn

On 17 May 1918 the Kilkeel fleet left the harbour to drift net for herring. As one of the boats was sailing to the fishing ground, a member of the crew noticed the compass was spinning. He drew the rest of the crew's attention to this, but nobody knew the cause of this strange phenomenon. The boats continued to the fishing ground.

At daylight the next morning, on 18th May, a German submarine surfaced in the middle of the fleet, ordered the crews into the punts and told them to come along the side of the submarine.

They were then ordered on to the deck. One of the German officers then proceeded to place a bomb on each boat. The subsequent explosions sank the five boats.

The names of the boats were: Never Can Tell, Jane Gordon, Cypress, St Mary, and Lloyd.

Some of the boats had no punt and the captain ordered them on to another fishing boat, the Moss Rose, and let them row for home. The mystery of the spinning compass was revealed. The owners received no compensation for the loss of their boats, although their local MP fought hard for them.

The Mary Joseph was not fishing in the same area, and so she wasn't seen by the submarine, but the folk at home thought she had been sunk also, as she did not return to harbour until the end of the week, to great rejoicing.

Many years later, in 1952, a reporter came to write an article on the lost boats. She went to Tommy Donnan as she'd heard he was a crew member of the Never Can Tell. The conversation went something like this:

"Are you Mr Tommy Donnan?" Tommy answered: "Yes". "Are you the Tommy Donnan who was a crew member of the Never Can Tell when she was sunk?" Tommy answered: "No". The reporter said: "I was led to believe you were the last surviving member of the Never Can Tell." To which Tommy replied: "I was not aboard the Never Can Tell when she sank - but I was aboard about 15 minutes before she sank!"

 

This article appears by kind courtesy of the
Down County Museum.
It is also featured in its 2005 year book.

Bill Quinn, a retired boatbuilder from Kilkeel is a well regarded local storyteller Bill Quinn is a former Kilkeel boatbuilder
who takes a keen interest in all things
relating to the history of Kilkeel.

 

YOUR RESPONSE

Patricia Byers (Hobart, Tasmania) - Feb '07
Reading this story reminded me of a couple of incidents my father, Harry McKee, mentioned in his reminiscences. He was born in 1909 at Derryogue and went to New Zealand in 1920.

"While we were at Warrenpoint there was a story going around that there was a German spy up in the hills keeping an eye on the comings and goings of boats.

Sometimes Willy McKee (no relation) and I used to wag school. We'd go out with Willy's father when he was going out fishing for the day. One time, when a storm blew up, we had to put in at a port further south. When we were returning we saw a strange grey boat with a U on it. I asked 'What kind of a fishing boat is that Mr McKee?' 'Don't tell anyone you've seen it' he told me. This only made me all the more curious about what sort of a boat it as. I don't think I'd have remembered the incident if I hadn't been told not to talk about it."

 

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