Editor’s Note: 74 years ago today, several SMA and OLA missionaries were sailing towards Casablanca, having been evacuated on the late evening of July 11th from their ship, the SS California, which had suffered two direct hits shortly after 20.10hrs GMT by one of three German Luftwaffe Condor aircraft. Most of the missionaries, who included 13 SMAs and 7 OLAs, were young enthusiastic missionaries, who found themselves caught in the Battle of the Atlantic and, by all accounts, had a very lucky escape. They arrived in Casablanca with nothing but the cloths on their backs.
This article was first published a year ago and has returned by popular demand. Since its publication on the SMA and the OLA websites, we have been contacted by a Mr Tim Gates who has done considerable research into ‘Convoy Faith’ and who has shared with us additional research he has undertaken. Material forwarded to us also includes the official report to the Admiralty, made by Captain RW Smart, commander of the SS California.
This article is published to encourage thinking about how we might commemorate the story next year, the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the SS California. We are grateful to the OLA sisters for permission to quote extensively from the memoir of St. Ethelbert Coleman OLA, the primary source for this article.
A wartime story of 27 Irish Missionaries surviving
a German Attack.
In the midst of WWII, 27 young and enthusiastic Irish missionary sisters and priests left Ireland for Africa. There were risks involved at every stage of the journey but their drive and commitment calmed any fears they harboured.
The group comprised seven Our Lady of Apostles (OLA) Sisters, two St. Joseph of Cluny Sisters, thirteen S.M.A. priests, two White Fathers, one Kiltegan and two Augustinian priests.
The journey is memorable because the convoy the missionaries were sailing in was attacked by the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of the Atlantic, with the ship the missionaries were sailing on suffering a direct hit.
The SMA archive retains a primary account of the voyage, composed in 1993, the 50th anniversary of the attack. It was written by Sr. M. Ethelbert, OLA.
Sr. Ethelbert begins her essay:
“The desire and wish of every young woman who becomes an OLA Sister is to be sent to Africa… and in 1943 [we] were given the glorious news that [we] would be bound for Africa before the end of the year… [WWII] was raging and no one could be sure of departure. We had to keep our good news to ourselves, it was top secret…
“Not for long was it a secret; an observant Sister noticed the special numbers
being sewn on and they were not for returning Missionaries! Mother Monica, Mother Columcille and Sister Leo had completed their home leave and we, the privileged four: Sisters Jarlath, Ephrem, Aquinas and Ethelbert were to accompany them on the voyage back to West Africa.
Sr. Ethelbert describes the preparations made for departure and continues:
“Excitement was high, the customary ten days to go home and say goodbye was given to each, but on the third day [we] received a Telegram “Return at once, Sisters leave for Africa on Friday.
“With the help and co-operation of all, trunks were packed, labelled and roped – we were on our way.
It was a First Friday, the 2nd July … the feast of the Visitation … The train journey to Dublin was uneventful until we reached Kilmallock – where we had the surprise of surprises. Sr Aquinas’ sister, Kitty, was on the platform with a hamper fit for royalty, apple tarts, sponges, home-made currant cake, – the lot!… we did justice to the entire contents. Because of fuel shortage the train just hobbled to the Capital…”
The Sisters stayed at the Central Hotel, Dublin until Monday 6th July from where they left for Belfast and Larne. She continues:
“Reality hit us later that night, as we crossed… to Stranraer and then by train
to Glasgow… It was a cold bleak and misty night… There seemed to be a concentration of troops everywhere, a total blackout and an atmosphere of war. Word had got around that we were going via California, that gave us a big boost, but it was a mistake – the name of the ship was ‘CALIFORNIA’ – what a disappointment!”
The SS California was built in Glasgow in 1923 and prior to the war carried passengers between Glasgow and New York, via the ports of Derry and Boston. In 1939 the ship was requisitioned by the Admiralty and converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser and, from 1942, as a troopship.
Sr. Ethelbert’s group embarked on July 7th, along with the other Irish missionaries. On July 8th they set sail along the Clyde, bound for West Africa. She recalls:
“It was a beautiful day. It was difficult to realise that our companions were Air Force and Army Personnel on their way to the theatres of war.”
The troops were being sent as reinforcements to West Africa, from where locally recruited troops were to embark as reinforcements for the Allied campaigns in Burma and the Middle East.
Sr. Ethelbert records that along with the Catholic missionaries, there was also, “thirty ladies who were either Methodist or Presbyterian missionaries, or the wives of Executives in Government service, already abroad.”
The SS California was to sail as part of a convoy appropriately named ‘Convoy Faith’. Leaving Glasgow the convoy comprised the merchant vessel ‘MV Port Fairy’, the troopships ‘Duchess of York’ and ‘California’, with their escorts, the destroyer ‘HMS Douglass’, and the frigate ‘HMS Moyola’.
Having cleared the Firth of Clyde the convoy turned north-west towards Malin Head, and then due south off the west coast of Ireland.
On the evening of July 10, the convoy rendezvoused with a Canadian destroyer ‘HMCS Iroquois’, 500 miles off Land’s End.
Ethelbert describes a tranquil sea voyage apart from occasional boat drills “which reminded us that we had to be ready for emergencies.”
Spirits were clearly high amongst the Irish missionaries. On the early evening of July 11th they “jokingly decided to celebrate the ‘Twelfth’”. She recalls enjoying “the awe inspiring calm of the ocean, the blue sky and the sinking sun,” when Fr John O’Neill SMA (Kerry) joined her group. In what appears to have been a premonition Ethelbert recalls him saying, “Wouldn’t it be dreadful if we were bombed?” She continues:
“Five minutes later the air siren blew, “To the cabins, to the cabins” was the cry. The plane looked like a spot in the sky and ten minutes later, from a height of 20,000 feet a direct hit paralysed our majestic liner. She had been hit mid-ship and stood dead, as idle as a painted ship on a painted ocean. It was 8pm!”
The ‘spot in the sky’ which Ethelbert saw was a German Fock-Wulf 200 C-4 Condor aircraft, specially equipped for medium altitude attacks. It menacingly circled the convoy, broadcasting a homing signal and waited the arrival of two supporting Condor’s from their base at Merignac Airport, near Bordeaux. The convoy was sailing 300 miles west of Vigo, Spain.
Shortly after 21:00 hrs the attack commenced from an altitude of 15,000 feet. California was a prime target and despite heavy anti-aircraft fire from the escorts, the ship suffered a near miss from one Condor and two direct hits from a second with the loss of approximately 26 souls. The Duchess of York suffered several direct hits, and the loss of some 89 on board.
“Many who had remained in the dining hall were trapped and had no means of escape. One gentleman whom we knew, who worked in Ijebu and originally from Enniskerry was among the lost. Later we learned that 120 lives had been sacrificed. Miracle of miracles the twenty seven Missionaries were still safe.”
It appears from Sr. Ethelbert’s essay that she may not have been aware that the SS California was part of a convoy, perhaps because the ships were travelling a number of kilometres apart. While she makes no reference to the Duchess of York, the combined loss of life from both ships approximates with the number she records.
Both California and the Duchess of York were on fire and with darkness falling, it was feared they would act as a beacon for possible U-Boat attacks on the rest of the convoy. The decision was made to abandon California and the Duchess of York, after which they were torpedoed and sunk by their escorts in the early hours of July 12.
“There were no life boat stations as such but luck was on our side and we were provided with a boat. Before moving Mother Monica called a White Father and asked for the last absolution. None of us was afraid to die and even felt that God was not going to allow us to get to heaven so easily. Our work had not yet begun and the Mission was waiting for us.
“The lowering of the lifeboat was hazardous, one side was let down more quickly than the other, we were almost catapulted into the water, another narrow shave! When we finally “landed” it was necessary to row away from the burning ship. Mother Colmcille took an oar and began to row as did some of the other ladies. The water was littered with bodies, some still alive were trying to swim, others were beyond all aid. Fathers O’Hara and Watson [SMAs] gave invaluable assistance getting people into the little boats. One Methodist Missionary true to her calling burst into song and gave us a rendition of “Nearer my God to Thee” – we were wondering how near we were?”
Ethelbert recalls the rowing continuing for about four hours with some on board becoming ill. “The Methodist lady,” she says, “came to the rescue with her velour hat…!”
Sr Ethelbert’s boat was rescued by HMS Moyola:
“In the distance we spied a ship coming towards us – was it friend or foe? A corvette belonging to the British Navy, with a name… MOYOLA. It came along side and threw out rope ladders, indicating that we should climb aboard. It was tricky but thank God we all made it. The ship’s complement was 100 passengers, but by the time all survivors were picked up the number had increased to 500…
“It was difficult to describe our feelings, confused, uneasy. Sr. Ephrem had been hit on the head by shrapnel, Mother Monica was laid low, Sr. Leo was in the Captain’s cabin and the rest of us had nowhere to lay our heads. A precious Foxford rug saved from the ship provided covering for a few. Two of the Fathers went round checking to make sure that we were all there.”
Ethelbert recalls that the following night at about the same time the air raid siren sounded again. The Germans returned to “finish” their work:
“If we had been hit our hope of escape was nil. But God who rules the waves protected and guided us. We were finally on our way to Casablanca without further mishap.”
HMS Moyola was commissioned by the Admiralty in January 1943 and in October 1944 was transferred
to the F.N.F.L. (Free French Navy) and renamed FFL Tonkinois. It 2007 the FFL Tonkinois was celebrated with a French stamp and first day edition.
The loss of SS California and Dutchess of York shocked the British Admiralty as they believed German Condor’s posed a minimal threat. Thereafter, convoy routes from the British Isles to West Africa were forced to sail further west into the Atlantic, just beyond the flying limits of the Condor aircraft.
Sr Ethelbert describes the missionaries’ arrival at Casablanca:
“Disembarking there was another experience – Africa but not the Africa of our dreams – a cold unwelcoming country. Big army trucks were waiting to transport us to what was to be our home – for how long we did not know – an army camp outside the city. It was used for a base for American Air Force and Army Personnel on their way to the theatres of war.”
The Irish missionaries, who arrived with nothing but the clothes they escaped in were assigned four-apiece tents, with beds and mosquito nets. “It was comfortable and we were on dry land,” Ethelbert wrote.
“It was wonderful to be a soldier for a few days, to line up at the cook house for meals with real soldiers and to be fed with food of the highest quality. We were getting used to the life.”
Church dignitaries came to visit the missionaries, as well as OLA Sisters from Casablanca who provided the Irish sisters with fresh clothing including “guimps, marmotines and bandeaux.”
The male missionaries had to rely on the generosity of the US Army for a change of clothing. A wonderful photograph survives in the SMA archive of 15 of the 18 Irish priests rescued from the SS California posing for a group photograph at the US camp, dressed as American G.I.s.
And it seems all of the Irish missionaries were a big hit with Irish-American soldiers who came to explore their Irish roots. “They presented us with choice chocolate and toilet requisites go leor”.
Sometime later, the missionaries received word of their departure. Ethelbert recalls:
“A troop ship was waiting to take us to our final destination. Back again to the Army trucks and on the way to the harbour and the “NEA HELLAS” our home for another while. We eventually reached Free Town, Sierra Leone and spent a week in the harbour on board the ship. We did get shore leave for a few hours and made our way to the home of the Governor. We were well received and were offered war clothes that might be of use to us. Those with dainty feet got some pretty shoes, and others got useful articles of clothing. For all of us Free Town was the parting of the ways, the news was relayed – Gold Coast passengers will now tranship, all others will proceed to Nigeria. We had been together since 2nd July and on 31st July we had to say – Goodbye. It was a traumatic experience. The twenty seven Missionaries had made it.”
In July 1993, the 50th anniversary of their eyewitness experience of the Battle of the Atlantic, Sr Ethelbert stated, “there are still six of that “twenty seven” on active service – one White Father in England, one Augustinian in London, and four Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles scattered on the “home front”, in Rostrevor, Cork, Castlemacgarret and Lancaster.”
Sadly, at the time of writing, 23 years after Sr. Ethelbert penned her memoir, all, including Ethelbert, have gone to God. Sr Eithelbert died peacefully on 7 June 2011, the last of the seven OLA Sisters who survived the Battle of the Atlantic. They had tirelessly dedicated their lives to the advancement and education of African women.
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