The United States Navy in Cork
1917 - 1919.
On the 6th of April 1917, the United States made a formal declaration of war against Germany. This was quickly followed by the sending of a US destroyer division to Queenstown (now Cobh) Ireland.
The Allies were in grave danger of losing the war at this point. The sinking of shipping by submarine and mine had reached unsustainable proportions. Monthly losses were running at 900,000 tons. It was estimated that Britain would have to sue for peace within months, without American aid.
USS Fanning moored in Monkstown Bay.
The first five destroyers arrived in Cork Harbour on the 4th of May 1917, under the command of Commander J.K. Taussig, where they were met by Admiral William Sims, Commander of US Naval forces in Europe, and Admiral Lewis Bayley, British Commander Western Approaches.
Apart from a formal meeting for newsreel footage, ceremonies were kept to a minimum, and within days the destroyers had begun their first patrols. For operational purposes, the United States Naval force at Queenstown came under the command of the British Navy. This caused some disquiet among Senior American Naval Commanders and among members of the US House of Congress (the idea of their sovereign navy being under the control of another state was disquieting to say the least).
Initially there was uncertainty as to the most effective role of the destroyer. The original orders were for roving patrols to engage and destroy enemy submarines. This however was a poor tactic for destroyers, as the almost invisible submarines were spread far and wide. It was the nautical equivalent of searching for a needle in a haystack. Detection devices such as hydrophones were primitive and could only be used when stopped. Radar and Sonar were still years from being invented.
Quickly it became apparent that the best role for the destroyer, was as convoy escort to merchant ships. This gave opportunity for the destroyer to counter-attack any submarine harassing the convoy. It also made these ships invaluable for the saving of life and aiding in salvage efforts.
The escorts of the US destroyers and British sloops, would meet incoming convoys up to 300 miles out in the Western Approaches, in all weathers. They would stay with the ships until near their destinations, where they would pick up outgoing convoys.
US Navy Collier, USS Proteus, alongside at Queenstown
By the middle of 1917, the convoy system was up and running. The Queenstown destroyers mainly accompanied merchant ships for Liverpool and the south coast ports of England. They also escorted vessels to Northern France. As troop movements to France became more important. A destroyer base was set up in Brest, for troopship operations. This was the larger US base by war’s end. For more information on the Queenstown Destroyers, click here.
'Rolling Along,' US Destroyers in a beam sea
This was a tough brutal duty, with the ever present danger of sudden attack, collision, and mountainous seas to contend with. The Atlantic coast of Ireland is legendary for the ferocity of frequent winter storms. The sea itself , inflicted much damage on ships and men.
In January 1918. Seven US submarines arrived in Cork, via the Azores. Their duties were to be the same as their British counterparts, that of the ‘hunter-killer’, hoping to catch enemy subs in the act of attacking merchant shipping, or recharging batteries on the surface. For more information on United States submarine operations in Cork click here.
September 1918 saw the arrival in Cork of 36 of the most unusual United States naval craft. These were the Submarine Chasers, a name given to a 110ft wooden launch, powered by gasoline engines. Their officers were mainly peacetime yachtsmen,of the Naval reserve, who were taken up due to the shortage of trained naval personnel. For more information on the Queenstown Subchasers, Click here.
In 1918 there was a general fear that Germany might send out surface raiders against the Atlantic troop transports. For this reason a division of United States Battleships was based in Berehaven under Admiral T.S.Rogers. For more information click here.
The only United States 'Q-ship' of World War One, the Santee, was based in Queenstown for her short-lived career.
1918 also saw the arrival of the United States Naval Air Service in Ireland. There was a depot set up in Dublin docks. There were Flying Boat bases established at Lough Foyle, Wexford, Aghada and Whiddy Island. There was also a kite-balloon station at Berehaven.
Admiral Sir Lewis Bayley RN and Captain Poinsett Pringle USN
on board unknown ship at Queenstown
By the end of World War One, more than 18,650 ships and two million US troops had been safely escorted through the War Zone. There were a number of tragic losses among personnel serving in the Queenstown Command, with the influenza epidemic of winter 1918 providing more casualties.
The arrival of vast quantities of United States servicemen in Cork had great social implications. They were far better paid than the British servicemen, and infinitely wealthier than most local men. Tensions quickly rose as local girls were attracted to these exotic arrivals, with access to all the luxuries which were scarce locally.
There were a number of attacks and running battles on the streets of Cork City, between locals and naval personnel. Newspaper reports were blaming the trouble on ‘Sinn Fein’ elements, but the reasons were probably a lot baser. When officers found servicemen on board the USS Melville fashioning knuckle-dusters and other weapons, things came to a head.
Cork City became off-limits to enlisted men for the duration. A deputation was sent from Cork asking the authorities to reverse the decision, but to no avail. They were asked could they guarantee the safety of US men in the city, and of course they couldn’t.
Bluejackets ashore - note pet monkey
There was clearly some hostility towards the US Navy from part of the Irish population. This was barely a year after the failed 1916 Irish Rising, and subsequent execution of its leaders. There were those who could not understand why Americans, some of whom were of Irish descent, were fighting to keep the status quo of British rule in Ireland. It was said that “If America was fighting for the freedom of small nations – why was it preventing one small nation from gaining it’s freedom”?
It must be remembered however, that there were 400,000 Irishmen in the British Forces in WW1. Between 40 - 50,000 Irish soldiers and sailors lost their lives.
Ireland's history is complex, and reasons for Irishmen serving in the British forces ranged from seeking adventure, loyalism, family tradition, to promises of Home Rule. If you were the youngest son of smallholder in rural Ireland, the military was probably one of the only career paths open.
The vast majority of Cork people seemed to deal with the appearance of all these young Americans with a sense of pragmatism. Friendships were formed, dances were held, money spent , and marriages came. The phenomenon of the ‘War Bride’ did not just appear in World War Two.
With the arrival of the Armistice, in December 1918, it was time to begin the withdrawl of the United States Navy from Cork. By May 1919, the naval hospital huts had been dismantled, the Aghada base buildings were being auctioned off. The stores on the seafront were to go. All the ships had departed, apart from Corsair, the yacht of the billionaire J.P. Morgan, which had taken over from USS Melville as the base for the Officer Commanding. By June even the Corsair was gone.
For a full fleet list of the US Navy in Cork Click here
(this is a Work in Progress)
Irish history moved on, through the bitter War of Independence, the even more bitter Civil War, and the foundation of the Irish State. The US Naval presence in Cork became a footnote in history, as the generation passed on.
There are a number of good accounts of this period, with the standard reference works being :
The War at Sea, by William Dowdall Sims
Danger Zone, The Story of the Queenstown Command, by E.Keeble Chatterton.
Pull Together, by Admiral Sir Lewis Bayley.
Three important publications are available to download from the US Naval Historical Centre Website
Bayley’s Navy, by Vice Admiral Walter.S.Delany (Rtd) downloadable here.
American Participation in the Great War, by Captain Dudley W.Knox. downloadable here.
Naval Aviation in WW1, by Adrian O. Van Wyen. downloadable here
Page Created 06th May 2002
Page Updated 30th May 2011
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