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IRISH NAVAL SERVICE - WW2 ROYAL NAVY VETERAN - ARCTIC CONVOYS’ VETERAN

Commander Liam Ahern NS (Rtd): Credit: Damian Ahern.

The Royal Navy: Prewar

Liam Ahern was born in Queenstown (as it then was) in 1920 and went to school in Cobh and in Portsmouth, where his father was posted in the 1930s. In 1936 he joined the Royal Navy in Chatham (just after his 16th birthday) as an ERA (Engine Room Artificer) apprentice and completed most of his training on HMS Caledonia located in Rosyth, after which he was posted to sea.

HMS Caledonia: Mechanical Training Establishment

HMS Caledonia began her life at Blohm and Voss, Hamburg in 1913; named the Bismarck, she was designed to be the largest liner ever built but was transferred to Britain in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles as reparation for the sinking of the Lusitania. Completed by late March 1922, she operated as the White Star liner Majestic until she was sold in May 1936 to a ship breaker's yard. She was bought by the Admiralty shortly afterwards (at which time the only larger vessels afloat were The Queen Mary and the Normandie) and converted to a training ship. She arrived in Rosyth on 10 April 1937 to be commissioned as the 9th HMS Caledonia on 23 April 1937 for the purpose of training Boy Seamen and Artificer Apprentices. In 1939, at the outbreak of war, she moved out of the non-tidal basin to anchor off Crombie Point. Her intended future use as a troopship was not to be, as she burnt to the waterline on 29 September 1939. She was later towed to Inverkeithing in 1941 where she was finally scrapped in 1943.

HMS Caledonia Soccer Team, Rosyth: 1939-40: ERA Apprentice Liam Ahern, front row, 1st on the left, (on one knee): Credit: Damian Ahern.

 

ERA (Engine Room Articifer) Group, Rosyth: Circa 1940s: ERA Liam Ahern, 1st row standing, second from the right, arms folded. Circa 1940s: Credit: Damian Ahern.

The Royal Navy 1939-1945

Throughout the second world war Liam Ahern served on several ships of the Royal Navy including HMS Ajax in the Mediterranean (during the Battle of Cape Matapan, Greece: 27 to 29 March 1941; 08 February 1942: ERA Liam Ahern RN promoted to Chief Petty Officer ERA, HMS Ajax) and on the destroyer HMS Walker engaged on convoy escort duties in the Atlantic, in the North Sea, on the Arctic Convoys, and in operations towing the innovative, prefabricated Mulberry Harbours to the Normandy beaches, including the provision of oil supply lines to reinforce the Allied D-Day invasion foothold in June 1944. Following the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, Chief Petty Officer ERA Ahern was deployed to the Far East and served on ships of the British Pacific fleet.

ERA Liam Ahern RN Circa 1940s. Credit: Damian Ahern.

 

HMS Ajax, British Leander Class Cruiser. 31 December 1945, Grand Harbour, Valleta, Malta: Credit: Imperial War Museum.

The Irish Naval Service: Enlisted 15 December 1947 – Retired 24 September 1980

At the outbreak of the war, the Irish government established the Marine and Coastwatching Service and acquired six motor torpedo boats from Britain. By the end of the war the marine service had been run down and two years later, it was decided to establish an Irish Naval Service as part of the Defence Forces. In 1946 a permanent Naval Service was established in Ireland and three flower class corvettes, L.É Macha (formerly known as H.M.S. Borage), L.É Maev (formerly H.M.S. Oxlip) and L.É Cliona (formerly H.M.S. Bellworth) were purchased from the British Admiralty and became the backbone of the Naval Service for the following two decades. 

Chief Petty Officer ERA Liam Ahern RN was one of two junior officers recruited from the Royal Navy, and was one of only a handful of officers in the infant Irish Naval Service who had naval combat experience as most of his fellow officers were recruited from the merchant marine.  In 1947 the majority of the new intake of 23 cadets were sent for training to the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. 

Sub Lieutenant Ahern NS (Naval Service) was subsequently posted to the flower class corvettes L.É. Macha and L.É. Maev, becoming a lieutenant commander in 1956, and a commander in 1968, before moving to the dockyard engineering service and retiring in 1980 as the senior marine engineering officer at the naval base & dockyard at Haulbowline. Commander Ahern rarely referred to his experiences and training in the Royal Navy, when serving at the Naval headquarters on Haulbowline island.

Commander Liam Ahern was a good friend of Commodore Peter Kavanagh ‒ Director and Flag Officer Commanding Irish Naval Service from 1973 till 1980.

Sub Lieutenant Liam Ahern NS, Circa 1948: Credit: Damian Ahern.

Retirement

Following his retirement in September 1980 Commander Ahern worked with Irish Shipping for a further five years at the Verolme Cork Dockyard. He had also been closely involved in the design and commissioning of the Naval Service's helicopter patrol vessel L.É. Eithne, its largest vessel, built and launched in 1984.

In recent years, following the death of his wife Sally (Sarah, née Whelan), he was cared for by his family and the staff at the Conna Nursing Home in north Cork as he coped with failing eyesight. Liam Ahern was predeceased also by his eldest son, Peter. He is survived by his daughters, Anne Marie (Bermingham) and Miriam, son Damian, and seven grandchildren. Commander Ahern died on the 09th March 2011 and is buried  in St Colman’s Catholic Cemetery Cobh, County Cork, Ireland. 

MEDALS: Chief Petty Officer ERA Liam Ahern RN

When he retired Commander Ahern was presented with medals by the government of Malta for service on the battle cruiser HMS Ajax and by the Soviet Union in recognition of his services on the Arctic supply convoys to Murmansk and Archangel from 1941. He recalled, on the evening before his 21st birthday, his ship had been attacked by German dive-bombers off the Norwegian coast and, knowing that his position in the mid-ship engine room was a likely target, Liam feared that he would never attain his majority. He was fortunate in that he survived nearly a dozen Russian convoy trips without being sunk or getting his feet wet once.

Photograph-Medals: Credit: Damian Ahern.

Medals:

  1. 1939-1945 Star.
  2. Atlantic Star: with France and Germany Clasp.
  3. Africa Star: with North Africa Clasp 1942-1944.
  4. 1939-1945 War Medal.
  5. Naval Service Medal – Minesweeping 1945-1951
  6. Russia:The Jubilee Medal "Forty Years of Victory in the Great Patriotic War 1941–1945"  to denote the fortieth anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
  7. Arctic Star: Service on the Arctic Convoys.
  8. Chile:Medal of Gratitude 1939. On the 24 January 1939 HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax of the Royal Navy’s South America Squadron were tasked to assist the Government of Chile in a humanitarian mission following the devastating earthquake at Concepción. The earthquake, the deadliest in Chile’s history, measured 8.3 on the Richter scale and led to a death toll of approximately 28,000, and around 95% of the town’s buildings were completely destroyed. The crews of H.M.S. Ajax and H.M.S. Exeter were awarded the Medal of Gratitude 1939, by the Chilean Municipality of Concepción.
  9. Malta George Cross Fiftieth Anniversary Medal: Service on Malta Convoys.

HMS Walker

HMS Walker: The Royal Navy during the second world war: HMS WALKER underway in a choppy sea: Credit: Imperial War Museum.

W-class destroyer of the British Royal Navy, was laid down by William Denny and Brothers at Dumbarton, Scotland. She was launched on 29 November, completed on 12 February 1918. She took part in in World War I and World War II (starting from 1939). In January 1944, Walker was transferred to the Home Fleet to escort Arctic convoys to and from the Soviet Union.

HMS Walker took part in the following Northern Convoys:

1944

  • JW57 (close escort) to the Soviet Union; the convoy arrived without losses. Air and submarine attacks were held off by air cover and escorting ships.
  • RA57 to Loch-Ewe (Scotland), close escort. Under attack by U-Boats.
  • JW58 to the USSR. Arrived at Kola Inlet after series of air and submarine attacks.
  • RA58 to Loch-Ewe (Scotland), ocean escort. Detached from RA58 before arrival at Loch Ewe after undetected passage.
  • Passage to Kola Inlet with the cruiser HMS Diadem, escort carriers, Home Fleet destroyers and three Canadian frigates escorting a merchant ship Nea Hellas to collect ships and personnel from Russian ports. In Russia she took on 13 USN ratings for passage to UK. Soviet Navy personnel were also embarked on other returning warships to UK to man warship awaiting transfer to Russia.
  • RA59. Detached after experiencing atrocious weather conditions with U-Boat attacks lasting two days.
  • JW61 to USSR.
  • RA61 to Loch-Ewe (Scotland).
  • JW63 to the USSR. Detached on arrival at Kola after uninterrupted passage.

1945

  • Escorted returning convoy RA63 in severe weather conditions that delayed the convoy's progress. Remained with HMS Keppel and HMS Westcott as local escort until the convoy arrived in Clyde.

Corvettes L.É Macha and L.É Maev

During the post-war period of his life and career, Liam Ahern served on the corvettes L.É Maha (formerly known as HMS Borage) and L.É Maev (formerly HMS Oxlip) of the Irish Naval Service. Notably, both corvettes were part of the Northern Convoys to Russia in the Royal Navy during the World War II. Their history is also noteworthy because it was these corvettes, together with the corvette L.É Cliona, that became the backbone of the Naval Service for the following two decades (until the 1970s). In the 1960s on the corvettes L.É Macha and L.É Maev served Peter Mulvany, a researcher of Irish participation in World War II, due to whose assistance the Northern Convoys International Centre is now able to expand knowledge and archive on the Irishmen in the Northern Convoys 1941-1945.

LÉ Maev (HMS Oxlip)

HMS Balsam, sister-ship (Photo from www.naval-history.net).

Oxlip was ordered in July 1939 as part of the Royal Navy's 1939 War Emergency building programme. She was launched in August 1942, and served on the Arctic convoys during World War II.

From February 1942 onwards Oxlip served with close escort groups on Arctic convoys. In three years Oxlip sailed with 18 convoys (outbound and homebound), contributing to the safe and timely arrival of more than 300 merchant ships. In 1946 she was sold for the Irish Naval Service where she  was named after Medb, the legendary queen of Connacht. L.É Maev was and decommissioned in March 1972.

HMS Oxlip took part in the following Northern Convoys:

1942

  • PQ11 to USSR, close escort
  • Joined ocean escort for return convoy QP8.
  • PQ14 to Murmansk, close escort.
  • Returned with return convoy QP11.
  • JW51A, close escort. Detached on arrival in Kola Inlet.

1943

  • Remained in Russian waters to suit delayed convoy cycle because of Barents Sea action.
  • RA52 to Scotland, close escort.
  • Assisted in rescue of survivors from SS Greylock damaged in an attack by U-255.
  • JW55B to Murmansk. Detached on arrival in Kola Inlet.
  • RA55B to Loch-Ewe, Scotland.

1944

  • JW56B to Kola Inlet. Convoy under attack by U-Boats.
  • Close escort for returning RA56.
  • JW 59 to Kola Inlet, close escort.
  • Returned with RA 59A to to Loch-Ewe.
  • JW61 to Kola Inlet, close escort.
  • Close escort for return convoy RA61 to Loch Ewe.
  • JW65 to Kola Inlet, close escort.
  • Close escort for return convoy RA65 to Loch Ewe.
  • JW66 to Kola Inlet, close escort.
  • Close escort for return passage of Convoy RA66 to Clyde.

L.É Macha (HMS Borage)

L.É. Macha  at sea on her way to Gibraltar, 1948: Credit: Irish Military Archives.

Flower-class corvette, ordered in 1939 as part of the Royal Navy's 1939 War Emergency building programme. She was launched in November 1941 and completed in April 1942. In December 1943 she was part of the close escort to convoy JW55B, which was subject to a failed attack resulting in the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst. In 1946 HMS Borage was sold to the Irish Naval Service where she was commissioned as LÉ Macha (named after Macha, an ancient Irish goddess of war). She was scrapped in November 1970.

HMS Borage took part in the following Northern Convoys:

1943

  • JW55B from Loch-Ewe, Scotland, to Murmansk.
  • RA55A to Loch-Ewe.

1944

  • JW56A from Loch-Ewe, Scotland.
  • RA56 from Murmansk to Loch-Ewe.

Sources:

Information and materials provided by Commander Liam Ahern's son Damian Ahern and Peter Mulvany, the researcher of participation of the Irishmen in the World War II

Websites:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_submarine_U-255
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Majestic_(1914) 
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1939_Chill%C3%A1n_earthquake
  4. http://www.naval-history.net/xGM-Chrono-10DD-09VW-Walker.htm  
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Walker_(D27) 
  6. https://www.naval-history.net/xGM-Chrono-20Cor-Flower-HMS_Oxlip.htm
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Oxlip_(K123)
  8. http://www.warsailors.com/convoys/ra59a.html
  9. https://www.naval-history.net/xDKEscorts20Cor-Flower02.htm
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Borage_(K120)