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The Man from The Magazine Road
The Man from the Magazine Road – who would have thought that he would have had such an adventurous life, at one time? Who would have thought that I, as his only child, would have been so oblivious to it – although it all took place before I was born? Why was he so quiet about his exploits and adventures? Why and how did he do some of the things he did? Why did he not boast about his bravery? And curse his betrayal? Why didn’t he speak about his terrifying experiences? And yet...that’s how it was.
So, what did he do that was so.... adventurous? Well, he travelled all over the world in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. But he also spent time in Valencia, Co. Kerry. That last part doesn’t sound that exciting? Ha, that’s where you are wrong. And so was I. But the biggest adventure, if you could call it that, was his
experience of surviving in the North Atlantic as part of the NOTORIOUSLY ill-fated Artic convoy, PQ17 during World War 11. Most of his travelling companion ships were blown to bits by the Luftwaffe. But he survived. For nearly 10 days with virtually nothing to eat. In a lifeboat, near the Artic. While enemy
planes flew perilously overhead and destructive U-boats lurked beneath the icy seas. Now that is exciting. But freezing. And awfully scary.
However, let’s start at the beginning. Francis Anthony McTighe was born in 1907 and lived in Ardcullen, Magazine Road, Cork. His family were prosperous and had a Tobacconist shop in Patrick St.
Young Tony seemed to have had a bit of adventure in his heart from at a very young age. He signed up with Na Fianna Éireann, a political youth organisation which was established in Cork by republicans including Tomás MacCurtain. Now research has shown that he must have said he was older than he was at this stage, in order to join up. This might partly explain why relations with his family, at times, seemed to have been a little.....strained. One of the very few stories he told me was this one: In his role with Na Fianna, he was given instructions, during this period of the struggle for independence, to pitch a few hand grenades at a British Convoy that was due to pass down Patrick St. He decided his best vantage spot (God knows why) was on the small street by St. Peter and Paul’s Church. He threw the grenades at the convoy but one of them struck his family’s shop, which was across the street and caused extensive damage. Whether he ever owned up to this I don’t know but Dad seemed to think the whole episode was well worth it. He eventually went on to be awarded the War of Independence Service Medal and The Truce (1921) Commemoration Medal.
He subsequently trained as a Radio Officer and was awarded his first Marconi certificate in the mid-1920s.
Radio technology was in its infancy at the time and was seen as radical, new and progressive technology. Perhaps similar to our experiences today with digital technology? He subsequently worked for a while with Cork Harbour Commissioners on their pilot boats on the River Lee. He later went to work with Nederlandse Telegraaf Mij Radio-Holland. This company supplied Marconi equipment and wireless operators for Dutch ships. He did tell me, at one stage, that he had learned to speak Flemish while working with this company. Kind of unusual for a Man from the Magazine Road? Not that I, as a child, thought it was unusual. Or even interesting. He always did wryly comment that we were very insular in Blackrock!
After this he came back to Ireland for a while and was employed by the Department of Post and Telegraphs in Gorey before being seconded, in the 1930’s, to the Valencia Radio Station. He would have briefly mentioned this to me when I was young and I think my reaction was something along the lines of ‘Gosh, how interesting’ meaning ‘Yeah, Valentia, CO. KERRY??? Must have been marginally better than being posted to Rooskey’. But never really elaborated further. However, little did I appreciate that Valentia Island, at that time, was a hugely strategic international communications hub. Valentia Radio handled more traffic than any other UK Radio Station during the mid-1920’s and 1930’s. Neither did I appreciate the fact that it was a focal point for all that was fashionable, go-ahead, young and trendy – like the modern equivalent to Silicon Valley. And a social scene to match. Ibiza meets Iveragh? And he was a young, good-looking single man....it must have been some fun!
Anyway, he did a few short, uneventful trips on the Bolton Castle, to places like Sierra Leone, until May 1942 when, horror of horrors, the ship was detailed to be part of an Artic Convoy code-named PQ17. So Dad, being the Chief Radio Officer on the Bolton Castle, in May found himself sailing to Hvalfjord, Iceland to meet up with the rest of the fleet who would make up the ill-fated PQ17. On June 27th 1942 the convoy was ready to set sail on towards Russia. Dangerous though it was, the prevailing philosophy at the time was – ‘We have a job to do – let’s get on with it’.
These convoys, comprised of MERCHANT ships who had been ordered, as a vital part of the war effort, to deliver essential military supplies to the Soviet Union via ports like Archangel and Murmansk. The cargo, worth about £700 million, on Dad’s Bolton Castle included approx., 300 aircraft, 600 tanks, more than 4,000 trucks and trailers, and a general cargo that exceeded 150,000 tons. It was more than enough to completely equip an army of 50,000. There were 78 such convoys between August 1941 and May 1945.
The people chosen for this nightmare, on PQ17 and other convoys, were MERCHANT SEAMEN with ages from 17-65. These men had no military training, and many had been on routes to the USA, Caribbean, India, South Africa, etc. They wanted to see the world, exotic places and people. They wanted adventure....and they got it. They were issued with some clothes for the convoy journey, a long cloth coat, boots and hats....but not designed for Artic conditions. The pay was very low for a lot of the crew – maybe £10 a month and if your ship was sunk, your pay was immediately stopped....even if you survived. If you were hit by the enemy, you may not just die. You could be injured in the water or even on fire. But you were left there because you were travelling in a convoy and it had to move as one.
A convoy generally set off each month, except fewer ran in the summer when the lack of darkness, around the Artic Circle, made them very vulnerable to attack. Except....remember when PQ17 started out? Yeah, June! Sailing around the northern tip of Norway, the convoys would be exposed to one of the largest concentrations of German U-boats, surface raiders and aircraft anywhere in the world. Strict orders forbade the halting of any ship for even a moment for fear of being attacked by prowling German U-boats, and individuals who fell overboard or survivors seen adrift on the waters had to be ruthlessly ignored. Each convoy was effectively a death-defying exercise.... and none more so than PQ17.
The way that convoys worked was that the merchant ships sailed in formations. On PQ17 there were 34 other merchant ships along with the Bolton Castle. These would then be ‘escorted’ by military naval ships to form a defensive cordon around the merchant ships and keep them safe. PQ17 had six destroyers and 15 other armed vessels including anti-aircraft, armed trawlers, submarines, corvettes, as their protective shield.
Weather in the North Atlantic was always a problem for these convoys. Gales, high seas, fog, snow and ice were standard hazards. But standard weather could become catastrophic very quickly. Gales would become full blown Atlantic storms, high seas would become monstrous, fog would become so impenetrable so that the bows of a ship could not be seen from the bridge, snow on the ship’s upper works would become so heavy that the weight of the accumulations could seriously jeopardise a vessels stability. In this sort of weather, just keeping ships on course and free from weather damage was a job in itself. However, the alternative was just as bad. Although still freezing, sometimes, the weather would be good, with wonderful visibility, calm seas and bright sunlight. Perfect for the enemy to spot the convoy from miles away.
So the Arctic Convoys were no picnic. Winston Churchill once described the crews of these convoys as having made 'the worst journey in the world'. However, seamen went wherever their ships were sent.
On PQ17, things went ok for the first couple of days. But then the terror started: Huge German aircraft attacked the convoy and hit 3 of the ships. But three German bombers were shot down in return so there was some optimism.
But, back in London, The British War Office had intelligence that said the Germans had launched surface ships from their base in Norway and were on their way to attack PQ17. Among them was the dreaded Tirpitz. – the most advanced warship the world had ever seen. A marauding terror that blasted all in it’s path. The combined protective fire power for PQ17 wouldn’t stand a chance. The Tirpitz had armour plating of 14" thick. It had a speed of 35 miles per hour. The weaponry, guns, firepower was way beyond anything that had been used before. It was the Rolls Royce plus of war-ships... a complete monster. It would be like comparing a peashooter to a cannon ball – in all respects. Back in London, Admiral Sir Alfred Pickman Rodgers Dudley Pound, GCB, OM, GCVO, was First Sea Lord of the Admiralty and generally deemed to be highly authoritarian. At this stage of his career he was way past his 'sell-by date' and quite incompetent, though this wasn’t recognised at the time. He no longer listened to credible intelligence and blindly pursued his own agenda. Having disregarded
information decoded in Bletchley Park that suggested the Tirpitz was NOT in the area, he issued the deadly, terrifying order:
"Convoy is to scatter!!!"
Effectively, he ordered that the merchant ships to be deprived of their protection so that the Royal Navy fleet could be spared and head back home. This effectively meant that the merchant navy fleet, of ordinary seafarers, not trained in any kind of warfare techniques, on a mission under the orders of the British Government, were to be left alone and literally ‘sitting ducks’ for the enemy forces. It was the first time that this had ever happened in such a convoy situation. When details became public, much later on, the Royal Navy were disgraced and shamed over the incident.
A few hours later, the Bolton Castle was attacked by three huge bombs that exploded in the middle of hundreds of tons of cordite in a prolonged burst of flame and fire. Amazingly, there were no casualties. But the ship split in two and began to sink rapidly.
Now this is where one of the few stories that Dad told me comes into play. He told me that his ship had been hit by enemy bombs and that they were all getting into lifeboats. However, he said he ran (through a blazing, sinking ship) back to collect his wallet and hat. However, what I didn’t realise was that his "wallet" actually meant his seafarer’s canvas bag, and contained all his legal documents, passport, Radio Officer licence, discharge book etc. All this stuff would have been irreplaceable. I now, thankfully, have all these in my possession. The funny thing is that this story was not told in a spirit of bravado – rather in a self-deprecating way; "What a dope I was – the only thought on my mind was my wallet!" And all that in the midst of panic and terror. Just as well he didn’t have a dog.
In preparation, luckily, lifeboats had already been lowered on the orders of Captain Pascoe – a courageous and fearless leader. Captain Pasco was able to rescue ten five gallon cans of petrol, which was vital as the lifeboats had an engine. They also had a small quantity of food and water. However, in seriously overloaded boats, they were adrift in a sea of destruction with debris floating all around – some of it on fire, bodies of crew from other ships, smoke and chaos. Twenty four out of thirty five of the PQ17 convoy ships were subsequently attacked and destroyed. More than one hundred and fity merchant seamen on this convoy had lost their lives.
All the while Dad and his companions bobed about in the Artic in their lifeboat, now up to their knees in icy water. And of course, the ever present enemy, above and below the sea was still there to attack the survivors. Eventually rations all but ran out. They were at the total mercy of the enemy, and the prevailing conditions, but miraculously – probably because they were now small and insignificant craft and not that visible any more, they escaped being bombed, torpedoed or struck by German U-Boats.
This went on for 8 days – adrift in icy, freezing waters, cold, hungry, terrified and abandoned. Many suffered from frostbite particularly in their lower limbs which were frequently submerged in Artic icy water.
Then, in the afternoon of the 8th day, a small Russian patrol boat miraculously sailed into view. Rescue was imminent. The Russians quickly took Dad and the survivors from the Bolton Castle on board where they were given a meal of sausage washed down with liberal quantities of vodka. They were taken ashore the following day at the Russian naval base of Polyarny near Murmansk. Here they were medically examined and the recommendation was that Dad should have his leg amputated due to frostbite. He said no. Luckily, he recovered from the frostbite and had no problems from it in later life.
He stayed in Murmansk for two months (without pay –"Tough, your ship was lost") until he was assigned his next ship. He continued to sail for the next ten years and had voyages to India, Burma Australia, amongst many other places. He married my mother in Cork in 1948. To my shame, I knew very little about all his adventures while he was alive. He simply just didn’t talk about them. Or maybe it was too painful? Or maybe I didn’t ask enough of questions. Such a shame...
Tony McTighe, was subsequently awarded seven medals for services during World War 11, by the UK Government. They looked well next to the two he got for services to the Irish War of Independence! Not bad going for the Man from the Magazine Road.
Tony McTighe after PQ 17
Tony McTighe said farewell to his career in the British merchant navy in September 1952, after a long trip to Australia. He returned home to his native Cork, to his wife and baby girl, Pauline. More trauma, but of a different kind, was to follow. Both his wife and baby had contracted TB and had spent the best part of the previous two years in hospital. Luckily both survived. Life in Cork in the 1950s was grim. Tony struggled in this environment. Looking back it is highly probably that he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In Tony, the symptom was excessive dependence on alcohol for many years. Unemployment was rife in Ireland, at that time, with huge number emigrating to the UK to find work on building sites and in factories.
Finding a job proved very difficult for Tony for a few years. Having had a career in the British Merchant Navy was certainly neither a help or an honour in Post-Independence Ireland. He eventually found a few months winter work in the River Lee Hydro Electric Scheme. However, it meant a round bicycle trip of nearly 2.5 hours from the house to work – in a harsh winter, without protective weather gear or too many changes of clothes at home either. Life was hard, insecure and the family was poor. Eventually in the late 1950’s he got a job with the Cork Harbour Commissioners – now known as Port of Cork. Initially he was a night watch man on a dredger, called The Lough Mahon, berthed on the River Lee. Every night, in all weather, he rowed alone to the dredger to be at work at 8pm and worked a 12 hour shift, doing the return trip at 8am. He was eventually given a job as a security man at the main headquarters of the Cork Harbour Commissioners in Cork City. It was an easy job for a change and he enjoyed the constant interaction with shipping in the extremely busy port of Cork. He was sociable and good company but that didn’t always work to the family’s advantage. He was often given presents, by the crews of berthed ships on the docks, of bottles of alcohol – which he, and the family, could well have done without. However, he made a sudden decision to end his love affair with alcohol in 1966 and never touched a drop again! He retired around 1973.
The rest of his life was spent in quiet contentment. He was an avid reader, adored TV and spent hours trying to illicitly get BBC channels which were not available in Cork at the time, unless you had special aerials, etc. Tony tried all sorts of tricks – some worked. Some did not. He loved short-wave radio and had lots of equipment which he constantly tinkered with. He lost all enthusiasm for travel and as far as I can remember, Butlin’s’ Holiday Camp, was as far as he went! He adored his first grand-child, Tony Jnr but unfortunately he died before his little grand-daughter was born. In his years in Cork, he rarely spoke about his adventures at sea or of the infamous Arctic Convoys. He got no credit for his bravery or courage from anyone. As his daughter, my big regret is that I really had no idea while he was alive of the life he previously led. I didn’t realize the magnitude of his ordeal on the Russian Convoys or of the miraculous story of his rescue and survival. Such a shame.