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Article: The 32 Irish merchant sailors enslaved by the Nazis

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    The 32 Irish merchant sailors enslaved by the Nazis

    1 Comments by Doc Vernon Published on 29th April 2019 08:02 PM
    Howmy father-in-law’s memories became my book, Forgotten Hero ofBunker Valentin – The Harry Callan Story

    InJanuary 1941, my father-in-law, Harry Callan, became a prisoner ofwar, when his ship the Afric Star was attacked by a raider andscuttled. This information and the trauma of Harry’s recurrentnightmares were all his family knew. We quickly learned that it wasnot a subject for discussion.In2005, 60 years after his liberation, Harry participated in a schemecalled the Heroes’ Return. Funded by the British Legion, it enabledformer POWs to return to the places of their incarceration for theannual liberation commemoration ceremonies. The scheme wasfacilitated in Ireland by Peter Mulvany of the Irish Seamen’sRelatives Association. While on this trip to Bremen-Farge, Germany,Harry, one of 32 Irish-born British Merchant seamen, discovered thatthere were no records of him or his fellow Irishmen at the camp.Determined to correct this, he began working with local historiansand intellectuals.

    InJanuary 2012, at the age of 88, Harry realised that he was the lastsurvivor of the 32 and that, if he did not speak now, what happenedto them would never be known, so I agreed to record his words. Forthe next six months, I went to Harry’s house every morning at8.30am with my recorder. By 10am we were ready for a coffee break;coffee plays a significant role in Harry’s life. That is why, whenRTÉ radio’s Documentary on One recorded his return to Germany,they called the programme Clouds in Harry’s Coffee.Somemornings I braced myself for what I had to hear, particularly theharrowing experiences that Harry recounted. I learned the type ofquestions to ask and when to ask them; when to lighten the mood; whento let the silence lengthen and when to say, “Enough”. We wouldthen go for a walk so that Harry could sleep with no nightmares. Eachevening, I transcribed what I had recorded that day. As the monthspassed, I began to realise that this was an important story, not justa piece of family history. We made a pact: he would forget that I washis daughter-in-law and tell me everything; the good, the bad and theunspeakable and I would be true to his words, at all times.Iresearched the history of Nazi camps in which servicemen wereimprisoned. I studied the various ships and U-boats which featured inHarry’s story and the service records of their Kapitäne. Icontacted the British Merchant Seamen’s Association, who willinglyhelped me by explaining ship’s terminology; shipping routes; ships’histories and patiently answered all my questions. It was they whovisited the UK National Archives, Kew, and tracked down records ofHarry’s comrades for me. I also contacted the Württemberg StateLibrary, where the German Navy Archives are housed, and theyforwarded me ships’ photographs and graciously gave me permissionto use them. I immersed myself in historical books, war trials andPOW memoirs of the period, 1939 to 1945. I travelled to Germany withHarry, visiting the places of his incarceration: Stalag XBSandbostel; Milag Nord Westertimke; Bunker Valentin Bremen-Farge andthe former Arbeitserziehungslager (Labour Education Camp). I metHarry’s German friends, who had been children during the secondWorld War, and local historians at the various interpretive centres.

    Ihad never written anything before. Nervously I sat at my keyboard,listening to Harry’s Derry accent in my headset and thinking tomyself, where do I begin? I decided that I would start with Harry’schildhood and early days at sea; the middle part would be about hisimprisonment, liberation and life after the war; the final part wouldbe his return to Germany. Eventually, by June 2014 I had the bones ofa story that definitely needed to be told and I sought the help of myfriend, Helen Dempsey, who had taught creative writing and whosestudies included Holocaust literature. For more than two years, weworked long hours; researching, editing and fine tuning mymanuscript. Along the way, Helen gave me a crash course in creativewriting.

    Theresult is Harry’s story, written in his own voice, as I heard it onthose tapes. Forgotten Hero of Bunker Valentin – The Harry CallanStory is an authentic eyewitness account of a POW in Nazi Germany. Itis also the memoir of my father-in-law, whose only desire is for thetruth about the 32 Irish-born British Merchant seamen to be recordedand remembered by future generations. It has been my privilege tovisit Germany with him to witness the forgiveness and compassion hehas for the German people; his interaction with the young students ofthe region and in turn, their respect and love for him. By writingthis book, I hope that some of the Irishmen’s families will findclosure and that Harry, now in his nineties, will have peace of mind.

    Michèle Callan is the author of Forgotten Hero of Bunker Valentin – The Harry Callan Story, published by The Collins Press, at €14.99. It was launched on March 23rd by Commodore Hugh Tully, Flag Officer Commanding Naval Service. It is available in all good bookshops and online from


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    Default Re: The 32 Irish merchant sailors enslaved by the Nazis

    From my book "The Sea is Their Grave"

    Tanker Athelfoam, 6,554grt, (Athel Line Ltd) sailed in ballast from Liverpool in the 40 ship Convoy OB-294 on the 5th March 1941. On the 9th March the convoy dispersed in to the Atlantic and the Athelfoam set course for Cuba. On the 15th March the German battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst sank fifteen Merchant ships over a two day period mainly from the dispersed Convoy OB-294. A radio message was intercepted from the Athelfoam stating she was being shelled in position 42’ 00N 43’ 25W and was eventually sunk about 500 nautical miles East of Cape Race near her reported position with the loss of the ships Bosun and one DEMS gunner. The thirty-two survivors were taken prisoner and were eventually interned at the Merchant Navy purpose built camp Milag Nord. One of those commemorated on Tower Hill (BREEN, P.), was one of thirty-two Irish Seamen removed from Milag in early January 1943 and sent to the Bremen-Farge Camp in a failed attempt by the Gestapo to get these Irish Seamen men to work on German Merchant ships. In April 1943, Patrick Breen was reported to have been beaten with an iron bar by one of the camp guards and died in hospital on the 13th May 1943 from “pneumonia” according to the German death certificate and is recorded in the Deaths at Sea Register as dying from “lung trouble” It is believed his body was returned to the camp and buried in a mass grave and as the whereabouts of his body are unknown he was recorded on Tower Hill. One other Irish crewmember (BRYNE, J.) was repatriated in September 1944 and died the following month and was buried with full war grave status in Arklow Cemetery in Co. Wicklow, Ireland.

    "Across the seas where the great waves grow, there are no fields for the poppies to grow, but its a place where Seamen sleep, died for their country, for you and for peace" (Billy McGee 2011)

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