Safe on shore
The live bait squad, they’d called the patrol. Three knackered cruisers. 2,200 men. Lots of them coastguards, newly mobilised by those fools at the admiralty.
Creating the Centena
In researching the information used here, I’ve visited Donegal, dug into family papers, and, of course, interrogated the internet.
The narrator is Robert Henry (Harry) Turner, my great-grandfather. From 1905 and throughout the First World War, Harry served as a coastguard signalman in Donegal. Handed-down memories and postcards place him at Malin Head Coastguard Station during much of that time. A photo showing Harry and colleagues outside the Buncrana coastguard cottages suggests he was also stationed in Buncrana at some point. (I’d thought the picture was taken at Malin Head. On visiting, I discovered this wasn’t the case).
Harry joined the navy in 1894, age 16. When the 12 years he’d signed up for ended, he was – according to family anecdote – ready to settle down in Portsmouth with his wife Gertie using the money he’d been sending home. But finding his parents had spent his savings on his sister, he had little choice but to re-enlist. Fortunately for Gertie, Harry had served long enough to request a shore posting. Though what she felt about moving (with baby) to the wilds of 1900s Donegal is not recorded. And as an English family in Ireland in the years preceding the Easter Rising, they may not have been warmly welcomed.
At first, Harry would have worked at the original Malin Head signal station, high on the cliffs at Ireland’s most northerly point. In 1913, the station moved to the slightly-less remote building that still houses the Malin Head Coast Guard Radio Service today.
Wireless telegraphy equipment had been installed at Malin Head in 1902, making it the world’s first coastguard radio station. Messages were sent via Morse Code, received as a series of buzzes. A dedicated wavelength meant any ship or land station could receive emergency messages and respond.
All three ships were sunk by a single U-boat on the morning of September 20th 2014. With over 1,450 lives lost, the disaster was – and still is – one of the worst in naval history.
I have no evidence Harry handled communications from the patrol. But if he was on watch that morning, he would certainly have been aware of the messages. And I’d be willing to bet he was no stranger to O’Grady’s – the former name (according to a local) of what is now the Sea View Tavern.
So though the story’s written as fiction, it might just be true.
The Turners returned home in 1919. Harry later captained a naval tug in the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Some research sources:
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