Chapter 19 – Gun-running for the Irish Army

“THERE’S many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip!”

So it was to prove in the affair of the Anita. Up to this period the motor had run with precision, but now it developed all kinds of defects, many of them due, I imagine, to the ignorance of the “Red” engineer. He toiled and sweared zealously, but the motor refused to function.

Although it was close on midnight, I retired with the crew to a Gasthaus close by and ordered my German mate telephone to the city for a motor mechanic to put the Bolinder right. In the beerhouse I ordered supper and liquid refreshments for all hands. When this was served I made my first mistake. I had only English currency in notes of large denomination — too large for a German seaman, no matter of what rank, to have acquired honestly. One of these I gave our host, who passed some comment of surprise. Mistake number two was when we started a conversation in English. The German saloon-keeper said he had not enough Kleingeld (or change) but would ‘phone a friend sufficient to settle the matter. When we had eaten and drunk our fill, we retired in a group to the ship, leaving one man behind to collect the change. On board we cast off our moorings and pulled out into the stream. There we let go anchor to await the coming of the expert from Hamburg.

The mechanic arrived an hour later and with my dud engineer proceeded to disembowel the motor. Every now and then I would peer into the tiny, stinking engine-room to find out how matters were progressing. “Gut, wir sind bald fertig!” I must have heard this a dozen times, when at last the expert came out of the greasy hole. “Ich denke Sie müssen zum Werft hingehen, es ist nichts weiter zu machen,” he stated gravely. Politely I told him to go to hell, with the option of stepping off at Hamburg on the way. He was highly incensed, but after demanding an exorbitant fee-pointing meaningly at the hatch as he did so-he left for his native health.

I then called the crew of three together. ” If we can’t get that engine running by eight o’clock,” I told them, ” we’ll sail this damned scow across to Ireland. It’s too dangerous to wait any longer.”

Had we known that the suave gentleman in the beer-house was assiduously ‘phoning every official in Hamburg, informing them that a gang of smugglers was lying at his front door with a boatload of contraband bound for some destination other than the German Reich, we would have sailed at once. But, hoping against hope that the motor would come to life, we lingered.

At eight o’clock I became resigned to the inevitable. ” Heave up anchor. We’ll sail across” I ordered Walter, my mate. While the anchor was being hove up, Ernest, the other sailor, and myself loosed and set the mainsail and jib. Soon we were slowly moving down the river on the first lap of the long journey
to Ireland.

We had not proceeded very far, however, when a customs pinnace cut across the river and swung alongside. Then a harbor launch with police aboard crossed our bow and ordered us to stop. The anchor was hurriedly let go .and we stopped as requested. The customs officials and the police boarded the Anita and an important individual with a walrus moustache and a bristling Prussian haircut bellowed:

“Wo gehen Sie? Was für Ladung haben Sie?” which means: “‘Where are you going and what’s your cargo?”

My German mate was a plucky fellow, and he debated with the official, trying to fool him with lies. The customs man brushed him aside, and ordered his men to remove the hatch covers. Our cargo of arms was covered with many bags of salt, but the revenue expert dug deep enough to reach the cases. At last they lugged a heavy case on deck and opened it.

“Gott in Himmell!” gasped the official, his eyes bulging at the view of four beautiful machine-guns of the very latest design, and the assembling parts of four tripods.

I decided to make a clean breast of the affair. Through the mate, and with my own limited vocabulary, I explained the purpose of our venrure. The German official lost his Prussian pomp and bristle. He was crestfallen, and the customs authorities and police were sorry they had caught us. The had no choice now as the Allied High Commission were very observant of exports. I was there and then arrested for violation of customs and falsification of clearance papers. Germany was forbidden to export arms of a military calibre under the terms of the Versailles Treaty. In fact she wasn’t supposed to have any munitions to export, and here was one Charles J. McGuinness, agent of the Irish Republican Government, smuggling some junior artillery out of the port of Hamburg. It looked bad for Germany: and worse for me!

We were towed to the Baumwall, and arraigned at the port police headquarters. At the hearing I pleaded guilty, accepting the full responsibility for the gun-running attempt, and prevailed upon the police captain to release the members of the crew. I convinced him that they were ignorant of the real nature of the voyage. The,ship and cargo were confiscated and I was locked up pending trial. Thus ended my first attempt-in a complete fizzle.

Four days later I was swiftly tried and convicted upon my own admission of guilt. The judge publicly admonished me for my attempt to embarrass the German Republic in the eyes of the Allied High Commission. His heated remarks burned my hide for the moment, until I learned the political significance of the verbal lashing. It was not intended for my ears at all. He fined me 2,000 marks, or about ten pounds at the rate of exchange for 1921. I could not help smiling at this penalty for a crime which is not usually treated with much leniency. I paid the fine and was then escorted to a judicial anteroom, where his Honor greeted me in a very different tone from that which he used from the Bench.

My German-Irish friend in the shipping business might still be embarrassed by the mention of his name, but he stood by me through all difficulties, and manipulated the political strings. The three of us discussed the political horizon of Ireland, his Honor being a student of political economics and something of a wit. He laughed at me, recalling his scathing words, which were uttered for the Press. The case had attracted considerable attention in the papers, and the English had an observer at the trial.

“Auf lhre nächste Reise, wünsche ich lhnen viel Glück.” My meagre vocabulary, remembered from the, German East campaign, was sufficient to translate the fact that the judge wished me much luck on my next trip. I feared that the publicity of the affair might prove an inseparable handicap to future attempts; but the opposite was the case. Actually I made many friends among the customs and harbor police, Imperial Army officers and the owners of valuable munition dumps. It certainly was ironic that the very people I wanted to meet clamored to offer their aid.

The ship was returned to me, though I realized the folly of embarking upon a second attempt. I noticed ruefully that the beautiful machine-guns, arms, and ammunition had gone.

My “crime” received more publicity than I cared for. The Reichstag hotly debated the case, and the Monarchists openly lauded my efforts to throw off the yoke of England. Other Reichstag members, however, impressed upon Britain ‘this example of strict surveillance on exports, proudly showing that the Treaty provisions were being followed to the letter. In the abortive treaty efforts between Lloyd George and De Valera, the wily Welshman was so peeved at the apparent violation of the truce that he demanded that I should be punished. In truth, neither side gave much attention to the first parley, as it was doomed to failure at the outset.

There were many genuine admirers of Ireland in Germany, and not a few charlatans who offered me the choice of blackmail or betrayal. I ignored both, for an obvious reason. I came to Germany as a merchant to buy arms, not sympathy. I had no patience with the Irishman who believed that Germany would, from altruistic motives, help to free Ireland. To swap masters is a dangerous expedient, and one form of servitude is as objectionable as another. In fact, as a choice of masters, I prefer the Briton to the Prussian. It was Ireland’s task to break her own shackles, and I had confidence in her strength and ingenuity to achieve freedom without owing a mortgage to another Power.

Exactly ten days after paying the fine of 2,000 marks I left Hamburg on the sturdy tug Frieda, a larger craft than the Anita, and much better suited to the rigors of the North Sea and English Channel. My second ship was loaded with 1,500 rifles, 2,000 Luger Parabellums, and 1,700,000 rounds of ammunition, During this period, I made contact with the officers and crews of steamers running to Liverpool, Hull, Glasgow and London. We paid a bonus of five shillings for every revolver carried and delivered to the Irish agents in these ports. The smuggler received his pay upon the delivery of the goods, and we found this system of gun-running extremely effective, for Britain had no system to cope with it.

The Frieda cleared Hamburg with benefit of customs; our papers were strictly legal, for we had obtained an export license for Rotterdam. We dropped the customs official at Cuxhaven though not until we had spent a difficult night aground of the Ost River. High tide came to our rescue, but a gale sweeping up the Elbe made progress difficult.

At Cuxhaven a terrific storm held us for three days; many ships were blown ashore in the gale. It was the first week in November, the season of bad temper in the North sea. At the first lift of the barometer we cleared the port, but found mountainous seas running outside. We carried a deckload of coal to supplement that in the bunkers.

After the storm passed we had hopes of better weather, but the glass fell again and we ran for shelter into Terschelling, one of the Friesian Islands off the Dutch coast. Barely had we made the tiny fishing-harbor when the tempest swept down in a fury that in an open sea would have been fatal to the Frieda. As we were carrying explosives, we were obliged to fly the red danger flag “B” of the international signal code. This created unwelcome gossip, and we were suspected of being a Bolshevik gun-runner. Luckily the storm had blown down the radio masts, putting the island out of communication with the outside world. We were thus saved an investigation that would have been fatal to the success of our mission.

I will quote from the diary I kept on that voyage, as it reflects some of the mental tension of my days on the Frieda:

“Monday night. Still in Holland. Impossible for any vessel to venture out of here. Saturday and Sunday’s hurricane caused havoc on this coast — four vessels ashore last night within small radius. Glass going up. Have hopes of making a start to-morrow. This waiting is terrible, and my position (a foreigner on a German ship) peculiar. The crew are A1 and keenly interested in venture. To-day I made a Republican flag, to be used as a last resource. It looks good and is of pure silk. I hope it brings us luck.

“Tuesday night. Wind gone round to eastward and we leave in morning. The pilot is ordered for 6 A. M., and we proceed to pilot station for fresh water. The barometer is high and weather looks more promising than it has done since we left Hamburg. God must be pro-British. The heavens surely have been against us since we started. Not one day of really good weather when we need at least a fair week.

“Wednesday morning. Weather glorious; high glass and steady breeze from east. Pilot came aboard and we put out to sea through the intricate channel which we entered ahead of the gale. Off lightship we perceive something like destroyer, but fortunately it turns out to be only steam-trawler, though her tall masts looked quite unusual. We now head our course to westward, making for Straits of Dover. Weather fine and we make splendid time. Should make Straits by to-morrow. To-day we make all alterations necessary for our safety, by painting band on funnel a dark red (the original was white with a German flag painted thereon). We paint over the nameplates aft, as Hamburg is a home port which would make our presence in English Channel bound to Rotterdam incredible. The Frieda is looking shipshape. All coal now off deck and thus giving us a little room to walk around.

“Thursday morning. Clear weather with easterly wind holding good. Now approaching Channel and beginning to pick up familiar landmarks. So far no suspicion, though vessels have passed close by. Twelve o’clock and we are well off Dover, and at last in Channel. The breeze is freshening and sea running stronger. Luckily it is with us and is helping us race along. We are well out in middle of Channel and pass all lights at intervals, still maintaining our regular speed.

“Friday. Still going well, but wind and sea increasing — the latter running high. Ocean-going vessels bound up Channel are making heavy weather of it judging by the way they ship water. We are all right, and it seems amusing to compare ourselves, a thirty-ton tug, battling the elements more successfully than the big ocean greyhounds. Midnight, we pass the ‘Lizard’ off Land’s End, and head up for Irish land, which we hope to pick up in the evening.

“Saturday. Wind still easterly and big sea running, but partly with us. It makes us roll heavily. Evening, and no sight of land, but we know that with darkness we will pick up lights at a longer range than we can see in daytime. After dark, away ahead, we sight glare of a lighthouse, and distinguish the three blinks of the old Head of Kinsale. A disappointing discovery–puts us over fifty miles to westward of our course, and our coal supply running out. Nothing left but to head up to eastward, making for Mine Head. … We have now passed well clear off the Daunt’s Rock, the entrance to Cobb. Off Mine Head we open up on the light of Ballinacourty Point, and edge up to Helvick. I signal with torch, but there is no response. We cruise up and down, making signals, but still no reply. The wind is increasing from the southwest and the sea running higher, making us roll frightfully. We are in awful plight, not knowing where to go and daylight drawing nigh. … We have cruised all night, and at last, seeing we are unnoticed, determine to run gauntlet and make for Waterford River, to one of the small villages there. We are gloomy over the lack of aid from land.

“Sunday morning. We head up for the Hook off entrance to Waterford River. Reach that point about nine o’clock. We pass Dunmore and its coast guard station, but we hoist no signals past Duncannon Fort on up to Passage. Here all vessels must signal or report, but we keep steadily on, paying no heed to signals flying there. Above Passage we ran on bank, and, after manoeuvring, manage to get the Frieda off. The lead is kept going all the time, and luckily we get vessel into deeper water. We keep steaming on, and where the river divides in two at the island take the old channel to port, and, out of sight in a sheltered anchorage, we let go anchor at noon.”

At last we were in an Irish harbor. What a reception! All night the Germans had taunted me with our failure to aid Spindler of the Aud in the Casement fiasco during the World War. This, they said, was going to be another repetition. I could hardly blame them for their scepticism. They did not know how unreliable we Irish are at keeping appointments. In all our maritime ventures we have been successful failures: successful in supplying a martyr, but failing to accomplish anything. In this particular case, however, I could not understand why a lookout could not have been kept at his post after the special instructions I had sent home from Germany as to date of sailing and probable arrival. That we were long overdue was no excuse why the main factor (from the landing point of view) should have been ignored.

I made immediate preparations to go ashore to obtain help. We put the boat over the side and two of the Germans rowed me ashore. I climbed a muddy bank and crossed sodden fields until I reached the highway; then I walked the five miles into Waterford. Knowing no one in that city, I went to the parochial house for information, but met with a very cool reception. When I inquired for the whereabouts of the commander of the Irish Republican Army I was curtly asked: “Why don’t you ask the Mayor? He’s a Sinn Feiner!”

Then I remembered that Dr. White was the Republican T. D. for Waterford. Making inquiries, I soon located the honorable doctor, who was delighted to see me. When he realized that a gun-runner was actually lying in the port of Waterford right under the noses of a regiment of British soldiery and two torpedo-destroyers, his enthusiasm reached a high pitch. Soon we had the I.R.A. commander in conference. I stated the number of cases on board, the exact tonnage, and demanded sufficient lorries to remove the full cargo at one haul.

Jerry, the commander, promised to get these down in time to the jetty at Cheek Point. I then stipulated that quarters be secured for the Germans overnight, and in the morning railway tickets for Dublin for the whole party. We had a final discussion of our plans for the unloading of the Frieda after nightfall, for I was uneasy lest the vessel be discovered by the enemy and the entire business ruined. Accordingly, at eight o’clock, the Mayor and myself proceeded to the river, embarked on the waiting boat, and pulled cautiously down towards our objective.

The night was pitch-dark and it was raining in torrents. We made the best of personal discomfort because the elements suited our purpose. It took us two hours to find the vessel m the intense blackness. We went on board and hove up anchor. As there was not sufficient coal to raise steam (our last shovelful went into the boiler when we drifted to an anchor), we warped the Frieda alongside the little jetty at Cheek Point. In the meantime the I.R.A. commander had mustered his forces, commandeered trucks, and was there waiting to receive our cargo.

Once alongside the wharf the work of unloading commenced with alacrity; but it was an all-night job. The rifles were handed out one at a time, chain fashion, from one man to another, while the heavy ammunition-cases had to be lifted in the faint light of shielded electric torches. A sigh of relief went up as the last truck was loaded and sped off towards the dumps on the Comeragh Mountains.

The German crew now came on shore, eager for a decent meal and a bath. For three days we had been on meagre diet, and, in order to conserve our water-supply, we had not washed since leaving Terschelling. That night we slept in Waterford and in the morning left for Dublin.

To avoid suspicion it was deemed advisable to board the train in pairs. Four of us entered the Dublin train, took our seats quietly, and buried our heads in the morning papers. The departure whistle sounded, and then we discovered four Germans were missing. I was desperate, knowing the seamen would find it awkward to make themselves understood without my aid as interpreter. The train pushed off without any sign of the missing men. I was terribly worried, for I wanted the full crew with me and under my control. The discovery of another German plot would be disastrous to the Republican movement, and might well mean the opening of an offensive in which England waged a real war in Ireland.

Passing Kilmacthomas I spied a motor-car racing at full speed parallel with the train. In the car were the four Germans and an Irish driver who knew no speed limit. It was a great race: sometimes the motor was ahead, and sometimes the train. Then the motor disappeared from sight altogether.

When we lumbered into the station at Gowran Junction the motor-car flashed through the railway gates in a cloud of dust. Young Whelan, the driver, jumped out and coolly divided the four seamen into two groups on either side of the car. I escorted one group, Whelan the other, and without any fuss we boarded the train.

The platform was full of auxiliaries, but they evidently suspected nothing. Our arrival in Dublin was inauspicious, l took my charges over to Liam Devlin in Parnell Street, who wined and dined them the while l repaired to headquarters to report the safe arrival of the Frieda.

Dick Mulcahey was the first man I met. He was delighted at seeing me alive, and was much interested in the various samples of arms 1 had surreptitiously brought with me from Waterford. Then l met my old friend Liam Mellowes, the most highly esteemed member of the Irish Republican Army. Liam had given me up for dead, and his joy at meeting me was unbounded,. He and everyone else thought that we must surely have perished in the violent gales raging at that time. Liam deplored, and was strong in his denunciation of, the military laxity that had allowed us to cruise up and down off that rock-bound coast in the teeth of a southwest gale. He was emphatic in stating that, had I not been in command, the Frieda would either have been lost with all hands or captured by a British gunboat. Without being unduly vain, I fully endorsed that statement Had l failed l should have become a national hero and, in these times of piping peace, perhaps a political success.

The cargo safely landed, another problem arose: the disposition of the gun-runner and the German crew. At that time (1921) the World War was too recent for Germans to parade openly around. Neither German guns nor German citizens had the right to leave the Fatherland. We therefore quartered the seamen with friends, while I set about the task of removing all traces of the Frieda.

A conference was held by the Army executives, and there were many suggestions put forward as to the disposal of the vessel. Some were for blowing her up; others for taking her out to sea and scuttling her. At last Liam Mellowes intervened.

“McGuinness bought this boat in Germany,” he said. “He bought a cargo of arms and ammunition. He has safely delivered both. Let McGuinness settle the matter in his own way. In any case he’ll do as he pleases, despite this conference.”

It was perfectly true! While 1 was a sworn soldier of the Irish Republican Army, yet 1 owed no allegiance nor recognized any authority higher than my own in matters appertaining to the sea or ships. This fact was well understood in Dublin at the time. Liam Mellowes had struck a right note, and the executives were only too pleased to consent to anything which relieved them of the responsibility of achieving something they knew nothing about.

Mellowes relayed orders to Waterford to have coal put on board the Frieda and a couple of seamen waiting in readiness for my arrival to help me in my plans to remove the vessel.

With neither name nor port of registry painted on her sides it is a mystery how she escaped detection. To offset this I left left ropes hanging over the stern and bows as an excuse for concealing the lack of these telltale signs.

1 drove down to Waterford at once and boarded the old Frieda. We got up steam and were about to move away from the anchorage when two destroyers were sighted moving down the river from Waterford. The crew showed their excitement. “They’re after us for sure! Cut the mast out of her and run up the Blackwater under the railway bridge!”

Another genius suggested running her full speed ashore, where it would be impossible to pull her off, but I told them to cease their chatter and wait a while before doing anything rash.

The destroyers steamed swiftly past, while we rocked gently in the swell displaced by their graceful hulls. We learned later that they were conveying prisoners from Waterford to Cork. While they had been waiting to take on these passengers from Kilkenny Jail I had had the good luck to arrive and find that arm of the blockade lifted. Hence my successful landing in spite of our poor generalship on land.

A couple of hours later we steamed down the river and round the coast to the little village of Bunmahon. There was a small stone pier extending seaward from the shore, and under the lee of this we made the restless Frieda fast.

Now to find a purchaser!

I travelled to Cork in a commandeered motor-car. Locating a retired sea-captain now turned merchant, I painted a beautiful picture of the Frieda, Her speed, rugged strength, even her attractive appearance, were laid on the canvas of my imagination in generous daubs, This nautical treasure I would sacrifice for a mere thousand pounds. (I had paid five hundred for her a month previous!)

Whether my skill as an artist or my adroitness as a liar had the more telling effect I have never fathomed; but the ancient mariner readily agreed to come along with me to Dungarvan to inspect and purchase the vessel. Perhaps the bait I held out of there being political rewards for such ardent friends of the Republic swung the deal.

I received a check for one thousand pounds, and without a regret washed my hands of the Frieda. And so ended happily an incident which might have proved extremely awkward for the Irish envoys negotiating with Lloyd George in Downing Street.

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