The Blackstairs Blitz

A Heinkel He111H-6 is loaded before a bombing mission. Image: http://www.wwiivehicles.com/germany/aircraft/bomber/heinkel-he-111-bomber/heinkel-he-111-h6-bomber-01.png

A German Bomber takes off from fortress Europe on the night of the 1st January 1941 as part of a bombing mission over Britain. The Blitz is still ongoing after the Battle of Britain.  Accounts from the night say that on their way to their targets they are intercepted by the RAF who chased them out over the Irish Sea.

Heinkel He111H-6 in flight Image: http://www.wwiivehicles.com/germany/aircraft/bomber/heinkel-he-111-bomber/heinkel-he-111-h6-47-bomber-01.png

Meanwhile an unsuspecting family are winding down for the night in the Scullogue Gap in the shadow of Knockroe Mountain in County Carlow. The Shannon family, John, James and Michael, brothers of the homeowner Patrick Shannon Snr along with their sisters Bridget and Mary Ellen and Patricks nephew Raymond and niece Kathleen after reciting the rosary and sitting by the fire all went to bed like any ordinary night.

Supermarine Spitfire, world famous for its role in the defence of Britain. Image: http://www.raf.mod.uk/history/gallery.cfm

Whether it was intercepted or whether it got lost,  we can only assume the bomber made its way across neutral Ireland in an attempt to return home when at 7 o clock in the morning, as the Nationalist newspaper from the 11th January reported, “The tranquillity and silence of that peaceful valley of Knockroe, reposing ‘neath the towering peaks of Mount Leinster and the lordly Blackstairs on the other, was suddenly disturbed ‘ere day broke on Thursday morning 2nd, by the invasion of an unidentified aircraft which streaked out from the frosty sky to cause a rude awakening and separate the inmates of a happy homestead by dispatching three of them to eternity… For miles around the countryside was shaken and the echo of eight bombs dropped was plainly heard”.

Mount Leinster Image: gsi.ie

One of these eight bombs had struck the home of the Shannon family as they Nationalist reported that after they retired to bed “little did they or anyone else realise that on this fateful night that this fateful family was to be separated forever in this life, that three of this happy household that lay down did so to sleep their last long sleep, which, sad to relate, was the case as was known to all corners of the globe some few hours later”.

The bombs were dropped in more or less a straight line. Two hit the slopes of Mount Leinster, the third was a direct hit on the Shannon house. Two more fell on the laneway to the house, two more hit Blackstairs Mountain on the opposite side of the valley and the last landed in a stream.

Blackstairs Mountain Image: Wikipedia

Mary Ellen Shannon (44), Brigid Shannon (38) and Kathleen Shannon (16) were all killed instantly. James Shannon (45) and Michael Shannon (37) were seriously injured. Miraculously John Shannon (43), his brother Patrick the homeowner (48) and his son Raymond (17) all escaped unhurt and it was John and Raymond who went for help. “Neighbours snatched up lamps and hurried to the pathetic scene along the snow-covered roadway in the half light of the morning. They had to climb the big craters in the laneway from which stones of huge weight were scattered about”. James Shannon was found first beneath 200 kilos of stone and rubble. Michael was found next, first identified only by his bare feet sticking out from a pile of rubble. Bridget Shannon was found next, blown completely clear of the house and landing beside an outhouse. Half an hour later Mary Ellen and Kathleen were found with nothing but fragments left of the beds they slept in.

Only the east gable was left standing and it had been here that Patrick, John and Raymond had slept. John recounted later how he “was awakened by a thunderous crash, and he jumped out of bed and went to the bedroom door. When he opened the door he saw that the whole house had disappeared up to the very edge of the door at which he stood. They made their escape through one of the windows. James and Michael slept next to the kitchen and were so close to the explosion that their beds were found in the adjoining fields.

One of the first rescuers at the scene, Mr. Breen of Knockroe reported how “he was awakened by the drone of an aeroplane in the early morning. He felt his own house vibrating, and jumped out of bed and hastily dressed himself. Taking a flash lamp he rushed out of doors to see what had happened. It was half light at the time, and he saw flashes of light on the Blackstairs Mountain. At first he thought the mountain was ablaze. He saw several quick flashes and heard deafening explosions and saw an aeroplane flying in a south westerly direction towards New Ross”. The Nationalist report goes on to give other accounts from the rescue and continues with the funeral arrangements and the inquest that followed.

The Shannon House Today. Image; http://wexfordhillwalkingclub.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/shannons-house.jpg

The house was rebuilt with local effort after the tragedy and remained in the Shannon family until Raymond died in 1994 and the house was sold. The house is passed on the ascent towards Mount Leinster via Knockroe. A reminder to all those who pass is a simple plaque placed in a wall with the year “1941” inscribed.

The memorial plaque. Image: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/54/Commemorative_Plaque_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1221998.jpg/599px-Commemorative_Plaque_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1221998.jpg

The bombs were probably dropped in an attempt to lose weight and gain altitude as they closed in on the mountains after their plane was damaged following the engagement with the RAF. Perhaps instead they had got lost on their way over the Channel and instead of suffering humiliation on their return, the decided to release their load rather than return fully laden. However, conspiracy theories question that as it was by no means an isolated incident.

 From the 1st– 3rd January 1941 a series of German bombs were dropped over Ireland. The first hit Julianstown and Duleek, Co. Meath on the 1st of January with no injuries. Two were dropped on wasteground on the Fortfield road in Dublin, more were dropped in Wicklow, and high explosive and incendery bombs landed on the Curragh racecourse The following morning 2 bombs levelled a number of homes in Terenure, Dublin, injuring seven, while three were dropped in Ballymurrin, Wexford with no damage. This was then followed by the Knockroe incident. The last happened on the morning of the 3rd January when two houses were hit on the Donore Avenue, Dublin injuring 20. The War Room website reports that:

Following this series of events, suspicion arose in some circles that the bombings might have been deliberate action by one or more of the belligerents in an attempt to draw Ireland into the war. They occurred after a curious incident prior to the New Year when the German Legation requested that extra staff be allowed to join them by flying into Rinneanna [near the Shannon in Clare]. The Irish government refused and the question was put to rest. Others believed that they were captured German weapons dropped from British aircraft again in an attempt to force Ireland into the war. This idea was fueled in recent weeks by German Propaganda radio broadcasts, which suggested that the British might try something such as this.

Whatever the Knockroe case was probably a tragic accident and the house was more than likely not targeted deliberately.

The unsuspecting Blackstairs Mountains were part of national and world affairs for a brief period in the 1940’s. Just one of the many famous incidents to occur on its slopes and hopefully I’ll get time to write a few more in the future.

Blackstairs Mountains from Dranagh Mountain
Bibliography
Murphy, T. Death from the Sky; The Knockroe Tragedy. Carloviana 2001, 10-13.
The War Rooms website; bombings http://www.csn.ul.ie/~dan/war/bombings.html
Aviation crashes in Ireland 1939-45 http://www.csn.ul.ie/~dan/war/crashes.htm
The Nationalist 11/01/1941 (all quotations are from the Nationalist report)
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