A WEXFORD-BASED Franciscan who has just celebrated his 88th birthday has strong and vivid memories of the German seamen saved from death by the Wexford Steamship Company vessel Kerlogue over 70 years ago.
Fr Fritz – Malachy O'Kelly, as he was then – was on the quayside in Cobh at the end of December 1943 when the Kerlogue berthed with more than 160 German survivors of a battle with British warships in the Bay of Biscay.
The Wexford ship had gone to the aid of the Germans during voyage between Portugal and Ireland with a cargo of oranges on board.
The Germans had been on three vessels, two of them torpedo boats, sunk by British cruisers and destroyers and more than 700 pitiful survivors were in the water, many with terrible injuries.
The Kerlogue picked up 168 of the men, with the survivors occupying virtually every nook and cranny on board, but had to leave more than 500 men in the water. None of them survived the freezing temperatures amid the shattered remains of their ships.
Fr Fritz said he and his friends were admirers of the Germans at the time of the war and, as he spoke some German, he was among a group of young men who headed to the quay when the surving sailors arrived.
And he said that given his German heritage he found some kindred spirits among the survivors of the battle.
He recalls watching as the men, many of them badly wounded, were helped from the tiny Wexford ship.
Together with his friends he attended the funeral in Cobh on January 3, 1944, of two of the crew who died from their wounds – Adolf Bratz and Helmut Weiss – with an honour guard of uniformed German officers who had been comrades of the two who died.
Fr Fritz spoke to some of the Germans at the time and became a frequent visitor to The Curragh, where they were interned until the end of the war. In 1946 they were repatriated to Germany.
But the Greyfriar has not lost touch with them and has remained friends with four of the men, whom he has visited in Germany over the years.
Recalling the survivors speaking to him after their incarceration, he said many more of them could have been saved by the British Royal Navy warships which had sunk their vessels, but 'they did nothing to help – they left them in the water'.
Standing operating procedure for British warships in such a situation was not to stop to pick up survivors in case of submarine attacks, but the then-Malachy Kelly felt so strongly about what had happened that he later voluntered to join the German air force, the Luftwaffe, prompting a polite response from the ambassador in Dublin thanking him for his interest but saying it would be impossible to transport him to Germany for his pilot training.
He said all of the survivors were Nazis, but that was never an issue.
'They were ordinary loyal soldiers, boys of 17 or 18 years of age, who would have far rather been defending their homeland than locked up in Ireland for the duration of the war,' he said.
Fr Fritz said some of them had been on their first torpedo boat mission out of St Nazaire in France when they ran into the British.
'They fought for their country and we admired them all,' he said.
While Fr Fritz says the survivors of the Kerlogue were well treated when they landed in neutral Ireland, he says that was not always the case.
One such was the fate of the crew of a German minesweeper which escaped from St Nazaire and landed in Kinsale in 1946 and who were sent back to France – where, he says, they were held as prisoners for several years.
A native of Grange in Co Limerick, Fr Fritz is the son of a German mother, Olga Moller, and Jeremiah O'Kelly, the agent for the Great Western Railway.
He was known as Fritz as a young man, given his parentage, a name that was to remain with him after his ordination as a Franciscan, just as his maternal parentage was to create in the young Malachy an admirer of Hitler's Germany.
Many of his cousins were in the German Wehrmacht during the war, fighting against the Russians in Operation Barbarossa, as well as in the German air force conducting operations against British ships.
One of them, Alfred Kammer, was a Luftwaffe bomber pilot.
A contemporary photograph of him with his bomber in a photo album Fr Fritz keeps at the Friary shows the silhouettes of Allied ships he sank during the war on the aircraft's tail.
Asked about how and his friends viewed the German defeat and the fall of Hitler, of whom he has cutouts in his 'early days' photo album alongside pictures of himself in military uniform, he replied: 'We weren't very happy about it.'
A former accountant in Cork City, Malachy Kelly went to England to join the Greyfriars in 1950 and travelled extensively with the friars before setting at Wexford Friary.
Despite the passing of the years, he still speaks fluent German and has a phenomenal memory of the places and people displayed in his wartime album and of the experiences he shared with many of them.