The Coast Watching Service in Ballymacoda

From 1939 to 1945, manned look-out points dotted around the island of Ireland kept watch, noting down and reporting all activity in the sea and the sky around the coastline to Irish military intelligence, known as G2, which had formed secret agreements with the Allied intelligence services to share information.

These Look Out Posts, or LOP’s, were of critical importance due to the neutrality of Ireland. Firstly, Ireland as a neutral country had legal obligations to fulfill as part of the Hague Convention of 1907, which mandated clearly the responsibilities of neutral countries during a war – the principle one being surveillance of its coastal waters, and ensuring that belligerent countries were not using these to their advantage. Secondly, there was the threat and fear of Nazi Germany using Ireland as a stepping-stone to an invasion of Britain. Unternehmen Grün (Operation Green) was the official Nazi Germany plan developed to invade Ireland in support of Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion), the planned invasion of the UK mainland, which never transpired after the Luftwaffe’s decisive loss in the aerial engagements known collectively as the ‘Battle of Britain‘. As recently as 2020, a BBC documentary claimed evidence of a German plot to use Ireland as a backdoor for an invasion of the UK. There is of course also much literature suggesting a level of support in some Irish Republican circles for a Nazi invasion of Ireland, but that is another story.

With the threat of war across Europe looking increasingly likely, it was decided in February 1939 to form a coast watching service to monitor Irish coastal waters and meet the required obligations. The first LOP’s started to be put in place by August 1939. These were under the administration of the ‘Marine and Coastwatching Service‘, part of which evolved to become the contemporary Irish Naval Service. These posts were manned around the clock, beginning a six year period of continuous watches around the Irish coast. In all there were 83 LOP’s, and LOP 21 was based at Knockadoon Head in Ballymacoda, between LOP 20 based at Ram Head in Ardmore, and LOP 22 based in Ballycotton.

Look-out Post 21 in the foreground at Knockadoon Head

LOP 21 was staffed by ten men from the locality:

John Slocum (NCO), Davy Connolly (NCO), Michael Cotter, John Cronin, Patrick Cronin, D. Fitzgerald, Thady O’Shea, C. Seward, Richie Shanahan and Mossy Smiddy.

Basic training was given to the coast watchers. One thing that was deemed of critical importance was the post log book. It is evident looking at the log books available from LOP 21 at Knockadoon that this was taken very seriously. The log books from the LOP’s survive and thankfully many have been digitized and made available online by the Irish Military Archives.

As well as recording shift changes and visits from officers, the main purpose of the log book was of course to note down all sightings at sea and in the air within visibility of the post. Each sighting was given a unique serial number (e.g. 64 in the left-most column in the below example). The date and time was noted along with a description of the sighting, and the action that was taken, which was always to report sightings to intelligence officers in Cork. In some entries, as below, the weather conditions were also noted.

Example of the sighting of a trawler in 1940 from the Knockadoon log book

Other elements deemed essential for the coast watchers and included as part of basic training were first aid, signaling techniques, maritime practices and how to identify different ships and aircraft. Initially, most LOP’s didn’t have any communication equipment, and it was not until 1941 that every post was equipped with a telephone. Some accounts show that the men were instructed in their telephone manner, which makes sense when you think about how uncommon the telephone was in homes at that time. According to accounts from LOP 20 in Ardmore, the men were told to be ‘as incisive and distinct‘ as possible when speaking on the telephone.

In 1943, the word ‘Eire‘ and the individual LOP number were painted next to each of the posts in large letters visible from the air. These had a dual purpose – to alert German bombers that they were above Ireland (not the UK), and also to be used for navigation purposes by Allied aircraft. I am not aware of any trace of a marking such as this surviving in Knockadoon, and I am curious as to whether anyone remembers this being present, and where exactly it was located. The Eire Markings project has uncovered at least 30 of these markings across the country that survive, or have been restored, and are still visible today.

Due to the look out posts having to be manned around-the-clock, the men worked in eight hour shifts in teams of two. Here we can see an example of a shift change in 1940 from the log book kept at Knockadoon:

Example of a shift change recorded in the LOP 21 log book

Relationships between LOP 21 at Knockadoon and nearby look out posts were good, and friendships developed between the men. Thady O’Shea from Knockadoon often entertained the men on duty at LOP 20 in Ardmore by playing tunes on the melodeon over the telephone. Willie Whelan from the Ram Head look out post in Ardmore tells the story of arranging to meet Thady on May Sunday in Killeagh, and being at a loss for how to identify him, having never met him in person. Thady told him “the tallest fellow in Tattan’s pub, that will be me“. Willie tells of being able to immediately identify Thady based on that description. John Cronin told the story of often contacting Ardmore to enquire about the cigarette situation, a very rare commodity at that time. While a volunteer in Ardmore spoke jokingly of being able to make out cigarette smoke in Knockadoon through his binoculars, ‘the lads over in Knockadoon are smoking Woodbines today. There must be cigarettes in Ballymacoda.

Outside of the relationships with other LOP’s, I was curious as to what the relationship between the coast watchers and the other branches of the defense forces may have been like. Were these non-career soldiers who answered the call during ‘The Emergency‘ well thought of? I have been able to find little information on this, but a May 1942 article in ‘An Cosantóir’ seems to indicate that these men were held in high regard. This is the magazine of the Irish defense forces, and the article in question, ‘I praise the Coastwatcher‘ was republished in the March 1996 issue:

This, then, is why I praise the unsung Coastwatcher. Because he performs a dull and necessary task with resolution and efficiency. Because with only the immediate supervision of a corporal, he carries out his task as thoroughly as if his Look-Out Post were a large and well-staffed Military Post. Because his tour of duty is frequently performed under conditions which the ordinary sentry cannot even imagine. I praise him because he his unknown; I praise him because he, truly, is our first line of defense.

On the 9th of October 1945, with the war in Europe at an end since May after Hitler’s suicide in Berlin on April 30th, discharges were offered to all Coast Watching Service personnel. Each of the men who served were awarded a service medal known as ‘An Bonn Seirḃíse Éigeandála‘, or ‘The Emergency Service Medal‘. The men based at LOP 21 in Knockadoon were no exception, and I have the medal which my maternal grandfather (John Cronin) was presented with, pictured below.

Front of ‘An Bonn Seirḃíse Éigeandála‘ Medal

Back of ‘An Bonn Seirḃíse Éigeandála‘ Medal

In more recent years, a memorial was unveiled at LOP 21 at Knockadoon listing the men who served and providing passers-by on the nearby cliff walk with an indication of the historical importance of where they stand.

Commemorative sign, now present at LOP 21 in Knockadoon

I would love to publish more stories about the local coast watchers, if anyone is interested in contributing to such content, please reach out to me via the Contact page.

References and Further Information

The Nazi who planned a UK invasion via the Donegal Gaeltacht

Irish Military Archives: Look Out Posts Log Books Collection

Journal of Research on Irish Maritime History – G2, the coast-watching service and the Battle of the Atlantic

Ardmore Memory and Story – Troubled Times

An Cosantóir, The Defense Forces Magazine, December 1996

Medals of the Irish Defense Forces

The Naval Forces of the Irish State, 1922-1977 – Padhraic Ó Confhaola – PhD Thesis