The Rescue of the World Concord
In the 1950s, Rosslare Harbour was a quiet village with the ferry port, the railways, farming and fishing being the main areas of employment. Following the great loss of Rosslare Fort in 1924/25, a lifeboat station was permanently transferred to Rosslare Harbour and since then there have been many notable rescues by Rosslare Harbour Lifeboats and crews. In January 1952 the lifeboat RNLB Douglas Hyde arrived on station at Rosslare Harbour, from the Camper & Nicholson Boatyard in Gosport, Hampshire. She was a Watson Class Lifeboat and was 46 feet long. Also in 1952 at the boatyard of Vickers, Barrow-in-Furness, the keel was laid for construction of the World Concord, an oil tanker for the Greek Shipping Company of Stavros Niarchos and she was the largest tanker of her type at that time.
On 26th November, 1954, the World Concord left Merseyside, in ballast, bound for Syria. Her Captain was Nicolau Athanassiou. As she continued her journey south, the seas got up to gale force and became very rough. Disaster struck as the tanker was hit by two very large waves. One struck amidships while the other broke over the bow. A loud rumbling noise was heard by the crew and the ship broke in two. Both parts remained afloat and at one time collided with each other, but then drifted apart. Seven men including Capt. Athanassiou were in the forepart while 35 seamen were stranded in the stern section. The tanker immediately sent out an SOS and the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrios answered. The St Davids lifeboat, Civil Service No. 6, was launched at 08.28 and on reaching the stern section, rescued the 35 crew members. The lifeboat left the World Concord at 12.30 and by then the weather had deteriorated further, with visibility down to half a mile and a gale blowing from the south. Meanwhile the bow section with the seven men on board continued to drift northwards.
At lunchtime on the 27th November, 1954, a fierce gale was blowing in Rosslare Bay and in St. George's Channel. The sea was in a frenzy with huge waves battering the coast and any ships which were caught out in the storm. The Rosslare Harbour lifeboatmen were having their dinner when the maroons went up and the lifeboat was tasked to find the World Concord and rescue the seven men on the bow section. At 13.30 the Rosslare Harbour Lifeboat was asked to launch and Coxswain Dickie Walsh and the following crew made there way to the boatstrand to launch the lifeboat cot. The lifeboat left her moorings at 13.50 hours. By the time that they got underway the crew must have already been soaked through and cold. Little did they realise what an ordeal lay ahead of them.
The wind was SW force 8 and the sea given as rough, as the Douglas Hyde left the harbour and drove into the terrible seas. The 'Irish Free Press' described the lifeboat's departure 'mountainous seas made matters critical from the very start, and, as the lifeboat buffeted its way into the open sea in the teeth of the gale, crowds watched its departure, and relatives and friends of the gallant crew began an anxious vigil as the boat departed'.
The Douglas Hyde had an open cockpit with just a windscreen as protection from the driving sea and spray. This resulted in the lifeboatmen's eyes becoming red raw and almost closed.
Radio messages were relayed via Tuskar Rock Lighthouse, as the lifeboat was out of range of the station for most of the time. As the Douglas Hyde fought its way to the World Concord, the Coxswain learned that the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and the tug Turmoil were standing by the wreck. At 16.33 Dickie Walsh sent a message to the Illustrious saying that 'visibility was very bad but making good progress'. At 17.32 the searchlights of the aircraft carrier were visible from the lifeboat. At 18.30 the lifeboat reported that she was one mile from tug Turmoil and half a mile from the forepart of the tanker. HMS Illustrious reported the wind at this stage was force 12. By now it was dark and the gale had not moderated. Coxswain Walsh made one run past the forepart to assess the situation and decided that as the tanker crew were in no immediate danger, the lifeboat would standby all night and attempt a rescue at first light. Between 20.00 and 04.00 the lifeboat then kept circling within a half mile radius of the casualty.
From midnight until 06.00 the weather deteriorated further with winds of hurricane force and visibility often reduced to fifty yards. It was impossible to use the cabin cooker and the crew used provisions from the locker to sustain themselves from the severe buffeting which they were getting from the heavy seas which were continually washing over the boat.
This was to be the longest night of their lives as not only had they to try and get some sleep, in a tiny lifeboat which was being tossed around like a cork for hours on end but also watch had to be kept on the tanker all night. Dickie Walsh and Billy Duggan stayed at the wheel all through the night, with each crew member taking turns on watch. The two mechanics also would not leave their station and stayed there all night. There was a concern that the lifeboat would run out of fuel if the rescue took much longer.
At 07.30 the tug Turmoil reported to the Douglas Hyde that 'the crew of the World Concord would be ready to leave their ship in half an hour'. Coxswain Walsh manoeuvred the lifeboat close to the forepart of the tanker, with huge waves threatening to smash the lifeboat into the wreck or away into the raging seas. Twenty runs were made and eventually all the tanker crew were safely aboard the Douglas Hyde. At 08.20 the Master of the World Concord sent thanks to all Naval, Merchant Vessels and Lifeboats who had assisted. At 08.40 Coxswain Walsh sent a message to the Coastguard Holyhead saying 'Have taken off crew of World Concord and am proceeding to Holyhead'.
The lifeboat crew were forced to stay in Holyhead for longer because the weather was still very bad. They eventually left at 07.30 on 1st December and after another long journey they came around the breakwater into Rosslare Harbour at 20.50 that evening. What greeted these seven heroes was an unbelievable sight as every person from the village and beyond were assembled on the pier to welcome home the Douglas Hyde and their famous crew. A brass band from Wexford struck up 'the boys of Wexford' as the crew came ashore. Coxswain Walsh was heard to say that he would rather be back out at sea than having to address this crowd.
Messages of congratulations were received over the next few days. The rescue made the front pages of the New York Times and the crew were hailed as heroes in all quarters. Christmas turned out to be good for the lifeboat crew and their families as a hamper and a cheque were presented to them, following a collection from all their friends and neighbours in the village.
The RNLI presented a silver medal to Coxswain Dickie Walsh with bronze medals going to Second Coxswain Billy Duggan and Mechanic Richard Hickey. The other crew members were presented with vellums.
Jack Wickham was presented with a special medal, to commemorate his part in the rescue, by the people of Rosslare Harbour.