A Voyage of Adventure

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XVIII

Although Mr. Lloyd George's message to mankind on New Year's Day, 1914, was that "Anglo-German relations were far more friendly than for years past,"[87] and that there was therefore no need to strengthen the British Navy, it may be doubted, with the knowledge we now possess, whether the German Government would have been greatly incensed at the idea of a cargo of firearms finding its way from Hamburg to Ireland in the spring of that year without the knowledge of the British Government. But if that were the case Fred Crawford had no reason to suspect it. German surveillance was always both efficient and obtrusive, and he had to make his preparations under a vigilance by the authorities which showed no signs of laxity.

Those preparations involved the assembling and the packing of 20,000 modern rifles, 15,000 of which had to be brought from a factory in Austria; 10,000 Italian rifles previously purchased, which B. S. had in store; bayonets for all the firearms; and upwards of 3,000,000 rounds of small-arm ammunition. The packing of the arms was a matter to which Crawford gave particular attention. He kept in mind the circumstances under which he expected them to be landed in Ulster. Avoidance of confusion and rapidity of handling were of the first importance. Rifles, bayonets, and ammunition must be not separated in bulk, requiring to be laboriously reassembled at their destination. He therefore insisted that parcels should be made up containing five rifles in each, with bayonets to match, and 100 rounds of ammunition per rifle, each parcel weighing about 75 lbs. He attached so much importance to this system of packing that he adhered to it even after discovering that it would cost about £2,000, and would take more than a month to complete.

While the work of packing was going on, Crawford, who found he was exciting the curiosity of the Hamburg police, kept out of sight as much as possible, and he paid more than one visit to the Committee in Belfast, leaving the supervision to the skipper and packer, whom he had found he could trust. In the meantime, by advertisements in the Scandinavian countries, he was looking out for a suitable steamer to carry the cargo. For a crew his thoughts turned to his old friend, Andrew Agnew, skipper in the employment of the Antrim Iron Ore Company. Happily he was not only able to secure the services of Agnew himself, but Agnew brought with him his mate and his chief and second engineers. This was a great gain; for they were not only splendid men at their job, but were men willing to risk their liberty or their lives for the Ulster cause. Deck-hands and firemen would be procurable at whatever port a steamer was to be bought.

Several vessels were offered in response to Crawford's advertisements, and on the 16th of March, when the packing of the arms was well advanced, Crawford, Agnew, and his chief engineer went to Norway to inspect these steamers. Eventually they selected the S.S. Fanny, which had just returned to Bergen with a cargo of coal from Newcastle. She was only an eight-knot vessel, but her skipper, a Norwegian, gave a favourable report of her sea-going qualities and coal consumption, and Agnew and his engineer were satisfied by their inspection of her. The deal was quickly completed, and the Captain and his Norwegian crew willingly consented to remain in charge of the Fanny; and, in order to enable her to sail under the Norwegian flag, as a precaution against possible confiscation in British waters, it was arranged that the Captain should be the nominal purchaser, giving Crawford a mortgage for her full value.

Then, leaving Agnew to get sufficient stores on board the Fanny for a three-months' cruise, Crawford returned to Hamburg on the 20th, and thence to Belfast to report progress. Agnew's orders were to bring the Fanny in three weeks' time to a rendezvous marked on the chart between the Danish islands of Langeland and Fünen, where he was to pick up the cargo of arms, which Crawford would bring in lighters from Hamburg through the Kiel Canal.

While Crawford was in Belfast arrangements were made to enable him to keep in communication with Spender, so that in case of necessity he could be warned not to approach the Irish coast, but to cruise in the Baltic till a more favourable opportunity. He was to let Spender know later where he could be reached with final instructions as to landing the arms; the rendezvous so agreed upon subsequently was Lough Laxford, a wild and inaccessible spot on the west coast of Sutherlandshire. Crawford was warned by B. S. that he was far from confident of a successful end to their labours at Hamburg. He had never before shipped anything like so large a number of firearms; and the long process of packing, and Crawford's own mysterious coming and going, would be certain to excite suspicion, which would reach the secret agents of the British Government, and lead either to a protest addressed to the German authorities, followed by a prohibition on shipping the arms, or to confiscation by the British authorities when the cargo entered British territorial waters.

These fears must have been present to the mind of B. S. when he met Crawford at the station in Hamburg on the 27th on his return from Belfast, for the precautions taken to avoid being followed gave their movements the character of an adventure by one of Stanley Weyman's heroes of romance. Whether any suspicion had in fact been aroused remains unknown. Anyhow, the barges were ready laden, with a tug waiting till the tide should serve about midnight for making a start down the Elbe, and through the canal to Kiel. The modest sum of £10 procured an order authorising the tug and barges to proceed through the canal without stopping, and requiring other shipping to let them pass. A black flag was the signal of this privileged position, which suggested the "Jolly Roger" to Crawford's thoughts, and gave a sense of insolent audacity when great liners of ten or fifteen thousand tons were seen making way for a tug-boat towing a couple of lighters.

For the success of the enterprise up to this point Crawford was greatly indebted to the Jew, B. S. From first to last this gentleman "played the game" with sterling honesty and straightforward dealing that won his customers' warm admiration. Several times he accepted Crawford's word as sufficient security when cash was not immediately forthcoming, and in no instance did he bear out the character traditionally attributed to his race.

On arrival at Kiel, Crawford, after a short absence from the tug, was informed that three men had been inquiring from the lightermen and the tug's skipper about the nature and destination of the cargo. All such evidences of curiosity on the subject were rather alarming, but it turned out that the visitors were probably Mexicans—of what political party there it would be impossible to guess—whose interest had been aroused by the rumour, which Crawford had encouraged, that guns were being shipped to that distracted Republic. Still more alarming was the arrival on board the tug of a German official in resplendent uniform, who insisted that he must inspect the cargo. Crawford knew no German, but the shipping agent who accompanied him produced papers showing that all formalities had been complied with, and all requisite authorisation obtained. Neither official papers, however, nor arguments made any impression on the officer until it occurred to Crawford to produce a 100-marks note, which proved much more persuasive, and sent the official on his way rejoicing, with expressions of civility on both sides.

The relief of the Ulsterman when the last of the Kiel forts was left behind, and he knew that his cargo was clear of Germany, may be imagined. A night was spent crossing Kiel Bay, and in the morning of the 29th they were close to Langeland, and approaching the rendezvous with the Fanny. She was there waiting, and Agnew, in obedience to orders, had already painted out her name on bows and stern. The next thing was to transfer the arms from the lighters to the Fanny. Crawford was apprehensive lest the Danish authorities should take an interest in the proceedings if the work was carried out in the narrow channel between the islands, and he proposed, as it was quite calm, to defer operations till they were further from the shore. But the Norwegian Captain declared that he had often transhipped cargo at this spot, and that there was no danger whatever. Nevertheless, Crawford's fears were realised. Before the work was half finished a Danish Port Officer came on board, asked what the cargo comprised, and demanded to see the ship's papers. According to the manifest the Fanny was bound for Iceland with a general cargo, part of which was to be shipped at Bergen. The Danish officer then spent half an hour examining the bales, and, although he did not open any of them, Crawford felt no doubt he knew perfectly the nature of their contents. Finally he insisted on carrying off the papers, both of the Fanny and the tug-boat, saying that all the information must be forwarded to Copenhagen to be dealt with by the Government authorities, but that the papers would be returned early next morning.

One can well believe Crawford when he says that he suffered "mental agony" that night. After all that he had planned, and all that he had accomplished by many months of personal energy and resource, he saw complete and ignominious failure staring him in the face. He realised the heavy financial loss to the Ulster Loyalists, for his cargo represented about £70,000 of their money; and he realised the bitter disappointment of their hopes, which was far worse than any loss of money. He pictured to himself what must happen in the morning—"to have to follow a torpedo-boat into the naval base and lie there till the whole Ulster scheme was unravelled and known to the world as a ghastly failure, and the Province and Sir Edward and all the leaders the laughing stock of the world"—and the thought of it all plunged him almost into despair.

Almost, but not quite. He was not the man to give way to despair. If it came to the worst he would "put all the foreign crew and their belongings into the boats and send them off; Agnew and I would arm ourselves with a bundle of rifles, and cut it open and have 500 rounds to fight any attempt to board us, and if we slipped this by any chance, he and I would bring her to England together, he on deck and I in the engine-room. He knew all about navigation and I knew all about engines, having been a marine engineer in my youth."

But a less desperate job called for immediate attention. The men engaged in transferring the cargo from the barges to the steamer wanted to knock off work for the night; but the offer of double pay persuaded them to stick to it, and they worked with such good will that by midnight every bale was safely below hatches in the Fanny. Crawford then instructed the shipping agent to be off in the tug at break of day, giving him letters to post which would apprise the Committee in Belfast of what had happened, and give them the means of communicating with himself according to previously concerted plans.

Before morning a change occurred in the weather, which Crawford regarded as providential. He was gladdened by the sight of a sea churned white by half a gale, while a mist lay on the water, reducing visibility to about 300 yards. It would be impossible for the Port Officer's motor-boat to face such a sea, or, if it did, to find the Fanny, unless guided by her fog-whistle. As soon as eight o'clock had passed—the hour by which the return of the ship's papers had been promised—Crawford weighed anchor, and crept out of the narrow channel under cover of the fog, only narrowly escaping going aground on the way among the banks and shallows that made it impossible to sail before daylight, but eventually the open sea was safely reached. But the Fanny was now without papers, and in law was a pirate ship. It was therefore desirable for her to change her costume. As many hands as possible were turned to the task of giving a new colour to the funnel and making some other effective alterations in her appearance, including a new name on her bows and stern. Thus renovated, and after a delay of some days, caused by trifling mishaps, she left the Cattegat behind and steered a course for British waters.

The original plan had been to set a course for Iceland, and, when north of the Shetlands, to turn to the southward to Lough Laxford, the agreed rendezvous with Spender.

But the incident at Langeland, which had made the Danish authorities suspect illegal traffic with Iceland, made a change of plan imperative. Before leaving Danish waters Crawford tried to communicate this change to Belfast. But, meantime, information had reached Belfast of certain measures being taken by the Government, and Spender, hoping to catch Crawford before he left Kiel, went to Dublin to telegraph from there. In Dublin he was dismayed to read in the newspapers that a mysterious vessel called the Fanny, said to be carrying arms for Ulster, had been captured by the Danish authorities in the Baltic. For several days no further news reached Belfast, where it was assumed that the whole enterprise had failed; and then a code message informed the Committee that Crawford was in London.

Spender at once went over to see him, in order to warn him not to bring the arms to Ireland for the present. He was to take them back to Hamburg, or throw them overboard, or sink the Fanny and take to her boats, according to circumstances. But in London, instead of Crawford, Spender found the Hamburg skipper and packer, who told him of Crawford's escape from Langeland with the loss of the ship's papers. Spender, knowing nothing of Crawford's change of plan, and anxious to convey to him the latest instructions, went off on a wild-goose chase to the Highlands of Scotland, where he spent the best part of an unhappy week watching the waves tumbling in Lough Laxford, and looking as anxiously as Tristan for the expected ship.

Meantime the Fanny had crossed the North Sea, and Crawford sent Agnew ashore at Yarmouth on the 7th of April with orders to hurry to Belfast, where he was to procure another steamer and bring it to a rendezvous at Lundy Island, in the Bristol Channel. Crawford himself, having rechristened the Fanny for the second time (this time the Doreen), proceeded down the English Channel, where he had a rather adventurous cruise in a gale of wind. He kept close to the French coast, to avoid any unwelcome attentions in British waters, but on the way had an attack of malaria, which the Captain thought so grave that, no doubt with the most humane motives, he declared his intention of putting Crawford ashore at Dunkirk to save his life, a design which no persuasion short of Crawford's handling of his revolver in true pirate fashion would make the Norwegian abandon.

In the heavy seas of the Channel the Doreen could not make more than four knots, and she was consequently twenty-four hours late for the rendezvous with Agnew at Lundy, where she arrived on the 11th of April. The Bristol Channel seemed to swarm with pilot boats eager to be of service, whose inquisitive and expert eyes were anything but welcome to the custodian of Ulster's rifles; and to his highly strung imagination every movement of every trawler appeared to betoken suspicion. And, indeed, they were not without excuse for curiosity; for, a foreign steamer whose course seemed indeterminate, now making for Cardiff and now for St. Ives, observed at one time north-east of Lundy and a few hours later south of the island—a tramp, in fact, that was obviously "loitering" with no ascertainable destination, was enough to keep telescopes to the eyes of Devon pilots and fisher-folk, and to set their tongues wagging. But there was no help for it. Crawford could not leave the rendezvous till Agnew arrived, and was forced to wander round Lundy and up and down the Bristol Channel for two days and nights, until, at 5 a.m. on Monday morning, the 13th of April, a signal from a passing steamer, the Balmerino, gave the welcome tidings that Agnew was on board and was proceeding to sea.

When the two steamers were sufficiently far from Lundy lighthouse and other prying eyes to make friendly intercourse safe, Agnew came on board the Doreen, bringing with him another North Irish seaman whom he introduced to Crawford. This man handed to Crawford a paper he had brought from Belfast. It was typewritten; it bore no address and no signature; it was no doubt a duplicate of what Spender had taken to the Highlands, for its purport, as given by Crawford from memory, was to the following effect: "Owing to great changes since you left, and altered circumstances, the Committee think it would be unwise to bring the cargo here at present, and instruct you to proceed to the Baltic and cruise there for three months, keeping in touch with the Committee, or else to store the goods at Hamburg till required."

The "great changes" referred to were the operations that led to the Curragh incident, the story of which Crawford now learnt from Agnew. The presence of the fleet at Lamlash, and of destroyers off Carrickfergus, was enough to make the Committee deem it an inopportune moment for Crawford to bring his goods to Belfast Lough. But the latter was hardly in a condition to appreciate the gravity of the situation, and the indignation which the missive aroused in him is intelligible. After all he had come through, the ups and downs, dangers and escapes—far more varied than have been here recorded—the disappointment at being ordered back was cruel; and in his eyes such instructions were despicably pusillanimous. The caution that had prompted his instructors to leave the order unsigned moved him to contempt, and in his wrath he was confident that "the Chief at any rate had nothing to do with it." He told the messenger that he did not know who had sent the paper, and did not want to know, and instructed him to take it back and inform the senders that, as it bore no signature, no date, no address, and no official stamp, he declined to recognise it and refused to obey it; and, further, that unless he received within six days properly authenticated instructions for delivering his cargo, he would run his ship ashore at high water in the County Down, and let the Ulstermen salve as much as they could when the tide ebbed.

But Crawford determined to make another effort first to accomplish his task by less desperate methods. He therefore decided to accompany the messenger back to Belfast. The Doreen, late Fanny, was too foreign-looking to pass unchallenged up Belfast Lough, but he believed that if the cargo could be transhipped to a vessel known to all watchers on the North Irish coast, a policy of audacity would have a good chance of success. The S.S. Balmerino, which had brought Agnew and the messenger to Lundy, was such a vessel; her owner, Mr. Sam Kelly, was an intimate friend of Crawford's; and if he could see Kelly the matter, he hoped, might be quickly arranged. The reliance which Crawford placed in Mr. Sam Kelly was fully justified, for the assistance rendered by this gentleman was essential to the success of the enterprise. He it was who freely supplied two steamers, with crews and stevedores, thereby enabling the last part of this adventurous voyage to be carried through; and the willingness with which Mr. Kelly risked financial loss, and much besides, placed Ulster under an obligation to him for which he sought no recompense.

Crawford accordingly went off in the Balmerino, landed in South Wales on Tuesday, the 14th of April, and hastened by the quickest route to Belfast. Agnew took charge of the Doreen, with instructions to be at the Tuskar Light, on the Wexford coast, on the following Friday night, the 17th, and to return there every night until Crawford rejoined him. A friend of Crawford's, Mr. Richard Cowser, with whom he had a conversation on the telephone from Dublin, met him at the railway-station in Belfast and told him that he had a motor waiting to take him to Craigavon, where the Council was expecting him, and that he would see Mr. Sam Kelly, the owner of the Balmerino, there also. This news made Crawford very angry. He accused his friend of breach of confidence in letting anyone know that he was coming to Belfast; he declared he would have nothing to do with the Council after the unsigned orders he had received at Lundy; and he besought his friend to take his car to Craigavon and bring back Kelly, repeating his determination to bring in his cargo, even if he had to run his ship ashore to do so. Mr. Cowser replied that this would be very disappointing to Sir Edward Carson, who was waiting for Crawford at Craigavon, having come from London on purpose for this Council Meeting. "What!" exclaimed Crawford, "is Sir Edward there? Why did you not say so at once? Where is your car? Let us waste no time till I see the Chief and report to him."

That evening of the 14th of April, at Craigavon, was a memorable one for all who were present at the meeting. Carson invited Crawford to relate all he had done, and to explain how he proposed to proceed. The latter did not mince matters in saying what he thought of the Lundy instructions, which he again declared angrily he intended to disobey. When he had finished his narrative and his protestations against what he considered a cowardly policy—a policy that would deprive Ulster of succour as sorely needed as Derry needed the Mountjoy to break the boom—Carson put a few questions to him in regard to the feasibility of his plans. Crawford explained the advantage it would be to transfer the cargo from the Fanny to a local steamer, which he felt confident he could bring into Larne, and after the transhipment he would send the Fanny straight back to the Baltic, where she could settle her account with the Danish authorities and recover her papers.

Some members of the Council were sceptical about the possibility of transhipping the cargo at sea, but Crawford, who had fully discussed it with Agnew, believed that if favoured by calm weather it could be done. When Carson, after hearing all that was to be said on both sides in the long debate between Fabius and Hotspur, finally supported the latter, the question was decided. There was no split—there never was in these deliberations in Ulster; those whose judgment was overruled always supported loyally the policy decided upon.

Immediate measures were then taken to give effect to the decision. Kelly knew of a suitable craft, the S.S. Clydevalley, for sale at that moment in Glasgow, which would be in Belfast next morning with a cargo of coal. This was providential. A collier familiar to every longshoreman in Belfast Lough, carrying on her usual trade this week, could hardly be suspected of carrying rifles when she returned next week ostensibly in the same line of business. It was settled that Crawford should cross to Glasgow at once and buy her; the steamer, when bought, was to go from Belfast to Llandudno, where she would pick up Crawford on the sands, and proceed to keep the rendezvous with Agnew at the Tuskar Light on Friday; and, after taking over the Fanny's cargo, would then steam boldly up Belfast Lough and through the Musgrave Channel to the Belfast docks, where he undertook to arrive on the Friday week, the 24th of April, the various proposals which named Larne, Bangor, and Donaghadee as ports of discharge having all been rejected after full discussion. This last decision was not approved by Crawford, for he and Spender had long before this time agreed that Larne harbour was the proper place to land the arms, both because the large number of country roads leading to it would facilitate rapid distribution, and because it would be more difficult for the authorities to interfere with the disembarkation there than at any of the other ports.

Before parting from the Council Crawford made it quite clear that during the remainder of the adventure he would recognise no orders of any kind unless they bore the autograph signature of Sir Edward Carson. On this understanding he set out for Glasgow, bought the Clydevalley, and went by train to Llandudno to await her arrival. These affairs had left very little margin of time to spare. The Clydevalley could not be at Llandudno before the morning of the 17th, and Agnew would be looking for her at the Tuskar the same evening. As it actually turned out she only arrived at the Welsh watering-place late that night, and, after picking up Crawford, who had spent an anxious day on the beach, arrived off the Wexford coast at daybreak on Saturday, the 18th. Not a sign of the Fanny was to be seen all that day, or the following night; and when the skipper of the Clydevalley, who had been on the Balmerino and was privy to the arrangements with Agnew, gave Crawford reason to think there might have been a misunderstanding as to the rendezvous, Yarmouth having been also mentioned in that connection, Crawford was in a condition almost of desperation.

It was, indeed, a situation to test the nerves, to say nothing of the temper, of even the most resolute. It was Sunday, and Crawford had undertaken to be at Copeland Island, at the mouth of Belfast Lough, on Friday evening for final landing instructions. The precious cargo, which had passed safely through so many hazards, had vanished and was he knew not where. He had heard nothing of the Fanny (or Doreen) since he landed at Tenby five days previously. Had she been captured by a destroyer from Pembroke, or overhauled, pirate as she was without papers, by Customs officials from Rosslare? Or had Agnew mistaken his instructions, and risked all the dangers of the English Channel in a fruitless voyage to Yarmouth, where, even if still undetected, the Fanny would be too far away to reach Copeland by Friday, unless Agnew could be communicated with at once?

There was only one way in which such communication could be managed, and that way Crawford now took with characteristic promptitude and energy. The Clydevalley crossed the Irish Sea to Fishguard, where he took train on Sunday night to London and Yarmouth, having first made arrangements with the skipper for keeping in touch. But there was no trace of the Fanny at Yarmouth, and no word from Agnew at the Post Office. There appeared to be no solution of the problem, and every precious hour that slipped away made ultimate failure more menacing. But at two o'clock the outlook entirely changed. A second visit to the Post Office was rewarded by a telegram in code from Agnew saying all was well, and that he would be at Holyhead to pick up Crawford on Tuesday evening. There was just time to catch a London train that arrived in time for the Irish mail from Euston. On Tuesday morning Crawford was pacing the breakwater at Holyhead, and a few hours later he was discussing matters with Agnew in the little cabin of the Clydevalley.

The latter had amply made up for the loss of time caused by some misunderstanding as to the rendezvous at the Tuskar, for he was able to show Crawford, to his intense delight, that the cargo had all been safely and successfully transferred to the hold of the Clydevalley in a bay on the Welsh coast, mainly at night. Some sixteen transport labourers from Belfast, willing Ulster hands, had shifted the stuff in less than half the time taken by Germans at Langeland over the same job. There was, therefore, nothing more to be done except to steam leisurely to Cope-land, for which there was ample time before Friday evening. The Fanny had departed to an appointed rendezvous on the Baltic coast of Denmark.

It was now the turn of the Clydevalley to yield up her obscure identity, and to assume an historic name appropriate to the adventure she was bringing to a triumphant climax—a name of good omen in Ulster ears. Strips of canvas, 6 feet long, were cut and painted with white letters on a black ground, and affixed to bows and stern, so that the men waiting at Copeland might hail the arrival of the Mountjoy II.

Off Copeland Island a small vessel was waiting, which Agnew recognised as a tender belonging to Messrs. Workman & Clark. The men on board, as soon as they could make out the name of the approaching vessel, understood at once, and raised a ringing cheer. Two of them were seen gesticulating and hailing the Mountjoy. Crawford, suspecting fresh orders to retreat, paid no attention, and told Agnew to hold on his course; and even when presently he was able to recognise Mr. Cowser and Mr. Dawson Bates on board the tender, and to hear them shouting that they had important instructions for him, he still refused to let them come on board. "If the orders are not signed by Sir Edward Carson," he shouted back, "you can take them back to where they came from." But the orders they brought had been signed by the leader, a special messenger having been sent to London to obtain his signature, and the change of plan they indicated was, in fact, just what Crawford desired. The bulk of the arms were to be landed at Larne, the port he had always favoured, and lesser quantities were to be taken to Bangor and Donaghadee.

It was 10.30 that night, the 24th of April 1914, when the Mountjoy II steamed alongside the landing-stage at Larne, where she had been eagerly awaited for a couple of hours. The voyage of adventure was over. Fred Crawford, with the able and zealous help of Andrew Agnew, had accomplished the difficult and dangerous task he had undertaken, and a service had been rendered to Ulster not unworthy to rank beside the breaking of the boom across the Foyle by the first and more renowned Mountjoy.

Read "Ulster's Stand for Union" at your leisure

Ulster's Stand for Union

Read Ulster's Stand for Union at your leisure and help support this free Irish library.

Ronald McNeill provides a truly fascinating account of the Home Rule Crisis of 1912 from a Unionist perspective. The book covers, inter alia, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the drafting and signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, gun-running to Larne and Donaghadee, Ulster in the Great War, and the establishment of the Ulster Parliament in 1921.

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