When I was growing up, I always knew about the body that had been washed up on the beach in Cullenstown. This was a Norwegian sailor and it was during the Second World War. It’s only been in the last few months that I have fully come to appreciate the heartache and loss that this incident caused.
My mother was from Cullenstown in South Wexford – and I was familiar with the stories she told me about about her growing up in the cliff side cottage overlooking the Keeragh Islands and the Irish sea.
Like the time a crate of oranges ended up on the beach in front of the house – probably from a convoy ship sunk by a German U-boat; or when the windows of the cottage were blown in by a seamine exploding near the local coastguard station – 4 soldiers from the Curragh were killed in that incident.
But it was the story surrounding the finding of the Norwegian seaman on the strand in Cullenstown that is the most poignant for me.
Captain Hans Gullestad commanded the Merchant vessel Hidlefjord, a tanker built in Copenhagen in 1928 and registered out of Stavanger in Norway. Norwegian merchant shipping played a big part in the merchant convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic and for it’s last fateful journey, the Hidlefjod had docked in Aruba (north of Venezuela).
Leaving Aruba on 12 of February – it joined up with the rest of a convoy coming from Halifax in Nova Scotia. The variety of products on the 41 ship convoy (HX114) shows the typical supplies needed as part of the war effort which included lumber, steel, fuel oil (on the Hidlefjord), wheat, TNT, bombers and 5 hurricane fighters.
Avoiding predatory U-boat attacks, the convoy made its way to the over the Atlantic, reaching Liverpool on the 30th March 1941; but the Hidlefjord was bound for Avonmouth in the Bristol Channel. It wasn’t until later in 1941 and 1942 that British coastal air defences were to be defended more solidly against opportunistic Luftwaffe attack.
On 1st April 1941 at 9.30 in the morning just south of Milford Haven – 3 Heinkel bombers commanded by Major Gerhard Ulbricht and flying out of Tours in France – attacked and sank the Hidlefjord. Of the 40 crew on board, only 5 survived.
In that one day – these same German bombers attacked and sank the Conrado as well as badly damaging 3 other ships. The month of April was to prove the most devastating for the convoys – 116 ships were sunk by the Luftwaffe in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean – the highest toll in the whole of the war.
So it would have been sometime later in the month of April that my Uncle Paddy, then aged 22 or so- and his friend discovered Captain Gullestad’s body.
He was buried locally in Sheamogues cemetery and his papers sent to the Red Cross in Dublin, and onward to the exiled Norwegian Government in London.
So how come his family did not find out until nearly 20 years later that we was buried in Co Wexford?
The main reason would have been the turmoil and dislocation that there would have been at this time, and in the years after the war. While the Red Cross had given all of the papers to the Norwegian Government representatives, and these papers had been received by the family after the war – incredibly the key fact that Captain Gullestad’s body had been recovered and buried in Wexford – was not known to the family.
It was not until 1959, probably on one his summer holidays home from Newport in South Wales – that Uncle Paddy decided to take this issue by the scruff of the neck.
Presumably frustrated by the fact that there was still not a gravestone commemorating the fallen sailor – Paddy wrote a letter to the Mayor of Stavanger asking whether the Captain had any family.
So nineteen years later – Henning and Evelyn Gullestad find out what had been the fate of their father. One cannot imagine on the one hand their joy of finding out his final resting place but on another – the pain they must have felt for their poor mother who had died in 1950 not knowing her husbands final fate.
And so it was that later that year, the Gullestad’s came to Cullenstown to pay their respects, and later a permanent memorial was erected by the Norwegian Government.
In 2008, I came acrooss a reference to the Hidlefjord on Siri Lawson’s website – and sent her a short email which she published; this version of the story had been corraborated by another of my Uncles some years previously – and early in 2010 I also sent her a photograph of the headstone.
So it was pretty incredible in early October 2010 to receive an email from Captain Gullestads daughter Evelyn – who now lives in Stockholm, Sweden.
The Gullestad-Claessons made a visit to Cullenstown at the end of October 2010, and while I did not get the opportunity to meet them – I know that they enjoyed their visit.
My assumption had been that this story was “history” – something that had happened a long time ago, and whose memory and consequence were fading.
Until now – while this man had a name, he was anonymous – a casualty to war and terrible times. It’s good that we have come full circle. We can have a face to the name, and we can see his children and grandchildren cherishing his life.
Any time my family are visiting Cullenstown – we always have a triumvirate of graveyards to visit. There is the very ancient church and cemetery at Bannow – the Normans landed nearby in 1169; there is the family plot in Carrig-on-Bannow and finally there is Captain Gullestads final resting place. That tradition will continue.
As an addendum to this story – I have also recorded a short audio piece the RTE Radio programme “Seascapes” – this was played on Friday, 18th February at 10.30pm on Radio 1.
The shownotes are here and you can listen to the show from the link below.
*Evelyn Gullestad has very generously allowed me to use the photograghs contained in this story.