One of the most dramatic and legendary events in the history of Irish foxhunting took place with the Galway Blazers on December 19 1953 between Cregg Castle, Corrandulla, and beyond the Clare river, near Anbally. This is great fox hunting terrain. It’s level going, open and free. When on a good scent the hounds will skim the walls, and allow no time for man or beast to make mistakes if they want to stay close to them. December 19 1953 was a clear, frosty day. The hounds were in full pursuit ‘skimming the long low walls the way the swallows do’. After a four mile chase they hit the river Clare about a mile short of the nearest bridge at Corofin village.
The river was in flood, but the hounds plunged in, emerging as one body on the other bank, and headed off at full throttle towards Ballyglunin. Mr John Lancelot Smith, Master of the Hunt, was renowned for keeping up with the hounds no matter where they went. Automatically he plunged into the raging river, and immediately was in trouble. He separated from his horse, which managed to drag herself ashore, but the current brought Lancelot Smith downstream. His heavy hunting clothes and boots soon filled with water, and it became impossible to swim. Luckily he managed to cling to an overhanging branch; and there he perilously clung thinking his end had come. But incredibly, as if in a Hollywood movie, a rider galloped up, and saw immediately the danger. He leapt from his horse, threw off his heavy red coat, threw his cap to the winds, and dived into the swift moving torrent. Despite the fact that he was still wearing boots, he swam strongly towards the helpless master.
Lancelot Smith could not have wished for a better saviour had it been an angel from God. The ‘angel’ was Commander William Leslie-King, one of the most distinguished submarine commanders on either side in World War II, and an ocean yachtsman of world renown.
His war record is astonishing. He was the only submarine commander to serve and survive the entire war, and was awarded the DSO twice for exceptional bravery. Known locally as the Commander, he learned much of the sea from a widowed grandmother who, at the age of 75 years, started sailing her own yawl round the stormy coast of west Scotland.
He joined the Royal Navy at the tender age of 13 years. When the war started he commanded the submarine Snapper. One of his first appointments was patrolling the coast of Norway which was appallingly dangerous, especially when the midnight sun gave no sheltering darkness. And during that first winter of the war, it was cold. “When we were at sea,” he wrote*, “the spray turned us into crackling icicles moving stiffly on the bridge, while the watch below lived in wet woollens, impossible to dry.”
During April 10 and April 15 Snapper sank five enemy ships. Then one afternoon, south of Oslo, a small German tanker came into view. Torpedoes were getting low, so King decided to surface, and give the crew time to abandon ship before he sank her with gunfire. The ship refused, and tried to zig-zag her way to escape. Snapper opened fire and immediately the tanker went up in a sheet of flame. She was carrying aviation fuel. It was madness not to surrender.
Now there were survivors struggling in the water. Some of them swam towards the submarine calling to be rescued. It was strictly against navy regulations to pick up survivors. It put your submarine in danger; it became a sitting target, and fire from the burning tanker would alert enemy gun ships to rush to the scene. A ship appeared on the horizon, but King reckoned there was just time to grab the nearest swimmers. Two of his men dragged the first survivors on board “and lowered them shaking with exhaustion and cold down the forehatch. I didn’t like keeping my men out there 20 ft below the conning tower, a dangerous place in case of an emergency dive. They had the last sodden body on the casing when the first enemy plane appeared. ‘Clear the foredeck and dive,’ I ordered, but my third officer Geoffrey Carew Hunt begged me to let this last man down the steep cluttered forehatch and shut it. I let him do it. It took perhaps 15 seconds, but 15 seconds count in the life of the submarine. Later I reprimanded myself.”
The prisoners, six in all, were soon wrapped in blankets being ‘petted and pampered’ by the crew. Yet after only a 10-minute immersion in icy waters, two died from shock.
Drove like hell
Now 14 years later Bill King reached the stricken Lancelot Smith and heaved him out of the water. A farmhand had caught the Huntsman’s mare and held her in the field.
Lancelot Smith emptied the water from his boots and with King’s help, wet and heavy, clambered back on to his horse (she was a splendid 16.3 ), and galloped after the baying hounds. I am reminded of that amusing poem, John Gilpin, part of which goes:
John Gilpin at his horse’s side
Seized fast the flowing mane,
And up he got, in haste to ride,
But soon came down again.
Away went Gilpin, neck or nought;
Away went hat and wig;
He little dreamt when he set out,
Of running such a rig.
The dogs did bark, the children scream’d,
Up flew the windows all;
And every soul cried out, Well done!
As loud as he could bawl...
( by Wiliam Cowper 1731 - 1800 ).
But it wasn’t funny for Bill King. He was now seriously cold. He had two choices. He could swim back, collect his clothes and ride home to shelter; or stay on the other bank, make his way across country to the bridge at Corofin about a mile away, and get a lift home in a warm car. He shouted at some of this fellow riders (who had arrived where he dived into the river ), and asked them to take care of his horse and clothes. He was going to run to Corofin to try to get warm. He asked them to get his wife, Anita, to meet him on the bridge with their car, and to get a hot bath ready. In his younger days King had won the Mediterranean Fleet Marathon, and the Royal Navy Mile, so the ‘Corofin Mile’ was well within his compass.
He arrived at Corofin, and Anita was waiting there. She drove like hell to get him back to their home at Oranmore Castle, and into that steaming bath.
Commander King was born in Hampshire in 1910. He passed away surrounded by his family at his home Oranmore Castle last September 21, aged 102 years.
NOTES: Jerome Mahony kindly reminded me of this amazing rescue, and quoted his father’s entertaining book: The Galway Blazers, Memoirs, by Edmund Mahony published by Kenny’s, Galway 1979.
*From Adventure in Depth, by Bill King, published by Nautical, 1975.