It (Almost) Happened Here
The Wehrmacht Campaign In Ireland, 1940-42
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous nine chapters of this series we chronicled the German invasion of Ireland, the Allied counteroffensive, the effects of the invasion on the course of the war as a whole, and the ultimate defeat of the Wehrmacht campaign in southern Ireland. In this final instalment we’ll summarize the final months of Irish participation in the Second World War and how the consequences of the German occupation would shape Irish politics in the decades following the war’s end.
On To Berlin: June 1944-April 1945
One Irish soldier on the sands of Normandy on D-Day would have been bad enough as far as their German defenders were concerned-- the sight of an entire division of them slogging up Omaha Beach side by side with the Americans constituted a nightmare of Dantean proportions. Adding insult to injury, the few Luftwaffe planes that dared venture near the invasion zone were chased off by Irish Air Corps fighters. The final collapse of the Nazi empire in Europe had begun, and Eamon de Valera’s ghost would be dancing on its grave before it was all said and done.
As British, American, Commonwealth and Free French ground troops liberated the western half of Europe, and Soviet armor steamrollered the once-invincible Wehrmacht in the east, Irish fighters could be found in the thick of battle along both fronts. The Irish navy did its part as well, helping Anglo-American anti-submarine patrols putpaid to the last remnants of what had once been a deadly U-boat fleet. By late February of 1945, when Allied troops began to enter Germany itself, the dark days when the Irish armed forces had been seemingly poised on the verge of extinction in the opening part of Case Purple were little more than a distant memory.
Back in Ireland itself, with the end of the war finally in sight, the focus of the Dublin government began to turn towards matters involving reconstruction and negotiating a settlement with Great Britain on the Ulster question. One of the key provisions of the de Valera government’s wartime alliance pact with Britain was a protocol guaranteeing talks between London and Dublin about Ulster’s status once the war was over.
There was also the matter of reconstructing the cities that had been damaged or destroyed by the war-- most notably Wicklow, whose former citizens had not abandoned the dream of returning to their hometown despite the fact that the Nazis had burned it to the ground. In early April of 1945, two weeks before the final German surrender, the Irish ambassador to the United States went on a nationwide speaking tour to raise funds for Wicklow’s rebuilding. Allied military engineers were soon gathering at the spot where the original Wicklow had once stood to map out the foundations for the new city, and within weeks after hostilities ended in Europe construction was underway on the first buildings in the soon-to-be reborn Wicklow.
The Costello administration in Dublin had held out a glimmer of hope that Eoin O’Duffy might be taken alive in the final Allied assault on Berlin so that the Irish fascist turncoat could be tried for treason; O’Duffy himself, however, closed off that possibility when he committed suicide by hanging himself just as Soviet troops were beginning to shell Berlin’s suburbs. Several of O’Duffy’s co-conspirators, though, fell into Allied hands and were turned over to the Irish government to be tried on treason charges.
Walking A Tightrope: 1945-present
The German invasion and occupation of southern Ireland had a number of striking long-term effects on Irish society in both political and cultural terms. One of them was to shatter any remaining illusions the Irish people and their government might have had that they could stay aloof from world affairs; neutrality in the war between Britain and the Third Reich had done nothing to safeguard the Emerald Isle from attack-- indeed, a few people even blamed it as the very thing that had provoked the Nazis to invade in the first place. When the anti-Communist defense alliance NATO was formed in 1948, Ireland was one of the organization’s charter members.
Another long-term effect was to foster a renewed appreciation in Dublin for the importance of a strong standing army. As the Second World War faded into history and the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union got underway, Prime Minister Costello viewed it as a matter of primary importance to ensure that the Irish armed forces were capable of repelling a Soviet attack. With that in mind, he launched a long-term campaign to enhance the Irish army’s armored capabilities and the Irish Air Corps’ air defense resources; by the time he finally left office in 1954, the Irish army boasted four new armored divisions and two new tactical missile brigades as part of its artillery corps while the Air Corps’ fighter units had replaced their aging Spitfires and Warhawks with state-of-the-art US-built F-86 Sabrejets.
The third was to foster a half-century of soul-searching among the Emerald Isle’s artistic and literary community. To this day, more than six decades after the last German troops fled Ireland, the Nazi occupation continues to be fertile ground for books, movies, and music exploring the damage that occupation inflicted on the Irish psyche; indeed, without the occupation it’s questionable whether U2 would have been inspired to record their most famous single, "Sunday Bloody Sunday".1
The fourth was the Irish Reunification Pact of 1954, under whose protocols Britain agreed to yield jurisdiction over Ulster’s six counties to the Dublin government and begin a five-year phased withdrawal of its Northern Ireland occupation forces in 1955. The pact’s supporters in Britain welcomed it as a break with the island nation’s colonialist past, while its critics issued dire warnings that it would give encouragement to anti-British uprisings in other corners of the world.2
But perhaps the most dramatic consequence of the two-year German campaign in Ireland, other than the Reunification Pact, was to foster a passionate loathing of all things German among the Irish people. From the end of the war in Europe in 1945 up until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978 it was political suicide for any Irish leader to even vaguely hint that he favored restoring diplomatic relations with Germany; in fact, the two countries would not resume diplomatic ties until 2002, and even then it only came after a decade of passionate and at times bitter debate within the ranks of the prime minister’s cabinet.
Women suspected of having romantic liaisons with German soldiers were ostracized from polite society even if there was little or no proof that they’d ever taken part in such associations; some of them were so devastated by this ostracism that they committed suicide, an act which drew still further condemnation from conservative clergy who regarded suicide as a mortal sin. Nor were these women the only people to take their own lives in the aftermath of Case Purple-- in the 30 years following the end of the Nazi occupation of Ireland, the country would average between 300 and 500 suicides a year among those who’d lived through Case Purple.3
Even today there are still traces of bitterness toward Germany in the depths of the Irish soul; "Jerry" has been part of the Gaelic teen lexicon of harsh insults ever since the Second World War ended, and seldom if ever does a day pass at the new German embassy in Dublin without at least one picketer marching outside its gates demanding it be shut down. Periodic drives to ban German literature from schools and libraries are a constant in Irish political life. And some of the more conservative elements of the Dáil Éirann have even tried to pass bills revoking Ireland’s membership in the present-day European Union, alleging that the organization’s agenda is too pro-German.4
When the last British troops left Ulster in 1960 under the terms of the Irish Reunification Pact, most of the citizens of Ulster’s six counties welcomed it as a sign that their old dream of rejoining the 26 counties of southern Ireland had been realized and their troubles were over. As it turned out, though, the withdrawal of the the British garrison from northern Ireland marked the moment when that region’s real troubles began.
Ian Paisley, a Protestant clergyman in his mid-40s who’d long been a fierce critic of the Catholic-dominated Dublin government, denounced the pact as a betrayal of Ulster’s Protestants and vowed to overturn it by any means necessary. With the support of other religious and secular leaders who shared his contempt for the pact, he organized massive demonstrations in the streets of Belfast and Derry-- marches which sometimes ended in confrontations with the police. By 1963, such demonstrations were an almost weekly event in the Protestant sections of Belfast, a fact which the city’s Catholic residents were quick to take notice of.
In 1965, in attempt to defuse the ticking time bomb created by these marches, the Dáil Éirann passed a bill aimed at strengthening the protection of the civil rights of Ireland’s Protestants. Moderate Protestant leaders welcomed the new bill as a step in the right direction, but hard-liners like Rev. Paisley saw it as a cynical attempt to bribe their way out of what Paisley saw as the inevitable and rightful return of British authority to Ulster. Before long, local and county police officials had their hands full trying to contain the riots that seemed to erupt almost hourly as extremists in both the Protestant and Catholic camps called for a showdown to settle Ulster’s fate once and for all.
Fearful that his country was poised on the brink of a civil war it could ill afford, then-prime minister John Lynch sought to get the turmoil in Ulster under control by declaring martial law in five of its six counties. But far from preventing a civil war, it almost guaranteed one; Ulster’s Protestants and Catholics soon put aside their animosities toward each other and united to oppose what they saw as a blatant power grab by the Lynch government. On February 2nd, 1966, during Liberation Day5 ceremonies in Shannon, gunmen fired on the prime minister’s motorcade, killing five members of Lynch’s cabinet and seriously wounding Lynch himself. That attack marked the beginning of the Ulster Rebellion, which spanned six years before hostilities finally ended with a US-mediated ceasefire accord and claimed almost as many lives as the 1940 German invasion of southern Ireland had.
Ironically, one of the few cities in Ireland to be spared any major outbreaks of violence in all this time was Wicklow, the very town the Germans had so savagely eviscerated in the early months of their occupation of southern Ireland. It's not very hard to imagine the memory of that massacre may have had a hand in quelling any impulses toward aggression among its younger residents.
It is unlikely that the pain caused by the Nazi occupation of southern Ireland can ever be entirely erased, but as time passes said pain has been tempered by the sense of Ireland having become a significant player on the economic and political fields of the post-World War II era. The present-day Irish armed forces have acquitted themselves admirably in such far-flung hot spots as the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, and the Sudan; among European countries Ireland's auto industry ranks behind only Britain's, and the rest of the Irish economy is showing a similar robustness as the country taps deeper into emerging overseas markets.
Since 9/11 Ireland has been one of America's most significant European allies in the war on terrorism, and Irish scholars of O'Duffy's ill-fated National Guard movement have been frequently called on by law enforcement experts in the US and Europe to give technical expertise on how O'Duffy's ideology may influence present- day neo-fascist movements.
If Hitler had hoped to crush the Irish spirit forever when he sanctioned Case Purple in 1940, then it can be said that present- day Ireland represents the ultimate failure of his tyrannical ambitions.
1 The original idea for the song came to the band in late 1980 when they were watching a TV documentary about an SS mass execution of Irish POWs.
2 Interestingly enough, at least one well-known African political figure credited the Reunification Pact with actually ending a guerrilla war in his country; when Kenyan independence movement leader Jomo Kenyatta heard about the Reunification Pact, he declared a unilateral cease-fire by his rebel army in faith that London would be willing negotiate a similar withdrawal from his own country. His confidence was rewarded when Kenya was recognized as an independent sovereign state less than six weeks after the Irish Reunification Pact went into effect.
3 As estimated by Irish health authorities.
4 An allegation which may come as a surprise to those who remember the criticism which came from the French and Dutch EU delegations after Germany went on record as opposing Turkey’s admission to the organization.
5 The official holiday in Ireland which each year commemorates the end of the German occupation.