It (Almost) Happened Here
The Wehrmacht Campaign In Ireland, 1940-42
by Chris Oakley
Let Us Go Forward Together: October 6th-October 21st, 1940
What the men of the American Expeditionary Force to Ireland (AEFI) lacked in combat experience, they made up for in professional training and love of country. In their opinion President Roosevelt’s campaign reference to the United States as "the arsenal of democracy" wasn’t mere political hyperbole; it was absolute indisputable fact. They were determined to kick the Germans off Irish soil bag and baggage.
Dwight Eisenhower himself summed up the AEFI’s prevailing philosophy in a letter he wrote for broadcast to its troops on their first day in Ireland: "You are about to embark on a great crusade…1" He took the Nazi occupation as a personal insult and was determined to do everything he possibly could to avenge that insult; if necessary, he said more than once to his Irish hosts, he’d walk into Dublin himself and shoot Felix Steiner right between the eyes2.
While Irish forces were besieging German occupation troops at Pallaskenry and Allied forces were clawing their way into the heart of Dublin, the Americans were marshalling their ground strength for a drive on Kilkenny and Killalee. This offensive, code-named Operation Bunker Hill, would see the AEFI’s baptism of fire— and a grim baptism it would be. Their best medium tank at the time, the M2, wasn’t as well-armored as, say, the Pzkpfw3 III or the Matilda; furthermore, much of the Army Air Corps element of AEFI was still in Iceland thanks to a clerical mistake which would take nearly a week to straighten out.
Thus when two AEFI infantry battalions made contacted with a Wehrmacht infantry unit at the village of Templemore around 8:00 AM on the morning of October 6th, 1940, most of the burden for air support at the start of Operation Bunker Hill would fall on overworked F4F Wildcat4 pilots from the USS Ranger and her sister ship, USS Saratoga. The battle ended in a stalemate— the Americans were forced to temporarily pull back, but the German forces in the area lost a third of their men and nearly half their planes, giving Steiner a chilling clue about what he could expect from his newest enemies.
Meanwhile, the Irish assault force at Pallaskenry, aided by a battalion of Belgian troops out of Ballycommon and Cratloe, was chipping away at the town’s German garrison like termites devouring a fallen log. For every Allied soldier or partisan killed, five Germans were falling; for every Allied plane shot down three German aircraft were being lost.
By noon, Allied forces had most of Pallaskenry under their control and were aggressively pushing to liberate the rest; at 1:30 that afternoon, the last pocket of Wehrmacht resistance in the village surrendered to the Belgians.
Further east, the Anglo-Irish drive on Dublin proper continuedunabated. At the same time that the last remnants of the German garrison at Pallaskenry laid down their arms, General Montgomery sent the Irish general staff in Galway a telegram reporting that his advance patrols had reached Haddington Road and could see the faint outline of Dublin’s General Post Office through their field glasses. That news exhilarated de Valera’s cabinet and sent shock waves through the marble halls of the Reichschancellery, for both camps had known for days that Haddington Road would likely hold the key to the success or failure of an Allied push on the heart of Dublin.
However, the next key development in the struggle for Ireland would take place several thousand miles away…
Benito Mussolini had long been a staunch admirer of Hitler; next to the Führer, in fact, Mussolini was perhaps the most passionate advocate of the Rome-Berlin Axis. From the moment the first Wehrmacht troops stormed ashore at Dungarvan, the Duce had eagerly followed each new development in Case Purple.
Distressed that his German ally’s grip on southern Ireland was apparently starting to weaken, and eager to redeem his own army’s reputation after the debacle of its ill-starred June 1940 campaign in France, Mussolini hit on an idea he hoped would put a crimp in Allied war plans and give the Germans breathing room to mount a counteroffensive in Ireland. He devised a battle plan for an all-out Italian invasion of Egypt; code-named Operation Folgore ("Lightning"), its immediate objective was to force the British to divert resources away from Operation Ouster, thus letting the German forces in Ireland regroup. It also had three important long-term goals: (1)providing a tangible reminder of Italy’s continued loyalty to its German allies; (2)securing the Italian colonies in Libya and Ethiopia against possible British assault; (3)capturing the Suez Canal as a prelude to a possible German-Italian linkup with the Japanese forces already starting to push through southeast Asia.
On October 10th, 1940, on Mussolini’s direct personal command,five Italian divisions out of Libya crossed the Egyptian border. Count Ciano, who had argued that the attack on Egypt was a grave mistake and that Folgore’s target should have been Malta, feared the invasion force would meet with disaster. He didn’t have to wait long for his fears to be proven right; barely four hours into the offensive, British and Commonwealth forces met the Italians head-on and, despite the invaders’ numerical superiority, decimated them with the ruthless efficiency of a shark devouring its prey. By midday, the expeditionary force that had expected to march triumphantly into Cairo in a week was instead beating a disorganized retreat back onto Libyan soil.
Ciano, looking and feeling like a man who’d been handed a death sentence, flew to Berchtesgarten later that afternoon to debrief his German colleagues on the debacle unfolding in the Libyan desert. Hitler stared at the Italian foreign minister in shock as he described the catastrophe unfolding in the Libyan desert; he rightly concluded that unless help were sent to Libya and soon, Italy would suffer its worst military defeat since the Visigoths sacked Rome in the year 476.
Before his meeting with Ciano was over, he telephoned the Dublin headquarters of the Wehrmacht occupation forces in Ireland and told them to pass along a message to General Rommel, who by now had recovered from his wounds and was preparing to resume his duties. Rommel, Hitler said, was to report to Berlin immediately to take charge of a new expeditionary force that was being set up for deployment to Libya— the Deutsche Afrika Korps.
It was with great trepidation that Rommel boarded the plane which took him back to Germany. In spite of his devotion to Hitler, the general felt somewhat guilty about leaving his men behind just as the battle for Dublin was entering its most critical phase. When the Führer gave an order, however, good soldiers like himself had little choice except to obey it; furthermore, he shared Berlin’s fears that an Allied victory in Libya could jeopardize German interests everywhere.
Back in Dublin, Felix Steiner was just as distressed as Ciano about the situation in Libya; he understood all too well that the formation of the Deutsche Afrika Korps would siphon off many of the replacement troops he'd been counting on to help his armies fend off the imminent Allied final attack on the heart of Dublin. Sure enough, within 48 hours of the ill-fated Italian incursion into Egypt, Churchill gave Montgomery his blessing to launch the latest phase of Operation Ouster.
At 2:30 PM London time on the morning of October 12th, the Anglo-Irish forces under Montgomery’s command sprang forward from Paddington Road to launch the battle for Dublin proper. Their assault was backed up by ferocious tactical bombing from the RAF and the Irish Air Corps; from his improvised headquarters at the Parliament building, Felix Steiner could hear the crump! of bombs as they landed in the midst of his troops and blew them apart.
45 minutes later, American forces attacked Templedore for the second time. As had happened before, the Germans met them head-on; this time, however, the Americans didn’t retreat. Instead they pressed home their assault; with the AEFI’s air element having finally started to receive their proper deployment orders, Army Air Corps P-40s and B-25s could now give the ground troops the support necessary to breach the Wehrmacht’s defenses. By 5:00 they were in the heart of town and had its main German garrison surrounded; the garrison gave up without firing a shot. The local Blueshirt units, on the other hand, fought like rabid dogs andhad to be killed in the same way.
Just after sunset Irish regulars and partisan forces seized Wellington Quay, further choking the Germans’ already quite restricted supply lines.
It was about this time, unfortunately, that a situation arose in the Balkans to complicate Allied war plans. Hitler’s chief ally in the region, Yugoslav monarch King Peter II, was facing stiff internal opposition from pro-British elements of his own general staff; there were also rumors that the Greek junta led by General John Metaxas was in the midst of preparations for a pre-emptive attack on Italian occupation forces in Albania. The Führer, anxious to keep Yugoslavia in the German orbit and eager to secure a base from which his Afrika Korps could launch an invasion of North Africa, ordered the Wehrmacht to immediately assemble an expeditionary force to occupy both Yugoslavia and Greece.
The Wehrmacht’s Balkan campaign, code-named Fall Bestrafung (Case Punishment), began at dawn on the morning of October 11. Augmented by troops from Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, the invaders smashed the Yugoslav army in less than twelve hours and by 6:15 PM Berlin time that evening were occupying nearly a quarter of Greece.
Greek, British, and Commonwealth units put up a gallant but ultimately futile fight against the Axis invasion forces. On October 13th, as American infantry and artillery divisions in Ireland engaging the Waffen-SS west of Kilkenny, German panzers reached the outskirts of Athens; rather than risk capture by the Nazis, General Metaxas shot himself and left his second-in-command to direct the evacuation of Greek and Allied troops to Crete. Alarmed at this turn of events, President Roosevelt met with his chief of naval operations Admiral Ernest J. King and ordered him to assemble a task force to come to the aid of the beleaguered Allied divisions in Greece.
By the time the task force was ready to put to sea, however, jubilant German soldiers were unfurling the swastika over the Acropolis and the remnants of the British & Commonwealth garrisons in Greece were beating a hasty retreat across the Ionian Sea to Crete. The tide had turned against the Allies in the Mediterranean just as they were on the verge of winning the war in Ireland.
When the first battalions of the Deutsche Afrika Korps arrived in Libya on October 14th, Allied troops in Libya had just captured Marsa Brega and the Axis foothold in North Africa was in serious jeopardy; Rommel, however, meant to change that… and he would do with a vengeance. Over the objections of his nominal superior, Italian army field marshal Rodolfo Graziani, the DAK commander launched a head-on attack at the center of the Allied lines. It was a risky move that Graziani felt sure would spell disaster for the German and Italian armies alike if it didn’t come off.
But Rommel’s gambit paid off handsomely; the Allled forces were caught unawares by the German assault and in 48 hours the Italian armies in Libya regained control of Marsa Brega. Italian forces also claimed an all-too-rare naval victory in the wake of the attack; on October 15th, Italian submarines sank the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Sussex 20 nautical miles off the coast of Malta. The loss of the Sussex, which had played a major role in the initial British advance into Libya, was a serious blow to Allied morale.
With more troops in the Libyan desert, the Allies could have crushed Rommel’s offensive or at least slowed it to a crawl; however, the Balkans situation had prompted Churchill to order that most of the Allied forces in Libya and Egypt be re-deployed to aid their beleaguered comrades in Crete. Thus the Italian army in North Africa, which had been on the verge of total collapse, got its second wind and was able to regroup for a second attempt to invade Egypt.
Back in Berlin, SS chief Heinrich Himmler had begun to turn his mind to an unorthodox solution for the strain which the war was putting on Wehrmacht manpower on all fronts. His idea— which would later strike historians as a great irony given that the Third Reich was ostensibly fighting to preserve German racial purity –was to raise divisions of foreign volunteers to serve in the Wehrmacht and SS. Such units, he thought, would prove to be particularly useful when the time came for the Reich to finally settle accounts with Russia…
On October 17th, the last pockets of German resistance inKilkenny fell to American forces; Allied morale, which had taken a hit after the Nazis overran Greece and Yugoslavia and bailed the Italians out in Libya, began to rise again. In Dublin, meanwhile, British armor and infantry divisions had made it as far as Victoria Quay and were surrounding Felix Steiner’s headquarters inside the Parliament building. A bit further west, regular Irish troops were breaking through the German lines at Newlands Cross. Hasty arrangements were being made to smuggle Eoin O’Duffy to Cork, still firmly under Nazi control; Dr. Six ordered that executions of Jewish prisoners at Clonmel be speeded up— he was determined to make sure that every last Jew in Ireland was killed off before the war was over, no matter how the latest battle for Dublin ended.
The American task force which had originally been intended for Greece was now reassigned to shore up the badly weakened Allied garrison in Crete; provisions were also made for the US Navy to ferry three Wildcat squadrons to Malta to ease the burden on the island’s RAF defenders. Roosevelt was determined that not more square inch of land in North Africa or the Balkans would fall into Axis hands.
Japanese war minister Hideki Tojo was most impressed by the audacity and swiftness of Case Purple and had used the German offensive as a model in planning his own country’s invasions of Allied territories in southeast Asia and the Pacific. The Japanese ambassador in Berlin, Hiroshi Oshima, sent him regular reports about the fighting in Ireland and those reports seemed to bear out Tojo’s conclusion that the Allies were slowly but surely wearing themselves out trying to retake the country from its occupiers.
Tojo’s top naval advisor, Combined Fleet C-in-C Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, had been commissioned to draft a plan for a similar offensive aimed at seizing control of the strategically critical island of Midway; the capture of Midway, in turn, was to serve as a prelude for a crippling blow against the US Pacific Fleet at its Hawaiian anchorage in Pearl Harbor. The way things were going, Tojo thought, the Allied powers would soon have no choice but to sue for peace.
Prince Fumimaro Konoye, Japan’s prime minister, was uncertain as to the wisdom of Tojo’s strategy; given the industrial advantage the Western powers held over Japan, and the fact that the German invasion of Ireland had aroused a war fever in the United States that would have been hard to imagine just a few years earlier, he thought it might be more prudent to wait and see how the Imperial Army’s Southeast Asia campaign fared before venturing to confront the enemy on his own home turf. However, his was a minority voice in the Japanese government by this time, and that voice would soon be silence-- on October 18th, amid stern pressure from Tojo’s supporters among Japan’s military and industrial elite, Konoye resigned and Tojo took over as prime minister.
While Yamamoto was working on a strategy for attacking Pearl Harbor and Midway, Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin had directed his most favored Red Army general, Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov, to write up a hypothetical study describing the best-case and worst- case scenarios if the USSR were to mount a pre-emptive attack on German troop concentrations in western Poland. When a puzzled Zhukov asked him why, Stalin simply shrugged and said with a sly grin that he wanted to test the general’s problem-solving skills.
In reality, however, the Vozhd5 had far grander ambitions in mind when he made his request of Zhukov. The Nazi invasion of Ireland had given Stalin cause to rethink the wisdom of the nonaggression pact his country had signed with Germany just 13 months earlier. If Hitler was willing to attack a country which had no quarrel with him and had, in fact, gone out of its way to stay neutral in the war between Britain and Germany, who could say he would not do the same to Russia, a sworn foe of Germany since at least the days of Catherine the Great?
His Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Vycheslav Molotov, apparently shared his concerns; even as Zhukov was working on his Polish attack study, Molotov had gone to Tokyo to meet with Japanese foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka for the purpose of negotiating a neutrality accord under which Japan would refrain from any intervention in war between Germany and the Soviet Union and, in turn, the Soviets would not interfere in the Japanese conflict with the West. The accord was signed on October 19th, shocking both the Allied and Axis camps to the bone; Hitler couldn’t believe that his Asian partners would make a treaty with his ideological arch foes, while Churchill and Roosevelt were stunned by the idea of two countries that only recently had fought a very bloody regional war in Mongolia actually promising to be neutral in each other’s subsequent wars.
October 20th marked the most important day of the Allied campaign to liberate Dublin from the Nazis. At dawn that morning Irish Air Corps fighter planes began strafing the city’s last remaining operational Luftwaffe base while the HMS Hood and her American counterpart, the USS Massachusetts, unleashed a fiery bombardment of the Custom House Quay, where the Gestapo was known to have its Dublin offices.
By 9:00 AM Allied troops had secured the government offices near Parliament along with the National Gallery of Ireland and were fighting their way past the SS defensive cordon surrounding the Parliament building. In the struggle for its possession, no one noticed that Eoin O’Duffy had been quietly hustled into Steiner’s personal Kubelwagen6 and sent out of the city; by the time Allied troops realized what had happened, the Blueshirts leader was well on his way to Cork and the troops who could have intercepted his flight were needed at the General Post Office, where a combined Wehrmacht, SS, and National Guard company was turning back all attempts to eject them from the building.
From his new temporary headquarters in Ennis, Eamon de Valera nervously awaited the outcome of the fight for the GPO. If it could be taken, Dublin was as good as won; if not, the Allies faced a long winter siege— one they couldn’t much afford if there were any truth to the news out of Libya and the Balkans. Montgomery, as one of his aides would later recall, "paced like me own dad in the maternity ward"7 waiting for updates on the progress of the Anglo-Irish forces in liberating the GPO from its fascist occupiers.
While the last pockets of Wehrmacht and SS resistance fought the Allies on the ground, in the air those few Luftwaffe planes that had managed to escape the Irish fighter raids were putting up an even more vicious fight against Allied Spitfires, Warhawks, Wildcats, and Hurricanes; Josef "Pips" Priller, at the time the Luftwaffe’s highest-scoring ace in the Irish theatre, recorded his 40th kill on this day when he shot down an RAF Spitfire. But no matter how valiantly the Germans fought in the air or on the ground, there was little they could do to stem the Allied tide.
At 6:37 PM that evening, a radio message from the Abbey Theater informed Allied commanders that the Irish, British, and US flags could be seen flying from the roof of the GPO. Felix Steiner, monitoring the broadcast from his private office inside the Parliament building, lost what little fighting spirit he had left and blew his brains out with his service pistol; British infantrymen found his body less than half an hour later. By 9:00 PM the BBC had formally announced that Dublin was firmly in Allied hands.
As much as Dublin’s fall to the Allies had enraged him, Hitler would be even more infuriated when he learned of Felix Steiner’s suicide. He berated Heinrich Himmler for supposedly letting it happen and threatened to have the entire SS senior command court-martialled for "cowardice and incompetence"8 and was only talked out of it after Himmler pledged on his own life to make sure such an incident was never repeated.
Given Dublin’s importance in both strategic and historical terms, one might have thought that Hitler would order an immediate all-out counteroffensive to drive the Allies out. But with the war in the Mediterranean heating up and the Suez Canal potentially up for grabs, he was more interested in securing Egypt than he was in getting Dublin back. So, he decreed, until the spring Rommel’s Afrika Korps was to be granted top priority not only in rationing supplies but also in campaign planning. The new acting C-in-C of German military forces in Ireland, General Gotthard Heinrici, was quick to protest this decision, but Hitler assured him the Allies were too exhausted to make any serious offensive moves before the beginning of March at the earliest.
As far as the Anglo-Irish forces went, this was at least partly true; with Dublin proper secured and most of Dublin’s suburbs held either by regular Allied troops or Irish partisan units, the decision was made to postpone further offensive operations on land for at least thirty days to give overextended supply lines a chance to recover from the strain they’d been put through since late September. Air attacks, however, would continue without any pause; in fact, even as Allied flags were being raised over the General Post office, the US 8th Air Force was gearing up for what promised to be the biggest air raid in AEFI’s short history…
1 As quoted in Cornelius Ryan’s book The Longest Day, published in 1969. 2 This quip prompted Heinrich Himmler to offer a reward of 100,000 Reichsmarks in gold for any man who succeeded in assassinating Eisenhower; that reward was, of course, never collected. 3 Panzerkampfwagen. 4 The U.S. Navy’s main fighter aircraft at the start of World War II; it also served in the Royal Navy, where it was known as the Martlet.
5 Russian for "landlord"; it was a nickname given to Stalin by Soviet peasants during the farming collectivization struggles of the 1930s.
6 The standard field car for German military personnel during the Second World War.
7 Quoted from the book The Orange, the Green, and the Black: The Allied Battle To Liberate Dublin by Sir Basil Liddell Hart (posthumously published in 1978).
8 According to an excerpt from Albert Speer’s Inside The Third Reich.