It (Almost) Happened Here
The Wehrmacht Campaign In Ireland, 1940-42
by Chris Oakley
The first three parts of this series focused on the initialGerman invasion of Ireland, the Allied counterattack, and how the fighting in southern Ireland eventually drew the United States and Japan into World War II and led to heated fighting between British and Axis forces in the Mediterranean; we also saw how Case Purple moved the Soviets to begin rethinking their 1939 non-aggression pact with Germany. This latest chapter will look at AEFI’s famous A-20 raid on Limerick and chronicle the formation of Einsatzgruppen1 O’Duffy.
The Unfriendly Skies: October 21st, 1940-New Year’s Day, 1941
Dawn in most parts of Ireland is heralded by a rooster’s crow or the ringing of an alarm clock, but on October 21st in the city of Limerick it was greeted with the low hum of Wright Cyclone radial engines followed by the wail of air raid sirens and the chatter of German anti-aircraft guns. 300-plus A-20 Bostons of the 8th Air Force were giving Nazi occupation forces a dose of the same bitter medicine they had administered to Limerick’s residents two months earlier.
As the A-20s unloaded their lethal cargo on the city’s German military and police facilities, their P-40 Warhawk escorts did battle with the Messerschmitt 109s sent to intercept the bomber force. Despite their relative inexperience, the P-40 fliers gave a splendid accounting of themselves, shooting down at least 60 German aircraft before the raid was over.
General Robert Ritter von Greim, overall C-in-C for the Luftwaffe contingent in Ireland, was flabbergasted when he got the news of the Limerick raid. His Jagdgeschwader2 commanders in the area had assured him only the day before that their pilots could stop any Allied air attack on the city with ease, yet out of the 300 or so bombers which had attacked his squadrons had only managed to get eleven3. He immediately summoned all his squadron commanders to his headquarters in Waterford and bluntly informed them that he was relieving them all of their posts; their incompetence, Greim said, was responsible for the success of the American air strike, and he would not tolerate such a thing happening again.
Unfortunately for him, such a thing would happen at least once a day for the next two and a half months; as AEFI’s bomber force grew, and the bomber crews’ skill did the same, it seemed that no German military, political, or security installation in the steadily shrinking Nazi occupation zone in Ireland was safe. The U-boat facilities were the hardest-hit of all; in a single week in November 1940 alone, 8th Air Force planes dropped close to 6,000 tons of bombs on the U-boat pen at Wexford Harbor4. The RAF gave the Germans no respite either— Bomber Command would pick up at night where the Americans had left off during the day; many of their raids, in fact, were timed to coincide with the darkest part of the evening so as to instil the maximum amount of terror in the Nazis.
However, it should be said that the Germans gave as good as they got when it came to strategic bombing. In spite of the setbacks they’d suffered since September, they still had a number of air bases in Ireland and France at their disposal; from these bases He-111s and Ju-88s staged their own punishing attacks against Dublin, Galway, Ennis, and a number of other Irish cities under Allied control. Ulster also saw its fair share of bomb attacks; Belfast was the most frequent target, with the Luftwaffe dropping more than 10,000 tons of bombs on it between October 1940 and January 1941.
With the exception of a brief lull between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, neither the Germans nor the Allies let up in their air attacks; in fact, on December 27th the Luftwaffe began an even more intense phase of its bombing campaign, this one aimed at damaging AEFI’s ability to continue ground operations against the Wehrmacht. Both sides followed this campaign intensely, for the lessons learned here would have a sharp impact on the war in the Mediterranean…
Red Tide At Night: January 2nd-February 13th, 1941
The first warning sign that the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact was about to collapse came on January 3rd, 1941 when Stalin abruptly ordered the Red Army to begin massing armored and infantry divisions on the demarcation line that separated the German occupation zone in western Poland from the Soviet zone in the east. The previous day he’d learned from one of his most trusted NKVD operatives, Tokyo-based German journalist Richard Sorge, that the Nazis had made up their minds to mount an attack on the Soviet Union no later than May 1st.
The planned Wehrmacht offensive, designated Barbarossa, was to involve three million troops and had among its objectives the capture of Moscow and Leningrad; though some details about the operation still remained secret, Sorge had already uncovered its chilling main goal— the complete destruction of the Soviet Union as a country.
Infuriated by this impending betrayal, Stalin decided that the time had come to implement attack plans of his own, the ones he had instructed General Zhukov to draft less than three months earlier. Finland would have to be dealt with too — one of the other key details of Barbarossa Sorge had uncovered was that the Finns would aid the German attack in exchange for regaining the territories they had lost in the 1939-40 Winter War.
Four days after Red Army forces began massing in Poland, the Soviets also began lining up troops along their border with Finland; by January 11th, some 4.5 million men, 6000 aircraft, and 20,000 armored vehicles were deployed along an attack line stretching from the Barents Sea to the Bug River.
On January 12th, 1941, Stalin gave General Zhukov the green light to begin Operation Typhoon, the campaign against Nazi Germany and Finland. The assault began with Soviet air force bombing raids on Helsinki and Warsaw just after 5:00 AM; half an hour later, tanks, infantry, and cavalry crossed the Soviet-German demarcation line in Poland in a human wave that caught the Wehrmacht unprepared. By 7:30 AM, Soviet troops were across the Finnish border as well.
At 9:00 AM Berlin time, Hitler officially declared war on the Soviet Union, and the entire complexion of the Second World War was altered once again.
By all rights, Luftwaffe activity in Ireland should have come to a screeching halt after October 1940 given the defeats the Allies had inflicted on the Germans in Operation Ouster. In an attempt to get around the growing convoy problem, Hermann Goering had started an airlift campaign, which he code-named Himmelbrücke ("Sky Bridge"), to keep his bases in Ireland going— but it wasn’t quite coming off as planned; for every cargo aircraft that safely reached its destination, three were shot down either by Allied fighters or anti-aircraft fire5. The Bv-222 seaplane was the most favorite target of Allied flyers, being not only unarmed but — as one American pilot called it – "slower than molasses in winter"6. Within three months after it began, an embarrassed Goering would be forced to call off Himmelbrücke until enhanced versions of the Me-109 fighter could be deployed to escort the supply flights.
Yet a number of factors combined to enable it to continue flying sorties, albeit at a fraction of the number they’d conducted in the early days of Case Purple. One of them was the unavoidable fact that the combined strains of operations in Ireland, North Africa, the Mediterranean and southeast Asia as well as the burden of home defense had taxed the RAF nearly to the limits of its capabilities. Even with American and Commonwealth aid, its fighter squadrons couldn’t be everywhere at once.
Another was the Germans’ own ingenuity at camouflaging many of their more critical airfields. Using everything from wooden mockups to wreckage of actual aircraft, the Luftwaffe succeeded in throwing Allied reconnaissance planes off the scent on a number of occasions. This, combined with General von Greim’s idea of dispersing his squadrons over the widest possible area, may have done more than anything else to keep the German war effort in Ireland going after October 1940. Thirdly, there were the Luftwaffe bases in German-occupied France, many of which were conveniently within range of southern Ireland. From these airfields Ju-88s,He-111s, and Me-110s could harass the Allies and make things a bit easier for their comrades in southern Ireland.
Most important, though, was the Kriegsmarine’s famed Seebrücke ("Sea Bridge") campaign, which was initiated in early November of 1940 by then-commander in chief Grand Admiral Erich Raeder as the scope of Himmelbrücke’s failure was already starting to become apparent. Taking advantage of Britain’s difficulties in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, he organized a 30-ship task force headed by the newly commissioned battleship Bismarck and assigned it to carry Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht supplies from the naval base at Kiel to Dungarvan, now the main seaport for the Nazi occupation forces in Ireland. Raeder theorized that if such convoy runs were made every six to eight weeks, the occupation forces could hold on for months or even years regardless of how the war in the Mediterranean turned out.
One week before the first Seebrücke convoy made its run, the Italians sortied a considerable portion of their own naval forces out of Taranto to lay siege to Malta; with the Royal Navy thus distracted by this pressing emergency, the German task force had little to worry about as it made its way through the North Sea past the Faeroe Islands and the southern coast of Iceland to the Dungarvan waterfront.
The convoy’s first run seemed to bear out Raeder’s faith in the Seebrücke plan; its vanguard, consisting of Bismarck, the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gniesenau, the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, and the heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen, easily brushed aside the few Allied warships that moved to oppose them. In fact, it was during this convoy that Bismarck gave Germany its greatest naval victory of the Second World War when she simultaneously sank the British battleships HMS Hood and HMS King George V on November 18th as they tried to intercept the convoy off Ireland’s western coast. The group’s U-boat escorts did well too, sinking ten Allied naval vessels and thirty-one merchant craft between them.
Eventually, however, Seebrücke’s luck would start to run out Just as Luftbrücke’s had. On January 14th, 1941, during the convoy’s second run to Dungarvan, American carrier planes attacked Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen, sinking one and damaging the other so severely she would be forced to retire at high speed back to Kiel, where she spent most of the next year in drydock. The convoy also lost a dozen U-boats, most of them sunk by RAF Coastal Command aircraft. As wounding as these losses were for the Kriegsmarine, however, they would pale in significance when compared to what happened on the convoy’s third (and undeniably most dangerous) run two months later.
It took the Germans and their Finnish allies nearly four days to recover from the initial shock of Operation Typhoon, but when they finally did recover they struck back with a vengeance. On January 16th, using an altered version of the Barbarossa campaign plan, the Wehrmacht launched a bitter counterattack against the Red Army in Poland while Finnish leader Karl von Mannerheim sent six divisions across Lake Ladoga to begin making a drive on the Soviet Union’s second-most important city, Leningrad.
Within 48 hours after the German offensive started, the Nazis had captured Brest-Litovsk and were pushing aggressively towards the Ukranian city of Minsk, while Finnish troops were reclaiming the Territories lost to the Soviets at the end of the 1939-40 Winter War. A joint Finnish-German naval task force blockaded the Soviet Baltic Fleet’s main base at Kronstadt; Luftwaffe bombers began to raid Moscow from newly won airfields in eastern Poland.
A jubilant Hitler boasted that the USSR would soon collapse like a decaying house: "We only have to kick in the front door, and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down!7" As German infantry and panzers surged ever closer to Moscow and the Red Air Force found itself reeling under the Luftwaffe’s hammer blows, his optimism seemed well-founded. By January 21st Leningrad was surrounded and Moscow was being bombed on an almost hourly basis; after two more days, Minsk had fallen and Kiev was coming under savage German artillery fire.
Stalin turned to his most trusted general, Hero of the Soviet Union Georgi Zhukov, to organize the defense of Moscow against the approaching German juggernaut. General Zhukov responded with Operation Bagration, a three-part campaign that would combine static defensive measures with a blitzkrieg-type armored thrust at the weakest point of the German lines; Red Army airborne divisions would also play a substantial role in the battle plan. Outside the gates of Moscow, men, women, and children of all backgrounds pitched in to build anti-tank defenses; inside Moscow itself, Red Army regular units joined with civilian militias to be ready for the moment when they would strike back against the fascist invaders.
That moment came on January 22nd as the vanguard of Zhukov’s armored strike force hit the Germans head-on 30 miles west of Moscow. The Wehrmacht offensive, which up until then had seemed unstoppable, screeched to a halt as the Germans suddenly found themselves forced to go on the defensive in the face of the intense Soviet blow to their front lines. Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, C-in-C of Army Group North, found it necessary to redirect some of his divisions from Kiev to keep the front outside Moscow from bending under the weight of the Red Army’s attack.
Behind the German lines, partisan bands and NKVD covert action squads began raising hell. Old political and ethnic animosities were cast aside as citizens of the occupied territories struggled to cleanse the Rodina8 of a common enemy. The German campaign in Russia soon bogged down into a stalemate, leaving Hitler and his generals fumbling for a way to get the advance going again.
Terrible though it might have been for the Russians, the Nazi invasion of the USSR was actually something of a boon for the people of Ireland. As it gradually became apparent that the war in Russia would last longer than anyone on either side had expected and that the Wehrmacht might need to re-shuffle its divisions to cope with manpower shortages in the East, the Irish partisan movement— which for a time after the invasion of Greece had been forced to wage a defensive campaign against the Nazis – saw an opportunity to go back on the attack.
Their first chance to exploit that opportunity came on February 7th, 1941, when a resistance cell near the port of Tralee ambushed a freighter just as it was pulling up to the docks to unload fuel and munitions for the Luftwaffe airfield at Bantry. In a swift, savage assault lasting less than fifteen minutes, the freighter’s supplies were destroyed and the freighter itself set ablaze.
Three days later, another cell instigated a mass escape at the Clonmel concentration camp, hitting the camp’s guard towers with machine guns and grenades and allowing 300 of the camp’s inmates to make their getaway. While some were recaptured by German occupation authorities, the vast majority of the escapees managed to reach the Allied lines and find sanctuary either in the free sectors of southern Ireland or in Great Britain.
Dr. Six was growing nervous not only about the renewed wave of partisan assaults, but also about what might happen when spring came and the Allies were ready to renew their campaign to drive the Germans out of Eire. And as if he didn’t have enough worries to trouble him, his own government added a new one: on February 12th, over his sharp protests, the SS high command summoned Eoin O’Duffy to Berlin to appoint him as the commander-in-chief of a new Waffen-SS volunteer unit, Einsatzgruppen O’Duffy.
Einsatzgruppen O’Duffy, comprised of Irish fascists who had fled to Germany after the National Guard was outlawed in both Ireland and Britain, was intended for combat duty on the Russian front. For O’Duffy, a staunch anti-Communist, it was an extraordinary honor; his National Guard had waged countless street battles with Irish Communists back in the early 1930s and he was eager to play a role in the destruction of the country that had first spawned what he called "the plague of Marxism".
The day after O’Duffy left Ireland to assume his new command, the Germans found themselves confronted with yet another menace to their presence in Ireland. Five Me-109s were flying a routine combat air patrol near Tralee when a handful of American fighters pounced on them from out of the sun, wiping them out within a matter of minutes. Twin-engined and packing formidable firepower, these new planes were a tangible repudiation of Hermann Goering’s notorious assertion that "Americans can’t build planes, only ice boxes and razor blades."
The P-38 Lightning had joined the war in Europe at last…
To Be Continued
1 German for "Special Action Group"; it was a designation commonly given to foreign volunteer regiments attached to the Waffen-SS.
2 German for "fighter squadron".
3 Two other A-20s were lost to anti-aircraft fire and one ditched in Galway Bay due to mechanical failure in her number two engine.
4 Figure taken from Official History of U.S. 8th Air Force Operations In Southern Ireland During The Second World War, copyright 1946.
5 In fact, statisticians with the modern German air force estimate that 30% of all Luftwaffe transport plane losses in the Second World War were incurred during Himmelbrücke.
6 Quoted in Edward Jablonski’s Shamrocks & Stars: The US Army Air Force in Southern Ireland 1940-44, copyright 1974 by Doubleday Inc.
7 Quoted by German author and historian Joachim Fest in Hitler, the Soviets, and Case Purple, first published in 1977.
8 Russian for "motherland".