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It (Almost) Happened Here

The Wehrmacht Campaign In Ireland, 1940-42


Part 5


by Chris Oakley




The first four parts of this series deal with Germany’s invasion of Ireland and the Allied response; the entry of Japan, America, and the Soviet Union into World War II; the outbreak of war in the Mediterranean; the establishment of the first Irish Waffen-SS units; the start of the Kriegsmarine’s famous Seebrücke campaign; and the Luftwaffe’s growing difficulties in defending the German foothold in southern Ireland against Allied air strikes. In this latest chapter we’ll examine the US-Japanese showdown at Pearl Harbor and Einsatzgruppen O’Duffy’s actions during the siege of Leningrad.


"Air Raid—This Is No Drill": February 14th-March 3rd, 1941


Almost from the minute Japan had declared war on the United States two days after the 1940 sinking of the USS Reuben James, both sides had known that sooner or later the issue of whose navy would dominate the Pacific would force a showdown in the waters around the Hawaiian Islands and Midway. The only question in the minds of US strategic planners was where the primary blow would fall.

Conventional wisdom on both sides of the Pacific held that Oahu was the most valuable of all the potential targets— it was seen by the Americans as a cornerstone in the defense of their western shores, and by the Japanese as an ideal staging area for possible attacks on Alaska, California, and the Panama Canal. Particularly critical in strategic planning for both navies was the US Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor; a surprise attack there would deal a sharp if not critical blow to the US naval presence in the Pacific.

Few people understood this better than Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the incoming Pacific Fleet commander-in-chief. On Valentine’s Day 1941, he contacted the military attaché’s office at the British embassy in Washington and asked him to debrief the fleet’s senior staff on a Royal Navy carrier strike which had been conducted in December of 1940 against the Italian anchorage at Taranto. Though the attaché was uncertain what Taranto could have to do with the war in Asia, he agreed to Kimmel’s request. 

Shortly after arriving in Hawaii, the attaché learned why Admiral Kimmel had sent for him; upon learning of the Taranto strike, the admiral had concluded that the Japanese, desperate to break the stalemate which had existed between their armies and the Allies for nearly two months, would try a similar attack on Pearl Harbor and possibly Midway too. What Kimmel wanted to know was, what if anything could be done to thwart such a raid?

From this debriefing emerged the rough outlines for Operation Bunker Hill, the largest naval operation attempted by the US Pacific Fleet up to that time. One task force would set up a perimeter around Oahu while another would take up station off Midway; the idea was that between the two of them, they would stop or at least slow down any Japanese naval armada that came their way. Kimmel knew he was taking a big risk with Bunker Hill: the US Atlantic fleet was getting first priority as the war in Ireland and North Africa continued to rage on, and there was no telling when any men, ships, or aircraft lost by his own fleet would be replaced. But the much greater risk, in his eyes, was to do nothing until Japanese guns were shelling Honolulu.

On February 21st, US Navy cryptographers intercepted a message from Tokyo to First Carrier Division C-in-C Admiral Chuichi Nagumo instructing him to depart for Hawaii within 72 hours. This confirmed Kimmel’s hunch that the main blow of a Japanese attack would be directed against Oahu; as if he needed further proof, he received a Navy Department dispatch that same day warning that Japanese engineers had developed a modified version of the IJN’s "Long Lance" torpedo specifically made to operate in Pearl Harbor’s shallow waters.

Kimmel and General Walter Short, US Army territorial commander for the Hawaiian Islands, hastened to finish dispersing all US combat aircraft on Oahu1. Navy and Air Corps fighter squadrons began patrolling the skies over Hawaii every hour on the hour. Anti-torpedo defense nets were set up throughout the harbor to protect those surface ships that hadn’t yet put to sea. Small groups of submarines fanned out to set an ambush for Japanese vessels unlucky enough to venture into or near the mouth of the Harbor.


On the Eastern Front, meanwhile, Einsatzgruppen O’Duffy was now crossing the endless Russian plains to take part in the Wehrmacht campaign against Leningrad. Despite a month-long siege, Russia’s second-largest city refused to surrender— a fact that galled Eoin O’Duffy almost as much as it did the Nazis. O’Duffy was intent on crushing the city, and Himmler had given him a free hand to use whatever methods he deemed appropriate to achieve that end.

As the American and Japanese Pacific fleets were gearing up for their inevitable showdown off the Hawaiian coast, O’Duffy and his men took up attack positions along Leningrad’s western flank. The plan was to launch a three-column attack against Soviet defenses on that flank and punch a hole through which their German allies could come in and overwhelm the rest of the city; once Leningrad had fallen O’Duffy planned to lead his men on a savage campaign to liquidate all Jews, Communists, and partisans who fell into their hands.

On February 23rd, Einsatzgruppen O’Duffy launched the first wave of its attack and immediately encountered savage resistance; Red Army regular troops, civilian militia bands, and sailors from the city’s naval base fought like enraged wildcats to keep the Irish SS volunteers off their streets. Within twelve hours after the attack began, half of O’Duffy’s troops had been killed or taken prisoner and O’Duffy himself lay severely wounded in a Wehrmacht field hospital. Like the puppet regime for which he had once been the figurehead, the Blueshirt leader was critically weakened and needing every bit of help possible in order to survive. 

By February 26th, the remnants of Einsatzgruppen O’Duffy had been pulled back to a line twenty miles outside Leningrad while the SS frantically searched for suitable replacements to fill the gaps in EZGrpp. O’Duffy’s ranks. However, Irish fascists in general, and Irish fascists fit for combat in Europe in particular, had by now become an endangered species…


An air of almost crushing tension hung over Pearl Harbor on the evening of March 2nd, 1941. This was particularly noticeable on board the Pacific Fleet’s flagship, the battleship USS Arizona; her officers and crew were all too aware that as lead vessel for the task force guarding Hawaii, they would be thrusting their collective heads into the lion’s mouth, so to speak, if and when the Japanese attacked. Many of the escort carriers Roosevelt had promised the Pacific Fleet on Inauguration Day back in January were still under construction, forcing them to fall back on ex-merchant ships converted for light carrier duty.

Arizona captain Franklin van Valkenburgh had made an entry in his personal log that would turn out to be prophetic: "This could be either my greatest hour, or my last; these aren’t toy boats we’ll be dealing with."

Though Valkenburgh didn’t know it, his Japanese adversaries were just as nervous; Admiral Nagumo in particular had made a point of secretly writing up his will just before his task force departed Hitokappu Bay. He knew that the Americans would put up a bitter fight in their home waters and that there was a good chance his flagship, the aircraft carrier Hiryu, might be sunk in the coming battle.

Nonetheless, Nagumo and his task force pressed on— the future of the Japanese Empire depended on the success of his mission. Back home, the people were beginning to have doubts about winning the war; on the Malayan Peninsula, the British garrison at Singapore was putting up unexpectedly effective resistance against General Tomoyuki Yamashiita’s southeast Asian landing force; and from the Philippines the American air force was mounting daily bombing raids on the home islands. If either the strike at Pearl or the diversionary attack on Midway failed, it would be a daunting blow to his nation’s morale…


While the IJN’s First Carrier Division was steaming towards its do-or-die confrontation with the US Pacific Fleet, the man who since the first days of Case Purple had been the living symbol of Irish fascism was losing his own mortal battle for survival. Eoin O’Duffy, his insides torn to ribbons by Red Army shrapnel, was slipping away despite German doctors’ best efforts to save his life. Hitler and Goebbels were at their wits’ end; should O’Duffy perish, the already tenuous German position in Ireland would then deteriorate further— if he perished, anti-Nazi partisans back in Ireland would view it as a signal to ratchet up their attacks on German occupation forces.

Hitler sent his personal physician, Dr. Theo Morell, and a team of specialists to the Russian front to assist Wehrmacht field surgeons in the fight for O’Duffy’s survivial; Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda worked overtime to spread the patently false story that O’Duffy had survived with only minor wounds and was resting in a German civilian clinic until he was well enough to rejoin his troops.

Allied propaganda and news agencies worked just as hard to blow Goebbels’ cover story; one man who took particular glee in that task was New York-based newspaper and radio gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who began what he called ‘O’Duffy’s Deathwatch’ on February 24th. "Hear that?" he’d say to his listeners as the tick-tick-tick of a grandfather clock went on in the background. "That’s the sound of the Grim Reaper counting off the final hours of Eoin O’Duffy’s worthless life." Out in Hollywood, Winchell’s feminine counterpart, Louella Parsons, started a ‘Send O’Duffy To The Devil’ contest in which she offered a $500 prize to anyone who could correctly guess the day and time of the Blueshirt leader’s death.

Unfortunately for Parsons and Winchell, it would be a long time before anyone collected on that prize; thanks partly to the skill of German medicine and partly to his own stubborn refusal to give his enemies the satisfaction of seeing him give up in the face of Bolshevism, O’Duffy would survive the rest of the spring and into the early part of the summer. It was a Pyrrhic victory, however, since O’Duffy spent much of that them in searing pain which made him unfit for combat duty.


At 4:55 PM Honolulu time on March 3rd, 1941 Admiral Nagumo sent the coded message "Climb Mount Niitaka" to all the carriers in his task force. This was the signal for the 1st Carrier Division to split into two groups. The first, led by Shokaiku, Zuikaku, and Kaga, would reverse course and proceed to Midway Island to begin their diversionary attack; the second, spearheaded by Hiryu, Soryu, and Akagi, would continue on to Oahu to start their raid on Pearl Harbor.

Though it was not yet daybreak at Pearl, the naval base and surrounding Army installations were already humming at full strength. The air was thick with chatter: the main topics of conversation, other than the possibility of a Japanese air strike against the harbor, were the gallant struggle by Indian and Australian troops to relieve the embattled British forces at Singapore and General Douglas MacArthur’s efforts to bolster shore defenses in the Philippines. There was scuttlebutt that MacArthur might lead an amphibious attack on the Japanese eastern flank in Malaya, but you couldn’t be sure about that since the brass hats in Washington were worried about leaving Cavite Bay and Manila exposed…

At 5:47 AM air raid sirens began wailing and general quarters were sounded for all ships still in the harbor. Five minutes later, fighter pilots stationed at Hickam Field received orders to scramble. The destroyer USS Ward had intercepted and sunk a Japanese midget submarine trying to sneak past the anti-torpedo nets at the mouth of the harbor; almost simultaneously, radar operators at Opana spotted a large formation of unknown and probably hostile aircraft on what appeared to be a direct course for Battleship Row.

By 5:55 AM, the heavy carriers Enterprise and Lexington had sent their Wildcats up to confront the approaching Japanese planes and their sister ship Yorktown was teaming up with the light carriers in the area to begin launching dive bomber and torpedo strikes against Hiryu and Soryu. Within ten minutes after that, Arizona captain Franklin van Valkenburgh had sent Admiral Kimmel what turned out to be the mighty battlewagon’s last dispatch: "Have sighted what appears to be enemy battleship— am preparing to open fire on same."

The Battle of Pearl Harbor had begun.


At Midway Japanese and American naval forces had already been in combat for twenty minutes by the time the first alarms sounded at Pearl; the intensity of their confrontation was heightened by the seemingly endless pounding of Midway’s shore batteries and fierce if not always accurate bombing runs from the island’s land-based aircraft.

For a while the Japanese seemed to have the upper hand against Midway’s defenders; they’d sunk two light carriers and three submarines and shot down more than five dozen American aircraft. It seemed like a question of just hours if not minutes before the island’s Marine Corps garrison would have to slug it out with a Japanese landing force. At 6:15 AM, however, the tide at Midway began to turn in the Americans’ favor when a flight of Dauntless dive bombers sank the cruiser Haruna. Since Haruna had been assigned to deliver 1800 Japanese marines to Midway’s beaches to begin the invasion of the island, its loss was a considerable blow to Nagumo’s diversionary scheme. With the cruiser eliminated, the Americans stood a better chance of taking out Kaga, Zuikaku, and Shokaiku; accordingly, the air element of their clash with the Japanese now focused its wrath on these three carriers.

Kaga was the first to go, sunk by land-based Devastator torpedo planes at 6:31 AM2. Barely fifteen minutes later, Shokaiku went down, destroyed by successive dive bomber strikes from American light carriers off Midway’s western tip. By 7:00 AM Zuikaku was dead in the water, her decks a raging inferno and half of her crew killed; the survivors, fearful that the Americans would make her a war trophy if they got hold of her, made the gut-wrenching decision to scuttle her.

At 7:12 AM, the commander of the Japanese diversionary force ordered his remaining ships to begin a fighting withdrawal from the waters off Midway. Yamamoto’s dream of capturing this vital island was dead.


Back at Pearl Harbor, Arizona and her Japanese counterpart, the Musashi, were slugging it out in what one US Navy ensign would later aptly call "Dempsey vs. Tunney at sea"3. The two ancient battlewagons, almost equal in terms of their firepower and their respective captains’ experience in naval operations, were locked in a lethal stalemate.

That stalemate was broken around 7:21 AM when a trio of ‘Val’4 dive bombers scored a direct hit on Arizona’s forward magazine, touching off an explosion that ripped the American battlewagon in two. Within minutes, the Pacific Fleet flagship sank with most of her officers and crew still on board; Captain van Valkenburg drowned while trying to pull his executive officer to safety. 

Aboard the Soryu, an enthusiastic shout of "Banzai!" resounded throughout her decks when her crew heard the American battleship torn apart. Such moments of triumph, however, would prove the exception rather than the rule that morning for Nagumo’s fleet. American submarines, emulating the "wolf pack" strategy of the Kriegsmarine in the Atlantic, had sunk a dozen or so Japanese surface vessels; depth charges had eliminated fifteen Japanese submarines.

Akagi was preparing to launch a strike against Pearl Harbor’s oil storage facilities when she came under attack by a mixed squadron of US Navy dive bombers and Army Air Corps fighters from Hickam and Bellows Fields. Her complement of Zeros fought valiantly to resist the assault, but the American planes were just too numerous to be brushed off, and a series of direct hits caused her to sink just after 8:00 AM.

Realizing that his task force would be annihilated if it remained in American waters much longer, Admiral Nagumo reluctantly ordered his surviving vessels to begin retiring westward at full speed for a rendezvous with the flotilla he had sent to Midway (he wasn’t yet aware that the Midway diversionary group had already started makings its way back to Japan). He then transferred his flag from the badly crippled Hiryu to the battered but still-operational Soryu. Determined not to let them get away, and eager to avenge the Arizona’s demise, Admiral Kimmel ordered every available aircraft and surface vessel in the US Pacific Fleet to hunt down what was left of the 1st Carrier Division.

During this pursuit, however, the Japanese succeeded in snatching a stunning tactical victory from the jaws of strategic defeat. At 10:02 AM, the submarines I-25 and I-29 fired a volley of torpedoes at the Yorktown, so severely damaging the carrier that her crew was forced to abandon ship. The Pacific Fleet broke off pursuit of Nagumo’s ships to rescue Yorktown’s survivors, giving the Japanese vessels much-needed breathing room to complete their escape.

The Battle of Pearl Harbor was over, and both sides had taken massive casualties. The Japanese, however, had come off much the worse in this engagement; five of their front-line aircraft carriers were gone for good, their plans for neutralizing Pearl and capturing Midway had been thwarted, and hundreds of Japan’s best-trained combat aviators were dead.

Changing of the Guard: March 4th-March 12th, 1941


At the time the Seebrϋcke convoy prepared to make its third run from Kiel to Dungarvan, Fritz Todt had served as Reich Armaments & Munitions Minister for nearly a year; he was also head of the Organisation Todt forced-labor bureau that held the responsibility for building and maintaining the Reich’s armament factories, defensive installations, and communications outposts.

On March 4th, 1941, Todt flew to the German occupation zone in southern Ireland to assess for himself the state of its defensive infrastructure. What he saw wasn’t particularly encouraging: at least a third of all the critical defensive facilities in the region were at or near a state of total disrepair, and even when they weren’t the morale of the troops assigned to man them was lower than he would have liked. Worse, he’d uncovered disturbing if vague hints that OT’s program for conscripting Irish laborers to work in Germany was being intentionally sabotaged either by local partisans or by Allied intelligence.

After four days in German-occupied southern Ireland, Todt had had enough material for an extensive and highly critical report which he intended to present to Hitler upon his return to Berlin. On March 9th, he boarded a Ju-52 at Dungarvan intending to fly to Brest, where another plane was waiting to take him home to Germany.

He never made it; as his aircraft was passing over the French coast, one of its engines abruptly caught fire, and within a matter of seconds the entire plane had become a flaming tomb. The ill-fated transport crashed outside Brest just after 1:00 PM Berlin time.

Hitler was devastated beyond words when he learned of Todt’s death; Dr. Todt had been one of his oldest comrades in the NSDAP and a highly competent overseer of one of the German war effort’s most vital components. He ordered the Seebrϋcke convoy’s next run, which had originally scheduled for March 12th, postponed until March 16th so that the convoy's officers and crew could attend Todt's funeral.

That postponement would prove a grave mistake, for it gave Allied naval forces added time to lay a trap for the convoy's flagship, the Bismarck. Even as the Führer was leading his country in mourning for the late Dr. Todt, a joint US-British naval task force had positioned itself for an ambush of the massive German battlewagon…


On to Part 6




1 Short had wanted to keep the aircraft close together to minimize the risk of sabotage, but Kimmel convinced him to change his mind, arguing(rightly as it turned out) that air attack by carrier planes posed a much more serious threat.

2 The Devastators paid a heavy price for their success, however; of the twelve planes that participated in the strike that sank Kaga seven were shot down by Japanese fighters and an eighth was forced to ditch at sea.

3 Quoted from an article in the March 4th, 1941 edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

4 The plane’s Allied code name; its official Japanese designation was Aichi D3A.


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