It (Almost) Happened Here
The Wehrmacht Campaign In Ireland, 1940-42
by Chris Oakley
During the previous six installments of this series we covered the German invasion of Ireland and the Allied counterattack; the consequent spread of the war into the Mediterranean, Russia, and the Pacific; and Hitler’s struggle to maintain the Wehrmacht’s foothold in southern Ireland in the face of growing Allied naval and air superiority. In this chapter we’ll explore Fall Fackel, the German 6th Army’s plight at Stalingrad, and the completion of Japan’s conquest of the Philippines.
Hinge of Fate: June 22nd-July 8th, 1941
As the advance units participating in Case Torch mounted their initial attacks against Kilkenny just after 6:30 AM on June 22nd, General Heinrici still felt a nagging sense of unease about the gamble Hitler was taking with his men. Despite Admiral Dönitz’s ingenious use of U-boats to compensate for the blows dealt to the Seebrücke convoy, the Wehrmacht expeditionary force in southern Ireland only had a tenth of the men and equipment necessary to make any kind of sustained offensive against the Allies work.
The Germans, however, had one advantage which the Allied forces didn’t— the element of surprise. SHAEF intelligence estimates in regard to Heinrici’s next offensive had assumed the attack would be launched against Kilcommon, generally recognized by both sides to be the weakest point in the Allied front lines. The Kilkenny assault came as something of a shock at SHAEF headquarters; a well-known (if possibly apocryphal) story told by Allied veterans of the Irish campaign claims that the first thrusts by German panzers into Allied territory caught MPs at a Belgian outpost still eating breakfast in the enlisted men’s mess hall.1
Many of the troops under Heinrici’s command did not share his anxieties. Indeed, as Allied troops were driven back by the first wave of German attacks, the prevailing mood within the ranks of the assault force was one of great confidence that the Wehrmacht would be back in Dublin in two weeks; by the third day of the offensive even General Heinrici was beginning to feel a guarded optimism that the Führer’s bold gamble might yet pay off. After all, the German army had triumphed before in the face of grimmer odds….
Then came the Allied counterassault against the German lines at Killeshin on the afternoon of June 27th. The heretofore smoothly co-ordinated German offensive fell apart like a straw hut in a hurricane as Allied air and armored strikes tore through the most vulnerable points in the German lines, and Heinrici realized that his misgivings about Case Torch had been well-founded all along. The Allies retook Kilkenny on June 30th; by July 2nd Allied ground and air forces were mercilessly pounding away at Wehrmacht and SS defensive positions outside Clonmel.
By July 4th the remnants of the Case Torch attack contingent had been split in two; some 50,000 German troops were in a desperate retreat towards Killarney while the rest of the ill-fated assault force hunkered down behind defensive positions along the northern banks of the Blackwater River. Meanwhile, the surviving inmates at the Clonmel concentration camp had overthrown the camp guards and were giving Allied authorities their first macabre glimpse at the reality of Hitler’s plans for purging Europe of the Jews…
Hitler was beside himself with rage as word of the German defeat at Kilkenny reached the Reichschancellery. The news couldn’t have come at a worse time; with the Red Army still hanging on (albeit barely) at Stalingrad and the Western Allies having launched a new offensive against the Afrika Korps in Egypt, he desperately needed a victory in Ireland to boost the wavering morale of the German people.
On July 6th he summoned General Heinrici to Berlin and relieved him of his post as commander-in-chief of the German expeditionary force in southern Ireland. Given his distinguished record in 36- plus years with the German armed forces, Heinrici’s dismissal was seen by his fellow soldiers as a hideous mistake at best and a blatant insult at worst; few Wehrmacht senior officers, however, dared to utter even a murmur of protest lest they too be fired— or worse.
As Heinrici’s replacement, Hitler appointed Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SS’ Sicherheitsdienst counterintelligence bureau. Heydrich had little practical military experience, but he made up for that deficiency with a keen mind and a fanatical loyalty to the Reich. He took up his new command within 24 hours after Heinrici’s dismissal and in his first official act ordered the troops on the Blackwater River line to hold their position at all costs; having narrowly survived an RAF attack on his personal plane as it crossed the English Channel from Brest to Dungarvan, he had made it his personal mission to get even with the British for that attack by driving them out of southern Ireland bag and baggage.
Fallen Citadel: July 9th-22nd, 1941
Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the Japanese expeditionary force had overrun Corregidor and was steadily advancing on General MacArthur’s command post at Mindanao. What was left of American air power on the islands was being thrown at the invaders in a desperate effort to keep them at bay while the general’s staff and family underwent final preparations for evacuation to Australia. By July 9th, Japanese troops had captured Surigao and surrounded Dipolog; two days later Japanese warplanes were bombing Allied defensive positions at the foot of Mount Apo.
In spite of the long odds against them, American and Filipino troops at Mindanao continued to fight valiantly against the rapidly advancing Japanese. It wasn’t until July 17th, when Japanese forces seized Basilan Island, that General MacArthur finally consented for the remaining US forces in the Philippines to begin evacuating the country. Manuel Quezon and his cabinet left for Australia the next day, to be followed by MacArthur’s wife and son 24 hours later.
MacArthur himself would not depart the islands until July 21st, when the Japanese reached the outskirts of General Santos, the last major Filipino city still under Allied control. Even then, the general made it abundantly clear that he wouldn’t be gone forever; just before boarding the PT boat that was to take him to the Australian port of Darwin, he issued the memorable pledge "I shall return" in a brief radio farewell.
The last pocket of Allied resistance in the Philippines finally surrendered early on the evening of July 22nd. Elated by their triumph, the Japanese started preparing for the day when their armies would hit the shores of Australia— a day that, as things turned out, would never arrive.
"Only Men Endure": Late July-early September, 1941
While the Japanese were completing their victorious march through the Philippines, their German allies were finding themselves deep in a quagmire in the ruins of Stalingrad. By all rights the city should have been firmly in Wehrmacht hands by now and the German army back on the march towards Moscow. But the Soviet 62nd Army stubbornly held on in the face of Nazi power; in fact, as fresh troops were brought to the battlefront from Siberia its strength was steadily growing.
One Wehrmacht soldier encapsulated the hell Stalingrad had become for both sides in a letter he sent home to his wife in the final week of July, 1941: "Stalingrad should no longer be called a town but a cemetery; its streets aren’t measured by meters but by corpses. In the daytime it is a vast cloud of burning, blinding smoke; at night it becomes a furnace that drives dogs to swim desperately across the Volga in hopes of gaining the opposite shore. Animals flee this city in sheer panic; the hardest stones can’t bear it for long; only men endure."
Helping keep the 62nd’s spirits up was the job of the unit’s political commissar, future Soviet premier Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Khrushchev had ruthlessly purged its ranks of what he considered bad apples while at the same time pulling every possible string to guarantee that good officers and men were rewarded for their heroism in facing the Nazis. One particular beneficiary of Khrushchev’s patronage was sniper Vasili Zaitsev, who thanks in part to the commissar’s efforts received the Order of Lenin and a promotion to captain for his actions in the city’s defense.2
The steady and massive rise in morale within the ranks of the Soviet forces was matched by a corresponding decline in morale among the Germans. And the weather wasn’t helping matters any: although Russia is best known for her punishing winters, her summers can be every bit as brutal— as the 6th Army’s medical staff discovered the hard way in treating a growing number of heatstroke cases among their ranks. By the second week of August, heat-related deaths accounted for at least ¼ of all German casualties on the Stalingrad front.
Hitler could have averted much of the tragedy that befell the 6th Army by the simple act of letting Von Paulus make a temporary tactical withdrawal from the city to more defensible positions along its outskirts. But the Führer considered it a personal insult if anyone even thought of recommending such a course of action— he was hell-bent on taking Stalingrad before the onset of winter, and Hermann Goering had assured him that the Luftwaffe could keep the 6th adequately supplied for however long it took to subdue the Red Army. So German troops continued to suffer and die for the sake of boosting Hitler’s ego.
In late August, heavy rains turned the countryside into a sea of mud, handicapping both German and Soviet land vehicles. However, the manpower and air situations both heavily favored the Soviet side. Whereas the Nazis were dipping deeper and deeper into a steadily shrinking reserve, the Red Army could still muster vast pools of untapped strength for the Russian interior; as for the Red Air Force, its stockpile of combat aircraft continued to grow thanks not only to the USSR’s own prodigious plane manufacturing capability but also to the Lend-Lease shipments of planes from the United States and Britain.
By September 3rd, the vast Axis legion that had so confidently set out for Stalingrad back in May was reduced to a handful of exhausted and half-starved battalions clinging to survival in the ruins of a tractor factory. Still, however, Hitler refused to pull back, warning that if the Germans left the city now "we’ll never get it back!" Even when army chief of staff Franz Halder threatened to resign his post the Führer refused to budge.
Anyone looking for the official German media to provide an honest explanation of the dire straits the 6th Army was in down in Stalingrad would be sorely disappointed. On Goebbels’ orders, newspapers and radio broadcasts were insisting that all was well and that a German victory was imminent. But on September 5th, that air of false optimism would be shattered once and for all; that morning, at precisely 7:30 AM Moscow time, the 62nd Army began its final attack on the remnants of the 6th Army and its satellite forces. Within twelve hours, von Paulus’ forces were reduced to less than 80,000 men, and rather than put his remaining troops through further useless bloodshed he instructed his aide, Colonel Wilhelm Adam to ask the Soviets for surrender terms.
On September 7th, Radio Moscow declared victory for the Red Army in the battle for Stalingrad; the news hit the German public like a hammer blow to the skull. Hitler was enraged by the 6th Army’s capitulation, regarding it as a personal insult; the day before the battle ended, he’d promoted von Paulus to field marshal in the hope that Paulus would commit suicide and deprive the Soviets of the propaganda coup they made from his capture.
With the defeat at Stalingrad, the tide on the Eastern Front turned permanently against the Germans; from then on, only the weather would slow the Soviets down in their relentless push to drive the Wehrmacht off their soil. Exacerbating this unfortunate turn of events, Hitler sacked army chief of staff Franz Halder and took personal overall command of the German armed forces, in which capacity he would make errors that would seal the Third Reich’s final doom…
The Second Blitz: September 8th-December 6th, 1941
On the Western Front, meanwhile, the Luftwaffe had begun a series of saturation raids against Dublin. With the German position on the ground in southern Ireland looking as shaky as it had back in October of 1940, Hitler had decreed the way to break the spirit of the Irish once and for all was through terror bombing of their ancient capital— and never mind if similar tactics against London had backfired.
The new Luftwaffe bomber campaign against Dublin, which would span nearly three months, started on September 8th, 1941 with a raid by four squadrons of He-111s on the Irish capital’s docks just after dusk; though the raiders sustained massive casualties, they succeeded in causing serious damage to Allied military and commercial facilities in Dublin Harbour. This put something of a crimp in the Allies’ own land operations in southern Ireland, at least in the short term, and allowed the beleaguered Wehrmacht time to regroup.
Allied anti-aircraft batteries were hard-pressed to keep up with the steady stream of Luftwaffe bombers that rained fire and death on Dublin from dusk to dawn. Fighter defenses were stretched to the limit as well; medical personnel attached to the American and British forces in southern Ireland noticed a marked increase in physical and mental fatigue among Allied fliers during the first month or so of what Edward R. Murrow termed "the second Blitz"3. They also found a disturbing number of instances of what would today be called post-traumatic stress disorder within the ranks of Allied front-line fighter squadrons, and dozens of pilots were pre-emptively grounded lest their symptoms place their comrades in danger. Hitler gleefully waited for the Irish to finally give up the ghost and sue for peace…
Then came the so-called "thousand-bomber raid" of November 5th, which targeted the Parliament building and Dublin’s General Post Office. When the air raid sirens first sounded, Eamon de Valera had been in the midst of a speech before the Dáil Éirann4; while the legislators were being evacuated from the building, de Valera rushed out into the street to assist firefighters who were trying to quench blazes which had been set off in a nearby neighborhood by German incendiary bombs. At the height of this attack one of the lead bombers in the second wave was hit and severely damaged by Irish anti-aircraft fire; whether by accident or design, its pilot put the crippled Heinkel into a suicide dive with its full bomb-load still inside. Despite frantic pleas by his aides to get away from the scene while he still could, de Valera chose to stay with the firemen until the moment the German bomber crashed into the street; the impact set off all the bombs at once, turning the already scorching fire into a full-blown inferno.
De Valera’s death was officially confirmed the next day after Red Cross search parties found his partially charred body in the rubble of a house on Schoolhouse Lane East and identified it via dental records. Almost immediately the cry went up to avenge the prime minister’s death; even his most staunch political rivals were enraged by what was seen as the Nazis’ deliberate slaughter of their country’s Taoiseach5.
By this time, the US Army Air Corps had not only established a considerable presence in Ireland but had also secured bases in southern England; it also had a new strategic bomber, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, which could travel farther and inflict more damage than any Allied bomber previously deployed in combat. AEFI wasted little time giving these new planes their baptism of fire, sending them to attack airfields in the Nazi occupation zone in Ireland on November 8th, the day of Eamon de Valera’s funeral. In spite of the heavy losses they sustained as a result of German air defenses, the B-17s proved their worth, destroying four Luftwaffe bases outright and crippling a fifth so seriously that its commander was forced to suspend all air operations from it for six weeks.
Those raids were the first salvo in a wave of Allied air strikes aimed at neutralizing what was left of Nazi air power in southern Ireland. In the face of this intense onslaught the "second Blitz" gradually petered out, and on December 6th General von Greim was forced to call a temporary (at least in his view) halt to night bombing attacks against Dublin.
24 hours later, on the opposite side of the world, Japan’s sense of hegemony over southeast Asia would be given a very rude jolt…
To Be Continued
1 Cornelius Ryan, The Longest Day. 2 Zaitsev told his story in the autobiography Notes of a Sniper, a book which later served as one of the inspirations for the 2002 Jean-Luc Annaud war movie Enemy at the Gates.
3 Coined in the opening of a CBS News broadcast from London on September 7th, 1941.
4 The Irish Parliament’s House of Representatives.
5 Gaelic for "chieftain"; this is the official title of the modern Irish head of state.