It (Almost) Happened Here
The Wehrmacht Campaign In Ireland, 1940-42
by Chris Oakley
In the previous seven parts of this series we covered the Nazi invasion of Ireland and the Allied counteroffensive; the spread of the Second World War into the Mediterranean, Russia, and the Pacific; the disastrous Wehrmacht defeat at Stalingrad; and the Germans’ last-ditch attempt to regain the initiative in southern Ireland with their Case Torch offensive. In this chapter we’ll cover the siege of German forces at Killarney, the December 7th Doolittle raid, and the end of the Axis presence in North Africa.
Straight On Till Morning: December 7th, 1941
Despite starting the war at a distinct disadvantage against the United States, Japan had so far enjoyed remarkably good luck-- so much so that the government came to believe its own propaganda when it boasted that the Japanese home islands would never be threatened by air attack. US Army Air Corps general James H. Doolittle, a legend both at home and abroad among aviators, was given the task of shattering the invulnerability myth. He hit on a risky but ingenious plan which involved modifying B-25 medium bombers for launch from the deck of an aircraft carrier to raid Tokyo; though it would be a one-way mission, Doolittle quickly found volunteers for it.
The bombers took off from the flight deck of the USS Hornet at 9:30 AM Tokyo time on the morning of December 7th; originally they were to have been launched when the carrier was within 200 miles of the Japanese coastline, but Hornet had the misfortune to be detected by a fishing trawler when she was still 375 miles away, forcing the B-25s to take off prematurely in order that the carrier might have time to reverse course and make for the safety of her temporary home port in Australia before Japanese naval patrols were fully alerted to her presence.
In spite of this mishap, Doolittle’s attack force was able to reach Tokyo and bomb a number of the city’s industrial plants; the raiders also struck Yokohama, Kobe, and Osaka. The material damage caused by the air strike was negligible, but the blow it struck to Japanese morale was tremendous; with just a handful of bombs, the Americans had forever shattered the myth that Japan could not be attacked from the air. That in turn cast doubt in the minds of Japanese civilians regarding their senior military leaders’ boasts of the Imperial Armed Forces’ invincibility. As the Pacific war progressed, these doubts would gradually sap the strength of the Japanese war effort until one day that strength was gone altogether…
Chill Wind: December 8th, 1941-January 6th, 1942
Back in Europe, the already bleak situation of the German forces in Ireland was about to deteriorate further under the combined pressures of a punishing winter and relentless Allied ground thrusts against the weakest points of the Wehrmacht’s defensive line. In Cork, still headquarters for the shrinking German occupation zone in southern Ireland, Dr. Franz Six was making preparations to level the entire city in order to keep it out of Allied hands; in Killarney, meanwhile, thousands of his fellow Germans were struggling to hold against starvation as well as the cold.
Realizing this, the Allies had tightened their naval blockade on the German zone and were also doing everything they could to disrupt supply routes on land. On December 8th, despite inclement weather, American, Irish, and British fighters mounted tactical strikes against most of the major supply routes in and out of Killarney. The next day, England-based US Army Air Corps B-17s attacked two dozen Wehrmacht outposts including the occupation forces’ headquarters at Dungarvan.
By December 11th the German defensive line along the Blackwater River had begun to crumble as Allied armor and infantry thrusts against its weakest points finally paid off in the form of newly opened breaches in the Wehrmacht battlefront. Heydrich’s first reaction to this setback was to have two division commanders shot and a third recalled to Germany in disgrace; his second was to mount a series of defensive thrusts against the Allies at the town of Ballyporeen. For a short time, it seemed as if Heydrich might be able to turn the tide of the war in Ireland back in the Reich’s favor as these thrusts caught the Allies off-guard and forced them to temporarily pull back from the Blackwater.
But those hopes were dashed on December 16th as Allied forces regained the initiative and launched a four-pronged assault against the badly overextended Wehrmacht forces in southern Ireland, throwing Heydrich’s patiently crafted strategy into utter chaos. By December 19th, Allied artillery crews were within shelling range of Cork; the next day Wehrmacht defenses at Killarney crumpled amidst heavy air and tank bombardment. Determined to maintain a German foothold in southern Ireland at any cost, Heydrich went to Ballyporeen to personally take over command of the German garrison there— and in doing so may have sealed his own doom.
Late on the morning of December 22nd, as the SS general and onetime fencing champion was directing an artillery barrage on Allied armor columns east of Ballyporeen, a sniper with the Irish partisan forces shot and mortally wounded him. Despite field medics’ best efforts, Heydrich died less than two hours after being hit; fearful that his body would be desecrated if it fell into Irish hands, his top deputy hastily ordered it to be cremated using flamethrowers.1
On Christmas Eve, Allied troops entered Cork amidst murderous machine gun and cannon fire; Dr. Franz Six fled to Dungarvan, leaving his subordinates and a few dozen pro-Nazi Irish volunteer militiamen to face the wrath of the Irish regular army as it broke through Wehrmacht defensive barriers around the soon-to-be-former capital of the German occupation zone in southern Ireland. By December 27th, only Dungarvan and a few miles of coastline between Dursey Island and Clonakitty Bay were still fully under German control— and with the nearest Luftwaffe bases now hundreds of miles away along the French shore, it was questionable whether even this slim strip of territory could be held much longer.
On New Year’s Day 1942 the last pockets of German resistance in Cork collapsed; that same day a detachment of British marines occupied Dursey Island. By January 4th Clonakitty was in Allied hands, and 24 hours after that American advance units reached Cobh. The German campaign in southern Ireland was about to come full circle, ending precisely where it had started: at Dungarvan.
Out of Africa: January 7th-18th, 1942
The situation faced by the Wehrmacht forces in North Africa was every bit as dire as the one confronting their comrades-in-arms back in Ireland; a renewed Allied offensive led by Montgomery had driven the Axis out of Egypt and seized most of Italy’s colonial holdings in Libya while French colonial authorities had assisted the Americans in establishing a foothold in Morocco and Algeria. From there, US troops had advanced nearly unopposed into Tunisia; now what was left of the Afrika Korps, along with its Italian support elements, found itself caught in the jaws of a slowly closing vice as Allied strategic planners put the final touches on a three-pronged offensive aimed at ejecting the Italians from Tripoli.
That offensive, ironically dubbed "Operation Caesar", began on January 7th, 1942 as American and French forces hit the Libyan capital along three fronts. The Allies had braced themselves for at least a week’s fighting, but to their surprise (and relief) the city’s defenders capitulated after just six hours. Within three days American advance units had reached Al Khums and Mizdah and American planes were harassing Rommel’s supply lines in eastern Tripolitania.
Defying Hitler’s command to hold fast, Rommel pulled the remains of his once-redoubtable expeditionary force back to the coastal town of Surt and began evacuating his remaining men to Sicily, where it was hoped that they could be re-equipped and deployed to defend the Italian coast against an anticipated Allied assault on southern Italy. "Looking back," he would later write in his personal campaign journal, "I’m only conscious of one mistake in my strategy-- that I did not circumvent the ‘Hold or Die’ order much sooner."
On January 13th American troops took Misratah; that same day the British engaged retreating German troops near Zillah in a vicious firefight that lasted more than three days. By January 17th, only Surt remained in Axis hands and Rommel’s successor as Afrika Korps C-in-C, General Hans-Jurgen von Arnim, found himself and the 30,000 men still with him trapped inside a shrinking pocket with almost all vital supplies down to the bottom of the barrel and Allied troops closing in. Chances of food or ammunition reaching him in a timely fashion by sea were almost nil— not only did Allied naval forces dominate the Mediterranean, but OKW had decreed that relieving the besieged German garrison at Dungarvan was the Reich’s top military priority at that moment with the Russian front a very close second. The only choices left open to von Arnim were to perish in a glorious last stand or to surrender and save the lives of the men under his command.
He chose surrender. On January 18th, 1942 von Arnim’s second-in-command radioed Allied authorities with word that von Arnim had ordered his surviving men to lay down their arms; with that brief statement, the war in North Africa came to an end. Now the Allies could begin marshalling their forces for a showdown with Rommel’s troops in Sicily— and from there, the day would soon be in sight when Allied senior commanders could at last start to seriously consider an assault on the Italian mainland.
On the Eastern Front, the Red Army broke the siege of Leningrad and began making inroads into Belarus. These victories inspired Irish Communists to begin forming up volunteer units to fight for the Soviet Union, and within a week of von Arnim’s surrender in Libya the first of these units had departed for Murmansk. Given that the Communist Party of Ireland had been on the verge of splitting in two before the German invasion in 1940, the mere existence of the volunteer groups was a strong testament to the renewed of unity that war had forged in the CPI’s ranks.
In the Pacific, the Allies achieved their first significant land victory against the Japanese as US troops captured the island of Guadalcanal in a swift though brutal offensive. The assault used a modified version of the strategy the British had employed in the early stages of Operation Ouster, and among the soldiers who went ashore in the first wave were men who had once worn the uniform of the Thomas Jefferson Brigade.2
No Quarter: January 19th-February 1st, 1942
One could have pardoned the men and officers hunkered down in the German garrison at Dungarvan for thinking the world was coming to an end. The Reich, which just a year earlier had stood poised on the brink of world domination, now found itself everywhere on the defensive. To all but the most diehard supporters of the Führer, it was becoming clear that the invasion of Ireland in 1940 had been a mistake— and a potentially fatal mistake to boot. German forces had been evicted from Africa and were in retreat on the Eastern Front, while partisan movements in the Balkans and France were growing bolder in their attacks on German occupation forces. Italy, Germany’s main European ally, faced an Allied invasion in Sicily. The German occupation zone in Ireland, which at one point had been ready to expand as far north as Donegal Bay, was now comprised of the paltry few square miles that lay between Helvick Head and Youghal. And Germany itself was being subjected to the one thing Hermann Goering had assured its citizens could never happen— daily air attack by the Allies.
The final act in the saga of Fall Purpurrot began on January 19th, 1942 as Allied regular troops and Irish partisans attacked German forces at Youghal. The village was liberated after two days and some 10,000 German prisoners were captured, along with the last remaining Irish fascist volunteer squad. News of Youghal’s fall terrified the senior staff at the German garrison in Dungarvan; with little available in the way of air cover, and with the Irish eager to take their final revenge on the foe who had oppressed them since August of 1940, the garrison would be sacked without mercy and every man in it lynched.
On January 23rd, as Allied tank and artillery shells began falling on German targets inside Dungarvan, U-boats and small craft began making evacuation runs to Helvick Head to take off as many German men as they could carry. Among the first to leave was Dr. Franz Six, who just before he fled Dungarvan wrote a scathing letter to Himmler in which he blamed Eoin O’Duffy for the impending German collapse in Ireland and recommended that O’Duffy be tried before a court-martial and shot.
Many of the evacuation boats never made it home to Germany; they were either sunk by the Allies or succumbed to the winter storms that frequently lash the waters off Ireland and France. And even among the boats that did return home, some of the men who came back were too psychologically shaken to be of much use in combat anymore. Larger boats were soon pressed into service to continue the evacuation, but their luck was almost as grim; Allied naval estimates compiled after the war ended suggest that one out of every four German warships lost in combat in the first months of 1942 was sunk during the final German pullout from Ireland.
By January 26th Allied troops had entered Dungarvan and were engaged in bitter house-to-house fighting with the few German soldiers still in the city. What little air support the defenders could muster against the Allies came from He-111s and Ju-88s from German-occupied France, and it was largely ineffectual; American and Irish fighters hacked them out of the sky in droves as Allied ground forces continued to push towards the center of the town.
The Allied advance was assisted in large measure by local Irish partisan groups who struck at the German rear flanks at nearly every opportunity. The Wehrmacht battle plan, shaky enough to begin with, fell apart completely and by January 30th the Paris headquarters for the German occupation forces in France reported that they’d lost radio contact with the beleaguered Wehrmacht troops in Dungarvan. The next day, the final evacuation boat from Dungarvan Harbour arrived at the French port of Brest, bringing with it a hundred or so men who looked and felt as if they’d just escaped from the gates of hell.
Behind them they left a pair of half-starved, half-dead companies who constituted the last remaining fragment of what had once been a German expeditionary force strong enough to threaten Ulster and even Great Britain with invasion….
To Be Continued
1 Heydrich’s uniform, sent back to Berlin as confirmation of his death, was put on display in a glass case at SS headquarters on Himmler’s personal command.
2 At least one American platoon leader, in fact, kept the unit’s old shoulder patch under his combat helmet as a good-luck charm. It seems to have worked; he survived the war and eventually rose to command of a NATO-tasked infantry brigade in Europe before retiring from the US Marines at the age of 77.