It (Almost) Happened Here
The Wehrmacht Campaign In Ireland, 1940-42
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous chapters of this series we discussed the German invasion of Ireland in 1940 and the subsequent Allied counterattack; the spreading of the Second World War to Russia, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific; and the ultimate collapse of the German battlefront in Ireland. In this segment we’ll look back at the Allied liberation of Dungarvan and explore Ireland’s role in Allied military operations following the end of the Nazi occupation.
"Our Revels Now Are Ended": February 1st-3rd, 1942
For the beleaguered handful of German troops still on Irish soil, the moment of final defeat by the Allies was terrifyingly close. Allied forces now held most of Dungarvan and were making a fierce effort to capture the rest; at the German rear flank, the local Irish partisan cells had sensed their foes’ impending doom and were pouncing on the harassed Wehrmacht troops like sharks which smelled blood in the water.
Near Dungarvan Harbour, Kriegsmarine E-boats and submarines were making a valiant but fruitless effort to break the tightening Allied naval blockade that was making it extremely tough if not impossible to get supplies in or men out. Allied carrier planes had a field day, raining bombs and torpedoes down on the German vessels almost at will.
By nightfall on February 1st, Dungarvan Harbour was firmly under Allied control and the city’s Wehrmacht garrison had been reduced to just a few frightened squads taking refuge wherever they could find it. Not that there was much of it to be found-- the city’s main railway station had been bombed within an inch of its life and partisan forces had booby-trapped a number of other buildings to deny their use to the Germans.
Just after dawn on February 2nd, Allied infantry and armor groups struck at the last remaining pocket of German resistance inside Dungarvan. With no air support, their artillery down to just five guns, and their food and ammunition supplies literally down to the bottom of the barrel, the men inside that pocket were sitting ducks for whatever the Allies threw at them; what few attempts they made at a breakout were easily thrown back. By midday, the last remaining Kriegsmarine surface vessels still in Irish waters had either retreated to the relative safety of ports in German-occupied France or been captured by Allied boarding parties.
Realizing there was nothing more to be done, the highest-ranking officer among the surviving Wehrmacht forces in Dungarvan radioed Allied forces at 2:32 PM London time that afternoon and declared that he and his troops would surrender to the Allies at 3:00 PM.
New Irish prime minister John A. Costello, following the course of the battle from his offices in Dublin, almost wept with joy when the news of the surrender reached him. At 3:15, he made a special radio address telling his fellow countrymen that "the day we have waited, hoped, and prayed for since the first of our soldiers fell in 1940 has finally arrived"1; as his speech was broadcast around the world, it sparked wild celebrations among Irish communities in Britain, Canada, and the United States and sent Hitler into a towering rage.
At 5:30 PM that same evening, Winston Churchill told the British House of Commons: "The stain of Nazi rule is now purged from the soil of Ireland....sooner or later, it will also be expunged from the rest of Europe." He then led his fellow MPs in a moment of silence to remember those killed in action during the Allied liberation campaign and the civilians put to death by the Nazis during the German occupation of southern Ireland.
Fall Purpurrot, the offensive many had expected to be the German army’s crowning victory in Europe, had instead proven the first step toward its final defeat.
Hounds to the Hunters: February 1942-June 1944
With the Germans finally ejected from southern Ireland, driving Rommel from Sicily became the new top priority for Allied senior commanders. Two weeks after the surrender of the last Wehrmacht troops at Dungarvan, Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for Allied land and naval forces in the Mediterranean to launch Operation Husky, a four-pronged amphibious campaign intended to neutralize the erstwhile "Desert Fox" once and for all.
Rommel’s Italian allies were of little or no help in dealing with the assault when it came; in fact, one Italian base, the coastal fortress of Pantelleria, surrendered without firing a shot less than 36 hours after Operation Husky began. The Italian army and people were growing ever more disenchanted with Fascist rule, and they saw an Allied victory as the best hope for getting rid of Mussolini at last. Indeed, even as the German embassy in Rome was bombarding King Victor Emmanuel III with exhortations not to give up the fight, the elderly monarch was racking his brain to find a plausible pretext for removing the Fascist dictator as head of state.
Also working on a means of removing Mussolini from power, though Victor Emmanuel didn’t know it yet, was-- of all people --one of Mussolini’s closest associates, Dino Grandi. A wealthy man who’d been the Duce’s first foreign minister, he foresaw nothing but disaster for Italy if Mussolini were allowed to remain in power much longer, and after much deliberation with his peers he made up his mind that the most effective means of removing him from office would be by a special vote of the Fascist Grand Council.
On February 23rd, an emergency meeting of that council was called in Rome to vote on a petition submitted by Grandi which if passed would effectively strip the Duce of all political authority. As aprecaution against being arrested, Grandi had secretly brought a pair of hand grenades with him so he could blow himself-- and, if fortune favored him, Mussolini --up if push came to shove.
But the grenades turned out to be unnecessary; when the petition passed by a vote of 19-7, Mussolini was too shocked to have his former foreign secretary jailed. Instead he went to King Victor Emmanuel’s palace hoping to enlist the monarch’s aid in having the petition voided. Instead, Victor Emmanuel told him that the vote incontrovertibly endorsed the Italian people’s true feelings toward the man who had ruled them for nearly two decades-- they despised him.
"But if your majesty is correct," stammered a shell-shocked Mussolini, "I would have to turn in my resignation." To which the king answered without missing a beat, "And I unconditionally accept it."2 Within 36 hours, the deposed Duce had been placed under house arrest and Marshal Pietro Badoglio, chief military strategist for Italy’s 1935 conquest of Ethiopia, had been made head of the government with full power to negotiate peace terms with the Allies.
The coup caught both Rommel's forces in Sicily and the German High Command in Berlin off-guard; determined that the Reich must not desert Mussolini in his darkest hour, Hitler issued orders for Wehrmacht troops in Austria and southern Germany to begin occupying Italy in 12 hours. He also organized a commando raid to spring Mussolini from the converted hotel-turned-prison where the deposed Fascist leader was being detained pending handover to Allied military custody.
Operation Alaric, the German-backed countercoup to restore the Fascist regime to power in Italy, got underway on February 25th, 1942; with the losses the Wehrmacht had sustained of late in North Africa, Ireland, and Russia, there wasn't enough manpower to go around and after a breathtaking start the invasion forces ground to a halt at the headwaters of the Tiber River.
On the other hand the commando raid, directed by SS colonel Otto Skorzeny, was a brilliant success. Skorzeny's team was able to subdue the prison guards and free Mussolini without a single shot being fired; the Duce was then flown to Munich, where Hitler had plans to meet with him about establishing a new Fascist regime inside the German occupation zone in northern Italy.
In southern Italy, meanwhile, the Badoglio government in Rome quickly made peace with the Allies and declared war on Germany. The OSS and its British counterpart, MI6, aided by transport planes from a greatly expanded Irish Air Corps, began shipping guns and ammunition to anti-Nazi partisans in German-occupied northern Italy.
By mid-March Sicily was almost completely in Allied hands; Rommel just barely managed to elude capture, being evacuated along withhis staff to German-occupied France just as Allied troops were closing in on his command post. German attempts to dislodge the Allies from southern Italy met with stiff resistance and incurred high casualties the Reich could ill afford as its future hung in the balance. In April of 1942, the last remnants of the Wehrmacht garrison in Sicily left the island and were re-deployed to shore up German defenses in northern Italy.
The Irish people never forgot America’s pivotal role in securing their country’s liberation from the Nazis, and as the spring of 1942 became summer thousands of young Irishmen sought to repay this debt by volunteering to serve in the US war against Japan. In late June, the Eamon de Valera Squadron, a special unit of the US Army Air Corps composed almost entirely of Irish pilots, was deployed to the Pacific in support of American troops battling to drive the Japanese off the island of Tarawa. Within a short time, they proved to be just as troublesome to the Japanese air force as the regular Irish Air Corps had been to the Luftwaffe; legendary ace Saburo Sakai is alleged to have had nightmares about them before he even faced one in combat.
Other Irishmen served with distinction on the Italian front, in the naval campaign against Germany’s U-boats, in Russia, and on a host of covert Allied espionage and commando missions inside German-occupied western Europe. Many Irish writers and poets, like the legendary playwright Brendan Behan, put their talents to work turning out anti-Nazi literature as a means of rallying further support for the Allied cause. There were even a handful of Irish scientists involved in the United States’ top secret atomic weapons development program, the Manhattan Project.3
By early 1943, the Third Reich was irrevocably on the defensive on all fronts-- and the Irish armed forces helped to contribute to that turn of events. The Irish navy, essentially a coastal patrol service when the Second World War began in 1939, had in gradually evolved into a highly effective tactical strike force; a greatly expanded Irish Air Corps was aiding the RAF and the USArmy Air Force in prosecuting their combined strategic bombing offensive against the Nazis; and Irish army troops were putting to use in Italy the lessons their comrades had learned during the battle to liberate Ireland from German occupation.
When Soviet tanks attacked Wehrmacht positions near the city of Kursk in June of 1943, Irish Communist volunteers fought by their side; Irish Communists also served with the rebel armies of Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia and ELAS in Greece, as well as numerous Italian partisan bands in German-occupied northern Italy.
But it was on June 6th, 1944 that the post-liberation Irish armed forces made what may have been their greatest contribution to the final Allied victory against Nazi Germany. That morning 300 Irish Air Corps planes and 2000 Irish ground troops landed on France’s Normandy coast alongside American, British, Canadian, and Free French units as part of Operation Overlord, the Allied campaign to end the Nazi occupation of western Europe....
To Be Continued
1 From the BBC archives in London.
2 Quoted from Richard Collier’s Duce!, copyright 1971 by Viking Press.
3 And its British counterpart, Tube Alloys.