It (Almost) Happened Here:
The Wehrmacht Campaign In Ireland, 1940-42
By Chris Oakley
Late June-early August 1940: Fall Purpurrot
When France surrendered in late June of 1940, it instantly became clear that sooner or later the Nazis meant to conquer Britain as well. Many, in fact, speculated that it was just a matter of time before German troops attempt to mount an amphibious assault on the British coast—or an airborne one, judging by the constant false sightings of paratroopers in southern England. The British people in general, and the Territorial Army in particular, were bracing themselves for what prime minister Winston Churchill had already started referring to as "the Battle of Britain".
But in one of his flashes of intuition, Adolf Hitler had decided that the direct approach wasn’t necessarily the best one when it came to subduing the Third Reich’s chief enemy. Instead, he told his generals in a Wehrmacht staff conference three weeks after Paris fell, he would outflank the British by means of a German occupation of Ireland; feeling themselves hopelessly surrounded, he reasoned, the British people would waste little time throwing Churchill out as prime minister and electing a new government that was willing to make peace with Germany.
Nonetheless, to keep the British guessing, Hitler would direct Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Goering to begin conducting air attacks on strategic targets throughout southern England in early July. While that was going on, the main landing force for the invasion of Ireland — code-named Fall Purpurrot(Case Purple) – would quietly assemble in Brest and depart the French port by August 10th for its assigned landing zone at Dungarvan.
The invasion and conquest of Ireland was expected to take, at most, three weeks. The Irish army, despite a massive expansion effort aimed at securing Ireland’s coasts against both Axis and Allied landings, was judged to be no threat to the Wehrmacht —particularly since much of its ammunition reserves had recently been stolen by rogue elements of the IRA1.
To further facilitate the German occupation, Hitler discreetly authorized his SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, to make contact with Ireland’s National Guard2 quasi-fascist movement and enlist their aid in undermining the Irish army’s defensive efforts. Admiral Erich Raeder’s Kriegsmarine would mount a relentless U-boat campaign to cripple the Irish Marine & Coastwatching Service. And last but not least, once a secure beachhead had been established on the Irish coast the Luftwaffe would annihilate the paltry Irish Air Corps within hours, if not minutes.
August 9th-August 16th,1940: To Die In Ireland
On August 9th, 1940, 60,000 Wehrmacht troops hit the beach near Dungarvan under the command of General Erwin Rommel, a highly distinguished veteran of the German campaigns in France and Poland. Accompanying this assault force was a 20,000-man Waffen-SS division under the command of SS-Gruppenführer Felix Steiner; as the invasion force encircled Dungarvan and linked up with National Guard volunteers, it seemed like just a matter of time before Hitler’s optimism would be vindicated.
Within less than 24 hours after the first German troops hit the beaches, Dungarvan, Cork, and Waterford had already been captured and the vanguard of the invasion force was pushing relentlessly towards Dublin while a secondary contingent drove for Killarney. By the 36-hour mark, Kilkenny had fallen; by August 11th, just 48 hours after Case Purple began, German forces had advanced to within less than two miles of Limerick.
Hermann Goering was jubilant as each new Luftwaffe victory over the beleaguered Irish Air Corps was reported and confirmed; even in the Polish campaign his squadrons hadn’t enjoyed such decisive triumph. There was literally nothing left of Irish airpower after just three days of combat. Meanwhile, Erich Raeder’s U-boat chief, Admiral Karl Dönitz, made a friendly wager with his counterpart in the Italian submarine fleet, betting a keg of Germany’s finest beer against 50 bottles of Chianti that the Kriegsmarine would completely dominate the waters off the Irish coast within ten days after the invasion began.
Hitler kept one ear glued to his radio in the Reichschancellery, eagerly anticipating the moment when the Propaganda Ministry would announce that the Irish had surrendered and the British government was suing for peace.
Instead, on August 12th, to their surprise and consternation, Hitler and his cabinet received word that Eamon de Valera had instructed his forces to resist the Germans to the bitter end. In those sections of Ireland already under Nazi control, partisan units called "Special Action Groups" were to wage guerrilla war against the Germans3; parts of Ireland that were still free were to be defended by the Irish regular army to its last man. Adding insult to injury, de Valera and Churchill had made an agreement for British air and ground forces in Ulster to aid the Irish in resisting the German invasion. There were even ominous rumors that Americans of Irish descent were volunteering to fight for Ireland.
Hitler was only briefly disturbed by these reports, however, and in some respects he actually welcomed them; his army now had an added incentive to defeat the Irish quickly before British power could play any significant role in opposing the German conquest of Ireland. And besides, dealing with partisan forces would give the Wehrmacht much-needed practical training that could be put to good use in the coming war with Russia.
August 16th-August 21st,1940: A Hundred Generations
Within a week after Case Purple was launched, the Germans and their National Guard collaborators were on Dublin’s doorstep, poised to assault the Irish capital. Opposing them were a motley collection of civilian volunteers, Irish regular troops, ex-IRA guerrillas and British soldiers.
On August 17th, eight days after the first Wehrmacht troops landed on the Irish coast, Rommel’s forces attacked Dublin from the east and south while National Guard militias assaulted the city from the west. Morale among the invasion forces soared with the news of Killarney’s fall that same day; it grew higher still as German troops gained control of Dublin Harbour and began inching their way towards the heart of the city. Regimental bands were summoned to Dungarvan in anticipation of the victory parade the Wehrmacht expected to holding in just a few days time. Some German soldiers were already wondering who among them would be accorded the honor of raising the swastika over Dublin’s most famous historic land-mark, the General Post Office.
But the Irish weren’t quite ready to give up their most important city just yet; indeed, to Rommel’s distress, they were fighting his men tooth and nail for every last inch of territory in Dublin proper. Meanwhile, de Valera had secretly completed negotiations with the then-supposedly neutral United States to allow the Irish Air Corps to purchase combat aircraft from American companies to supplement the Spitfires and Hurricanes already being shipped over from Britain. And as Hitler would soon discover to his great dismay, the rumors about Americans fighting for Ireland were true…
August 22nd-August 29th,1940: The Thomas Jefferson Brigade
While German soldiers were shooting it out with Irish partisans in the streets of Limerick and massive air battles were raging in the skies over Dublin, American volunteers were gathering in New York, Boston, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Chicago to begin training for the day when they would take up arms to rid Ireland of the Nazis. Not all of the volunteers were of Irish descent; some, in fact, were anti-Nazi German-Americans who saw the war in Ireland as an opportunity to put their beliefs into action.
In any case, the 8700-plus men and women who made up what was known as the Thomas Jefferson Brigade4 had one crucial thing in common: they all hated Hitler and were determined to drive his invasion force out of Ireland at any cost. Most were seasoned fighters, having seen combat either in the Irish rebellion or the Spanish Civil War (both, in some cases); those who had never seen battle before were placed under the veterans’ tutelage as the Brigade began training for what was expected to be a long and gruelling fight against the Wehrmacht.
On August 22nd, five days after the battle for Dublin began, SS and Wehrmacht advance squads finally reached the heart of the Irish capital. Though the Nazis' public statements continued to project an arrogant certainty that their final victory in Ireland was inevitable, privately some of them were beginning to feel a vague unease about the way the Anglo-Irish forces continued to hang on in the face of what should have been overwhelming German superiority on the ground and in the air.
Hitler in particular was disturbed by the fact that Dublin still hadn't fallen nearly two weeks after Fall Purpurrot began. The stubbornness of the Irish in refusing to capitulate was not only disrupting his timetable for the invasion of Britain, it was now also starting to endanger his proposed 1941 campaign against the Soviet Union, Fall Barbarossa. "Why can my armies not crush those illiterate tree-worshipping peasants?" he was heard to complain more than once to Goebbels in unguarded moments.
Late August-early September,1940: The Wicklow Massacre
By August 27th, the German occupation zone in Ireland extended as far north as Ennis and the battle for Dublin-- by then in its tenth day –was close to being won. An occupation government under the direction of Dr. Franz Six was established in Cork and given a free hand to act against partisan groups in German-controlled territory as well as any Jews who might still be on Irish soil.
An early indication of how those under Dr. Six’s rule could expect to be treated if they didn’t toe the Nazi line came on August 30th, when SS Einsatzkommandos5 raided the village of Wicklow in retaliation for a guerrilla ambush the previous day in which a Luftwaffe supply truck had been destroyed while on a fuel run to the German fighter base at Rackdrum. Starting just before 12:30 PM Dublin time and continuing until 6:00 that night, the SS men slaughtered every adult male in Wicklow and most of the town’s women as well; adolescents of both sexes were shipped off to Germany as forced labor, and children were sent to various orphanages in German-occupied continental Europe. At 6:15 PM, the town’s buildings were razed by Waffen-SS demolitions teams6. To make sure no one failed to grasp the meaning of the raid, Dr. Six had the entire operation filmed from start to finish and the film shown in every theatre in the German occupation zone in Ireland.
On September 1st, one full year to the day after the Second World War had begun, a concentration camp was established at Clonmel for the purpose of incarcerating Irish Jews. A prototype for the nightmare death houses which would be built throughout eastern Europe as the Final Solution was instituted later in the war, the Clonmel camp crowded hundreds of people together under conditions not fit for the lowliest farm animals; the inmates were subjected to every kind of physical and mental torture their jailers could think of.
The next day, Radio Berlin broadcast a dramatic communiqué throughout the entire world: "Enemy resistance in Dublin has come to an end…"
To Be Continued
Footnotes1 Indeed, one panzer colonel is said to have joked that Ireland’s mythical leprechauns might pose more of a threat to the landing force than the Irish army. 2 Colloquially known as the Blueshirts because of their blue uniform tunics. 3 Interestingly enough, such groups were similar in concept and purpose to the "auxiliary units" established in Britain by Churchill's order just after Dunkirk. 4 Originally, the unit was to have been called "the Michael Collins Brigade" after the famous Irish statesman; this name was dropped, however, in the face of objections by Eamon de Valera, who had once been Collins’ most staunch political adversary.
5 Special Commandos.
6 Try though they might, however, the SS men were unable to get rid of the statue in the town’s square commemorating 1798 rebellion leader Billy Byrne. Many Irish partisans took this as a sign from God that they would eventually prevail against the Nazis.