It may seem like a strange thing to say, but it is important not to underestimate the vast scope of the Second World War. In terms of the number of people engaged, the number of people killed and injured, the tracts of land and sea that were fought over, the societal, cultural, technological and scientific changes and advancements that took place and the political ramifications, there is nothing in the entirety of human history that matches it. I have found that the Second World War is often treated like some kind of unreal piece of history, its reality diluted by an entertainment industry that is obsessed with replicating it in various forms, whether it is films, TV shows, documentaries, video games, podcasts and an endless stream of popular history books. Partly this is because of its size, partly it is because of a natural attraction to “the last good war” where one side was undeniably more worthy of enmity by most moral standards. All this means that we must tread carefully in our examination, and that goes doubly for the Irish experience, one where Ireland was a bystander for the most part, but hardly separated.
Why did the Second World War happen? There is no simple answer, and if we were to get truly technical we would be going all the way back to the resolution of the First World War and the chain of events that were set in motion there with Germany’s humiliation, Italy’s dissatisfaction and Japan’s emergence as a significant global power in its own right. From there we would have to talk about issues as wide-ranging as American isolationism, British appeasement, political instability in France, the specific conditions that allowed for the rise of fascism in Europe, economic crashes, trade embargos, racial superiority ideology and plain simple desire for revenge and dominance over regional rivals.
If we were to boil it down to something relatively basic, then I would say that the cause can mostly be described as the territorial ambitions of powers like Germany, whose expansion had been tolerated to a point but which was deemed no longer acceptable after the takeover of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, Italy, whose African ambitions had already drawn international ire, and Japan, who had long-term goals of establishing hegemony over the entirety of Eastern Asia. These ambitions ran square against the desires, spheres of influence and toleration of powers like the United Kingdom and France, and later the Soviet Union and United States. Smaller nations were drawn into the maelstrom en masse as time passed. Beginning with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, and even earlier if you are to look purely at the Pacific theatre where Japan was fighting in Manchuria from 1931, the world fell into conflict.
The beginning of the war did not catch many people by surprise: the aggressive expansionist policy of Hitler and his Nazi Party had long provoked fear of a European conflict, and after the fall of Czechoslovakia it was commonly seen as a case of when, and not if, the alliance of the UK and France would have to make good on guarantees made of other nations’ independence. The invasion of Poland left Chamberlain in London and Édouard Daladier in Paris with little choice. While the armies of Britain and France got themselves into readiness for what many feared would be a repeat of the slaughter of the 1914-1918, other nations in Europe had their own reactions.
We are going to proceed on the basis of four different threads. The first will be on the history of Ireland, and Northern Ireland, during the conflict, with topics to include Irish neutrality generally, relations with the Allies and Axis, the bombings that occurred and how things ended up for Ireland in the aftermath. The second will be on the IRA and espionage: their activities during the war, contacts with Germany and German efforts to land agents inside Ireland. The third will focus on the hypothetical, in the form of the various war plans different actors drew up that included Ireland to some degree. And the fourth will look at the war itself, and the role and experiences of the Irish who fought in it, especially in the “named” Irish units.
Firstly, Ireland itself, that is, the 26 county state. As the war commenced, the possibility of its involvement was relatively remote. There was no stated intention of joining with one power bloc or the other, and the potential to be the subject of an attack was fairly slim. The handover of the Treaty ports meant there was no longer any viable British military target in the national territory, and even if Germany was inclined to think Ireland either an enemy or an opportunity, its location on the periphery of Europe and beyond the UK only made such a challenge more difficult. In truth it was probably more likely in September 1939 that aggression would come from the Allies, who later in the war would show little compunction in militarily occupying non-belligerent territories if they felt it was to their strategic advantage, and the UK had the benefit of a land border to work with. But, for the moment, this was not very likely, with Chamberlain’s conciliatory policy towards Ireland still holding.
In terms of more practical attributes, Ireland could not be said to be in a hugely strong position at the war started. The Irish Defence Forces remained small, with little more 20’000 trained men available to be called up: all in all, it could be considered a fairly pitiful force in comparison to the military behemoths that were soon to be rampaging across the land, sea and air of Europe. More critical to Ireland’s defence was its status as an island, with any attack necessitating some manner of naval landing, but this was no longer as difficult a challenge to overcome as it had been just a few decades before.
As for what Ireland’s goals were in the coming conflict, it suffices to say that they mostly amounted to staying out of the whole thing as much as was possible. The quick adoption of a neutrality policy underlines this, and there was little in the way of any hints that Ireland’s participation in the conflict was something that could be negotiated. But, as we will see, Ireland often strayed a very dangerous line on this score, and it is not ridiculous to suggest that many in the halls of power had obvious leanings towards the Allies.
Northern Ireland’s position was obviously very different. As one part of the United Kingdom it was an active belligerent in the Second World War from the very start, and stood ready to contribute to the war effort in terms of manpower, facilities and geography. In terms of defences the North had many of the same natural advantages that the south had, and in September 1939 could be considered far enough away from the German frontier that the possibility of air attack was remove, to the point of being non-existent. It was a state of affairs that would not last. More locally, certain strands of Northern Ireland’s political leadership certainly preferred the option of a military occupation of Ireland so as to make its ports available to the Royal Navy, but this remained an ignored opinion for the time being.
The second thread is that of the IRA. As we have seen it was making plans to gain the assistance of Nazi Germany long before the beginning of the war, and as we will see very shortly was already engaged in military action against the United Kingdom. The outbreak of an actual war provided obvious opportunities to gain further support from Britain’s enemies, who would have been all too keen to exploit the possibility of emboldening an armed paramilitary opposition to the United Kingdom inside its own territory, or just next to it. The IRA was in a better position at the time than it had been for a while, in terms of membership and reach, and in Sean Russell had a leader who was more fully committed than any of his immediate predecessor’s in terms of his willingness to attack Britain. Fear of Ireland being used as a base to attack the UK, whether it would be from entities like the IRA or even Germany after an invasion with IRA support, would have been acute in certain British circles. But if the IRA thought that the Second World War was another instance of England’s difficulty being Ireland’s opportunity, they would eventually be disappointed.
The third thread will be on war plans. Through the course of the Second World War, Ireland would be the focus of a number of hypothetical preparation documents. They covered the possibility of German invasion of Ireland, British military operations within Ireland, and German-backed IRA activities within Ireland and Northern Ireland. In the end the vast majority of these documents proved to be wasted paper, but they are a fascinating aspect of Ireland’s experience during the conflict. Entries on this subject will discuss the plans, their viability and likelihood of successful implementation, and what they could have meant for Ireland’s future if they had been executed. This is largely the realm of counter-factual history, but a brief exploration is apropos.
The fourth and final thread we will follow will revolve around the larger war, and the role of Irish soldiers and Irish named units in it. Despite the disbandment of regiments like the Connacht Rangers and Royal Munster Fusiliers at the conclusion of the War of Independence, the British Military retained a number of named Irish units, like the Irish Guards, the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the North Irish Horse, among others. These units retained a degree of Irish background and nationality in their personnel, and an Irish character in their emblems, mottos and other accoutrements. Fighting in numerous campaigns all around Europe, Africa and beyond, their experience of the Second World War will allow us the chance to take a look at the British role in the conflict. There were others too, like the 69th Regiment of the United States, or the small number of Irishmen who winded up aiding the Axis cause.
In essence there is a great deal to cover, even for a country that was not an active belligerent at any point in the war. This too points to the magnitude of the Second World War, where very few parts of the globe were not touched in some way by it. We will begin next week then, with an examination of the early days of the conflict as experienced by the Irish government and the immediate steps they took to handle the crisis. Or rather, as the whole affair came to be known, the emergency.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.