Having looked at the initial Irish reaction to the Second World War and the early activities of the IRA for the same, it is now time to take a closer look at the war itself. Ireland was not a belligerent in the Second World War, but plenty of Irish, and descendants of Irish, would fight in it, for numerous armies. Many of them would be part of the “named” units of the British military, regiments that carried with them a distinctly Irish character, and in many cases a significant Irish contingent. Some of these units would be involved in the strange early months of the war when it seemed as if no war was being fought at all, and then in the terrible Summer that followed.
There had been some changes in the named units, since the last time we really studied them in detail during the First World War. At the conclusion of the War of Independence six of the most significant of these units, who had their primary recruiting grounds within the territory of what was going to become the Irish Free State, were disbanded, with a post-war budgetary squeeze also proving a factor. By the end of July 1922 the Connaught Rangers, Royal Irish Regiment, Prince of Wales’ Leinster Regiment, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the South Irish Horse had all ceased to exist. A number of regiments connected to the North retained their existence, as did British-based units like the Irish Guards.
Of course we must be realistic about the “Irishness” of these units. As in other parts of the British military, there were plenty of Irish born and Irish descended in the ranks, and among the officers. These units carried with them Irish emblems, flags, mottos and anthems, albeit in nearly all cases of a kind that could not be mistaken for any kind of republican sentiment. But these regiments contained large numbers of men who were not Irish or descended from Irish, and they tended to be led by officers who could say the same. Their Irish status was in many ways more of a historical remembrance than a reflection of their current status. But that Irishness was still apparent, and so they will provide a decent way of exploring the experience of the Second World War from the perspective of one of its key players.
As for the war, the earliest campaign proceeded rapidly, with the Allies in no position to intervene. Between German troops advancing from the west and Soviet forces that invaded in mid-September coming from the east, Poland was overwhelmed, and ceased to exist by early October. With the exception of an extremely limited French incursion over the German border, the Western Allies did nothing. As the Soviets became bogged down in an unexpectedly difficult campaign in Finland, the British were preoccupied with getting a new form of the British Expeditionary Forces over the Channel and into positions on the Franco-Belgian border, in preparation for the repelling of a German assault or for future offensive operations.
The BEF contained elements of several Irish regiments, among them the infantry of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Irish Guards, Royal Ulster Rifles and the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the light tanks of the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. The first casualty of the war from Ireland was Belfast’s Sgt John Lamont of the Inniskilling’s 2nd Battalion, killed on the 19th September in a vehicle accident when stationed near La Mans. The few deaths and other casualties reported for the Irish regiments in this period were nearly all accidents of some kind or another.
This section of the Second World War is commonly referred to as the “Phoney War”, owing to the lack of combat operations. A very limited French offensive in the Saar region was soon called off, and after that Britain and France were engaged with Germany primarily in the air and at sea: ground based operations just didn’t take place, with the opposing militaries resolutely staying in place facing each other along the French/German border, or on opposite sides of the Low Countries. The records of the British regiments at this time are replete with notices about training, the attempted alleviation of boredom, leave arrangements back home and an obvious restlessness. Plenty would have begun to think that a true war would not happen and that some manner of agreement would be found between the belligerents. Certainly, many in the German leadership wanted such a thing. Other than that, the pause between the fall of Poland and the re-emergence of hostilities gave both sides ample time to continue building up their military power. It would be Germany that would prove itself more successful when the time came.
The Phoney War ended in spectacular fashion on the 9th April 1940, when Germany took steps to defend its ore supply lines from Allied interference by invading first Denmark, which fell in rapid fashion, and then Norway, with German troops landing there on the same day. The British responded as quick as they could by arranging for a separate expeditionary force to be sent there, and it was in this campaign that Irish regiments would engage the enemy for the first time in the conflict.
It was a desperate battle, where the British and other Allies were on the wrong foot from the start. Getting troops to Norway in treacherous seas was hard enough, and soldiers were on the defensive in difficult terrain almost as soon as they had disembarked, with German advances through the south and centre of the country something that local and Allied forces seemed capable of only delaying. Many units and officers were still in the process of getting used to the realities of warfare at the time, where air power and armour were more vital aspects than ever, while the Norwegian military was too often overmatched in their use of obsolete weaponry.
Among the 38’000 Allied troops sent was the 1st Battalion of the Irish Guards, part of the larger 24th Infantry Brigade. From almost the moment they disembarked at Harstad, in mid-April, they were the subject of German air bombardment. They stayed in place for a time, before being moved south to Bodo to bolster a defensive effort that was already starting to collapse owing to German advances the Allies were unable to stop. Along the way the Irish Guards suffered significant casualties when their troop transport ship, the Polish Chrobry, was bombed, with many of their key officers among the wounded: the survivors were forced to abandon ship owing to a large fire that erupted, but ended up making it to their destination on other vessels.
On land, the Irish Guards relieved a unit of their Scottish counterparts in forming a makeshift rear-guard for a larger retreat. At the coastal town of Pothus the regiment held out for two days from an intense Germany attack before being obliged to withdraw themselves upon danger of encirclement, with a destroyed bridge over a local river threatening to trap soldiers on the wrong side if they waited too long: in the chaos that followed, many were left behind enemy lines, but were able to belatedly make it back to safer territory. By early June, the Norway campaign was long since lost, and the BEF was withdrawn. It was a chastening experience that provoked enormous fallout in political circles back home, but the experience would perhaps stand to those that had fought in it in future.
Another significant factor in the failure of the Norwegian Campaign was the launch of the major German offensive in the west at the same time. Germany began its assault on the 10th May, invading Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands, utilising routes through the Ardennes Forest region especially, to bypass French defences on the Maginot Line further south, before slamming into France itself. The result was a spectacular German success, with the Allies repeatedly routed by the tactics of what has come to be known as “blitzkrieg”. That term has had a controversial history, but there is perhaps no better word to describe the union of air power, armour, rapid infantry advances and a ruthlessly aggressive combination of the three to describe what occurred in Western Europe that Summer. Traditional ideas on defensive warfare, the use of strong points and the space needed to move units around were destroyed as the French Army was annihilated in the course of roughly eight weeks, dramatically altering the larger strategic picture of the conflict. Some units were pushed back into the French interior by the German onslaught, others became bottled up on the northern coastline, as Allied operations quickly became more a matter of maintaining unit cohesion and existence than anything else.
Numerous Irish named regiments were involved at different points of the fighting. As the 1st Battalion was getting hammered in Norway, the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards was initially deployed to the Hook of Holland, where they had the significant responsibility of covering the movement of the Dutch government and royal family as they went into exile. From there, they were moved to the port city of Boulogne, a southern bulwark in a coastal pocket that included Calais, Dunkirk and Ostend, that a huge portion of the French, British, Dutch and Belgian forces had been cut off in. The Guards, with the Irish on the right flank, faced a major assault from the German 2nd Panzer Division starting on the 22nd May, but managed to hold their ground through desperate fighting, aided by repeated sorties from RAF bombers and shelling from Royal Navy ships in the harbour that were engaged in evacuating who they could. From positions on the outskirts the Guards were forced bit-by-bit into the urban areas of Boulogne, where the Irish battalion throw down bridges and barricaded the streets with abandoned cars to aid in their defence. Late on the 23rd, the Irish were themselves evacuated. 5’000 Allied soldiers, most of them French, would not be so lucky, going into German captivity, but the effort to defend Boulogne was far from a wasted one: the resistance there delayed the German advance on other parts of the pocket, giving greater time for a more critical evacuation.
Other units also fought in this part of the campaign. The Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards were engaged in the brief effort to defend Belgium, and suffered in a retreat to the Schledt River, from where they were moved to the Dunkirk area. Losing the majority of their tanks, they would have to form a composite unit with similar regiments to aid in the defence of that town. The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers fought with the 5th Infantry Division, with heavy losses incurred as part of rear-guard actions that contributed hugely to the later successful evacuation of the larger BEF. The 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and 2nd Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles were also engaged, with the latter part of the 3rd Infantry Division, commanded by Irish War of Independence veteran Bernard Montgomery. Both distinguished themselves in the pell-mell fighting characterised by the brief holding of canals and other waterways, and along with the other were pushed inexorably back to Dunkirk.
The story of Dunkirk is a remarkable one, even for a conflict as massive as the Second World War. Over 400’000 Allied soldiers would end up in the pocket, no more than 24km’s wide, with German forces bearing down on them. The chance to inflict an enormous, maybe even fatal, defeat on the British military beckoned. But on the 23rd, the German advance halted, for reasons that remain hotly debated to this day. It has long been a popular presumption that Hitler ordered the pause as part of his efforts to negotiate a peace settlement with Britain, though there is little actual evidence for this. More likely that German commanders wanted to give their troops time to rest before a final assault against a trapped enemy, while also re-positioning forces to proceed with the further invasion of France. Either way, the three days where the Germans did not maintain their advance gave the Allies invaluable time in which to prepare their own defences and organise an evacuation.
All of the Irish regiments previously mentioned, along with anti-aircraft units based in Belfast usually, were engaged at different points of the miserable fighting that proceeded after the 26th, with the Germans struggling to break Allied lines. It was essential a constant battle, marked by overwhelming German attacks running into significant resistance, followed by limited counter-attacks designed more to delay the inevitable resumption of the German advance than anything else. Poor weather aided the defensive effort as it warded off the Luftwaffe for a time, while continued French resistance at Lille also kept a large proportion of the available German forces busy. At the same time, the Allies cold not hold out indefinitely, and were pushed back, bit-by-bit, to the beaches.
In the nine days between the 27th May and the 4th June, nearly 340’000 of the soldiers trapped at Dunkirk were successfully evacuated, by a mixture of Royal Navy ships and civilian boats. Nearly the entirety of the BEF were rescued: roughly 40’000 French troops did not make it out, and went into captivity when the German’s finally took the coastline on the 4th. While a nominal German victory in terms of ground taken, the evacuation became an unexpected triumph for the Allies, with many in Britain rapidly forming the opinion that what had occurred at Dunkirk was little less than a “miracle”, one propelled by the heroism of the defending soldiers and the “little boats” that dared to cross the English Channel to save them.
But they couldn’t save France. A further three weeks of fighting was to take place as the German military swept through the country, destroying France’s military ability to resist. On the 6th Italy belatedly joined in, invading along the south-eastern border. On the 14th, Paris fell. Just over a week later, France signed an armistice that left German occupying the coastal regions and interior, with “Vichy France” nominally self-governing in the rest, but little more than a puppet state. It capped an absolutely extraordinary few months, that now saw Germany ascendant in Western Europe. The British War Graves Commission records at least 80 men born in the 26 counties who died in the “Battle of France”, and many more from the North.
By that time Britain was under new leadership. Neville Chamberlain’s administration collapsed in the aftermath of the Norwegian debacle, and he was finished as Prime Minister on the day that Germany commenced its westward advance. His replacement, after some political wrangling, was Winston Churchill. The appointment would have caused some concern among Dublin circles, given Churchill’s practical leadership of the “coercion” faction of the British government’s efforts in Ireland during the War of Independence, his opposition to the handover of the Treaty ports and a laundry list of actions and stated opinions that indicated he was not going to be extremely friendly to the Irish.
But what he was, was what Britain needed at the time, something that was perhaps not adequately acknowledged in 1940. His leadership, especially through the rest of 1940, was going to be a pivotal aspect of a portion of the war commonly characterised as “Britain Alone”. The British military, along with the Irish regiments, had been saved at Dunkirk. Now it would face another terrible battle, and a continued fight for survival.
At some point soon we will resume the narrative of the Second World War from the perspective of the Irish named regiments. But now we must turn to a different aspect of the conflict, namely the theoretical. Ireland was not a belligerent, but that did not mean that belligerent powers were ignorant of it, or he role it could potentially play if military forces were landed on it. Among the first to draw up plans for a possible invasion of the Irish landmass was none other than the IRA, and an examination of that plan will be the focus of the next entry.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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