Ireland’s Wars: Plan Kathleen And Operation Mainau

My commentary on the IRA’s activities in the early stages of the Second World War have tended to be critical. The S-Plan was a resounding failure in its stated aims, and the Christmas Raid ended up undercutting its short-term success with a series of more long-term setbacks that arose from it. But in the late Spring and early Summer of 1940, the IRA was prepared to attempt something much grander, and much more ambitious, than the bombing of post boxes or a raid for arms. The effort coincided with the first major Nazi Germany effort to plant an intelligence agent in Ireland during the war: both would prove themselves failures in different ways, and largely set the tone for the continuing IRA plans to use the Second World War to its advantage and German ambitions of using Ireland for the same.

The IRA was not in the very best state in the aftermath of the S-Plan’s final spluttering instances. Sean Russell was still in America, at the time trying to arrange passage to Germany: a story for a future entry. Stephen Hayes’ role as an acting Chief-Of-Staff was not proving fruitful. Many of the IRA’s best men were in prison or internment camps. Desperate to arrest this apparent decline, and to maintain efforts to take advantage of “England’s difficulty” Hayes issued orders for a plan to be drawn up, that would outline the possibility of a German invasion of Northern Ireland, with the overall goal of forcing the British out and enacting political unification of the island. Liam Gaynor, a Belfast-born Volunteer and a civil servant was the man asked to come up with the details. A keen debater whose intellectual abilities that were respected by other members of the IRA, Gaynor has been described since as an “amateur military strategist”, whose ability to draw up such a plan can be seriously questioned.

The details of the plan when it was presented, sometime in the Spring of 1940, were sparse. Gaynor’s outline – which became known as “Plan Kathleen”, though this was not an official designation – called for a two-pronged approach between German troops and the IRA. The IRA was to mass Volunteers in County Leitrim facing Lough Erne, potentially enough to goad British troops in the North into crossing the border as a pre-emptive strike, and thus legitimise a German invasion as a protection of Irish neutrality. The Germans, for their part, were to land troops – Gaynor called for 50’000 of these – somewhere in the region of Derry City. After this, between the two forces, the British military presence in Northern Ireland was to be destroyed. Gaynor’s plan gave little to no time to how the Germans were to get such a force to Northern Ireland, or how the alliance of Germany and the IRA were to actually defeat their enemies after the initial phase. By nearly all accounts that treated Kathleen with a degree of critical thinking, it appears to have been a plan that was shallow in its detail and severely lacking in its practicality.

With the aim of re-establishing the links between the IRA and the Abwehr, and hopefully then use those links to obtain funds and supplies, Hayes determined to transport the plans to Berlin. Using the Swiss/German stepfather of a local sympathiser as the go-between, the IRA were able to get Kathleen in front of an Abwehr section leader named Kurt Haller. Along with Kathleen, a message was delivered requesting that the Germans send an agent back to Ireland to meet with Hayes to discuss the matter further. Haller was singularly unimpressed with both Kathleen, and with the man sent to deliver it, whose excessive nervousness engendered suspicions: Haller allegedly held the man at gunpoint believing him to be a double agent of some kind before being convinced of his sincerity.

It just so happened that the Germans were already planning to send an agent into Ireland. Indeed, they had already tried and failed that year, with an agent who had been arrested shortly after being put ashore. The new plan, dubbed Operation Mainau, was designed to get a representative of the Abwehr parachuted into Ireland for the purposes of establishing a communications link back to Germany, meeting with the IRA, directing the IRA to begin attacks on British military targets in Northern Ireland and to provide any details of potential importance of things happening in Ireland. This was, in many ways, a low-priority mission of the Abwehr, as can be seen in the spare resources dedicated to it, and the expectation that a single agent dropped into Ireland without any specialist equipment would be capable of doing everything suggested. It perhaps also spoke to German ignorance of the Irish situation, with a possible expectation that any agent dropped in would receive far more support and assistance from the population than they were going to. Another indication of how little the operation was valued can perhaps be seen in the man chosen to attempt it.

Hermann Görtz was a strange individual long before he jumped out of a plane over Ireland. A veteran of World War One’s Eastern Front, and holding a doctorate in internal law, Görtz frequently travelled aboard in the inter-war years, and some of these trips included visits to Ireland, with which he came somewhat enamoured. Later trips to America would include meetings with members of Clan na nGael, and Görtz came to sympathise with the republican viewpoint.

At some point in the mid-1930’s, he decided to try his hand at intelligence work, seemingly in a bid to impress the Abwehr without their direct involvement. During a six-week visit to Britain in 1935, he gathered information about RAF bases as clandestinely as he could: discovered, he was arrested and later convicted of espionage, despite his pleas that he had been researching for a book about the RAF. He served three years in prison before being released and deported back to Germany in the Spring of 1939. Görtz would later claim that he became friendly with members of the IRA imprisoned at the same time as himself, though it is unclear how true this was. As the Second World War began Görtz re-joined the German military and, despite the huge publicity that he had garnered as part of his trial, was for some reason deemed fit to become part of the intelligence service. It was in this role that he was some how able to convince his superiors to allow him to parachute into Ireland.

Görtz was dropped into Ireland in the early hours of the 5th of May 1940, jumping from a Heinkel He 111 bomber in poor weather. He would later claim his intended drop zone was in Tyrone, but this was likely a fabrication to obfuscate his mission in a neutral country. He landed outside the village of Ballivor, Co Meath, whereupon he lost both his radio and the shovel he was meant to bury his parachute with. His first port of call was meant to be the home of the writer and German sympathiser Francis Stuart and his wife Iseult – daughter of Maud Gonne – but this was in the Wicklow village of Laragh, over 80 kms away. Görtz walked the distance, using the directions provided by locals and Garda, who seemingly did not find his actions that suspicious. It has been claimed that, owing to an odd dedication to strict regulations, Görtz was wearing a full dress uniform for this part of his expedition, but this is quite hard to believe. After spending one night with the Stuarts, Görtz was collected by Seamus O’Donovan, who moved him to to Dublin, where he bounced between a few different residences. After a briefing on the current situation of the IRA, Görtz met with Hayes.

The encounter did not go as Hayes would have wanted. Görtz found himself largely unimpressed with the IRA Chief-of-Staff, deeming him overly fond of alcohol and overly-fearful about the situation the IRA was in. Hayes made extreme claims about the numbers of Volunteers the IRA had to hand, and about an outreach from Eamon de Valera who allegedly wanted to integrate the IRA into the Defence Forces, before admitting that the IRA had few weapons to launch any kind of major action. Görtz was disgusted, given what had been written in Kathleen, and even more so with Hayes leaped upon an off-hand suggestion that the Germans could provide arms via an offshore island, something that came to dominate discussions despite Görtz insistence only small amounts of arms could be supplied that way.

Keeping with his mission objectives, Görtz told Hayes he should cease any military activity in the south and instead move to commence operations against British military targets in the North. Hayes promised he would so so, but Görtz would note later that neither instruction had been properly followed. The larger reality of the meeting was that Kathleen became more an object of ridicule than the nucleus of a legitimate plan for Germany to attack Ireland. Görtz went away from the discussions in a downcast mood, questioning whether the IRA had any value as an ally to Germany.

Görtz’ own usefulness was soon to come to a conclusion. Just a few days after his meeting with Hayes the home he had been staying in was raided by Garda, who discovered a copy of Plan Kathleen along with various other documents he had been able to assemble about Ireland, that ranged from details about harbours to the distribution of the Defence Forces around the country. The details of Kathleen were soon on the desks of British military and Northern Irish police, and the discovery of the plan was a factor in growing efforts to arrange plans for potential co-operation between Ireland and the UK in the event of a German invasion: a separate topic I will come to shortly. Görtz, his presence in Ireland now known, became a highly wanted man, with some of those who had sheltered him, incusing Iseult Stuart, arrested.

With his existence in Ireland now known to authorities, Görtz’ mission was essentially over. He would spend the next 19 months on the run, staying in a succession of safehouses in Dublin and Wicklow, before finally being arrested in November 1941 as he was meeting another Acting IRA Chief-of-Staff, this time the yet-to-be-discussed Pearse Kelly. He spent the rest of the Second World War interned, and upon his release took up a residence in Glenageary, where he headed local societies dedicated to bringing refugee children from Germany to Ireland. In 1947 he was formally served a deportation order: fearful of being handed over to the Soviet’s in such a circumstance, he attempted to forestall his enforced departure by claiming he had been a member of the SS rather than the Luftwaffe, and thus much more likely to be the victim of some form of retributive action if he returned to Germany. Irish military intelligence disproved Görtz’ assertion and, when informed in May 1947 that he was to be flown back to Germany the following day, he ingested a poison capsule he had been carrying with him since he first dropped into Ireland seven years previously, dying later that day. His mission can only be considered a failure, and Görtz selection as the agent to carry it out was undoubtedly a part of that.

An addendum to the entire affair can be discussed in regards the so-called “Student Plan”. In January 1941 General Kurt Student, who commanded an Airborne Corps, met with Hitler, who was still considering the possibility of an invasion of Britain at the time. Student suggested that an airborne attack on Northern Ireland could be part of such an operation, with troops to be landed north and south of Belfast to seize vital RAF airfields and cut communications to the city, while dummy parachutists would be dropped in other parts of the country to sow confusion. Student envisioned the idea as a divisionary assault meant only to coincide with an invasion of southern Britain, and later acknowledged that a failure of the larger attack would have left any troops dropped into the North essentially abandoned: in this eventuality, Student would later say he would have marched his soldiers to neutral Ireland and request to be interned. Hitler appears to have briefly considered the plan, but never demonstrated any great enthusiasm for it. We don’t know if Student had access to Kathleen, but it’s possible it may have informed his thinking. Instead of Northern Ireland, Student would go on lead the airborne invasion of Crete later that year.

It is a little difficult to give a hypothetical evaluation of Kathleen, if it was implemented. Such a thing requires a degree of suspension of disbelief that goes beyond the counter-factual, and into the realm of fantasy. If the Germans had gotten an invasion force past the Royal Navy and RAF, and if they had been able to get troops ashore around Lough Foyle, they then would have been operating in enemy territory, cut off from easy supply or reinforcement and with no avenue for retreat. Unless done in conjunction with a larger invasion of Britain, it is very difficult to foresee such a landing being a success, or such a force surviving for very long intact if they had been able to make such a landing.

The other part of the operation is even more speculative. If the IRA had been able to gather Volunteers in large enough numbers they couldn’t hope to go unnoticed by either Dublin or Belfast, and a natural conclusion would be that the Irish Defence Forces/Garda would have moved to eliminate the problem before any move over the border. Given the IRA’s issues with arms, it is likely any such force would have a paucity of guns and ammunition anyway. If they had gotten to the point of crossing the border, their period of survival would have depended entirely on how the Germans were getting on further north. The chances of success would have been minuscule at best.

And what if the plan had been pulled off to the utmost? If German soldiers occupied Northern Ireland? Would they have kept going and occupied the south? Would de Valera have attempted to make some manner of agreement that would preserve Irish independence with Britain presumably defeated? Would some form of Irish unification actually have been possible in such circumstances? To answer those questions we might look at de Valera’s alleged answer when asked by an American envoy what he would do if German troops “liberated” Derry: “I don’t know”. We are lucky perhaps that it never got anywhere close to the point of a more definitive answer being needed.

Given the sparsity of detail and depth within Kathleen, is easy to dismiss it more as a bit of historical minutia, and Mainu, which had such grand aims when put against its spare amount of success, is much the same. But coinciding with both was a much more serious, dedicated and detailed effort to come up with a practical plan to invade Ireland. This was originated within the Germany military, and we will look at its background, particulars and potential implementation in the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Plan Kathleen And Operation Mainau

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