Ireland’s Wars: Plan W

We round of this trilogy of entries on the theoretical aspects of Ireland’s involvement in the Second World War with a look at that which both the British and Irish leadership came up with in the same period as Plan Kathleen and Operation Green. The fall of France and the imminent threat that Britain faced in terms of a potential German invasion had many in London attempting to rapidly formulate counter-strokes to German moves both likely and speculative, something all the more required with German planes engaging the RAF over Britain and the rest of Hitler’s war machine only just across the English Channel. The possibility of a German attack on Ireland was certainly raised. The question was what kind of countermeasures could the British military come up with for such an attack, and to what extent would the Irish government and military be involved with them?

British leadership suspected, before they got their hands on a copy of Green, that Germany was planning for an invasion of Ireland as soon as the campaign in France concluded. They were never going to idly stand-by while such an invasion proceeded: such an attack would bring the Germans to the only land border the UK had, and the entire island of Ireland could then be used to facilitate attacks on Britain from the west. Whatever about Ireland’s neutral status, its geographical position made it something that had to be factored into British defensive plans. The only question was how the British would intervene in the event, and if they would even wait for an invasion to tackle action.

There were certainly elements of the British political establishment and military that advocated for Ireland to be militarily occupied without German aggression, to ward off the opportunity for German attack and to give the Royal Navy access once more to the Treaty ports. Elements of the Belfast government certainly endorsed such an idea, reasoning that occupation then would be less bloody than if British soldiers instead had to fight an arrived German force on the same land. Even before Churchill, who has so railed against the settlement that handed over the ports, became Prime Minister, discussions took place as to the possibility of such a takeover, or perhaps just a more limited operation to seize the ports. One of the tasks appointed to Bernard Montgomery, who had some experience of the area from his service during the War of Independence, in the period after the fall of France was to plan for such an attack to seize Cork and Queenstown. There were shadier schemes too, with Richard Mulcahy, then a mere TD, approached in June 1940 by alleged representatives of British military forces in the North over the possibility of a Dublin coup to install something that would have less objections to British military presence n the 26 counties. Nor were such things completely theoretical: Britain would invade and occupy neutral Iceland in May 1940 for many of the same reasons bandied about regards Ireland, though with almost no resistance.

How a British occupation of Ireland would have worked out is open to speculation, but it is easy to imagine such moves having long-term negative impacts for the British position. Very pertinently for Churchill’s long-term aims, public opinion within the United States would presumably have been outraged. Any attack on Ireland – and it must be acknowledged that this is what it would have been – would have engendered some level of resistance, both conventional from the Defence Forces for a time, and then unconventionally. Seizure of the Treaty ports was possible but, as we will see in a moment, would not be easy. Britain would have had to face the rest of the war needing to maintain a costly, and potentially quite bloody, military occupation of the 26 counties, and when the war was over would be presented with the awkward aftermath: a western neighbour more deadset on an anti-British sentiment than ever. The IRA would have been emboldened, moderates squashed: given how Germany ended up being incapable of launching an attack across the Channel, it would have been a huge price to pay for a needless operation. Enough people in British leadership circles probably understood that, hence why it never happened. But British strategic interests did still intersect with Ireland, and that had to be addressed.

Ireland’s retained a steadfast commitment to neutrality, and an insistence on its own sovereignty in the face of any outside aggression, whether that aggression was German or British, but serious question marks remained regards the states ability to actually defend that neutrality. Plans to resist such attacks were basic enough, perhaps reflective of the Irish Defence Forces’ perceived inability to offer conventional resistance against either possible foe for very long. Ireland expected to first repel an attack from the North in the area of Leitrim and Cavan, with a secondary line of defence being drawn along the Boyne, with bridges and canals wired to blow ahead of time to impede the enemy, whomever it may be: beyond that, Irish Army units were directed to split into smaller units and commence a guerrilla resistance. If an attack was to come from the south, units were given more particular instructions: in Cork for example, motor torpedo boats and artillery pieces inherited from the British would be used on anyone attempting to take the port, which itself would be destroyed and otherwise blocked off with sunken ships in the event of capture. Dublin was not expected to hold out long against any attack, with de Valera’ government discreetly arranging for houses in Kildare and other areas to be reconnoitred as possible bases for emergency government work. Such plans carry indications of the predictable fatalism within Irish mindsets: if Ireland was attacked, prolonged conventional resistance seemed unlikely, unless of course it was being done along side a much more powerful military. The rapid manner in which Germany took a succession of relatively small countries in the Summer of 1940 focused minds greatly in Dublin. From this, and from British efforts to secure their western flank with as much preparatory moves as possible, came the meetings and subsequent arrangements that would create what became known as “Plan W”.

On the same day that the British decided to evacuate from Norway, the first meeting between representatives of the British and Irish governments, and their respective militaries, took place in London to discuss potential arrangements in the event that Ireland was invaded by Germany. There followed further meetings in Belfast and in Dublin. These events were not designed to agree specific details of British intervention in Ireland in the event of German invasion, but more to create an understanding of the joint threat facing both Britain and Ireland, and an understanding of how joint action between the two governments had obvious benefits. The discussions were largely done in secret, to avoid anything that could have exposed Irish neutrality. In the aftermath, the respective militaries began to create more concrete operational plans.

The resulting outline was based largely as the assumption of a German landing on the south coast of Ireland, possibly with an additional attack from parachuted troops, with British units in Northern Ireland advancing south to meet them. The 53rd Infantry Division would be at the heart of this advance, aided by elements of the Royal Marines who, operating from Wales, would have specific responsibility for establishing a beachhead in the south-east of Ireland and attacking German landing sites as quickly as possible. The larger British contingent would drive south along three routes, secure Dublin before German bombings could destroy bridges and roads, and then keep going. Addendums to the plan later involved the 61st Infantry Division entering Donegal to secure Lough Swilly.

The Irish Defence Forces would be expected to fight side-by-side with the British, though it is questionable how useful they would have been. A German landing on the south or south-east coasts would have run first into the Irish 5th Brigade, which was tasked with operating independent of division command and to react quickly to any amphibious invasion, before receiving additional support from the 1st Division, based in Cork, and the 2nd Division, based in Dublin. Other units were already receiving directions in becoming mobile columns in the events of an invasion, to maximise speed when dealing with invaders, especially those that could be dropped from the sky. The Reserves, better known as the “Local Security Force”, would be tasked with destroying vital transport links as German troops advanced, and undertaking ambushes and other small-scale impediments.

W contained other elements as well. In terms of logistics and supply, train lines leaving Belfast were prepared for the possibility of dozens of supply trips heading towards Dublin every day, with other lines set aside for the return of wounded; in the meantime Belfast Port would have to be ready to accept war supplies and reinforcements from Britain. The Royal Air Force was earmarked to take over Baldonnell and Collinstown Airfields with three Hurricane squadrons and units of light bombers with which to provide air support to fighting in the south of the country, with anti-aircraft regiments also assigned to defend these sites. Civilian boats were to be instructed to deport Irish ports to free them up for military activity, with submarines to immediately go into action off the Irish coastline. Refugee management was largely to be left to the Garda, with British military planners concerned about roads being choked up as they had during the retreat in the Low Countries.

What impact the Irish could truly have had is impossible to know, given the size of the Irish Army, it’s obsolete armament and lack of experience: more than likely the Defence Forces would see its primarily engagement with the Germans happening only in the opening days of an invasion, before they became more of a supporting force to the British. Still it must be noted that by the Autumn of 1940 the Irish military had added four brigades to its overall size, with additional motor vehicles and airplanes, indicating a belief that they would be willing to engage invaders if they had come.

A key element of Plan W was the matter of invitations. When the first meetings between the respective leaderships too place, the Irish were initially informed that British military forces in the North had been given orders to immediately proceed south in the event of a German invasion, with or without the consent of the Dublin government. Plan W amended this unilateral stance somewhat. The British military would only cross the borer heading south when Eamon de Valera formally extended an invitation. Such an order of proceedings would give the British an added sheen of legitimacy as they embarked on what would essentially be an armed occupation of the entire Ireland. It would also grant de Valera and his government the perception of being an equal player in events, with Ireland retaining its sovereignty in terms of who or who it did not grant access to the country to. Of course it seems extremely unlikely that such invitations would have had much practical effect if they were granted or withheld: if Germans invaded the south of Ireland the British were going to march to meet them, whether de Valera approved it or not. But Plan W at least set up a means whereby some awkward questions could be avoided, even if one suspects de Valera’s invitation wold probably end up being retroactive.

The invitation question feeds into the command question. If a battle with the Germans was happening on Irish soil, then could de Valera expect to be a key director of Allied forces? The question was not really answered very adequately in Plan W, which largely extended to military operations, and not to the political heads who would be the higher control of those powers. It seems extremely unlikely that de Valera would be in a position to dictate the manoeuvres of British military units, and may even have been obliged to essentially hand over command of the Irish Defence Forces to a higher British military leader if the two forces were to engage the Germans together in an effective manner. There were concerns aired in W about the collaboration of the Irish, with the term “if friendly” occasionally added to elements that referred to the Irish military units. At other points, it was written down that British military units should forcibly take over aspects of Irish infrastructure if Ireland proved itself hostile. This was beyond the realisation that elements like the IRA could be counted upon to enact some form of guerrilla resistance to the British that would have to be dealt with, and referred to fears that large parts of the Irish state, its organisations and populace, could act in a manner that was belligerent towards Britain.

The lack of clarity with such things reflected the lack of certainty over just what might occur if W had to be implemented. Certainly some part of the Irish citizenry, most notably the IRA, would have been hostile to Britain. Certainly others parts of the Irish citizenry would have been happy to assist the British given the larger circumstance of a British invasion. What size either would have been is impossible to know. A government-endorsed intervention by the British would have helped, as would the reality of the Defence Forces engaging the Germans on Irish soil, but one can easily see how a drawn-out British military presence in Ireland would have engendered resentment. The War of Independence was not yet two decades old after all.

It’s difficult to appraise how W would have gone if it had ever had to be implemented, so much would depend on what was occurring in Britain at the same time. Certainly the nominal advantage would have been with the defenders, with the British military, in combination with assistance from more limited Irish allies, more than capable of attacking and destroying what would have been a limited German invasion force operating far from reliable supply lines. But what would have occurred coming out of such a victory is very difficult to foresee. The Germans expelled, it is hard to believe that Churchill would have been happy to just order his forces back over the border, especially with the Treaty ports once again in Britain’s possession. Perhaps such things could have been warded off with the more long-term entry of Ireland into the conflict on the side of the Allies, but an extended British military presence on the entire island would have been inevitable. How that could have effected the lasting political situation on the island is so reliant on conjecture that I will leave the topic be. On the other hand, if W had failed to secure a quick victory, the possibility of an extended conflict on Ireland between Britain and Germany would have been evident, or worse a British defeat and German occupation. A victory of Nazi Germany over Britain, with a corresponding domination of Ireland, would have fundamentally altered the strategic picture of the Second World War, and potentially resulted in a very different outcome down the line.

In the end, Plan W was never needed. The threat of German invasion of Britain, and Ireland, receded as time went on and Hitler decided to look more to the east for further territorial ambitions. The Plan remained on the books for the duration of the war, and Allied military strength based in Northern Ireland would only increase, but by the Summer of 1941 it no longer seemed anywhere near as likely that W would ever need to be implemented.

The previous three entries have focused very much on the theoretical, even the fantastical. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it might seems somewhat absurd that such plans were ever made. But they were borne of a time, maybe the only time between 1922 and the present day, when the existence of the Irish state seemed in danger. There was only so much that a policy of neutrality could do to ward off such dangers. It is to that policy of neutrality that we look too next, as we examine, from a general perspective, its successes, its failures and the ways in which Ireland proved willing to bend its own rules on occasion.

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

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Plan W

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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