Ireland’s Wars: Irish Neutrality During The Second World War

It is an unfortunate reality that I have to open this entry of the series with a warning. Over ten years ago I wrote a post on this general topic entitled Suicidal Obstinacy: Max Hastings And Irish Neutrality During The Second World War, wherein I took issue with a section of Hastings’ then new book All Hell Let Loose where he discussed Irish neutrality in the conflict in negative terms. The post ended up attracting some of the largest amounts of comments I ever received for this site, with a large proportion of them exhibiting what I can only call extreme hostility. When I shut down the ability to post comments on that piece, it was in response to being physically threatened. So, if you do feel the need to comment on the below, be advised that anything that contains such threats, hostility, or anything I feel crosses the line will be deleted, and anything such a commenter attempts to add after that point will be automatically deleted unread. Life is too short for such nonsense.

The totality of this topic is one that really does go beyond a simple post, but it behoves me to give it a try, as there are aspects of Irish neutrality during the Second World War that do not rightly fit in anywhere else. It is a subject that remains, 80+ years later, of significant controversy to some, and there are numerous aspects of the policy that are debatable in terms of their implementation and adherence. In this entry we will look at how the Irish government attempted to follow through on their commitment to neutrality, some of the consequences that occurred as a result and the myriad amount of ways in which neutrality was tested. We will not discuss here the ins and out of Irish diplomatic interactions with the Allies and the Axis in relation to neutrality and the war, that will be for a future entry.

From the start of the conflict, Ireland busied itself with the practicalities of enforcing the policy of neutrality. In some respects this was basic as writing the word “EIRE” in large letters all around the coastline so any planes straying accidently over the island would know where they were (the merchant marine, whose story I will come to at another time, similarly sailed with full lights to emblazon their tricolours), in others it was the very careful and precise manoeuvring needed to ensure that the perception of the state was one where de Valera’s government was seen as taking no sides. The government got on with its business, which included the censoring of radio broadcasts, the internment of IRA members (or suspected members) and a tighter control than ever on the physical resources of the state.

While the policy of neutrality obviously saved Ireland a degree of destruction that would have been inevitable if it had joined the Allies from the start, there were obvious negatives that became apparent very quickly, beyond draconian security measures. The creation of a fully functioning merchant marine was something that had been neglected since the establishment of the Irish Free State, and as a result Ireland was disproportionately dependent on foreign ships for the maintenance of trade. These now became less available, whether they were more focused on maintaining trade for belligerent nations in the case of British ships, or unwilling to enter an active war zone in the case of other neutral nations, like the United States. While certain supply lines to Britain were maintained – which suited Britain of course, in terms of economic back-and-forth – from the start of the war to a period after it, Irish import and export markets were severely affected, to a degree that might not have been in the case of Ireland were allied with Britain formally, or the United States later.

The results were predictable. Various foodstuffs and other supplies, especially fuel, suddenly became very short in supply with the lack of coal and petrol leaving many vehicles, from cars to trains, unable to move. Rationing became a standard part of life, with the shortages in some food stuffs leading to price hikes and an explosion in black market smuggling. A huge drop in the supply of wheat led to fears of potential famine conditions at one point in late 1941. When the government attempted to get more wheat grown in place of barley used for the production and export of beer, a deal was reached with the British to import more wheat to Ireland to keep the supply of alcohol flowing: a country at war was seemingly one unwilling to forgo supplies of beer. Despite this, the situation got desperate for some and malnutrition among sections of the population was probably a factor in outbreaks of diseases, like typhus, during the war. All of this came at a time of wage stagnation, and the situation provoked a degree of social unrest not helped by the attempt to have greater government control of agriculture and other avenues of production. The sense of national isolation became palpable the longer the war went on. It is enough to say that neutrality was far from an easy course.

The other key aspect of Irish neutrality in this period where the various ways that it was bent, or flat out breached if we take a very sober analysis. There were numerous instances in which de Valera’s government leaned towards support for the Allies over the Axis, enough that the British government felt obliged to offer them a somewhat formal acknowledgement in the Cranborne Report after the war. Just why Ireland would do so is clear with a detached analysis. Despite the historical enmity between Ireland and Britain, and the partition of the island that de Valera continued to claim as the main reason why Ireland could not join the Allies, an Allied victory in the war suited Ireland interests. Britain was Ireland’s main trading partner, so Britain’s survival and victory benefitted Ireland in obvious ways. Later in the war the common bonds between Ireland and the United States provoked obvious sympathy for their cause. On the other hand, Hitler’s Germany had spent the early portions of the war rolling over a litany of “small nations”, and despite whatever was being said in diplomatic channels was unlikely to respect Irish sovereignty if push came to shove. As a result of this, and maybe to some degree an identification with the forces of liberal democracy over fascist dictatorship, Ireland strayed past the middle ground of neutrality throughout the war in the direction of the Allies: never enough to be called a belligerent wolf in a neutral sheep’s clothing, but enough that it was clear who Dublin would have preferred to see winning the conflict.

The most important, at least for a time, might have been the so-called “Donegal corridor”. Lough Erne, in Fermanagh, was the western most body of water within the United Kingdom where flying boats could be based, which were vital in combating German U-Boat activity in the Atlantic. From the moment the war began the submarine threat to shipping became acute, and the “Battle of the Atlantic” was arguably as important a campaign as any that was fought in Europe.: flying boats helped to spot U-Boats and direct the fire of other military assets onto them, as well as being capable of setting down and rescuing sailors whose ships had been sunk. The problem was that Lough Erne flying boats did not have a straight shot out into the Atlantic, owing to the landmass of County Donegal. Nominally, they had to take the time to fly north, and then turn to the west, an extension of a trip that limited their range once they were out at sea and delayed their ability to react quickly.

In January 1941, de Valera secretly came to an agreement with the British whereby flying boats based in Lough Erne’s RAF Castle Archdale base could cross Donegal, in a small stretch between Belleeck and Ballyshannon, drastically cutting the amount of time needed to hit the Atlantic. Nominally such aircraft had to be engaged in rescue missions, but this appears to have been an agreed fiction to pacify any German objections if they had come. Commitments to fly at large heights and avoid Irish military ground were made, but then largely ignored. Flying boats operating out of the area where involved in convoy protection and more offensive operations: by the end of the war, aircraft flying from Lough Erne had been involved in the sinking of at least nine U-Boats, as well as the famous German battleship Bismarck. The cost was not small, with 320 men flying out of Castle Archdale listed as KIA in the course of the war. The availability of the Donegal corridor should not be dismissed lightly as an example of Irish sympathy for the Allies: other neutral powers would be far less willing for belligerent nations to use their airspace in such a manner.

The issue of pilots and sailors was also at the heart of Irish neutrality, and the ways it which is was not applied uniformly. Throughout the war planes from either side would crash-land in or around Ireland, and ships be attacked, with their surviving occupants that were captured by Irish authorities becoming the responsibility of the state. Strict adherence to the neutrality policy, in line with laws at the time, meant that all such persons should have been interned until the conclusion of the war, with a special camp set up in the Curragh for the purpose, split between the Allies and Axis. But in practise, this procedure applied only fully to those pilots, sailors and other crew from Axis powers. They would spend the war locked up in the Curragh, or working in local areas when Germany refused or was unable to pay for their upkeep: airman and sailors of the Allied side had a tendency to make it over the border into Northern Ireland, either because they were just allowed to get there after landing in Ireland, or because they were released from internment “on license”, that is having undertaken a promise to remain in the country, a promise typically not kept. It was not even a legal crime to aid an internee’s escape in Ireland until 1942, and in late 1944 all Allied servicemen in such conditions were set free. Over 250 German military personnel would be interned during the war, most of them sailors who were rescued from sunken ships by the Irish merchant marine: initially held under strict conditions, they were granted more leeway as the war went on, getting the opportunity to enjoy leisure activities outside of their camps, or even enrol in university courses in Dublin. But they were not permitted to leave the state until the war was over.

There were plenty of other examples. Submarine activity in the seas around Ireland was reported to the British, as were unidentified aircraft in Irish airspace (excepting the Donegal corridor): though minor, this again should be viewed through the lens of a neutral power actively aiding the war effort of one side over the other. Perhaps more critically, the Irish remained willing to share metrological reports with Britain and the larger Allied faction, which was vital in respect of Ireland’s geographical position: stations on the west coast had early access to weather fronts moving in from the Atlantic. Famously, such a report from Blacksod Bay in the north of County Mayo was among those used to determine a critical two day delay in the D-Day landings in June 1944 to avoid bad weather. And Ireland agreed to take in a number refugee children from British cities, evacuated owing to the fear of German bombing, an allowance that was not extended to German children suffering under the same at any time of the war.

Not that any of the above, some of which only became common knowledge after the war in fairness, was enough to convince some people outside of Ireland that the country was not leaning in a pro-Axis direction. A common myth, invented then and repeated liberally throughout the war and since, was the claim that Ireland was a safe haven for German U-Boats to dock, re-fuel and re-supply, in Dublin or in various positions along the western and southern coasts. Such stories tend to revolve around claimed memories of German naval officers visiting Irish pubs in such areas, or the accounts of British military personnel crossing the border into Donegal for an evening and seeing such sights when they went for a drink. Certainly U-Boats entered Irish waters: more than one sank in such waters. It is perhaps not entirely out of the bounds of possibility that German officers might have left an anchored U-Boat off the coast of Ireland and taken a drink at a nearby pub, but nothing close to hard evidence for such a state of affairs has ever been produced. It should go without saying really, but here I am anyway, that the larger claim of German U-Boats being actively welcomed at Irish ports is the stuff of fantasy, an invention that suited those with an axe to grind against Ireland and its government. Indeed, the only belligerent whose ships got to dock in Irish ports was Britain, when they were transferring various guns and other armaments as part of trade deals.

It should also be noted that, despite the various troubles that Ireland encountered resulting from the policy of neutrality, it never stopped being a popular position internally. As previously discussed, only a tiny number of legislators rejected neutrality, and this was reflected in the population at large. Many had German sympathies, many had Allied sympathies: among either faction there were people who took up arms in some fashion or another, whether they were IRA Volunteers or crossed the Irish Sea to join the British military. But the idea of Ireland itself becoming a belligerent does not appear to have been something that anything approaching a majority of the Irish people ever wanted.

This is reflected, in a way, through the elections that took place during the war. Fianna Fail attempted to postpone the required vote in 1943 on account of the larger situation, but the lack of support from the opposition for the measure meant it went ahead. De Valera lost ten seats and his majority, but Fianna Fail remained the only party capable of forming a government. Unsatisfied with having to operate as a minority, de Valera took the chance to call another vote only 11 months later when a bill was defeated, doing so without a Presidential dissolution of the Dail because emergency powers allowed him to do so. Opposition parties, with Fine Gael now led by Richard Mulcahy, were unready for another campaign so soon, and efforts to craft a common platform among the smaller groups was unsuccessful. Fianna Fail regained most of the seats lost the previous year and resumed life as a majority government, and for the third time de Valera had succeeded with a snap general election. Looking beyond the party politics, we can see a popular mandate for the main proponent of the neutrality policy being given. But the electorates patience with Fianna Fail had its limits, as de Valera would find out after the war.

No matter what, the neutrality policy would remain, and still is, a complicated topic. There were other things that are worthy of further discussion in relation to neutrality of course, some of which I will be covering very shortly. But for the moment we will turn back to the issue of the IRA. We have talked about the way the organisation was struggling on within Ireland at this time, with its position at least a partial consequence of the absence of Sean Russell. In the next entry, we will explore Russell’s activities aboard during this period, up to and including his sojourn in Nazi Germany.

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: Irish Neutrality During The Second World War

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

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  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Long Watch | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: U-Boats Off Ireland | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Final Thoughts On The Second World War | Never Felt Better

  6. L says:

    Excellent and informative post. However, while we will never know how these things were weighed and nuanced at the time, not all the concessions werer as much as a concession as they seem but rather a result of practical or indeed force majeure considerations. The much talked about Donegal corridor – a very short and narrow corridor from where the border of Co Fermanagh comes very close to the Atlantic coast at Ballyshannon – was it realistic that De Valera was going to knock Catalinas or Sunderlands out of the sky. For starters we hardly had the means too . no airfield in the locality even if the Lysanders or Gladiators were up to the job. And certainly at the beginning of the war Ireland had only a handful of AA guns already tied down around Dublin. So I am not sure if the Donegal corridor was as much a wilful concession as is made out while, of course, as described it had major practical benefits for the Allies. Similarly on the question of belligerent detainees – where the German airman/sailors going to go even if they were released, there was no way of getting back to the homeland across air and waters effectively controlled by the Allies. Similarly with the reception of children from bombed cities – there was no way of getting them across from Germany safely in the middle of the war. Tellingly, as soon as the war was over a contingent of German children were given welcome in Ireland. One more point referring to the Allied internees – while they considered it their duty to escape, the wilful breach of their parole condtions on day release from the Curragh was not common and there is evidence of at least one being sent back by the authorities north of the border. The German internees were eventually afforded a high degree of liberty around Kildare and adjoining counties but none exhibited any great enthusiasm to return to Germany – indeed the opposite at least three married locally and became prominent figures in the community. So Ireland’s neturality story is a complex one added to by layers of storytelling. One way or the other the fact remains that Irish forces never fired an offensive shot in anger nor allowed Irish terrain to be occupied by any element of armed Allied forces which is not a bad version of neutrality. Thank you for your research and writing.

  7. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Post-Second World War Years And The Republic Of Ireland | Never Felt Better

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