The early sections of the Second World War for the IRA had been dominated by the continued implementation of the S-Plan, the subsequent failure of which had left the organisation at a low ebb. In combination with the long term losses of the Christmas Raid, the picture painted of the IRA was of an entity that was badly led, with no clear strategic direction and prone to involving itself in flights of fancy that had little tangible benefit. It is possible that much of this could be traced back to the absence of the man whose takeover of the IRA in the 1930s had promised much in terms of the organisations future success. Sean Russell had left Ireland in 1939, and would never make it back: in this entry we will discuss his movements in this time, up to his sojourn in the heart of Nazi Germany.
Russell had left Ireland to travel to the United States in April of 1939, even as the S-Plan was in the relatively early stages of its implementation. Russell’s aims there were to shore up support for his leadership of the IRA – though he had nominally stood down as Chief-of-Staff in favour of the hapless Stephen Hayes – as well as maintain the required links with Clan na Gael and the funding they represented (in this regard, Russell was also investigating claims that sweepstake lotteries arranged for the purpose of IRA fundraising were being skimmed). Russell made several public speeches during his time in America, and became a target for FBI surveillance: when he tried to cross the border into Canada from Detroit, on the occasion of King George VI’s visit to Canada, Russell was detained by US immigration officials, nominally for making “false statements” about himself and exceeding the terms of his visa, but presumably because of concern that the presence of such a high profile IRA man in the area at that time could meaning nothing good. Russell was the subject of a brief cause celebre from sympathetic sources in the United States as a result, with his bail for the alleged crime easily covered: he was released fairly quickly. He and Clan na Gael were delighted at the publicity the incident granted, and Russell would continue his tour of the United States for the better part of another year.
Eventually, in the Spring of 1940, Russell determined to move on. The start of the Second World War and the collapse of the S-Plan perhaps focused his mind on the requirement for him to be much closer to home, and to foster a relationship with Britain’s primary enemy. Through Joseph McGarrity, Russell made contact with a German agent in America, known by the codename “V-Rex”. This man made contact with the Abwehr back in Europe, and got agreement for arrangements to be made for Russell to be transported across the Atlantic. Russell left a short-time later, on a ship bound for Genoa. Arriving on the 1st of May, he was then transported north to Berlin.
Russell got the VIP treatment after he arrived, with the Abwehr seemingly keen to foster a positive relationship with a man who could be of considerable use in the future. The former Chief-of-Staff was given his own villa, a chauffeur driven car and the status of a diplomat, along with a SS liaison officer in the form of Edmund Veesenmayer, at the time an advisor to the German Foreign Office on Ireland, who would later be convicted of crimes against humanity for his role in the Holocaust. Russell just missed Hermann Goetz, who was flown to enact Operation Mainau on the same day that Russell arrived in Berlin, and thus was unable to brief the German agent as the Abwehr wanted.
For the next three months Russell had numerous interactions with Abwehr, and received training in the use of explosives from German special forces. Just what the end result of this training was intended to be is not know with exact precision, but it seems likely that the Abwehr wanted Russell to act as an instructor to other members of the IRA, who would then use such tactics on British military positions and resources in Northern Ireland. Certainly Russell discussed such things with German military officers, who were keen to use whatever resources they had to hit targets on the British mainland. Russell’s interactions went as high up as the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who was allegedly impressed with Russell, but Russell himself was careful not to promise too much to his Nazi hosts. His estimations of IRA strength disappointed German authorities, as did his political alignment. Russell remained primarily motivated by the cause of political change in Ireland and re-unification of north and south: if the Germans could assist with archiving this aim he was happy to listen, but he wanted “no strings attached” to any potential help in terms of a full of embrace of Nazi ideology.
There was one thing that Russell wanted from the Germans, that he got: the release of Frank Ryan from a Spanish cell into Berlin’s custody. Ryan had been imprisoned as far back as early 1938 after being captured during the Battle of Teruel, but Spanish authorities now happily turned him over at the French border, covering the event with a fabricated “escape”. Ryan was brought immediately to Berlin where he was re-united with Russell. Despite very different political ideologies, the two maintained a personal friendship, and German observations noted a warm re-union when the two were finally in the same room. The reason why the Germans were happy to go to the trouble of getting Ryan soon became clear, as Russell requested Ryan join him on a journey back to Ireland.
That journey was the purpose of “Operation Dove”. This involved the use of a U-Boat – U-65 – to transport Russell and Ryan from the port of Wilhelmshaven to the west coast of Ireland, with the intention of getting them to land somewhere in Smerwick Bay on the Dingle Peninsula. Just what Russell was going to be doing once he landed in Ireland that had the Germans eager to get him there is unknown. It might well be that the Abwehr was just happy to arrange the transport in the expectation that Russell would prove a more pro-active IRA commander in terms of attacking British targets than Stephen Hayes was. Concerns about Russell’s attachment to Germany, or lac of it, may well have influenced the decision to send Ryan with him: Kurt Haller, a German Foreign Ministry operative who had dealings with Irish agents before the war and during, has stated that the Abwehr believed Ryan would be more amenable to their cause. Just why they thought a man who fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War would be so willing is not clear. Regardless, Ryan agreed to go with Russell.
U-65 left Wilhelmshaven on the 8th August. Dove was only part of the submarine’s mission, which was to head into the North Sea and then go around Britain and Ireland on its way to the newly taken port at Lorient, France. Russell and Ryan left with only a small number of possessions, among them a radio and codebook for communication with Berlin. From the beginning, it was a miserable journey for Russell and Ryan, two men who were unused to the cramped quarters of such vessels. Russell suffered especially, vomiting constantly and complaining of stomach pains. After six days at sea, with U-65 160km’s west of County Galway, Russell’s condition had deteriorated hugely. The submarine had no doctor onboard, just a medical orderly, who was powerless to do anything about the cramps Russell was reporting. On the 14th August, Russell died. Unable to carry a body onboard, the Captain of the submarine had Russell buried at sea, allegedly draped in a swastika flag, and cancelled any plans to try and put Ryan ashore in Ireland, instead arranging for his return to Germany once U-65 made it to France.
An inquiry set-up in Germany interviewed Ryan and the U-65 crew about what had happened. They were, perhaps, naturally suspicious that some manner of foul play may have taken place. But nothing in that regard was found out, and the conclusion was that Russell had probably died as a result of a perforated ulcer. Speculation that Russell may have been assassinated has remained just that, with relatives of Russell confirming that his stomach problems pre-dated the war.
Russell remains an immensely controversial figure of this period, at once held up as an icon of militant Irish republicanism, and at the same time derided as a collaborator with Hitler’s Germany. Monuments to him that exist in Ireland have repeatedly been the subject of vandalism, and a recurring debate continues as to whether such monuments are appropriate at all. Russell never espoused a political philosophy of great detail, and it is hard to credit accusations that he was an out-and-out fascist, but the IRA undoubtedly tilted to the right during his tenure. At the same time, Russell also solicited guns and supplies from the Soviet Union, and he has never been described as a communist. In the end, it seems likely that Russell kept the focal point of full Irish independence and re-unification squarely in is mind, and was willing to make deals with whatever powers forwarded that aim. It just so happened that in the late 1930’s/early 1940’s the most prominent power who fitted that bill was Nazi Germany. History has thankfully denied us the possibility of learning just what role Russell would have played in Ireland if Hitler had proved victorious in Europe, but I do not believe that the man was a Nazi.
What Russell very much was, was a man who turned the IRA into a more aggressive entity than it had been for decades. The S-Plan was a failure, but it showed the reality of what the IRA was becoming, and it never would have happened but for Russell’s personal magnetism and dedication to military action. His absence from Ireland left the IRA weaker, and his death was a blow that the organisation would struggle to recover, saddled as it was with a litany of less capable men for its leadership.
Ryan would spend the rest of his life in Germany. Suffering himself from deteriorating health connected to wounds suffered in Spain, he lived in Berlin where he was at pains to always be near other people, as owing to his deafness he was sometimes unable to hear air-raid warnings. He visited Irish prisoners-of-war held in Germany during this time, but distanced himself from any scheme to come up some manner of military unit out of the same, like Roger Casement had attempted. He was briefly consulted on various Abwehr plans to land supplies in Ireland, or radio transmitters for the purpose of spreading pro-fascist propaganda, but despite his own desires to return home, he was not apparently considered for insertion back to Ireland himself at any point. Despite his location, Ryan remained a committed socialist to the end of his life, and resisted any idea of him becoming a mouthpiece for fascist ideology. He died in June 1944, from a combination of pneumonia and pleurisy, aged 41.
It was not the last time that Germany would express an interest in sending agents to Ireland, but for now we will move on. In our next entry we will return to a look at IRA activities within Ireland. The organisation was stumbling from problem to problem, and in the Autumn of 1940 an encounter between a group of Volunteers and a group of Garda in Dublin would eventually leave four people dead. Worse, background elements of the affair would expose potentially enormous problems in the IRA leadership, up to the point of treason against the organisation itself.
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