When we last discussed the progress of the war proper, it was in the context of the early stages of the conflict, which were characterised by a series of German successes in Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France. The forces of the Allies faced defeat at every turn, and by the end of June France had been lost and occupied. The successful evacuation of Allied military forces from a number of positions on the French coast, most notably Dunkirk, had provided a victory of a sort, but on the face of it it seemed more like a temporary relief. Now we enter a period of the war that is sometimes known by the grandiose title of “Britain Alone” – perhaps “Britain, most of the Commonwealth and American lend-lease aid Alone” would be more appropriate – as for a time the conflict centred, from an Allied perspective, on the continued resistance of the United Kingdom. The Irish named regiments of the British military continued to play a part in this period, as the war first contracted to a very specific campaign, before expanding to cover the entire globe by the end of 1941.
Starting in July of 1940, Britain fought what has become known as the “Battle of Britain”, a largely aerial campaign where the planes of the Royal Air Force sought to deflect increasingly large attacks from the German Luftwaffe. Germany hoped to destroy RAF strength to the point of insuring air superiority over Britain, as a prelude to an invasion, or as a means to force Britain to accept peace terms. As discussed, elements of such planning came to include Ireland, both in terms of German thoughts on invasion and British thoughts on what they would do in such an event. In the end, the British victory in the campaign, combined with their still remaining strength at sea, meant that a German invasion was far less likely. In the aftermath of their fighter squadrons suffering hugely, the Luftwaffe instead turned to strategic bombing as a means of utilising air power against Britain, commencing what was known as “the Blitz” against British cities.
Plenty of Irish served in the RAF as pilots and other personnel, but not as their own recognised units. Throughout this period, there was little for the Irish named regiments to do beyond recover their strength from the campaigns on continental Europe, re-arm and train to deflect a German invasion. A notable exception was the London Irish, who on the night of the 27th September 1940 were called into action when a German Junkers Ju 88 bomber was shot down on the Kent coast at a place called Graveney Marsh. Part of the London Irish 1st battalion was stationed at the nearby village of Seasalter, and were ordered to move out and secure the wreck, with RAF leadership keen to capture intact models of German aircraft whenever possible. The London Irish found the German survivors of the crash busy destroying valuable equipment and preparing themselves with what small arms they had to hand. Some manner of firefight appears to have taken place, though the details are disputed: one account claims the only fire the Germans perpetrated was at their own aircraft. The Luftwaffe men quickly surrendered and were taken into custody when surrounded and attacked by the London Irish, with one German wounded: the incident, dubbed “the Battle of Graveney Marsh” in popular remembrance, constituted the last ground engagement involving a foreign force to take place on the mainland of Britain until the Iranian embassy siege of 1980.
Over the next 18 months, the was expanded greatly. Italy attacked British holdings in East and North Africa, with decidedly mixed results, Mussolini’s military was often badly supplied and poorly led in comparison to their opponents. British counteroffensives in early 1941 resulted in huge losses of Italian territory, and soon had Germany scrambling to send units in support of their lesser ally. It was not the only place that Italy was struggling: a similar invasion of Greece ended in disaster, and accelerated Hitler’s plans in the region, with Yugoslavia and Greece conquered by the German war machine in April and May of 1941. The campaign to take the island of Crete necessitated a large expense of paratrooper soldiers to dislodge the British garrison there, and the losses sustained may have helped convince Hitler that similar operations against Britain or Ireland were ill-advised. All of this was prelude to Germany’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union, that commenced in June of 1941, and quickly constituted the largest, bloodiest arena of the conflict, with the Germans making enormous advances for the remainder of 1941, getting dangerously clos to Moscow as the Red Army tried desperately to hold on.
For the majority of the Irish named regiments, and the British Army in general, this period and much of what followed was one of little action. The Irish Guards, the North Irish Horse, the Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, the 2nd battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Ulster Rifles all spent this period at home, moving from garrison to garrison, getting their strength up and preparing for future operations. This was, predictably, a dull time for the members of these regiments, but a necessary one: nearly all of them would be engaged later in the conflict, and years of training and preparation would stand them in good stead when those moments came. But there were a few examples of Irish named regiments being engaged in the later half of 1940, and in 1941, that bear some closer examination.
The small Mediterranean island nation of Malta had enormous strategic significance in the Second World War. Part of the British Empire, the island was the only Allied base between Gibraltar in the west and Alexandria in the east, and gave the British what Churchill dubbed “an unsinkable aircraft carrier”, with which to threaten Axis shipping and provide support for forces in North Africa. Almost as soon as Italy entered the war, they were sending planes to attack Malta, and before too long the Germans were doing so as well. For the better part of four years Malta, its population and the Allied servicemen who had been sent to defend it, would be the subject of a siege that left that population and those defenders in perpetual danger of starvation: this aerial bombing campaign at times left Malta as one of the most bombed places in Europe.
Among the garrison in Malta were the 2nd battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who had been in place since late 1938. They would remain there until 1943, part of an infantry force designed to deter any effort by the Italian or German militaries to land troops on the island. The Fusiliers busied themselves training, building beach defences and repairing airfields whenever they were damaged. For the most part, this meant that the “Faughs” did not see any actual fighting, since there was only so much that they could do against the Italian and German planes that regularly visited destruction on Valetta and other parts of the island: 21 members of the regiment would be killed in such service, though the regiment was able to claim the downing of one Junkers Ju 87 through small arms fire. Malta would come close to defeat just through the severely restricted supply lines, with members of the Fusiliers at one point reduced to a water and cabbage diet, but daring convoy operations were just about able to keep the island going through the worst times. Later, in 1943, the threat from the Axis passed with victories elsewhere, and the Faughs were able to be deployed to other fronts.
A much more substantial set of engagements was experienced by the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, which since the First World War had been converted into an armoured regiment, and was now part of the 7th Armoured Division – the famous “Desert Rats” – stationed in North Africa. To a large degree much of the fighting that would take place there throughout the war was a sideshow, one granted greater importance in popular memory perhaps owing to it being an area where the British were constantly involved and mostly successful, but North Africa had plenty of importance as a potential jumping off point for an invasion of Southern Europe, and as a gateway to the oil rich Middle East.
Even before the outbreak of the fighting, the Hussars were one of many units preparing for expected combat operations with neighbouring Italian colonies in Libya. Outnumbered, the British initially prepared to fight a defensive war, and to that end the 7th was part of a major set of fortifications and lines prepared in and around the Egyptian port of Mersa Metruh. Mussolini insisted on his men in Africa embarking on an invasion of Egypt despite the serious reservations of his commanders, who felt the Italian Army, despite numerical superiority, was in no fit state to launch such an attack. In September 1940 the limited Italian probe east came up short against the Mersa Metruh line, and a rapidly planned counter-offensive ended up with huge gains as the disorganised and badly supplied Italian forces retreated quickly. Over the next few months the Italian position largely collapsed, with the 7th Armoured Division, including the Hussars, involved in a number of engagements. They were characterised by the relatively rapid movement of the light tanks and other motorised vehicles cutting the Italians off as they attempted to manoeuvre, or overwhelming sedentary positions. Desert combat could be a brutal affair, with a steady supply of water for soldiers and fuel for vehicles considerably more important to success than their employment against the enemy. From the start, the British showed a greater aptitude for it than the Italians.
Names like Sidi Omar, Fort Capuzzo and Fort Maddelena are examples of places, outposts in the desert that in peacetime would have seemed of little consequence, that now signified a total defeat of the Italian position in North Africa by the British. The pinnacle of this period was undoubtedly the Battle of Beda Fomm, which took place in early February of 1941, when the 7th was part of a successful operation to surround and attack a force of over 25’000 Italians who, running out of options, were obliged to surrender. It’s possible that with a decisive commitment the Rats could have been part of an advance that would have swept the Axis out of North Africa at that time but a combination of exhaustion, stretched supply lines and the need to transfer some soldiers to fight in Greece meant that any such advance had to be postponed. This gave the Axis enough time to re-deploy vital soldiers, and armoured divisions, to the front, most notably the Afrika Korps of Erwin Rommel, the famed “Desert Fox”.
After a brief sojourn in the failing Greek campaign, the Hussars were back in North Africa, and in a period of rest, recovery and training in the Nile delta were given upgraded “Stuart” tanks and designated as part of the 4th Armoured Brigade for Operation Crusader. The war in North Africa had turned against the Allies thanks to the bravery, daring and general genius of Rommel, who went beyond expectations of shoring up the Axis position and was able to get the Allies on the retreat, all the way back to the Libyan/Egyptian border. A besieged garrison of Allied troops in the port city of Tobruk was the subject of several relief attempts as Rommel attempted to starve them out, with Crusader just the latest.
The Operation would be ultimately successful, with the Axis sent reeling back and Tobruk relieved, but it was not accomplished without loss, with the Hussars among those who suffered most. A three day combat over the Sidi Rezegh airfield, not far from Tobruk, was a critical element of the larger campaign, with the Hussars heavily involved in combat against other tank units and against anti-tank infantry and artillery. On the night of the 22nd, the regiment was in “leaguer” – a standard defensive position in a loose box formation – on the expectation that, lacking night sights, the enemy would break off as they usually did. Instead elements of the 15th Panzer Division attacked, and the unprepared Hussars lost nearly all of their tanks in the ensuing disaster, with just four capable of battle the next day. Withdrawn, the regiment was remarkably back in the fight in little more than a week, replenished with new Stuarts, and it was with them that they helped to affect the re-capture of the vital airfield on the 1st December, charging across the desert “cavalry style” to the assistance of a New Zealander unit. It was important perhaps not to glorify the achievement too much, with the Germans defeated as much by general attrition over weeks of fighting than British skill, and far from defeated in the larger arena. Both sides had struggled to get the very best out of their armoured forces in the heat and sand of the desert, with the Germans benefitting from a commander who was very much ahead of his time when it came to such things. Much more fighting was going to be needed before the North African question was settled.
By the end of 1941, the war really had become global in scope. The Empire of Japan had been an expansionist power for some time, annexing Korea and invading a fractured China in the 1930’s, but its ambitions only grew. American efforts to hobble those ambitions through sanctions against Japanese importing of oil convinced Japanese leadership that their only hope of achieving the “Greater East Asia Co Prosperity Sphere” was to confront and defeat American naval power in the Pacific, in line with an enormous onslaught on Allied territory in Asia. On the 7th December 1941, the Japanese struck Pearl Harbour. America entered the war, with Hitler’s declaration of hostilities against the United States bringing them into the conflict in Europe and North Africa shortly afterwards. Perhaps it was not clear to all at the time, but with the manpower of the Soviet Union, the territory of Britain and the Commonwealth and the industrial might of the United States joined together in common cause against the Axis powers, victory was essentially inevitable. But there was a lot of struggle yet to come to get to that point. As the Japanese swept through East Asia, they achieved rapid success against a succession of Allied militaries: in Burma, part of the British garrison was the 1st battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who would soon be sent into the fray.
There were other arenas of course – the Battle of the Atlantic, revolts in the Middle-East, resistance movements in occupied Europe – but they had less of an Irish interest, at least at this time. But one other aspect of the war that was very soon to become front-and-centre of the Irish experience, north and south of the border, was that taking place in the air. The Luftwaffe was determined to do its best to bomb the United Kingdom into submission, and in the Spring of 1941 Belfast would find itself in the firing line. The result would be an enormous amount of destruction, but also one of the more admirable examples of north/south cooperation in the history of partition. We will discuss this in the next entry.
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