Ireland’s Wars: German Bombing Of Ireland

In our last entry, we discussed the terrible consequences of the German decision to extend their bombing campaign of the United Kingdom to Belfast. The destruction meted out there would remain long in the memory, serving as a potent reminder of the kind of damage that such bombing could inflict. Ireland, by way of its stance of neutrality, would avoid such destruction during the Second World War, but not entirely. In several incidents through 1940 and 1941, German bombs would land in the south, with the most destructive killing dozens in a Dublin street: controversy continues to persist about why such things happened.

The incident in question had a surprising amount of preamble, much of the memory of such things lost perhaps owing to the lack of death and damage in comparison. On the 20th August 1940 a German bomber attacking a ship off the coast of Blackrock Island, Co Mayo strafed, presumably accidently, a lighthouse on the island, damaging the building but avoiding the keepers. Six days later, the Luftwaffe dropped four bombs on or around the Wexford village of Campile, hitting a creamery: this attack killed three people, and probably would have killed more but for the fact that the workers had left the building to take their midday meal at the time. Why this release of bombs occurred is not known for certain: the pilot of the aircraft may well have gotten lost and presumed he was somewhere over Britain, perhaps Wales. A popular story went around afterwards that boxes of butter from the creamery had been discovered among the Allied detritus at Dunkirk, and that the attack was because of this, but this has subsequently been debunked. Somewhat more credible is the idea that the bombing was in response to the exporting of butter from the creamery to Britain, but Ireland exported plenty of produce to Britain during the war without Germany determining to send a warning shot over it. Before the conclusion of the war, the German government would pay the modern equivalent of roughly half a million euro in compensation for the incident.

More was to come. On the 26th October bombs and incendiary devices fell outside of Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, avoiding people and property. On the night of the 20th December the same year, two bombs were dropped on the Dun Laoghaire area of Dublin, and then later more fell near Carrickmacross, County Monaghan. No one was killed, but a few were injured: the dropping of these bombs coincided with a heavy Luftwaffe raid of Liverpool on the other side of the Irish Sea, so was more than likely a case of mistaken identity by straying aircraft.

In the early days of January 1941 a spate of similar bombings took place, again coinciding with large scale raids over British airspace. Bombs were dropped throughout Leinster: in Meath, over Duleek and Julianstown, with no casualties; in Carlow, over Knockroe, where three people were killed inside a house that was hit; in Kildare, over the Curragh, with no casualties; in Wicklow, over Enniskerry, with no casualties; in Wexford, over Ballymurrin, with no casualties; and in several different points of Dublin, with no casualties. Some of the bombs hit the ground without exploding and were later recovered, their German markings confirming what was already widely known (though German authorities would continue to deny it for a while). In comparison to what was occurring over British cities this was all very small scale, and to some extent only to be expected in the kind of conflict that was the Second World War. Military aircraft and their ground support teams were more sophisticated than ever, but could still fall victim to faulty equipment, bad weather and the inexperience of their pilots when it came to reaching their targets. It would not be until May that a much more spectacular example of what could occur when such things happened would take place in Ireland.

It was the early hours of the 31st Mat when the German bombers appeared over Dublin. There are disputed reports about just how many bombers there were, and of what type: they did not fly in formation, but instead erratically, and appeared to be circling the city. This may indicate that the pilots were lost and knew it, and were trying to determine just what city they were over. For a time authorities in the city did nothing, but eventually Irish Army posts, who were manning several AA positions, fired flares in the colours of the Irish flag in a bid to communicate to the planes just where they were, followed by red flares meant as a warning to clear Irish airspace. The bombers continued in their circling, and eventually the order was given for the AA posts to open fire. But the gunners were not especially well-trained, and lacked any experience when it came to such combat, and were unable to hit any of their targets.

Sometime around 0130, the planes released three bombs. Just why the Germans would do so remains a mystery: if they thought they were over their actual target they presumably would have dropped more than that, but perhaps the bombs were simply a means of retaliating against the ground fire they were experiencing (see below for more discussion on this topic). Some then left, but others stayed in the vicinity, with one noted as flying so low in passes over Dublin that it became a target for machine gun fire. Again, those in control of the guns lacked the skill and experience to make the most of such circumstances, and none of the German planes appear to have been hit. One more bomb was dropped just after 2AM, before the last of the German planes departed.

The first bomb hit the Ballybough area, destroying two houses and injuring a few people, but fortunately killing no one. The second fell near Dublin Zoo, causing a small amount of damage to nearby Aras an Uachtarain, but again failing to kill anyone. The third fell on the North Circular Road near the area of Summerhill, creating a large crater but again causing no fatalities. Those parts of Dublin could consider themselves lucky.

It was the fourth bomb that did the most damage. This fell on the North Strand area of North Dublin, and in the process caused total destruction to 17 houses, severe damage to 50 more and partial damage to hundreds beyond. 28 people were killed, and 90 injured. 400 people were left homeless in the aftermath. The destruction and death toll was an appalling reminder of the kind of damage that could now be meted out from the air, and which the Irish government and military had been largely powerless to prevent.

As with the other bombings, what occurred in Dublin that night is most often put down to a case of mistaken identity. It’s presumed that the German bombers were meant to attack targets in Britain, or maybe Belfast, got lost, and then decided to drop a small amount of their payload on Dublin believing it might have been somewhere else. Some in Britain, as far as up as Winston Churchill, believed that the British military may have had an unintentional hand in the matter, with their disruptions of radio guidance beams of the Luftwaffe potentially causing them to go so far off course, though this is disputed.

The other theory of note is that the bombing was intended, essentially as a warning shot. The thinking behind this idea is that Germany was unhappy at the breach of neutrality that Irish assistance to Belfast during the bombings there represented, and that the bombs dropped on Dublin constituted a semi-official response. Hard evidence to back this assertion up is lacking: radio messages from German propaganda sources that suggested a bombing of Amiens Street station – not far from the North Strand – have been used as a possible smoking gun, but such messages more often than not had little link to actual military operations. Given the nature of the bombing – regards the amount of bombs dropped – and the behaviour of the planes in terms of their movements, it seems far more likely that they were simply in the wrong place, and dropped a desultory amount of bombs in recognition of this fact and, perhaps, as a response to the ground fire.

The day after the Dublin bombings, another small number of bombs fell on Arklow to the south, but without casualties. A month later, a similar experience was visited on Dundalk, where more minor amounts of damage were caused but no fatalities. In both instances the limited number of bombs again indicated an error by the Luftwaffe, off course when they should have been over Britain.

There was naturally a great deal of anger from all concerned with what happened. De Valera protested to Berlin, but it would not be until after the war that a measure of responsibility would be undertaken. When it was it was not Nazi Germany that did so, but West Germany, which diverted over £300’000 – seven million today – worth of Marshall Plan funds to Ireland to act as compensation, with the last of it paid by 1958. East Germany, and Austria, both at the time part of Nazi Germany, paid nothing. The money went to the survivors for the purpose rebuilding homes and getting on with their lives, with the Irish government adding to the overall fund.

The North Strand bombing was an especially brutal example of the kind of danger that Ireland was still in, neutral or no, even if it paled in comparison to the damage suffered by Belfast, or by any number of cities in Britain. The collective history of German bombings of Ireland paints a picture of an air force that all too frequently went wild with its targeting, and which did not factor in adequate care to such operations, but this is hardly surprising given the inherent inhumane practises of the political and military leadership of Germany at that time. The swing to Russia helped take the emphasis off the west for Germany, and meant that such incidents after 1941 were far less likely.

It would not be the only time that Ireland suffered a terrible loss from explosives in the course of the Second World War, but the next incident we will discuss was fundamentally different. The Irish military had grown greatly in size and was an army that was trying to be ready for an attack they were hardly ready for: in the Autumn of 1941 a training operation in the Wicklow Mountains would end up having fatal consequences, and shined a light on that state of unreadiness.

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

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: German Bombing Of Ireland

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

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

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Ireland And The Axis | Never Felt Better

  4. L says:

    Much later in the war the Americans with much better equipment killed people in neutral Switzerland when they thought they were over a German target a 100km away … do the German bombings over Ireland were in all liklihood consequences of the fog of war …

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