When it comes to Irish who served the belligerent powers of the Second World War, the vast, vast majority served with the Allies. Whether it was with the Irish named regiments who fought in just about every British theatre of the war, or in just about every other regiment, service and aspect of the British military, Irish were there, and often there in numbers. Others still, in lesser quantity, would serve in the militaries of the United States or with others. On the other side of the equation, there were some examples of Irish who served underneath the aegis of Nazi Germany, albeit so few in number I considered whether this entry was worth writing at all. I do not speak of those members of the IRA, like Sean Russell, who attempted to craft alliances with the Axis, or who received training from those powers during the course of the war. In this entry we will discuss those, whether it was in a uniform or as part of the civilian apparatus of the Nazi state, who identified with the Axis cause.
There were many reasons why few Irishmen served in the German military, or other German institutions. The ability to travel to do so was extremely limited for one thing, with transport to continental Europe during the war years a risky proposition at the very best of times, and flat-out impossible at others. Differences in language and culture warded off the would-be volunteers, as did the reality of the war turning against Germany later in the conflict. And of course we cannot simply discount the very real issue that many Irish people had little reason to support Germany, whether it was because of an distaste for their brand of militant fascism, or because of the perceived brutality of the German conquests early in the war. Of course there were many pro-fascist individuals in Ireland during the war, but those of a very upfront and outspoken nature were somewhat rarer, and those willing to turn their sentiments into action rarer still. Indeed, the three individuals who will comprise the majority of this entry came into their service in ways that largely bypassed Ireland’s geographical location,.
One name always tends to come up first when discussing this topic, and that is William Joyce, better known to posterity as “Lord Haw-Haw”. American born to an Irish father, Joyce spent most of his childhood in Galway, where his unionist parents brought up in him a strong dislike of Irish nationalism. He would work as a courier for the British Army during the War of Independence, where he was implicated in the murder of a republican priest. After his family moved to Britain in the aftermath of the revolutionary period, Joyce developed an appreciation for fascism, and was later a deputy leader of Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists. He later fell out with Mosely and formed his own grouping, which had a stronger focus on anti-semitism. In August of 1939, Joyce moved to Germany upon being tipped off he was soon to be arrested under British internment laws.
Joyce soon caught the eye, and ear, of German broadcasting organisations, and was hired to be an English-language newsreader, whose radio shows were aimed towards Britain and used for the purpose of spreading morale-sapping propaganda. His show, named Germany Calling after its iconic opening greeting, would report news of German victories, British ship and plane losses and other propaganda, designed to stoke fears of British failure in the war effort and to unnerve families looking for news of loved ones who had been declared MIA. Joyce was not the only newsreader employed in such efforts but has become most associated with them, and with the British-made nickname of “Lord Haw-Haw”, given by a British journalist critical of the perceived exaggerated upper-class English accent sometimes employed by some of the German broadcasters. By the end of 1940 the term was being applied exclusively to Joyce.
By 1942, Joyce had become so well-known that he was essentially permitted to write his own reports, and is estimated to have been listened to regularly by over six million people with Britain. His sarcastic and jeering tone made him a figure of hate, but wartime censorship insured that those with radios continued to tune into what he as saying for any scrap of news denied to them by London, even if it was bound to be warped in its delivery in favour of the German cause. Joyce became something of a celebrity within Germany, and did not attempt to hide his real identity when broadcasting. He was hired to give talks on British fascism to the SS, attempted to recruit British POW’s to the German military and published a book, Twilight Over England, that became a bestseller.
Of course Joyce could not outrun the tide of the war. His last broadcast, one that it isn’t clear was ever transmitted, was a rambling, possibly drunken, affair, made on the same day Hitler killed himself. A month later Joyce was captured near the Danish border, being shot in the incident when Allied soldiers believed he was reaching for a weapon. Charged with treason, Joyce almost escaped punishment by claiming he had never been a British subject, being American-born, but this defence was not accepted. It has been claimed that Joyce made a deal with prosecutors to keep silent links he had with MI5 to spare his wife, Margaret, who also made propaganda broadcasts for Germany, from prosecution. Joyce was hung in January 1946, going to the gallows a defiant anti-semite. Buried in an unmarked grave, his body was later moved to a cemetery in Galway in 1976 at the request of his daughter.
There were those that actually fought with Germany though. Two have gathered enough notoriety to be worthy of special note: James Brady and Frank Stringer. Brady, from Roscommon, and Stringer, from Leitrim, were both enlisted men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers who were based in the Channel Islands when the war began. Caught there with the Germans took over the islands, they were sent to a POW camp where they were two of a number of Irish the subject of offers to form an Irish unit of the SS. The SS would, in the course of the war, raise a number of nationality-based units from those areas Germany had conquered or were engaged with, with the “British Free Corps”, which consisted of maybe a few dozen British POW’s at any given time, perhaps the most relevant to his discussion. Differing accounts yield an incomplete picture of this attempt to craft an Irish Legion in the style of Roger Casement: despite some claims to the contrary, it never appears to have been formally constituted. But Brady and Stringer, despite having no great republican background to speak of, did volunteer for further service with the German military.
Both men underwent training courses dedicated to topics like bomb-making, sabotage and secret radio communications, with a possible eye for inserting the two back into Ireland to work as undercover agents. The training, and the aborted missions, went on for several years until, frustrated by the apparent lack of action, both Brady and Stringer decided to volunteer for the SS. Accepted, they underwent Germany infantry training in 1944. Both men seemingly did enough in their training to impress higher-ups, and while other members of their class were sent to the front they were held back with 30 or so others to take part in more elite-level operations.
Remarkably, both Brady and Stringer would end up serving with the SS commandos, among the absolute best of the German military. Brady first saw action with the Jagdverband Mitte in destroying bridges in Romania ahead of the Soviet advance in the Autumn of 1944: Brady claimed less than half of the unit survived the mission. In October, both men were involved in Operation Panzerfaust, the SS raid to capture Hungary’s up-to-then pro-German regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy, who had been discovered negotiating a separate peace with the Soviet Union. The operation involved a brief exchange of fire with Hungarian soldiers, which Brady dubbed a “scrap”, and was successful: Horthy was arrested and taken to Germany, his rule replaced by the ultranationalist Arrow Cross. The mission was led by the famous German commando Otto Skorzny, who would later end up living in Ireland after the war.
By the start of 1945 the situation had turned to the point that the commandos were obligated to act as infantry. Defending positions next to the Oder River Brady was wounded, and spent part of his convalescence training civilian militia to use anti-tank weapons. Returned to the front. Brady took part in several engagements as the Russians closed in for the kill, and was involved to some degree in the climactic Battle of Berlin in April, where he was wounded again. Stringer’s actions around this time are less clear, but he remained active in the military to the end of the war. Afterwards Brady spent time wandering around Berlin going in and out of various camps, insisting he was German. He eventually surrendered himself to the British military, and would spend four years in prison: a remarkably lenient punishment considering the depth of his actions. Stringer has in custody earlier than this and suffered a similar fate. Both men returned to Ireland and then vanish from the ages of history, an historical curiosity that many in Ireland would probably prefer to be forgotten.
There are reports of others, but these lack a solid foundation. More than one source mentions a “Paddy O’Neill” who allegedly died in the service of the SS in 1944, but there is little to fully corroborate this story. There were also cases of those who had lived in Ireland but returned to fight for Germany owing to familial connections: Gustav Mahr, an Austrian-born man who grew up with his family in Ireland, served throughout the Second World War, and allegedly amazed Allied POW’s when he demonstrated his English language skills with a Dublin accent. There is little else besides: as stated, the opportunities for people of Irish citizenship or background were low to the point of non-existence, and this topic probably can find the majority of its talking points in the connections between the Abwehr and the IRA.
In this discussion we have noted many details about the conclusion of the war, as it pertains to Europe anyway. In the next entry, we will delve further into that topic. 1944 had ended with the last desperate gamble of the Germans in the west, the Allies slowly advancing with great loss through Italy and the Soviet’s bearing down on Germany in the east, while in the Pacific it had become a matter of when and how much cost would need to be employed to compel Japan to give up. 1945 would see the resolution of all these theatres, with the defeat of the Axis and the triumph of the Allies. The Irish named regiments would be in there at the death.
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