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Dark Times, Decent Men Stories of Irishmen in World War II


First published 2012 by The O’Brien Press Ltd., 12 Terenure Road East, Rathgar, Dublin 6, Ireland. Tel: +353 1 4923333; Fax: +353 1 4922777 E-mail: Website: ISBN: 978-1-84717-297-6 Text © copyright Neil Richardson 2012 Copyright for typesetting, layout, editing, design © The O’Brien Press Ltd All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or utilised in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or in any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. A catalogue record for this title is available from The British Library. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Typesetting, editing, layout and design: The O’Brien Press Ltd Printed and bound by MPG Books Ltd. The paper in this book is produced using pulp from managed forests.














Hitler, flanked by the massed ranks of the Sturmabteilung (SA) – the Nazi party’s early paramilitary wing – ascends the steps to the speaker’s podium during the 1934 Nazi Party Rally at Nuremberg.



‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ Attributed to Edmund Burke, Irish philosopher


wenty-one years between the ending of one world war and the beginning of another. Enough time for a new generation of soldiers to be born and grow to adulthood. Enough time for economic and industrial forces to recover to fight again. But not enough time for the memories of past horrors to have faded, or for the bitterness of the defeated to have dissipated. Part of me decided to write this book as a natural follow-on to A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall: Stories of Irishmen in WWI, because I had family who also served with the British forces during the Second World War, and because I believed that – like our involvement in the First World War – the Irish participation in the Second World War was equally forgotten about, if not doubly forgotten about. With the recent increase in books on the subject of the Irish in the First World War, and the return of annual commemorations, modern Irish people are steadily becoming more and more aware that 200,000 of their countrymen served in the British Army in the trenches during 1914−1918. They were joined by 300,000 Irish emigrants, or sons born to Irish parents, who served in other armies around the world, bringing the total Irish contribution to roughly half a million men. Out of those who served in the British Army, at least 35,000 never came home. However, with regard to the Second World War, the stories that most southern Irish people have to tell revolve around the ‘Emergency’, and tales about rationing or the hated ‘glimmer man’ – whose job it was to make sure that a home or business was not using gas outside of regulation hours – are usually what is remembered. Occasionally, there might be a memory of receiving gas masks in case of air raids, or cardboard shoes – introduced to deal 9

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with leather shortages – that disintegrated as soon as they came into contact with the Irish weather, or about the absence of cars on city roads due to the lack of petrol, but the stories usually end there. Even the memories about anything military invariably only ever involve the Irish Army – and usually focus on a family member who enlisted as the army expanded after war broke out, or who served as a reservist with the Local Defence Force (LDF). Mentions of men in other armies are normally confined to the British or German aircrews that bailed out over Ireland or crash landed before ending up in internment camps on the Curragh. And so, as the southern twenty-six counties of Ireland were independent and neutral during the Second World War – as opposed to being a part of the United Kingdom and officially at war – the Second World War is not considered to have concerned southern Ireland. Above and opposite: Two cards made up by men As a result, the majority of modern Irish from Lurgan, County Armagh, and sent to their people are still unaware that during the families back home. Above: Eric McClure is pictured, Second World War, at least 130,000 Irish while opposite is Frederick Mathews from Carnegie served in the British forces – the 20,000 Street. McClure survived the war; Mathews was killed Irish already serving in the British forces in action on 28 June 1942 in North Africa, aged when war broke out being joined by thirty-four, while serving as a driver with the New approximately 110,000 wartime volunteers Zealand Army Service Corps. (roughly 66,000 from southern Ireland and 64,000 from Northern Ireland). However, this figure is only a conservative estimate based on bottom line academic consensus. Some researchers have quoted figures of 150,000 and 200,000, and one source – First World War General Sir Hubert Gough in a letter to The Times in August 1944 – suggested 10


that over 165,000 volunteers from southern Ireland alone had joined the British forces by that time (which, when added to the 64,000 volunteers from Northern Ireland known to have enlisted, would total 229,000). Furthermore, these are the numbers for the British forces alone – they do not include the Irish who are known to have served with the US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand militaries. Based on this, the numbers of Irish who served in combatant armies during the Second World War might be very close to the numbers who fought during the First World War. Finally, in the British forces alone, at least 7,500 Irish are known to have died during the Second World War. I felt that the experiences of these Irish soldiers, sailors, and airmen must also be preserved, especially those who kept no diaries and were never written about in official histories – the people whose stories and experiences were known only to themselves or their families, stories that would vanish forever if not recorded. Once again I submitted articles to national newspapers and websites appealing for Irish Second World War veterans – from anywhere on the island of Ireland – or their families, to contact me and pass on their accounts. Hundreds of people did so, and I am extremely grateful to all of them. However, another part of me wanted to write a book on the subject of the Irish in the Second World War because in so many ways this was a very different war to the conflict of 1914−1918. Trench warfare, waves and waves of infantry walking towards walls of machine gun bullets, thousands of artillery pieces pounding mile after mile of territory into a cratered no-man’s-land, a thousand yards of progress taking a year to achieve, and death tolls like the 60,000 British casualties incurred on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 – they were now a thing of the past. But replacing these features of an old war were a new set of horrors: rocket technology and the large-scale bombing of cities, Blitzkrieg (‘Lightning War’) and the true mechanisation of warfare – where the plane and the tank became a terrifying and dominating force on the battlefield – the fight against fanatical units like the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Hitler-Jugend (‘Hitler 11

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Youth’) or the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army, inhumane treatment in POW camps, the Holocaust and human experimentation, and, ultimately, the advent of atomic weapons. There was no patriotic rush to the recruiting offices this time – people knew the terrifying cost of twentieth century warfare – but, in retrospect, this new war could also be labelled as a just war. Unlike the 1914−1918 conflict, the Second World War could be considered an ultimately necessary struggle to stop a very real force of evil. And so, the Irish who fought in the Second World War experienced something very different to their fathers in the trenches and, for that reason, their story must be told also. Furthermore, the Irish who served in the combatant armies of the Second World War grew up in an Ireland, and a world, that had changed drastically since the end of 1918. While their fathers had been raised in an Ireland that was still a part of Britain – where, aside from political tensions between nationalists and unionists, the country had been predominantly peaceful – many of the new generation were born during the War of Independence of 1919−1921 or the Irish Civil War of 1922−1923, or in the aftermath when Ireland was divided into the southern twenty-six counties of the Irish Free State and the six northern counties of Ulster that became known as Northern Ireland and remained a part of the United Kingdom (a division that was only finalised and made official on 3 December 1925). While the 1916 Rising was, for the most part, history to Irish Second World War soldiers, many were born into an Ireland that was actively at war at the time of their birth. This was true in the case of James Murray – who was born during the War of Independence in a one-room tenement on South William Street, Dublin in 1921. The night James was born, there was a curfew in effect in Dublin. But when his mother went into labour, James’ father – a driver for Jacob’s biscuits – was forced to go outside in order to fetch the midwife. British forces saw him running through the streets and, thinking he was an IRA man, opened fire. Luckily, James’ father was not hurt, and James Murray went on to land on Sword Beach on D-Day while serving in 2nd King’s Own Shropshire Light Infantry. However, being born during a violent period in Irish history was not the only difficulty that Irish Second World War soldiers had to face before 1939 and the start of their war. The so-called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 took the lives of 280,000 people in Ireland and Britain in a one-year period and 50 million people worldwide – an event which killed the parents of many Irish children, including the mother of Eamonn ‘Ed’ O’Dea from Kildimo, County Limerick. She died of the flu in 1919 when Ed was only four years old, leaving him to be raised by his father and two aunts – Ed later served as a Stoker Petty Officer with the Royal Navy during the war. Modernity and the ideals of a new leading class had also changed Ireland in many ways since 1918. On 3 July 1924, Eoin MacNeill – then minister for education – made the teaching of the Irish language compulsory in all schools, and in 1928, for the first time in over 12


a hundred years, an Irish currency began circulating again. Several organisations with roots in Irish nationalism also began enforcing their ideals. After attending a ‘foreign sport’ rugby match between Ennis and Nenagh in 1931, sixteen members of the Ennis Dalcassian Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) were expelled from their club, and in 1934, the Gaelic League wrote to Dublin Corporation that it was ‘determined to crush ... [the] denationalising ... present day instrument of social degradation ...’ that was jazz music, a campaign that was fully supported by Irish bishops. With regards to the strengthening of the bond between Church and State that was also taking place during this time, in 1925 a resolution was passed in the Dáil (Irish parliament) making it illegal for an Irish citizen to divorce and then re-marry in the State. By 1931, the first Saint Patrick’s Day parade was held in the Free State, and over the following two years, two pontifical masses were held in the Phoenix Park – one in 1932, attended by over a million people, to celebrate the close of the thirty-first Eucharistic Congress, and another in 1933, where 300,000 people gathered to celebrate a hundred years of Catholic emancipation. This Church-State relationship ultimately led to the ‘special position’ given to the Catholic Church in the 1937 Irish Constitution. Furthermore, while for a Catholic to attend Trinity College Dublin remained, at the very least, frowned-upon, at worst, a crime worthy of excommunication (official Church disapproval of Catholic attendance at the university was only lifted in 1970), it was considered a mortal sin to be a communist. Meanwhile, reflecting the recent political division of the country, work began on the construction of the Northern Ireland Parliament Buildings, in the Stormont area of Belfast, on 19 May 1928. It was opened four years later on 22 November 1932, giving Northern Ireland its own seat of government. As for the modern world bringing change to Ireland, the BBC made its first broadcast in Northern Ireland on 14 September 1924 with the station 2BE. Two years later on 1 January 1926, the Irish Free State’s own new broadcasting service – 2RN – began transmitting. Electricity came to the Free State with the opening of the Shannon hydro-electric scheme at Ardnacrusha, County Clare, in 1929. At the time, it was the largest hydro-electric station in the world and was built by the German engineering firm Siemens – who attempted to raise the wages of under-paid workers on site, but were overruled by the Irish government (Just over ten years later, Siemens would have factories in the vicinity of Nazi concentration camps where forced-labour was used to manufacture electrical switches for the German military.) And so, with broadcasting and electricity, the ‘wireless’ radio soon became a central feature of Irish home life, providing a new form of entertainment and access to news.There was also a growth in the number of cinemas in Ireland during this time, with Ireland’s first talking film being Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool, shown at the Capitol Theatre off O’Connell Street, Dublin in 1929. In many ways, Irish life was starting to become more international. 13

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By the time of the Second World War, there were only nine surviving Irish regiments in the British Army. During the First World War, there had been fifteen. Top Row, left to right: Cap badges of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Ulster Rifles. Middle Row, left to right: Irish Guards, Liverpool Irish (TA), London Irish Rifles (TA). Bottom Row, left to right: 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, North Irish Horse.



However, while many things had changed since the days of their fathers’ youth, some aspects of life in Ireland remained exactly the same. Before fighting in the trenches, many Irishmen had known terrible poverty – living in dilapidated city tenements or barely surviving on a tiny rural farm – and the Great Depression that began with the Wall Street stock market crash ensured that their sons and daughters would be familiar with it as well. In 1929, when most soon-to-be Irish Second World War soldiers were in their early teens, unemployment rose sharply all around the world, with the heavy industry, construction and farming sectors being particularly hard hit. In Ireland, around the same time that many young men were approaching the age when they would leave school and be expected to get their first job, there were now simply no jobs to be had. Approximately 250,000 out of a population of 4.2 million were soon unemployed across the island. In Northern Ireland, construction in the Belfast shipyards nearly came to a complete halt. The city had once been known as the largest producer of linen in the world – now, 8,000 linen workers were unemployed – and it was not long before the Belfast Executive Committee noted that 20,000 children living in the city’s slums were suffering from malnutrition. Meanwhile, in the Free State, infant mortality was high (a figure that was, as noted in a Department of Local Government and Public Health report, still on the rise by 1938) and in Limerick – in a three month period in late 1932 – 108 cases of diphtheria and sixty-eight cases of scarlet fever in children were admitted to Limerick City Hospital. Grants to initiate public works schemes that could provide employment, housing schemes, and welfare or benefit programmes were widely requested, with ‘We Want Work’ being the slogan of a march through Listowel, County Kerry by members of the local Workers’ Union. Similar protest marches, along with work strikes, soon became regular occurences across the island. The economic and social situation was grim across Ireland, but due to the worldwide effects of the Wall Street Crash, emigration was no longer a solution to unemployment. Irish people never stopped leaving the country to find work – travelling to places like Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand – but after 1929, the numbers were nothing like they used to be. While just under 21,000 Irish people a year had emigrated to America between 1920 and 1930, during the period 1931 to 1940, the number dropped to roughly 1,500 a year. There were simply no jobs to be had on the other side of the Atlantic. Emigration to Australia and New Zealand similarly dropped to 2,500 a year during this time. In fact, the economic situation was so bad, that between 1931 and 1938, while Ireland had 8,480 people leave the country, 15,859 actually emigrated into Ireland – desperate formeremigrants who were coming home, hoping to escape the new poverty in America. And so, well into the 1930s, the economic situation in Ireland was certainly bleak. This would ultimately be a deciding factor in many (but certainly not all) men’s decision to join the British Army during the Second World War. 15

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Similarly, in the way that Irish First World War soldiers had grown up in a politically changing world, so too did the Irish who went on to fight in the Second World War. But while their fathers had known the struggle between nationalist and unionist, they experienced the clash of socialism/communism and fascism. In a devastated post-war Europe, many turned to either the political left or the political right in an attempt to replace the styles of government that had led to the war and its aftermath. For the Irish, the Spanish Civil War was the first war that dealt with this divide of political ideals. In 1932, Éamon de Valera and Fianna Fáil came to power for the first time. The party had a strong anti-Treaty heritage and replaced the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal government which had been in power since 1922. One of de Valera’s first acts as President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State (the future position of Taoiseach) was to lift the ban on the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which had been illegal up to this point and was now a completely anti-Treaty organisation, and release many political prisoners from jail. The IRA immediately started disrupting Cumann na nGaedheal events, which brought them into violent clashes with the Army Comrades Association – also known as the National Guard, or by their nickname the ‘Blueshirts’, for their Saint Patrick’s blue uniform shirt. Many of the Blueshirts were former Free State soldiers who had fought the anti-Treaty IRA during the Irish Civil War, and they firmly supported Cumann na nGeadheal. Suddenly, the old anti-Treaty versus pro-Treaty struggle of the Irish Civil War period was brought back to life. In 1933, de Valera declared the Blueshirts illegal, and so they merged with Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Centre Party to form Fine Gael on 3 September that year. However, former Blueshirt leader Eoin O’Duffy – also the first leader of Fine Gael – soon left this new party as the majority of its members did not support his strongly right-wing views. He then founded the openly fascist National Corporate Party in 1935, whose military wing became known as the ‘Greenshirts’. In terms of political opinion, they were completely opposed to Ireland’s other main paramilitary group – the IRA. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, the IRA and the National Corporate Party/Greenshirts saw a conflict that seemed to mirror their own in Ireland. The IRA had become more left-wing and socialist since the Irish Civil War, which brought them to empathise with the Spanish republicans, while the right-wing, conservative National Corporate Party/Greenshirts identified with the pro-Catholic, anti-communist aims of Franco’s nationalists. Soon, both sides sent troops to fight in the war – many from the IRA, along with other Irish socialists, formed the left-wing ‘Connolly Column’, named after 1916 martyr James Connolly, and served on the republican side, while 700 men who supported Eoin O’Duffy fought in the right-wing ‘Irish Brigade’ on the nationalist side. In fact, several Irishmen who would go on to serve during the Second World War were 16


involved in the Spanish Civil War. From Morley’s Bridge, near Kilgarvan in County Kerry, Michael Lehane was a student at Darrara Agricultural College – near Clonakilty in County Cork – until hard times forced him to move to Dublin where he found work as a builder’s labourer. He fought on the republican side during the Spanish Civil War – at Cordoba in 1936, at Las Rozas de Madrid during the Battle of the Corunna Road and at the Battle of Brunete (where he was wounded) during 1937, and at the Battle of the Ebro (where he was again wounded) in 1938 – before serving in the Norwegian Merchant Navy during the Second World War. He disagreed with wearing a British uniform, but still felt that it was his duty to do something to stop Hitler and Nazi Germany. Michael Lehane was not the only Irish republican veteran of the Spanish Civil War to fight in the Second World War. Patrick O’Daire from Glenties, County Donegal – who initially served in and then later commanded the Major Attlee Company of the British Battalion, 15th International Brigade (pictured here on the Ebro front in 1938) – went on to become a major in the Pioneer Corps during the Second World War. Ironically, he had started his soldiering career by fighting with the IRA against the British during the War of Independence when he was only sixteen years old, making his story a particularly unique one – he went from Irish rebel to British officer during his lifetime. O’Daire later settled in Llanberis, Wales and died in 1981 – aged seventy-six.


Dark Times, Decent Men  

In this poignant yet detailed book, award winning author Neil Richardson documents WWII Irish veterans’ stories with personal interviews, mi...