Why did the Irish volunteer as British officers in WWII?

Motives ranged from loyalty, peer pressure, family tradition and idealism to career prospects, adventure and the appeal of travel

This September marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the second World War, a war in which Ireland remained neutral yet, according to the British government, 42,665 Irish citizens volunteered for service with the British armed forces. Research by Richard Doherty suggests that the real figure may have been as high as 66,000. Of these volunteers I estimate that approximately 8,000 served in the commissioned ranks. These Irish officers made a sizeable contribution to the British war effort – they served in every theatre and in every capacity. But why did they go to war?

There is no simple answer and perhaps there were as many reasons as there were officers. Yet some common motives emerge from the testimony left to us by this generation through memoirs and interviews.

In the early period of the war there was a noticeable Irish influx into the British officer corps. Britain was benefiting from the large numbers of Irish people who had been working or studying in the country since the 1930s and were now volunteering. For example, Group Captain Thomas McGarry had come to London in 1937 aged 18, as he could not find employment in Ireland. He became a police constable and aspired to enter the London police college. In spite of the police being a reserved profession, immune from conscription, he decided to join the Royal Air Force: “It was my idea of what life was like that I was fighting for... can’t say I was fighting for a flag or anything like that, I was fighting for what I thought was right. Wouldn’t make any difference who was involved.”

Another officer, Major James Hickie, a Tipperary man and nephew of the commander of the 16th (Irish) Division from the 1914-18 war, joined up three days before Chamberlain declared war. This was in spite of the fact that he was only months away from completing a five-year engineering apprenticeship and had been intending to sit the examinations for membership of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in London.

“I have been asked why, as an Irishman, I chose to join the British Army,” Hickie explained. “In my family there is a tradition of service with the British armed forces; there was then a common citizenship; England had done a lot for me, so joining up seemed the right and natural thing to do.”

Many Irish officers were influenced by a family tradition of serving in the British forces which predated Irish independence. Captain John Jermyn, a law student, joined the British army in 1939. He was 21 years old and recalled: “My mother’s only brother was killed at Gallipoli in World War One, he was a second lieutenant in the Royal Munsters and was 19, and in some foolish way I felt that perhaps I should take his place.”

Another officer, Lieutenant Commander Cornelius Glanton, came from a Catholic family immersed in the Royal Navy. His father and three of his uncles had given 22 years’ service and unsurprisingly he also joined the navy in 1939. “My father,” he said, “didn’t put any pressure on me, but he was very, very happy and hoped others would join.” Glanton asserted that “in the 1930s there was a huge exodus of young men from Co Cork, and west Cork in particular, most of whom joined the navy.”

Throughout the war the ex-unionist section of the Irish population proved a reliable source for recruitment. These citizens continued to regard themselves as being part of the British empire and had a strong sense of allegiance to the king. Typical among this intake were the sons of middle-class Protestant families who had strong family and educational ties to England: for them joining up “was something that was taken for granted”.

Officers such as Sydney Watson and Brian Inglis had attended British public schools and knew friends and relatives who were joining up or were enduring the “Blitz”. In such families it was common to regard men of military age who stayed in neutral Ireland as “white feathers” or cowards. For example, Watson believed “if he did not join up with his British friends and relations, he would be committing the most heinous sin against the ethos of prewar public schools by ‘letting the side down’”.

It was not just men who were affected by peer pressure. Elizabeth Chamberlain came from a family with a tradition of service – two uncles had died in the first World War. Elizabeth wanted to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service (the “Wrens”). Her parents were opposed to the idea but as she recalled: “I didn’t worry about getting killed or anything like that. All I wanted was to get over to England and join up. All my friends were going... Nearly all the men had joined up.” She eventually succeeded in becoming a Wren and was later promoted to Third Officer in the cipher section.

Other officers were swept into the British forces on the tantalising prospect of adventure in distant lands. In 1941 Majella, a nurse from Kildare, joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in which she held rank equivalent to an army lieutenant. Majella expected the war to be over in a year: she was eager “to get into it before it ended”. As a young person during the war, she explained, “the only thing you’re thinking about is where you’re going to go and all the excitement that goes with it.” When she was posted to India instead of France as expected, “that was a surprise, but of course more excitement.”

In her perception of the war as offering opportunities for adventure Majella was not exceptional. Other Irish recruits contrasted the prospects for adventure in the war with the boredom of civilian life in Ireland. Arthur Smith joined the RAF in 1943: “Dublin was a very boring, small place then, you know, I was itching to get away.”

Some, like Captain Don Mooney, even made the frank admission that at the time they were not interested in the politics of the war: “no moral reason, we didn’t know much about Hitler or anything, it was just excitement”.

There were many reasons why Irish officers decided that the second World War was their war. This fateful decision changed their lives irrevocably and their accounts illustrate the complexity of ordinary people living through extraordinary times. Among the officers a few were idealistic, some were patriotic, some were naïve, almost all were very young. Their decision to volunteer sometimes derived from a romanticised understanding of what war was like, while for others it came after long consideration of the possible consequences. In short, there was a wide mixture of motives among Irish officers who went to war ranging from loyalty, peer pressure, family tradition and idealism to attractive career prospects, the fear of missing all the excitement and the appeal of travel.

Irish Officers in the British Forces, 1922-45 by Steven O'Connor (Palgrave, £60)

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