Spuds for secrets: an Irish second World War spy mission to Spain
The Army’s intelligence unit was busy during the conflict, monitoring German, British and US spies in Ireland. But it also went abroad sometimes
Moorish troops in traditional uniform, part of General Franco’s guard, marching in Madrid during the second World War. Photograph: Keystone/ Getty
In April 1943 two Army officers went by flying boat from Foynes, in Co Limerick, to Lisbon, in neutral Portugal, to arrange for food and blankets from the Irish Red Cross to be delivered to refugees in Spain. But their mission was not entirely humanitarian: it was also the cover for a secret intelligence operation.
The younger of the two, Capt Joseph Healy, was in G2, the Army’s intelligence unit, and was going to Spain and Portugal to report on the Irish diplomats there and make contact with British spies in Madrid and Lisbon.
Healy’s main target was Leopold Kerney, the Irish minister in Madrid. (Ireland’s senior diplomats abroad did not have the title of ambassador then, because of the country’s dominion status.) Dublin suspected that Kerney had too close a relationship with Germany, a suspicion based partly on his success in getting the left-wing republican leader Frank Ryan released from a Spanish jail and spirited into Germany.
Kerney had also been visited in Madrid by Edmund Veesenmayer of the Waffen-SS, who was involved in plotting covert operations in Ireland. They met at an open-air cafe in El Retiro park, in the city centre, on the morning of August 24th, 1942. Vessenmayer assured Kerney that Germany had no intention of invading Ireland. But neutrality, like any policy, would play itself out in time, and it would be unwise to wait until Germany’s final victory was at hand before adopting a more positive attitude.
Written from memory immediately after the meeting, Kerney’s lengthy report to the department of external affairs in Dublin showed him to be punctilious in setting out Ireland’s policy of neutrality. But the very fact of the meeting raised doubts in Dublin.
When Capt Healy travelled from Lisbon to Madrid he found Kerney to be “extremely cordial and expansive”, living very well although complaining about rising prices. Kerney’s Spanish and expatriate friends appeared to support the Allies.
“No evidence of acquaintance in either Axis or British circles. Son attends French Institute in Madrid. No evidence of acquaintance ship [sic] with any Irish in Spain, except the Loreto nuns in Madrid.”
Healy had been professor of Spanish at University College Cork before being called up from the Army reserve and assigned to G2 when war broke out in 1939.
One of his acquaintances in Madrid was Don Gomez-Beare, an Anglo-Spaniard from Gibraltar
who could pass as a Spaniard but was actually an archetypical Englishman and, in 1943, assistant military attache at the British embassy. His real job was with British naval intelligence, perhaps the most successful of the British spy agencies on the Iberian peninsula during the war. Its most famous operative was Ian Fleming.
Healy phoned Gomez-Beare and, after some small talk, dropped “discreet hints that I was in the Army and serving at GHQ but they evoked absolutely no reaction, except that we must have drinks together”.
Gomez-Beare arranged to phone Healy the next morning, but the call never came. Apparently, Healy’s hints did not go unnoticed, but his status as an intelligence officer had dissuaded Gomez-Beare from pursuing any further contact.
At a time when reliable information was at a premium, all opportunities to pick up intelligence were pursued. Passing through Lisbon, Healy also contacted a man at the British embassy called Crofton – presumably a member of MI5.
Crofton complained that “there was no channel for co-operation, enquiry, swapping of information with Irish officials here – both diplomats [in the newly opened Irish legation in Lisbon] eminently correct, too much so, for his point of view”.
He wanted someone in Irish officialdom with whom to liaise, especially about Irish seamen on the only shipping route Ireland had to the Continent, although he added: “I want to be perfectly frank with you, but of course can only be 90 per cent frank – there is always 10 per cent IRA and so on, where I cannot be frank and open with you.”
The Irish officers’ public Red Cross mission was having even less success. The aid consignment – 52.5 tons of potatoes, 100 tons of sugar, 10 tons of dried peas, 5 tons of dried milk and 100 blankets – was stopped at the border between Portugal and Spain while Healy and his colleague Col JT McKinney, head of the Army medical services, were given a general runaround by Spanish Red Cross officials.
The heavily censored Irish newspapers reported on their return home that their mission had been a success and that the Spanish Red Cross was very thankful, especially for the sugar. Healy’s preliminary report told a different story: Col McKinney, it said, “wishes that the complete history of the mission be never generally known”.
Col McKinney appears to have got his wish. There is no sign of Healy’s final report to G2 in the Military Archives or the National Archives of Ireland.
Joe Joyce’s spy novel Echowave, set in Dublin and Lisbon during the second World War, is published by Liberties Press