Price of fighting in the second World War


In one of the forgotten stories of the conflict, 5,000 men who deserted the Irish Defence Forces faced a heavy penalty at war’s end, says a new book, writes MARK HENNESSYLondon Editor

THOUSANDS OF MEN deserted the Irish Defence Forces during the Second World War to fight with the British armed forces. Some did so because of their feelings about fascism, some because they were bored, others for better pay. When those who surivived the war came home they found that, as well as dismissing them from the Defence Forces, Éamon de Valera’s government had, more damagingly, blacklisted them from all state jobs.

Many, such as Nicholas McNamara from Limerick and Joseph Mullally from Westmeath, never came home. McNamara was killed in an RAF bombing raid over Germany in 1944; Mullally fell in the opening hours of the D-Day landings in Normandy.

The Irish authorities had been irritated by British attempts to recruit in Ireland during the early war years; the efforts included newspaper advertisements that talked of excitement and a better life – provoking numerous complaints to London. A Fianna Fáil cumann in Dundalk complained about “English Sunday newspapers publishing articles to stimulate British recruiting in this country, whilst at the same time doing their best to demoralise recruiting for the Irish National Army”.

The Defence Forces took a similar view: “The principal cause of desertion from the Defence Forces, to the British forces, is the higher rates of pay and allowances (including marriage allowance) in the latter.”

The charge that money was the motivation angered many of those who deserted, including Paddy Sutton, a Dubliner who was present for the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. “My pal turned to me. He said, ‘If we ever needed a reason to join up, this is it. It was a just war.’ I agreed with him. It really hit home then what an evil regime we had been fighting,” Sutton has told Robert Widders, the author of Spitting on a Soldier’s Grave, a new book about the treatment of the servicemen.

By 1945 many of the survivors were heading for home. The Free State under Éamon de Valera’s government could not “jail all of them”, as one of the deserters put it. It could take revenge in different ways, however; in early August 1945, an Ireland shielded from the worst of war’s horrors learned some of what had taken place through the List of Personnel of the Defence Forces Dismissed for Desertion in Time of National Emergency Pursuant to the Terms of Emergency Powers.

Containing each soldier’s last recorded address, date of birth, declared occupation prior to enlistment in the Defence Forces, and date of dismissal, it was circulated to all government departments and state-run bodies, to ensure that nobody who quit in such circumstances ever secured a state job. Given the climate of the time, it made most unemployable.

Soldiers who deserted but did not join the British army were treated differently: some were not even arrested, and their names were left off the list, says Widders, who came across this chapter in military history through “a dismissive, almost contemptuous reference” in an out-of-date history book on sale in a Limerick charity shop.

Widders also argues that the 1941 Children Act, which sent thousands of youngsters to industrial schools exposed by the Ryan report in recent years, was used with particular vindictiveness against the children of deserters from the Defence Forces. “The Irish government lobbied the British government to have the payment of family allowances, to which married Irish soldiers in the British Army were entitled, paid directly to the Irish State [for children held in care]. In effect, this helped finance incarceration,” he writes.

Some became involved in the war even before they deserted. Gerry O’Neill, who was born in Fermoy, Co Cork, was one of a number of Irish sailors sent to Southampton in 1940 to collect a motor torpedo boat bought by the Irish authorities. By the time they got there the British navy was in the middle of the Dunkirk evacuation. “Our skipper had been in the Royal Navy and he decided to join the rescue fleet. He asked us if we’d volunteer, which we did.”

The crew made two trips across the English Channel, rescuing French and British soldiers, although their efforts could have had serious implications for Irish neutrality if they had been captured. After the second trip they were told to go home.

On his return to Haulbowline, in Cork Harbour, the crew were sworn to secrecy. “After this, I soon got browned off with the inactivity in the Irish Navy – and I decided to join the RAF,” said O’Neill, though he actually ended up in the Royal Navy.

Back in Ireland in 1942 on leave, he decided to join the Irish merchant fleet. His position as a deserter was quickly solved when he met Oscar Traynor, the minister for defence, at a dinner aboard the Irish Larch, a vessel owened by Irish Shipping. “I told him I’d deserted from the Irish Navy and asked if I could be pardoned, in view of the fact that I was now a greater help to the nation, serving with Irish Shipping exposed to all sorts of dangers.” Days later he received his discharge papers from the Irish Navy.

Hundreds of the men included on the list were dead by the time of its publication: Mullally and McNamara were two; Stephen McManus from Sligo, who died in a Japanese concentration camp in Burma, was another. The inclusion of such names rankled with families deeply, Widders argues.

The returning soldiers had few friends. Michael Moran, the Fianna Fáil Mayo TD, believed that being on the list was not enough of a punishment – and his view was the majority one, though TF Higgins of Fine Gael complained about whether there “was any other army in the world” that asked for “military offences to be punished by county managers, town clerks and corporation secretaries”.

The men, he said, had fulfilled a higher moral duty only “now to find themselves branded as pariah dogs, as outcasts, as untouchables for the crime of going to assist other nations in what they believed was a fight for the survival of Christianity in Europe”.