‘We were built up to go to war’: An Irish deserter who joined D-Day invasion

Vintan Donohoe was among hundreds of Irish involved in Normandy operation

Vintan Donohoe (sitting on grass, left) with his platoon.

Vintan Donohoe (sitting on grass, left) with his platoon.

 

Dubliner Vintan Donohoe was one of hundreds of Irish who landed on the Normandy beaches 75 years ago today, part of Gen Dwight Eisenhower’s D-Day “great crusade”, with the eyes of the world upon them.

Leaving his landing craft, the Mountjoy Square-born Donohoe remembered later that he went “straight down” into the sea, and had to be pulled ashore by fellow members of the 2nd Battalion, the Rifles.

The 22-year-old Donohoe fought in Normandy for just a month, before he was badly wounded by a mortar explosion and evacuated back to England. Decades later, his memories were filled with thoughts of carnage and friends lost.

Like many others, Donohoe was a Defence Forces deserter, having joined up in Dublin in 1938. There, he served in the artillery, where he was trained in a variety of weaponry, including mobile artillery and fixed long-range guns.

The opening of war in 1939 surprised few as “most people expected it”, Donohoe remembered later, although morale in the Defence Forces dipped as soldiers found themselves with little to do.

By 1941, the Irish military was haemorrhaging troops, with about 1,000 disappearing across the Border from March to September of that year to enlist in the British forces.

“We were built up in our training to go to war, and then suddenly there was no war to go to. There was nothing to do. There didn’t seem to be any leadership about what we did next.

“We were all trained men. I was trained on revolvers, rifles, the Bren machine gun, the Vickers machine gun, the 38 field gun. So what was I to do with all this knowledge that I have?” he said.

Vintan Donohoe in 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Vintan Donohoe in 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

In May 1941, Donohoe took 14 days’ leave. Initially, he travelled to the Border by train, but was stopped at Goraghwood, near Newry, and sent back to Dublin. From there, he walked to the Border.

Recruiting office

Having got through, he was stopped by RUC constables in a passing car. He told them he was an Irish deserter and they offered him a lift to the local recruiting office in Newry. There, he signed up.

He was sent to the Royal Sussex Regiment at Chichester Barracks, where there were other Irish Army deserters. All feared discovery. However, they quickly realised that their training instructors knew exactly who they were.

After the war, Donohoe stayed in London, helping to build London Airport, which later became Heathrow. When fellow Normandy veteran Phil Farrington died in 2015 aged 94, it was believed that the last of the Irish deserters had died.

However, it now seems that place is filled by Donohoe, who died in London, aged 96, in March 2018. He had been awarded the Légion d’honneur by the French government for helping to liberate France.

Like hundreds of Irish, Donohoe went into battle on that June morning as one of “soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied expeditionary force”, with the words of Eisenhower in their breast pocket.

“Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely,” Eisenhower had told them.

However, in the lead-up to D-Day, both the position of neutral Ireland and the dependability of southern Irish soldiers serving in the Allied forces were called into question by commanders.

The Irish in the American forces were likewise considered a potential liability, due to the persistent belief that they might be infiltrated by Irish “fifth columnists” connected with the IRA, or somehow sympathetic to Nazi Germany.

Early in 1944, relations between Éamon de Valera, then taoiseach, and the Allied powers were rocked by the American Note Crisis, following clumsy diplomacy by the American representative to Dublin, David Gray.

In late February, Gray presented de Valera with a formal request that Dublin take steps to remove Axis legations from the country. Querying whether the note was an ultimatum, de Valera told Gray that he would issue no such instruction.

An embarrassing series of communications and meetings ensued, with the Irish government seeking assurances from the British and Americans that southern Ireland would not be subject to Anglo-American military interventions.

Due to Gray’s actions, Dublin was clearly alerted to the fact that the invasion of Europe was imminent; with de Valera making it clear that neutral Ireland would not be held responsible for the failure of the operation.

Conciliatory messages

Winston Churchill offered conciliatory messages, denying hostile intentions against Ireland, and indicating that the request had been made merely to remove a threat of information being leaked to Berlin via Dublin.

Ironically, the incident prompted greater co-operation between the Irish and British military intelligence services, and an American intelligence officer was posted to Dublin to work alongside Irish G2 military intelligence.

From March 15th, 1944, normal travel and communication between Britain and the Free State, including cross-Border travel from Northern Ireland, was officially suspended on Churchill’s orders.

Postal censorship stiffened, while telephone traffic and telegrams were restricted as part of a wider campaign to isolate neutral Ireland from the outside world until after D-Day.

Censorship was vital, though it left the British war office pondering the effect it had on the morale of Irish soldiers serving with British forces. Mostly, however, they accepted the restrictions as an act of necessity, the chief British censor reported.

“Many troops comment that they expected such a measure for a long time, and on seeing the devastation and poverty left in Italy by the Germans they feel heartened to think that Éire should not share the same fate,” said the British censor.

However, not all agreed: “The few men who were not in favour of the ban stated that the action taken was an ‘insult to fighting Irishmen’ who have all volunteered to fight for England,” the notes record.

One Irish Fusilier in the 6th Inniskillings fighting at Monte Casino described de Valera as a “stupid nitwit”, while an Irish sergeant in the 8th Indian Infantry Division remarked that “maybe it would do some of the red-hot ‘Éire for the Irish’ crowd a world of good if they saw the result of what German friendship can do for a country”.

An Irish driver in the Royal Army Service Corps regretted the “transport ban”, but noted that “if it means the safety of our lads in the coming invasion, it will have been worthwhile”.

The British had legitimate fears that perfectly innocent Irish troops might talk about invasion plans during rare home leave – information that might find its way to the German legation in Dublin that was in daily radio contact with Berlin.

Nevertheless, the travel ban was lightly enforced. Lord Killanin (Michael Morris), later famous as head of the International Olympic Council, was an Irish staff officer in the British 79th Armoured Division deeply involved in D-Day planning. He returned home a fortnight before D-Day: “No one tried to stop me. If I had been disloyal or alcoholic I could easily have spilled the beans. I knew absolutely everything except there was going to be a postponement of D-Day by 24 hours because of the storm.”

The co-operation between the Irish, British and US intelligence services bore fruit. The work of Dr Richard Hayes, the director of the National Library, a talented codebreaker enlisted by the director of G2, Col Dan Bryan, proved extremely helpful.

German cipher

During lunch and after work, Hayes studied the complex German diplomatic code being used by the German legation to communicate with Berlin – an identical cipher had baffled Bletchley Park’s codebreakers the year before.

Hayes cracked this cipher, single-handedly. The decoded messages were passed by Bryan to British intelligence. Later, Hayes drafted bogus messages which Bryan had transmitted to the German legation’s wireless room, helping to lull Berlin.

Famously, the weather forecasts gathered at Blacksod Bay, off the Co Mayo coast, and passed on by G2 to the British led to Eisenhower’s decision to launch Overlord on the evening of June 5th – the saving of the invasion, in the eyes of many historians.

Recorded by Maureen Sweeney and her lighthouse-keeper husband, Ted, it gave the Allies the vital element of surprise, as senior German commanders believed no seaborne invasion would be launched in the middle of a storm.

The suitable conditions at sea predicted by Blacksod once the storm blew itself out were essential to Operation Neptune, the largest seaborne operation in the history of modern warfare, which supported Overlord.

Run by Combined Operations, Neptune oversaw the safe passage and landings at Normandy. One of the key members of that team was Wexford-born Commander Richard Donovan, a first World War submariner.

Today, no one knows how many Irish served in Normandy. More than 70,000 men and women signed up at recruiting centres in Northern Ireland over the course of the war – two-thirds of them were from the neutral South.

However, many of the 170,000 Irish migrants who emigrated to work in British factories were conscripted after two years, while 250,000 Irish migrants were already resident in Britain before the war began.

In 1946, Gen Sir Hubert Gough, a Waterford-born officer who commanded divisions in during the first World War, in a letter to The Times of London put the Irish numbers in uniform at 165,000.

Dr Joseph Quinn is attached to the school of history at UCD

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