The forgotten Irish who fought in WW2
Published 11/11/2012 | 06:00
Irish neutrality in World War Two was a most extraordinary thing. The first RAF bomber pilot to be shot down and killed in 1939 was Willie Murphy from Cork. His navigator, Larry Slattery, from Thurles, became the longest-serving 'British' POW of the war.
The co-pilot of the last RAF bomber to be shot down over Germany, in May 1945, Sgt W Mackay, who was killed, was Irish too.
In all, some 250 men from neutral independent Ireland died with RAF Bomber Command, compared with 218 Frenchmen, 136 Czechs and 34 Norwegians, all of whose countries were at war.
Nearly 27pc of Irishmen in the British army were made NCOs: a higher percentage than of English soldiers. For every 10,000 Irishmen in the British army, 28 joined the SAS: the overall average was six. At least 11 Irishmen serving with Special Forces were executed by the Nazis.
From the liberation of Sicily in 1943 to the defeat of Germany, more than 800 soldiers from neutral Ireland were killed. In 1944 alone, from North and South, some 1,900 Irishmen were killed in action: over five a day. And 16pc of all British military nurses killed in the war were Irish.
These are key facts about the Irish involvement in the Allied cause during the war. I could find not one of them in Dark Times, Decent Men.
That said, the author has revealed many new stories which will interest the general reader, especially about the largely unexplored Irish-American experience.
However, this curiously patchy work makes no apparent mention of the vital statistical analysis done by Yvonne McEwen in Edinburgh University. Thus, the author puts the Irish death toll at 7,500: she has counted nearly 10,000. Nor did the author contact Richard Doherty, who has written several vital books on the Irish and the war.
No wonder there are so many spectacular omissions: none of the executed Irish -- Farrell in Norway, Wallace in Bordeaux, and the half-dozen SAS men in Normandy in 1944 -- are mentioned.
The legendary Redmond Cunningham is mentioned for his two MCs (Military Crosses) -- but not for his Belgian Croix de Guerre, awarded for his heroism in the bloody aftermath of a V2 strike on Antwerp that killed 126 people and injured him; yet despite his wounds, he remained toiling in the shambles until the last casualty was evacuated.
Another southern Irish Catholic hero, William Sheil, a lieutenant in 1940, a one-star general in 1945 with a DSO and bar, is completely overlooked. Lance Corporal Kenneally VC is yet again credited with being Irish, although he was a Birmingham Jew serving under an alias. Yes, there are some interesting personal stories here, but so much is missing.
The book has been poorly edited: hence we read on page 185 of "Marshal law", with elsewhere clunky prose abounding. "Then, in 1943 -- due to the fact that the Royal Navy had plenty of men, whereas the British army had a demand for more troops -- Sam volunteered to transfer over to the army in Worchester (sic) (he was one of the many to do so at the time)."
We read that Olive Kennington came from Piltown, Co Kilkenny. Ten lines later: "Olive inherited a farm in her native Waterford."
I don't know how many times I encountered "sadly, he died": but this was trumped by Eugene Esmonde "dying in an attempt to stop the enemy warships", for which he was given the VC: "but sadly, Eugene's was awarded posthumously". Well, it would be, wouldn't it? (In 1980, the legendary Luftwaffe ace Adolf Galland told me that Esmonde's attempt to sink the German battle-cruisers, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, was the bravest deed he'd ever seen. A single phone call to this reviewer could have revealed this, and indeed so much more).
Vast amounts of vital space are wasted on the author's attempts to describe the broader strategic background, and even more bizarrely, on events long after the war.
The most perplexing occurs in the 1980s, when Gerard McDonnell, the IRA son of one war veteran, "began operating in England but was then arrested in Glasgow on June 24, 1985, (only weeks after his mother's funeral, which he also missed)".
What a bathetic conflation of geographical imprecision and irrelevant non-sequiturs, crowned with that revoltingly coy euphemism -- "operating" -- to describe the terrorist activities of a member of the organisation that, after all, gave us the Enniskillen Remembrance Sunday massacre.
Dark Times, Decent Men needed far more diligent research and editing: the pictures, however, are excellent.