Friday 23 August 2019

How history erased the Irishmen of WWII

Allied forces: recent research puts the number of Irish who fought with Britain during World War II at about 120,000. Photo: Reuters
Allied forces: recent research puts the number of Irish who fought with Britain during World War II at about 120,000. Photo: Reuters

Massive, menacing and marauding, the fascist Nazi regime sought world domination by the one "super-race".

June 6, 1944 was the day when the courage of man, Irishmen among them, tackled this terrible tyranny. At stake; the future shape of Europe. It was a turning point in history.

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In what was to become a famous clash of World War II, 150,000 Allied troops hurled themselves headlong against huge concrete German defence fortifications along Hitler's 'Atlantic Wall'. It literally was an irresistible force against an immovable object, with human beings getting crushed in the carnage.

Dawn on D-Day was also the dawn of The Second Front, enormous in its scale, magnificent in its execution and the largest amphibious invasion force in history.

Within this collective colossus were individuals, many young, new to battle and scared. Among the survivors, wounded and the dead were the Irish, thousands of Irish, both native-born and part of the Irish diaspora abroad.

Why are the Irish not aware of this?

It is the role of the historian to interpret the past and be as honest, objective and truthful as possible about it. To do so you must first empty your mind of assumptions and then brutally ask yourself: is your interpretation strictly valid or is it simply how you would like it to be? To counter the latter, it is useful to first think of the strongest possible case against your interpretation and then see how your argument stands up. And if it does, then go ahead. There is an Irish dimension to D-Day, but there were (and are) difficulties in researching it.

Like many veterans who survived World War I, Irish soldiers who survived World War II rarely spoke about it publicly.

Many Irish served under assumed names in non-Irish regiments, among them many of the 4,983 Irish Defence Forces 'deserters', who left a neutral Ireland to fight for adventure, or for the thrill of soldiering, money or family tradition. Many of them actually agreed with the policy of a neutral Ireland, but for them, they had to do more.

And there were many soldiers with Irish names who died during the war, but had their families settled in Britain, America or Canada only recently or had they been resident there for a couple of hundred years?

Read more here: Forgotten soldiers: Ireland's silent D-Day veterans

Unlike during World War I, the local papers in Ireland did not report on Irish casualties so it was difficult to know who the 'Irish' dead were and precisely where they were from. Many D-Day participants were not born in 1911, and so we are unable to verify who or where many were from by referring to Census records. Military service records for that time are also scarce.

Finally, 75 years on, most of the D-Day veterans are no longer with us and their recorded testimonies are lost to us.

But I suggest this is only a part of the explanation for the unknown extent of the Irish involvement in D-Day.

Recent good work puts the number of Irish who fought with Britain at approximately 120,000, a figure I feel underestimates the participation. Still, the really interesting fact is that some 70,000 of the Irish who joined the British Army alone were from 'neutral' Ireland while 50,000 or so were from the 'loyal' North.

So there were more Irish in the British Army during World War II from south of the Border than from north of it - a fact both governments were keen not to amplify. All from the South were volunteers, since conscription did not hold any writ in our newly independent jurisdiction. This remarkable state of affairs is only now becoming known and appreciated.

World War II would not have been won without those brave men and women who took a principled stand against tyranny, fascism and fear.

Those who sacrificed self for whatever motivation, ought to be respected rather than discredited.

Dan Harvey has detailed the Irish contribution to D-Day in his new book, 'A Bloody Dawn'

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