How Irish seamen were abandoned by our government to face Nazi brutality
Earlier this week, some files were released from the British National Archives at Kew. These revealed details of the compensation paid to the families of British airmen who had been executed by the Gestapo after a mass escape from Stalag Luft III: the German camp that became famous because of the movie 'The Great Escape'.
The files also revealed details of some lesser-known crimes that were committed by the Nazis. These involved a small group of Irish prisoners who were held in a slave labour camp in north-west Germany for more than two years.
Those Irishmen were all merchant seamen captured while working on Allied ships, and one of them was a relative of mine. My father's cousin William was serving on a merchant ship in August 1940 when it was sunk off the coast of Madagascar by a German raider. William was taken prisoner, and arrived in Bordeaux in occupied France a few months later.
From there, he was sent on to an internment camp in northern Germany called Sandbostel. This would become infamous as one of the most brutal in the entire camp system, and tens of thousands of Russian prisoners died there from exposure, starvation, disease or murder. Towards the end of 1941, all merchant seamen were moved to a new internment camp at Milag Nord where conditions were somewhat better.
However, in January 1943, 32 Irish seamen were moved by the Gestapo to nearby Bremen. When they got there, the Gestapo tried to convince them to sign legal contracts, and to work for Germany. The Irish prisoners were offered incentives to do so. But, without exception, they refused to become freie Arbeiter (voluntary workers) for Nazi Germany.
On the night of February 6, 1943, the Irish prisoners were woken by the Gestapo and loaded on to two trucks. They were driven to a new camp near the village of Farge, a small inland port on the River Weser. Until then, the Irish seamen had been held in prison camps controlled by the Kriegsmarine, the German navy. From here on, their future would rest in the hands of the SS. The Irish prisoners arrived in the early morning, and within a few hours had received a savage beating from their SS guards. They were told they would not be protected by the Geneva Convention, or the International Red Cross: they would have no further contact with the outside world.
They had been brought to Farge to work on Project Valentin: code name for an immense bunker where it was planned to construct submarines. The ambition was to build a new U-boat every 56 hours, and the Nazis were prepared to go to any lengths to achieve that objective. During the next two years the Irish seamen joined more than 10,000 slave workers, and were subjected to relentless and back-breaking work. They would witness prisoners shot and beaten to death, and see others die from malnutrition and exhaustion. By the end of the war, almost half of the slave workers were dead.
Five of those who died were Irish prisoners. The first was Patrick Breen, from Blackwater in Co Wexford. It is believed he died after a vicious beating from an SS guard. It is not known what happened to his body, but it seems probable he was buried in a mass grave. Three other Irish seamen died from typhus, which was endemic in the camp.
The last of the Irish prisoners to die was William. According to one of the Irish prisoners, he had been ill for three or four days before the doctor who attended the camp decided to operate on him, on a table in the Irish hut. It had not been sterilised - there was no hot water in the camp - and there was no anaesthetic. In the words of one Irish seaman: "Four of us held him down: one at each shoulder and one on each leg. He was in great pain, and groaned a lot when the doctor cut into him." William survived the operation, but died in the early hours of the following morning.
Within a few weeks of the war ending in Europe, most of the Irish seamen were able to return to Ireland. All were malnourished, and some were seriously ill. However, they were largely ignored by the Irish press, and soon disappeared from public view. Nevertheless, in 1947, four Irish seamen agreed to return to Germany to give evidence against SS personnel on trial for war crimes. Their evidence proved vital in securing convictions for most of those on trial.
No representative of the Irish government attended. In fact, our government was actively opposed to such trials, and lobbied vigorously against them. It is hard not to reach the conclusion that the government was indifferent or negligent in its concern for the Irish citizens held in the slave labour camp. They were, after all, non-combatants from a neutral country, and it was not uncommon for merchant seamen to be repatriated. Our government seems to have been overly concerned that representations might annoy the Nazi regime.
The files that have just been released from the British archives include the handwritten claims made by the Irish prisoners for compensation from the British government. In these claims, the prisoners describe some of the brutal conditions they endured. They refer to inmates being shot or flogged to death, exposure to freezing weather, disease, and "people dying all over the place". James Furlong from Wexford wrote that he spent his years in the camp "always afraid my turn would come".
The initial award made to each prisoner was £1,000, and that was processed with minimum delay. In contrast, the German government did not make any compensation payments until almost 60 years later. By then, almost all of the Irish prisoners were dead.
A few years ago, I visited the Farge Bunker where the Irish prisoners worked. Part of this enormous building has now been converted into a museum, and I was pleased to see that the Irish prisoners are acknowledged as a distinct group of victims of the Nazis. It seems deeply ironic that their suffering is recognised in Germany, but not yet in their own country.