Just two weeks after the fall of France on June 25, 1940, the Brits began to feel the full wrath of Hitler’s fury as the Battle of Britain commenced. Hitler’s Operation Sea Lion called for an invasion and subsequent conquest of Great Britain in the fall of 1940. Before the Germans could hope to move their troops and vehicles across the English Channel they would need to subdue the mighty British Royal Navy, and the only way to do that would be to have control of the air. German control of the air could only be achieved by first wiping out the British Royal Air Force.
From early July until the end of October 1940, German bombers hit British cities, seaports, industry, air bases, and the all-important radar stations, which provided the only effective early warning of incoming enemy planes. Meanwhile, German fighters engaged their British counterparts in harrowing aerial dogfights over the Channel and Britain itself. The 31/2months of aerial combat did not wipe out the RAF or force Britain into submission, but it seemed to come awfully close.
The Irish people, and perhaps even their own government, may not have appreciated just how much intrigue was now swirling around their tiny island. In August 1940, the German high command completed plans for an invasion of Ireland (Operation Green). It called for landing roughly 4,000 troops along an 85-mile stretch of the southern coast between Wexford and Dungarvan.
Even an element of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was convinced that a German victory could end the British “toehold” of Northern Ireland and bring about a united nation. They had developed “Plan Kathleen” and sent it to German Intelligence with the hope that a joint effort between the two would allow each to obtain their primary objective.
German military leaders of all service branches knew these far-fetched plans could only be pulled off if Sea Lion were successful. Many regarded Operation Green as little more than a ruse designed to throw off Allied intelligence regarding Hitler’s planned invasion of Russia.
Still, de Valera knew that while he had reason to be wary of the intentions of both sides, there was every common bond with Britain—especially when compared to Nazi Germany. First, there were between 40,000 and 50,000 Irishmen voluntarily serving in British ranks.
Second, de Valera had advocated as early as 1921 for coordination between Ireland and Britain in regard to their mutual defense. This coordination included Ireland availing its key ports to the British if such an extreme emergency arose. Much to Churchill’s chagrin, de Valera refused to do so during World War II.
The ante was upped in May 1940 after Churchill became prime minister and France was under attack. Malcolm MacDonald, who had served as British Secretary of State for the colonies, was dispatched to Dublin to offer de Valera the six counties of Ireland in exchange for Ireland’s entry into the war as an ally. The catch was that Ireland would be reunited after an Allied victory over Germany.
De Valera never seriously considered the offer. He doubted the Brits would honor the pledge and, even if they did, it would mean a new civil war for Ireland as the Catholic south would have to incorporate the Protestant north into a new nation. All one had to do was to look at what happened to Russia in 1919 to get an idea of where that prospect led. De Valera liked and respected MacDonald but dispatched him with a cheery goodbye.
The Irish cooperated extensively, although not formally, with the Brits throughout the war. They would avail a corridor of their airspace for British use, move decisively to crack down on German and German-leaning IRA espionage, keep the Brits informed of U-boat activity, allow Irishmen (not already serving in the Irish military) to join the British military, agree to return to the British any German prisoners who escaped from POW camps in the north and to black out coastal cities that were obviously being used as navigational points for German bombers headed toward Belfast. (The blackouts, however were normally limited to businesses and did not begin until April 1941.)
In August 1940, the Battle of Britain was at its height, and it seemed to many that Britain would fall. Perhaps for that reason the Germans felt they could afford to be more cavalier about possibly offending Irish neutrality. That month saw the first of several military incidents by the German Luftwaffe involving the Irish.
The Germans had maritime patrol bombers from Kampsgeschwader (KG) 40 attacking Allied merchant shipping along the northwest coast of Ireland. From bases in Trondheim, Norway, and Cognac, France, as well as Amsterdam, the German Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condors flew their missions with near impunity.
On August 20, 1940, a condor from KG 40 was in the process of attacking a freighter (probably the SS Macville) off Blackround Island in County Mayo when it strafed an Irish lighthouse. When two fragmentation bombs dropped from the Condor failed to sink the ship, the German pilot probably swung around to pepper it with machine-gun fire.
In addition to whatever damage the bursts did to the ship, they also shot up some roof shingles and lantern panes on the lighthouse, but no one on the ground was hurt. This apparently did nothing more than raise some eyebrows. It was a mere six days later that something a lot more serious, and seemingly a lot more deliberate, happened.
Irish Lookout Posts (LOPs) in the southeastern part of the country reported at 1:40 pm that two planes, identified minutes later as German Heinkel He-111 bombers, had entered Irish airspace over County Wexford. They had come from over the Irish Sea and were flying relatively low at about 10,000 feet and heading in a northeasterly direction.
Twelve minutes after first being spotted by Irish Defense Force (IDF) observers, the planes circled over the town of Campile after having followed rail lines to their destination. It was a bright, sunny summer’s day providing a clear view to the German pilots as well as to the civilians on the ground.
One plane came in at lower altitude and dropped four 1,000-pound bombs on Duncormick. A private home was damaged, and a railway viaduct was just missed, but no one was hurt. The second Heinkel would have a more lethal effect.
In clear view of numerous civilian witnesses, the second bomber came in near the ground before releasing a bundle of delayed-action bombs. The Campile Creamery was hit, and three young women employed there were killed.
The censors were able to keep the matter out of the news for the most part, but word still got out among the populace.
Some IRA members and other defenders of Germany said it was the RAF using captured German planes and bombs or the result of exhausted German pilots screwing up their navigation. The Heinkel crews would have had to be trained by Wrong Way Corrigan for anything like the latter to have been true. The Germans offered no explanation (what could they possibly say?) but paid £9,000 in compensation three years later.
Some incendiaries and high explosives fell in County Wicklow on October 25, but there were no casualties or serious damage to property. This could be attributed to a crew’s “dumping” ordnance before returning home; bombers of that era did not normally return with anything left from a payload for numerous reasons: pride, fuel conservation, danger to flight crews on landing, and danger to ground personnel having to unload live ordnance. The ocean and open spaces on the ground were often the recipients of unused bombs.
There was also an incident at sea that same year in early December when the Cambria, a large Irish steamer that carried mail back and forth across the Irish Sea, was machine gunned by a German plane 20 minutes after leaving port. Like the bombing in Wicklow almost two months earlier, this too could be reasoned to be unintentional on the part of some German pilot.
The Germans seemed far more deliberate on December 20 when, at 7:26 pm, they dropped two small bombs on the Sandycove train station in Dublin County, injuring three people. A few minutes later and they would have hit a train just pulling into the station. Careful timing? Possibly, and if it was it was certainly the type of precision that the Nazis prided themselves on.
There were, however, three factors regarding this incident that make it difficult to attribute it to mere navigational error or ordnance dumping. First, the dropping of “Molotov chandeliers” had preceded the bombs. Molotov chandeliers (sometimes called “fairy lights” by the Irish) were navigational flares dropped to identify and clearly mark a target before releasing ordnance. Pilots as good as those in the Luftwaffe in late 1940 were hardly apt to make that kind of mistake.
Second, while there was a bombing attack against Liverpool that same night the distance from Liverpool to Dublin is 135 miles, which at cruising speed would take an He 111 roughly 25-30 additional minutes to cover. Any German pilots crossing over Britain and overshooting Liverpool would have noticed as they approached Dublin not only the extended flight time but that the city assigned as a target was not blacked out.