Ireland in World War II: Neutral in Name, But Not in Action

By Brian McGowan

What U.S. Army division first put “boots on the ground” in Europe during the second World War, and where did those boots land? 

Soldiers of the 133rd Infantry Regiment, a unit of the 34th Infantry Division (“Red Bulls”) were the first U.S. troops in Europe following the country’s entry into the war in December 1941. They landed in Ireland.

Of course, when they stepped ashore at Dufferin Quay in Belfast on Jan. 26, 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor, they were in Northern Ireland, whose six counties, part of the United Kingdom, had been at war with the Germans since September 1939. 

Once landed, the division went into training as a commando unit, as well as doing border patrol between Northern Ireland and the “neutral” Irish Free State to the south. The 34th would go on to fight with distinction in the war, and saw major action in North Africa and Italy.

But what of the other 26 counties who shared the island with the North? Partially independent from Britain since 1921, the Irish Free State adopted a policy of neutrality during World War II. Yet, it was a neutrality that clearly favored the Allies.

For centuries, Ireland had provided massive amounts of manpower to Britain. In World War I, the last in which Britain could freely count upon Irish manpower, some 35,000 Irish gave their lives in the trenches of the Western Front. This tradition did not end with the partition of Ireland.

Though Irish Free State policy in World War II was to support neither side, actions spoke louder than words. Downed German airmen or ship-wrecked sailors were interred for the duration, while their Allied counterparts were released and allowed to cross back into British territory to continue the fight.

Airspace was granted for Allied flyovers from the U.S. to Royal Air Force bases.  U.S. planes flying to North Africa used Shannon Airport as a refueling stop. Irish Free State military shared intelligence with their British counterparts, and even formulated a plan for joint military operations if the Germans ever invaded Ireland.

When the Germans bombed Belfast, within hours firefighting personnel and equipment arrived from the Free State to aid their brethren in the North. On the open seas, Irish ships were responsible for rescuing hundreds of Allied sailors and soldiers lost at sea when Allied convoys were struck by German U-boat attacks.

But the greatest indication of the “non-neutrality” of the Irish was the number who stepped up to serve in the British armed forces. From 1939 to 1945, 70,000 citizens of the “neutral” Irish Free State, including two relatives of mine, volunteered to wear the King’s uniform. Along with 50,000 of their compatriots from Northern Ireland, they gave a major boost to Britain at a time when she seemed to be the last bastion of resistance against Hitler and the Nazis. Even the weathermen helped.  Irish weather reports, with predictions based on hours-earlier data, played a huge role in the decisions Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower made regarding when to launch the D-Day landings.

Not all groups were aligned with the Free State’s official stance, nor with the “look the other way” actuality of events. The Irish Republican Army, in particular, continually sought a confrontation between Ireland and Britain. DeValera lost no time in interring some 5,000 IRA members early on in the war, and they remained locked up for the duration.

With the war over, the memory of Irish contributions to the Allies was quickly forgotten, and the common perception evolved that the Irish had somehow “sat out” the war. Ireland’s application to join the United Nations in 1945 was blocked, not by Britain, which fully supported it, but by the Soviet Union. It would be 10 years before Ireland, by then freed of any formal association with the British Empire and known as she is today as the Republic of Ireland, would be allowed to join.

Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at brian.m.mcgowan1952@gmail.com or on Twitter @Bmcgowan52M. He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at Amazon.com.

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