VE Day 75 years later: the Irish part in Second World War victory is largely unwritten

Thousands of Irish men and women fought for victory over Nazi Germany, writes Dan Harvey.

Men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, part of the British Expeditionary Force sent to France after war was declared, march down a wet road at Gavrelle, near Arras, October 17, 1939. The two men in the foreground are carrying a 14.3mm Boys antitank rifle.
Men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, part of the British Expeditionary Force sent to France after war was declared, march down a wet road at Gavrelle, near Arras, October 17, 1939. The two men in the foreground are carrying a 14.3mm Boys antitank rifle.

Today, Friday May 8th 2020, marks the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, the day the war in Europe was won by the Allies. When we think of World War Two today, it is from the perspective that its history was written with the luxury of knowing that Nazi Germany was defeated. 

For those whose weighty responsibility it was to have to persecute, fight, and win the war, they did so denied such knowledge until the desired end state became the actual outcome.

This written history, many versions of which have been published, has not yet included among its many volumes one presenting the perspective of the Irish involvement.

So little-mentioned, rarely-remembered, and poorly-appreciated are John O’Neill (Bere Island, Co. Cork), John Alexander Clements (Tullyhogue, Co Tyrone), and William Robert McClintock Bunbury (Co Carlow), along with dozens, hundreds, thousands more from Ireland. 

It is conservatively estimated that 120,000 Irishmen fought for Britain during World War Two alone, and within that figure, astonishingly, there actually were more from ’’neutral’’ Ireland, than from ’’loyal’’ Northern Ireland. 

’’Ed’’ Ryan (Cork St., Dublin) was in American uniform, other Irish were in Canadian, Australian and New Zealand uniforms. It has not been until recent times that these people were recognised in Ireland, and scant regard paid, even now, to the Irish war workers in England.

Officially, politically, Ireland was neutral during the war. Practically, militarily, it was not. Many among those who fought were perfectly happy with that stance, but for them, joining up to fight in the armies of the Allies was, they felt, the best way to defend Ireland, and the only way to stop Hitler.

World War Two was the deadliest conflict in human history and the Irish played their part, but this has still to become part of the narrative here in Ireland. 

At the very start of the war, on 4 September 1939, the day after hostilities began, 23-year-old pilot officer William Murphy, the son of William and Katherine Murphy of Mitchelstown, Co Cork, was shot down and killed as he led a wave of RAF bombers in an attack on the German naval port of Wilhelmshaven. 

All four were lost. The only survivor was Irishman Laurence Slattery of Thurles, Co Tipperary. William Murphy’s death was thus both the first Irish and British death of World War Two, while Laurence Slattery became the first and longest-serving western World War Two prisoner of war. 

Undated picture of allied troops arriving on a Normandy beach during the D-Day landings in June 1944. As shells exploded overhead and German snipers tried to pick off the advancing commandos, Private William Millin (piper) was told to play Highland Laddie, Blue Bonnets Over the Border and Our Road to the Isles.
Undated picture of allied troops arriving on a Normandy beach during the D-Day landings in June 1944. As shells exploded overhead and German snipers tried to pick off the advancing commandos, Private William Millin (piper) was told to play Highland Laddie, Blue Bonnets Over the Border and Our Road to the Isles.

There, from the start of the war, the Irish were present all throughout, and there for its very end when Kay Summersby (nee McCarthy-Morrogh) from Inish Beg House, Baltimore, Co Cork, as a staff member of Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force US General Dwight D Eisenhower, was present and photographed in an Allied Army Group at the formal surrender of the Germans. 

Little or none of this is taught in schools in Ireland, widely known in the public domain, nor fully appreciated at large. Those who fought deserve better.

John O’Neill, Ardagh East, Bere Island, Co Cork, lived a short life, fought hard, died a violent death and is largely forgotten except by his loving family. He and those like him, deserve better.

"Dear Sister,

Just a short note to let you know I am OK and in the best of health, hoping all at home are the same. I have not had any letter from home since Mother’s dated 15th.

I have just come from the front line for a rest. We are glad of it too, just to get away from all the noise, etc., but we are getting used to it now.

We are having a good clean up at this rest place. I had a smashing beard on, I thought it a pity to shave it off, we are also expecting some form of amusement, films or something.

Well, Mary, I am sorry I can’t write much, as there is nothing really to say from here, in any case I expect you get all the news in the papers, such as it is. How is everything going in the old country these days? I have seen nothing to compare with it yet, what I would give to set foot on it right now.

Give my best regards to all at home, friends also, all the boys. Good luck and God bless you all. Write soon, if you have any snaps of the family send them along if allowed.

Your loving brother,

John"

John O’Neill, No 2 Machine Gun Company, Worcestershire and Northumberland Fusiliers was killed in the later fighting, aged 29, and is buried at Overloon War Cemetery Holland.

Post D-Day, with the Allies on the newly created Second Front driving fast eastwards beyond Paris, and the Russians on the ’’Eastern Front’’ pressing westwards, the fervour of the fascist Nazi regime remained undiminished. 

For the Third Reich, it was intolerable to believe they must concede. Military logic dictated they end the war after the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944, instead they did not surrender and subsequently the levels of hostility, brutality, and terror increased.

Operation Market Garden, 17 - 26 September 1944. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery’s attempted daring seizure of a backdoor route through Holland into Germany sadly stumbled at Arnhem and unfortunately became a tragic failure . 

Hitler, far from defensive-minded, organised an offensive strike back three months later, achieving surprise at the Ardennes in Belgium (16 December 1944 - 25 January 1945) but after initial gains was eventually defeated, the Allied counter-offensive taking a heavy toll of Americans.

Thereafter, resistance to the Allied advances across Europe first towards, then inside Germany was intensively escalated. Every inch of the Fatherland was bitterly contested. With the Allies in their thousands, were the Irish.

Kay Summersby, an Irish woman from County Cork, worked as a driver for US President Dwight Eisenhower.
Kay Summersby, an Irish woman from County Cork, worked as a driver for US President Dwight Eisenhower.

We, the Irish, have ourselves neglected to unearth our countrymen and women from the corners of Irish history and transport them back to the D-Day beaches, to the bridge at Arnhem, to the frozen landscapes in the Ardennes at the Battle of the Bulge, to the crossing of the River Rhine, to the unimaginable horrors of Bergen Belsen and Buchenwald concentration camps and finally to the ruinous Battle of Berlin.

While there was no one ’Irish narrative’ in World War Two, there most certainly was a comprehensive narrative of Irish individuals, and it’s time we paid due tribute to their significant contribution. Their courage, efforts and sacrifices helped to bring victory to Europe 75 years ago.

It’s time we ourselves in Ireland formally acknowledge and understand we Irish played our part in that victory, and that we can stand proud among other European nations for our contribution in granting freedom, restoring liberal democracy, and allowing future generations, including us, to live lives free from Nazi tyranny.

Dan Harvey, Lieutenant Colonel (retd), is author of the soon to be released ’’A Bloody Victor - The Irish at War’s End, Europe 1945’’, published by Irish Academic Press/Merrion Press.

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