The night German war planes bombed Dublin

Ireland was officially neutral in the Second World War but, 75 years ago today, German bombers brought the blitz to Dublin. Ryle Dwyer asks if it was error or conspiracy, and shows how the incident shines a light on our young nation’s complex relationships with the Allied and Axis powers

The night German war planes bombed Dublin

Two German aircraft bombed Dublin shortly after midnight on May 31, 1941. They had apparently become disorientated while on a bombing mission over either the Mersey, or the Bristol area, both of which were bombed that night.

About 30 German aircraft were sighted around Dublin. The first plane arrived shortly after midnight. A flare was sent up to denote neutral territory, but the plane dropped a bomb off the North Circular Road; it fell on soft waste ground and did little more than excavate a huge crater.

Other bombs were dropped in the Phoenix Park, where they caused great excitement among the animals in Dublin Zoo.

Most damage was done by another aircraft, which dropped four bombs in the North Stand area, leaving a 1,000-yard swathe of destruction, and killing 28 people with hundreds injured.

Twenty houses were demolished, and some 55 others rendered virtually uninhabitable. More than 400 people were left homeless.

The bombs were promptly identified as German and a diplomatic protest was lodged in Berlin.

The Germans explained in reply that if their aircraft were responsible it was an accident as “there can be no question of any intentional attack on Éire territory”,

“Nazi planes dropped their loads of death over a wide area of Dublin, killing and wounding more than a hundred people,” Pathé News, the movie house newsreel, reported.

“The Éire Government has protested to Berlin against the wanton attack on their professed neutrality — but unfortunately protests will not bring back the dead or heal the wounds of the injured! Maybe this is the price that Éire has to pay for sitting on the fence.”

Taoiseach Éamon de Valera made no effort to rouse public passions.

“I don’t think de Valera is going to change his line unless forced to do so,” David Gray, the US representative in Dublin, wrote to president Franklin D Roosevelt on June 9, 1941.

“He has deliberately passed up the chance to excite anti-German feeling over the recent bombing. He has in fact clamped down on expression of anti-German feeling. He either has an understanding with the Germans on which he relies or, what is more likely, he is blindly taking the thousand-to-one chance that he can escape involvement.”

De Valera had secretly been providing just about all the help he could give to the Allies, but Gray persistently ignored this.

He had, for instance, recently agreed to allow the British to fly directly over Donegal to and from their airbase on Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh.

Moreover, in June 1941, just days after the bombing of Dublin, the Irish government made another secret concession, allowing the Royal Navy to station the Robert Hastie in Killybegs, Co Donegal, for air-sea rescue purposes.

It was an armed tugboat with a crew of 11. The crew wore Royal Navy uniforms at sea, but they donned civilian clothes in port.

Joseph Walshe, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, suggested to John Maffey, the British ambassador, that the Royal Navy could station a similar boat at Cobh or Berehaven.

The British seemingly never followed up on this, suggesting that they really did not want those facilities, as the sea route south of Ireland was so vulnerable to attack from German aircraft based in France that it was virtually unusable. The strategic value of those southern ports was grossly exaggerated.

Nonetheless, an English language broadcast from Germany in early May 1941 warned that the London government was so anxious to get hold of Irish ports that “the British intend to bomb Eire and then declare this crime was committed by Germany”.

Hence there was speculation that the British were actually responsible for the bombing, or that the Germans had done so in order to blame the British.

The reason for the bombing had never been explained, but there have been plenty of theories. One theory was that the British had “bent” the radio beams that the Germans were using to locate their targets.

The British were certainly trying to interfere with those radio signals. It was therefore possible that some of the German aircraft involved in bombing Bristol or Liverpool had become disorientated and arrived over Dublin.

It was a clear night, and Dublin was lit up, so it should not have been mistaken for a British city, which were all blacked out.

No evidence has been found among German documents to suggest that the bombing was a deliberate attack on Dublin.

There were suggestions that the bombing was a revenge attack for the role of the Dublin and Dundalk fire brigades in going to Belfast to help fight the fires there following the German bombing of the city a month earlier. Lord Haw Haw had denounced, on German radio, the role of the southern fire brigades in Belfast.

It was significant, however, that Edouard Hempel, the German minister to Ireland, never objected. In fact, he adopted an understanding and distinctly sympathetic approach to the role of the southern fire brigades.

“It was a deed of sympathy for your people, your Irish people,” Hempel said, “and we fully understand what you felt. Your own people were in danger.”

His attitude helps to explain de Valera’s subsequent gesture at the end of the war, in proffering condolence to Hempel following the death of Hitler. De Valera had no sympathy for Hitler; his gesture was directed towards Hempel.

Only hours before learning of the death of Hitler, de Valera had a heated meeting with Gray, who upbraided him for supposedly doing nothing to help the Allies during the war.

De Valera was possibly still smarting at the contemptible and distorted arrogance of the American representative. He never did try to explain his actions publicly, but he did write to Robert Brennan, the Irish minister to the US.

“During the whole of the war, Dr Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable,” de Valera wrote. “He was always and invariably correct — in marked contrast with Gray. I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in the hour of defeat.”

Germany ultimately accepted responsibility for the Dublin bombing. In 1958, the Bonn government paid £327,000 in compensation for the destruction of life and property.

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