Geoffrey Roberts


In service to their country: Moving tales of Irishmen who fought in WWII

The stories of Irishmen who served in WWII are deeply moving says Geoffrey Roberts

In service to their country: Moving tales of Irishmen who fought in WWII

THE amazing story of Dr Aidan MacCarthy, the West Cork medic who survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in August 1945, has once again captured the imagination.

Dr MacCarthy, a graduate of University College Cork, joined the RAF in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War. He enlisted on a short-service commission to further his medical career but remained in the RAF for 30 years, eventually rising to the rank of air commodore.

Dr MacCarthy published his memoirs in 1979. Although he died in 1995 his story is now retold in a documentary film currently showing in Irish cinemas. A Doctor’s Sword takes as its motif the samurai sword given to him by the Japanese commandant whose surrender he accepted when the war ended in Japan’s defeat.

Dr MacCarthy first saw action in France and was among hundreds of thousands of allied troops evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940. His ship was torpedoed in the Channel but he made it back to England. In 1941 he was awarded the George medal for bravery in helping to rescue aircrew from a burning crashed bomber.

After being sent to the Far East, he was captured by the Japanese in 1942 and imprisoned on the island of Java. Then, in 1944, the ship transporting him to Japan to become a slave labourer was sunk by the Americans. Many hundreds of prisoners of war died when this and other prison ships were torpedoed and bombed. Dr MacCarthy was rescued from the sea by an enemy destroyer but the Japanese crew were so brutal he jumped overboard and was later rescued by a Japanese fishing boat. He eventually ended up in a POW camp in Nagasaki and was in an air-raid shelter when the bomb was dropped. He emerged to witness the utter devastation caused by the atomic blast.

While Dr MacCarthy’s story is incredible it is only one of many remarkable accounts of what happened to the Irishmen and women who chose to serve in the British armed forces during the Second World War. The Irish state was officially neutral but Britain owed a huge debt to the Irish people who fought on the Allied side. Some 70,000 citizens of Ireland served in the British armed forces during the war, together with another 50,000 from Northern Ireland.

Dr Aidan MacCarthy

The volunteers’ reasons for joining up were many and varied: Adventure, employment, money, family tradition, a sense of patriotic duty.

Explicit political motives for volunteering did not figure prominently but volunteers believed they were fighting on the right side of a just war against Hitler and the Nazis. While most volunteers supported Irish neutrality they identified themselves as patriots coming to the defence of Ireland as well as Britain.

The playwright Denis Johnston, who served as a BBC war correspondent, noted in his diary in April 1942: “It is my belief in Ireland’s neutrality that has so largely sent me forth. Only those who are prepared to go into this horrible thing themselves have the right to say that Ireland must stay out.”

The Irish volunteers went to fight in all theatres of the war and served in every branch of the armed forces: as seamen in the Battle of the Atlantic and on the Arctic convoys to Russia; as aircrew in the Battle of Britain and the bomber offensive against Germany; as soldiers in Europe, Africa and Asia.

During the 1914-18 First World War, when the whole of Ireland was officially at war, there were three Irish divisions. There were no Irish divisions during the Second World War but several Irish units were brought together to create the 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade, which fought in north Africa, Sicily and Italy.

Chief of the O’Donovan clan, The O’Donovan, became the first commander of the Irish Brigade and did much to establish its Irish identity, including compiling a songbook of favourites such as ‘The Soldier’s Song’, ‘The Wearing of the Green’, and ‘The Minstrel Boy’.

O’Donovan’s successor as Brigade Commander was Nelson Russell, a native of Co Antrim.

Many top British commanders during the war were Ireland-born or of Irish heritage. Tim Pile, the chief of Britain’s anti-aircraft defences was a Dubliner. General Richard O’Connor, whose family came from Offaly, was the first and — many would argue — the best commander of the Western Desert Force in north Africa. Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir John Dill was born in Northern Ireland as was his successor Sir Alan Brooke.


The Irish Brigade was British prime minister Winston Churchill’s idea. Churchill was actively hostile to Irish neutrality and pressed Ireland to join the war on Britain’s side. In May 1945 he berated Taoiseach Éamon de Valera for “frolicking” with the Germans and the Japanese during the war and unfavourably contrasted de Valera’s actions with those of the “thousands of southern Irishmen, who hastened to the battlefront to prove their ancient valour”.

One such Irishman whom Churchill praised was lieutenant-commander Eugene Esmonde, born in Yorkshire but brought up in Co Tipperary where his family came from. Having decided the priesthood was not for him, Esmonde joined the RAF. During the war he served in the Fleet Air Arm and in March 1941 led six Swordfish torpedo planes in an attack on German battleships returning to their home port after conducting devastatingly destructive raids on merchant shipping in the Atlantic. The attack came under heavy fire from the battleships and their German escort fighters. All the Swordfish were shot down. Among the dead was Esmonde, posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross (VC).

Some 5,000 Irish volunteers were killed during the Second World War and many thousands more wounded. Compared with the 35,000 Irish who perished in the First World War this was a low number of casualties but for a small country it constituted a substantial sacrifice and a significant contribution to the Allied cause.


Brendan Finucane, another favourite of Churchill’s, was one of the RAF’s top air aces and at the age of 21 its youngest ever wing commander. Churchill hoped that Finucane would lead an Irish unit in the RAF, to be known as the Shamrock Wing, but the Dubliner was shot down and killed in July 1942.

A total of eight VCs — Britain’s highest decoration for valour in the armed forces — were awarded to Irish servicemen during the war.


The last went to Mick Maggenis, Northern Ireland’s only VC of the war. In July 1945, Maggenis was the diver on a midget submarine ordered to attack a Japanese cruiser guarding Singapore Harbour. As a frogman Maggenis’s job was to attach limpet mines to the hull of the cruiser. On the way back from the mission the sub had problems and was only saved by an exhausted Maggenis going again to swim outside to remove the sub’s mine carrier that was creating an obstruction.

Like Esmonde and Finucane, Maggenis was Catholic but he was not welcome in the nationalist community of his native west Belfast, where he was seen as having been brave for Britain not for Ireland. He was spurned by Northern Protestants, too, who were keen to play down the Catholic contribution to the British war effort when, in truth, it had been as extensive as their own. Not until 1999 was a memorial in Maggenis’s honour erected in Belfast.

Most of the Irish volunteers received no awards for bravery nor did they expect any, for their heroism was of ordinary people doing their duty in extraordinary circumstances.


Larry O’Sullivan from Youghal was in the same Japanese labour camp as Dr Aidan MacCarthy and witnessed both atomic bomb attacks. On August 6, 1945 O’Sullivan emerged from his nightshift in a coalmine and viewed the mushroom cloud spreading above Hiroshima. Three days later, when it was Nagasaki’s turn, O’Sullivan saw the flash and felt the shockwave of an explosion which killed 40,000 people.

He had joined the Royal Navy in 1937, blessed with the parting words of his Auntie Nora, who instructed him to say his prayers every night and to never talk to the English.

As a gunnery rating, O’Sullivan saw action in the Atlantic, the North Sea, the Indian Ocean and the English Channel. He was among the last to leave his ship, the destroyer Afridi, before it was sunk by the Germans during the ill-fated Norwegian campaign of April 1940. Auntie Nora was of course convinced it was his prayers that caused him to be saved.

When he was home on leave, O’Sullivan recalled: “There was an atmosphere of blatant unreality, a gross indifference, by the locals, to the death and destruction taking place just beyond the horizon. Nations may fight against nations, populations may be locked in mortal combat on a score of bloody battlefields — in Cork there was a far more pressing problem: the ‘tay pot’,” — the shortage of tea caused by rationing!

O’Sullivan’s final wartime assignment was aboard HMS Exeter, a cruiser famous for taking part in the December 1939 Battle of the River Plate on the border between Argentina and Uruguay. It had fought the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, which was than scuttled by its captain in the harbour of the Uruguayan capital Montevideo. The Exeter was later sunk during a ferocious battle with the Japanese navy in the Java Sea in February 1942 and O’Sullivan was taken prisoner.

As a POW, O’Sullivan was subject to medical experiments conducted by the Japanese which resulted in his arm becoming dangerously infected. The Japanese wanted to amputate but Aidan MacCarthy managed to persuade them otherwise. His arm was saved.

O’Sullivan suffered from post-traumatic stress after the war, but there was a happy ending to his story. He went in search of a nurse he had met while going home for leave during the war. His encounter with Bridie Lordan from Clonakilty had been brief but O’Sullivan was smitten. He tracked Bridie to London and proposed to her six month later. In April 1947 they married in Oxford. O’Sullivan remained in the Royal Navy until 1971 but returned to Ireland and settled in Clonakilty.


Romie Lambkin was among the hundreds of Irish women who volunteered to serve in the British forces as nurses and auxiliaries. Lambkin joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1941.

“Even if Éire is staying neutral I am not,” she recorded in her diary. “I don’t want to be left out of world-shaking events — the Battle of Britain decided me on that — and I do want to be in uniform and driving all sorts of exciting people instead of being cooped up in a ghastly boring office behind the Four Courts.”

Lambkin spent most of the war in Northern Ireland, where she did indeed have an exciting time. She was then posted to Europe at the end of the war, where she was able to witness scenes of jubilation in Brussels on VE day. After the war she worked for the Allied Control Commission in Germany and was stationed in Berlin during the famous airlift operation designed to break the Soviet blockade of the city.


Jack Harte, a child of the Dublin tenements, came from a family with a tradition of military service. Aged 16 he joined the British army but was too short to join the Irish Guards so instead joined Royal Irish Fusiliers. Harte first saw action during the Palestinian national revolt of 1938. During the war he served in the Special Boat Section — the Royal Marines’ equivalent of the SAS — and, in 1943, was captured during a raid on the Greek island of Leros. He spent the rest of the war as a POW.

As a young man Harte had not been particularly political but after the war he worked in the Guinness brewery and became a trade union and labour activist. In 1973 he was elected as a Labour senator to the Seanad. In 1985 he and Michael Bell proposed be a national day of commemoration for the Irish dead of all wars, now an important annual event.


Sean Deegan wanted to join the Irish army but was turned away because he was too young, so he joined the RAF. His father had fought in the First World War yet his mother’s younger brother had been killed fighting in the GPO in 1916.

Deegan’s job in the RAF was to locate and salvage crashed allied aircraft. In Europe after D- Day he decided to visit the German concentration camp at Belsen as he was sceptical about reports of the Nazi mass murder of the Jews, which he believed must have been exaggerated by Allied propaganda. He was horrified by what he saw. “I couldn’t shake off the smell of death I experienced that day.” After the war Deegan became a Franciscan monk — Br Columbanus. For decades he refused to talk about his war experiences but made them public in 1994 on the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. In the 1990s he was consultant to Stephen Spielberg, when he filmed the D-Day sequences of Saving Private Ryan in Co Wexford.


Michael D’Alton, a chartered quantity surveyor, joined the Royal Navy in 1943. “By the time I did I was thoroughly convinced Hitler was a menace who had to be resisted,” he recalled. He served as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve and on D-Day commanded a landing craft ferrying American Sherman tanks to the beaches of Normandy.

In January 2015, at the age of 93, the French government awarded him the légion d’honneur. He accepted the honour on the “clear understanding” that it was not for him alone, but for the “tens of thousands of Allied servicemen who served on D-Day”.

A self-confessed “West Brit”, D’Alton nevertheless agreed with Irish neutrality and believed if Ireland had joined the war on the allied side it would have been counter- productive. He said had the Allies invaded Ireland he would have resigned his commission.


Dr Richard Barry, another UCC medical graduate, also went to Britain in search of work. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1940, partly because he was half-British but also because he felt “that you can’t go to Britain and get jobs, which I did, and worked in and around London, and see England get into difficulties and not lend a hand to help her”. Barry served in Norway, India, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and Italy.

He understood the arguments in favour of Irish neutrality but thought it wrong: “I don’t feel cross about it, I think it was a mistake.” After the war he became a lecturer and then UCC professor of paediatrics and played an important role in the development of paediatric services at Cork University Hospital.

Larry O’Sullivan, Romie Lambkin, Jack Harte, Sean Deegan, Michael D’Alton, and Richard Barry all returned to Ireland after the war. But most of the volunteers decided not to return home to a country where they knew they would not be warmly welcomed. The volunteers were viewed as an embarrassment, as people who had transgressed the official policy of neutrality and who embodied multiple identities and complex loyalties.

Yet, for the most part, those who returned were not treated badly although for decades after the war they were written out of Irish history. By the 1990s, the context had changed not least because of the start of the peace process in Northern Ireland and the volunteers were rehabilitated and claimed as authentic Irish heroes who had fought in a just war against Nazi tyranny.

In 2013 the government even pardoned the soldiers who had deserted from the Irish army to go and fight for Britain. It was a controversial decision but one that won the support of all political parties as well as a broad consensus in society.

The volunteers left Ireland to fight for a different country but experienced their loyal service to Britain as making them feel more Irish and patriotic. A marginal and isolated group in the 1940s, the Irish volunteers of World War Two now stand as a symbol of the complexity, diversity and pluralism of 21st century Ireland.

Apart from Michael D’Alton, all the volunteers profiled are dead. However, the memories of their experiences have been preserved in The Volunteers Project archive at UCC, a project established 20 years ago to collect oral testimony from surviving Irish veterans of the war.

The taped interviews were conducted by Tina Neylon, former literary editor of The Irish Examiner and herself the daughter of two veterans who met during the war. The volunteers are also fortunate to have attracted the attention of talented historians such as Richard Doherty, Brian Girvin, Bernard Kelly and Steven O’Connor, who have all written great books about them.

Geoffrey Roberts is professor of history at UCC

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