Next Tuesday marks the origins of an American conspiracy to depict Éamon de Valera and his government as morally indifferent to the outcome of the Second World War. Historian and authorargues that false claims about neutrality have produced possibly the greatest distortion of Irish history since independence.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Ireland was virtually defenceless, and taoiseach Éamon de Valera was in no position to allow the British to use naval bases at Cobh and Berehaven that had been valuable to the Royal Navy during the First World War. De Valera did secretly assure the British he would provide all the help he could, short of war.
Winston Churchill, who was put in charge of the Royal Navy as first lord of the admiralty, kicked up a fuss in cabinet over the denial of Irish bases after a German U-boat sunk the battleship Royal Oak at anchor in Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands off the north-east coast of Scotland, on October 15, 1939.
Some 833 sailors, many of them trainee cadets, went down with the ship. Churchill railed against the Irish refusal to allow the Royal Navy to use Irish bases — even though those could not have helped to protect Scapa Flow against German U-boats.
“The time has come to make it clear to the Irish government that we must have the use of these harbours, and intend in any case to use them,” insisted Churchill.
Prime minister Neville Chamberlain warned, however, that seizing the Irish bases “would have most unfortunate repercussion in the United States”. Churchill was already acutely conscious of the US situation, so he was probably only blustering as a diversionary tactic to distract the attention of cabinet colleagues from the Royal Oak disaster.
In the two years before the US formally entered the war in 1941, the Irish authorised extraordinary secret co-operation with Britain. They agreed that Ireland’s only cable link with the continent would be limited to a cable passing through England.
Even though no efforts were made to restrict British diplomats using radio transmitters, in Ireland, the German legation was compelled to surrender its radio transmitter, with the result its only direct means of communicating with the continent was via the cable passing through Britain.
A system was set up whereby any belligerent sightings by Irish lookout posts (LOPs) around the coast were reported to Dublin by radio on an agreed frequency. The Germans were free to listen in. German forces were too far away to use that information, but the British were close enough to act. Later, at the request of the British, the reports from the LOPs were transmitted in a code that was secretly supplied by the British. Thus, the LOPs were essentially reporting directly to Britain and Dublin at the same time.
The British were allowed set up radar stations on the Cork and Donegal coasts, and the Royal Navy was allowed station a seaplane at Foynes to look for German submarines, while an armed admiralty tug was based in Killybegs, Co Donegal, for air-sea rescue purposes. The British sailors had to cover the ship’s gun and wear civilian clothes while in port. The Irish indicated that the same facility could possibly be provided in Cobh, or Berehaven, if the British wished, but they never followed up on this.
After the fall of France in mid-1940, the stationing of German aircraft in France rendered the sea route around the south of England too vulnerable to German air attack, so British shipping went via Northern Ireland. Thus the southern Irish bases were of no real value to the British, who already had the use of sea bases in Northern Ireland. They also had a base for seaplanes on Lough Erne which proved invaluable for seaplanes searching for German submarines in the north Atlantic.
De Valera facilitated the British by allowing their aircraft to fly directly to the Atlantic over what was called the Donegal corridor. This was just another of the many ways in which de Valera implemented his promise to provide all possible help short of declaring war.
In February 1943, John D Kearney, the Canadian high commissioner to Ireland, suggested to his government that if US president Franklin D Roosevelt asked for Irish bases, De Valera “might be influenced in favour of acceding to the request”.
John Maffey, the British representative to Ireland, liked the idea, and David Gray, US wartime minister to Ireland, was positively enthusiastic.
When Maffey raised the issue in London, Clement Attlee, the acting prime minister in Churchill’s absence abroad, opposed taking any chance of de Valera complying with such a request. Attlee warned foreign secretary Anthony Eden on March 5, 1943, that Irish bases would “probably” be more trouble than the facilities were worth.
Paradoxically the British belittled the value of Irish bases while the Allies were in the midst of their gravest crisis in the Atlantic. The Germans had stepped up their submarine campaign, and the admiralty later recorded that “the Germans never came so near to disrupting communication between the New World and the Old as in the first 20 days of March 1943”. More than 80 Allied ships were sunk that month.
Unlike Maffey and Kearney, Gray did not think De Valera would ever hand over Irish bases, but he liked the idea of such a request as means of discrediting the Irish leader. Gray went to the US and explained his views to both Roosevelt and Churchill over dinner at the president’s home in Hyde Park, New York, on August 14, 1943.
He realised the Allies no longer desired Irish bases, but he suggested Roosevelt should ask for them anyway in order to get a formal refusal, so this could afterwards be used to discredit de Valera as having supposedly been indifferent to the Allied cause when his help was needed.
Roosevelt and Churchill seemed to think they should discredit De Valera to ensure he could not cause Anglo-American difficulties over the partition question issue after the war. Gray was therefore told to draft a letter for Roosevelt to send to de Valera, and the president and Churchill would then consider it.
Gray submitted this draft letter two days later. It began by highlighting American aid to Ireland, such as allowing the Irish to charter the two American ships — that became known as the Irish Oak and the Irish Pine. They also supplied $500,000 worth of medical supplies to Ireland, and permitted the Irish to purchase American products such as wheat, cotton, and steel.
“Thanks to this policy of friendship and supply,” the note continued, “normal standards of living have been less impaired in Éire as the result of war than in any other country in Europe.”
The proposed letter went on to complain that the Dublin government had protested against the American use of bases in Northern Ireland and had permitted the Irish newspapers to publish protests against the US presence in the six counties, while it censored items critical of Germany for bombing Ireland. Moreover, the Irish had allowed Axis diplomats to remain in Ireland, thereby affording them a tremendous opportunity of spying on Allied war efforts.
While the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt, Gray advocated that Roosevelt would suggest that Ireland could “play a notable and honourable part in contributing to the shortening of its duration by leasing us bases for the protection of the Atlantic supply lines and by the elimination of Axis spy centres on Éire territory”.
The whole thing would be essentially a propaganda exercise. “The note is composed primarily for the American public and designed to reveal to them how generously Éire has been treated and how little the government of Éire had done in return for the people of America,” Gray explained in a covering letter.
Roosevelt was apparently amenable, but he ran into strong opposition from the state department, the chiefs of staff, and the office of strategic services (OSS), which was the wartime precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency. All felt De Valera had been so helpful that he might hand over the bases, and they were convinced those would actually be a liability to the Allied war effort.
Churchill ran into similar opposition when he returned to Britain, so asking for Irish bases was dropped. Gray then pressed for Roosevelt to ask for the removal of the German diplomats from Dublin on the grounds they would be an espionage threat to the forthcoming Allied invasion of Europe.
For a time in late 1943, it might have seemed that there were solid grounds for such suspicions. The OSS got hold of an invaluable cache of German foreign office documents, which raised alarm.
General William J Donovan, the head of the OSS, informed the White House “that a great deal of information pertaining to Allied activities in England and Ulster comes from the German embassy in Dublin. The legation which is heavily staffed has succeeded in infiltrating agents into England.”
German diplomats in Dublin had identified 600 air installations in England. Carter Nicholas, the head of the Éire Desk at OSS headquarters, noted that it “looked to me at first as though there was a serious leak from Éire”. The OSS promptly shared this alarming information with its British counterpart, MI5, but the British explained that the reports from Dublin
were part of a British deception plan. MI5 had been feeding misinformation to the German legation. In an effort to ensure that the Germans believed the distorted information, the material was buried in a wealth of accurate information that the Germans already knew.
When MI5 explained the situation, Nicholas realised that the Irish security “situation was even better under control that I had previously thought”.
MI5 feared that the proposed American note demanding the expulsion of Axis diplomats from Dublin would actually endanger Allied security, as the Allies had already broken the German codes and were reading all the messages from the legation in Dublin. If the diplomats were expelled, however, the Germans might infiltrate a useful spy.
The OSS knew the American note of February 21, 1944, was just a political ruse. The note was duly published on March 10. As this was the week leading up to St Patrick’s Day, the news ignited a firestorm of criticism in the US press.
Ireland was denounced as indifferent to the lives of American soldiers, and even Irish-American boys.
To ensure that Roosevelt was aware of the true situation, General Donovan wrote to him on March 30, 1944, outlining the details of secret Irish security co-operation.
“The co-operation in intelligence matters offered and given by the Irish has been very full. It should be pointed out that we did not offer the Irish information in return and have given them little,” Donovan explained.
“Since the delivery of the American note, the Irish offered their prompt co-operation in adopting whatever security measures may be recommended by us.”
While the public controversy seriously tarnished de Valera’s international image, it greatly strengthened his political standing at home. Fianna Fáil had lost its overall majority in June 1943, but in the wake of the controversy over the note, De Valera called a general election in May 1944 and was returned with a record overall majority of 19 seats.
He and his government were widely credited with keeping Ireland out of the war.
Gray persisted with his efforts to discredit De Valera right up to the end of the war. On April 30, 1945, he presented the taoiseach with another formal note, this time requesting permission for the US to seize the German legation in Dublin in order to get hold of German codes in case some U-boats tried to continue the war in the Atlantic. The whole thing was absurd. Who would supply the U-boats? Anyway, the Allies already had the German codes.
Gray was told the Americans could only seize the German legation after Germany formally surrendered. On learning hours later of the death of Hitler, De Valera formally proffered his condolence to Eduard Hempel, the German minister to Ireland.
The taoiseach never tried to defend his actions publicly, but he did explain his reasons to Robert Brennan, the Irish minister in Washington.
“During the whole of the war,” De Valera wrote, “Dr Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. He was always friendly and invariably correct — in marked contrast with Gray. I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in the hour of defeat.”
The gesture was an expression of respect for Hempel, not Hitler. But it was a political mistake, because it played into Gray’s hands, bolstering his twisted efforts to convince people that De Valera was secretly sympathetic to the Nazis.
De Valera’s international image was therefore seriously tarnished, and Irish neutrality was further distorted as a result. Indeed, the true nature of that neutrality had been distorted ever since.
Some misguided historians have argued that Ireland could have done more to help the Allies, such as leasing them bases or expelling the Axis diplomats from Ireland. But both the British and American military, naval, and intelligence people believed those measures would have impaired Allied war efforts. Even at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, the British concluded that Irish bases would have been a liability. Maybe the government could have conscripted young men to fight alongside Allied forces but that would have been a betrayal of Irish democracy.
John D Kearney, the Canadian representative in Dublin, concluded that the Irish government had demonstrated it was prepared to give all possible help short of war. The Allies did not want Ireland in the war, so de Valera effectively gave the Allies all possible help.
- T Ryle Dwyer is author of Behind the Green Curtain: Ireland’s Phony Neutrality During World War II, published by Gill Books.