Big Read: The Irish of Dunkirk

Many Cork and Irish lives were lost in the Battle of France, writes Damian Shiels

Last week saw the cinematic release of Dunkirk, the new Christopher Nolan epic set against the backdrop of the 1940 British military evacuation from France.

It is a rare moment in the spotlight for this ‘glorious defeat’, so often overshadowed by the war’s later events such as D-Day.

While the majority of the film’s cast are British, the production has notable Irish interest with the presence of Cillian Murphy and Barry Keoghan.

Their participation offers an opportunity to recall the many real-life Irish who gave their lives during those tumultuous weeks of May and June 1940.

The Commonwealth Wargraves Commission records almost 80 men associated with Ireland’s 26 counties who lost their lives during the Battle of France.

There are many, many more whose memorials bear no indication of their Irish birth.

The majority hailed from Cork and Dublin — as do Murphy and Keoghan — and many had elected to serve in Irish units, such as the Irish Guards, Royal Irish Fusiliers, and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

As is so often the case with war, what is most striking about these Irish members of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were how desperately young so many were.

The vast majority were in their twenties, some were still teenagers.

Among them are boys like 19-year-old Thomas Downes of the 1st Ox and Bucks.

From Kilkee, Co Clare, he died on May 28 struggling to keep open the corridor to Dunkirk at the Ypres-Comines Canal.

Younger still was James Murphy, from Arklow, Co. Wicklow.

He was just 17 when he was killed in service with the 6th Anti-Aircraft Regiment on May 16.

Today, both rest in Belgian graves, beside thousands others who gave their lives in those early efforts to stem the German tide.

Among the Irish dead we find reminders that the fighting did not discriminate based on age or class.

The grave of Longford native Bertha Violetta Walsh, in Lusk, Co Dublin, also memorialises her 64-year-old husband Mainwaring, one of the oldest soldiers to die.

Another of the fallen was 25-year-old Captain Jenico William Richard Preston, 16th Viscount Gormanston, who lost his life while engaged with German forces around Igoville, and who is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial.

For the Gormanston Prestons, Jenico’s death represented only a beginning to the anguish the war would visit upon them.

Almost three years later, his brother Stephen would also die, fighting with the Irish Guards in Italy.

They were far from the only Irish family with cause to dread the arrival of telegrams.

Flying officer Charles Bomford was the son of the former town surveyor for Kells, Co Meath.

On June 9, 1940, the 25-year-old Bristol Blenheim pilot was sent on a mission to destroy German tanks when his plane was downed by flak and destroyed.

Three years later his brother, Lieutenant Richard Bomford, lost his life in Italy.

The Maher family of Cashel, Co Tipperary, had a similar experience.

William, 24, died in the confused fighting around Dunkirk with the 2nd Northamptonshire Regiment; his brother Patrick, an anti-aircraft gunner, fell in service in November 1941.

The operations of British forces in France and the Low Countries in 1940 are often remembered only for the Dunkirk evacuation.

However, there was much heavy fighting between the start of the German offensive on May 10 and the first evacuations from the channel port more than two weeks later.

Some of the earliest into the fray were members of the 2nd Irish Guards, who were part of a daring mission deployed to the Netherlands.

As the Germans swept across the Dutch countryside, the Irishmen were among a small group who landed at the Hook of Holland on May 13.

With the situation in the country rapidly disintegrating, their job was to aid the escape of some key individuals, including the Dutch Royal Family.

Though Queen Wilhelmina made it out, several guardsmen were killed during Luftwaffe bombing raids on their positions.

Included among them were 24-year-old John McWalter, from Co Galway, and 23-year-old Thomas Murphy, from Ballyglass, Co Mayo.

The German onslaught in the west had caught the French and British forces ill-prepared, and their blitzkrieg tactics allowed them to punch rapidly and deeply into Allied territory.

Although tactically disadvantaged, there was no want of courage on the part of many of the troops.

Few examples compare with that of the light bombers of the RAF.

Despite staggering losses, the airmen clambered aboard their woefully outclassed Fairey Battles and Bristol Blenheims again and again to embark on doomed missions to stem the German advance.

This culminated on May 14 when the RAF launched a series of desperate raids around Sedan to aid their French allies and attempt to destroy key bridges being used by the Germans.

The results were catastrophic.

Of 71 aircraft, 39 were shot down, the worst reversal of its type in the history of the RAF.

Wireless operators Michael Millar, from Dublin, and William Nolan, from Rathkeale, Co Limerick, both died that day in Fairey Battles; wireless operator Patrick Aherne, from Youghal, Co Cork, went down in a Blenheim.

The RAF continued to go out.

Five days after Sedan, pilot officer Jimmy McElligot, from Listowel, Co Kerry, took his Fairey Battle out to bomb targets in the Ardennes.

As he carried out the mission his aircraft was swarmed by no less than six Me109 fighters.

Despite putting up stiff resistance, the result was inevitable.

The battle came down in a wood, and Jimmy died from his injuries.

On the ground with the BEF, early thoughts of a successful counter-thrust against the Germans quickly turned to desperate defence, as the army fought to hold open a corridor of retreat westward.

So rapidly was the front line moving that British units often found themselves unexpectedly thrust into the battle zone or engaging in self-sacrificing holding actions to buy time for their comrades.

The 7th Royal Sussex and 21-year-old Corkonian Daniel Foley were one such unit, rushed into the line near Amiens on May 20.

Barely had they arrived before German panzers crested the hill, sowing carnage among the raw troops.

A member of Foley’s company recalled the aftermath: “Men I knew had bloody holes where their eyes had been, bullets in their guts, heads, [and] hearts. They [were] lying spreadeagled in their bloodstained uniforms, the stillness of death upon them.”

Foley was numbered among them.

Timothy Cronin, from Lyre, Co Cork, was among the men of the 2nd Dorsetshires who died facing wave after wave of German attacks at the La Bassée Canal in late May.

In 1919 the body of his father Christopher had been taken home to the family in Lyre after he had died in Royal Naval service, but with Timothy there would be no remains to mourn.

He has no known grave and is today remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial.

Eventually the BEF found itself holding a perimeter around Dunkirk, where between May 26 and June 4, more than 300,000 Allied personnel were successfully evacuated as part of Operation Dynamo.

But many had to die in order to make the escape possible.

Heavy fighting along the Dunkirk perimeter continued to cost lives even as thousands of men embarked for home only a couple of miles away.

Dubliners Christopher Bradley and James Brennan both gave their lives defending the perimeter on June 1 while serving with the 1st Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire).

As scores of German bombers sought to disrupt the evacuation, the RAF took to the skies in an effort to provide some air cover to those on the beach, mole and on the rescue ships.

One of them was Flight Lieutenant Dudley Persse Joynt from Sandymount, Co Dublin.

He was last seen alive at the controls of his Spitfire over Dunkirk on May 31, diving to engage a German bomber.

It was little safer on the ships themselves.

William John O’Shea, from Drishane, Co Cork, was a stoker aboard the minesweeper Pangbourne when she was attacked by Stukas off Dunkirk on May 29.

Having had a number of near misses, she was not so lucky this time. The ship leapt into the air with the ferocious impact.

One crewman saw “blood and flesh… everywhere; mutilated bodies that ten seconds ago were men I knew personally are flung in grotesque heaps all about me”.

William was among those dangerously wounded.

When the Pangbourne limped back to England he was taken ashore, where he died on May 31.

Another of the Irish sailors at Dunkirk was Patrick Stanton of Rostellan, Co Cork.

A sailor on the destroyer HMS Havant, he and his shipmates had already rescued hundreds of soldiers from Dunkirk when she was beset by Stukas on June 1.

She was making for England with her latest human cargo when the bombs struck the engine room, causing over 50 casualties.

They included leading stoker Patrick Stanton, who died the following day.

Although all eyes were on Dunkirk, that was not the only place where British troops needed to be extracted.

Operation Dynamo was followed by Operation Cycle at Le Havre and Operation Ariel at the French Atlantic ports.

Unfortunately, these efforts came too late for Cork men John Healy of Spangle Hill and David Fox of Boyce’s St.

Aside from their home county, the two men shared many similarities.

Both were in their 40s and served in the same Royal Engineer stevedore unit.

They died together on June 3, and their remains rest side-by-side at Le Havre’s Ste Marie Cemetery.

The largely successful escape from Dunkirk did not bring an immediate respite from military setbacks.

Only days after the last boat slipped away from the French port, a naval engagement brought what was surely the greatest single-day loss of Irish lives in Allied service during the Second World War.

On June 8, the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two destroyer escorts HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta were steaming for Scapa Flow when they were intercepted by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

In the one-sided battle which followed, all three British vessels were lost.

Staggeringly, of 1,519 sailors, only 45 men survived.

The Commonwealth Wargraves Commission records 37 men from the 26 counties among the dead, 22 of them from Co Cork alone.

Britain survived these setbacks, though there were still many dark days ahead.

The majority of BEF servicemen from Ireland made it through the Battle of France, and a number were recognised for their gallantry.

At home, regional newspapers began to carry news of the missing, the wounded, the shell-shocked.

Those fortunate enough to avoid capture were granted leave, and many took the chance to return and visit family.

The majority probably shared the outlook of Joseph Johnstone of Bailieborough, Co. Cavan, who “went through a gruelling time during those awful days but is more inclined to forget his experiences than to talk about them”.

Although the campaign had been an abject failure, the successful rescue of so many Allied troops from the jaws of defeat was a vital boost for British morale.

The triumph over adversity that became known as the Dunkirk Spirit would eventually pass into legend.

Importantly a significant proportion of the British army had survived to fight another day.

The Second World War would continue to bring fresh horrors for a further five years, as those who fell in the Battle for France were joined by countless others.

For the families of the fallen in Ireland, theirs was a sacrifice that would never be forgotten.

Every year anniversaries of the fighting regularly brought mention of the Dunkirk dead.

Memories of men such as 19-year-old Kevin James Spratt of 98 North Brunswick St, who was “sadly missed by his loving parents, brothers, and sister”, 23-year-old Joseph Sheridan of 20 Prison Avenue, North Circular Rd, “sadly missed by his parents, brothers, sister, and friends”, and 24-year-old Christopher (Cockle) McDonnell of Killester who was “never forgotten by his parents, brothers, sisters, relatives, and friends.”

All are individuals who deserve our continuing remembrance.

Damian Shiels is a military historian and archaeologist who runs and

Twitter: @irishacw

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