JOHN Stout doesn’t see himself as a hero but if courage, determination, and fortitude are the right ingredients then he is one of Ireland’s finest.
Yet he and 4,000 other brave Irishmen have not only been unsung but have suffered hostility, vilification, and official scorn for decades because of their decision to leave a war-time post in the neutral Irish military and join the British armed forces in the struggle against Nazi Germany.
Some risked their lives on battlefields from Dunkirk to El Alamein and D-Day to Arnhem. Others faced death on bomber missions over Germany or suffered the unspeakable hell of Japanese concentration camps.
Some — such as Corporal Edward Browne, who was awarded the Military Medal for storming a German machine gun position in Normandy — paid for their bravery with their lives and would never see their homeland again.
Those who survived the horrors of war were destined to suffer further hardship on their return home through what became known as then taoiseach Éamon de Valera’s Starvation Order. The Emergency Powers (No 362) Order, which became enshrined in law as Section 13 of the Defence Forces (Temporary Provisions) Act, formally dismissed deserters, stripping them of pay, pension, and gratuity rights.
De Valera’s order was draconian in the extreme, depriving those who fought with the Allies the right to unemployment benefit or from obtaining any state or public sector employment for seven years. Not only were returning Irish soldiers disbarred from many kinds of work, they could not access their British demobilisation benefits.
Condemned in the Dáil by Fine Gael deputy leader Dr Thomas O’Higgins, as “an order stimulated by malice, seething with hatred, oozing with venom”, it came into effect on April Fool’s Day, 1946.
In a fiery speech aimed at defeating the order, O’Higgins thundered: “Any one of us who reads in the papers or knows anything of the horrors of war can have some little picture of what those men went through, of their experiences and their agonies.
“Yet, when the war is over, and when they come back, hoping to come back to a mother, to a young wife and to the little children, they find the government of this State stepping in to sentence them to seven years’ starvation, seven years’ destitution, and to find themselves branded, as far as the State can do so, as pariah dogs, as outcasts, untouchables, who cannot be employed or maintained here.
“They find the government of this State sentencing them to starvation or exile not for the crime of cowardice, not for the crime of deserting this nation in a time of danger, but for the crime of going to assist other nations in what they believed was a fight for the survival of Christianity in Europe.”
Records show 4,983 personnel deserted the Irish army during the war, although Dáil debates at the time put the figure at 7,000. Whatever the total, more than 4,000 of those who deserted joined the British services. Deserters who merely absconded and did not leave Ireland or who went to Britain to work did not face the kind of penalties endured by those who joined the Allied cause. Desertion was only punished if the soldier went on to serve with the British. The penalties only applied to enlisted men and not to Irish army officers who deserted and joined British forces.
Stout, 88, served with the Irish Guards armoured division as it raced to Arnhem in the Netherlands to capture a key bridge across the River Rhine. The advance, known as Operation Market Garden, was highlighted in the film A Bridge Too Far. He also fought in the Battle of the Bulge, ending the war as a commando and helping to liberate the German death camp Bergen-Belsen.
He has never regretted his decision to join the British Army, saying his reason for deserting was because he could not live on the paltry wage he got from the Irish army which he had joined at the age of 15.
“It was not hunger for adventure but hunger, pure and simple. I got fed so I went up to Clifton in Belfast and I could smell the food going up the road. I was 17 at that time and glad to get out of where I was.”
On his return home to Cork after the war he — like thousands more — was treated as a pariah.
“What they did to us was wrong. I know that in my heart. They cold-shouldered you. They didn’t speak to you. A lot of people had wanted Germany to win the war. I had terrible trouble finding work. People did not take kindly to me being in the British Army.”
Forced to go back to Britain to find work, it was not until his retirement in 1991 that he was able to return home. “I feel very betrayed about how we were treated. We never even got to put our case or argue why it was unjust.”
For him, at last the nightmare is over as he ponders his war years in the company of his wife Doreen at their home in Ballyvolane on the northside of the city. “It doesn’t bother me any more, now,” he says, “but at the time it was very difficult.”
The nightmare continued, though, for 92-year-old Phil Farrington who took part in the D-Day landings and helped liberate Bergen-Belsen. Up to the pardon announced last month by Defence Minister Alan Shatter, he feared he would be arrested and imprisoned for his wartime service.
“They would come and get me, yes they would,” he told a BBC radio documentary from his home in the docks area of Dublin. His 25-year-old grandson, Patrick, confirmed: “I see the fear in him even today, even after 65 years.”
Farrington, who deserted at the age of 19, was caught going home on leave and thrown into a military prison full of fellow deserters.
“Many were beaten and we were all treated with contempt by the guards. We were fed starvation rations that they would throw on the floor and we had to pick it up. We often ended up eating egg shells. Things were so bad that some men committed suicide.”
After the war, there were no more internments but official and social vilification prevailed. Forced to return to Britain for work, the children of many deserters were then deemed to have been “abandoned”, and, under the 1941 Children’s Act, those children could be interned in the notorious industrial schools to suffer horrors as bad as any Japanese camp.
“This is one of the saddest aspects of the whole grim affair,” says Robert Widders, an English war historian whose book, Spitting On a Soldier’s Grave, highlighted the appalling treatment of the Irish deserters and helped galvanise a campaign in Ireland to have their names cleared and their courage recognised.
“Hundreds of children of British soldiers were sent to the industrial schools. These were concentration camps and the conditions were abysmal. In Goldenbridge, beatings with rubber truncheons were commonplace. In rural areas, the children were hired out to farmers in what was slave labour.
“There were, of course, many other children in these institutions but the children of British soldiers were singled out for special treatment.”
In an ironic salute to the Nazi death squad, those children were given the designation SS (Saighdiúr Sassanach) and singled out for particular abuse. At Artane industrial school, Thomas Bonham, whose father was in the RAF, witnessed beatings and sexual abuse on a daily basis.
“They had straps about 12in long with three strips of leather, sometimes with keys attached,” he told the BBC’s John Waite. “They would put you over a table and beat you across the backside if you only got something wrong or were not attentive. I was always frightened.”
Paddy Reid, from Dublin, whose father and uncle were among the first to desert in 1939, remembers having to endure abject poverty when his father, Paddy Sr, returned from fighting in the jungles of Burma.
“He had to scour the country and he could only get odd work here and there picking turnips for farmers outside the city. We ended up moving from one slum to another. There would be no food in the house for days on end. I remember crying with hunger. What the government did was to make people like my father pay in the cruellest way possible.”
The British forces knew informally that many of those who signed up from the south in Belfast were deserters from the Irish army, says Widders, who holds the distinction of having served in all three branches of the British armed forces.
“For one thing, if you have military training it shows. As well as that, there is evidence to suggest that the British were given information by the Irish authorities about those who deserted,” he says.
ONE man he spoke to, Con Murphy, deserted the Irish army and ended up in the RAF. When he was sent for training an RAF officer pulled out a folder that had all the details of his Irish army career. “That officer could not have gotten that level of information without there being some kind of co-operation or semi-collusion between the Irish and British auth-orities. That makes the subsequent post-war legislation all the more appalling and shows the kind of double standard that was being exercised.”
Intelligence officers in Army G2, the military intelligence branch of the Irish Defence Forces, compiled a report based on a study of deserters caught while on leave home from their units in Britain. The allowance paid to the wives was considerably less than what was paid in the British forces. Those who joined the British forces received better wages, decent allowances were paid to their families, and even hardship money was available.
It was suggested that “domestic pressure” might have been applied by disgruntled wives to get their soldier husbands to desert and the report concluded there was “little inducement for single men to desert to the British army”, whereas for married men, there was a “strong temptation”.
The list of deserters was never even accurate, according to Widders. “It contains the names of men who were to be punished but who had already been killed in action,” he says.
Hundreds of those on the list had died long before they were court-martialled. Joseph Mullally died on D-Day, June 6, 1944, fighting with the British Army on the beaches of Normandy — a year before his court-martial.
Another war victim, Stephen McManus, was on the list. He had suffered torture and starvation while being worked to death in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
Tales of heroism by the Irish deserters are commonplace. Gerry O’Neill risked his life with the newly formed Irish naval service, rescuing wounded British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.
Nicholas McNamara volunteered to serve with RAF Bomber Command knowing it meant almost certain death.
“It is very important that the contribution of these Irishmen to freedom, democracy, and our liberal way of life is recognised,” says Widders.
“Looked at in terms of the improved relationships between Britain and Ireland, their service is something that we can take a shared pride in.
“You also have to see it in terms of the general contribution made by Irish people in the British military. Irishmen have been in the British forces for hundreds of years.
“When I was in the army, my troop sergeant was Irish and nobody saw anything odd about that so the knowledge that thousands of Irishmen fought for the Allies in the war will not surprise anyone in Britain.”
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