Historical Notes: `Neutral' Irish won 8 Second World War VCs

SIXTY YEARS ago the world was embroiled in the opening phase of the most devastating war ever fought. Within months most of Europe was caught up in that war. Only a few countries managed to remain aloof. One of them was Eamon de Valera's Ireland, proclaiming its independence from Britain through its neutral status.

Many in Britain have never forgiven de Valera for Ireland's neutrality. And in Northern Ireland that status was seen as an act of treachery by a country that was still a member of the Commonwealth. In contrast Northern Ireland's record was proud: it provided manpower for the British forces and bases for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in the Battle of the Atlantic, while its industries contributed towards the war effort.

But Irish neutrality was not a black-and-white issue. This neutral nation provided aid to Britain in the form of intelligence-gathering facilities, permission to fly through Irish air space and the repatriation of Allied airmen forced down in Ireland. At Killybegs in County Donegal there was even a British air-sea-rescue vessel based for much of the war, although the Robert Hastie actually appeared on the books of HMS Ferret, the naval base at Londonderry.

Irish support for Britain came in an even more tangible form. Tens of thousands of Irishmen and women joined the British forces.

Conscription was never extended to Northern Ireland; so anyone who joined up from either side of the border was a volunteer. The relative figures have long been a subject of controversy and the tinkering with the figures that took place in the latter phase of the war and its immediate aftermath did not help matters.

A reasonably accurate figure for Irish enlistment can be arrived at by studying the Army's roll of honour at the Public Record Office, Kew.

There are over 170,000 names on the roll, giving a death ratio of one- in-22 for the wartime Army. Analysing the entries to find the Irish-born shows a total of just under 4,400 Irish dead. Using the known ratio of dead to serving this works out at over 98,000 Irishmen in the Army alone, some 2 per cent of the Army's strength.

It is not possible to carry out a similar exercise with the same degree of accuracy for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force but, assuming a lower Irish strength of 1 per cent in either case, we can arrive at figures of 9,500 in the Navy and 12,000 in the RAF. The overall total of Irish service personnel would, therefore, be about 120,000, of whom the majority, about 100,000, volunteered during the war.

Using the place of birth information from the Army roll of honour, it is also possible to arrive at figures for enlistments from each side of the border. These are: almost 68,000 from southern Ireland and 52,900 from Northern Ireland. Interestingly this increases by about 10,000 the figure claimed for Northern Ireland enlistments. But it also shows that for every individual from Northern Ireland in the British forces there were 1.3 from south of the border. The population of the south was then about twice that of Northern Ireland so that its proportionate contribution to the British forces was not much smaller than that of its neighbour.

But, of course, the southern Irish had no part in this war. Many decided to fight because they opposed the evil that Nazism represented. One veteran summed up the typical attitude by stating that Hitler was a bully and had to be stopped; if his country wasn't going to join in stopping him, then he would do so himself.

In opposing Fascism southern Irishmen won eight Victoria Crosses while another VC went to a Belfast sailor. Interestingly the proportion of Irish VCs won during the war was over 4 per cent, twice the proportion of Irishmen in the services. In itself that figure makes a profound comment on the contribution made by a neutral nation to the Allied cause in the Second World War.

Richard Doherty is the author of `Irish Men and Women in the Second World War' (Four Courts Press, pounds 19.95)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Chief Executive

£28, 700: Whiskey Whiskey Tango: Property Management Company is seeking a brig...

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

Time to stop running

At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence