Robert Fisk: Survival of the neutral - Ireland's Second World War

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The Independent Online

On 11 November 1939, Irish diplomat Francis Cremins cabled home to Dublin from neutral Switzerland that his host country was taking steps to strengthen its defences against air attack. "I am told that at Berne ... the view prevails that this country need not feel too anxious so long as Italy refrains from entering the war on the German side."

How wrong can you be, I chortled as I read these words just over a week ago. And then – "Zut!" – yes, Berne was the capital of Switzerland, wasn't it? And there I was, late on a Friday night two weeks ago, too late to change the page of our Saturday edition, having blessed Basle as the capital of the Swiss Confederation. Not hands up who spotted my gruesome slip, but who didn't spot it. Thank God others make mistakes.

Take, for example, Joseph Walshe, secretary of Ireland's department of external affairs, who sent a memorandum to his Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, on 21 June 1940, beginning with these imperishable words: "Britain's defeat has been placed beyond all doubt. France has capitulated. The entire coastline from the Arctic to the Pyrenees is in the hands of the strongest power of the world... Neither time nor gold can beat Germany."

A good reason for Ireland to stay neutral, even though its neutrality was – for de Valera – an expression of his country's independence from Britain. And there is some irony that while Ireland is now enduring the greatest economic calamity in its modern history, its archivists are beavering away on the largest historical project in the country's recent history, the printing of the archives of Ireland's foreign affairs department, without fear or favour to the nation's reputation. And they are soon to bring out the files from 1941 way on into the rest of the Second World War. The latest volume (no VI in "Documents on Irish Foreign Policy") has taken us from 1939 to the cruel January of 1941, and what a cracker it is. Dry prose, maybe, but here are the secret reports of the only English-language country to have its diplomats based across Europe throughout the war, not only in Vichy France but in the very heart of Nazi Germany. Indeed, the only reason the Irish Berlin embassy's records have been lost from 1943 is because an RAF fire raid destroyed the building, along with its grand piano.

But there are nuggets in these records which capture the dangerous reality of war. Here is diplomat Sean Murphy, reporting back to Walshe from the French town of Ascain on 18 June 1940, during the retreat of the French government from Paris: "Just as we left the anti-air-craft (sic) defences set up a strong barrage which continued more or less without interruption towards 11pm. As the sky was overcast it was impossible to see what was being fired at but the flames of the bursting shells were clearly visible." As Pétain took over a defeated and collaborationist France, Allied diplomats fled the country.

But Murphy, a neutral diplomat, stayed on to send his exclusive reports to Dublin from the fantasy world of Vichy. The French, he told Walshe, were dreaming that they could recover as they did after 1815 and 1870, even comparing themselves to the Germans after 1918. "There is a distinct possibility," he wrote, "of the French government and public cherishing illusions as to France's future, both from drawing inexact historical parallels, or attributing the French defeat wholly or partially to wrong motives. There is no doubt that France's defeat is in a large measure due to the rot which seems to have pervaded all French life for years past."

France's army had met with disaster during Germany's invasion of 1940. "I have been told," Murphy continued, "...that the French Government two years ago bought the licence of a cannon for 50 million francs, and then only manufactured 12... I was informed ... that American planes which arrived in France months ago were never unpacked... The inferiority of the French Army (apart from numbers) was a direct product of the prevailing state of French public life and the French philosophical conception of what made life worth living."

On 17 August 1940, Murphy made it right back to Paris, through the German lines and into the occupied zone, past smashed bridges and the wreckage of Orly airport. "There are German troops ... stationed in all the villages and on the upward journey we were stopped on a number of occasions... The actual entry to Paris is not easy as most of the gates are blocked up by sandbags... On arrival in the city, I went to see the Legation and found everything just as I had left it, the flag which we had hoisted on the morning of our departure ... still flying." Murphy managed to prevent the Germans from billeting troops in the Irish College in Paris but he found the city had "an empty air" since half its population had fled. The Germans did not interfere individually with the population, he reported, and there was more food in the Paris restaurants than at Vichy. Murphy does not mention France's Jews but notes that the Rothschild family homes had been left, until then, untouched.

James Joyce would ask Murphy for an Irish passport for his daughter, and Samuel Beckett (who would join the resistance) asked one of Murphy's colleagues to pass on messages to his brother in Dublin that he was in need of no financial help. Ireland's man in fascist Spain, Leopold Kerney, dealt directly with the Abwehr to persuade Franco to release Spanish civil war veteran and IRA man Frank Ryan from prison; Ryan set off for Germany where the Abwehr sent him on a vain U-boat mission to Ireland.

In Berlin, William Warnock could not believe the extent of Britain's military disaster at Dunkirk although he reported early "indiscriminate" RAF attacks on Germany, killing on one night at least 60 civilians. "The German people are receiving the reports of the amazing military successes with a remarkable calm. They, too, are astounded; they simply cannot grasp the facts. One would have expected outbursts of jubilation, but life is very quiet..." Warnock, whom I met before he died, spent some time demanding compensation from the Nazis for German bombs accidentally dropped on Ireland. Amazingly, Hitler's Germany paid up.

John Dulanty, a British civil servant in the 1914-18 war, was "Dev's" diplomat in London throughout the Blitz. He reported an English friend emphasising the Churchill cabinet's optimism in October of 1940 with the remark that "although an occasional raider may get through, in the daytime fighting we have the Germans whacked". Dulanty continues: "A deafening explosion and huge columns of smoke about 100 yards from this office (12.00 noon today) with women falling in Piccadilly in fright, no warning until 12.05, suggest that my friend was indulging in undue optimism in his use of the word 'Whacked'."

"Whacked" is pretty much how the poor old Irish feel right now. But G B Shaw, who wanted Ireland to abandon its neutrality, admitted in 1945 that "that powerless little cabbage garden called Ireland wins in the teeth of all the mighty powers. Erin go Bragh". She did not win, of course. She survived.

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