A simple ceremony enacted in a canvass tent on the heath at Lüneburg in Germany in May 1945 marked the end of World War II in Europe where Germany formally surrendered to the allied forces. The war which had convulsed Europe for six years had left much of the continent destroyed in its wake, having taken the lives of twelve million soldiers and civilians and displaced millions more. Last month commemorative events were held all across Europe to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the war. Many of the commemorative events were simple and evocative affairs where those elderly men and women marked, perhaps for the last time on such a large scale, their contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany. I was struck that apart from the coverage in our own national papers referring to the events abroad there were little memorials of note held in this country. It is characteristic of the schizophrenic attitude that we have to the war in this country in that the war years are still referred to as “The Emergency”, while in the rest of Europe it is still referred to as World War II.
Without doubt the neutral stance adopted by De Valera’s government in 1939 ensured that the south was not exposed to the mass destruction and loss of life endured by those in mainland Europe but at the same time during the course of the war there was a grudging acceptance and awareness that there was a substantial contribution made to the allied war effort by Irish men and women. I was reminded of this recently when I came across a slim little booklet published by the British Government in March 1943, titled “Volunteers from Eire who have won Distinctions serving the British Forces”. It was published to acknowledge the contribution of those Irish men and women serving in the British forces, be it army, navy or air force. Undoubtedly the pamphlet was produced for propaganda purposes, perhaps with a view to embarrassing the Irish Government but at the same time it was a tacit acknowledgement of these brave Irish men and womens’ service. Some of those mentioned were from County Kildare. Col. William James Fitzpatrick Easie, from Newbridge, serving with the Royal Army Service Corps. was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and also awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He was a Deputy Director of supplying transport for one of the larger British Army Units serving at the famous Battle of El Alamein in the North African desert. The citation stated that “by his drive and energy he did magnificent work which had a direct and powerful bearing on the success of operations”. He was described as being imperturbable on all occasions, including during enemy air bombings and machine gun attacks and he was an inspiration to his officers and men with whom he worked. “No amount of road strafing by hostile aircraft ever deterred him from his frequent visits to all parts of the battle area to encourage his troops to yet greater efforts.”
Acting squadron leader T.M. Hunt, a native of Naas, received the Distinguished Flying Cross while serving with the R.A.F. for gallantry and devotion to duty during air operations. As did Flying Officer C.M. Miller who received the award on two occasions. Born in the Curragh, Miller was the pilot of an aircraft detailed to attack an enemy minefield. He carried out a number of attacks, despite vigorous counterfire from German anti-aircraft guns. On returning to his base he had his plane re-armed, despite the fact that he knew he would be encountering heavy opposition and returned to make a further attack on the anti-aircraft guns.
The Royal Air Force seemed to have a particular attraction for Kildare men. Flying Officer J.W.W. Hurndall received a Distinguished Flying Cross, as did Warrant Officer John Conleth Grehan, originally from Naas, serving with 148 Squadron. He had joined the R.A.F. in 1939, abandoning his law studies to do so. Another Kildare man who joined the R.A.F. and awarded the Airforce Cross was pilot Flying Officer A.H. Tomkins.
Such devotion to duty and willingness to expose themselves to danger in the allies cause was not restricted to men. Elizabeth Scully, a nurse originally from Laois, was working in her hospital ward when it was struck by a high explosive bomb. The walls of the ward collapsed and all the windows were blown out. Notwithstanding the danger to herself Nurse Scully wrapped the patients who were under her care in blankets and in complete darkness successfully brought her patients out through a window and pulled them to safety over mounds of glass and rubble, having suffered numerous cuts and bruises as a result of her exertions.
Notwithstanding Ireland’s declaration of neutrality De Valera decided that at the start of the war that the Irish Army and its reserve forces would have to be increased to counter any threat be it from Germany or even from the Allies. The men of Athy responded enthusiastically to De Valera’s call and in their hundreds joined both the regular Army and the local Defence Forces. After the initial surge of enthusiasm the reality of life in the war time Irish Army hit home. It was a difficult period where the government’s resources were taxed to the extreme and at times the rationing and the equipping of a much extended Irish army was difficult. In those circumstances the more youthful and adventurous of those who had joined the Irish Army decided that the prospect of service in a peacetime Irish Army was not as glorious or exciting as it first seemed. During the course of the war almost 5,000 men, including 19 from Athy, deserted from the Irish Army but in reality the desertion was a response to the frustrations they felt serving the peacetime army and a willingness to be involved in the events across mainland Europe. Many of those who deserted in reality went north of the border or across the Irish Sea to join the British armed forces. While I am not aware of any sanctions which were suffered by men of Athy and from other parts of Kildare for this act of desertion, it appears that the government took a pragmatic view in the immediate years after the war in that a general amnesty applied in respect of those who had been officially described as being “dismissed for desertion”.
The Irish contribution to the war in general is difficult to estimate at this remove. The estimates of those Irish men and women who served in the British armed forces varies widely between the numbers 40,000 to 300,000. Indeed the range of Irish involvement from a neutral country is quite remarkable. I recently came across an article which indicated that up to 161 Catholic priests from Irish dioceses served in British forces, not taking into account those Irish priests who had previously worked in Britain. The Church of Ireland itself provided 61 chaplains from Irish dioceses, plus a number of others from English dioceses.
The effect of the war was not as marked upon Athy as the first World War was but it is difficult now to imagine at this distance the sights, sounds and experiences of men like Lowly Walsh from Barrack Street who landing on the shores of France travelled all the way to Berlin. I wrote in detail about Lowly’s experiences in the war in the Eye on the Past 180. It seems appropriate that with the 60th anniversary of the end of the war just past, that a fitting memorial to those men and women who experienced the war both here and abroad would be to have their experiences recorded for future generations, and I would encourage anybody to contact me with their reminiscences.