Friday, January 27, 2012
The hate-filled Eamon de Valera persecuted returned Irish soldiers for daring to help Britain fight Hitler
The young airman was desperate to be back with his family and friends at the end of the war. He had done his bit to see off Hitler and make the world a safer place. His one wish now was to be home with ‘my people’. But, instead of a hero’s welcome, what Irishman Martin Walsh feared was being arrested and locked up.
‘Sir,’ he wrote plaintively from England to the authorities in Dublin in 1946, ‘I wish to return as a free Irish citizen once more, without detention or punishment. I would like to have my freedom in Eire and not be caged up like a bird when I go home.’
He sought a written pass ‘to protect me from the military and the police’. His ‘crime’? Leaving Ireland and crossing the water to join the British forces in the struggle against Nazi Germany. It left him in a cruel limbo that, 65 years later, is still scandalously unresolved.
Walsh and thousands of adventurous youngsters were technically deserters. They had enlisted in the Irish Defence Force but with no enemy to fight because of their country’s decision to stay neutral in World War II, they had chosen to slip away to Britain, join up and fight.
After donning British uniforms, some risked their lives on battlefields from Dunkirk to El Alamein and D-Day to Arnhem. Others faced death daily on bomber missions over Germany or suffered the unspeakable hell of Japanese prison camps.
Some — such as Corporal Edward Browne, who was awarded the Military Medal for storming a German machine gun position in Normandy, Bren gun blazing from his hip — paid for their bravery with their lives and would never see Ireland again. Those who survived had every reason to be proud of their contribution to the liberation of Europe from the Nazi menace. But in their homeland they were now outcasts.
At first, Walsh, who had been in the RAF, was given the reassurance he wanted. He was told in a letter he would not be arrested as he got off the ferry. But what the letter failed to mention was that his name was on a secret blacklist, which had been personally authorised by the prime minister, Eamon de Valera.
He would be banned from a job in any civil service department, town hall or state-run service such as the post office, the health service, bus, rail and shipping companies. There would be no pension or benefits. In Ireland, he was effectively a non-person.
History does not record what happened to Martin Walsh, but there is no reason to think his fate differed from any of the 5,000 other men on the now infamous List.
Pat Reid, who had fought the Japanese in India and Burma, failed to find a steady job for 15 years after his return. His family grew up in abject poverty, depending on handouts and soup kitchens to survive.
Denied access to better-paid jobs, men such as Reid were forced into the back-breaking life of itinerant farm labourers, finding what little work they could for virtually slave wages.
The shocking plight of Ireland’s post-war dispossessed — victims of a vengeful anti-British administration — has recently come to light and a campaign is underway for those few still alive to be pardoned. Indeed, signs indicate that the Irish government is indeed soon to redress what many now see as a stain on the nation’s history.
The Irish government of the day had ‘utterly lost its moral compass,’ said Alan Shatter, Ireland’s Justice Minister, in a landmark speech this week that criticised the ‘shameful’ treatment meted out to Irish soldiers. ‘We should no longer be in denial that, in the context of the Holocaust, Irish neutrality was a principle of moral bankruptcy.’
It happened because of the de Valera government’s decision in 1939 to stay out of the war. Ireland, its army so under-resourced they barely had a serviceable rifle between them, had little to contribute militarily. The judgment made in Dublin was that to side with the British would jeopardise the country’s fragile sense of independence so soon after its constitutional split from the UK in 1920.
But that left its thousands of newly enlisted soldiers — who had joined up when it seemed their country might have to fight an invader, whether the Germans, or the British taking over Ireland in order to forestall the Germans — kicking their heels. Instead of fighting for their country’s honour, they were dispatched to cut peat, knee-deep in bogs.
Con Murphy was among those ‘browned off’ by finding himself on work which, as a farm boy, he had joined the army to avoid. ‘It wasn’t soldiering at all,’ he said.
He secretly applied to the RAF, then took a train from Dublin to the North. There were 20 men in his carriage, all ‘deserting’ to join the British forces. They went for a variety of reasons. Some were unashamedly looking for adventure. There was a war and they wanted to be in the action.
Others thought strategically. Dublin University student Derek Overend’s view was: ‘It was best to stop the Jerries getting England first before they could get to us in Ireland.’
Others — probably the majority — felt they could not stand aside from the crusade against fascism. It was wrong to hide behind neutrality when the rest of the world was having to decide where it stood. ‘I wanted to get a crack at the Germans for what they were doing in Europe,’ was a commonly expressed reason.
Even firm republicans such as Thomas Walsh, who as a child had been a runner for the IRA, knew the threat to democracy from Hitler was greater than any danger posed by his old enemy. He swallowed hard, put aside his historic antipathy and joined the British Army.
After the war, they would all face accusations that it was the pay rather than principle that drew them — and this was clearly an attraction in a country beset by unemployment and poverty.
But while that charge might stick against the tens of thousands who travelled to Britain to work in munitions factories and on the land — and who were not stigmatised in any way afterwards — it was unfair on fighting men, who risked death for far less than was on offer for civilian work.
The 12s 6d (about 62p) a day that Richard Fellows got as air crew in an RAF bomber might have seemed a king’s ransom in Cork, but it was poor recompense for a 50 per cent chance of being killed.
Despite Dublin’s neutrality, Irish officialdom seemed in two minds about those who decided to go to Britain to fight. Soldier Phil Farrington slipped away to England and enlisted in the Royal Sussex Regiment but then made the mistake of using his first leave to go home to Dublin. He was arrested for desertion and spent months being starved and viciously beaten in a military jail.
But, in other cases, the authorities colluded with absconders. Michael Baggott was issued with a travel permit to go to Liverpool even though he stated on the form that the purpose of his journey was ‘to join the British Army’. He was advised to alter this to ‘business purposes’ and change the photograph from one of him in Irish army uniform to one in civvies. Then he was allowed to leave.
Ireland’s neutrality was never totally enforced and always veered towards the Allies, despite the undisguised pro-German leanings of some hard-line republicans and the generally anti-British sentiment of the bulk of the new nation’s population. There was more co-operation on the quiet than was officially acknowledged. British flyers who crash-landed in Eire, for example, were repatriated whereas German ones were interned.
Once the conflict was over and the danger passed, however, attitudes hardened again, as was shown by de Valera’s contemptible nose-thumbing gesture of publicly offering his condolences to the German government on Hitler’s death in 1945.
Suddenly the men who had fought for Britain became Dublin’s fall guys. In August 1945, an executive order named 4,983 of them and pronounced them guilty of desertion after a farcical court martial. They were officially dismissed from the Irish army, convicted en masse in their absence without being given a chance to defend themselves.
But the greater injustice was to come. Their names comprised the dreaded List. From that point on, their lives were blighted.
Opposition politicians tried to get this order overturned, arguing that its effect would be to condemn every man on it to ‘destitution and starvation’, along with his family. It was ‘brutal, unchristian and inhuman, stimulated by malice, seething with hatred and oozing with venom’ — a description that decades later seems perfectly apt.
But the order stayed, and the blacklist began to do its dirty work — all the nastier because the alleged ‘sins’ of the fathers were visited on their offspring. If a man could not work, his children starved.
‘We were hungry,’ said Paddy Reid’s son. ‘The kind where you felt your belly was stuck to your back. The attitude was one of no mercy for us. It was pure vindictiveness.’
Then again, if, fearing retribution, a man who fought with the British decided not to return to Ireland, he was deemed to have abandoned his children. The law then allowed them to be forced into state care and sent to special schools run by Catholic orders — now infamous for physical cruelty and sexual abuse.
In those brutal homes, their names were marked with the initials ‘SS’ – standing for the Gaelic words ‘saighdiuir Sasanach’ (British soldier), but with chilling Nazi undertones that seem to have gone unnoticed by the Irish authorities. They were subjected to even harsher treatment than the rest.
Even more astonishingly, because the list of deserters did not differentiate between the living and the dead, the orphans of men who had died in action in the war were also singled out and treated in this abominable way.
The wrongs perpetrated in those post-war years still trouble the now elderly men who were blacklisted and vilified. After enduring a jail term in Cork when he first deserted, on his release Phil Farrington fled once more to England and joined up again. He was in the final assault on Germany in 1945 and helped liberate the Belsen concentration camp.
Returning home, he knew to keep a low profile and never wore his campaign medals. He remembers that, because of prejudice against those who had fought with the British, he was warned not to visit certain areas, ‘or they’ll have you’.
Now in his 90s, he still has nightmares that the police will come for him and he will be put back in prison. His dread of the knock on the door has no basis in reality but it is the genuinely felt fear of a frail old man. ‘I see it in his eyes even today,’ says his grandson, Patrick. The pardon campaigners are seeking would put at least this old soldier’s mind at rest.
There are, though, apologists who argued at the time and still claim that men like Farrington deserved their punishment. They were deserters who reneged on their uniform, flouted the law and put Ireland’s neutrality in jeopardy.
The flaw in that argument is that, unlike most deserters in military situations, these men were choosing to run towards the guns rather than away from them, placing themselves in the front line rather than ducking out of danger. Moreover, retribution was exacted after the war, when neutrality was no longer a live issue.
The action taken against them had no practical purpose except to persecute those who had dared to defy de Valera and his intransigent anti-British stance. It was essentially spiteful and small-minded, an act of petty revenge.
As author Robert Widders, who highlighted the fate of the returning soldiers in his recent book, Spitting On A Soldier’s Grave, puts it: ‘The deserters from the Irish army who joined the Allied struggle faced the horrors of the bloodiest war in history. They have earned our respect and gratitude. They deserved better than the List.’