Fighting for the Nazis

Soldier and historian, Terence O'Reilly, examines  with detachment and compassion why some Irishmen colluded with and even fought for the Nazis writes Fred Johnston

There's nothing new about Irishmen fighting each other. In historical terms it's almost tedious to relate how and when they took up arms on behalf of others, often against their own countrymen. At Culloden Irishman faced Irishman from Jacobite and Government ranks. In the American Civil War there were Irishmen in both Union and Confederate armies. Unsurprisingly, they fought one another in the great boxing-ring of Europe, too, most memorably in the Spanish Civil War. But the Irish relationship with Nazi Germany is, arguably, the most intriguing and murky.

After the defeat of the rebellion of 1798, the Prussian Army “expressed an interest in finding recruits” amongst Irish rebel prisoners. By 1873, a Second Lieutenant O'Grady is in the ranks as a holder of the Iron Cross second-class — no mean feat. This same officer, then a colonel was in field artillery just before the Great War broke out in 1914, though it is suspected that this was Irishness by descent rather than birth. It seems an indication that the Irish weren't only fighting in foreign wars, but creating small military dynasties on the way.

The author of Hitler's Irishmen, Terence O'Reilly, is a former artilleryman with several tours of UN duty in Lebanon. He is currently a member of the Defence Forces library, specialising in military history. A historian's sensibility awards him a clear-eyed detachment while his soldier's experience admits, where necessary, a suitable compassion.

Hitler's Irishmen is a forceful, often poignant tale of how Irishmen found themselves colluding with or fighting for the armies of Adolf Hitler in the Second World War. Predictably, some acted with reluctant heroism, while others proved themselves of no use whatsoever to their German hosts. Often they and their mentors were seduced by a woolly version of Roger Casement's notion of some 20 years before, that the Irish had a friend in Germany and that Irish and German political interests might coincide. Casement had hoped, rather fantastically, to set up a German-created Irish Brigade, which then would not be “employed or directed to any German end”. Casement's offer to Irish POWs created shock and outright hostility. It was a miserable effort, producing no more than 50 volunteers.

Those who dealt with the Irish on behalf of Hitler entertained similar notions, counting on Irish political idealism. But idealism didn't figure much in the story of the mysterious James Brady and Leitrim-born Frank Stringer, who entered the British Army within days of each other in 1938. Both ended up in the Royal Irish Fusiliers. In May of the following year they were transferred over to Guernsey in the Channel Islands; here they got into trouble for a bout of violent public drunkenness. After the invasion of Poland, the Royal Irish Fusiliers withdrew from Guernsey, leaving the hapless pair pleading from jail to be returned to their unit. They stayed where they were. In the summer of 1940 the Germans invaded the island. Delivered up to the occupying force, the two men were sent to a POW camp at Friesack, Brandenburg.

The German's were interested in utilising Irishmen in one way or another and the German intelligence division, Abwehr II, even resurrected Casement's plan to form an Irish brigade. The camp at Friesack was the harsh cradle in which such schemes were to be hatched. Among a small group of recruiters touring the camps, was prolific Irish writer Francis Stuart. Stuart had Republican connections and had arrived in Germany to teach in 1940 but was willing to work with the Abwehr.  The notions of an Irish brigade, again, came to nothing, but Brady and Stringer ended up in the SS, after taking part in a programme for SS trainees at Sennheim. Other interns ended up in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

The Abwehr seemed to be fixated on the notion that Irishmen could be turned, through Republican sympathies, to working in Ireland against the British. They had contemporary as well as historical reasons to at the very least entertain the possibility. For instance, Hitler's foreign minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop had invited chief of staff of the IRA, Seán Russell, to Germany. Russell possibly believed that support from Hitler could help in the Irish cause and a scheme was devised by which Russell might return to Ireland “to foment unrest and lead the IRA in revolt against Northern Ireland”. The Abwehr trained Russell in demolition techniques. Also in December 1939 the gardaí seized an IRA radio transmitter in Rathgar, Dublin, which was used as a radio link between the Abwehr and the IRA. The intelligence agency did not attach much importance to the broadcasts, which were often frivolous, and included propaganda information broadcast locally, which had  allowed the gardaí to find the offending radio. This level of incompetence plagued Abwehr plans to recruit Irishmen. Those who volunteered to work with the Germans had a reasonably cushy existence, which included a salary and a decent social life, and permitted some of them to have girlfriends.

Fast-paced, with the edge of a thriller, this book is a testament to how thoroughly history may be investigated, if one his willing to go to the task with an open mind.  There is something coldly poignant, however mischievous, about the Irishmen who – with some notable exceptions – seemed not to know what the Germans wanted of them and who were, in every sense of the word, lost.

Unsurprisingly, a book about living double lives becomes itself split. Austrian-born Otto Skorzeny, an SS army officer of almost ridiculous derring-do and downright courage, who lived in Ireland for some time after the war, features as effectively the main character for most of the latter chapters. While no direct attempt is made to portray Skorzeny as a hero, the account of how Skorzeny rescued Mussolini from captivity is pure Hollywood and one senses that his wartime activities warrant a separate book.

Perhaps that is the legacy of this important and controversial work – soldiers view other soldiers in a very different light from that afforded by civilians and O'Reilly does not gloss over off-handedly the suicidal bravery of German troops faced with the Russian onslaught. There were German officers of outstanding merit who, as O'Reilly points out, were braver and more dedicated than the dark cause of Nazism deserved. James Brady, as an SS corporal, found himself fighting the Russians in the streets of a devastated Berlin – it is sobering to recall that Brady, along with Stringer, had no reason to be loyal to a British Army that had left them to rot in a prison in Guernsey. An argument might be made as to who betrayed whom. And, with hindsight, one might make comparisons between Brady's war and that of Francis Stuart, whom Aosdána elected to its highest chair.