Although nominally still a member of the Commonwealth, Ireland had declared itself neutral on the outbreak of war. This was tacitly recognised by the British, who appointed Sir John Maffey as a de facto ambassador shortly afterwards. The most immediate threat to Ireland’s neutrality was the IRA, which in 1938 had come under the leadership of Seán Russell, a proponent of a bombing campaign in England. In January 1939, Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, received an ultimatum from the IRA, demanding the withdrawal of all British forces from Northern Ireland. On the expiration of a four-day period, the IRA detonated several large bombs in power stations and electrical installations in London, Manchester and Birmingham. By July, one hundred and twenty IRA bombs had detonated throughout England, causing over one hundred casualties. The S-Plan, as the IRA labelled their bombing campaign, was the brainchild of an electrician and explosives expert, Seamas O’Donovan. The S-Plan had in fact been opposed by several hardliners within the IRA; Frank Ryan in particular, still in a Spanish prison, is said to have been appalled by news of the terrorist campaign. Things came to a head about a week before the outbreak of the Second World War, when an IRA bomb in Coventry killed five people and injured sixty. This was a particularly controversial bombing, for which two IRA men were later hanged.
The bombing campaign had attracted the attention of the Abwehr (German military intelligence), and as early as February 1939 an Abwehr agent was dispatched to Dublin to contact the IRA. Although badly briefed, he succeeded in meeting the IRA leadership and invited them to send a representative to Germany to discuss possible cooperation. Seamas O’Donovan was selected and made at least three visits to Germany before the outbreak of war.
On 9 September 1939, a series of garda raids around the country netted a large number of IRA men, including most of the IRA’s ‘headquarters staff’ and $8,000, most of the organisation’s finances. The IRA continued to pose a serious threat to state security, however, and shortly before Christmas 1939 carried out a well organised raid on the Irish Army’s main magazine, netting a million rounds of small arms ammunition. A massive search operation by the Irish Army soon recovered not only all of the stolen ammunition but some of the IRA’s as well. At the end of December 1939, the gardaí seized an IRA transmitter in Rathgar, Dublin. This was the end of ‘Irene’, the code name for the radio link between the IRA and the Abwehr. In October, the Abwehr had received the first of several weekly messages, broadcast in four-letter groups. ‘Reception was poor, and the Irish WT operator was so unskilled that Abwehr could at least be certain that the code had not fallen into enemy hands.’ Nothing of any importance, in the Abwehr’s view, was broadcast. ‘From the IRA side messages were sent asking for delivery of arms and supplies, and a good deal of what Abwehr considered frivolous messages; for example, a message of congratulation to the Führer on the occasion of the sinking of the Royal Oak.’ The British battleship Royal Oak had been sunk at anchor by a German U-boat on the night of 13 October 1939 with the loss of 833 lives. Abwehr replies were ‘short and brief’, requesting that the IRA begin sabotage attacks on British military targets. ‘After two months, Irene went off the air. Nothing more was heard of it for the rest of the war, except for a few garbled messages which were later dispatched by Görtz. Apart from weekly broadcasts to Germany, the IRA had been using their transmitter to broadcast propaganda locally, allowing the gardaí to pinpoint its location.
By early 1940, with the introduction of military tribunals and mass internment of suspects, the IRA’s capacity to cause further trouble had been crippled, but certainly not vanquished. Their abilities, however, were rather outweighed by their ambition. In early 1940, an IRA courier named Stephen Held reached Germany with a grandiose scheme hatched by an IRA amateur strategist, in which the Germans were expected to land 50,000 troops in Northern Ireland. The IRA plan, later known as ‘Plan Kathleen’ was a work of fantasy, envisaging the union of the Irish Army and the IRA (bitter enemies since the vicious civil war of 1922–3) at the head of a popular uprising which would sweep the IRA to power:
The IRA suggested a joint IRA–German military operation for the conquest of Northern Ireland. In particular there was mention of an Irish lake (Carlingford Lough?) suitable for landing troop-carrying flying boats. Three or four other strategic points for airborne operations were also mentioned, from which British garrisons and military targets could also be conveniently attacked. Quantities of weapons and men were to be supplied to the IRA (Held was somewhat airy about the means of doing this) and it was anticipated that some of the Éire army would make common cause with the IRA. If there was sufficient German support, the IRA anticipated that the Irish people as a whole would rise to a ‘people’s war’, so that the first impetus of military insurrection would be carried to a successful military conclusion. The popular uprising would imply that the IRA would take over political power for the whole of Ireland. The IRA proposal was greeted with dismay. It seemed to show the IRA as unpractical [sic] dreamers with an obstinate single-mindedness. Plainly they had disregarded the agreement reached in Aug 1939 in Berlin and would not get down to hard work and concentrate on minor military targets within the scope of Abw II. Yet they were still potentially valuable allies and must not be bluntly refused. Held was given a non-committal answer and told that his plan would be considered. The Held proposition was forwarded without comment through routine channels to Abt Landesverteidung [planning department] of the General Staff, where it was promptly turned down.
It is amazing to relate that in January 1941 General Kurt Student, as commander of German airborne forces, proposed the dropping of 20,000 paratroopers and 12,000 airborne troops by night into Northern Ireland, capturing RAF airfields from which German fighter aircraft would operate. It was not a practical scheme: even if the Luftwaffe had a significant number of transport aircraft, or indeed any fighter aircraft, with the range to reach Northern Ireland (which it had not), the dropping of such a large force so far behind enemy lines without hope of reinforcement or resupply would have been an effective death sentence for most involved. Hitler himself gave the plan some consideration, even suggesting the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1916 Rising as a possible date. It might be facetious to point out that Student was still recovering from a serious head wound, having been accidentally shot by the Waffen-SS during the fighting in Holland. It should be noted that at this time, German airborne forces were flushed with success following their victories in western Europe, and it was not yet appreciated just how vulnerable air-landed forces were if they were not quickly reinforced. The Fallschirmjager (German paratroops) learned this lesson the hard way during the invasion of Crete.
The Abwehr continued attempts to establish links with the IRA. In early February 1940, Abwehr courier Ernst Weber-Drohl was brought by U-boat to the west coast of Ireland where he was to contact the IRA. His mission started badly, when a radio transmitter he had brought to enable contact between the IRA and the Abwehr was lost while rowing ashore. He succeeded in contacting Jim O’Donovan and delivered over £14,000 and instructions from the Abwehr which included a request to continue with the S-Plan in England and to dispatch an IRA agent to Germany to liaise on such matters as weapons supplies. Weber-Drohl, a sixty-year-old weightlifter, was eventually arrested and interned for the duration of the war.
On 9 April 1940, the ‘phoney war’ ended abruptly with the German invasion of Denmark, followed quickly by the invasion of Norway.
In the early hours of 5 May 1940, a black Heinkel He-111 bomber took off from the Luftwaffe airbase at Fritzlar, near Cassel and set course for Ireland. At the controls were Oberleutnant Edmund Gartenfeld, a pilot of near-legendary ability who was selected to fly several Abwehr agents to Britain and one more to Ireland. His ‘cargo’ was Hauptmann Hermann Görtz, a fifty-year-old lawyer and First World War veteran. Görtz was arguably the most famous German spy in Britain, having been arrested for spying on RAF installations in 1935 and serving three years in prison.
Shortly after Görtz’s aircraft had taken off from Fritzlar, a car from Berlin arrived at the Luftwaffe base, carrying Abwehr officer Kurt Haller and IRA leader Seán Russell. Russell had arrived in Italy a few days earlier, having travelled from New York aboard an American liner under an alias. He had been accorded VIP status, having been issued with a German passport and immediately transported to Berlin where he was accommodated first at a hotel and later in a villa at Berlin’s Grunewald. The day after his arrival, a conference took place between Russell and Abwehr officials in the presence of SS-Standartenführer Dr Edmund Veesenmayer, an SS officer attached to the German Foreign Office. It was suggested that Russell should meet Görtz before his Irish mission, and Veesenmayer ordered a fast car from the foreign office to transport Russell to Cassell immediately. An urgent message to the local Abwehr sub-office failed to arrive, however, and the meeting between Russell and Görtz did not occur.
Oberleutnant Gartenfeld’s task was not an easy one. Navigating an aircraft by night was a primitive science in early 1940. The only reliable method would have been to plot stars with a sextant; this would have required the pilot to fly straight and level for a distance, not advisable in hostile airspace. The weather forecast had been wrong, and a heavy cloud had blanketed Britain and the Irish sea, leaving Gartenfield blind for most of the journey. Görtz, wearing Luftwaffe uniform, jumped from the belly of the Heinkel at 5,000 feet over Co. Meath before dawn. This was an unusually high altitude for a static line jump, whereby the parachute is opened automatically by means of a thick webbing strap, because of Gartenfeld’s reluctance to fly any lower due to the mountains in the vicinity. This resulted in the loss of Görtz’s radio which had been dropped on a separate parachute. Although Görtz was subsequently evasive as to the location of his intended drop zone, having landed he set out on an epic 80-mile trek to Laragh in the Wicklow mountains. There he presented himself at the house of Iseult Stuart, wife of the Irish writer Francis Stuart who had been resident in Berlin since the previous January. Mrs Stuart arranged for Görtz to be moved to the house of Jim O’Donovan, after which he was transferred to the home of Stephen Held, which was anything but a safe house. This man, who had a German stepfather, had travelled to Germany as an IRA courier only the previous month. A short time later, the house was raided by the gardaí, who discovered Görtz’s medals, Luftwaffe insignia, his parachute and $20,000 in cash for the IRA, conclusive proof of German links with a terrorist organisation dedicated to overthrowing the Irish government. At about this time, the Irish government drew up a secret defence plan with the British in case of German invasion of Ireland. Although neutral, Ireland continued to adopt an increasingly pro-Allied stance as the war continued. Görtz evaded arrest and remained ‘on the run’ for some eighteen months, but without any hope of contacting Germany.