Ir­ish Navy sailors and Dunkirk

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - COMMENT - By Kevin Dug­gan

THE theatre of de­spair that was the Bat­tle of Dunkirk in May 1940 un­ex­pect­edly be­came the first se­cret and un­of­fi­cial prov­ing ground for the Ir­ish Navy. Some 400,000 Al­lied sol­diers were stuck on the cold beaches of Dunkirk, France, sur­rounded by Ger­man troops on all sides. The Nazis be­gan bom­bard­ing them from the air like fish in a bar­rel.

Civil­ian ships of all shapes and sizes were sent out from Eng­land by the Royal Navy to res­cue the stranded troops. But a lesser known story is the Ir­ish ship full of Ir­ish Navy sailors that de­cided to lend a help­ing hand and join the res­cue ef­fort even though Ire­land was neu­tral dur­ing the war. In May 1940, the newly formed Ir­ish Navy bought some Mo­tor Tor­pedo Boats (MTBs) from the Bri­tish ship­build­ing com­pany Thornycroft in Southamp­ton. But be­fore they could bring the ship back to Ire­land, the evac­u­a­tion be­gan on May 26 and lasted un­til June 4, 1940. Gerry O’Neill was an en­gi­neer from Fer­moy, Co. Cork, who joined the Ir­ish Navy in his early twen­ties. He was on the ship that made two cross­ings to Dunkirk. In Robert Wid­der’s 2010 book Spit­ting on a Sol­dier’s Grave, Mr O’Neill gives a first­hand ac­count of how he ex­pe­ri­enced the events. ‘Our skip­per had been in the Royal Navy, and he de­cided to join the res­cue fleet. He asked us if we’d vol­un­teer, which we did. We made two trips across the chan­nel. The idea was to get in [to the beach] and get out – fast,’ Mr O’Neill says in the book.

Af­ter the two trips, the boat re­turned to the naval base in Haulbow­line, in Cork, where the crew were sworn to se­crecy about the in­ci­dent. The Ir­ish gov­ern­ment of the day of­fi­cially re­mained neu­tral in the Sec­ond World War but more than 70,000 Ir­ish cit­i­zens joined the Bri­tish war ef­fort, thou­sands of whom de­serted from the Ir­ish De­fence Forces, claims Mr Wid­der. His book out­lines the harsh treat­ment of Ir­ish sol­diers who joined the ef­fort by the Ir­ish gov­ern­ment.

rEs­cuE Ef­fOrt: As Ire­land was of­fi­cially neu­tral, the Ir­ish sailors who went to Dunkirk were sworn to se­crecy

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