Irish Navy sailors and Dunkirk
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