The Irish Army During the Emergency

The Transformation of the Irish Army During the Emergency.
A talk by Colonel Donal O’Carroll at the North Strand Bombing and the Emergency in Ireland seminar held at Dublin City Library & Archive on 29 May 2010.

You can listen to a recording of the lecture or scroll down to read a transcript.


Colonel O’Carroll: Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

Crowd: Good morning!

Colonel O’Carroll: I regret to say that I have got no pictures to show you, my arrangements for doing so as it were broke down. So you’ll have to accept me instead of the visuals. The title that I have been given ‘Transformation of the army during the Emergency period’ seems to be rather apt in that there was indeed a considerable transformation.

Now in considering the army during the period of the Emergency it is necessary to take a brief look at the pre-war situation. From about 1924 there was a continuing cutback in financial allocation for defence until by the 1930s it was of the order of £1,500,000 annually – just think of that, you wouldn’t buy a house in D4 for that. The forces were well below the already rather modest established strength and only some five percent of the defence vote was spent on warlike stores, that is on weapons and so on like that. We might ask why this was so.

The Civil War, 1922-23, saw the greatest ever strength of the Irish Army with over sixty thousand men under arms. The government set about drastically reducing this figure not only to save money but, also, to curb the army politically after the so-called army mutiny of 1924. Reductions throughout the twenties resulted in a force of little more than 5,000 men with a number of reservists. An addition was made in 1934 when the Fianna Fáil government, not long in office, formed the Volunteer Force as a first line reserve. The Volunteers were seen not only as a counter to the latent threat of the IRA but also to the officer corps of the regular army which had, of course, been the anti-treaty force of the Great War or the Civil War I should say. The strength of the Volunteers was at its highest over 9,000 though when it came to the call-up in 1939 the number was only about 4,000 or so it seems – it’s a bit vague.

Throughout the 1930s various submissions were made by the general staff for an army organisation that would reasonably be capable of defending the country from outside attack, particularly from Great Britain. From 1934 on, a requirement of four, and later six, brigades was envisaged. By 1938 a four brigade system was settled on and was later modified to two ‘reinforced’ brigades, that is ones with elements of all arms rather than simply infantry, but these plans were constantly opposed by the department of finance. In 1936 the Director of Intelligence forecast that war was likely to break out in Europe in 1938 or 1939 and that the defence forces should rearm in line with other European states. In a memorandum accompanying this report the chief of staff stated:

The limitation of expenditure on defence to £1.5 millions annually and the restriction of the strength of the defence forces to approximately 5,000, providing in theory a highly-trained cadre for expansion in war but in practice mainly employed in extensive guard and similar duties, seriously affects the effectiveness of the defence forces and our state of preparedness for national defence. Owing to lack of policy or objective the army is not prepared (that is wasn’t in a condition) to resist external aggression. It has not the necessary organisation or material and suffers from a lack of definite long-term policy. The time for delay is now past and although the department (of defence) has little information on international affairs beyond that available to the public it is nevertheless considered that there is a great danger of war in Europe.

The reference to the lack of information on international affairs was a thinly veiled criticism of the department of external affairs, which was letting nothing out.

The government and the Dáil in general were determined to follow a policy of neutrality in the event of war but the ability to do this was in question as long as the ports and associated forts of Cork, Berehaven and Lough Swilly remained in British hands as agreed in the treaty of 1921. The handing over of the ports in 1938 made the possibility of neutrality much greater but it did not resolve the opposed views of the departments of finance and defence in the matter of military organisation. Basically, the finance view was that provided we made it clear that this country would be in no way antagonistic to Great Britain we need have no fear of an attack from her, and that even if such an attack materialised formal resistance on our part would be futile. In terms of rearmament the department’s view was that we should limit ourselves to an increase in our air and anti-aircraft capabilities to guard against attacks from the air. The military view was that we had to defend against invasion from whatever quarter, which, of course would include Britain should she wish to occupy this country for her own security. Its emphasis, therefore, was on the building up of ground forces with such air capability as we could manage in terms of both finance and procurement. In the event, it has to be said that our airpower was to remain particularly weak.

In January 1939, the department of finance restated its position and the department of defence did likewise. For once, with the shadows of war looming, the defence submission was accepted and officers were sent to the War Office in London to place orders for anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, radios, Bren guns, artillery pieces and ammunition. They found that the British, while willing to accept the order, could not hold out any hope of delivery for a considerable time. Colonel (later major general) M.J. Costello and a principal officer of the department of finance were then sent to the United States but to Costello’s frustration all that resulted was the purchase of 20,000 Springfield rifles. When war broke in September 1939 the weapons picture was decidedly bleak.

No reference has so far been made to the naval question. This is because the treaty of 1921 left the offshore defence of the island of Ireland in the hands of the Royal Navy. Needless to say, with that arrangement no Irish government in the straitened financial circumstances that existed was likely to embark on any naval expenditure – a nice excuse to do nothing. Such efforts as were eventually made were very slight.

In March 1939, the establishment of the two reinforced brigades was authorised, though at this point they were gravely under strength. On mobilisation in September 1939 the strength of the army was substantially below that which was required. The establishment, that is, the ‘paper’ strength was: regular army 8,000; reserves, including the Volunteer Force, 29,500; a total of 37,500. Because all elements were under strength the total mobilised was only 19,123 on 28 September 1939. By 1 November it had dropped to 17,615 as some reservists were allowed to return to their civilian employment. Later, as the ‘phoney war’ – as the war in Europe at the time was called because no activity was going on there at all – as the phoney war continued, many more were released so that as the German offensive in Western Europe began on 10 May 1940 there were only 13,335 in service.

Ironically, the most immediate threat to national security at this time was seen as being internal rather than external. It was known that the IRA was in contact with Germany and might be receiving some form of aid from that quarter. While this was serious in so far as our own country was concerned, of equal or even greater worry was that this could compromise our relationship with Great Britain. Mr. de Valera had made it clear that a principal point of our neutrality was that this country would not be used as a base for an attack on Great Britain. As the Germans overran France and appeared on the Atlantic seaboard, the possibility of an IRA-assisted German invasion, however unlikely, loomed large. Thus the first Emergency employment of the army was in an anti-subversion role in the form of mobile columns. These varied in size but were typically composed of infantry in company or greater strength with additions in the form of one or two pieces of artillery and/or mortars, some engineers, a wireless van and possibly an armoured car. In all, eleven columns were raised with some reserves. This organisation lasted throughout 1940 and into 1941 by which time the IRA had been largely interned and other concerns had taken over.

On 7 June 1940, with the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk completed and the Germans closing in on Paris, a state of emergency was declared in Ireland. All reservists and members of the Volunteer Force not already on permanent service were called up, the five regular and eight Volunteer Force battalions were brought up to strength, and the number of brigades was increased from two to four. Five days before the declaration of the emergency, a national call to arms made on 2 June saw thousands enlisting and resulted in the raising of a further thirteen battalions, bringing the total to twenty six. Initially, the new additions were termed rifle battalions but by the spring of the following year they were being converted into standard infantry battalions and would be available for service in brigades if more of these formations were organised. By the end of 1940 there were some 40,000 men under arms. The four brigades were allocated one to each of the four commands, eastern, southern, Western and Curragh – and let me just say now briefly that the commands are the territorial divisions of the country, therefore they are static things. They came under the control of the command OC. Other initiatives at this time included the raising of some extra cavalry squadrons, the expansion of the Marine Service, and the raising of the Construction Corps and the Local Security Force. Early in 1941, three more brigades were organised bringing the total to seven.

Shortly afterwards the more difficult question of creating divisions was raised. Precisely why such an apparently obvious move should have caused difficulty is not clear. What is clear are the very tentative steps taken and the careful language employed in approaching the government on this matter; it took a long time. In the event, on 9 May the minister for defence gave authorisation for the formation of two divisions, which in a short time were organised and had staffs working. The seven brigades were allocated as follows: The 1st Division, 1st, 3rd and 7th Brigades; the 2nd Division, the 2nd, 4th and 6th Brigades; the Curragh Command got the 5th Brigade, which thus became an independent Brigade. By the summer of 1941 the structure of the Emergency army was almost completed though it was to be until 1943 that the artillery requirements for all the brigades could be met. In that year, ’43, too, the 8th Brigade was formed, though with a limited establishment.

It must be noted that, despite the existence of the divisions, the brigade was (and still is) the formation of all arms. Thus, each brigade consisted of three infantry battalions; an artillery regiment; a (cavalry) motor squadron; field companies of engineers, signals, supply and transport; a field ambulance (as the field medical company was then called); and military police. With the exception of the infantry battalions, who of course had their own numeral, each of these bore the numeral of the brigade to which it belonged making identification easier. Thus, the 1st Brigade had the 10th, 13th and 21st Infantry Battalions but 1st Artillery Regiment, the 1st Motor Squadron, the 1st Field Engineer Company, etc. While the bulk of the available forces were in the brigades there were many units that were under the control of the four commands. These were four infantry battalions, four armoured (more properly, armoured car) squadrons, thirteen cyclist squadrons, coast defence artillery batteries, and static establishments (mostly termed garrison companies) of the various corps and services. Now the Armoured Car Squadrons in fact then passed to the control of the divisions.

To complete this survey of the structure of the defence forces it may be appropriate to glance briefly at each of the branches, that is the corps, of the organisation.

The Infantry Corps

The infantry has always been the senior corps and in the Emergency army was by far the largest. With a total establishment of 22,906 in its twenty-six battalions the corps contained about 45% of the war establishment. The battalions were as follows:

  • Regular army: the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th Battalions
  • The Volunteer Force: The Volunteers incidentally had with their numerals, also territorial designations, so there was the 6th, 7th and 11th Dublin; the 8th Thomond; the 9th and 12th Desmond; the 10th Uisneach, and the 13th Connacht.
  • The Newly raised battalions were given the numerals from 14th to 25th, and oddly 31st

The infantry battalion of 881 all ranks consisted of a headquarters company, a machine-gun company and three rifle companies. Its most formidable armament was undoubtedly the sixteen Vickers medium machine-guns in the four platoons of the machine-gun company, a higher proportion it would seem than one finds in other armies. On the other hand it was weak in mortars and even weaker in anti-tank guns, a serious deficiency. The rifle companies had four platoons each, the platoons being further divided into three ten-man sections. With a light machine-gun (usually a Lewis gun but in some cases Bren guns) in each section, the rifle company was moderately well armed.

The Artillery Corps

The field artillery regiment had three field batteries of four guns each. This was only half the number of guns in a comparable British battery. Even this small figure was further diminished by the fact that at the outbreak of war there were only forty seven guns available, that is enough for only eleven batteries at four guns per battery with three guns left over, not quite enough for a mere four regiments let alone the seven required for the seven brigades. To make matters worse, the guns were of three different types making difficulties for both fire control and ammunition supply. Of the thirty-six guns received from Great Britain during the war, twelve were again of a different type. An anti-tank battery included in the regimental establishment was never able to be organised, and not until 1943 were the regiments brought up to the rather skeletal organisation described above. The position of anti-aircraft artillery was very bad at the outbreak of war with only six guns, four of which were obsolescent, and six light guns. Seventeen more 3.7 inch guns were received during the war, but we really had no proper air defence.

The Cavalry Corps

The Cavalry Corps is interesting in that it was, after some time, largely equipped with home-produced equipment. The name is somewhat misleading: there were no horses, nor had there ever been any, in the corps, which had formerly been known, rather more accurately as the Armoured Car Corps. The corps had no regiments but consisted entirely of squadrons, that is, company sized organisations, though these were of different types. There were two (later four) armoured squadrons, that is to say armoured car squadrons, seven motor squadrons (one for each brigade), a Bren-carrier squadron (later disbanded and the vehicles given to the infantry), and cyclist squadrons. The armoured squadrons were equipped with armoured cars, seventeen to each if available. The seven motor squadrons were to have four armoured cars each plus many lighter vehicles for their role as the patrol and reconnaissance elements of the brigades. The provision of armoured cars was a complex problem solved, as will be described later, by home production.

Finally, one must mention the thirteen cyclist squadrons, laughingly referred to as the ‘peddling panzers’ (laughter from the crowd). They were allocated not to the brigades but to the two divisions and to the Curragh Command and posted to various locations throughout the country. They were organised like rifle companies but were capable of getting rapidly into action and of covering ten miles in an hour, a very useful resource in an anti-paratroop role.

The other corps and services

The other corps and services need not detain us save to say again that they were organised in company-level units though, in most cases with more personnel than their infantry counterparts. The engineers, signals, supply and transport, medical and military police units were all fairly well equipped. All of these had both field companies, for service with brigades, and garrison companies that included the personnel managing such institutions as hospitals, signal installations, etc. In the Engineers, the garrison unit were called Maintenance Companies, looking after the sewers and things like that.

Home production

While for weapons, ammunition and other warlike stores Ireland had to rely mainly on outside sources of supply, many items were home-produced. Undoubtedly, the most important of these were armoured cars. The total armoured car requirement was seventy-nine, made up of seventeen each for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Armoured Squadrons (the 4th had things called Beaverettes) and four each for the armoured troops of the seven motor squadrons. Each motor squadron had one armoured troop and three reconnaissance troops. There were twenty-five on hands at the beginning of the Emergency, thirteen old Rolls Royces, eight Landsverks (newly-purchased, modern Swedish vehicles) and four Leyland vehicles fitted with Landsverk turrets, which is the really the business part of an armoured car. Colonel J.B. Lawless (who was later Director of Cavalry) and Commandant A.W. Mayne took on the task of designing an armoured body for a Ford chassis. Forty-two Fords were produced by Messrs Thompson of Carlow, and eight of a different design by the Great Southern Railways workshops at Inchicore. A final venture was the production of five heavier types again by Thompsons built on Dodge chassis, with turrets and armament similar to those of the Landsverks, giving a total in all of eighty vehicles. So we needed seventy-nine and there was one to spare at the end. In 1961 eleven of the Fords were airlifted to the Congo for UN service and they were the most useful vehicle that could be got even at that stage for that job. So they were Irish-produced armoured cars out in the Congo and doing great work.

Another venture in home production was the manufacture of grenades and anti-tank mines. Great Southern Railway supplied the casings for 100,000 grenades and the Army Ordnance Service produced the firing-sets. A workshop for filling the grenades was set up in the magazine fort in Phoenix Park. At least 5,400 anti-tank mines were produced by the Corps of Engineers. The grave lack of transport was at least partly compensated for by the purchase of civilian (often second-hand) vehicles, which were converted into scout cars, ambulances, gun-towers, etc. So I mean home production did a tremendous lot for the supply of necessary resources.

We might now, for interest, note where the major elements of the defence forces were stationed, but the Commands had rather faded into the background essentially with the creation of the Divisions. The headquarters of the four commands were in Dublin, Cork, Athlone and the Curragh. The Head Quarters of the 1st Division was in Collins Barracks, Cork and its brigades in: the 1st Clonmel; the 3rd Cork; the 7th Limerick. The battalions and other units of the brigades were in various barracks, camps, or requisitioned country houses, etc., as were available in the brigade area. The Head Quarters of the 2nd Division was in Carton House, Maynooth, the former residence of the Duke of Leinster and its brigades in: 2nd Portobello Barracks, Dublin, now Cathal Brugha Barracks lamentably, I’m afraid but there it is but they do change their names; the 4th in Mullingar; and the 6th in Collins Barracks, Dublin. Like the 1st Division its battalions were in a variety of accommodations. The Head Quarters of the 5th Brigade (which was independent of Curragh Command) was in Kilkenny. Outside of these we must remember the many places occupied by other troops: for instance the skeleton 8th Brigade in Rineanna (which is now Shannon Airport); the coast artillery were in the forts in Cork Harbour, Fort Berehaven and Lough Swilly; the many units in the Curragh Camp, including for instance the military college; the aerodromes at Baldonnel, Gormanston and Rineanna; the marine units in Cork and Dublin ports, and the various military hospitals.

By mid-1941 a remarkable amount of organisation had been achieved and a credible defence force was in place. It did, however, represent about the maximum possible given the virtual impossibility of obtaining further supplies not only of weaponry and ammunition but of petrol and other resources, save what little could be provided by Great Britain, this being something of an irony for Britain, officially at least, had to be regarded as a possible threat to us. Though it was a threat on one hand and the only place we could get resources on the other…an Irish solution.

Reference to the word threat prompts us to consider the country’s position in relation to others in view of its neutrality. A neutral obviously seeks to have peaceful relationships with its neighbours while being prepared for the worst. Ireland had to view both belligerents as possible aggressors, Great Britain because she could regard Ireland as a vulnerable area on her western flank that she might wish to occupy, and also for the desirability of retaking the ports as assets in her anti-submarine warfare; Germany, a threat because Ireland might be used as a stepping-stone in an invasion of England. While the ports had been handed over in 1938 it was with the apparent understanding that they would be made available to Great Britain in the event of war. Needless to say, this was not the Irish view. Considerable pressure was brought to bear on this issue, notably by the visits of a British minister, Malcolm MacDonald in 1940. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, was quite vehement on the question of Great Britain being denied the twin towers of the defence of the western approaches. How real the German threat was is not clear, probably not great in fact, but the existence of a plan for the invasion of Ireland, ‘Operation Green’, indicates that such a possibility was there. There was, of course, also a plan for the invasion of England, ‘Operation Sealion’. From a national defence point of view threats have to be taken seriously until they have been proved to be groundless.

The first step in countering a possible German involvement in Ireland was the drawing up in May 1940 of ‘General defence plan, number 1’. This was aimed at preventing an IRA rising with support from Germany and resulted in the column organisation already described earlier in my paper. Later, it underwent change and emerged as ‘Plan A’ in December 1941 when the defence forces were in a more realistic condition to conduct resistance. By this time Germany was committed in Russia and there was the possibility of British aid. The general focus of the defence was on the southern ports and harbours and on Rineanna. ‘General defence plan, number 2’ resulted from the fall of France and the escalating U-boat war when Britain’s exasperation with Ireland’s neutrality intensified. The plan was designed to counter British action to seize the ports of Cork, Bantry, the Shannon estuary and Lough Swilly, and the aerodromes at Collinstown (now Dublin Airport) and Baldonnel. It was estimated that the British could deploy a force of up to five divisions for operations in Ireland. To counter this, the Irish plan called for a defensive line on the line of the River Boyne, which is the first defensible area South of the border and extending it via Lough Ramor and Lough Sheelin to the Shannon and from there to the Curlew Mountains. Given the likely strength of the British force, the Irish defence was based on the holding of strong points including the forts themselves, which would be hard to take.

The danger of a British invasion was largely laid to rest by the confidential talks that took place between Irish and British military staffs early in 1941. While no formal agreement could be reached because of Irish neutrality, the understanding was that in the event of a German invasion British forces would come south and support Irish operations but there was to be no question of Irish forces coming under British command. Although not openly acknowledged by the Irish side, this was the British ‘Plan W’. A great understanding, indeed friendship, was reached between General McKenna, the Irish chief-of-staff, and General Franklyn, General Officer Commanding of Northern Ireland. Undoubtedly, the Anglo-Irish situation was considerably eased by the construction of the submarine base at Eglinton in Derry, which provided ready access to the north-western approaches to which trans-Atlantic shipping was now confined with the Germans in possession of the west coast of France. As it turned out, the ports of Cork and Berehaven would have been of limited use with shipping diverted to the north-western approach.

A major aspect of Anglo-Irish relations during the war was the intelligence co-operation between Irish military intelligence, dubbed G2, though it’s not a really accurate term and the British MI5. This was unknown to all but those involved on the Irish side and was little enough acknowledged subsequently by the British side save, again, by those directly involved. The story I think has since been pretty well written-up.

I think that we might at this stage look at what life was like in the Emergency army. Rapid expansion obviously brought difficulties: accommodation was often poor, especially in the requisitioned or hired buildings; food, though plentiful, since there was little rationing in Ireland, was often badly prepared, prompting one commentator to remark that ‘the best of food was often ruined’ by unskilled cooks; and there were at first some problems of discipline as the newcomers outnumbered the old soldiers who might in normal times be there to give example.

The main interest in examining the Emergency army has to be on the question of training. How good was the army? The honest answer to this is that standards varied. The basic training of the soldier seems to have been satisfactory. They were toughened with marching, had a decent level of rifle marksmanship and probably an even better standard with crew-served weapons such a light and medium machine-guns. The basic training of officers and NCOs was also satisfactory but advanced training was not. Very surprisingly, the Infantry School and the Command and Staff School of the Military College were closed down when one would have thought that they would have been adapted to provide tactical and, especially staff, training for the many hundreds of newly commissioned officers. This is even more surprising in that after the war the chief-of-staff remarked that there was a grave lack of trained staff officers during the Emergency. The training effort was hardly helped by the widespread outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 1941, which could have had the most serious consequences for the country, and caused many troops to be involved for a long period in the slaughter and burying of cattle. In 1941the first of the turf-cutting seasons began with great numbers of personnel assigned to the bog during what would be the best time for training in the summer. Many trained NCOs were drained off to act as instructors to the Local Defence Force which had been taken over from the Gardaí who had raised the force.

Large-scale field training is always hard to organise because of the resources required. However, in 1942 major exercises involving the two divisions took place in the River Blackwater area in Munster. 2nd Division marched from its stations in Dublin and the midlands and engaged the 1st Division in attack and defence exercises over several days. The results were deemed generally satisfactory but some weaknesses, especially in the area of supply were noted. The following year a major supply exercise was carried out in Co. Waterford to remedy this. The final all-army training event was the holding of the inter-unit competitions of 1944 in all corps except ordnance, which were designed to assess each unit’s combat and administrative ability according to the requirements of the corps to which it belonged. Prizes were awarded and such time-honoured trophies as the Marksman Cup and the Infantry Cup appeared for the first time.

By way of conclusion one might ask how did the individual soldier view his time in the Emergency army? Broadly speaking the answer is that it was a combination of hardship and enjoyment. The hardship aspect was the low pay (a private soldier received fourteen shillings a week less ten pence deduction for laundry and haircutting), poor food and rough living conditions. The enjoyment came from the fact that the great majority of all ranks were young and single in a world in which, for so many, thoughts about careers or similar concerns had to be deferred. Morale, on the whole seems to have been high. Repeatedly we hear that the comradeship within the units, good inter-rank relationships, training exercises, sport and ad hoc entertainments compensated for the hardships of camp, bog and low pay. Probably the best summary of discipline and morale is contained in the chief-of-staff’s comment in the 1945 report concerning the army’s response to the tense situation created by the American note incident of 1944 when he referred to ‘the sense of absolute discipline and calm confidence displayed by all ranks.’ And I think this is a good note on which to end.

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