The air defence of Dublin and the North Strand Bombing by Michael Kennedy
The ruins had barely stopped smouldering on the North Strand and the bodies were still being removed from the rubble on the North Strand when Eamon de Valera summoned the German Minister to Ireland Edouard Hempel to Iveagh House. Now a previous speaker mentioned previous bombings. There was a bombing in Dundalk in July 1941; there’s some of the shrapnel from it and you can see from the label attached to it, incorrectly labelled Saor Stát Eireann, we know the Free State ceased to exist in 1937. But it says “Fragment bearing the imprint of an eagle removed from scene of bomb explosion, at George’s Quay Dundalk, 1941”. We were talking about sources earlier on and that’s what I want to return to in this paper. There are a great many sources on the North Strand Bombing still to be investigated and I want to talk about areas that we could look at.
But I’ll bring you back to the morning of 31st May 1941 with Eamon de Valera, the Taoiseach and Minister for External Affairs summoning the German Minister Edouard Hempel to Iveagh House to account for the Luftwaffe’s actions over Dublin the previous night. Hempel left for the Department of External Affairs immediately on receiving the Taoiseach’s call. It was midday on 31 May 1941. As his official car arrived at Iveagh House, Hempel knew he was in a ‘terrible position’. Then, as now, diplomats were only summoned in this manner at moments of grave crisis.
Hempel was brought to meet the head of the Irish diplomatic service, Joseph Walshe and he immediately expressed his ‘very deepest sympathy with the relatives of those who were killed, with the wounded, and with the Government in their great sorrow’. Walshe noted that Hempel was ‘moved and disturbed … quite clearly horrified at the tragedy. He did not make the slightest attempt to put the blame on other shoulders. His country’s airmen could not have acted deliberately, but through a tragic error, an action he did not want to happen again.’ Hempel spoke of the payment of reparations for the tragedy: there was no doubt in the German Minister’s mind that his countrymen and German aircraft had accidentally bombed the North Strand.
German aircraft had been flying over Ireland since 1940. They had dropped bombs on Ireland before, we heard about this in the first speech this morning, but never with such loss of life. Dublin had tried to explain Ireland’s neutrality to Berlin; the Air Corps had even scrambled fighters to attempt to intercept German aircraft over Dublin. Air Defence batteries had opened fire on intruding aircraft over Dublin and elsewhere. Indeed by this stage one German aircraft had already been shot down. It was, after all, a neutral’s right to defend its territory with force and I’ll return to this point later.
Walshe knew that Hempel was emotionally drained and on weak ground. Surely, he pressed the German Minister, surely he could now ‘make the greatest possible impression on his Government … so that he might convince them of the absolute necessity of keeping German airmen away from our territory altogether … the over-flying of our territory by German airmen had done nothing but harm to our relations’.
Within 48 hours of this summoning to Iveagh House, Ireland’s Chargé d’Affaires in Berlin, William Warnock, this is him on the left here, a slightly older picture of him again in Germany in the 1950s, he delivered a strongly worded formal note of protest to the Reich Foreign Ministry. At its heart were strong sentiments for a weak, powerless state:
No neutral country has suffered a single catastrophe from air bombing involving such extensive loss of life. The Irish Government desire to protest in the strongest manner against the violation of the neutrality of Irish territory by German aircraft bringing death and serious injury to persons and property.
The punch line was stark and couched in diplomatic language:
The Irish Government cannot emphasise too strongly that the strain imposed on Irish-German relations by such tragic events might well become insupportable.
Now it was unlikely that Ireland would abandon its wartime neutrality and enter the war at this stage, but Walshe had told Hempel in September 1939 that it would be an air attack on Irish territory that would bring Ireland into the war if this happened and he specifically mentioned a bombing raid on an Irish city. Underpinning neutrality was the message that the Defence Forces would engage militarily any attacks on or infringements of Irish territory. Col. O’Carroll talked about this this morning. I’ll show you a couple of photos here that, he didn’t have the opportunity to but maybe some of these will be the ordinances and equipment you would have mentioned Col. O’Carroll. This man I particularly like; off to do a good day’s work with his Lewis gun or whatever it is. And then this particular one which could be the caption competition of the afternoon, with the airmen being shown “This is a bomb”. But I don’t want to be facetious; there is too much facetious writing about the Irish military during the Second World War and too much Dad’s Army. And I think as Col. O’Carroll made clear this morning these were young men with a very serious job ahead of them and General McKenna, the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces knew that very clearly, as did the officers commanding the various divisions.
Now German diplomats told Warnock the attack on the North Strand could not have been on purpose. The foreign ministry in Berlin categorically stated that ‘there was no reason to believe that German aircraft dropped bombs on Irish territory.’ Well they would say that, wouldn’t they? Yet fragments showed that the bombs dropped on Dublin were German. Perhaps maybe, strong high altitude winds on the night had blown German aircraft off course this was the German rationale for it all and they had reached the Irish east coast of Ireland, and the possibility could not be excluded that such aeroplane(s) had dropped the bombs on Dublin. Berlin ultimately expressed sincere regret and said it would pay compensation, but as you will know it was not until the end of the 1950s that compensation would be paid. The ‘strictest instructions’ were issued to prevent the possibility of similar incidents in the future.
Now we know that there had been incidents in the past. I’ll show you some footage here. This is propaganda, I should add: (Video footage, narrator’s voice)
Eire is on guard. The Nazi menace has started an attack on Eire accusing her of not observing strict neutrality. Eire is not being fooled so she is redoubling her defensive measures. Her airforce is continually patrolling the coast on the lookout for intruders while armed boats keep a sharp eye at and below sea level. The Government of Eire states that it has no intention of departing from its policy of neutrality adopted last September. But she is taking the precaution of placing her harbours and other coastal areas under military control, which is of course very wise. Eire is ready with her answer if the Germans attempt any sort of aggression against her. (bombing noises). Eire is on guard.
Now De Valera, Walshe, Department of External Affairs, the Defence Forces they had seen it all before the morning of 31st May and there was nothing unfamiliar about the events leading up to the North Strand bombing. The Defence Force’s G2 Branch – Military Intelligence – had identified the types of German aircraft that had theoretically dropped the bombs, they knew the routes of these aircraft and they knew the peak times they would pass. Yet nobody could and nobody can categorically say why the bombing took place, and I don’t think historians will ever answer that. What we are is some kind of meeting point between urban myths, oral histories and the factual preserved contemporary record.
I’ll show you here a chart from military archives showing the tracks of aircraft off the Irish coast in the days leading up to the North Strand Bombing. The chart for the actual day of the bombing is missing, as happens with sources now and again, they are taken for special reasons and they vanish. But you can see the confused pattern of air traffic off the Irish coast in the days leading up to the bombing.
Now wartime diplomatic history suggests that some of the theories about the North Strand Bombing are questionable and we’ve covered some of these already. Calling the bombing the German response to neutral Ireland sending fire engines north of the border is unlikely. Hempel knew de Valera’s views on partition. And he would if he had made any response, made a diplomatic protest; that would have been more likely. But Hempel took that kind of action sparingly. He only protested to External Affairs when German interests were at stake and he particularly did this regarding the internment of German airmen at the Curragh when as we heard in a previous paper Allied airmen went free.
Then there is the question of why would Germany bomb Irish Territory to teach it a lesson? That doesn’t make sense. Germany had reason to do this but not in May 1941, rather in January 1941, because in December 1940 was the highest point of German Irish tension during the war. When External Affairs on de Valera’s orders forbade the flying into Ireland of four extra members of the German Legation. They were military officers they would be used as spies in the country. And Dublin said no you cannot fly them in; Hempel said we will here’s the aircraft codes, the radio frequencies we will use, we will land at Rin Eanna. Dublin said no, the defence forces were put on alert, all leave was cancelled and it looked as if this refusal was the pretext for an invasion. As we saw earlier there were scattered bombings in January 1941 but it does not if anything have the air of a concerted response to that event and neither does the North Strand bombing to the sending of fire brigades to Belfast.
The ‘bending the beam’ theory is also discredited. We know that radio navigation aids could be jammed but not bent. Beams could not be bent to divert German aircraft to a specific target. So what we actually see when we look at it are the tracks of aircraft over the night the North Strand was bombed, we see a lost force unaccountably milling around looking for its path home, dropping its bombs at various locations not just on the North Strand I should add. So many of the theories fall apart with a little investigation.
I could suggest my own, and what I am about to say is absolutely bad history so do not quote me on it. I’m going to say it all the same, it shows how people can put facts together to come to incorrect conclusions or unsubstantiated ones. On 27 May, three days before the North Strand Bombing, a Luftwaffe HE-111 flying low over the military post at Rosslare was engaged with heavy machinegun fire with the troops from the Third Battalion. The G2 report on the incident states that ‘hits were observed’ and it appears that the aircraft crashed off the Blackwater Bank. I’ve never been able to substantiate this but I’ve seen it written. So let’s put all this together: could news of this incident have spread amongst the German squadrons – the Irish are getting jumpy, they are now beginning to shoot at us, we must be prepared for this? Then, when, on night of 30-31 May German aircraft were actually engaged over Dublin they remembered what had happened some days earlier, that a crew never returned, they were shot up over Ireland. So the night of the North Strand Bombing they drop their ordinances, make a quick escape and effect a speedier exit? Now there is no basis to this what so ever, I’m putting two facts together from totally different sources and I don’t think they add up, I’ve certainly no proof that they add up. Unfortunately that is the issue you get with a lot of the history surrounding the North Strand Bombing little expertise being put to use and coming to incorrect conclusions. But as a journalist, a prominent journalist in a national paper said to me once, why let the facts get in the way of a good story, and that is what’s happening an awful lot here.
My serious point is that there are so many gaps in our understanding of the North Strand bombing and more research is needed. A real gap is in the story is the lack of investigation of German records. The sources used as well are getting incredibly dated; Fisk is terribly out of date now. There are new British records becoming available on almost a monthly basis, some were released yesterday. So really a sustained examination of the sources is need to try to put the material on the North Strand Bombing together, not just from the copious Irish sources that exist. The confused story of Heinrich, I think was relayed again on John Bowman’s programme last week; no validity as a historical source, no evidence who the man was I could have done it for all you know. Leo Sheridan’s story of Operation Roman Helmet – this deliberate attack on Dublin – again unsubstantiated, never seems to have made the sources available, not valid historical evidence. So I’m not saying this to attack these people, what I’m saying is that there are many, many gaps in our understanding of three hours on the night of 30 to 31 May 1941. What I’d like to try and do is piece together, what I think could have happened using on the spot real time sources and they are from the Defence Forces marine and coast watching service. Those little huts around the coast that we spoke about earlier on. The men up there were not there to repel an invasion as was suggested earlier, they were there to provide intelligence operational information to the Defence Forces on the situation around the Irish coast, because as Col. O’Carroll mentioned we had no naval forces so a land-based force would be best. So those little huts are an essential part of the intelligence gathering apparatus of the Defence Forces during the Second World War.
Despite the accumulation of evidence that we’ve got, in most accounts of the North Strand bombing, such as Kevin Kearns’ excellent oral history of the bombing, the German aircraft simply appear over Dublin and the argument revolves around to an extent the rationale for the ‘air raid’. He’s quite shaky on the military side and I’m no expert. I found that when I read my own ‘Guarding Neutral Ireland’ preparing this paper there were flaws in what I regarded an excellent account when I wrote it. Then I went back to look at it over the last few days and I thought, “I’m wrong. I’ve made mistakes here”. So what I’m trying to do is look at the Coast Watching Service logbooks in this paper and try to put the events of the night together from actual sources from the time. And it comes back to a point that previous speakers have made, that in a tragic accident, bombs were dropped by aircraft, maybe running low on fuel seeking to reduce their weight, returning from an abortive raid on Belfast. Dublin was not the intended target, nor was Dublin necessarily mistaken for Belfast. Yet the actions of Air Defence Command, which I’ll now go on to speak about and the thirty minute gap between the explosions could lead to the conclusion that the bombs that exploded on the North Strand were dropped as a result of an inexperienced, tired or disorientated air crew mistaking Dublin for Belfast, or perhaps on seeing the flak explosions or the fires caused by the initial explosions half an hour earlier, or also perhaps of a crew who did not care where it dropped its bombs. Now as I’ll argue later this argument does not totally fit the picture, so I’m a bit at a loss. What I can do is go back to air defence plans.
These anticipated large-scale concerted air attacks on the city, not random actions by a handful of aircraft as occurred in May 1941. After seeing the destruction caused by air power during the Spanish civil war, as we heard earlier, de Valera was terrified of air attacks on Dublin. Committees were set up to look at the security of the city and national treasures were to be moved to a convent in Tourmakeady where they would stay for the duration of the war. Yet in terms of actual defence the Defence Forces in 1938 only possessed obsolete 3-inch anti-aircraft guns. Procuring anti-aircraft weaponry became a priority for de Valera as war loomed; as we heard earlier there was never any doubt from around 1938, if you look at the G2 reports and also Irish diplomatic traffic from the continent, war was coming. de Valera wanted an armed neutrality. He wanted money spent on weaponry but the Department of Finance and the Department of Defence could not agree as to what would be spent. When the orders went forward for weapons, they were put forward too late. Eighty-four anti-aircraft guns and seventy-four searchlights were ordered but the outbreak of war meant the full complement was never delivered.
Through 1940 Britain released limited amounts of military equipment to Ireland. These included modern 3.7” anti-aircraft guns, Bofors 40mm guns and searchlights. By November 1940 Dublin had fourteen guns in use, but it was still woefully under defended from aerial attack and air defence command could mount little beyond point defence of the city centre. By spring 1941 Belfast had twenty-four heavy guns and fourteen light guns, half of its approved strength. The problem was not the type of equipment, this is one of the most modern anti-aircraft artillery pieces at the beginning of the Second World War; this equipment is modern, but it’s the low numbers of each gun at the disposal of the Defence Forces and the lack of ammunition available that cause a problem. Now the gunners that I have interviewed said two things to me one we were never told to conserve ammunition if they had to counter a threat and two we were told that we were beholden to no body when using the guns, i.e. you can fire on the British even though we bought them from them. Irish money was used to pay for them and that’s it, we can open fire on who ever we like.
The Vickers 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun, it’s a heavy gun, a British design and Ireland initially possessed six of them. They were also the backbone of Britain’s defences during the battle of Britain. In Dublin these guns were deployed at Ringsend Park in a half-battery of four guns, and in a pair at Clontarf beside the tram depot. Supporting these guns were the four obsolete medium 3-inch guns that I’ve mentioned and also the four Swedish-designed Bofors-40s, which were deployed at Baldonnel and Collinstown. These were light and mobile pieces and they had the power to knock down aircraft of any size.
Let me see if I can show you some of these in action. (Video footage)Video narration:
The Irish Free State has received the usual advance warning from Germany. The armed forced of Southern Ireland are on guard day and night. We have seen again and again that when Hitler intends to attack a neutral he first makes accusation that the perspective victim has failed to observe the rules of neutrality. Norway, Denmark, Holland and Belgium have cause to remember that. Around the coast of Eire there is a constant watch. A small army has had intensive training. Thousands of new recruits have recently joined the column. Here are some of the airports. (music and the sound of aircraft engines). We all know the Irish fighting spirit. Eire must not seek the help of Britain only when it is too late. She has won her independence from Britain after years of bitter quarrel. (Michael Kennedy: Again listen to the propaganda) Let Ireland ask the help of Britain now lest her hard won independence be lost to Germany. There is no doubt that Eire means to fight an attack but sure as her fighting forces are can be no match to the organised slaughter machines of the Nazi. Britain’s navy, army and air force are willing to stand beside these cousins of ours in the Emerald Isle. Then there can be no doubt as to the result of any invasion
(end video footage).
Michael Kennedy: I need not tell you that is propaganda, I think you have probably worked that out. So let’s get back to where we were.
Beyond the weaponry I’ve spoken about there were also searchlights and obsolete equipment called sound detectors, which did just that and also an equipment called predictor instruments, that helped get the track of the aircraft for the gunners to lay fire at. Beyond these the most important equipment in the possession of Air Defence Command was the telephone. It was the telephones in the coast watching services lookout posts from Blaggan Point in Co. Louth round the south and the south-east coast to Hook Head that would provide the first evidence or the first information if there was an impending air attack on Dublin. They would relay information to Air Defence Command Headquarters and the information would then be relayed to gun batteries. Gunnery officers commanding these batteries had the power to open fire on their own initiative.
The Air Defence Command control system appeared quite effective on paper. But if you look at the records from the night of the North Strand Bombing it clogged up due to the amount of messages that were passing through the system. Now this is what the defence of Dublin involved as I can see it, you know the map. You can see lookout posts, search lights, sound detectors, a kind of early warning system; aircraft bombing Dublin, the anticipation would be that they would come up along Dublin Bay, use the Liffey as a bomb aiming line and then they would be engaged by the anti-aircraft from these locations, the Vickers of Clontarf and Ringsend and the 3 inch guns at Booterstown. The areas they are protecting are the port, the GPO, Government Buildings, the telegraph exchange, Defence Forces GHQ. We have also got Ballyfermot, acting as part of this area and then the other guns at Collinstown and Baldonnel protecting the airfields. So it’s a reasonably well thought-out plan I would have thought. And this is roughly the idea; you can see what they are trying to defend against. They are placed about a mile away from the strategic targets they are defending. The idea behind these guns is that they are not necessarily supposed to shoot down the attacking aircraft, ‘their main effect was to disrupt attacks and thereby reduce their accuracy’.
Colonel W. P. Delamere, the head of Air Defence Command, considered ‘that the most likely direction of approach to our coast will be from the South East, South and South West’. In other words, it would come from the Luftwaffe. He had to be smart when allocating his anti-aircraft weapons to meet that threat. He could also rely on his men, who used hold ‘sweeps’ to bet ‘who would shoot down something first’.
Though few in number and unlikely to put up sustained resistance against waves of aircraft but the 3.7-inch guns could engage with a target up to six-and-a-half miles away. In Dublin, that’s approximately between Howth Head to the north-east and Killiney Hill in Dalkey to the south-east, the eastern limits of the no-fly zone over the city.
When the attacking aircraft crossed into the six-and-a-half mile radius of the gun’s engagement, roughly by flying over Dublin Bay, the gun crews could open fire, the troops being trained that they would have thirty seconds to engage the incoming aircraft. As bombs had a ‘forward throw’, to strike Dublin’s port and docks they would have to be released up to a mile and a half from the target. As their bombing run would be at least two miles, the aircraft attacking Dublin would be in formation when they were over Dublin Bay or had passed the coast over Howth or Dalkey. By this time they would, if all went to plan on the defending Irish side, the incoming aircraft would have been tracked by look out posts along the coast and gun crews would be ready to meet them.
Exercises anticipated that Dublin would be ‘attacked by a large number of aircraft flying over the city in successive waves’, that’s a quote from the exercise document and the attack would take about an one hour period. The raid would be ‘widespread’ though ‘the main weight of the attack’ would be ‘directed at certain selected points’, dropping 77,000 pounds of high explosive and 9,500 pounds of incendiary bombs. Two thousand casualties were expected.
By May 1941 Defence Forces knew that German air activity over Irish followed a set pattern. German aircraft flew over Ireland at night from the South towards Dublin before turning east towards Liverpool. They made landfall at Tuskar Rock or Hook Head lighthouse, then flew up the east coast towards Wicklow Head or Bray about five miles off shore – outside Ireland’s three mile territorial limit – they checked their position by the lights of Dublin, and they returned to the east coast north of Dublin by turning west at the Rockabill lighthouse off Skerries.
During Luftwaffe raids on Belfast in April and May 1941 the air crews were warned by Hermann Göring to stay out of neutral Irish territory but coastwatchers and observers along the east Irish coast spotted several German aircraft in Irish airspace all of them heading north.
On the night of 28 May the Luftwaffe were again off the Irish coast in strength. Fifty heavy bombers flew north along the south coast in three identifiable waves. It seemed they were heading for Dublin. They passed east of the city. They were searching for Cardiff or Liverpool and confused when the land below them no longer matched their bomb aimers’ maps, they almost bombed Dublin in error. When they realized their mistake, several aircraft jettisoned their bombs off the east coast of Ireland. Bray Head Lookout Post noted continual heavy explosions and bright flashes between midnight and 0200am including four ‘very heavy explosions’ to the north-east of the post which seemed ‘very near’. This was a sign of things to come a couple of days later. Bray Head’s timings were an almost exact precursor of what would happen in two night’s time as German bombs fell on the North Strand.
The night of 29 May was quiet, there was only one aircraft noted off the east coast. Visibility was poor in rain with an overcast sky. The Luftwaffe seemed to have stayed away. The thirtieth of May began quietly. It was a clear and sunny day, but a sea fog fell as night began. The Luftwaffe returned. Look out posts along the east coast reported the first of three waves of incoming aircraft over the Wexford coast at 23.40 and 23.48. They flew north along the coastline, probably heading for Belfast but were reported as flying further inland than before: the question is now was a threat to Dublin developing or were these aircraft lost? Poor visibility and changeable wind on part of the night was commented upon by both Irish and German sources.
The air raid alarm was sounded in Dublin at 2348 and code ‘YELLOW’, the preliminary air raid warning, was issued. The guns and searchlights around Dublin went on standby and men were ‘stood to’. This is exactly what had happened on previous nights and so far there was nothing out of the ordinary – except perhaps that the aircraft were a little further inland than before and even that’s arguable.
The individual courses of the incoming aircraft now became unclear. Ballyconnigar Hill look out post, near Blackwater heard the sound of aircraft coming from the south-east and south-west, travelling north-east in line with the coast at about 8,000 feet. Wicklow Head look out post reported continuous sound of aircraft flying north. Air raid warning ‘RED’ was given to gun crews in Dublin at 23.58. The hostile aircraft were passing Wicklow Head and entering the anti-aircraft artillery zone. ‘The reports from Air Defence Control carried information that seemed to indicate a developing threat to the city.’
At 0002 Bray Head Look out post picked up the trail of the incoming aircraft. The German bombers were estimated to be eight miles south-east and three miles south-west, travelling north towards Dublin, just as Commandant Delamere had predicted. But the aircraft were too far inland. Were they off course or were they closing on Dublin.
The sound detectors in Dalkey picked up the approaching first wave and the Dalkey and Sandycove searchlights unsuccessfully attempted to illuminate them. A searchlight battery made an easy target. The Irish practice was to use searchlights as and when they could and they ‘were exposed and doused intermittently until 02.13 hours’.
The first wave of aircraft passed over Dublin city just after midnight and they continued north. A look out post to the North [Dunany Point] continued to pick them up coming as a second wave at 0026. The last of the three waves came in over Carnsore Point at 0034. Aircraft were regularly seen over Dublin between midnight and 0200, first from the south and south-east travelling north and then turning around and flying southwards again having failed to find their targets in Northern.
These returning aircraft were successfully illuminated for anti-aircraft gun action on three occasions and the city’s batteries opened fire on at least one occasion during the night. They had orders that ‘all aircraft with the exception of aircraft identified as Irish be fired on without warning. Fire should, however, not be opened unless there is a reasonable chance of a normal engagement.’
Now Kearns’ recent work says that tricolour flares and red flares were fired to warn the aircraft they were over neutral Irish territory and so they’d be fired on, and that contradicts the official source there, the official instructions, but that’s another one of the gaps we have in our understanding of the night.
At 0035 Clontarf was the first of the Dublin defences to open fire, firing four rounds when it locked on to an unauthorised aircraft caught in a searchlight beam moving north to the east of the city. The direction of this flight suggests that it did not have Dublin as its intended target. The aircraft dodged the beam and the rounds; ‘the proximity of the bursts in relation to the target could not be estimated’.
There followed ‘an interval’ of just over an hour before ‘the anti-aircraft defences opened up with greater intensity’. The point I’m making in these two [slides] is where from a very orderly progression north the progression south again was slightly more chaotic and the flashes indicate explosions heard at various locations. Between 0128 and 0131 the batteries at Ringsend, Clontarf, Stillorgan and Ballyfermot opened fire on two ‘large twin-engined monoplanes’ coming from the north at an estimated 8,000 feet. The Bofors battery at Collinstown Airport fired twice, at a similar aircraft but one that was at a much lower altitude. In the first of these two engagements by Collinstown the targeted aircraft was flying north, but on being fired upon it turned and flew south-east toward Dublin Bay. And you can see a rough idea of what the records tells us about the tracks.
The aircraft fired upon by Ringsend and Clontarf was caught in a searchlight beam. Of the eight rounds fired (four by each battery), two from Ringsend were observed to be ‘in the centre of the beams and close to the target’ and those from Clontarf ‘very close’. However, the aircraft jinked to escape the searchlight beams and explosions. Seven rounds were fired by Ballyfermot and Stillorgan but the pilot took evasive action before the shell bursts and ‘no observations for effect [were] possible’.
Against popular images of continually firing box barrages during the London blitz, the action of the Irish crews in firing such a small amount of ordinance each might seem conservative and parsimonious. However, the box barrage involved guns firing into a box of sky without adequate information as to the location of the target. It wasted ammunition and with those images of constantly weaving searchlights you see during the Blitz, it was very good for public morale, but not much good for shooting down aircraft. This would have been an inappropriate response in the Dublin as at all the batteries had reasonable information regarding the targets available and targets were engaged after first being successfully illuminated by searchlights. So you see all the elements of air defence working together in this engagement.
When it comes to looking at the bombs that were dropped on the North Strand, the American military attaché in Dublin reported how four high-explosive bombs were ‘indiscriminately’ dropped on Dublin during the engagement. We know roughly where they landed and we are all familiar with this. The interaction I suppose is the locations where the bombs were dropped roughly tally with the tracks of the aircraft that were fired upon over the city. The question we can’t really answer from the sources is who fired first? Whether the bombs were dropped as a result of the anti-aircraft crews opening fire or vice versa. Clocks at the time were not synchronised properly, you can see this with coast watching posts. But we know that in or about the same time as the anti-aircraft guns fire opened fire the first bombs were dropped on the North Strand.
Commandant Maurice McCarthy, who reported on the anti-aircraft operation, concluded that ‘the pilot of this aircraft, being unable to avoid the beams, thought it safer to jettison his bomb load rather than risk it being detonated as a result of a hit by AA shell’. This suggests that the bombs were dropped on Dublin after, and possibly as a result of, the city’s defences opening fire.
As the aircraft released bombs over Dublin, German aircraft were present in the skies along the entire east coast of Ireland returning south from its failed raid on Belfast. They were unable to locate their targets; they were returning home. Dunany Head look out post logged two explosions to the south-west at 0103 and four heavy explosions out to sea. It also noted aircraft dropping red and white flares, which Tony Kearns was telling me this morning might indicate the command to drop your weaponry and return home, call off the operation.
Then at 0205 in the morning a landmine, I see some of it is outside on display, possibly a 500kg Luftmine A. I had great difficulty finding the actual weight of the bomb, the reports all say 500lb, but Germany didn’t have a 500lb landmine, it’s 500kg, so again we’re back to this problem over sources. No heavy anti-aircraft battery is recorded as having opened fire on the aircraft, which dropped this bomb except perhaps the one at Collinstown which fired on an aircraft at 0145. A contemporary G2 report argued that the first three bombs were dropped by one aircraft and ‘since this plane was heard to circle the sky for some time afterwards, it is also possible that the fourth bomb was dropped from the same aircraft’. Then there was another suggestion that an aircraft came inland at Dun Laoghaire at 0140, skirted the west side of the city, flew west and north and flew due east over Dublin city ‘dropping [a] large bomb at 0202 on the site of fires started by [the] first of [the] two previous bombs’. So one problem I have is the nature of this landmine, they are parachute delivered from what I understand. They have a silk parachute attached to them and fall at 40 mph. What altitude would you need to be at to drop a bomb to explode on the North Strand the way it did at that time? So there are questions there.
Now to bring all this to a conclusion, an Air Corps flight over Dublin on the night of 5–6 July 1941 recreated the conditions experienced by belligerent aircraft flying over Ireland the night the North Strand was bombed. That pilot said that although lighting in suburban streets had been extinguished there was little difficulty recognizing central Dublin. However, he added that it was difficult to locate exactly the limits of the “built-up” area of the city generally’. Nevertheless, on the night Dublin was bombed the pilot could see the ground, and ‘any pilot, provided that he is below cloud and making any effort to check his position from ground features and lights, would have no difficulty in locating his position from the lights of the east coast and Dublin City’. There may have been something in this. This man here, pictured beside de Valera, this man here is Michael Rynne, you probably won’t have heard of him, he was the legal advisor External Affairs during the war. He noted ‘in all previous cases the bombs were dropped at the canals or outside them – never inside the O’Connell Street – d’Olier Street area’.
The Department of Defence noted that towards the end of May German 1941 flights along the east coast ‘became confused and aimless and it was impossible to plot the course of these aircraft’. It is significant that it was during January and May 1941, two periods of particularly confused and aimless flying, that bombs were dropped on Ireland. In both cases these periods of confusion ended following nights when bombs were dropped.
Now we were talking about public opinion in the previous speech, when the inter-party Defence Conference met in Leinster House on 5 June it discussed the bombing of Dublin. The Minister for Defence Oscar Traynor read out a report on the events. I quote from the minutes here and Frank Aiken’s papers in UCD. Agreement ‘was expressed with the action taken by the Army in firing on planes illuminated by searchlights’. There had been, however, ‘an unfavourable reaction of the general public to the bringing into operation of the ground defences’, but the meeting agreed that the engagement by the anti-aircraft defences was ‘necessary in order to protect the integrity of our territory … against belligerent aircraft’. This is the crux of the matter from the military-diplomatic perspective. Irish neutrality was the ultimate show of sovereignty, as Joe Walshe wrote ‘small nations like Ireland cannot become the defenders of just causes except their own’. Ireland would simply look after its own interests. Ireland was neutral. Ireland declared its neutrality and the manifestation of that neutrality is another matter. This brings me back to the point about defending neutrality. What happened over Dublin on the night of the North-Strand bombing was arguably a limited engagement between the Defence Forces and the Luftwaffe. As Michael Rynne put this point: ‘we still recognise a general obligation to prevent belligerents from over-flying Irish territory, and, from time to time, demonstrate our sincerity of purpose by firing on planes.’
So what happened on 30-31 May 1941 a scattered force of bombers having failed to find their assigned target did what Allied and Axis crews across the theatres of war did when they were lost and low on fuel. They dropped their excess weight to improve flight time, speed and altitude. In this case over Dublin, tragically it was a portion of their bomb load. Most aircraft on the night passing the east coast jettisoned their bombs out to sea, the Look out post reports clarify that, but two, perhaps three aircraft over Dublin did not, with tragic consequences. And one is left with a sobering thought when reviewing the surviving evidence of the military response to the North Strand Bombing. Here were the Defence Forces actively and defensively engaging an external enemy threatening Ireland’s independence and sovereignty. A mere declaration of neutrality could not keep the Second World War from Ireland. The defence of the state, the defence of sovereign territory is not something to be taken lightly, and Air Defence Command’s actions on the May Bank Holiday weekend of 1941 show the real responsibility of defending Ireland and they also show the tragic cost.