Ireland World War Two Army

This is the story of the build up and actions of the Irish Defense Forces during the Second World War.
I have very few sources at present so the following comes mainly from the Irish Military History Societies special emergency issue of their journal "The Irish Sword"

The outbreak of war brought with it a renewed importance to the Defense Forces that they had not seen since the days of the War of Independence and the Civil War.  The ever present danger in the early period of the war of a German invasion was the greatest driving force behind the build up of the forces.  At the same time, there existed a threat from British forces across the border in Northern Ireland.  Long after the threat of a Nazis invasion had passed there was a need to protect the nation against any possible action from Great Britain and later again from US forces stationed there.  This aside, there was the need to give the impression that any breaking of Irish Neutrality would be met with vigorous action by the Irish Army.

Because of lack of funding, necessary equipment and other reasons, the Defense Forces faced an uphill struggle to reach a state where they could call themselves fully battle ready and capable of meeting any threat from any quarter.  The underlying strategy behind the forces actions were that they would be capable of putting up a respectable conventional defense before finally resorting to guerrilla warfare against the enemy.

In the telling of this story will I not attempt to make believe that had the panzers landed on the Wexford beaches that they would have been smashed back into the sea. I will however tell the story of the Defense Forces achievement of the necessary field forces with which they believed they could give an enemy as good as they got!

The Irish Army: 1939-1945

The Army on the Outbreak of War
The strength of the Army stood in 1938 at:
  • 5915   Permanent Defense Forces Members.
  • 4945   Members of the A & B Reserve Force
  • 9525   Members of the Volunteer Force

This PDF figure was less than 65% of its peacetime establishment of 8021 officers, NCOs and men.  The army staff thus with the apparent approach of war concluded that it was necessary to re think the policy on defense.  A 1938 report to the government from the General Staff reported that:

"the actual strength, organization and equipment of the existing forces restrict their value to that of an instrument for the preservation of internal disorder only."
It also said that in the event of war the only places where arms would be obtainable would be Britain or the USA.  It added that due to American neutrality laws it would be unlikely that weaphons from this quarter would actually become available.

That November, the Taoiseach and then acting Minister for Defense, Eamon DeValera, requested the defense forces to supply information on their plans and war organization.  The existing four-brigade proposals was determined to be impractical and instead it was decided for the time being, the staff would organize with what forces they had.  In response to this, the Army CoS returned a proposal for only one reinforced brigade!  Despite this rather tongue in cheek response it was finally decided upon to organize a two-brigade force, involving some further recruitment and the setting up of some new services with a war establishment of 37,500 men.  It was to be formed as follows:

The staff and government acknowledged that deficiencies in equipment would have to be made up before this kind of expansion could even attempt to take place.  This force was not even considered to be enough to defend the state but was considered the best choice at the time.  This proposal was put to the Dept. of Finance at the end of 1938.  The response from the minister on 16 January 1939 stated that the plans created were neither, 'inevitable nor essential' but did agree that in the event of hostilities Ireland would maintain her neutrality and determine to protect her independence from attack.

The report went on to suggest that it was assumed that Ireland would endeavor to not pose a threat to the security of Britain in the event of war and that because of this it should be assumed that the possibility of attack from this quarter should be ignored!  It suggested that in the event of an attack by Britain that no organized resistance be put up!  It gave its reasons as being the fact that the force being proposed indeed depended totally upon Britain for its equipment.  It also suggested that reliance should be placed upon the Royal Navy for Naval defense.  It concluded that the most likely threat Ireland would face would be from an enemy of Britain endeavoring to draw away British forces from the main fields of battle.

Interestingly, the report did point out one important flaw in the plans as laid out.

Mobilisation and the Phony War 1939-1940

In order to implement the decisions taken in the winter of 1938/39, the Army Staff set about organizing the 1st and 2nd Reinforced Brigades in the Curragh and Eastern commands respectively.

March 1939 saw the launch of recruiting drive for the Permanent Defense Forces, (PDF), but it only drew 468 new recruits to the colours. The Volunteer Force, (VF) began their recruitment drive in April. They age limits for recruits were set at 17 to 30 years with 90 days basic training followed by 9 days annual training. This again resulted in a poor intake especially when the number of men receiving social services payments at the time was considered!

1st September called for the Reserve to be called out on permanent service by the government. Despite this call the resulting strengths of the two brigades and five other garrison battalions was severely under strength. Even though the plans as determined in January 1939 called for a force of 37,560 it is estimated that the force under arms in 1939 never reached 20,000! Indeed by the end of the month of October the figure falling, due to some reservists being let go back to work in important occupations. Perhaps a more potent treat to the armies strength came once more from the Department of Finance. With the Phony War firmly entrenching itself in peoples minds, the civil servants began to demand a reduction in the army strength. At this time the figures were:

And so, on November 21st the Government informed the Army Staff that they did not consider the present situation to constitute a ‘war’ situation and for that reason
"It would not therefore be justified at maintaining the army at full war establishment mainly for financial reasons"

This decision resulted in a new ‘emergency’ establishment of 15, 350 being settled on. It allowed for the formation of a Marine and Coastwatching Service, Chemical Defense Service and an ARP system.

Since the existing Brigades were so under strength, it was decided to form local ‘Mobile Striking Forces’ or Columns in each of the Commands. At this time the armed forces were only active against the terrorist threat of the IRA. The army were used for security sweeps against this organization in the border counties definitely.

The formation of the Columns resulted in the following simple order of battle in May of 1940:

Command:No. of ColumnsOthersStrength
Eastern Command:1 Column300 troops
Southern Command:3 Columns+ Reserve550 troops
Western Command:5 Columns+ Reserve1070 troops
Curragh Command:1 Column+ The General reserve700 troops

In addition to this figure of 2320, there were an additional 11,500 troops employed on garrison duties. These figures are only for the Army itself and do not take into account the other arms including the Air Corps.