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Tom Wall

Hitler’s Irish Slaves, by David Blake Knox, New Island Books, 326 pp, €15.95, ISBN: 978-1848405967

North of Bremen, beside the small port village of Farge on the banks of the Weser river, stands the remains of a gigantic concrete structure, the Valentin Bunker, constructed by the Germans during the Second World War to assemble an advanced submarine prototype. It is now a museum and a memorial to the thousands of slave labourers who died during its construction. Included among the dead were a number of Irishmen, merchant seamen captured at sea between 1940 and 1942. Twenty-seven of these were fortunate enough to survive. One who didn’t make it home was William Knox, a cousin previously unknown to the author of this book, whose discovery led to this absorbing account of the plight of these seafarers and the apparent indifference of an Irish government concerned more about demonstrating even-handed neutrality than exposing inhuman treatment of prisoners.

Going to sea was an ambition of many adventurous Irish youths throughout the twentieth century. Becoming a seaman brought the alluring prospect of visiting countries they would otherwise never get a chance to see. There were a number of Irish shipping companies, but job opportunities were few and, in any event, the small Irish-registered fleet was largely confined to Irish Sea and short European routes until the creation of Irish Shipping in 1941. The huge British merchant fleet – in 1939 British reregistered ships comprised one-third of all the world’s shipping tonnage – was a more available and attractive option for aspiring sailors. Notwithstanding poor pay and conditions, thousands of Irishmen, and a few women, enlisted.

The Second World War made being a sailor a perilous occupation. It’s estimated that 32,000 merchant seafarers on British vessels were killed during the conflict, an unknown proportion of them Irish. Irish vessels were not immune; a number were attacked despite having “Eire” painted in large lettering on their sides. The Irish Pine was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1942 with the loss of all thirty-three crew. During the early years of the war, the Germans inflicted enormous losses in the Atlantic, where 3,550 merchant ships were sunk. Until the Allies gained supremacy in 1943, merchant seamen were, with the possible exception of Battle of Britain pilots, the most endangered British service category.

German attacks on shipping came from U-boats, aircraft and surface raiders. The latter were generally converted cargo ships with flags and markings designed to make them appear unthreatening until, like seventeen century Barbary pirates, they came within firing range of their target. Then guns would be uncovered and their Kriegsmarine ensign hoisted. Although relatively few in number, they succeeded in sinking or capturing scores of British supply vessels. For the merchant seafarers, to be attacked by a German raider was not the worst disaster, for the raiders usually rescued survivors. U-boats rarely did, although a Dubliner, Thomas Murphy, was plucked out of Arctic waters and taken aboard a German submarine in 1942 contrary to the orders of Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz that survivors should not be rescued. Murphy was among the later merchant marine captives. Most, like William Knox, had been taken prisoner during 1940 and 1941.

The captains and the crews of the German raiders were, by most accounts, not a bad lot and captured seamen were generally treated reasonably well during their voyage to Axis ports. Their land-based gaolers were not so considerate. Their early place of detention was a prisoner of war camp near Sandbostel in Lower Saxony; a “very rough place”, Harry Callan, a Derry-born seaman, told Blake Knox. Later they were moved to Milag Nord, a camp under the control of the Kriegsmarine with separate compounds for Royal Navy and merchant seamen. As was the norm for military POWs, officers were housed separately and, unlike the other ranks, they were not obliged to work. Conditions were harsh at first for the ordinary seamen, although they were, overall, an improvement on Sandbostel. Eventually, several thousand civilian seafarers were housed there, comprising many nationalities, reflecting worldwide recruitment by British shipping companies.

After the capture of thousands of British, French and Dutch troops in 1940, the Germans made attempts to recruit some to their cause. They concentrated on ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities, hoping historical grievances could assist with the process of turning prisoners. Irish-born POWs attracted particular attention. Of the 40,000 British servicemen captured during or after the Dunkirk evacuation, there were probably a least a thousand Irishmen. The POW camps were scoured for possible Irish collaborators and merchant seamen were included in the search.

POWs considered to have potential were sent to a special Irish camp north of Berlin. Opened in late 1940, the camp, near the town of Friesack, had been proposed by Sean Russell, the IRA leader, and was under the control of the Abwehr (German military Intelligence). Prisoners were lured with promises of better conditions, but the reality was the opposite. Fr Thomas O’Shaughnessy, who served as chaplin for a period within the Irish camp, was appalled at what he saw when he arrived there in July 1941. The men were dressed in rags and they received no mail or Red Cross parcels. The Irish diplomatic envoy in Rome informed the Department of External Affairs in Dublin of the priest’s involvement with Irish POWs, but was warned not to get involved.

At its peak, about one hundred and eighty Irish POWs were housed in Friesack, the vast majority of whom were entirely hostile to the Germans. There were at least two seamen among them: Timothy Ronan, a ship’s wireless operator from Co Cork, and James O’Neill, a ship’s carpenter from Co Wexford. Less than a dozen volunteered to be trained by the Abwehr as saboteurs or spies and most of those intended to double-cross the Germans as soon as they were flown or shipped home. Among the pretend collaborators was the seaman James O’Neill. He was desperate to get home after learning that his wife had given birth to their first child. His assignment was to travel to Northern Ireland and radio reports to Germany about British military activities in the province. At the time it was feared that Britain might dispatch troops from the North to help retake the southern ports. O’Neill was taken to the south of France and invited to “escape” to Spain, where he could seek the assistance of the Irish ambassador in Madrid in arranging his return to Ireland. Instead, he reported to the British authorities at the first opportunity.

By 1943 Nazi priorities had changed and Ireland had become irrelevant. Plans to invade Britain had been abandoned. Reversals in Russia, North Africa and the North Atlantic had resulted in huge losses of men and equipment. Prisoners were now seen as a slave labour pool that could help make up the deficit. Whereas the provisions of the Geneva Convention had been, by and large, observed in respect of Allied prisoners of war, this was about to change for the Irish merchant seamen. Nearly all of them were removed from Milag Nord and taken to Bremen. There they were ordered to work in a Messerschmitt factory but refused; they likewise rejected an offer to work on merchant ships. Handed over to the SS, who would not take no for an answer, they were forced to work at the Bremen-Farge submarine project in early 1943.

The author quotes extensively from postwar trials and survivor testimony to illustrate the murderous nature of the regime at Farge. Approximately two thousand slave labourers died there due to disease and the inhuman treatment they endured during the construction of the submarine bunker. Some prisoners were directly murdered, others killed by overwork and neglect. One camp commander in particular, Heinrich Schauwacker, was a sadistic killer who was eventually arrested when his behaviour caused productivity to fall. Some of the kapos ‑ prisoners given supervisory responsibilities ‑ were also exceptionally violent.

The Irish merchant seamen were among the earliest to be sent to Bremen-Farge. Why were they alone among the merchant seamen in Milag Nord selected to work there? The men themselves were convinced that it was due to their repeated refusals to agree to work in German industries. On a number of occasions they had been asked to sign work contracts and all had refused. Their position as prisoners was complicated; although captured while working on British-registered vessels, they were non-combatants from a neutral country. The Germans, though, treated them as prisoners of war. Under the Geneva Convention, non-officer grades can be obliged to work, although not in military-related industries. Perhaps it was confusion about their status as prisoners that led to them being asked to enter into signed contracts. Their refusal to sign may have led to their removal to Bremen; because, from a Nazi perspective, their courageous obstinacy constituted a punishable offence. As Blake Knox points out, Bremen-Farge was part of the Neuengamme SS concentration camp complex, and was an Arbeitserziehungslager; an “education through work camp” intended to punish those deemed guilty of some code infringement or disobedience.

Rather than being punished, the Irish seamen had justifiable hopes that they would be released. They were after all civilians, citizens of a not unfriendly neutral state who, at worst, should have been regarded as internees rather than prisoners of war. The Irish government had adopted a policy of repatriation of merchant seamen who reached Irish shores. These were predominantly British, but also included some neutrals. The Irish seamen would have had a reasonable expectation that the Irish government would seek a comparable arrangement for them from the Germans. Their imprisonment must have been known in Dublin given that they had been registered by the Swiss Red Cross and some of the prisoners had written to the head of the Irish legation in Berlin seeking assistance. Through lethargy, excessive caution or lack of sympathy, they received no response to their appeal from the then Irish diplomatic representative in Berlin.

At that time the chargé d’affaires in the Irish legation was William Warnock. His predecessor, Charles Bewley, had been effectively sacked just before the war when de Valera finally tired of his anti-Semitism and his undisguised admiration for the Nazis. Although Warnock did not share Bewley’s anti-Semitism, he, like his predecessor, was convinced that Germany would win the war and this was an outcome he appeared to regard as in Ireland’s best interest. Robert Fisk, in his In Time of War, wrote that Warnock regarded his role as head of mission as one of currying favour with German officials whom he frequently wined and dined at the legation. There he would expound on the merits of Irish neutrality, while at the same time leaving them in no doubt about his personal antipathy towards the British. He did complain about German attacks on Irish-registered merchant ships ‑ presumably he was under instructions to do so ‑ but there is no evidence that he ever raised the issue of the Irish seamen captured while serving with the British Merchant Navy.

Warnock was never likely to regard these prisoners as a priority. A Dublin Protestant who had taken a nationalist position, he, like many other “nationally-minded” citizens, would have had a somewhat jaundiced view of those who volunteered to assist the British war effort. Warnock was not unusual in being anti-British, for it was a prejudice disproportionately held by those within the ruling Fianna Fáil party and among some, but not all, serving with the diplomatic service. This is hardly surprising since many of these individuals had been engaged in armed conflict with British forces only seventeen years earlier. Others were more balanced, but the policy of neutrality united all, and the evidence of large numbers of Irish citizens serving in the British forces – estimates vary from 80,000 to 150,000 ‑ might cause the Germans to question Ireland’s commitment to non-alignment, particularly if undue attention was drawn to them.

Wartime neutrality was an entirely justifiable strategy, on practical if not moral grounds. All the smaller European states who had a genuine choice in the matter declared themselves neutral at the outbreak of the war. But for Ireland it meant more than just a wish to avoid the horrors of war: it was a statement of the new state’s independence. In any event, with the debatable exception of providing the Allies with access to Irish ports and airfields, the country was not in a position to make a meaningful contribution, and joining the war against Germany would, almost certainly, have had calamitous consequences. A policy of stringent non-alignment was adapted, although in reality there was clandestine co-operation with the British, particularly after 1942. Intelligence was shared and, under pressure from the Allies, British sailors or airmen who landed in Eire were provided with civilian clothes and escorted to the border. No reciprocal arrangements were made for German captives held in the Curragh camp. But the population at large knew nothing of this; rigid censorship was imposed and the message that went out was one of principled even-handed neutrality, with de Valera refusing to make any moral distinctions between the combatants. Frank Aiken, minister in charge of censorship policy, was the nearest to being an Anglophobe within the cabinet. He prohibited death notices in Irish newspapers from making any reference to the fact that a deceased person was in the British forces or died due to their participation in the war. Brian Girvin, in his book The Emergency, drew attention to an amusing attempt to circumvent the absurd restrictions. In 1942, The Irish Times printed an item giving reassurance to readers about a former employee of the paper, a Royal Navy recruit whose ship had been sunk:

The many friends of Mr. John A. Robinson, who had been involved in a recent boating accident, will be pleased to hear that he is alive and well … He is a particularly good swimmer and it is possible he owes his life to this accomplishment.

The censor was not amused and the newspaper was forced to submit all copy to the censor’s office prior to publication from then until the end of the war.

Aiken, like many in his party, regarded British occupation of Northern Ireland as no different from German occupation of France and the Low Countries. As the war progressed and the barbaric nature of the Nazi regime became more and more evident, it might have been expected that some retreat from the concept of moral equivalence would occur, especially as the threat to Ireland had diminished. Instead, the country became more introverted, becoming “a land of fairy-tale peace”; as Clair Wills in her That Neutral Isle put it. This was intended to convey the ambiguity felt by writers such as Kate O’Brien and Louis MacNeice towards an Ireland “far removed from the battle front, while its inhabitants are arraigned for their detachment from reality, their isolation and myopia”. Occasionally, the awful reality did intrude, as when scores of bodies washed up on western shores, the remains of the least fortunate of the merchant seamen who had been transporting cargos across the Atlantic; goods that Ireland, as well as Britain, depended on.

By early 1944, Warnock had been replaced at the Irish legation by Con Cremin. Cremin did not share the previous envoys’ attitudes towards the Nazis; quite the opposite in fact: he thoroughly disliked the regime and Hitler in particular. More significantly for the now slave labourers in Farge, he was prepared to try to assist them. A fellow prisoner, a Swiss who had been released, agreed to carry a letter signed by thirty of the Irish seamen, in which they outlined their situation and appealed for assistance from the Irish legation. Cremin, on receiving the appeal, sought and was granted permission to visit the camp. He was allowed, under SS supervision, to talk to a number of the Irish prisoners. He spent two hours with them and distributed cigarettes, a much-valued offering as tobacco was the main currency of exchange in prisoner of war and concentration camps. He was appalled at their condition and promised to try to get them repatriated. Towards the end of 1944, his efforts appeared to be bearing fruit, for the Irishmen were put on a train, which they were told would take them to Flensburg, from where they would be shipped to Sweden. Unfortunately, apparently due to Allied bombing in the area, the journey was aborted and, in what must have been a crushing disappointment, they were delivered back to their slave labour camp.

During the last six months of the war, the already appalling conditions endured by those working in the Valentin bunker worsened. The Russian, Polish and Jewish prisoners were treated with particular savagery but all suffered from long and back-breaking labour which, combined with totally inadequate diet and unhygienic conditions, resulted in the Irish contingent becoming emaciated and prone to the many diseases that ravaged the camps. Typhus was the greatest killer. It is probable that most of the five Irish seamen who died there were victims of this disease, although the precise cause of death cannot be determined in most cases. Blake Knox quotes a survivor, Christopher Ryan from Co Waterford, commenting on the death of one of his comrades. He said: “Just before [anyone] died, they were taken away by the SS guards, and we never heard of them again.” It seems that many typhus victims were taken to isolation huts and simply left to die without any food or medical care or attention. William Knox was the last of the Irish seamen to die in the camp. The precise cause of his death is uncertain, although it was almost certainly linked to the conditions he endured during his four and a half years of captivity. Just over a month later the camps were liberated.

Hitler’s Irish Slaves is in part a family memoir, in part the neglected story of the capture and incarceration of Irish mariners and their treatment as slave labourers. It is an absorbing tale of the cruelties inflicted by the Nazis compounded by the apparent indifference of the Irish state towards some of its own citizens. The book is a worthy tribute to the author’s relative and his seafaring comrades.


Tom Wall is a former assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. A book written by him, Dachau to the Dolomites, giving an account of events involving a number of Irish servicemen in the British army who became part of a VIP hostages group, is awaiting publication…



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