by jdurney on December 4, 2012

Irish Army deserters from Co. Kildare in WWII

James Durney

At the outbreak of the Second World War the Irish army stood at 19,136, including reservists and volunteers, and was completely unprepared to defend the country from attack. With the fall of France and the Low Countries in the summer of 1940 a major recruiting drive was launched and by June 1941 numbers had risen to 40,174. After this peak, numbers decreased to around 30,000, where they remained for the duration of the war.  The Irish army, during what was termed the Emergency, was seriously short of weaponry and equipment. Conditions during the war years were bad and the pay was very low, prompting many to desert to join the British armed forces. The Department of Defence estimated that approximately 6,000 men deserted their posts during the war and contemporary estimates usually agree around this figure. By 20 June 1945 there were almost 5,000 officers and men posted as deserters from the Irish Defence Forces, the majority of whom were absent for more than four years.
There were several reasons why Irish soldiers absconded during the war. Peadar MacMahon, a former Chief of Staff and wartime Secretary of the Department of Defence, felt that most defections from the army and enlistment generally in the British Armed Forces by Irish citizens was almost wholly governed by economic considerations. Most Irish volunteers, including those who deserted, gave the following reasons for joining the British Forces: adventure, ideological, family and economic. The starting weekly salary of a recruit in the Irish army during the Emergency was 18 shillings, while the equivalent in the British army was 22 shillings, with the added bonus of overseas duty and a chance for adventure, plus far more attractive bonuses for married men and dependent children. As most of the men who absconded were of the laboring class it would suggest that they may have joined the Irish army for the steady wages and later went across the border for the higher British pay. Boredom and bad conditions were further reasons for desertion. Very few thought about the prospects of being killed, or maimed. Once the focus of the war had turned after the invasion of Russia in June 1941, life in the Irish army settled into a routine of drill, garrison duty and toil in the fields and bogs. As the threat of a German – and even an Allied – invasion disappeared in the summer of 1942, desertions continued to rise. After the Allied victories at El Alamein and Stalingrad, the number of deserters peaked, in July 1943, at a high of 196. This can be interpreted in a desire not to miss out on the action as the advantage shifted towards the Allied powers.  The majority of these deserters either joined the British armed forces or looked for employment in the labour-hungry British war effort, which was eager to attract Irish workers and offered higher wages.
While there was resentment to those who had absconded from the army in a time of national emergency the track record of many indicates that they served their time well. Of the nearly 5,000 men listed as dismissed for desertion eighty have addresses in Co. Kildare. Two of these men listed were killed in action serving with the British Army, while one more died at home of wounds received in action. They are:

Gunner Peter Delahunt (26), son of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Delahunt, Ballysax, The Curragh. 7th Battery SHAA Regt., Royal Artillery. Killed in action during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, on 19 December 1941.
Pte. James McGowan (24), son of James and Anne Beatrice McGowan (nee Palmer), Cummins House, Suncroft. 6th Black Watch. Killed in action, north of Rome, on 11 June 1944.
Sapper George Treacy (26), son of James and Mary Treacy, Limerick Road, Naas. Royal Engineers, attached 1st Airborne Division. Died at home, on 17 July 1945, of wounds received in Sicily in 1943.

Two men this author interviewed for Far from the Short Grass. The story of Kildaremen in two World Wars (published in 1999) served with the British Army and the Royal Air Force respectively in the Western Theatre of Operations. Denis Carroll, 6 Pound Street, Maynooth, absconded from the Irish army in late 1940 and joined the British army in Belfast. He was born in 1920, the son of a Great War veteran, also named Denis Carroll. Denis served as a combat soldier with the 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, right up to the surrender of the German army in northern Italy, in May 1945. He served in North Africa and Italy and was wounded three times: at Monte Cassino, Anzio and in northern Italy. Denis survived the war and lived quietly in his native Maynooth until his death some years ago. Joe Walsh, 2 Dooley Terrace, Athy, was born in 1921 and traded his Irish khaki for British airforce blue after two years in the Irish Army. He had joined the Irish Army in 1940 at the age of nineteen. ‘Conditions in the Irish Army were very poor,’ he said. ‘I deserted from the Irish Army and joined the RAF in October 1942, in Belfast. I wanted to be a rear gunner. As far as I could make out, there were dozens of Irish Army deserters joining the British forces.’ Joe Walsh arrived in France after the Normandy invasion and served with 715 Motor Transport Light Repair Unit through the French campaign and the invasion of Germany. ‘The only regret I had was I didn’t go sooner. I might have seen more action. I would have loved to have been an air gunner and wouldn’t have minded the risks.’
This seems to be the general consensus of the majority of Irish army deserters. In later years many gave their reasons for leaving as a noble cause in the fight against Nazi tyranny. However, at that time few knew of the scale of Nazi genocide in occupied Europe. The truth is, for many Irish army deserters, most of whom were young and carefree, it was an escape from boredom and poverty and a chance for action and adventure.

[Note: Neil Richardson’s newly published Dark times, decent men. Stories of Irishmen in World War II,’ mentions another Kildare man, William Holohan, from Athy, who deserted the Irish Army to follow his sweetheart to England. Holohan joined the Royal Engineers, in Enniskillen, and served in North Africa, the Middle East and France. William Holohan is not listed on the Defence Forces list of personnel dismissed for desertion.]


The Department of Defence estimated that approximately 6,000 men deserted their posts during the war. Over eighty were from Co. Kildare

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