Deserter’s Songs… The Éire Motor Torpedo Boat at Dunkirk, or not. July 26, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish History, Irish Neutrality.
Here’s an odd one. I’ve been doing a fair bit of research of my own for various reasons into the Emergency and what did I find but the following in passing mention on a board talking about the Irish military during the period. Did you know about Rathduff aerodrome, said by some to be a Doomsday location where had Germany successfully invaded Britain the RAF could have sent aircraft? Though some think it was no such thing.
Or what about this? From the BBC, a tale of the Dunkirk evacuation between 27 May and 4 June 1939. It goes as follows. The Irish Marine Service [check name] purchased a torpedo boat. Well, I’ll let the BBC explain:
Towards the end of May, 1940, a crew of the fledgling Irish Marine Service arrived in Hampshire to collect the second Vosper Motor Torpedo Boat ordered from Thornycroft by neutral Ireland. As Operation Dynamo had just been instigated, signing over the craft was delayed until after the evacuation. Thornycroft personnel operated the boat to and from Dunkirk, with a volunteer Irish naval crew on board. The sailors wore a blue and yellow thread version of the Irish Defence Forces badge, the centrepiece being the interlocking letters “FF”. The cap tally did not yet bear the current Irish Navy title “Eire” and evacuees are said to have interpreted the badge as the initials of the Free French. After the evacuation, the first (though unofficial) action by neutral Ireland’s navy completed, the Irish crew obtained possession of the craft and sailed it to Ireland, where it served with the Irish Navy until 1952. The members and crew are all deceased but the Irish National Services Museum Association is really eager to contact any surviving Thornycroft personnel or evacuees who were on this boat, descendants of either or anyone who may have more information on the part played by this crew in Operation Dynamo.
The problem is that I can’t find another actual record of it. Interestingly it cropped up again in the Irish Times of all places late last year during the controversy about deserters from the Irish Army during the Emergency. Mark Hennessy wrote:
Some became involved in the war even before they deserted. Gerry O’Neill, who was born in Fermoy, Co Cork, was one of a number of Irish sailors sent to Southampton in 1940 to collect a motor torpedo boat bought by the Irish authorities. By the time they got there the British navy was in the middle of the Dunkirk evacuation. “Our skipper had been in the Royal Navy and he decided to join the rescue fleet. He asked us if we’d volunteer, which we did.”
The crew made two trips across the English Channel, rescuing French and British soldiers, although their efforts could have had serious implications for Irish neutrality if they had been captured. After the second trip they were told to go home.
On his return to Haulbowline, in Cork Harbour, the crew were sworn to secrecy. “After this, I soon got browned off with the inactivity in the Irish Navy – and I decided to join the RAF,” said O’Neill, though he actually ended up in the Royal Navy.
Back in Ireland in 1942 on leave, he decided to join the Irish merchant fleet. His position as a deserter was quickly solved when he met Oscar Traynor, the minister for defence, at a dinner aboard the Irish Larch, a vessel owened by Irish Shipping. “I told him I’d deserted from the Irish Navy and asked if I could be pardoned, in view of the fact that I was now a greater help to the nation, serving with Irish Shipping exposed to all sorts of dangers.” Days later he received his discharge papers from the Irish Navy.
One big problem is the issue of the time line. There’s a sceptical thread here with some UK contributors.
The boat was handed over on 5 July, a full four weeks after the supposed action. Does it seem likely that an Irish naval crew would hang around four weeks after such an engagement before bringing the MTB back to Ireland?
All that said perhaps there’s more information, if so it would be very interesting to hear it.