Russia had its eye on Galway

(Week I)

If anyone thought that all a country need do to preserve its freedom when its neighbours are at war is to proclaim its neutrality, then they have only to look hard at what happened to several European countries at the beginning of World War II. Ladies and gentleman of the whinge brigade, neutrality isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Ireland declared its neutrality at the outbreak of World War II, but even so, that was no guarantee that Ireland would escape the war. But thanks to the clever manoeuvrings by the de Valera government, when all Europe was in flames, by making some realistic compromises along the way, Ireland managed to do so. One of our compromises was robust support for the Allies. Although Britain and America demanded more from Ireland (such as access to our ports to relieve British convoys from a cruel war in the Atlantic ), there was significant co-operation between our two countries to calm Allied nerves, and get us safely through an immensely difficult period. Part of our co-operating included the exchange of information and views between the British and Irish secret services. By adopting ‘emergency powers’ the Irish Government had no qualms interning IRA German sympathisers, German spies and pilots, whereas Allied pilots were repatriated through Northern Ireland. Strict newspaper and radio censorship kept war information out of reach, not only from Seán Citizen, but from the number of Irish people who thought it no harm at all if Britain got a good hiding.

But for all our manoeuvrings, and wrangling, Germany saw Ireland as a potential stepping stone into Britain; and if Britain had felt that her needs warranted it, she would have occupied Ireland. Both countries secretly prepared maps for an invasion and occupation of Ireland, which thankfully never happened.

In the past?

Other neutral countries were not so fortunate. Belgium, Holland, Denmark, The Netherlands, Norway and Finland all declared their neutrality, only to be swallowed up by Germany when it suited her. And for those countries whose ‘neutrality’ got them through this most perilous of times, the price which had to be paid was high. Our co-operation with the Allies pales into insignificance when you compare what we had to do to what other countries did. Sweden is sometimes held up as a paragon of neutrality. But not only did she sell her iron-ore and ball bearings to the Wehrmacht, but turned a blind eye as Germany swept through its territory to attack Norway. Switzerland, renowned for its washing of hands of all world wars, was banker for the Nazis, and allowed Nazi war trains through its territory.

But all that is in the past. Or is it? I was surprised to learn, in no less and venerable a periodical than the Journal of The Galway Archaeological and Historical Society (Volume 60: 2008 ) that during the Cold War (mid 1940s - early 1990s ) the Soviet Union not only drew up detailed maps for a military invasion of Ireland, but circled particular sites in Galway for their attention.

Shocks for Sweden

Desmond Travers, a retired colonel of the Irish Defence Forces, is currently director of the Institute for International Criminal Investigations, and is based in the Hague. He is involved in a major study on Soviet military mapping. The extent and detail of the Soviet mapping of Europe astounded observers when they were first discovered in February 2003. In the case of Ireland the likely source for the Soviet war machine to prepare for an invasion of this island, was the common Irish OS sheets These were probably supplied by the Soviet embassy in Dublin, which also endeavoured to translate Irish place names phonetically into Russian. These were marked up for military use, important buildings marked for attention, but amusingly, not always accurate. I will come back to the Galway references in the Irish maps next week.

One of the first countries to discover that it had been extensively mapped for possible military operations, was our good neutral friends the Swedes. When their newspaper Aftonbladet discovered the Soviet maps of their country, its readers went into collective shock. The maps, drawn up in 1987, included Stockholm and Karlskrona (Sweden’s main naval installation ). The former chief of intelligence at the Swedish police HQ, claimed that the maps “were better than those of the best Swedish military cartographers, and showed all their defence systems and depths of secret waterways.” He continued with surprise that “the maps contained information about the berth length and depth at secret naval bases, not to mention the location of secret mine-fields.” He added that it was likely the maps were drawn on the bases of secret agents’ information...”

Schoolboy howlers?

The author tells us calmly that it should be borne in mind that Soviet intentions towards the western fringes of mainland Europe were primarily to neutralise Britain’s fighting capacity. It felt that nine to 12 nuclear missiles would take care of the British threat. While no Soviet military contingencies are known to have been planned for Ireland, Soviet Embassy officials on a lecture visit to the Command and Staff School of the Irish Military College in the Curragh in the 1970s did indicate that Ireland’s neutrality would not influence their thinking were such a contingency to be put into effect.

Other Soviet indications of lesser interest in Ireland may be surmised from a study of their map of Dublin. The author tells us that the Dublin map in four sheets at a scale of I:10,000 was very poor, and contained some schoolboy howlers. Leinster House, for example, was not identified; while the GPO, Central Bank and Trinity College were. The office complex belonging to the Department of Defence, was classified as ‘ an artillery and technical equipment store’!

The author surmises that it is of some comfort to know that, while our neutrality mattered nought to Soviet strategists, we did not feature as a high priority destination for Soviet military forces during the Cold War.

Next Week: What was hidden in the deserted mill on the river Kip, at Oggool? and could Moycullen have fallen into Dr Strangelove’s deadly embrace?

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