Eamon de Valera was in Galway on the evening of May 11 1940 engaged in a by-election campaign, when he was told that Germany had invaded Belgium and Holland that morning. He was outraged. Belgium felt that by declaring its neutrality it was protected from Hitler. But it was sadly mistaken. Germany felt threatened (at least it pretended to be ), that the Allies may use Belgium as a ‘jumping off’ base to attack her. With terrifying speed and ruthlessness, using new tactics of fighter bombers and tanks, Germany subdued both countries in a matter of days.
Dev must have wondered at the fragility of any country hoping to escape the war by stating its neutrality. Would the same fate await Éire? And he must have been thinking too of his work in Geneva as president of the Council of the League of Nations, seven years earlier. The small nations of Europe were friendly to each other, and supported each other’s needs. Two of whom were now on the verge of disappearing.
Dev set aside his by-election speech, and protested at Germany’s infamy in ‘non-neutral’ language. He told his Galway audience (who must have been equally disturbed by the news ): “Today, these two small nations are fighting for their lives and I think I would be unworthy of this small nation if, on an occasion like this, I did not utter our protest against the cruel wrong that has been done to them.*”
The German minister to Ireland, Edouard Hempel, immediately condemned the statement, particularly the use of the word ‘protest’. He was placated somewhat by F H Boland in Government buildings, who assured Hempel that the rest of de Valera’s speech contained a categorical denial of rumours of a deal with the British about the Irish ports, and a strong re-affirmation of Éire’s neutrality, and its determination to resist attack from any quarter.
News of Dev’s Galway speech was reported to Berlin. Ireland’s Chargé d’Affairs there was William Warnock, an observant and an intelligent man, whose reports back to Dublin during those disturbing years make interesting reading today**. FH Boland wrote to Berlin ‘in an apologetic manner’; and Warnock called to the appropriate Nazi department also offering a similar expression of regret.
Warnock reported to Dublin that the Taocheach’s reference in Galway to the invasion of Holland and Belgium was not reported in the Berlin newspapers, but his re-affirmation of our neutrality ‘was given much publicity’. He added:“ I gather from some remarks passed to me by a member of the Press Section of the Foreign Office, that the Taoiseach’s remarks were not too well received. I may say by way of explanation that every German is convinced that the Fuhrer was right in anticipating an Allied attack through these countries, whose Governments had ill-concealed their enmity to Germany ever since the outbreak of war.”
‘No longer any islands’
Observing what the general feelings of Germans were, Warnock reported, it was felt that the war had at last begun. “ It has always been said here that Germany will win, and that everything will be over by next autumn, and if the astounding successes of the Germany armies continue as at present (the news of the entry of German troops into Brussels came last night ), it looks as if there may be something in this belief.”
Meanwhile on the streets of Berlin “there is no hilarity, and there is much anxiety, but, naturally enough, pride and satisfaction are expressed on all sides. Everyone is agreed on one thing - that Germany will endeavour to get in a sharp blow on actual British territory, probably by intense air-raids, and even with parachute troops. It is thought that this would have a shattering effect on the morale of the self-centred and self-satisfied British, who, secure on their island, have been free from foreign invasion for centuries...But as the Fuhrer says, ‘there are no longer any islands now!’ The Germans, if successful, will by a mass combination of aeroplanes and submarines, isolate Great Britain completely.”
On the same day as de Valera’s Galway speech the British government was galvanised into action. The prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, was fired; and replaced by Winston Churchill. Dev had liked Chamberlain. The two men respected each other, and worked well together. Churchill was a totally different character. From the very beginning he had nothing but contempt for Éire’s neutrality, and regarded Dev as an irritant in the desperate struggle and challenge that he now undertook on behalf of the democratic nations of the world.
The duel that was to emerge between these two giants of our history is another story.
*Eamon De Valera, a biography by The Earl of Longford and Thomas P O’Neill, published by Gill and Macmillan 1970.
**Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume VI, 1039-1941, recently published by the Royal Irish Academy, on sale from the Academy €40.