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The Suicidal Army
“In the 1934 plan, G-2 branch had produced an inventive way for the Army
to draw on its guerrilla warfare heritage and make maximum use of the
limited resources available to it. However, this plan was quite at odds with
the prevailing view within the Army General Staff. Two years earlier, the
Army Chief of Staff had submitted a programme to the government for the
development of a sizeable conventional force. He proposed building-up the
Army, over a 15-year period, to a 75,000 strong force which could field a
corps of three divisions well equipped with artillery, tanks, armoured cars
and aircraft. The Army Staff told the Minister of Defence that the purpose
of the programme was to provide for ‘the systematic building up … of a
Field Force suitable to the defence requirements of this country… organized
in a self-contained, properly balanced whole … [and] equipped with all the
modern weapons required.’ The massive scale of this programme can be
appreciated by noting that, at the time, the Army had only 13,000 troops,
little artillery, a handful of armoured cars, very few aircraft, and one tank. 

As part of this programme, the Army convened a board in January 1933
to examine options for a new armoured fighting vehicle capable of
countering a tank attack, and which could be manufactured in Ireland. After
a year of deliberation, the Board proposed purchasing a single light tank
from a Swedish firm, and components for two additional tanks along with
assembly instructions, ‘with a view to gaining the practical experience
which would be invaluable when the more ambitious programme is
undertaken’. The Defence Department believed that assembling these
tanks could ‘pave the way for the possible development of a mechanical
industry in this line’. Needless to say, Finance officials strongly disagreed
with the Army’s proposal. They saw ‘no future for any Irish Firm in the
manufacture or even in the assembly of tanks’. In addition, the Department
of Finance was sceptical about the estimated cost of the programme,
particularly as it was believed that the Army had simply pulled their figures
out of thin air. Accordingly, the Minister of Finance rejected the Army’s
proposal and only gave permission for the purchase of a second completed
tank. Whereas the Army had wanted to start up a tank industry in Ireland,
all it got in the end was two tanks. Similarly, the rest of the Army’s buildup
programme was vetoed just as effectively by the Department of Finance.

Obviously the war in Europe increased the military threat to Ireland.
Britain had agreed in 1938 to give back the ports it had held onto in the Irish
state on the assumption that they would not be denied access to these ports
in wartime. When war broke out, the Irish government, led by Eamon de
Valera as Taoiseach (Prime Minister), did just this to preserve Irish
neutrality. This infuriated Winston Churchill who, now back in office as
First Lord of the Admiralty, had been highly critical of the decision to hand
back the Irish ports in the first place. He considered them vital to the Royal
Navy’s ability to defend Britain. Robert Fisk persuasively shows that this
led Churchill, as Prime Minister from 1940, to have an ‘unhealthy fixation
with the idea that strong-arm tactics might be used against the Irish’. This
was precisely what Irish intelligence officers had predicted in their 1936
‘Fundamental factors’ report.

Thus, Irish political and military leaders were only too aware of the
military threat they faced from Britain. However, at the same time, they also
relied on British military support to repel any German invasion. Indeed, in
the Summer of 1940, this is what Army planners worried about most.
Hence, General Defence Plan (GDP) No.l, drafted by the Plans and
Operations (G-l) branch of the Army General Staff, was designed in May
to suppress a rising by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and from July to
repulse a German invasion.33
Britain worried about this also; not only did
Britain want Irish ports for its navy, but it also wanted to ensure that
Germany did not overrun Ireland. Thus, there was considerable cooperation
between the Irish and British militaries to facilitate this. In July
1940 the British Army established a liaison team, called the 18th Military
Mission, to prepare plans for a British military intervention in aid of the
Irish Army. 

Irish neutrality was primarily about Ireland affirming its sovereignty and
asserting its independence from Britain. Hence, the Irish government was
adamant that the British military should only come to Ireland’s rescue after
the Irish Army had first engaged the Germans, and Ireland had officially
requested assistance. Yet the British Chiefs of Staff told the British War
Cabinet that they could only defend Ireland if British forces entered the
country before the invading German force landed in Ireland. Hence, the
British military came up with a plan (Plan ‘W’) which ‘on one level fully
intended to be the British response to an Irish call for assistance – was also
the embryo plan for the British invasion of Eire.’ Irish Army staff knew
full well Britain’s ambivalent military intentions. The Irish Chief of Staff,
Major-General Dan McKenna, reported to senior Irish politicians in 1941
that the British appeared to be preparing to strengthen their force in
Northern Ireland, adding that: ‘Whether this increased force is to assist us
in the event of German aggression or to be used against us we cannot

definitely say.’ What is clear was that by November 1940 the threat of a
German invasion had receded, while Britain began to look ever more
threatening. As McKenna later recalled:

Although [the British Army] had given us their North of Ireland order
of battle earlier in the year 1940 towards the end of the year, when
more troops came to Northern Ireland, they notified us that they no
longer could make their order of battle available to us, and that in
consequence they would not ask for ours. In the atmosphere then
prevailing we could have had an invasion at any time.

This view was shared by Taoiseach de Valera who believed that ‘there was a
danger that Britain might attempt a rapid and surprise occupation of the
country.’ De Valera was so worried about the threat of imminent British
invasion that he ordered all Christmas leave to be cancelled for the Army. It
should be noted that for the purposes of assessing the Irish Army’s War Plans,
the actual threat of invasion from Britain was less important than the Irish
perception of this threat. As we have seen, to Irish military and political
leaders the threat was very real, and remained so until December 1941.

In response, G-l branch switched their attention in mid-November 1940
from completing GDP 1 against a German attack to drawing up GDP 2
against a British invasion. The sense of urgency is indicated by the fact that
GDP 2 was completed by staff officers, approved by the Taoiseach, and
promulgated to army commanders in Operational Order 3/1940, within one
month. At the same time the Irish government was so concerned about not
doing anything that might be seen as provocative by the British, that all
reference to Britain was deleted from Operational Order 3/1940. 

Nevertheless, the force posture adopted under GDP 2 was clearly
designed to meet a British invasion of the entire country, the main effort of
which was expected to be an overland drive from Northern Ireland directly
down to Dublin. Under GDP 2, the Irish Army re-organized itself into two
divisions. The 2nd Division was given the task of meeting the main British
thrust from Northern Ireland. The 1st Division was tasked with providing
reinforcements for 2nd Division, and defending the rest of the country
against sea and air landings. GDP 2 determined that a ‘definite stand must
be made as far north of the line Dublin-Athlone-Galway as possible’ and
to this end the bulk of 2nd Division was to be deployed on a Main Line of
Resistance (MLR) along the line of the rivers Boyne and Blackwater. In
addition, an infantry outpost system, augmented by patrols and cyclist
squadrons, was set-up ahead of the MLR to initially delay the enemy
advance and allow time for the mobilization of forces on the MLR.

GDP 2 was quite at odds with the 1934 war plan and 1936 intelligence
report, both of which strongly warned of the risks of deploying along static 

defensive lines. The adoption of a static defence may be explained by the
fact that the new war plan had a different objective. Whereas the purpose of
the 1934 plan was to drag out the war as long as possible with Britain, the
purpose of the GDP 2 was to buy enough time for German forces to
intervene on Ireland’s behalf. GDP 2 does not explicitly refer to a German
intervention in support of the Irish Army, but the Irish General Staff clearly
saw GDP 2 in this context. So, whereas the 1934 plan sought to preserve
the regular Army, by organizing it into mobile formations, and to use it to
prepare the nation for guerrilla warfare, under GDP 2 it merely had to keep
the British at bay for a few days until the Germans arrived. 

However, it is difficult not to conclude that the 1934 plan offered a far
better defence for Ireland during the early war years than GDP. 2. There are
two reasons for this. First of all, six years had not changed the basic truth
that it would have been suicidal for the Irish Army to engage the British
force head on. In 1940, G-1 expected the British invasion force to consist of
three divisions and an armoured brigade from Northern Ireland, and a
further two divisions from Great Britain; totalling 70,000-80,000 troops
with approximately 1,000 armoured fighting vehicles and up to 400 field
guns. Against this, the entire Irish Army was only 40,000 strong with a mere
73 armoured fighting vehicles and 51 field guns. Thus, as in 1934, not only
would the British have had numerical superiority, but their force would have
been far better equipped and trained. 

For this reason the Irish 2nd Division would have had slim chance of
delaying the British advance for sufficient time to allow for German
military intervention. G-l expected the British to launch a surprise attack
with ‘mechanized and motorized forces … utilized in the German model’. Such British forces would, in all likelihood, have swept past the Irish
infantry outposts and rapidly overrun the MLR. As one of the authors of
the GDP 2 admitted: ‘each forward battalion [on the Irish MLR] may
encounter a force 5 to 9 times its own strength in men alone. In the nature
of things unless the enemy blunders badly or we happen to be extremely
lucky, the odds are against us.’ 

In short, had the Irish Army executed GDP 2, it would have suffered the
same dire fate as the Iraqi Army suffered when it put up a static defence
against the US-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War. Indeed, the analogy is
striking. In his recent analysis of the outcome of the Gulf War, Stephen
Biddle argues persuasively that in explaining the scale of the coalition’s
victory, the superior technology and superior skill of the Coalition forces
operated in synergy to produce overwhelming victory: ‘the Coalition’s
advanced technology made it possible to exploit Iraqi mistakes with
unprecedented severity, enabling entire Republican guard divisions to be
annihilated in close combat with minimal losses.’ Similarly, reports of    divisional exercises carried out by the Irish Army in 1942 reveal a catalogue
of basic tactical errors by Irish troops which the better trained and equipped
British Army would have been able to exploit with devastating effect. For
instance, one report notes that: ‘There were, in fact, far too many avoidable
occasions when troops bunched on roads and offered excellent targets to
enemy machine-guns, mortars, artillery and air attack.’This was a critical
shortcoming, given that any invading British force would have enjoyed
overwhelming superiority in artillery and airpower. Overall, the report
found that the standard of tactics and fieldcraft ‘was generally below the
required standard. Under these circumstances, the basis of the 1934 plan –
to fight a series of delaying actions in order to preserve the regular Army,
train the volunteer force and give it experience – made a lot more sense. 

The second reason for favouring the 1934 plan over GDP 2 was the
probability that Germany may not have been able, or even willing, to send
an intervention force to bail out Ireland. The Irish General Staff simply
assumed that: ‘In the event of Britain initiating acts of war in this country it
is quite certain that Germany will at once intervene.’ McKenna later
admitted that the Irish Army had greatly underestimated the extent to which
Germany was deterred from invading the British Isles by the Royal Air
Force and Royal Navy. It has also been suggested that the Irish
government realized that ‘it would have to face a hostile British incursion
alone — accepting German help would be militarily pointless and would be
politically disastrous.’ There is some evidence to support this view, in that
de Valera refused to accept a German offer of a stockpile of captured British
weapons. Thus, preparing a guerrilla campaign arguably would have been
a more prudent course of action than relying on German assistance. Indeed,
such a campaign may have offered a considerable deterrent to British attack,
given that Britain would not have wanted five army divisions bogged down
in Ireland in the midst of a world war.”

–  Theo Farrell, “Professionalization and Suicidal Defence Planning by the Irish Army, 1921-1941.” Journal of Strategic Studies, 21: 3 (September 1998), pp. 71-75.

Photograph source. “Taking aim: An Irish Army soldier, wearing a German-style helmet, trains in 1939.”

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The Army’s First War Plan

“The 1922 treaty with Britain at the end of the Anglo-Irish War of
Independence (1919-21) did not guarantee Ireland’s security. The British
Armed Forces (in particular, the Royal Navy) provided some protection for
Ireland against invasion by other European powers. However, there was
always the risk that strategic imperatives might lead Britain to forcibly reoccupy
the new Irish state. Indeed in mid-1936, the Intelligence (G-2)
branch of the Irish Army General Staff produced a major report on
‘Fundamental factors affecting Saorstát defence problem’ which
highlighted the possibility of just such threat. The report argued that
Ireland’s ‘greatest strategic importance is as a base for possible British naval
operations in the Western Atlantic, and as a base without which British
authorities assert they cannot effectively secure their own sea
communications’ and, therefore, ‘an attempt to maintain our neutrality
would lead to immediate conflict with Great Britain.“ 

The first war plan, drawn up by G-2 branch in 1934, painted a pretty

grim picture. The plan recognized that the Army lacked the resources to
develop a force structure capable of repelling an invading British force
through sustained conventional operations. This was due to severe underfunding
of the Army by successive civilian administrations. This, in turn,
had much to do with the centralization of power in the fiscally-conservative
Irish Department of Finance. All public expenditure was quickly and
firmly placed under the control of the Department of Finance by the
government of the new Irish state. Government departments were instructed
in May 1922 to seek permission from the Department of Finance before
spending any money or making any appointments.” This procedure was
institutionalized with the passing of the 1924 Ministers and Secretaries
Act.12
This meant that every single item of army expenditure, right down to
telephone lines and spare parts for machine-guns, required prior approval
from Finance officials. Since the Department of Finance was run by
former British civil servants who obviously did not share the Army’s view
of the threat from Britain or Germany, it was content to starve the Army of
resources. Thus, the Army budget was slashed from £11 million in 1924 to
just over £1 million in 1932.

So by the mid-1930s, the Irish Army was in poor shape to repulse a
British attack. The 1934 plan estimated that Britain could immediately put
at least 71,000 troops in the field against an Irish force of 25,000-36,000.
Moreover, it noted that ‘British units would all be highly trained,
completely armed and equipped, and properly organized. The bulk of our
troops would be half-trained, badly armed, and imperfectly organized.“ For
this reason, G-2 branch concluded that ‘we could not hope to successfully
resist on orthodox lines a British force of even equal size.” The obvious
alternative was to deter invasion by promising a campaign of guerrilla
warfare. Army intelligence officers noted that:

  

the bulk of our present Army officers, and many of our public men,
have practical experience of [guerrilla warfare]. Hence there is a
constant feeling that having fought the British on this basis before,
with a certain measure of success, that it forms the obvious basis upon
which we should fight them again.

Notwithstanding this, they concluded that Ireland’s defence could not depend
on guerrilla warfare alone. While a guerrilla campaign would last longer than
a conventional war against Britain, it was designed to attack the institutions
of an organized state not to defend them. Army intelligence argued that
Ireland could not hope to rally international support for its cause if it gave up
the institutions of statehood without a fight: ‘we would be regarded as an
organized state which had ignominiously collapsed almost without resistance,
and would not, therefore, be worth worrying further about.

Based on a recognition of the political reasons for offering organized
resistance to a British invasion, and the military reasons for preparing a
guerrilla campaign, the Army’s first war plan actually proposed an inventive
combination of both:

the object of the campaign of defence should be to prolong the
struggle to the greatest possible extent; to inflict as much loss as
possible on the enemy; to force him to deplete his main forces by
detachments; secondary efforts; security posts, etc., while all the time
avoiding the commitment of our own main forces to any decisive
engagement until the enemy is so worn down and dispersed that a
situation arises which would justify the risk … under this scheme each
Command would normally initiate its defence on a basis of organized
resistance, that as enemy advance progressed, this would be
supplemented by guerrilla tactics in his rear and along his lines of
communication, that when further organized resistance in any
particular Command became impossible that the bulk of the troops
would be withdrawn, and resistance continued on guerrilla lines
only.

It is important to stress that at no time did this plan envisage a static defence
against British attack. The plan specifically states this:

When we speak of organized resistance we do not suggest that badly
armed, ill-trained Irish Brigades should be permitted to sit down to be
battered up to pulp by vastly superior British forces. What we do
require is that an organization should be devised which will enable us
to concentrate our forces in, say, light brigades, when an opportunity
arises to gain a definitive tactical success, and which will enable us to
scatter them as rapidly when such an opportunity has passed.

These light brigades were to be used to fight ‘a series of continuous
delaying actions’ rather than attempting to halt a British force at any static
line of defence. Such a plan of action was also designed to ensure that ‘our
most highly trained manpower [are not] sacrificed at the very beginning of
the campaign’. Indeed the primary purpose of the regular army was to
‘provide the highly trained cadres upon which the Volunteer Force can
organize, train, mobilize and fight’. It was also designed to buy time in
order to get volunteers into the field so that ‘practical experience of active
service would transform them from raw militia-men to confident veterans.’

The assessment underlying the 1934 war plan was confirmed in the 1936
‘Fundamental factors’ report. The report noted that the British military
believed it would take 150,000-200,000 troops to re-conquer Ireland, that
is, ‘approximately the strength of the readily available British Expeditionary

Force’; against this the Irish Army could field 20,000 troops. Irish
intelligence officers quite reasonably concluded that ‘it would be military
suicide for the Defence Forces as they exist at present to make more than a
show of organized resistance, they must of necessity revert to guerrilla
warfare as soon as possible.’”

– Theo Farrell, “Professionalization and Suicidal Defence
Planning by the Irish Army, 1921-1941.” Journal of Strategic Studies, 21: 3 (September 1998), pp. 68-71.

Photograph is W.D. Hogan, “Irish Free State Army soldiers grouped behind heavy field artillery.” 1922. UCD Dublin Archives. 

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