No. 193 TNA PREM 3/131/1

Note of a conversation between Eamon de Valera and Malcolm MacDonald

Dublin, 17 June 1940

I had a conversation extending over three and a half hours (in two sessions from 6 o'clock till 8, and from 10.15 till close on midnight) yesterday evening. He was in one way the old de Valera; his mind is still set in the same hard, confined mould as of yore. But in another way he appeared to have changed. He made no long speeches; the whole procedure was much more in the nature of a sustained conversation between two people than used sometimes to be the case. He seemed depressed and tired, and I felt that he had neither the mental nor the physical vigour that he possessed two years ago. He was, as always, very courteous and friendly throughout.

The following is the main substance of the conversation.

After some talk about the latest news from France, I said that I should like to let him know frankly the purpose of my visit. The war against Germany was beyond any doubt a struggle in defence of the freedom of every nation, great or small, in Europe. Éire's freedom could not be exempted. We in London felt that there was a strong possibility of an early German invasion of Éire. This might precede or be simultaneous with an attempt on the United Kingdom. A number of considerations led us to this definite conclusion. First, the Held papers, and other documents which had been discovered on members of the I.R.A. who had been arrested, as well as information which we got from other sources, indicated that there was a plan for the invasion of Ireland; secondly, the experience of Denmark, Norway, Holland and Belgium showed that the invasion of neutral countries was an accepted weapon which Germany had no hesitation in using in her attack upon her enemies; and thirdly, Éire would appear to be the next neutral country on the list now that Germany would fling her full weight against Great Britain. In order to prepare for such an event, his military people and ours had engaged in staff conversations.1 We were grateful for the blessing which he had given to such conversations; at least he had been more prudent than the heads of some other neutral governments who had allowed no such prior planning. Nevertheless although the conversations had borne fruit in a military plan of action, we felt that merely having a carefully drawn plan in a pigeon-hole was not now enough. The experience of other neutral countries had shown that the Germans acted like a stroke of lightning. They were now in a position to strike swiftly at Ireland. They would have possession of the whole French coast, and would be able to send troops by motorboats and submarines to land on the Irish coast. Our Navy would be on the look-out for this armada, but unfortunately they had to operate from somewhat distant ports in the United Kingdom, they were denied use of the Irish ports, and therefore their patrol could not be as efficient as it should be. On a dark night, or in a fog, the enemy might well succeed in slipping through our patrol and landing troops at various places on Irish shores. At the same time, they would endeavour to land troops from the air. Ireland was an ideal country into which parachute troops could descend or upon which troop-carrying planes could land. Furthermore, these invaders by sea and air would receive very effective help from Fifth Columnists in Éire. There was a considerable number of German citizens at large there, and there were the members of the I.R.A. It would be comparatively simple for the Germans, owing to this combination of circumstances, to land several thousand troops in a night. Unless these could be mopped up within a few hours, they could establish themselves until reinforcements arrived, and within a very short time a number of military units might be advancing from strong positions in the country and achieving a veritable conquest. The Irish troops were not adequate to deal with them without assistance. That was the purpose of the plan drawn up by the military advisers of his Government and ours; it was proposed that our soldiers should come immediately from the north to aid in resisting the invader. But clearly one of the first objects of Fifth Columnists, parachute troops and German air raids in Ireland would be to destroy the railways and roads by which the reinforcements would come. The enemy were likely to carry out this plan with the same thoroughness, efficiency and speed that they had adopted in other neutral countries. So our reinforcements probably would not be able to arrive on the scene of action until too late. In fact, anyone who studied dispassionately the German tactics in Norway, Holland and Belgium must conclude that, unless we were more prepared than was the case to-day, Éire might be effectively overpowered, Dublin captured and an I.R.A government established within a few hours. So it was our deliberate opinion that the present plan was not enough.

The wisest course for Éire, in our view, would be the immediate abandonment of neutrality, and a joining with us in resistance to Germany so that from this moment onwards co-operation could be complete and we could put whatever naval and military forces were required at his disposal. I would not argue the case for that, because I presumed that nothing that I could say would influence Mr. de Valera in that direction; but I must say that we would strongly advise that course. We did not give this advice simply because it would help us; indeed, we gave it principally in the interests of Éire itself. We were quite capable of dealing with an invasion of Great Britain. It was true that the over-running of Éire would embarrass us, but it would not be decisive against us; it would only be decisive against Éire. But assuming that his Government would not at present abandon neutrality, was there nothing else that could be done to ensure that the military assistance which we could give to his forces was present, as seemed essential, at the moment that invasion began. Was it possible for his Government, with the support of the Opposition, to invite our ships now to use the Irish ports, and our soldiers to come down and guard strategic points. Surely some more or less legitimate excuse could be made for this. The universal experience of small neutral nations which had not taken proper precautions for instantaneous assistance from the Allies in the first hour of aggression must have impressed the Irish people. Our ships and troops would not be there for the purpose of taking offensive action from Irish waters or territory. They would simply be there to defend Irish neutrality, and would only act offensively if that neutrality were violated by Germany.

Mr. de Valera replied emphatically that there was no possibility of Éire abandoning her neutrality now. All parties in the State were agreed that they should maintain that as long as possible. With regard to my second proposal, he had already given it careful consideration. But he was inclined to the view that the Germans would not attack Éire. They would invade Ulster, probably acting in areas where there was a Nationalist majority. In that case they would try to make out that they had come to end partition in Ireland.

I replied that I did not think this would happen. Germany did not commit aggression by halves. She would be anxious to clean up the business in Ireland quickly, for time was of the essence of his programme. When Hitler attacked Norway he landed his troops simultaneously in half a dozen key places up the coast. He would probably act with the same thoroughness in the Twenty-six Counties as well as the Six Counties. It would be extremely unsafe to plan on any other assumption.

Mr. de Valera agreed that there was a real danger of this, and said that his chief difficulty was that his troops were not as fully equipped as he would like them to be. For a long time he had been begging us for equipment, but he had only been able to get a small part of what he wanted. He was not complaining; he realised that we had to equip ourselves and some of those countries on the Continent who were likely to receive Germany's first blows. He had then tried to get equipment from America, but failed. He had hoped that by now he would have 50,000 well armed soldiers. As it was, he thought he had only about half that force. Volunteers were coming in well; he could reach the 50,000 figure and later the 100,000 figure, if he could get the equipment. But at present he admitted that his forces were inadequately prepared. Nevertheless, they would resist a German invasion with all their strength. He thought his men would fight magnificently. The Germans would not find things easy, for the Irish were very skilful at guerrilla warfare; they were very good hedge fighters and would fight the invader from hedge to hedge.

I remarked that such tactics would not be any use against tanks. The Germans would very likely succeed in getting tanks across the sea. If any number of these got ashore they would race through the fields and the villages with impunity. That was why it was essential, if the German attempt were to be strangled at its birth, for our Navy to have the use of the ports. We could then patrol the coast much more efficiently, and check the arrival of any large force. At the same time our well equipped troops should be already waiting with the Irish troops on the shores to receive such invaders as got through.

Mr. de Valera repeated that he had given this most serious consideration. If there had been a United Ireland he might have been able to invite us in now. He wished that such a political change had been accomplished before the war. A United Ireland would have been a great strength to us. It is true that the country would (if he had had his way) have remained neutral at the outset of the war, but by now it might have been a belligerent. He merely told me this because it was his definite view that things would have been different if the country had been one. But he realised that facts were against the establishment of a United Ireland; he did not suggest that we could do anything now. Therefore he had to reckon with the state of his public opinion in the light of that. Many of his supporters were inclined to say that Ireland had already been invaded, by the British in the North. This feeling prejudiced many who would otherwise have been our friends. Nevertheless, there was a very strong feeling of national unity in Éire now; there was a firmer unity amongst people of all shades of opinion than had existed for many years; it was based upon a policy of maintaining neutrality and offering uncompromising resistance to any belligerent power who violated that neutrality. The best service that he could render to his country and to us was to maintain that unity against the day when Germany struck. He wanted to be able to resist with the full force of a united people behind him. If he now invited our ships into the ports or our troops into the country he would prejudice that unity. It would be said by many of his own people that he had taken the initiative in throwing in his lot with the Allies, that he had provoked any act of German aggression that followed. That would be a false step; it would divide his people. It would weaken resistance and increase the support which German invaders would afterwards get from Irishmen. He was ready to go as far as he could in co-operation with us at present, short of publicly compromising the country's neutrality. If the situation were left to develop so that Germany was clearly the aggressor, he could assure me that an almost completely united people would resist the invader. They would fight very fiercely.

I answered that if he had put this argument to me some months ago, I would have been inclined to agree that there was some force in it. I would perhaps have thought that he could wait safely for the Germans to strike before he called in the aid from us without which he could not hope to succeed. But recent experiences of the German technique altered the whole situation. In Norway, Holland and Belgium the German attack ? both from without and from within ? had been so instantaneous, thorough and cunning that it had in fact broken down the strong points of resistance before the Allies could effectively arrive upon the scene. It was obvious that the Germans had as complete a plan for Éire and that they would follow the same methods there. His people must realise this, and that it made all the difference. If they waited for the attack before calling in their friends, their friends would come too late. It was essential that the full weight of resistance that could be brought to bear should be ready awaiting the Germans in the territorial waters and on the shores of the island.

He replied that his people did not appreciate this. They knew too little of what had happened in the other small neutral countries. Their information service was not good. Moreover, so many Irishmen actually thought that the Germans would make them more free. Prejudice against Britain was still strong, it would still take a long time to remove such an old sentiment. Indeed, his countrymen would actually fight with greater zeal if we were the first to violate Éire's neutrality than they would if the Germans were the first aggressors. He was only able to keep national unity at its present unprecedented level by making it clear that the Government would resist whichever belligerent invaded the country.

I said that he wanted a United Ireland. That was out of the question now. But supposing we took a step towards creating official machinery for the discussion of common concerns? For instance, the present German threat was one to the whole island. Supposing that we were to establish a joint Defence Council, on which representatives of the North and of the South would sit and consult and take decisions together, that would be the first time for many years that any union between the Six Counties and the Twenty-Six Counties had been expressed. It might be only a first step, to be followed by others. If the habit of co-operation on matters of common concern were once established, it would be difficult afterwards to break it down. We would be prepared to establish a Joint Defence Council for the whole of Ireland straight away. No doubt its creation would be regarded with satisfaction by his supporters. It might enable the representatives of Éire, after discussion on that joint body to declare that the interests of the defence of Irish freedom required that British naval ships should be invited into the southern Irish ports.

He replied in the negative. His supporters would regard the creation of such a piece of machinery between neutral Éire and belligerent Ulster as itself prejudicing the former's neutrality. They would think it a provocation to Germany. They would argue that Germany, seeing Éire in consultation with her enemies and presumably planning to act against Germany, would have some justification in anticipating this situation by invading Éire. If he wished to maintain the national unity which he had spoken about, and which was all-important in case of an actual German invasion, he must not compromise his neutrality at the present moment in any way. He thought that the establishment of such a Defence Council would be necessary as soon as Éire and Ulster were fighting side by side in the war, though that situation would present certain difficulties between old enemies. Indeed, when that time came the wisest thing that we could do would be to make an immediate announcement that Ireland was not only one country united for the purposes of defence, but united also henceforth for the whole business of government.

I answered that such an announcement would be impossible. He must not expect anything of the kind. If he reflected for a moment, he would realise the damage it would do. A great majority of Ulstermen would object strongly. At the moment when we expected them to put up the firmest possible resistance to an invader, we should be announcing a policy which was deeply offensive to their strongest feelings. It would take the heart out of their resistance. I had not supposed that Mr. de Valera himself would wish us to do anything at that moment which would revive divisions amongst Irishmen and weaken the common resistance to the German enemy. So far as we were concerned, we would not think of doing it. The territory of Ulster was closest to Glasgow and the Clyde. We should not do anything which would weaken resistance there, and increase the chance of the Germans establishing themselves too close to one of our vital production areas.

Mr. de Valera agreed that it would be difficult to do this in the middle of war. We ought to have done it before the war.

I said that I would like to have some further comments on this question. It seemed to me that the best chance of Ireland eventually becoming united would be if the twenty-six counties came fully into the war. Both parts of Ireland would then be fighting side by side; their union would be sealed by comradeship in arms. It would be very difficult to bring that unity to a sudden end at the close of the war. I knew the temper of my generation in British politics. We should not give any encouragement after the war to the revival of old, barren controversies. But if Éire did not come into the war, the position would be different. If they showed they were not prepared to fight for the freedom of England, the United Kingdom and the other democratic countries of Europe ? if they who had spoken so much about liberty now shrank from its defence in its supreme hour of danger, whilst Ulster fought fully for that defence ? then the differences between the 26 and the 6 counties would certainly be aggravated and enlarged, and we politicians at Westminster who had gone through the fight would never agree to handing Ulster over to Éire against the former's will.

He replied that his countrymen would not believe that if they came into the war there would be a united Ireland at the end of it. On the contrary, they would feel that at the end we should say that Ulster must still maintain her independence of the rest of Ireland because she had entered the war at the very beginning, whilst Éire had come in late.

I said that it was no good speculating at length on what might or might not happen after the war. I had expressed the view of myself and my contemporaries. The one object on which we must all concentrate now was the actual, immediate urgent defence of Irish and well as British liberty. He and I must accept the facts as they were, and then see whether there was more that we could do on the basis of those facts to serve that common cause. The two basic facts between us seemed to be first, that Éire would not abandon her neutrality until she was attacked, and second, there would be no question of our declaring a united Ireland. Accepting that situation, what could be done? We urged strongly that in view of the lightning speed with which the Germans acted, Irish freedom could only be maintained if our Navy and our troops were allowed to use Irish ports and land. That was necessary to check the invader from without. But he said that was impossible. Would it be possible if troops other than those of the old British enemy came in ? if French or Polish or Dominion troops were invited in by the Éire Government? Mr. de Valera answered in the negative. I said that there was still something else that could be done to improve the immediate prospect. German aggression did not proceed only by the importation of invaders from without. It was made doubly deadly by the co-operation of allies already within the territory of the victim. In the case of Éire these were the I.R.A. and resident Germans and Italians. These Fifth Columnists were an essential part of the German plan; their help as saboteurs and as assistants to troops landing by parachute or troop-carrying planes, could make all the difference between an immediate or a more protracted overrunning of the country. If this enemy machine inside Éire could be smashed before the invasion began, the prospect of early German success would be greatly lessened. Would he therefore take the strongest possible action against the I.R.A.? Would he arrest and imprison all their leaders? Would he, moreover, intern suspect Germans and Italians? It seemed to us essential at this critical moment in his own self-defence.

He answered that as regards the I.R.A., this was no longer a large force, though he agreed that there was a wide 'fringe' to it. He could assure me that he had taken very severe action against it. He thought that all the leaders outside Dublin were under detention. The difficulty was the organisation in Dublin itself. The authorities could not lay their hands on all the leaders there. There was an underworld in Dublin into which these people disappeared. They simply could not be found. His Government took action against them whenever they got the slightest chance, but he had to confess that some of the Dublin leaders were still at large. As for the Germans and Italians, he could not intern them. That would be an un-neutral Act. But they were being carefully watched.

I answered that he surely had sufficient evidence on which to intern a good many Germans. The Held papers indicated what was afoot. I understood that several papers found on members of the I.R.A. had also indicated a plan for German action in Ireland. The experience of the other neutral victims of German aggression was strong circumstantial evidence that the German population in Ireland were prepared for the role of assistants to the invaders. In fact, it was clear that these people were parties to a conspiracy against Éire. He could get the support of his countrymen in taking the precaution now of locking them up.

He replied that this was not so. Held, for instance, had not been a German National, but a naturalised Irishman. The only evidence which had appeared in the various documents discovered had been evidence that they sought to establish the same sort of spy system which existed in other countries.

I replied that it seemed to me that the evidence was pretty strong. A parachute had been found in Held's house. It was known that a German had dropped in this parachute from a German aeroplane a few weeks ago. In fact, the Germans were definitely employing the same technique in Ireland as they employed elsewhere when they were contemplating invasion.

Mr. de Valera admitted that this case had shaken him considerably. But he did not think he had grounds, which would satisfy his public, on which to intern Germans. He could assure me, however, that they were all being closely watched. They would be arrested if there was any real reason for doing this. If a German invasion started, he thought they could round them up very quickly. Moreover, he did not think these people would really get much help from the Irish population. If German troops took the initiative in invading Ireland, national sentiment would respond swiftly, and the public generally would react strongly against any aiders or abettors of the foreign aggressor.

I repeated that we could only warn him in the plainest possible language that it looked to us as though Éire was likely to be overcome very swiftly.

Mr. de Valera asked whether I did not think that Hitler would leave Éire out of the picture. He had the whole of the coasts of Norway, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France from which to launch his attack on Britain. This surely gave him a sufficient jumping-off ground. It would be more difficult for him to reach and subdue Éire.

I said that I took the opposite view. If Hitler thought that he could defeat Great Britain he knew that it must be done in the next two months or so. After that he would have lost his chance. He must try within that time to destroy our production of aircraft and to cripple our overseas trade. It was true that he could act from the coasts which he possessed to the east and south of us. But his effort could not be fully mustered unless he could attack us also from the west. It might be that he would *** 2 our trade on the east and south coasts, but that would not break us if our western ports were still open. Hitler's motto was 'thorough'. It was an essential part of his plan to have a base in the west from which to complete the concentration of his attack upon us from all sides.

Mr. de Valera then asked whether I thought there was any prospect of the attack on us being postponed whilst Hitler made a move in the east of Europe. The latest advance of Russia might embarrass him.

I said that I thought Hitler would certainly not be drawn aside. He would have plenty of time to tear the Russian army to shreds later on; but he had very little time in which to accomplish our defeat. We were the only enemy that stood between him and his ambition to dominate Europe. If he did not beat us in the next two months, his ambition would be thwarted. He would certainly go all out for us at the earliest possible moment.

Mr. de Valera agreed that this was so, and asked whether there was any prospect of our settling this business by negotiating peace. Hitler had always said that he wanted us to remain in possession of our Empire. Would we on this basis agree to his having a predominant role in Eastern Europe?

I answered that there was no prospect whatever of this. We should regard a Europe under Hitler's domination as intolerable. There would be no freedom for anyone on the Continent, and there would be no security for our two islands. Hitler's word could not be trusted. He would only use the breathing-space given him to increase his forces still further, prior to a second attack upon us. Therefore we would continue to fight. We saw no reason why we should be defeated. Éire could be swiftly overrun by the German invader, but Great Britain could not. The position was quite different in our island. If some thousands of Germans landed in Éire, they could not, with Éire's present resources, be beaten back; but if a few thousand men landed in Britain, they would have a very hot reception. We admitted that, despite the patrol of our fleet, some thousands of men might slip through on a foggy night and land here and there on the shores of England. But within the first few hours of daylight our air and land attacks on these troops would mop them up. We had the largest armed force in the United Kingdom that had ever been stationed there in our history. Our production of war material was increasing rapidly. Though our Air Force was smaller than that of Germany, the quality of our machines and our pilots were very superior to theirs. The evacuation of Dunkirk had proved that in a fairly confined space of sky our Air Force already had the mastery. Now that there was no need for a part of it to be dispersed over the battlefield in France, our Air Force could certainly keep the ceiling above England clear of any effective attacks by day. Our production of aircraft had doubled in the last few weeks. Both by the rate of our destruction of German craft and by the rate of production of our new craft we were gradually overhauling Germany's numerical superiority. Therefore we were confident that we could hold off any serious invasion during the next two or three months. By then American supplies of material would be reinforcing us very rapidly, and our blockade of Germany and Italy would be producing results. The large populations which Germany would be trying to hold down in Europe would be having a bad time. They would suffer both famine and oppression, and it might well be that the Nazi regime would crack.

Mr. de Valera agreed that there was a good hope of our doing this if the French Fleet were not surrendered to the enemy. But if Germany got control of that Fleet, he did not see how our blockade could succeed. He did not see how in those circumstances we would maintain our position in the Mediterranean. Germany and Italy would then possess a very powerful Fleet to do battle with ours.

I answered that this would undoubtedly greatly increase our difficulties. We must wait and see what did actually happen to the French Fleet. But even if it went to the enemy, that would not be decisive. Our air raids on Germany had already been extremely damaging to the enemy's supplies of oil and other material and stores. Our aerial bombardment of German territories would be intensified. At the same time we could still block up the two entrances to the Mediterranean and make our blockade effective. I had no doubt that America and the other neutral countries who share her disposition would put every difficulty in the way of supplies going to the two Dictators.

He asked whether Germany would not be able to destroy the factories producing our aircraft.

I answered that they would be able to do very little in daylight raids. Our fighters would do battle with the maximum of efficiency over our Island. When fighting in France they had never been certain where the enemy Air Force were in the skies. They had to go out and search for them. But over England our system of observation was so efficient that our fighter squadrons would always know exactly when and where the enemy were about to cross our coasts. The mastery that they had established over Dunkirk would be established over the whole of the United Kingdom. Germany's chance was to bomb our industrial centres by night. But for the next few weeks the nights would be short. And in any case, such damage as the enemy was able to inflict would be offset by the damage that we would inflict in turn by our raids over Germany. Thus, as between Germany and Italy and ourselves, it would be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Our aeroplane production would no doubt suffer diminution, but so would theirs. Germany would get no supplies from outside, but we on the other hand would get increasing reinforcements of aeroplanes from Canada and the United States of America. Hitler could not bomb their factories.

Mr. de Valera was impressed by these facts, but nevertheless remained sceptical.

I said that if he were really filled with doubts as to our capacity to resist Hitler, then he ought not to hesitate a minute in coming to our aid. If our friends did not support us in time, and we were unluckily defeated, then Éire's liberty would unquestionably be extinguished.

He indicated that he was apprehensive of this, but repeated that at the present stage he could not go further than he had already gone in co-operating with us. He understood the arguments for meeting a German invasion of his country from the very first moment with a maximum of resistance. But for the reasons he had given he could not invite our forces to occupy his territory or his territorial waters in advance of a German attack. But he would ask us to do two things. First, we could immediately let him have further equipment for his own forces. He wanted anti-tank guns and machine guns, rifles and ammunition. Could we not let him have more of these? He felt that Dublin was very vulnerable to attack by tanks, if these should once be landed. He would like to have a ring of anti-tank guns around the city. Secondly, he would ask that we send our military help immediately that Germany attacked. The help that he would want most would be from our aeroplanes. It was true, as I had said, that parachutists and others might obstruct the railways and roads by which our troops were to come down from the North. But they could not impede the passage of our aeroplanes. He hoped that we would send a strong air force over as soon as he appealed to us.

I told him that I would report what he had said about the need for further equipment. But he must appreciate our position. Our Navy and our Air Force were very powerful. We also had more divisions of troops in the country than had ever been there. But some of these had lost a lot of their equipment in Belgium, and although our production was increasing so fast that their re-equipment was proceeding apace, we could do with all the anti-tank guns, machine guns, rifles and ammunition that we could produce for a long time to come. Moreover, we would have no inclination to send over equipment to Éire only to have it lost to the enemy. If we had confidence that Éire's resistance to the German invaders was going to be effective, we might send equipment. But the whole purport of my mission was to point out to him the reasons why we had not got that confidence, and to ask him in the interests of his own country to do what was necessary to correct the position. So far as our assisting him immediately after his appeal came to us was concerned, I could assure him that we should not hesitate a moment in sending our forces to help. But he could hardly rely on our Air Force to protect him in Dublin. We could not bomb Dublin without killing Irish civilians. I assumed that he did not want us to do that. If the defence of Dublin was to be made effective, he must let us protect his shores more efficiently than we could at present.

He urged again that we should let him have as much equipment as we could spare, and assured me that if and when the Germans invaded Éire his countrymen would resist that invasion with all their might, and that he would then take action against the German nationals who might help the enemy from within.


1 See Nos 182 and 183.

2 One word illegible.

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