The history of Dundalk and County Louth during World War II


The history of Dundalk and County Louth during World War II

In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party (the Nazis), rose to power in Germany, their progress fuelled by economic hardship and the harsh peace settlement which followed defeat in the First World War.

Hitler vowed to re-build the economic, political and military strength of the German nation through rearmament and territorial expansion. The British and French governments, eager to avoid another war, chose to submit to many of the demands of the Nazi Party in a policy of "Appeasement".

In March 1938, the Union /Anschluss of Germany and Austria was proclaimed. In September, the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia was also transferred to Germany by the Munich Agreement. In return, Hitler declared an end to his territorial expansion. However, within several months, all of Czechoslovakia had come under Nazi control and on 1st September, 1939, the German army invaded Poland. Hitler ignored demands from Britain and France to withdraw his troops.

By 2nd September a European war appeared inevitable and Irish Taoiseach (Head of Government) Eamon de Valéra declared Ireland's neutrality. The following day, British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain announced to the nation that War had been declared between Britain and Germany.

Throughout the Spring of 1940, the Nazis occupied Denmark, Norway, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Invasion of Britain, possibly through an initial occupation of Ireland, appeared imminent. In May, 1940 Chamberlain was succeeded as Prime Minister by Winston Churchill. By the end of 1941, most of Europe was occupied, while only the United Kingdom and the neutral countries of Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland and Spain remained free from Germany and her allies.


On 2nd September, 1939, the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valéra, declared Ireland's intention to remain neutral in the impending conflict. Neutrality was adopted despite great pressure from the allies, Britain and the US in particular.

Following the invasion of Poland, a Dail meeting passed the Emergency Powers Act. This Act allowed the government to take extraordinary measures to deal with the war economy. The Irish government received a rude awakening with the invasion of neutral states such as Belgium, Denmark and Norway by German forces. It was quickly realised that Ireland had few supplies of food or fuel and that the country was poorly defended.

Ireland viewed its policy of neutrality with flexibility. When British airmen crashed in Ireland they were covertly escorted to the Border, while German pilots were interned.

During the Belfast bombing blitz of April – May 1941, fire brigade units from Drogheda and Dublin attended. Units from Dundalk also with the Merryweather Fire Engine.

Dublin was also bombed on a number of occasions, the worst incident was on the 31st May 1941 when 34 people were killed in the North Strand area. Cork and Wexford also experienced attacks as did Dundalk. A bomb was dropped near Quay Street in Dundalk in July 1941 and 10 other bombs were dropped by the same German bomber at intervals towards Thomastown.

On 16th March, 1942, Liberator AL577/N of 108 Squadron crashed at Slieve na Gloc, in the Rock Marshall Mountains near Jenkinstown, County Louth, killing 17 people. The aircraft was en-route to an airbase in the south of England. It veered off course, and, low on fuel, the crew saw the lights of a city and believed it to be Dublin. The crew decided to attempt a landing at Greencastle Airfield, County Down. However thick mist hampered visibility, resulting in the aircraft crashing into Slieve-na-Gloc and breaking into pieces on impact.

Strict censorship of the media (newspapers and radio) in Ireland kept the public unaware of developments in continental Europe. Death notices of Ireland-born Allied soldiers were also strictly edited. Alternative War news could be obtained from broadcasts such as those by William Joyce, 'Lord Haw-Haw', a Nazi sympathiser who fled Britain at the outbreak of war. From a radio station in Hamburg he broadcast propaganda aimed at undermining the Allied war effort.

Despite official neutrality, over 150,000 Irish citizens were employed in the war effort as they sought work in British factories, while 40,000 joined the British forces.


The Nazi control of transport routes resulted in shortages of foodstuffs, clothing and petrol. In response, rationing was introduced in Britain in November 1939 and to Northern Ireland in January 1940.

In Ireland, Sean Lemass was appointed as Minister for Supplies in 1939. The system of rationing aimed to ensure that everyone got a fair share of scarce resources. Set amounts of goods were allocated to each person on a weekly basis through the use of coupons in a ration book. Rationing became the norm, with each person receiving 2oz of tea and 2lb of sugar per week. Other foodstuffs such as bacon, eggs and potatoes remained available.

The production of foodstuffs on available land was encouraged and farmers were urged to grow crops which had previously been imported. The farmers were encouraged to take part in wheat schemes and seeds & fertilisers supply guarantee schemes to encourage increased tillage. In the south, wheat production grew from 250,000 tonnes in 1939 to 660,000 in 1945.

There was also a limit on the amount of clothing produced for sale. People had to 'make do and mend'. Men wore 'austerity suits' and women's skirts and dresses were made shorter to save cloth, while stockings became a rarity.

Fuel was also rationed, with the result that electricity was only available for a few hours per day. To counter this, turf production and tree felling were encouraged. Ricks of turf were stockpiled in the Fair Green in Dundalk. Emergency supplies of turf were also stored in the military barracks, Dundalk until 1946.

The War highlighted Ireland's continued economic dependence on Britain as her merchant ships had to receive allocations of coal at British ports. Lemass believed self-sufficiency was key to Ireland's shortages. As shortages of coal, oil and petrol worsened, alternative sources of fuel had to be found. Trains were run on turf, timber and straw. As gas was rationed, the Great Northern Railway tried to make gas in its laboratory. Private cars were rarely used, replaced by bicycles or pony and traps.

Cross-border smuggling was also rife, as shops in the villages on the southern side of the border were relatively well stocked, particularly in the early years of the War. Many Northern Ireland locals crossed the border to Omeath, bringing back cheese, bacon, jam, chocolate, cigarettes and lighters. Due to the lack of cigarette imports tobacco was grown in Cooley.


The Air Raid Precautions Act introduced in 1939 designated areas, usually along the coast line, as special areas. Said areas, which included Dundalk and Drogheda, had to provide a more detailed service than other areas of the country.

In 1939 Frank Aiken was appointed Minister for Co-ordination of Defence Measures. A number of steps were taken in order to re-enforce the defence forces. The army was increased from 19,000 to 42,000. The Local Security Force (LSF) was established in May 1940 and witnessed a rapid expansion in numbers. By August 1940 it had grown to over 148,000 members.

In January 1941 this force was re-constituted as the Local Defence Force (LDF) under the control of the army. In conjunction with this the air corps and a marine service were also established.

In Louth a Control Centre was set up in the basement of Dundalk Town Hall, chosen because it had very strong overhead protection, being a three-foot thick vault under the foyer. Up to 15 telephones were to be manned in the event of an emergency.

An air-raid shelter was built under Market House, Dundalk. Air-raid precaution exercises took place in front of the Town Hall. Wardens were equipped with a helmet, uniform, gas mask, notebooks and pencils, torches, rubber boots, and anti-gas capes; gas masks were supplied to the Council by the Department of Defence – 10,000 adult masks, 1500 children's masks; and 900 babies' appliances.

Step Together Parades were held in Dundalk on St Patrick's Day where members of the LSF, LDF, Order of Malta, Red Cross, Maritime Inscription, paraded through the streets. The Emmett Band led the Step Together Parades.

As a German invasion of Britain appeared increasingly likely, men were encouraged to join the Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard). Although conscription was not introduced in Northern Ireland, thousands volunteered for military service. They were joined by thousands of volunteers from neutral Ireland. The Womens' Voluntary Service (WVS) was established as a support unit for the ARP. Women volunteers could also join the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and contributed to the war effort by working in factories and on the land.

Two days before War was declared, a blackout order was imposed to restrict lighting to reduce risk of attack from German bombers. Fabric was used to cover windows while car and bicycle lights were screened. Those not maintaining the blackout were fined and there were several such cases at the Newry and Kilkeel Petty Sessions. Air Raid sirens and shelters were situated in Newry, Bessbrook, Kilkeel and Warrenpoint. Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens were appointed to ensure blackout was maintained and to advise and direct the population in the event of an aerial attack. There was no blackout in Ireland and at night, the southern side of Carlingford Lough remained lit while the northern side was in darkness. This was supposedly to show that the towns in Louth were not part of Northern Ireland.


After Allied invasion of Europe in the D-Day landings of June, 1944, the tide steadily turned. By spring 1945 the end appeared in sight. Germany surrendered in May 1945 and Japan in September 1945. May 8th was designated Victory in Europe (VE) Day and Victory Parades were arranged throughout the country to mark the end of the war in Europe. Victory in Japan (VJ) Day on 15th August ended the War.

For VE Day a Victory Parade was arranged for Newry with bands, bonfires and sports events at the Intermediate School. Thanksgiving Services took place and on 10th May, Newry Town Hall relayed Winston Churchill's radio broadcast and was the venue for a concert. Bunting was displayed for street parties and crowds gathered at Trevor Hill. In Warrenpoint, a "Victory Run" was arranged, while parades, dances and bonfires took place in Poyntzpass, Bessbrook and Kilkeel.

The Post-War years brought great change for both sides of the border. From 1947, the Education Act provided free compulsory education up to the age of 15, while the National Health Service, extended to Northern Ireland in 1948, provided free medical care to all. In 1952, the introduction of electric street lighting made Newry the first town in Ireland to be completely lit by electricity.

Ireland also experienced profound change. The country underwent major economic difficulties. The war had starved many factories of fuel and raw materials. By 1945, large numbers had closed and many others were operating short-time work. The government's Wages Standstill Order had caused a great deal of hardship and inflation during war years and resulted in people being unable to afford the bare essentials. Gradually, wartime restrictions were lifted, although rationing continued through to the mid 1950s.

"Eventually the war ended and peace returned. After all the celebrations we found it wasn't much different from other years. There was still rationing and shortages but at least many of our 'mates' came home again. Some had changed a lot and many would never work again but gradually Newry returned to normal. The war years had good and bad memories, but let's hope we never have to live through them again."


Courtesy of Louth/Newry Archives

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