On A War Footing
The Emergency Years (Part 1)
An interview with Lieutenant Colonel Ned Cusack (Retd)
First published in Winter 2016 issue.
For most of us, the Emergency period in Ireland (1939 – 1946) is an account in the history books with black and white images. Nearly all Ireland’s veterans who served abroad or at home during this period have passed away. There are a few veterans still alive and well. To them the events that took place some 75 years ago, are like yesterday. Ned Cusack is 97 years old. Living with his wife Eileen, in Moycullen, Co. Galway, he is a fit, retired Irish Defence Forces officer. Still driving and fully versed in email and the computer, it was amazing to speak to someone who could recollect with such accuracy, the time Ireland braced itself for war.
Laughing about how times have changed, Ned showed us his Commissioning Certificate signed by Uachtarán na hÉireann Douglas Hyde, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, and Minister for Defence Oscar Traynor. In Ned’s wedding photograph was none other than a very young Lieutenant Pat Quinlan – the very same Pat Quinlan of Jadotville fame. Pat Quinlan was in Ned’s junior cadet class.
How times have changed indeed. When Ned and Pat joined up they were wearing the German style Vickers helmet and high collar tunic. Japan, Italy, Germany and Russia were all expanding. It was a time when ideologies redefined the fate of nations. Stalin was purging his people; Adolf Hitler was annexing Austria; and civil war was raging in Spain. To Ned, the world was long at war well before September 1939. This is his story.
I was born on 1 March 1919. I grew up in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork. Once I completed my Leaving Certificate in the summer of 1938, I applied for the Civil Service. In those days, there were not many jobs in the country. You applied for the likes of clerical officer positions or the ESB (Electricity Supply Board). These were all secure jobs, if you were lucky enough to get one. There were usually only around ten vacancies a year. So, you had to aim to come in the top six to be in with a chance.
As part of the Civil Service exam I also applied for the Army Cadetship. To my utter surprise I was called for an interview. There was around 300 selected for interview. I remember travelling from Mitchelstown on the bus to St. Bricin’s Military Hospital to do my medical. This was followed by the interview. Six senior officers were in front of me. I was a raw country guy being quizzed by six senior officers. I knew nothing about the Army good, bad or in different. You can imagine how I was feeling.
At that time the main item of news was the Spanish Civil War. Franco, of course, was topical and Irish men like Frank Ryan who had gone over to take part. It just so happened I knew the answers. About two weeks later I got a letter to report to the Military College in the Curragh Camp, Co. Kildare, to start training at the beginning of September.
The 12th Cadet Class numbered 54. It was a large class as the Army were anticipating the war to come and there was a severe shortage of officers. Six billets with 9 cadets in each billet. Back then everything was in Irish. Everything, all commands, all instructions. You were billeted based on your application results. I was in Gasra 3 (Section 3). That meant all the geniuses were in Gasra 1. We were issued with bulls wool uniforms. I’d never seen such a uniform in my life. It took a while to accustom to military life.
There were guys from all over the country. There were also several ex-teachers in our class. They had joined the army because their pay was so poor they couldn’t afford rent in Dublin. I asked what in the name of god were you doing leaving a teacher’s job to join the army. They said teachers wages then was diabolical. You couldn’t live off it. After rent you had no money left. In Dublin, you may have to pay 30 Shillings a week in rent. After that the teachers had little left. In the army, they got a uniform, food and digs.
As Junior Cadets, we got 4 Shillings a day, Senior Cadets – 5 Shillings. I didn’t drink or smoke so this was money bonanza from heaven for me. I could buy a bicycle, a new suit of clothes, and a lovely overcoat. 4 Shillings a day was a lot of money in those days.
The cadetship was two years. We were straight into it. The first three months you were brought up to corporal level. There were also academic subjects such as French, history and geography. History was a big one. We had to do a lot of European history. All the military training at the time was based on World War I British doctrine. You were all the time talking and studying about slit trenches and digging deep trenches. We wasted a lot of time digging trenches. Mobility was not mentioned much. This way of thinking all changed after the German Blitzkrieg swept across Europe. War clouds darkened over Europe.
On 19 February 1939, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera announced that Ireland would be neutral if war broke out. In August 1939, we had a year’s training done and granted a month’s annual leave. We were all at home enjoying ourselves. In the middle of the month it was announced via the newspapers and radio that “all ranks are to report back to your units”. Off I headed for the Military College with my cardboard suitcase.
The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was a neutrality pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed in Moscow on 23 August. On 1 September, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. On 2 September, the Oireachtas declared a State of Emergency. This declaration was enacted the following day:
Make provisions for securing the public safety and the preservation of the State in time of war and, in particular, to make provision for the maintenance of public order and for the provision and control of supplies and services essential to the life of the community, and to provide for divers and other matters (including the charging of fees on certain licences and other documents) connected with the matters aforesaid.
At 11.15am, 3 September, British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, broadcast on BBC:
This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.
I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country [Britain] is at war with Germany.
Junior and Senior Cadets were assembled in the big lecture hall in the Military College. In the back of our minds Cork were playing Kilkenny in the All-Ireland and all Cork and Kilkenny Cadets were geared to go to Croke Park. We were never as close to Croke Park in our lives.
Addressing us was Major General Hugo MacNeill. He announced “We are now on a war footing. There will be no leave. Everyone is confined to barracks”.
The General announced that the Senior Cadet class were to be commissioned immediately. He then said to us “I am going to condense your training into six weeks. After that you will be commissioned. In the meantime, you will soldier day and night, seven days a week”.
Croke Park was not to happen. Worst of all Kilkenny beat Cork by a puck at the last second of the match.
Later that day, An Taoiseach Éamon de Valera broadcasted on Radio Éireann to the people of Ireland:
You know from the news bulletins that I have been listening that the great European powers are again at war. That this would be the end, as appears almost inevitable for months’ past. Such an escape we had a year ago, would hardly be expected to occur twice. Yet until a short time ago there was hope. But now hope is gone and the people of Europe are plunged once more into the misery and anguish of war
Noting the march of events, your government decided its policy early last Spring and announced its decision to you and the world. We resolve with the aim of our policy would be to keep our people out of the war. As I said in the Dáil. With our history, with our experience of the last war and with a part of our country still unjustly severed from us, we felt that no other decision and no other policy was possible
For those six weeks, we went through hell on earth. We were on manoeuvres well into the darkness and lectures were held in the middle of the night. There were no breaks, no leave. The one good thing was we had no tests. We trained and trained. After six weeks, intense training we were commissioned.
We thought after that we’d get at least two weeks off. It was not to be. We were to report straight to our new units. Back into the lecture hall and our postings were read out. We had been asked where we would like to be posted. I had put in for the 4th Infantry Battalion or coastal artillery in Cork. Either one was not far from home. Lovely.
Major General MacNeill announced, “Ned Cusack, 1st Infantry Battalion Galway”. Jesus, I thought where is the 1st Infantry Battalion in Galway. I’d never been to Galway. I was not a happy man. The next morning the saloon car dropped me at Kildare train station, after a change at Athlone, I headed into the Wild West.
I reported to Renmore Barracks and introduced myself to Major Dineen, the Commanding Officer of the 1st Infantry Battalion. In those days, we used the rank Major as Lieutenant Colonel. He was a 22 man and had what was known as pre-truce service. From Clare, he had fought in the War of Independence and then in the Civil War. After becoming a teacher for a while, he joined the new Defence Forces. A nice man he was a genius on Gallipoli. He knew that battle inside out and lectured us endlessly on the Gallipoli campaign. All his tactics were based on the First World War.
Now that we were on a war footing the Battalion was on continuous exercise. North Clare and Galway Bay area became very familiar. Nobody knew what was going to happen. If the Germans were to keep coming, more than likely their main thrust would be from the sea. In turn we trained extensively in coastal defence. I remember Ballyvaughan Co. Clare and Spiddal in Galway very well. We defended them until we were blue in the face.
There was only one lorry for the entire battalion. We had to march everywhere. 10, 20 mile marches were nothing to us. And then a day’s work at the end of it defending the coast, harrying a Company in Defence at dawn. They were great fun. I hadn’t hit my 21st birthday yet and by god we were fit.
It was very serious training. We spent days on the ranges. I was an expert on the Lewis Light Machine Gun. Our standard rifle was the Lee–Enfield bolt-action .303” and we had the Ordnance ML 3” mortar. The ML 3” mortar is a conventional Stokestype mortar which was muzzle-loaded and drop-fired.
Later we received the Bren machine gun, the Czechoslovak ZGB 33 version to be precise, and the Brandt mle 27/31 mortar from France. As we were pre-war men the entire battalion was dressed in the German styled Vickers helmet and heather green high collared tunic. We were fierce looking individuals.
One day in early November I reported to the commanding officer. “You and your platoon are to report to Mallin Head, Co. Donegal’. There was a radio station and observation post up there which had to be guarded and the observation post manned. It was bitterly cold. I got out expecting to see billets. All there was eight man tents. We relieved the unit there and our job was to keep out intruders. At that time our biggest fear was the IRA (Irish Republican Army). They were active at the time. The radio station and the observation post were a vital strategic location as they covered a huge part of the north-west Atlantic. The reports emanating from that post throughout the war were vital to the Irish and the Allied war effort.
We monitored movements of aircraft, submarines and shipping and gathered all the respective information. It was cold and the food was not the best. I could think of better places to be. After a month, we thought we were going back to Galway. No. we got a call. “You and your platoon are to report to Drumsna in Co. Leitrim in two days’ time”.
Drumsna was a strategic bridge over the River Shannon connecting Ireland with Northern Ireland. At Drumsna anyone that was crossing the bridge was stopped, searched and questioned. As the officer, I’d have to ask all the questions. Where are you coming from? where are you going? what will you be doing there? Nothing could pass Drumsna bridge without my say so.
As well as checking any IRA activities we were also getting information on the British activities in the North. Bitter cold, tents, not exactly four-star standard. After about three weeks we were ordered back to barracks for respite.
Back in barracks in the second week in December we had a cushy time. Lovely nice food and warm beds. Christmas was on the cards and we thought we might get a break and finally get to go home and see the family.
Well, the senior officers who were still on peacetime mentality said you, you and you orderly officer Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day. I was on St. Stephen’s Day. The older officers were off home for the Christmas.
Three young Lieutenants in charge of the barracks. Midnight Christmas Eve, phone call from Command Headquarter Athlone. “Barrack to be placed on lockdown forthwith. No movement. You are to put out patrols internally and externally”. What in the name of god is this all about I asked, “the IRA have raided the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, and got away with all our reserve ammunition”.
Everyone was recalled to barracks. Raids were expected all over the country. That was our Christmas 1939.