Book review: Dark Times, Decent Men: Stories of Irishmen in World War II by Neil Richardson

Why would an Irishman enlist in the Second World War when his country had declared its neutrality?

Raymond Wall, from Loughrea in County Galway, was just 21 when war broke out in 1939. Within days, he had joined the Local Security Force and shortly after he travelled north of the border to enlist.

He would end the war as a leading aircraftman amongst the ground crew of No 90 Squadron RAF at Tuddenham in Suffolk where his tasks included the dangerous job of loading 1,000lb bombs onto aeroplanes.

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So what made Wall, who ended up settling in Dublin after the war, leave behind his family and make the trip to England to become a member of RAF Bomber Command?

‘Those were different times then,’ he later told his son. ‘They were dark times. There was an insidious evil rampaging across Europe, and decent men were needed to stop it.’

Over 130,000 Irishmen and women served during the Second World War and 7,500 of them never returned. Many more – estimates put the number at 634,000 – Irish people emigrated to Britain during the war or in the immediate post-war years to work in munitions or in other war-related industries like construction and nursing.

Neil Richardson, author of the much-praised A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall, Stories of Irishmen in World War I, turns his attention here to the bravery of the Irish service heroes whose idealism and knowledge that Nazism was a threat that must be stopped led them to join the Allied forces.

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Illustrated with over 150 photographs and memorabilia, Dark Times, Decent Men gathers dramatic first-hand stories from Irishmen who went to war, including those who fought at Dunkirk, North Africa and on the D-Day beaches, the RAF fighter aces and the sailors who served in U-boat-infested seas.

Richardson discovers Irish Jews who fought to defeat the Nazis and the Final Solution, Irishmen who served alongside Easy Company of the US 101st Airborne Division, immortalised in Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, and those who joined the United States Marine Corps.

Many of these servicemen endured the horrors of prisoner-of-war camps, some witnessed the Nagasaki atomic bomb and eight Irishmen won the Victoria Cross, Britain and the Commonwealth’s highest award for valour in the face of the enemy.

The last battle against a foreign invader on mainland British soil was fought by the 1st London Irish Rifles against the crew of a downed German Junkers bomber on September 27 1940 in Kent in an event that became known as the Battle of Graveney Marsh.

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Through first-hand accounts and personal recollections, Richardson tells these Irishmen’s stories, many for the first time. There are tales of those who did not return, and those who did and for whom it was far from a hero’s welcome.

Paying tribute to these service people, Winston Churchill said: ‘When I think of ...Irish heroes...I can only pray that in years which I shall not see, the shame will be forgotten and the glories will endure.’

And thanks to the efforts of Richardson, the sacrifices of these ‘decent men’ live on...

(O’Brien, paperback, £17.99)

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