Swastika over the Slaney

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 1997), News, The Emergency, Volume 5

Being up for the Germans in the war had stirring consolations and triumphalisms until the debacle at Stalingrad. Being up for the British at the same time meant a steady diet of humiliation from Dunkirk to Singapore, via Tobruck. The school yards were divided. Taunts of uncovered German atrocities, experiments, concentration camps, persecution and cruelties were met with a query about Amritsar, a million murdered Zulus, Bloody Sunday, Macroom, India, Kevin Barry, the Six Counties amputated from Ulster and ‘What about the Black and Tans?’ The latter had only left Wexford eighteen years or so previously and their exploits were recalled in every house.
I went on later to St Peter’s College, Wexford, where the fare was the same, but carried on with greater intensity. In all the five years of the war it never once bothered any of us at school that neutral Ireland was sitting on a time bomb, or that those responsible for the government and prosperity of the State were enduring chronic nightmares. Britain for a while was in the contest only because of its island status and mighty navy. Many high points occurred to jolt the memory of that Emergency. The bombing of Campile, the disappearance without trace of Wexford’s last sailing vessel, the Cymic, the rescue of a huge number of German sailors by the Kerlogue of Wexford. But to me there was one day that stood out—11 June 1941—and I was fortunate to have a ringside seat, propelled thus by smallness of size and inflexible determination.
Following one of the many aerial battles over the Carnsore Point area a Heinkel III twin-engined bomber crash-anded fifteen miles from Wexford town. All five crew members were killed. Following the inquest the five were to be given a military funeral to Wexford’s Crosstown Cemetery. The town snived with military of every service—cavalry, infantry, regular army, volunteers, naval service, LDF, plus a brass band. The funerals with the five hearses were unbearably sad, but since none were acquaintances it was the pageantry and spectacle that lent an air of carnival to the whole proceedings. The red, white and black swastika flag of Hitler’s Germany predominated and the Third Reich itself was represented by Herr Henning Thomsen, secretary to the German legation in Ireland.
In size and clothing he resembled Mr de Valera. He had a semi-bowler hat, leather gloves and bore around his arm, all the way to the graves, a huge wreath of laurels swathed in the then German national colours and swastika. There were guards of honour from different army units for each hearse. There were seeming throngs of soldiers slow marching through the town in solemn and moving spectacle.
At Redmond Bridge the order was given to quick march and so great was the weight and rhythm of army feet that the old bridge swayed alarmingly. When Crosstown was reached the coffins were borne on the shoulders of the army men to the graveside. There another unusual scene developed, one which would today be described as ecumenical but in the sharp divisions of 1941 was a rare spectacle of integrated inter-church funeral services. Two Roman Catholic priests officiated for the Catholic dead and two Church of Ireland clergy officiated for the Lutheran dead. They conducted the funeral rites, the one in Latin, the other in English, alongside one another in an unprecedented Wexford experience.
The last post was trumpeted, three volleys were fired by the Irish Army in a last salute to the fallen and the ceremony moved to a close. Herr Thomsen, hitherto a silent participant, ashen-faced with emotion, abruptly sprang to attention, extended his arm in the Hitler salute and crashed forth across the silent crowd an oration of farewell in German which reverberated amongst the faraway trees.
Without understanding a single word of German it was a gripping and uncanny moment of poignancy. The words which everyone could identify were rapped out with iron clarity—’Fuhrer’ and ‘Reich’. I distinctly recall civilians, one of them a very prominent lady, joining Herr Thomsen in the outstretched German salute. Rigorous and understandable censorship strictly banned amateur or press photographers from taking any pictures. Only the army officially recorded the proceedings on camera. However, John Scanlon, an amateur photographer who understood the drama of the day snapped away surreptitiously with his camera as fast and as often as he could. Also a pioneer radio buff, his short wave radio equipment, including his transmitter, had been confiscated by the authorities in 1940. His camera was shortly to meet a similar fate. Most readers will agree that the arm of the law which arrested his endeavours and confiscated his equipment acted with nerve-wracking prudence. Even at this remove speculation of what Fleet Street would have made of such images induces justifiable shudders.

Extract from N. Furlong & J. Hayes, County Wexford in the Rare Oul’ Times, Vol.3 (Old Distillery Press, 1996).

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