Throughout World War II, the Republic of Ireland officially remained neutral. Despite many Irish citizens joining up to fight for the Allies, the Germans occasionally sought to exploit the UK's neighbour as part of their war effort.
Details of one such plot were released in 2003.
In early 1940, IRA¹ officer Steven Held travelled to Germany to propose an invasion of Ireland. He met the Nazi spy Hermann Görtz in Frankfurt. He painted a picture of the IRA as a large, well-disciplined militia, ready to assist Nazi Germany provided munitions could be provided. The IRA's interest seems to have been the unification of the divided island or at least disrupting British control of Northern Ireland; and a huge boost to their power and prestige. Nazi ideology and Irish republicanism had precious little in common. The Germans were naturally interested, and poured over Held's "Plan Kathleen"² - an IRA-assisted German invasion of Ireland.
The plan would have seen 50,000 German troops landed at Sligo in the republic and Coleraine, Londonderry, and Larne in the North. These divisions would have been met by IRA volunteers from Ballyshannon and Dundalk.
The Germans' first step was to verify Held's information. In May 1940, Görtz was parachuted into Ireland to seek out the IRA leadership. He was to collaborate with them in working out the tricky details of Plan Kathleen. He found the organisation was small, disorganised and incapable of carrying out any part of the plan. The plot was discovered by the Irish authorities later that month, Held was arrested and the plans were seized. They also informed MI5 at once- remarkable, given their supposed neutrality.
The Germans came away from the endeavor with their confidence in the IRA badly shaken, but willing to use their new contacts for a smaller-scale operation.
The Pea Plot: Execution
In July 1940, a dinghy landed at Skibereen in County Cork on the south coast of Ireland. On board were German agents Otto Dietergartner, Herbert Tributh and their leader Henry Obed. Tributh and Dietergartner were both born in the former German colony of Southwest Africa (now Namibia), and Obed was Indian-born.
The trio were members of the Lehr Regiment Brandenburg, a specialist unit equivalent to the British Special Operations Executive: their mission was to cause havoc behind enemy lines prior to invasion. The Battle of Britain was getting underway, which was intended to wipe out the RAF in advance of an invasion of Great Britain. These agents were to play a small part on land.
They were to liaise with the local IRA chapter and seek their help in smuggling their equipment to Britain. They carried
- four bombs packed into cans of processed peas, labelled "Petit Pois Francais, Garres";
- hollowed out wooden blocks containing detonators;
- leather belts containing fuses; and
- blocks of nitro-cellulose explosive³
On coming ashore, they asked a passer-by if he knew how to contact the IRA. The fellow told them that he would take them to meet local IRA leaders at once. Instead, he took them to the Police. They were immediately arrested, and again the British were informed. In prison, the agents later told an informer that their plan was to attack Buckingham Palace, although this could have been a cover story for some other exploding pea-based wheeze.
A lively correspondence developed between Captain Cecil Liddel at MI5 and Colonel Liam Archer of the Irish defence ministry about the Germans and their bombs.
Not so neutral?
Although the Irish government were careful to observe all the trappings of neutrality (they even sent a message of sympathy to the German government on Hitler's death), they cooperated with British intelligence at high levels throughout the war.
- The "Official Irish Republican Army" a militia who had ceased activities by the early 1970s, and had been marginalised during the foundation of the new Irish armed forces in 1922; not the well-known "Provisional IRA" which appears to have ceased activities during 2006.
- Plan Kathleen is not related to Unternehmen Grün (Operation Green), Germany's own home-grown plan to occupy Ireland, North and South.
- As favoured by Ace in Doctor Who.
The various news sources listed below are ultimately based on a number of MI5 and Irish security services documents released by the UK National Archive in 2003. The papers are now on display at the Public Record Office.
National Archives (with pictures and maps):
News Reports (BBC pages have pictures of the peas):
- Hermann Görtz, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/releases/2003/november14/goertz.htm
- Stephen Held, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/releases/2004/may21/german_intelligence.htm
- Saboteurs to Bomb Buckingham Palace with Cans of French Peas, http://history1900s.about.com/b/a/2003_11.htm
- Irish Independent, http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1022036/posts
- Guardian Unlimited, http://www.guardian.co.uk/freedom/Story/0,,1084959,00.html
- Nazis 'planned NI invasion', http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/3268463.stm
- 1940 'peas bomb plot' on palace, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/3264257.stm