Why you should care
Because these soldiers’ strange journey helps explain Ireland’s stance during World War II.
The Battle of Berlin, where Hitler’s dying military machine tried to stave off the onslaught of Stalin’s Red Army, was a bloody affair. Millions of soldiers fought, and hundreds of thousands of them died. Two who survived, though, were James Brady and Frank Stringer, Irish soliders fighting for the Third Reich’s Waffen-SS.
Prior to the outbreak of war, and during the war itself, the Republic of Ireland — by then less than two decades old — found itself wedged between the rise of Nazism and Ireland’s historically prickly relationship with the United Kingdom. There were pro- and anti-fascist strains and IRA concerns in Ireland, so neutrality seemed the safest bet, which is what Ireland officially pursued throughout the conflict. But in its heart?
“Most historians agree that there was no such thing as absolute neutrality, and that everyone ‘in the know’ realized whose side Ireland was ‘neutral on,’ ” says Bryce Evans, associate professor of history and politics at Liverpool Hope University, referring to the Allies. Thousands of Irishmen strengthened the Allied cause by “joining the British forces,” Evans says, or by aiding war efforts in other ways.
The popular reaction to those who sympathized with the Nazi cause was … in many cases a benign indifference [in Ireland].
Bryce Evans, associate professor of history and politics, Liverpool Hope University
In 1938, Irishmen James Brady and Frank Stringer signed up for the Royal Irish Fusiliers in the British Army. In 1940, after being posted to Guernsey in the English Channel, the two were denied service in a pub. A rough-and-tumble night destroying property and beating the tar out of a local policeman ensued, and destiny was about to send the two men tumbling down a dark, Nazi-burrowed rabbit hole.
Germany occupied the demilitarized Channel Islands in 1940 while Brady and Stringer were serving out their sentences for that night of drunken violence. Despite still being active British soldiers, “the pair were handed over to the Wehrmacht by the Guernsey Police,” says Terence O’Reilly, author of Hitler’s Irishmen.
The men eventually landed in Brandenburg, Germany, at Camp Friesack, which had been set up to win Irish soldiers over to the German cause. A British officer advised his fellow prisoners of war to “pretend to volunteer for the Abwehr [a German military espionage group],” O’Reilly says, with the stipulation that they hand themselves over to the British as soon as they could. In September 1941, Stringer and another soldier offered to work with the Abwehr and left camp to train. Brady was initially chosen for a sabotage mission (to be dropped in by parachute) in the Belfast shipyards, but German distrust of their Irish recruits led to the mission being scrubbed. In 1942, the remaining Irish prisoners were shipped off to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Yet the luck of the Irish — loosely interpreted through a wartime lens — held for Brady and Stringer. The two men were reunited and worked as farm laborers in northern Germany until 1943, when both were offered the chance to join the Waffen-SS, basically Germany’s foreign legion. They said the equivalent of jawohl, and left farm life behind.
Before Brady and Stringer had been captured by the Germans, other Irishmen had consorted with the Nazis, including “literary figures like Francis Stuart and republicans like Frank Ryan,” Evans says. And while “the popular reaction to those who sympathized with the Nazi cause was … in many cases a benign indifference [in Ireland],” Evans continues, Brady and Stringer, who swore oaths of allegiance to Hitler and completed training with the Waffen-SS in occupied Alsace-Lorraine, were about to do a hell of lot more than merely “consort.”
Whether they joined the Waffen-SS to relieve the boredom of POW life, or had succumbed to Nazi propaganda, Brady and Stringer had now officially become German soldiers. They were soon scooped up into the 502nd SS Jäger Battalion, a Nazi special forces unit composed mostly of foreign recruits and run by Otto Skorzeny, an Austrian lieutenant colonel who had freed Mussolini from captivity in a daring rescue operation in 1943, and had an exceptional talent for infiltrating enemy lines.
“Brady in particular proved an enthusiastic commando,” O’Reilly says. He participated in clandestine, behind-the-lines operations like Operation Landfried in Romania, a raid on Budapest, defending the Schwedt bridgehead against Soviet forces in 1945 and even the Battle of Berlin, witnessing firsthand the death throes of Nazi Germany.
In 1946, long after hostilities had ended, Brady surrendered to the British in Berlin. In London, he was court-martialed and sentenced to 15 years in prison, but his sentence was later reduced “due to mitigating factors, not least the fact that the British Army had abandoned him to the Germans in 1940,” O’Reilly says.
“You must remember that the ethic of Irish neutrality was so strong that the press was not allowed to report on the war in any way deemed partisan to either side,” Evans explains. But when German atrocities eventually did come to light, Irish ambivalence toward, or even sympathy for Nazism began to fade — although conflicted feelings about the war and England, demonstrated by violent conflicts over Northern Ireland for decades to come, remained.
By the early 1950s, Brady and Stringer were back in Ireland as free men. Stringer immigrated to Britain shortly thereafter, where “the British police kept an eye on him for a while,” O’Reilly says. But Stringer maintained a low profile, soon vanishing into history. “James Brady” — a name likely assumed as a pseudonym for British military service — slipped into obscurity as well. Upon Brady’s return to Ireland, it seems he took up his true identity again, and refrained from bragging about his wartime adventures with the Nazi SS. But that didn’t change the fact that one wild night on Guernsey, and a subsequent career in the Waffen-SS, had changed the course of these Irishmen’s lives forever.