Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Munich, 1919. The corporal lay on the ground, badly beaten and bleeding profusely. The irate German soldiers continued to slam their jackboots into his face and body. A flash of steel indicated that bayonets had been drawn. The corporal prepared to die.

And then a volley of gunshots exploded above the heads of his attackers, echoing furiously around the gymnasium walls. As the soldiers fled the scene, the 30-year-old corporal glanced through bleeding eyes to try and identify his saviour.

Into his vision stepped eight armed men, headed up by an Irishman. By chance, the corporal had served alongside the Irishman on the Western Front less than a year earlier. On this particular evening in the spring of 1919, the Irishman was in charge of the Munich barracks. He had been resting when informed that a riot had broken out in the gymnasium. As he marched to quell the riot, the Irishman was informed that the catalyst for the unrest was a corporal who had unwisely attempted to woo the soldiers with his fascist rantings ahead of the upcoming municipal elections.

Once the mob had dispersed, the Irishman instructed the corporal that, for his own safety, he was placing him under arrest and taking him to the guardroom. Even as the moustachioed corporal limped to safety, he continued to harangue anyone who would listen with his political views.

In 1930, the Irishman went to Nuremburg to watch one of the infamous Nazi party rallies. That was the first time he had seen the corporal since saving his life in Munich eleven years earlier. The corporal now stood at the centre of a platform which was swathed in Swastika flags. Tens of thousands had gathered to hear him speak.

The corporal’s name was Adolf Hitler. And within three years of the Nuremburg rally he had become the leader of Nazi Germany.

The Irishman who saved Hitler’s life in 1919 was Michael Keogh, a policeman’s son from Tullow, Co. Carlow. His story has recently come to light with the publication of his extraordinary memoirs, “With Casement’s Irish Brigade”. In these pages, Keogh reveals how he saved the German dictators life, only to narrowly avoid execution by Hitler’s henchman during the “Night of the Long Knives.” He managed to slip out of sight twenty minutes before his would-be assassins arrived.

Less fortunate that fateful night was Keogh’s former commander Ernst Roehm who, as leader of the paramilitary Storm Troopers, had helped Hitler secure power. Roehm and Hitler subsequently fell out. Keogh estimates that Roehm was one of 5,000 “political opponents” dragged from their homes and executed.

As Hitler’s Germany slowly goaded the rest of the world into the deadliest war in our history, Keogh must have had good cause to reflect on how he should have just let the angry soldiers finish off the troublesome agent back in 1919.

But when Michael Keogh began to compile his memoirs during the late 1920s, he had many things to reflect upon. His life had been exceedingly adventurous practically since his birth in Tullow in 1891.

He came from rebellious stock. His Wexford forbears were killed in the 1798 Rebellion. His grandfather Mathew Keogh led the resistance during the infamous Coolgreany Evictions in Co. Wexford in 1887. His great-uncle Myles Keogh was Colonel Custer’s second-in-command and died at the Battle of Little Big Horn. His uncle Jack Tynan was a Fenian who tried to blow up Westminster Bridge. His father Laurence Keogh (sometimes Kehoe) was an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Michael grew up in Tullow and, at the age of 14, won a County Council scholarship to the seminary school of St Patrick's Monastery. Between 1903 and 1906 he was a member of the O'Growney Branch of the Gaelic League in Tullow and competed in singing and dancing. In 1907, he sailed for New York to live with his aunt Mary Keogh. He joined the National Guard, became a member of Clan-na-Gael in New York and befriended Sir Roger Casement. Their paths would cross again in Germany during the war.

In 1910 he spent ten months battling against Mexican guerrillas on the Texan frontier, but was obliged to leave the army with a gunshot wound to his abdomen. He went to work as an engineer on the Panama Canal before sailing home in 1913. He joined the Royal Irish Regiment and was sent for training in Clonmel which, given his training in the USA, he felt was rather superfluous. He states that his reason for enlisting in the British army was so that he could recruit trained Irish soldiers from within to join the Republican cause.

In March 1914, the British officers at the Curragh Camp announced their intention of resigning en masse rather than obeying the command to fight against the Ulster Unionists. The event prompted heated words from Private Keogh and, in May, he was tried by court-martial, convicted for "sedition" (ie: talking politics in the barracks) and sentenced to 28 days in the cells.

Upon the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, he went with the Royal Irish to France, reasoning that it was always his intent to make it to the German lines. He was awarded the Mons Star for his service during the retreat from Mons in the early stages of the First World War. He was captured and taken to Sennelager Camp in Westphalia as a prisoner of war.

Whilst in the camp Keogh made contact with Casement who was then in Germany and whose opinion Keogh rated very highly. Casement was in the process of building an Irish Brigade from Irish prisoners willing to wear a German uniform and fight against the British. Keogh was placed in charge of the recruitment drive for the Irish Brigade amongst 1,500 Irish prisoners at the POW camp.

A comrade from this era described Keogh as 'a quiet dispositioned man, of plump and short physique, prone to follow the line of least resistance, but possessed the knack of getting things done'. He was also known to like the German ladies and the same source recalls how Keogh mastered the German language with the aid of ‘a charming human dictionary who made the study of language a labour of love’.

By early 1915, Sergeant Major Keogh had only secured 56 recruits for the Brigade. On Casement’s suggestion, these men were moved to the rather more upmarket Zossen Camp south of Berlin. However, the Germans never took the Brigade seriously and the recruits were rarely treated any different to other POWs. On the eve of the Easter Rebellion in Dublin in 1916, Casement was arrested in Co. Kerry and charged with treason. His subsequent execution spelled the end for his Irish Brigade although Keogh would spend the rest of his life defending Casement’s reputation. As Kevin Snr puts it, “my mother lived with Casement’s ghost for forty years.”

In the winter of 1916, Keogh took charge of around 30 of the Irishmen charged with installing a new gas tank in Dirschau, West Prussia (now part of Poland). ‘Engineering being my line, I greatly enjoyed this activity and new life”, he wrote. It is assumed these 30 men were all that remained of Casement’s Irish Brigade.

By 1918, he had joined the German Army for its Spring Offensive, for which he was awarded the Hindenburg Cross. He commanded a machine gun company with the Bavarian 16th Infantry Regiment at Ligny on the French border. It was here that Field-Lieutenant Keogh was first briefly introduced to Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler who was in the same regiment. The future dictator was lying on a stretcher outside a field-dressing post, recovering from a wound to his groin which, Keogh suggests, ‘made it impossible for him [ie: Hitler] to become a father’.

Keogh was stricken with Spanish Flu at the end of the war but recovered and joined the Freikorps, a right-wing militia group entrusted with keeping Munich free of dastardly Communists. At about this time the brown-eyed Carlow man married a Bavarian nurse called Annamarie Von Seuffert with whom he had three sons and three daughters. The sons were bestowed with tellingly patriotic names: Roger Casement Keogh, Joseph Plunket Keogh and, now living in Swords, Kevin Barry Keogh. One of his comrades in the Freikorps was Jeremiah O'Callaghan, ‘a useful boxer’ from Mallow, who married Annamarie’s sister.

In February 1919, a Bolshevik-inspired Marxist revolution led to the declaration of a short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic in Munich. Keogh was one of 30,000 Freikorps sent to Munich to quash the Reds. Three days of intense fighting ensued, in which over 1,000 people were killed, many summarily executed by the Freikorps. Keogh operated a machine gun company during the battle, for which he was later awarded the Siegfried Dagger of Honour with a personal dedication from his commanding officer’s deputy, Ernst Röhm. Röhm went on to found the Nazi Party’s Storm Battalion but was executed on Hitler’s orders during the Night of the Long Knives.

One evening, several weeks after the Bavarian Republic was crushed, Keogh was the officer on duty at the Turken Strasse barracks in Munich when news arrived that a riot had broken out in the barrack gymnasium. Two right wing political agents had been addressing the soldiers in a bid to win their support ahead of an upcoming municipal election. The speech had not gone well and by the time Keogh arrived with a sergeant and six soldiers, the two agents had already been dragged to the floor and were being beaten up by an angry mob of 200 soldiers, including ‘some some tough Tyrolean troops.’ When he saw the bayonets flashing, Keogh ‘ordered the guard to fire one round over the heads of the rioters. It stopped the commotion.’

He recalls how he hauled the future dictator out of the gymnasium “cut, bleeding and in need of a doctor … the crowd around muttered and growled, boiling for blood.” While they waited in the guardroom, Keogh questioned them. ‘The fellow with the moustache gave his name promptly: Adolf Hitler. It was the Lance Corporal of Ligny. I would not have recognized him. He had been five months in hospital, in Passewalk, Pomerania. He was thin and emaciated from his wounds.’

In September 1919, Keogh was discharged from the German army and returned to Ireland. He met Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and Erskine Childers and was involved in smuggling Mauser guns into Ireland from Hamburg. He also saw action on Mount Leinster when a party of Black and Tans surprise attacked an IRA training session. Shortly after the Truce was signed, he returned to Germany to collect his wife and children and bring them back to Ireland.

Keogh took no sides during the Civil War but later served as an engineer in the Free State army.

From 1930 to 1936, the Keogh family lived in Berlin where Michael Keogh was working as an engineer on the Underground. These were the years in which Hitler secured control of Germany. In August 1930 he attended one of Hitler’s infamous Nuremburg rallies. The Lance Corporal of Ligny stood centre stage on a platform awash with Swastika flags. ‘He was no longer in need of a guardroom for his safety’, observed Keogh dryly. The following month, Hitler’s party won 107 seats in the Reichstag and swept to power. By the time Keogh returned to Ireland in 1936, the German dictator was steering the world into the utter mayhem of World War Two.

‘When my grandfather saw first hand how oppressive the Nazi regime had become on a daily basis, he changed his views. He knew some of the soldiers and civilians who Hitler murdered on the Night of the Long Knives and he became a marked man.’

Keogh established contact with friends in Ireland and began seeking work there so he could move his family home.

‘In 1936 he got a letter from de Valera stating that a job and home would be provided. Unfortunately the promises were broken but he returned to Ireland anyway’.

‘After the war, when the horrors of what had happened were unfolding, he’d say, ‘If we had been a few minutes later that night or Hitler had got a few more kicks to his old wounds or he’d been shot … what if we hadn't intervened and he had died.’ He and his family were shocked and horrified at the massacre of the Jews and the other horrors when they became known after that terrible war. But he could not have known that Hitler was going to become such a tyrant. He just happened to be on duty that night and stopped a ugly brawl and arrested Hitler for his own safety.’

Back in Ireland, he was employed variously at the Pigeon House power-generating station in Dublin and the sugar-beet factory in Carlow. His memoirs were still unfinished when Keogh was taken ill in 1964 and rushed to the James Connolly Memorial Hospital in Blanchardstown. He brought his papers with him and kept them under his pillow. But his son Kevin (now aged 84 and living in Swords) came in to find his father in a ‘very distressed’ state, calling out for his papers which had vanished. A nurse told Kevin that Michael’s only visitor had been a priest who nobody in the hospital had seen before. It is assumed that Michael, who died two days later, was asleep at the time and that the ‘priest’ removed the papers.

In 2005, Michael’s grandson Kevin Keogh Jnr, now 52, a paving contractor from Ard na Greine, was surfing the internet when he came upon a reference stating that his grandfather’s memoirs were held in the University College Dublin Archives. To his further surprise, they were bound up with papers handed in by Moss Twomey, former Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army.

The identity of the priest and the reason why Keogh’s papers were concealed in the Twomey archives remains a mystery. Kevin Snr says he did not know Twomey and that he never heard his father mention him. The family have considered whether Michael might have requested a priest safeguard his papers and then became delirious and forgot what he had done.

But Kevin Jnr rejects this theory. “I think my grandfather would have trusted my Dad and his family above anyone else. And surely, after they were in a safe place, Michael’s family would have been notified about it, instead of me stumbling upon them forty years later?”

‘I think a more likely scenario is that the papers were taken under false pretences, and some of them were removed. For what ever reason? Perhaps we will never know? Not unless someone comes forward or the missing papers are recovered. But we’d love to know what else he wrote.”

Kevin is particularly curious to know what happened to his grandfather’s writings on the period between 1920 to 1964, little of which was to be found in the UCD papers.

“We’ve recovered fragments he wrote for the Sunday Chronicle in 1952 and a good part from the Catholic Bulletin. We know he was very critical of some politicians from 1922 right up to 1964 and felt they were putting themselves first and not the good of the country. I am sure if he had allied himself to the big politicians of the time he could have had the pocket full of silver, but he would always speak his mind and that's the man he was.’

“Our family didn’t know a lot of the stuff in the diaries”, says Kevin. “My father and his siblings had heard some of the stories that he and their mother would tell. They knew about how he’d saved Adolf Hitler’s life because they lived in Germany during the 1930s and he’d tell them. He was pro-German but he didn’t like the Nazis. He hadn’t paid much attention to saving the guy’s neck at the time but when Hitler became dictator, he felt differently about it. If he’d had a flash of the future, I think my grandfather would probably have shot Hitler dead that night in Munich”.

'With Casement’s Irish Brigade’ is available online from Choice Publishing Ltd. Drogheda, visit www.choicepublishing.ie

To listen to a 2011 RTE radio documentary about Michael Keogh, his journals and his incredible life, click here.

With thanks to Kevin Keogh Snr, Kevin Keogh Jnr, Michelle Flemming and Liam O'Brien (DocOnOne, RTE Radio 1).