Nine-year-old Hebert Remmel disembarked from the mail-boat at Dun Laoghaire and walked trancelike into the dense crowds gathered to greet him and the eighty seven skinny and bewildered little boys and girls who had travelled with him. As he was hugged and petted and treated to mugs of cocoa and thick buttery sandwiches and fruits he had never seen before, Herbert marvelled that it was only 72 hours since he had said farewell to his parents amid the smouldering ruins of his native city, Cologne. Overwhelmed by the occasion, he picked up an orange and sank his teeth into it. Peeling an orange was one of many useful skills this child of Nazi Germany would master in post-war Ireland.
Remmel, whose charming and wryly observed memoirs, ‘From Cologne to Ballinlough’ were published this month by the Aubane Historical Society, was one of over four hundred German children brought to Ireland under an Irish Red Cross initiative called ‘Operation Shamrock’. Also known as ‘Hitler’s Irish Orphans’, these children were primarily German Catholics from the province of North Rhine Westphalia. In most cases, their parents had been killed and their homes destroyed during the war.
Few German cities suffered more than Cologne in the Second World War. 262 American and British air raids left over 20,000 dead and annihilated the city centre.[i] Herbert Remmel – not Rommel, as he corrected the Customs officer in Liverpool - grew up in Neurath, a 1920s housing estate on Cologne’s north side. It was a poor working class neighbourhood, dubbed ‘Little Moscow’ on account of the high number of socialists in the area.
Herbert’s father, Christian Remmel was a member of the Communist party. During the 1930s and early years of the war, he helped many socialists, Jews and others on the run from the Gestapo to escape from Germany. In 1943, the family apartment in Neurath was destroyed in an air raid; the Remmels were secured in a bunker at the time. The following year, Christian was betrayed, arrested and sentenced to death. A US tank squadron liberated him just 24 hours before he was due to be executed.
Exhausted, famished and recovering from typhus and dysentery, Christian was desperate for help to rebuild his family after the war. And then he heard of a new scheme operating out of Ireland for which his son Hebert was eligible. As he pondered its implications, his young sons roared with laughter. The word ‘Ire’ meant ‘mad’ in the local Cologne dialect they spoke. Ireland - the Land of the Mad! Could there really be such a place?[ii]
During the war, Ireland’s neutrality had alienated the fledgling Republic from many in Europe. Operation Shamrock arguably marked the start of our journey back into European favour.[iii] Despite being one of the poorest countries on the continent, Ireland was one of the first and, according to Remmel, ‘most generous’ countries to help the war-ravaged countries of the continent. In the first year after the war, De Valera’s government pumped an impressive STG£12 million into food, medicine and the deployment of doctors and nurses.[iv]
Of greater significance was the fact that so much of Ireland’s focus was on Germany. No other country in Europe was inclined to help the defeated Fatherland when it was down. But Ireland had enjoyed strong pre-war links with Germany, primarily cultural and religious. As such, it was perhaps not surprising that, with the Nazis defeated and the vengeful Russian army swarming through Germany, Irish eyes began to consider the plight of Germany’s children.
On 16th October 1945, at a public meeting in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dr Kathleen Murphy, daughter of a prominent Republican activist and a well-known paediatrician, founded the German Save The Children Society. Her specific aim was to bring traumatized German children to Ireland to help them recover from the nightmare of post-war Germany.
It was by no means an easy sell. Any empathy people might have had for the Society was dissipated when, as Remmel puts it, nationalists and fascists ‘latched on’, viewing Ireland as a ‘Teuton gene-bank’ and the Society as ‘an initiative to save German ‘blood’. Unwilling to associate with such out-of-vogue conceits, the Irish Government and the Department of External Affairs punted the Society in the direction of the Irish Red Cross.
In March 1946 the Irish Red Cross applied to the Allied Control Council (ACC) to bring one hundred German children to Ireland. The ACC comprised of Russia, France, the US and the UK, none of which felt a mercy mission for German children should be high on their agenda. The concept was particularly unpopular with the British, through whose territory these children would have to come to reach Ireland. Nonetheless, the Irish Red Cross gradually courted and wooed the relevant dignitaries of church and state, including the UK’s Council member Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery.
The request was finally approved on 31st May. Financed by the Irish Red Cross, the transport operation began. The first wave of Shamrock’s German refugees arrived in Dun Laoghaire on 27 July 1946, Remmel amongst them. By the end of June 1947, 462 children, aged between three and ten, were in Ireland. (421 of these were German, 403 of them brought in the Red Cross and eighteen directly by private families.)
Hebert qualified for Operation Shamrock by dint of the facts he was under ten years old, the Nazis had persecuted his father and he was a Catholic. Indeed, one of the conditions of the operation was that there should be four Catholics for every Protestant. That said, Catholicism was not something the Remmel household had been strict on during Herbert’s childhood. Travelling on a double-decker around Dublin sometime later, he was astonished by the clock-work habit of the Irish passengers who tipped their hats and crossed themselves every time they passed a church.
For the first two months, he was based in a Sisters of Mercy convent near Castlebellingham, Co Louth, where they were treated by doctors, nurses and specialists. Many were suffering from scabies and other diseases and were completely unable to stomach the rich Irish diet. Once they were deemed healthy enough, the children were sent on to the Red Cross Centre at St Kevin’s, Glencree, Co Wicklow, now the Reconciliation Centre. Many returned home to Germany at this point but others, like Remmel, stayed on and were dispatched to foster homes.
Remmel’s first foster family were the Cunnighams of Inchicore with whom he stayed until the British embargo on Irish coal in February 1947 reduced their family income and they had to cut him loose. While in Dublin, Hebert was shocked at the poverty of the children and beggars he saw on the streets; he had never seen anything like it in Germany. He subsequently went to live and work on the Nally farm in Ballinlough, Co. Mayo. He went to school, learned to speak Irish (primarily the rude words) and to imitate Michael O’Hehir, played hurling and handball, took his First Communion and helped the Nallys stack turf, spread manure, gather potatoes and make hay. He stayed with the Nallys for two years which were, he says, ‘the happiest and most interesting in my childhood’
By September 1949, most of the Shamrock children were returned to their families in Germany.[v] Many, like Remmel, formed strong bonds with their foster families and about fifty remained in Ireland and married Irish partners. From these initial contacts came the first post-war trade links with Germany, which became Ireland’s chief mainland European trading partner during the 1950s. A fountain at St. Stephens Green in Dublin stands as a mark of Germany's gratitude for the kindness that was Operation Shamrock.
With thanks to Herbert Remmel, Jack Lane, Philip O'Connor, Hugh Glynn, Eileen Courtney, Manus O'Riordan and Ros Dee.
Ashcroft, Dianne, Hitler and Mars Bars (Trafford Publishing (20 Mar 2008)
Molohan, Cathy, Germany and Ireland, 1945-1955: two nations' friendship' (Irish Academic Press)
Remmel, Herbert, From Cologne to Ballinlough (Aubane Historical Society, 2009).
True Lives: Hitler's Irish Orphans (RTE).
[i] During the war he and his brother entertained themselves by collecting silk worms and nabbing bits from crashed American and British bombers to play with – empty petrol tanks became canoes, old tyres were converted into catapults.
[ii] Hebert recalled the excitement of seeing Ireland in the atlas for the first time: ‘An island, all green, many lakes; mountains only at the edges; small towns. Looks good, even very good. Only it’s a bit far from Cologne and too near to England’.
[iii] Many frowned upon this Catholic island nation which had refused to join the Allied cause and whose Taoiseach Eamon de Valera had so frequently expressed sympathy with the German cause. Indeed, while the Republic of Ireland had been unilaterally decalred in 1937, many nations were hesitant to recognize it as such, not least the Unite Kingdom who did not acquiesce their recognition until 1949.
[iv] Ireland joined forces with other neutral states, primarily Sweden and Switzerland, on the UNRRA Assistance Operations to relieve those places that had been hardest hit. As well as Operation Shamrock, financial and material donations to Germany were made through organizations such as Caritas and the Red Cross, while German-Irish societies were set up to re-establish important cultural links in the fields of literature and language. These links enabled Ireland to gradually establish diplomatic relations with other nations. The emergence of the European market offered an alternative to economic dependence on Britain.
[v] A large number of these children took part on a joyful reunion at Glencree on 23 March 1997.