The Junckers Ju-188 - one of the most common bombers at the time
It was a New Year's gift as unwelcome as it was unexpected.
In the early hours of January 2, 1941 as the people of Newbridge slept under the security blanket of Irish neutrality, a Nazi plane droned overhead and unleashed a torrent of bombs to the west of the town. High explosive projectiles plunged earthwards scouring craters in the ground on the edge of the Curragh racecourse and in the fields of Ballymany Stud.
Separately a slew of incendiary bombs lit up the night sky as they fell to the south of the town on to the fields of the Cox farm at Walshestown setting a valuable stock of hay and straw on fire. This New Year’s present from Hitler’s air force could have been a lot worse.
There was no injury to man or animal in the Newbridge area. Had the bombs fallen a mile to the east – just a minute’s flying time away – the town could have been all but annihilated. The tragedy of the North Strand bombing in Dublin when bombs dropped on Dublin killed more than thirty, injured scores, and destroyed hundreds of houses, showed the devastation which high explosives could bring to urban streetscapes.
As it was, there was tragedy in a neighbouring county that night. All throughout Leinster errant German bombers had dropped their deadly payloads at random over the countryside. One stick of bombs straddled a farmhouse on the high slopes of the Blackstairs mountains in Co Carlow. Three female members of the Shannon family were killed instantly.
Although the de Valera government had imposed strict war-time censorship the Leinster Leader, datelined January 4, carried graphic details of the incident. The paper’s Curragh correspondent reported that: “ … about 6.45 on Thursday morning an unidentified aeroplane approached the Curragh from a north-easterly direction and dropped incendiary bombs at Walshestown, Newbridge and one and a half miles from the Curragh Camp.”
The report continued that one of the incendiaries had triggered a fire in a quantity of hay and straw in a haggard adjoining the farmhouse of Mr James Cox.
An eyewitness, Mr Joseph Dunne, an employee of Mr Cox, was quoted as saying that the falling incendiaries resembled “shooting stars.” Witnesses said that the plane approached from “the Naas direction” and some said they heard small explosions followed immediately by flashes”.
The Army fire brigade from the Camp was summoned and arrived quickly at the scene of the outbreak. They succeeded in confining the conflagration to the haggard but about 200 tons of hay and straw were destroyed. The private fire brigade from the Irish Ropes factory in Newbridge and the town’s Air Raid Precautions fire-fighting service also responded to the bombing.
The incendiaries– of a type which started terrible fires in the London Blitz – scattered all over Walshestown. Others fell adjacent to the home of Mr Patrick Sheridan but did not material damage.
Of potentially more serious consequence were the eight high explosive bombs which dropped in the Ballymany area. Three fell on the Curragh lands between the racecourse and Ballymany Cross kicking up big craters at least forty feet wide. Five more fell on the lands of the Aga Khan’s Stud at Ballymany where incendiaries also impacted.
Gardaí from Newbridge and members of the Local Security Force combed the district during the Thursday for any further traces of bomb impact. The damage was confined to the torching of the Cox hays-store in addition to the severing of a water pipeline at Ballymany Stud and the gouging of deep craters in the pastures of the stud and the adjacent Curragh plain. But the searchers made a startling discovery. They found that one of the bombs had not detonated and it had embedded itself six feet deep in the Ballymany soil just yards from the house occupied by Mr James Hayde, steward and stud groom to the Aga Khan.
As Thursday wore on the national press sought reports from the site and in the Irish Independent of the Friday morning a column headed “Droichead Nua – Fire Bombs dropped” by an Irish Independent Special Representative reported that “a cordon was thrown around the unexploded bomb, and military experts began digging it out in order to render it ineffective”.
The skill and bravery of the Irish Army bomb disposal officers is impressive – approaching a bomb laden with 500kg of explosive, and with German fusing mechanisms that they would not have had the opportunity to practice on, must have required nerves of steel.
They dismantled the bomb without further incident but in the process made a discovery which would have international ramifications in the tense relationships between the neutral Ireland the warring parties – the bomb casing carried inscriptions which appeared to be German markings.
Although there had been a handful of bombing incidents over Ireland since the war had begun – including the destruction of a creamery in the village of Campile near New Ross which claimed the lives of three women workers – there had been no objective proof of the source of the bombs.
The Government of Eamon de Valera was sensitive as regards making allegations as to whether the bombs were British or Germans – although the likelihood was the latter – until forensic proof was found. Now there was literally a cast-iron guarantee of attribution – the markings of the unexploded bomb at Ballymany were clearly German.
And so, a crater blown in the Kildare soil by a bomb dropped by a lost and weary Luftwaffe pilot, was to trigger a diplomatic incident that further complicated Ireland’s tense neutrality.