Hermann Goertz – a German spy in wartime Ireland

Hermann Goertz

The involvement of a Nazi spy with the IRA during the Second World War. By John Dorney

On May 5, 1940, the Irish Army’s lookout posts reported an unidentified aircraft flying over Gormanston Camp in County Meath. It was wartime and although Ireland was neutral in the Second World War, the skies were monitored nervously for hostile activity.

Somewhere over the townland of Ballivor, County Meath, two parachutes were dropped from the aeroplane, a German Heinkel, one contained a radio transmitter and the other a German agent, Hermann Goertz. He wore a full German officer’s uniform and a coat stuffed with 20,000 US dollars. Goertz, in the dead of night swam across the river Boyne and in the following day tramped to Laragh, in the heart of the Wicklow mountains and the home of a sympathiser, Iseult Stuart.[1]

Hermann Goertz was an intelligence officer with the German military intelligence section, the Abwehr, who was sent to Ireland in 1940 to liaise with the IRA

Herman Goertz (also spelled Gortz) was an intelligence officer with the German military intelligence section, the Abwehr, who was sent to Ireland in 1940 to liaise with the IRA about possible cooperation in an attack on British ruled Northern Ireland.

After he landed in Ireland by parachute in May 1940, he was, much to the embarrassment and concern of the Irish authorities, at liberty for 18 months. His was the most substantial contact between the IRA and the German Nazi regime; an episode that remains one of the least favourably remembered in the history of the underground organisation. 

IRA contacts with Germany

The aftermath of an IRA bomb in Coventry in August 1939 that killed 5 civilians.

By the late 1930s the IRA, the descendant of the guerrilla army that had fought the Irish War of Independence in 1919-21, and, more directly, of the losing faction of the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, had been through many debilitating splits.

Many ardent republicans had become reconciled to the Irish state after the accession to power of the anti-Treaty political party, Fianna Fail, and their leader, Eamon de Valera, in 1932. Another left wing faction had left to form the Republican Congress in 1934.

Those that remained in the IRA, though they remained hostile to all Irish governments, except the Irish Republic declared in 1919, began to focus their attention on Northern Ireland. In early 1939, under their chief of staff, Sean Russell, they launched a bombing campaign in England, which was intended to draw attention to the continued British rule in north east Ireland. They also persisted in their opposition to the Dublin government, raiding the Irish Army’s ammunition depot at the Magazine Fort in Dublin’s Phoenix Park and planting a bomb at the headquarters of the Garda Special Branch in Dublin Castle.[2]

IRA Chief of Staff, Sean Russell, saw no ideological significance in cooperating with Nazi Germany, but some others were sympathetic to far right politics.

To help fund and arm the organisation for a renewed campaign, the IRA cast about for allies. The IRA had had contacts with the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s, but by the late 1930s, they found the most promising international ally to be Germany.

Some in the IRA, notably their Chief of Staff, Sean Russell, saw no ideological significance in cooperating with Nazi Germany. His position was that he would accept help from any quarter to achieve the unity and full independence of Ireland. Others, however, including Jim O’Donovan, the IRA director of chemicals and Sean McCaughey, a prominent Northern republican, were sympathetic to far right politics. Most of the organisation’s left wing, which had dominated its rhetoric and some of its actions in the late 1920s and early 1930s, had left by this time. Moreover, IRA publications during the Second World War were, according to Brian Hanley, ‘pro-German and sometimes anti-Semitic’.[3]

The first direct IRA contacts with German intelligence came in 1938 when the Germans sent an agent to Ireland, Oscar Pfaus, to meet with the IRA. The Germans promised to supply the IRA with weapons and explosives but did not make any concrete offers until the IRA supplied them with more details of what they would be used for. There were further meetings between the IRA and the German ambassador to Ireland, Eduard Hempel and some members of the Nazi party, which took place in Donegal. Another conduit was Francis Stuart, an Irish academic of Nazi sympathies living in Berlin.[4]

Sean Russell decided to send the IRA Director of Chemicals (i.e. of bomb making) Jim O’Donovan to Germany with a view to securing German military aid for the IRA during the coming war in the form of weapons ammunition and explosives. He made three trips, the last just before war broke out, in August 1939.

Russell himself travelled to America to meet with Clan na Gael, the militant Irish-American Republican organisation to raise funds and there met with a German agent Carl Rekowski. Russell was at the time wanted by the FBI, who had arrested and released him on bail. With German help he skipped bail and boarded a boat to Genoa, Italy in 1940 – then too under fascist rule – and from there travelled to Berlin.

In Berlin he received explosives training and then was sent back to Ireland on U-boat (submarine), in July 1940, along with another Republican, Frank Ryan.[5] Russell however became ill and died aboard the U-boat of a perforated ulcer before he could land in Ireland on August 14, 1940.[6]

What did the Germans want in Ireland?

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German paratroops land in Crete, 1941. they considered, but ultimately rejected, a similar landing in Northern Ireland.

Primarily the Germans wanted two things from Ireland during the Second World War. The first and most important was that Eire[7] under Eamon de Valera would remain neutral and deny the British use of posts on Ireland’s western coast.

The British had kept these[8] under the Anglo Irish Treaty in 1922 but had returned them to Ireland in 1938 as part of a deal that settled the trade war which had been rumbling between the two states since 1932.

In wartime, however, the British desperately wanted use of the Irish ports to protect British shipping across the Atlantic, but were refused by the de Valera government.

The Germans wanted to encourage Irish neutrality but also wanted the IRA to help spark an insurgency in Northern Ireland.

The Germans’ secondary objective and reason for cooperating with the IRA, was to foment a rebellion by nationalists in Northern Ireland to divert British resources from war fronts elsewhere.

Herman Gortz’s mission was to report to military intelligence, specifically to Admiral Canaris in Germany, promote reconciliation between the IRA and the Irish government and to persuade the IRA to concentrate their hostile actions on Northern Ireland. Because their main goal was to protect Irish neutrality, Goertz and other German contacts insisted to the IRA that they must cease attacks south of the Irish border as Hitler desired above all friendly and neutral relations with de Valera and the Irish government.

In 1940 the Germans also considered, independent of the IRA, invading the south coast of Ireland, in plan known as Operation Green. This would have been intended as a diversionary attack during an invasion of Britain itself. [9]

Alternatively if the British invaded Eire in order to take the Atlantic ports, Hitler thought that de Valera might ask for German assistance, in which case Germany would invade in support of Irish forces. Hitler himself declared that ‘a landing in Ireland can only be attempted if Ireland requests help’. He did consider a diversionary attack on Northern Ireland, but stated that ‘Eire’s neutrality must be respected. A neutral Irish Free State is of greater value to us than a hostile Ireland’.[10]

German agents in Ireland

Prior to Goertz’s landing, a series of rather colourful German agents were sent to Ireland. The first, Ernest Weber Drohl, a circus strongman, landed aboard a U-boat in February 1940. He gave some money and radio transmitter to Jim O’Donovan and the IRA, but was arrested by the Gardai in a Dublin hotel within a month.[11]

In all, the Germans landed eleven other agents in Ireland during the war. They were, by and large, a rather eccentric and ineffective group. While some of them had espionage experience, few remained at liberty for very long before being discovered and imprisoned.

In all, the Germans landed twelve agents in Ireland during the war, of whom Goertz was the most important.

One, Wilhelm Preetz, ran up a large expenses account at bars and hotels in Dublin before being arrested. Five agents, all in July 1940, were arrested almost straight away by the Gardai, including Walter Simon whom German intelligence described as ‘perfect classical secret agent’. Their mission was not to stay in Ireland but to infiltrate Britain and gather intelligence there. The final two German agents, sent in 1943, were Irishmen, who had enlisted in British forces, been captured by the Germans and had agreed to work for them. They too were arrested almost straight after parachuting into Ireland. [12]

Herman Goertz was a much more important figure than Drohl, Preetz, or any of the other agents. He was a decorated veteran of the Great War and was a trained German military intelligence officer. He had been sent to England in the 1930s to report on RAF airfields, but was discovered and sentenced to three years in Maidstone prison, from 1936 to 1939, returning to Germany shortly before the outbreak of war.[13]

He parachuted into Ireland, landing at Ballivor Co. Meath in May 1940, shortly before Sean Russell’s death.

He stayed initially with his main IRA contact, Jim O’Donovan, who had been in Germany in 1939, and then in other addresses around Dublin and Wicklow. While he successfully made contact with the IRA, he lost the AFU radio transmitter that would have allowed him to remain in contact with Germany.

However, he handed over more than £100,000 to the IRA and collected information about Irish military and coastal defences. Goertz wrote a long manuscript on his mission to Ireland, which was published in the Irish Times in a series of articles in August 1947. [14]

Goertz’s version of events

Jim O’Donovan. IRA bomb maker and Goertz’s main contact in Ireland.

Goertz states that he was sent to make sure the southern and western ports of Eire[15] were denied to the British and to ‘direct the IRA’ against the harbours in the six county area[16] to ‘disturb the enemy seriously’.

He wrote that he ‘know perfectly well that it was not possible to drive the British out with an untrained revolutionary army’ but nevertheless hoped to instigate a guerrilla war in Northern Ireland to divert British resources from elsewhere in the war against Germany. He knew about the IRA’s raid on the Magazine Fort and hoped they they had enough small arms to begin a campaign in the North.

He noted that the IRA had submitted a proposal, ‘Plan Kathleen’, in which Germany would mount an invasion of Northern Ireland with IRA support. Plan Kathleen had been drawn up by an IRA man named Liam Gaynor, and was sent to Berlin the care of Stephen Held, an IRA member of German and Irish parentage in 1940.

It, rather optimistically, called for a landing of German paratroopers at Divis Mountain outside of Belfast and simultaneous seaborne landing at Lough Swilly, in Donegal. They would be supported by an IRA land attack over the border from county Leitrim.[17] Goertz, not unreasonably, thought the plans were amateurish and ‘without any value’. It had been at least two decades since the IRA had the numbers, arms or organisation to mount operations of that magnitude.

Goertz’s version of his time in Ireland is unreliable in many respects, but probably accurately depicts his frustration with the IRA.

According to Goertz, he wanted to ‘avoid at all costs friction with the government of Eire’ whose neutrality and denial of the Atlantic ports to the British benefited the German war effort, and asserted that ‘my contacts with the IRA could not be construed as affecting the neutrality of Eire’.

However, Goertz’s account is not at all reliable regarding many particulars of his time in Ireland.

For instance, he claims that he was to the forefront of the German effort to free Irish republican leader Frank Ryan, who was imprisoned by the Franco government in Spain, when it was very unlikely that a low ranking officer would have had such influence. He also claimed that IRA leader Sean Russell was killed by British agents in St Nazaire in France, whereas in fact he died of a perforated ulcer aboard a German u-boat on the way back from Germany to Ireland.

Furthermore, in an effort to emphasise his friendship towards Irish neutrality, Goertz claimed that he had intended to parachute into County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland, and accidentally landed in Ballivor County Meath. This would seem to be a very large navigating mistake to make by the pilot, who was noted to have circled around thirty miles north of Dublin before Goertz dropped. Moreover, it would have made far more sense to liaise with the mostly southern based leadership of the IRA in the south rather than in the North.

Finally Goertz must have been aware that, contrary to what he wrote about respecting Irish neutrality, had he succeeded in organising large IRA attacks from the south into the north, it would have fatally compromised Irish neutrality and inevitably have led to either civil war between the Irish government and the IRA, or British intervention in the south or both.

Whatever the truth, Goertz found the IRA to be disorganised and riven with ‘intrigue’, hostile to the Irish government and in no shape for large scale military action in the north. He suspected their leader, Stephen Hayes, was a spy, because he saw all ‘these fine young fellows around him being arrested but he was untouched’.

Hayes was kidnapped by northern IRA men who accused him of being an informant to the Dublin Government, but Goertz says he could not give the men, led by Sean McCaughey, permission to shoot him. Hayes was beaten into signing a ‘confession’ but while the IRA men were preparing to shoot him, he escaped. He was arrested and interned and always maintained that he had never been a spy or Garda informant. [18]

Goertz was intensely frustrated by what he saw as the IRA’s ideological obduracy – insisting that, pending the re-establishment of the all Ireland independent republic, declared in 1919, the IRA Army Council was the legitimate government of Ireland.

He bemoaned also their tactical bent to conspiracy and perseverance with the failed methods of the Civil War of 1922-23. Goertz characterised the latter as ‘three men in a taxi with a malfunctioning submachine gun’. When he would urge them to join and infiltrate the Irish Army, so that they could have at least some chance of amassing arms and training for operations in Northern Ireland, he relates that he was told ‘we are the Irish Army’.

He complained that the IRA ‘embroiled me in their ridiculous street shooting’ [of Garda detectives] and ‘had become an underground movement in their own national sphere’ heavily suppressed by men who knew their own methods’. This was a reference to the many former IRA men recruited by the Fianna Fail government and now prominent in the Garda Special Branch. He concluded that the IRA had many ‘fine fellows’ as members but were ‘worthless as a body’.

Goertz had lost his own radio on his landing and had to rely on the IRA for radio transmission back to Germany. He narrowly avoided arrest in Dublin, but afterwards, claims that he gave up on the IRA and moved to what he claimed was ring of nationalist informants and saboteurs in Northern Ireland that he called ‘Operation Ulrike’. It is not clear whether this network existed outside of Goertz’s imagination.

He also met ‘a gentleman who died some time afterwards’. It seems likely this was Irish far right politician Eoin O’Duffy, who died in 1944. O’Duffy had founded the pro-fascist Blueshirt movement in the 1930s and had led a Brigade of pro-Franco Volunteers to Spain during the Civil War there. The unnamed ‘gentleman’ put Goertz in touch with several ‘Irish soldiers’.

Goertz does not give names and says ‘it is difficult for me to write about’ his contacts with the Irish military. However, these men, going by other accounts, were Niall MacNeill, and his cousin Hugo. Niall was an Army intelligence officer and Nazi sympathiser, while Hugo was the commander of the Irish Army’s Second Northern Division and appears to have asked Goertz to secure arms from Germany in the event of a British invasion of Eire.[19]

Goertz noted that the Irish Army officers were open to military aid for the Irish Army from Germany, but – being pro-Treaty veterans of the Free State army in the Civil War –  were deeply hostile to any suggestion of cooperation between the Army and the IRA. Civil War antipathies, in other words, still worked both ways.

Although Dan Bryan, the head of Irish military intelligence, G2, was aware of the contacts between the MacNeills and Goertz, and though Bryan was pro-allied in sympathy and had a good working relationship with the British military, no disciplinary action seems to have been taken against them for their unauthorised contacts with the German agent.[20]

Of the Irish Army, Goertz says that he reported to Germany that if attacked they ‘would fight the English as if inspired, would fight the Germans ‘some dutifully and some cheerfully’ and that he did not know what they would do should US troops have landed in Eire.

Goertz was arrested in November 1941, along with an IRA member, Pearse Kelly, having been on the loose in Ireland for some eighteen months, causing considerable embarrassment to de Valera’s government. He was imprisoned first in Arbour Hill in Dublin and then in Custume Barracks in Athlone. His main IRA contact, Jim O’Donovan was interned shortly afterwards. From an Irish government point of view, this brought to an end a troubling and potentially extremely dangerous threat to Irish neutrality. Hostile British observers had speculated that Goertz must have had some sort of official protection to avoid arrest for so long.

About 260 other German military, air force and naval personnel, who had mostly crash landed in Ireland, were also interned in Ireland during the war. The ordinary servicemen were housed at the Curragh while the spies were imprisoned at the military barracks in Athlone. In Athlone the ‘commander’ of the German prisoners was not Goertz but Werner Unland.


Of Athlone Goertz says it was called an internment camp, but this was ‘a polite but misleading label.’ ‘This place was miserably small and old had been a military prison in the time of the British’.

Goertz was arrested in November 1941 and interned for the rest of the war in Athlone.

There were, he says 12 cells for soldiers punished for ‘drunkenness or disorderly behaviour’, it was dark and there was only one small window. He says there were ten internees, two in their 60s and they were guarded by two captains and 25 corporals. Goertz says that the English prison (where he was put for espionage in the 1930s) ‘was an airy and healthy place compared to Athlone’.

He says that his plans for escape were ‘betrayed to Irish Military Intelligence by foolishness not treachery’.

Contrary to Goertz’s account, his captors related that although the German spies were prisoners, every effort was been made to make them comfortable in Athlone. They had individual cells, a common room where they could listen to the radio and a vegetable garden. One prisoner, Schultz brought two cats with him and Unland’s wife was entertained by Commandant James Power, the Irish Army’s Intelligence Office for the Western Command and his wife Frances when she visited her husband.

Commandant Power later told American writer Carole Carter that he played bridge alone and unarmed with the German prisoners to try to ‘get the measure’ of them.

When one prisoner, Preetz, threatened to go on hunger strike, Power told him ‘we let our own die, so we don’t mind if you die or not’ – a reference to two IRA men who died on hunger strike in 1940.

According to James Power, Goertz tried to bribe a guard, Sergeant John Power (no relation) to deliver messages for him to a cafe in Jervis Street in Dublin. Instead Sgt Power reported the advances to his superiors, who advised the sergeant to play along and so Irish intelligence got to read what Gortz thought were secret messages through to his superiors in Berlin, including an 80 page report of his activities in Ireland prior to his arrest. To maintain the subterfuge, Irish Intelligence officers even replied to Goertz in German and ‘informed’ him that he had been promoted to the rank of major.  [21]

Goertz claimed to have gone on hunger strike for 21 days in protest at being held without charge, but this is not backed up by other accounts.

At the end of the war he stated that he applied to ‘cross the Atlantic’ i.e. go to America, with a group of Estonians, but was refused permission.

He finished his account by saying that he was grateful to the Irish Department of External Affairs who allowed him to stay in Ireland as an ‘Alien’, and said that he received a secret message, ‘The Irish government knows what you can expect from the Allies and the present German administration’.

In other words, Goertz ended his own account on a happy note.


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Goertz’s funeral at Dublin’s Deans Grange cemetery. Image courtesy of Come Here to Me.

But in fact there was no happy ending for the German agent. He spent less than two years as a free man in postwar Ireland. Goertz was released from custody in 1946 and planned to live the rest of his life in Ireland. However, in 1947, he was re-arrested and threatened with deportation. Rather than return to Germany, he committed suicide by dramatically swallowing cyanide in the Aliens Office in Dublin Castle, where he was served with his deportation papers.

It appears that Goertz believed that if he was placed into the hands of the British, he would be tried and executed for espionage. Most historical accounts seem sure that Goertz’s paranoia and delusions of grandeur had got the better of him.

Goertz committed suicide in 1947 rather than face deportation back to Allied-occupied Germany.

While the British were certainly worried about his activities in 1940, he was of no more threat to anyone in 1947. Upon deportation back to American or British occupied Germany (he was given a guarantee that he would not be handed over to the Soviets) he would have been debriefed by intelligence officers and then, most probably, let go.

Somewhat ironically, after taking the poison, he was treated by a Jewish doctor at Mercer’s Hospital, but nothing could be done to save his life. He was buried in Luftwaffe uniform at Dublin’s Dean Grange cemetery, with the Swastika flag and under Nazi salutes from ‘a few female mourners’.[22]

His was an episode that most in Ireland wanted to forget.



[1] Robert Fisk, In Time of War, Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality 1939-1945. (1985), p.350.

[2] Eunan O’Halpin, Defending Ireland, The Irish State and its Enemies Since 1922. (1999), p.248

[3] Brian Hanley, The IRA a Documentary History, 1916-2005. (2010) p.106.

[4] O’Halpin, Defending Ireland, p.147-148

[5] Ryan is a curious case. He was a high profile IRA member throughout the 1920s and 1930s but left the organisation with the left wing Republican Congress in 1934. He went to Spain to fight in the left wing or anti-fascist side in the Civil War there in 1936 but was captured by Francoist or fascist forces. Apparently due to the intervention of Eamon de Valera, the Germans intervened with their Spanish fascist allies to prevent Ryan’s execution and instead he was smuggled into Germany. For some reason that has never been determined, the anti-fascist Ryan, when Russell died aboard the U-Boat declined to land in Ireland and instead returned to Nazi Germany, where he died himself in Dresden in 1944.

[6] For Russell’s travels in America, Italy and Germany , see O’Halpin, Defending Ireland, p.194-195

[7] In 1937 de Valera changed the name of the Irish state from the Irish Free State to ‘Ireland’ or Eire. During the War years it was usually referred to by both the British and the Germans as ‘Eire’ to distinguish it from Northern Ireland.

[8] The British in 1922 kept naval bases and military garrisons at Spike Island and Cobh, Bearhaven in west Cork and Lough Swilly in Donegal.

[9] Fisk, In Time of War, p.220-226

[10] Fisk, pp225-225. 263

[11] Fisk, In Time of War, p.348

[12] O’Halpin, Defending Ireland, p.240-244

[13] Fisk, In Time of War, p.350.

[14] I viewed it in the National Library where it is listed as file ms 33,718 J (283). Unless otherwise stated, all subsequent statements by Goertz are from this source.

[15] As the southern Irish state was known during the Second World War.

[16] Goertz uses this nationalist term for Northern Ireland throughout his account

[17] Fisk, in Time of War, p.348-349

[18] Hanley The IRA a Documentary History, p111

[19] O’Halpin, p245

[20] Ibid. p2.45

[21] All above on Athlone, from Carole J Carter, The Shamrock and the Swastika, German Espionage in Ireland in World War II. (1977), pp. 213-223, which is mostly based on Carter’s interviews with James Power.

[22] Fisk, p.543

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