On January 16, 1939, Sean Russell, Chief of Staff of the IRA, declared war on Britain, signing an Army Council statement that called on the English to withdraw from Northern Ireland “in the name of the unconquered dead and the faithful living.” The bombing campaign began. In the following months over a hundred and twenty bombs exploded across Britain. Fifty-seven explosions occurred in London alone.
The IRA bombing campaign amounted to more of a “nuisance campaign” than a “reign of terror.” Many of the bombs failed to detonate because budget-minded IRA agents used cheap alarm clocks as timing devices. The worst attack took place on August 25th when a bomb in Coventry killed five people and wounded dozens. Two IRA men were sentenced to death for their involvement. After their hanging, Irish-Americans placed a wreath outside Ireland’s pavilion at the New York World’s Fair to “honor the martyrs.”
With the outbreak of war, Germany’s Abwehr took an interest in the IRA. Sean Russell arrived in Berlin in May 1940 and agreed to return to Ireland by U-boat to organize IRA actions in Northern Ireland in preparation for a proposed invasion of England. En route home, Russell died of a perforated ulcer and was buried at sea. The venture, called Operation Dove, was aborted.
A few German agents were inserted into Ireland, most of whom were quickly detected and interned. The Nazis supplied a few radios and weapons, but wartime IRA operations were limited to a scattered robberies and isolated shootings. The IRA in WWII never became what Nazi intelligence hoped for or the English feared – an organized resistance movement waging war against the British on their own soil.