Playing football with a battleship

In February 1937 Seán Lester, the noted Irish diplomat became Deputy Secretary of the League of Nations, a forerunner organisation to the modern-day United Nations. As a result of his promotion he left his role as High Commissioner in the Free City of Danzig (modern day Gdansk in Poland) and moved to the Swiss city of Geneva where the League’s headquarters were based.

His time living in Danzig had been fraught, he had witnessed first hand the rise of Nazi Germany and clearly understood the threat it could pose to the independent port city of Danzig and to wider Europe in general. When speaking about his biography of Lester, his son in law Douglas Gageby described him as “the first western diplomat to receive the full force of Hitler’s hatred” due to his opposition to the Nazi regime. Lester spent the remainder of his time before and during the War trying to stop the League of Nations falling under the the control of the Axis powers. The efforts of this brave Irishman seem to have gone virtually unnoticed by Irish football’s governing body (and many others) however, just months before the outbreak of War the Irish national team played the German national side (which now included players from post-Anschluss Austria) in Bremen and performed a Nazi salute prior to the game in an infamous moment in Irish sport.

Perhaps less well-known is another game that took place in Dublin just two months after Lester’s departure from Gdansk. It was a match between Bohemian F.C. and the crew of the German battleship, Schleswig-Holstein. This was this same battleship that in September 1939 sailed to Gdansk under the pretext of a diplomatic engagement before firing the first shots of the Second World War, attacking the city that Lester had known so well, as German marines over-ran the once Free port city.

This is a brief account of the visit of the Battleship Schleswig-Holstein (pictured above) to the port of Dun Laoghaire in April 1937 and the huge popular reception they received from the Irish people. Among the film-screenings, dinners, tours and parties that were undertaken to welcome the ship to Dublin there was even time for that game of football.

The battleship itself was launched in 1906 as an early part of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s plan to develop and modernise the German navy and make the nation a world naval power. By the time of the ships’ completion the German navy had already seen further technological development as they had begun the roll out of the German dreadnought class of even larger battleships. However the Schleswig-Holstein still saw action during World War I, taking part in the Battle of Jutland where it was damaged and had three of its men killed after being struck by a British shell.

After the First World War the Schleswig-Holstein was one of the ships that the German navy sought to retain under the terms of their disarmament agreements and when Hitler came to power and began to redevelop the German military machine the Holstein became a training vessel for the many new German cadets recruited for a growing Navy. As part of one of these training missions the ship went on a seven month voyage into the Caribbean and south Atlantic calling at ports in Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Bermuda among others. Their stop at Dun Laoghaire was their first stop-off back in Europe before their return to the naval base at Wilhelmshaven. On board were 31 officers and 785 petty officers and crew which included over 170 naval cadets.

The Schleswig-Holstein arrived into Dun Laoghaire on the 9th April 1937. Due to heavy fog the ship was two hours late in arriving but was still greeted by a 21 gun salute from an artillery battery near Dun Laoghaire’s East Pier. The battleship returned the salute by blazing its cannon in reply and soon after hoisted the Irish tricolour from its mast-head where it fluttered next to the German standard emblazoned with the Nazi swastika at its centre. Several hundred people were gathered at the harbour to see the ship berth, including a sizable contingent from the German legation in Ireland, there to welcome their fellow countrymen. Among them was Erich Schroetter, the head German diplomat in Ireland. Schroetter later fell foul of the influential Dublin-based, Nazi Adolf Mahr and would be replaced within months of the ship’s visit by Eduard Hempel. Mahr, as well as being the Director of the National Museum of Ireland was also head of the Nazi party in Ireland. He was represented on Dun Laoghaire pier that day by his Dutch wife Maria.

This welcoming party was only the first in a cavalcade of social engagements for the ship’s officers and crew. On the afternoon of their landing a deputation from the Schleswig-Holstein, along with members of the German legation visited with the Irish Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Michael Brennan and the Minister for Defence, Frank Aiken in Army Headquarters before stopping off at the Mansion House to drop in on the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne. The Lord Mayor would pay a return visit to see the German battleship in Dun Laoghaire before the end of their stay and even Taoiseach Eamon De Valera took time out on the Saturday after the battleship’s arrival to meet it’s Captain Günther Krause along with the aforementioned Erich Schroetter.

During their brief stay the crew were not left short for entertainment. While members of the Dublin public were allowed to take tours around the battleship the German sailors quickly became a common sight in both Dun Laoghaire and Dublin City Centre. During the week of their visit they were invited to the Pavillion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire for a special showing of a German film production of the popular opera The Gipsy Princess. Afterwards there was a screening of an Irish tourism short, painfully entitled Top of the Morning. They visited Portobello Barracks (now Cathal Brugha Barracks) where they were introduced to the Irish Army’s own German officer, Friedrich Wilhelm “Fritz” Brase. “Fritz” was the head of music for the Irish Defence Forces and had also briefly been Chairman of the Nazi party in Ireland until advised to step down by his Irish military superiors, at which point he was replaced by Mahr.

Apart from their musical engagements there were excursions arranged for crew members to Dublin’s most prominent tourist attractions, many would still be on most tourists’ itinerary today, namely, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College and the Guinness brewery.

Other excursions meant travelling slightly further from the city which allowed Adolf Mahr to indulge his passion for ancient Irish history. He lectured the visiting Germans on monastic Ireland at Glendalough and also provided guided tours to Newgrange and the historic ruins of Monasterboice. Several of the ship’s compliment even climbed the 168 steps up the column of that British naval hero Horatio Nelson to get a better view of O’Connell Street from the top of the pillar.

Somehow among this myriad of social engagements, tours, parties and public concerts by the ship’s band, a selection of the crew also got to squeeze in a football match against Bohemian F.C. in Dalymount Park. There was a good sized crowd in the ground for a Tuesday afternoon as Bohs fielded a fairly strong side against the visiting Germans. Some 120 of the German officers and sailors attended the game among thousands more local spectators. When one considers that contemporary reports stated that over 10,000 locals visited the battleship at berth in Dun Laoghaire it is no exaggeration to say that perhaps more than 20,000 Dubliners must have been to see the German’s either aboard ship or at another event such as the football match during the six days of their visit.

Despite the fact that Bohemians had a league fixture against Shamrock Rovers the following day they named a competitive side including some veterans and “B” team players. Among the starting XI were Irish internationals like Harry Cannon (who was a Captain in the Irish Army and who would work through “The Emergency”), Kevin O’Flanagan and Fred Horlacher (himself the Irish-born son of German immigrants).  Despite the pedigree of the Bohs side the German XI put on a good display and only lost by the odd goal in three. Their goal was scored by their midfielder Bischaf while a Barry Hooper goal and a header from Kevin O’Flanagan had given Bohs the victory. The match had been refereed by Johnny McMahon, a former Bohemian player and a member of An Garda Siochána.

After the game the Germans put on a display of “field ball” which by photographs and reports seems like an 11-a-side version of Olympic handball played with a full sized football. It was reported to be a sport favoured by the German armed forces as a way of keeping fit and developing muscle mass.

German sailors photo

Image and caption from The Irish Times

The teams on the day were as follows: Bohemian F.C. – Capt. Harry Cannon, Kevin Kerr, Jack McCarthy, Barry Hooper, Ivor Hooper, Fred Horlacher, Kevin O’Flanagan, Billy Dennis, Paddy Ennis, Tommy Fitzpatrick, Joe Mullen

Schleswig-Holstein XI: Haas, Gobel, Grosser, Bischaf, Lux, Kaiser, Nowack, Hinneberg, Brix, Gronert, Bucker

Four of that side (Kerr, Barry Hooper, O’Flanagan and Horlacher) would play against Rovers the following day and, perhaps not unexpectedly given the circumstances, lost 3-0.

The Germans left for their home port of Wilhemshaven on the Thursday after the game. Large crowds gathered to see off the German battleship from port and  “Deutschland uber alles” was played followed by the Irish national anthem, which were both greeted by cheers from the quayside. The previous afternoon Captain Krause had entertained several guests at a farewell lunch aboard ship. Along with members of the German legation in Ireland were Free State Government Ministers, Frank Aiken and Seán Murphy. The coverage of the battleship’s visit was overwhelmingly positive. Captain Krause praised the hospitality of the Irish and he and his crew seem to have been viewed as minor celebrities during their week in Dublin.

Captain Krause upon returning to Germany was replaced in command of the Schleswig Holstein by Captain Gustav Kleikamp, and Krause was soon rising up the naval command chain. Krause had always seem blessed with his timing, he had been a U-boat commander during the First World War and had twice been awarded the Iron Cross. During his period in command of the submarine UB-41 in 1917 he had sunk eight enemy ships but less than a month after his transfer the submarine was sunk by a mine with the loss of all hands. The Captain who had so charmed the Dublin public would end the Second World War as a Vice Admiral in the Kriegsmarine and survived the War unscathed, living to the grand old age of 93. He was well departed from the Schleswig-Holstein by the time its crew had to scuttle it in the waters of the Baltic sea in 1945 in order to stop it from falling into the hands of the advancing Soviet Armies.

This couldn’t save the ship from its ultimate ignominious fate however. Once a flagship of the German Navy, the Schleswig-Holstein that so impressed the crowds who had gathered to see her in Dun Laoghaire was raised by the Soviet Navy in 1946 and spent the next two decades off the coast of Estonia being used for Soviet target practice. What became of the eleven sailors who played a match in Dalymount, or their colleagues who climbed Nelson’s pillar to gain a bird’s eye view of Dublin we don’t yet know.

During their Dublin visit criticism of the sailors or of the violently repressive Nazi regime and military that they represented was non-existent in the press reports of the major papers. This is interesting to note as on the same pages that gave over considerable column inches to photos and articles about the German sailors there were also articles detailing the escalating tensions between Nazi Germany and other nations including the United States and the Vatican. The Irish people could not realistically claim complete ignorance of such matters. But such issues do not seem to have bothered the general public who flocked to see what by naval standards was already an old and somewhat obsolete battleship, or the newspapers (particularly The Irish Times and Irish Press) who lavished coverage on the German visitors.

Perhaps the only nod to any controversy or discomfort surrounding the emergence of the Nazi state was when one columnist in The Irish Times noted that whatever-

“views the citizens of Saorstát Eireann may have upon the political philosophy of contemporary Germany – and we do not think that there is much doubt on that score- they demonstrated in the clearest possible way that politics are not permitted to interfere with the cordial – even enthusiastic – reception of our German guests.”

The only other qualm that seems to be expressed in relation to the German visit was that O’Connell Street was a trifle too dirty and that the visiting sailors may have been unimpressed with the levels of litter in Dublin City Centre.

By the close of August 1939, just two years after her Dublin visit, the Schleswig-Holstein sailed to Danzig under the pretext of a courtesy visit, but this one was very unlike the one she had enjoyed at Dun Laoghaire. On September 1st at 4.45am she began to shell the Polish garrison at Westerplatte with its 15cm cannon from near point-blank range as the shock troops hidden in her hold spilled forth to attack the Polish garrison.  World War II had begun.

As often is the case, thanks again must go to Bohemian F.C. historian Stephen Burke for his assistance in identification of several players involved for Bohs on the day of the match. For more on Adolf Mahr it’s worth checking out Gerry Mullins’ biography of him entitled “Dublin Nazi Number 1”.

3 comments

  1. Pingback: Three fates of the German League | A Bohemian Sporting Life
  2. Sean DeLoughry · December 10

    Brilliant story, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The life of O’Reilly | A Bohemian Sporting Life

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