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Operation Shamrock

The Sphere, 10 August 1946.

On 27 July 1946, 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 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, on which the Royal Air Force launched 262 air raids, reaching a crescendo on the night of 30-31 May 1942 when over a thousand planes struck, dropping a new bomb every other second for an hour and a half.

Miraculously, the city’s splendid twin-spired Gothic cathedral survived but the city itself was annihilated and, by the close of the war, over 20,000 of its citizens had been killed. For children like Herbert, there was some consolation in searching through the rubble for parts of shot down RAF bombers to play with – empty petrol tanks became canoes, old tyres were converted into catapults.

Herbert Remmel – not Rommel, as he corrected the Customs officer in Dover – 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. His father, Christian Remmel was a prominent Communist who helped many socialists, Jews and others to escape from Germany during the 1930s. In 1943, the family home was destroyed in an air raid; the Remmels were safely 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.

Young Herbert Remmel in his beloved village at Ballinlough, Co. Mayo. Herbert writes: “Please notice the tie I am wearing. That day a Photographer was advertised to come to Facefield School. So my irish Granny ordered I had to put on this tie. “My lads” Granny said “will go proper!” Such heartgoing Irish things I will never forget. (But please do not look at my knees!)”

Exhausted, famished and recovering from both typhus and dysentery, Christian was desperately seeking to rebuild his family after the war when he heard of a new scheme operating out of Ireland. He plucked up an atlas and began pondering its implications, while his sons roared with laughter. The word ‘Ire’ meant ‘mad’ in their Cologne dialect. Ireland – the Land of the Mad! Could there really be such a place?

Ireland’s neutrality during the Second World War alienated the fledgling Republic from many. Operation Shamrock arguably marked the start of the state’s journey back into European favour. Despite being one of the continent’s poorest countries, Ireland was among the first and, according to Remmel, the ‘most generous’, when it came to helping out Europe’s war-ravaged countries. It was an active member of the UNRRA Assistance Operations, along with other neutral states, primarily Sweden and Switzerland, homing in on those places that had been hardest hit. In the first year after the war, de Valera’s government pumped STG£12 million into food, medicine and the deployment of doctors and nurses, homing in on those places that had been hardest hit.

Much of Ireland’s focus was on Germany. No other country in Europe was inclined to help the defeated Fatherland when it was down. However, Ireland had enjoyed strong pre-war links with Germany and, as such, it was not surprising that, with the Nazis defeated and the vengeful Russian army swarming through the vanquished Fatherland, Irish eyes began to consider the plight of Germany’s children.

On 16 October 1945, at a public meeting in the Shelbourne Hotel, the paediatrician Dr Kathleen Murphy founded the German Save The Children Society to bring traumatized children to Ireland to help them recover from the nightmare of the war. 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 be associated 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 was 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 travel in order 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 and the operation began. Financed by the Irish Red Cross, the first wave of Operation Shamrock’s 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 were German, 403 of them brought in by the Red Cross and eighteen directly by private families.

Hebert qualified for Operation Shamrock by dint of a treble of 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 a few weeks 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.

Wilf Berg wins at Naas. The Irish Press, 11 October 1956.

For the first two months, Herbert was based in the Old Brewery at Castlebellingham Green, Co Louth, where they were cared for by the Sisters of Mercy and treated by doctors, nurses and specialists. Suffering from scabies and other diseases, many were completely unable to stomach the rich Irish diet. Once they were deemed healthy enough, the children were sent to the Red Cross Centre at St Kevin’s, Glencree, County Wicklow, now the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. Although a large number of children returned to Germany at this point, Remmel was among those who stayed on to be dispatched to a foster home.

His first foster family were the Cunnighams of Inchicore with whom he stayed until a British embargo on Irish coal in 1947 so reduced their income that they had to cut him loose. While in Dublin, Hebert was shocked at the poverty of the homeless he saw on the streets, which was unlike anything he had seen in Cologne.

He subsequently went to live and work on the Nally farm in Ballinlough, County Mayo, for two years, describing this era as ‘the happiest and most interesting in my childhood’. He went to school, learned to speak Irish (primarily rude words) and to imitate the GAA commentator Michael O’Hehir. He played hurling and handball and took his First Communion. He helped the Nallys stack turf, spread manure, gather potatoes and make hay.

Hanni Engles at the front holding a doll. With thanks to Sean Harrington, whose grandparents fostered Hanni.

Another of the ‘Shamrock’ children was Wilf Berg, also known as Willie. Born in Cologne, Germany, in 1936, his mother was killed in an air raid in about 1941 while his father died somewhere along the Eastern Front. He reputedly arrived in Ireland at the age of eleven with all his worldly possessions inside a cigarette box. He was assigned to stay with the Finnegan family of Navan. They kept hunters and show-jumpers, and Wilf soon showed himself to be a brilliant jockey. Initially apprenticed to W.J. ‘Rasher’ Byrne in Castleknock, the determined youngster then went to Séamus McGrath’s yard at Glencairn, County Dublin. He rode his first winners in 1956, including the Clane Nursery Handicap and the November Handicap at Naas. Wilf went on to be one of Ireland’s leading apprentices, racking up 130 wins by 1958. During the early 1960s, he raced on tracks all over the world although his penchant for fast cars and faster women put paid to any substantial success. He subsequently returned to Germany where he was apparently killed in a car crash.

By the end of 1949, most Shamrock children were back in Germany. Many, like Remmel, formed strong bonds with their foster families; 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 German 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, Ros Dee and Jackie Greene for Operation Shamrock.

Further Reading


Herbert Remmel, ‘From Cologne to Ballinlough’ (Aubane Historical Society, 2009), here.


Herbert Remmel in 2021 at the bottom of the Reek, County Mayo. In June 2023, he wrote to me: ‘In Germany there is a saying ” fit wie ein Turnschuh”. Some times the doctor asks me, what I am doing to go that strong? “Jesses,” says I, “in my childhood I was three years rared with rashers, eggs and porridge!” (And in private: at every fairday in Balla I got a secret sip of Poteen!)’