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COLUMN: Why Was Campile In Wexford Bombed During WWII?

On the 26th of August 1940, destruction came to Campile when it became the site of the first bombing of Éire by the Luftwaffe…

It started off as a regular day in Campile for local residents Mary Ellen, Catherine Kent and Kathleen Hurley on the morning of August 26th 1940.

While France had fallen to Germany months previous, this quiet Wexford village in neutral Éire seemed like the last place one of Hitler’s bombs would fall. Unfortunately for these three women and the residents of Campile, this day would prove otherwise and change Wexford history forever.

Mary, Catherine and Kathleen began their work shift that day at the Shelburne Cooperative Society.  The Co-Op had been founded in 1919 in the midst of economic hardship brought on by the First World War. By the time of August 1940 when the Second World War was well underway, the Co-Op employed approximately one hundred and fifty people. 

These one hundred and fifty workers included Mary, Catherine and Kathleen who were in the Co-Op’s canteen on that fatal day. It was there that, between 1:50pm and 2:10pm on the 26th of August 1940, these three women lost their lives to a member of the Luftwaffe when a German bomb devastated the Co-Op building. It was the first bombing of neutral Irish soil in the Second World War. 

During the lunchtime rush roughly fifty workers had been eating in the canteen but they had left shortly before the bombs were dropped, narrowly escaping with their lives.

Even so, the damage was extensive, three young women had lost their lives and many more were injured. Campile saw unprecedented destruction which left a lasting scar on the formerly peaceful village. 

Over eighty years later, the big question remains unanswered: why?

The Republic of Ireland, or ‘Éire’ as it was then known because Ireland had not yet officially declared itself a Republic, famously took a stance of neutrality during World War Two and did not take up arms against Germany or the other Axis powers. So what made this quiet Wexford village a target?

There have been many theories put forward in the decades since the tragic event. The most commonly cited explanation is that the German plane had gotten lost and mistook Ireland’s south east for its intended target, Wales. 

However, Campile’s own historian John Flynn has looked into an alternative explanation. In his book ‘The Campile Bombing; August 26th 1940’, Flynn argues that the bombing was a warning shot to Éire, a grave reminder of what would follow if then-Taoiseach Éamon de Valera were to change his policy of neutrality. 

The book, which was launched in 2010, was the product of six months of research and written by members of the Horeswood Historical Society including Flynn, Tom Grennan, Sean Crowley, Sean Caulfield, Mick Walsh and Jimmy Dunphy with assistance from Maureen O’Hanlon and Patricia Byrne.  

Part of the group’s research for the book involved issuing a series of public appeals for any information, items or photographs from the day of the bombing and contemporary Campile. 

Perhaps the team’s biggest breakthrough comes in the form of military archives the historical society consulted in the Cathal Brugha barracks in Dublin. In these archives they uncovered illuminating information in the official army enquiry into the bombing.

Simon Murphy, the manager who had been in charge of the Co-Op when it was bombed, responded to the military enquiry claiming that a German firm had installed machinery in the factory in 1933 and 1938. 

Flynn points out that one of the Co-Op’s responsibilities was exporting food supplies to Britain and that if the German firm who installed the machinery made their superiors aware of this, this could explain why Campile was a target.

It certainly raises questions about whether the bombing was truly an accident or whether there is more than meets the eye. 

Unfortunately, the bombing of Campile was not an isolated incident. While Campile would not be bombed again, several more bombs would fall on Éire throughout the Second World War. The most serious of which landed in Dublin’s North Strand on the 31st of May 1941, killing twenty-eight people. 

While over eighty years have passed since destruction came to Campile, the memory of the tragic event lingers on in the community. In 2010, a memorial garden was opened in Campile to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing and to pay tribute to the three women who lost their lives that day. The garden is aptly located where the Shelburne Co-Op building once stood.

The opening of the garden and the publication of John Flynn’s book in the same year reflect the deep impact the bombing of Campile continues to have on its residents; it fosters a desire to commemorate and a desire to understand.

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