Travel Between UK and Eire in WW2?

Hi Straight Dopers,

Bit of an odd one this but, as the title suggests, was it possible to travel between the UK and Ireland during World War 2?

Did ferries operate? Well, given the U-Boat menace affecting timetables. Or were there travel restrictions in force?

All answers gleefully accepted!


On 13th March 1944 Britain announced that all travel between Ireland and the United Kingdom is suspended, the result of the Irish government’s refusal to expel Axis-power diplomats within its borders.

However, the land border between the North and the South is long and largely undefended, so travelling via Belfast was not that difficult.

The UK and Ireland share a land border!

Yes - well, strictly speaking no, but Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly called Great Britain.

It’s complicated, but then, as now; if you are in Belfast, you can travel to anywhere on the mainland with no customs or immigration formalities.

It comes as a surprise to people to discover that civilian air travel (and sea travel) continued during World War II - the neutral countries had airlines operating routes with passenger aircraft; I know there were regular flights between Lisbon (Portugal, who were neutral) and London, as well as services from the UK to Stockholm (Sweden, also neutral) - although the latter was actually operated by the Norwegian Air Force in an elaborate false flag operation, flying British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC)-registered aircraft.

BOAC’s flying boat service from the UK to Africa and India continued throughout the war via Portugal and the Canary Islands, and until the fall of Singapore in February 1942 there were air services to Australia as well. There were flights operating at least thrice-weekly between Sydney (Australia) and Auckland (New Zealand) throughout the war as well as well, since they were well out of any conflict areas.

It would seem there were UK-Ireland services if someone wanted to go, but as with all travel at the time, it would cost a fortune (BOAC aircraft were regularly shot at) and military personnel/use would take priority. I’m sure there were also ferry services as well, although the thought of U-boats in the area would have made them an unappealing prospect for a lot of people.

It may surprise you to know that this was not the case during the Second World War. Immigration controls between Britain and the island of Ireland (including Belfast) were imposed in 1939 and remained in place until 1952.

You may find this parliamentary question from 1950 entertaining, for example the Unionist MP’s complaint that the travel identity documents issued to UK citizens in Northern Ireland were green (rather than red, white, blue or orange).

Aer Lingus operated scheduled flights between Dublin and Liverpool (and sometimes Manchester) during World War 2.

Any idea if there were civilian ferries between the island of Ireland and GB during WWII? I can’t find any reference to any over the shortest crossing (Stranraer/Cairnryan to Larne/Belfast). Not regular ones anyway, but I guess that channel was a naval hotspot for most of the war.

There certainly were regular ferries on the Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead and Rosslare to Pembroke routes, but as you say it was a hazardous time for shipping in the Irish Sea and they were attacked by Luftwaffe on several occasions.

Here’s a story about the Saint Patrick, sunk by the Luftwaffe in 1941.

It occurs to me that the word “ferry” is an anachronism - at the time the Dún Laoghaire - Holyhead service was known as the mailboat, and the other routes (operated by the railway companies) were maybe called steam packets.

If they refused, then I presume someone must have asked them to in the first place. Was it the government of the UK? If so, it seems a bit cheeky for them to attempt to dictate the foreign policy of a neutral country. Was this sort of thing commonplace during the war? For instance, did Germany ask Switzerland or Spain to expel Allied diplomats?

As far as I recall from my reading on this, which was a while ago:

  • It was in fact the US which asked the Irish Free State to expel Nazi diplomats. There was a feeling that it such a request from the US would have fewer unpleasant historical resonances than a similar request from the UK.

  • The Allies didn’t seriously expect the IFS would accede. The purpose was to paint the IFS and de Valera as pro-Axis, with a view to laying the ground for marginalising them in any post-war multilateral talks. The US wasn’t fussed about this but the UK was, so the US made the demand at the request of the UK.

  • Churchill’s threat to close the border was just posturing. The UK lacked the capacity to cut off movement effectively, and in any event it was not in its interests to do so, since a significant part of the UK’s food supply was imported from Ireland. The threats were just an occasion to talk publicly about the refusal to expel the Axis diplomats, so reinforcing the impression intended to be created. No concrete measures, or only token measures, were ever taken to give effect to the announced restrictions.

= The ostensible justification for the demand to expel the diplomats was a claim that they were engaged in espionage. I don’t know if, in 1944, there was much or any evidence for this.

Thank you all for such lovely, and intriguing, answers.

Bit of a D’oh moment on my part too. I should, of course, have been far more explicit and stated Eire and England. Ah the vagaries of being an all inclusive Scottish person with Irish grandparents! Which oddly makes me the only Unionist, Celtic fan in the world.

But thank you all again.

Movement between Ireland and England was gradually choked off in 1944, the real reason was that they did not want anyone observing the build-up to invasion in southern England, and reporting back to the German legation in Dublin.
Workers from Ireland were needed in England throughout the war, though if they stayed longer than six months then conscription would claim them so they tended to go back for a short while.