On the 75th anniversary of the IRA’s infamous bombing of Coventry, Ryle Dwyer examines the context and implications of the outrage.
ON AUGUST 25, 1939, an IRA bomb killed five innocent people and wounded more than 60 others in Coventry. The dead included a 15-year-old boy and an 82- year-old man. Little over a week later, the bombing was overshadowed by the outbreak of the Second World War, so some people did not learn from the mistakes of the time, and those were repeated with further disastrous consequences.
The Coventry bombing was essentially the culmination of an IRA sabotage campaign inspired by Jim O’Donovan, who had been the IRA’s director of chemicals during the War of Independence.
On January 12, 1939, the IRA — claiming to act as the government of the Republic — issued an ultimatum giving the British government four days to withdraw all of their forces from the North.
When the ultimatum expired, the IRA implemented O’Donovan’s S-Plan, designed to force the British out of the North with a series of more than 150 bombing incidents in England. The primary targets were electricity supplies, telephone communications, and postal services.
Five bombs went off around London, and three in Manchester, on January 16, 1939, following the expiration of the ultimatum. Those were aimed at power supplies, and there were also explosions in Liverpool and Birmingham that day.
Albert Ross, 27, a porter, was killed in Manchester, where the force of one of the explosions blew a manhole cover over a five-story building.
The bomb that attracted most international attention, however, went off three days later in Tralee, Co Kerry, behind Hawney’s Hotel, where Frank Chamberlain, the son of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, was staying while on an Irish shooting holiday. Gardaí, assigned to protect him, discovered the bomb, placed against a wall at the rear of the hotel across the street from the garda station, but it went off before the bomb squad could arrive.
IRA headquarters denied any knowledge of the attack, but gardaí were convinced that two local republicans —Tady Drummond and Garret Cotter — were responsible for the bomb. The bomb did little damage, but its reverberations went around the world. In a way it was symptomatic of the bombing campaign itself.
During the following weeks and months bombs went off in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Wolverhampton, and Coventry. Eleven bombs exploded in London and Birmingham on April 13, 1939, in public lavatories.
The IRA set off tear gas bombs in Liverpool, Birmingham, and London cinemas during May, and 20 bombs exploded in letterboxes around the country the following month. During July, the left-luggage areas of railway stations were targeted.
Duncan Campbell, a young lecturer from Edinburgh University, died after both of his legs were blown off when a suitcase bomb exploded in the luggage office of King’s Cross Station, London, in the early afternoon of July 26, 1939.
He and his new bride were returning from their honeymoon that day.
Even though the IRA insisted that civilians were not being targeted, the most lethal explosion occurred in the busy Broadgate shopping area of Coventry in the early afternoon of August 25. The head of the IRA in the Coventry area at the time was Dominic Adams, an uncle of current Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams.
Toby O’Sullivan of Cork was assigned to deliver the 2.3kg time bomb in the carrier of a delivery bicycle that was purchased for the occasion.
He was told to park the bike outside Montague Burton’s, a men’s shop on Broadgate. O’Sullivan was horrified when he surveyed the scene on the eve of the operation. “Leaving a bomb on a crowded street and killing innocent civilians is nothing but cold- blooded murder,” he complained. But he was told he would be shot if he did not carry out his orders.
After parking the bike the next day, O’Sullivan fled the city by train and headed for Holyhead, boarding the mailboat for Dublin that night. Five people were killed in the explosion.
John Arnott was only 15, while Elsie Ansell, 21, was window-shopping on her lunch break as the bomb exploded. She was to be married the following week, and was buried in her wedding dress. The other three men killed included James Clay, 82, who had left a nearby restaurant early as he was not feeling well.
James McCormack of Mullingar, and Peter Barnes of Banagher, Co Offaly, were quickly arrested and charged with the bombing. In December they were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of just Elsie Ansell.
TESTIFYING in his own defence, McCormick admitted he had procured the bicycle that was used, but he said he would not have approved of leaving it on a busy street. While admitting membership of the IRA, he stressed that IRA instructions “were that no lives should be endangered”.
As the judge was about to pass sentence, McCormick addressed the court. “I wish to state that the part I took in these explosions since I came to England I have done for a just cause,” he said.
“As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I am not afraid to die, as I am doing it for a just cause.”
Although Barnes was an active member of the IRA, he denied any involvement in the bombing. “I am innocent,” he insisted. “I had neither hand, act or part in it. That is all I have to say.”
Barnes and McCormick were hanged at Winson Green Prison, Birmingham, on February 7, 1940.
The same day, in a Liverpool court, Brendan Behan, 16, was sentenced to three years in borstal for his part in the campaign. He had been arrested with explosives in Liverpool during November. His subsequent time in borstal inspired his famous autobiographic book, The Borstal Boy.
The IRA campaign came to a sputtering and disreputable end. But the Republicans failed to learn that lesson, as their successors graduated from bicycle bombs to car bombs in the slaughter of innocent people during the more recent Northern troubles.
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