Today in Irish History, November 28 1920 – The Kilmichael ambush

Tom Barry on IRA active service c. 1921.
Tom Barry on IRA active service c. 1921.

John Dorney on a famous, bloody  action in West Cork during the Irish War of Independence

On the 21st of November 1920, Tom Barry a rising star in the Third Cork Brigade of the IRA, sent word through West Cork that he was mobilising  a guerrilla column for a major attack. Jack Hennessy received notice at his home at Coolmountain and set off to the IRA camp at Ahilane[1].

Timothy Keohane considered himself lucky to have been chosen, the only member of his Timoleague IRA Company selected for the Brigade flying column (he drew lots with two other volunteers for the honour of joining).[2]

Those that were mobilised into Barry’s flying column numbered 36 and were armed with an assortment of weapons; Lee Enfield rifles surreptitiously bought or stolen from British troops, Canadian Ross rifles taken from the coast guard, an assortment of revolvers, shotguns and some grenades. They had about 35 rounds per man. Most IRA Volunteers turned up in civilian clothes, but some like Barry himself wore an Irish Volunteer tunic while others like Hennessy wore British Army steel helmets. By IRA standards of late 1920, a time when their guerrilla tactics were still taking shape, this was a large, well armed unit.[3]

On November 21, 1920, Tom Barry, eager to make his name in the IRA, mobilised 35 men to attack a patrol of Auxiliary Division police.

Their prey was a company of Auxiliary Division police – known to the IRA and local population as ‘Auxies’. They were tough veterans of the First World War, drafted in to Ireland in order to try to put down the spreading republican insurrection. ‘C Company’ of 18 men was based at Macroom Castle. Since their insertion into rural West Cork in October (replacing two platoons of the Manchester Regiment) they had cowed much of the previous guerrilla activity with aggressive raiding and arrests of local men. They had also shot and killed at least one local civilian as he fled from one of their sweeps. [4]

They were clearly in the sights of the IRA Cork Brigades. The First Cork Brigade (north Cork) also planned to attack them but had to call off a planned attack on Macroom Castle so as not to compromise Barry and the Third Brigade’s ambush.[5]

For Tom Barry, an ex British soldier, at first distrusted by local IRA organisers, there could be no better way to make his name than launching the first successful ambush of an ‘Auxie’ patrol. The Auxiliaries had become somewhat careless and had taken to using the same road back to Macroom – passing through a townland named Kilmichael, every day. Barry later wrote that he envisaged a fight to the death with the Auxiliaries, ‘the positions that they [the IRA] were about to occupy allowed of no retreat… the alternative was now to kill or be killed; see to it that these terrorists die and are broken’[6].

One of his men, Jack Hennessy, remembered the import if not the rhetoric of Barry’s speech; ‘The place selected for the ambush was on the road running through marshy land. There were no fences but back a little off the road there were fairly large clumps of rock. There was no line of retreat’.[7]

This was not to be a hit and run attack. The IRA ambush parties, poorly armed and barely trained, would surprise the Auxiliaries’ lorries (Barry envisaged three and in the event there were two) and sweep them with fire at the closest range possible. Since there was no getaway route – most unlike virtually every other IRA operation – it was kill or be killed.

The ambush

The ambush site at Kilmichael. (courtesy of the Auxiliaries website).
The ambush site at Kilmichael. (courtesy of the Auxiliaries website).

The IRA contingent marched in pouring rain through the night to the ambush point Barry had selected, at the bend of a narrow road at Kilmichael, overlooked by a large rock and low hills on either side.

Barry’s force was divided into six squads. Four together comprised two ‘L shaped ambushes’ – that is one squad facing the enemy force as they approached a bend and the other pouring in fire from the flanks. They were concealed in the rocky hills very close to the side of the road. Another squad of six riflemen was kept in reserve, at a point from which they could fire on both ambush sites.  Three unarmed scouts nervously kept watch at the approaches to the site.

The ambush site was chosen so fire could be opened at point blank range, but there were no getaway routes for the IRA.

The column, whose clothes had been drenched the night before, had a long and uncomfortable wait. Barry described the cold as ‘biting’. They had had no food since the day before apart from a ‘bucket of tea’ sent down by a local household. They lay in wait all day and must have been chilled to the bone by the late afternoon. As the gloom of the winter’s night began to draw in at about half past four, two Auxiliary lorries were spotted by the scouts. [8]

For what happened next we must rely almost solely on IRA accounts, as there was to be only one British survivor and he was badly injured. Fortunately since the recent opening of the IRA veterans’ statements in the Bureau of Military History, there are now many more of these than there once were.

Some Auxiliaries in Cork city.
Some Auxiliaries in Cork city.

Nevertheless, two things at least are certain about the Kilmichael ambush. First, it was a remarkably well executed guerrilla action on the part of Tom Barry. Yes the Auxiliaries, commanded by Francis Crake, who had served as a Lieutenant in the First World War, should have known better than to let their movements become predictable and to fall into an ambush.

But once they did, they fell into a very carefully prepared trap. Second, Kilmichael was a brutal close-quarters fight, as fierce in intensity, if not in scale, as anything in a conventional war.

When the first lorry reached the bend in the road, Barry himself threw a grenade into the cab, killing the driver. Simultaneously, it was blasted at point blank range by the hidden riflemen. The surprised Auxiliaries in the first lorry stood no chance at all. In close range fire and then grisly hand to hand combat, all nine of the Auxiliaries in the first lorry were killed.

According to Barry, ‘revolvers were used at point blank range,  and at times, rifle butts replaced rifle shots. So close were the combatants that in once instance the pumping blood from an Auxiliary’s severed artery struck one attacker full in the mouth…in less than five minutes they had all been exterminated [and] were dead or dying sprawled around the road near the little stone wall’.

At the same time the second lorry had been engaged by the other ambush party and was taking heavy fire at close range. The IRA men in this position had let the first lorry past and opened up on the second. The ‘Auxies’ who survived the initial fusillade had flung themselves to the side of the road and were desperately trying to fire back.Jack Hennessy who was with the second ambush party described the fight in the most graphic of terms;

I was engaging the Auxies on the road. I was wearing a tin hat [helmet]. I had fired about ten rounds and had got five bullets through the hat when the sixth bullet wounded me in the scalp. Vice Comdt. McCarthy had got a bullet through the head and lay dead. I continued to load and fire but the blood dripping from my forehead fouled the breech of my rifle. I dropped my rifle and took McCarthy’s. Many of the Auxies lay on the road dead or dying.

Some, Hennessey remembered, were finished off at close quarters;

Our orders were to fix bayonets and charge on to the road when we heard three blasts of the O/C’s whistle. I heard the three blasts and got up from my position, shouting “hands up”. At the same time one of the Auxies about five yards from me drew his revolver. He had thrown down his rifle. I pulled on him and shot him dead. I got back to cover, where I remained for a few minutes firing at living and dead Auxies on the road. [9]

According to Tim Keohane, some tried to surrender only to open fire again when the IRA fighters emerged from cover to take them prisoner.

Tom Barry then called on the enemy to surrender and some of them put up their hands; but when our party were moving on to the road the Auxiliaries again opened fire. Two of our men (John Lordan and Jack Hennessy, I think) were wounded by his fire. Pat Deasy had been wounded, while Tim Sullivan and Mick McCarthy … had been killed prior to this happening.[10]

Tom Barry in his memoir makes this ‘false surrender trick’ the kernel of his narrative of the fight. According to him, this was a deliberate ploy on the part of the Auxiliaries and two Volunteers were killed as a result of it. He later wrote that at this point, ‘ I gave the order “rapid fire and do not stop until I tell you” ‘. Several more Auxiliaries were killed, two while trying to flee the scene, before others shouted ‘we surrender’.  But for Barry, ‘Having seen more than enough of their surrender tactics, I shouted the order, “keep firing on them”. ‘ According to Barry the IRA, all squads now having been brought to bear on the British survivors, they kept firing until none were left alive.[11]

After brutal hand to hand combat, 3 IRA and 17 Auxiliaries lay dead.

This is not , as has sometimes been maintained, a fabrication. As we have seen, other IRA veterans also recalled false surrenders. But undoubtedly Barry’s account simplifies and gives order to what was an unbelievably chaotic and terrifying situation. This was combat at such close quarters that men could stab each other with bayonets and club their enemies with rifle butts. The Auxiliaries were under fire from several directions at point blank range. The idea that, facing imminent death they could have got together and devised a ‘false surrender’ ploy stretches credibility.

Much more likely is that in the confusion of battle some Auxiliaries tried to surrender and others kept on firing. Barry apparently believed this was deliberate ploy, ‘as old as war itself’ he later mused. Certainly some IRA men were shot as a result but we cannot be sure if they were killed or, as Tim Keohane remembered, injured. Regardless, those Auxiliaries who were still alive at this point were in the most dangerous position possible – trying to surrender to an enemy who was no longer prepared to accept it.

Jack Hennessey recalled that at the scene of the second lorry;

a wounded Auxie moved his hand towards his revolver. I put my bayonet through him under the ribs. Another Auxie tried to pull on John Lordan, who was too near to use his bayonet and he struck the Auxie with the butt of his rifle. The butt broke on the Auxie’s skull.[12]

Any Auxiliary taken prisoner after the first abortive attempt to surrender was killed. Jack O’Sullivan, another IRA veteran later told local historian Meda Ryan that he disarmed an Auxiliary and took him prisoner but another IRA fighter walked up and shot the man [13].

The aftermath of teh Kilmichael ambush, November 1920, in which 17 Auxiliaries and three IRA men were killed.
The aftermath of the Kilmichael ambush, a burnt out Crossley tender.

Autopsy reports found that a number of the dead had been shot in the armpits, meaning that they had their hands in the air when they were shot[14]. One man, James Guthrie, got away but was seized by a local IRA company and killed. Another, HF Forde ,was left for dead, having been shot twice and clubbed in the head, but survived, though permanently brain damaged. Sixteen of his comrades (Guthrie was killed later) and three IRA Volunteers lay dead on the roadside.[15]

There may have been a false surrender by the Auxiliaries but some were certainly killed while wounded or disarmed.

The ferocious close quarter combat left many of the IRA fighters traumatised. Some were physically sick after the action. Barry had them reform and drill among the dead to regain discipline before making their getaway across country. Left behind were two burnt out lorries and 16 smashed and broken bodies (the IRA took their casualties with them). And to add to the horror of the scene, according to one account a farmer drove his cattle over the site, further disfiguring the corpses.[16]

The reaction of British troops and Auxiliaries coming on the scene can only be imagined. By way of revenge they burned all the houses in the surrounding area[17].

Aftermath

The Kilmichael Memorial in County Cork
The Kilmichael Memorial

The Kilmichael ambush came just a week after Bloody Sunday, in which the IRA in Dublin had shot dead 14 British Army officers in one night and the British forces had retaliated by opening fire on a football crowd, killing 14 civilians. In those two incidents alone the British forces had lost 31 dead and, at least three more RIC constables had been killed in separate attacks during the week. It marked a profound escalation of the conflict we now call the Irish War of Independence.

Kilmichael has sparked a war of words ever since. To the British it was a ‘brutal massacre’. ‘The ambushers came out and forcibly disarmed the survivors…The policy of the murder gang being apparently to allow no survivor to disclose their methods. The dead and wounded were hacked about the head with axes, shot guns were fired into their bodies and they were savagely mutilated’.[18]

For Irish nationalist opinion it was a famous victory. Many popular ballads, stories and laterally films have been devoted to it. ‘The Boys of Kilmichael’ ballad, still sung annually at the site goes’

So here’s to the boys of Kilmichael 
Those brave lads so gallant and true
Who fought ‘neath the green flag of Erin
And conquered the red, white and blue.
’.

Kilmichael was a brutal affair, but it was also rather unusual. The body count was exceptionally high for the guerrilla war in Ireland. In only one other action of the 1919-21 period did the IRA inflict more than ten fatal casualties in a single encounter. This was the Dromkeen ambush in Limerick in February 1921 in which 11 RIC policemen were killed. There are also credible accusations in this incident that three RIC men were killed after they had surrendered and interestingly, the alleged executioner in this case also was an ex British soldier turned IRA guerrilla named Maurice Meade.[19]

The Kilmichael ambush was not the norm for actions in the War of Independence. Barry’s tactics were far more risky than was common.

Barry’s tactics at Kilmichael – the close-in ambush that ensured either total defeat or total victory – were highly risky and the IRA could not afford to gamble in this way with the lives of its relatively few experienced fighters. It was much more common for ambushes to take place at distance with good escape routes into rugged country. And the ruthlessness shown at Kilmichael was also rare. Though there were other cases of the IRA shooting prisoners, it was far more common for them to disarm captured British troops or police and let them go. [20]

Nor should we suppose that wiping out enemy detachments was something that only the IRA did. At Clonmult in February 1921, an IRA column of 20 men was annihilated after being surrounded in farm house. Twelve were killed (at least seven after surrendering) and the other 8 only survived because a British Army officer stopped the Auxiliaries from shooting the rest of the prisoners.[21]  Similarly at Selton Hill in Leitrim in March 1921, an IRA camp was surprised on a hilltop. Six Volunteers were killed. According to IRA leader and writer Ernie O’Malley, two of the dead were beaten to death with rifle butts while wounded.[22]

We will never know exactly what happened at Kilmichael. It is still used to show that the IRA were brave and skillful soldiers, or cowardly and bloody terrorists

The controversy over whether or not there was a ‘false surrender’ at Kilmichael or whether Barry massacred the surrendering Auxiliaries is therefore in some ways beside the point.  In any war the act of surrendering is fraught with danger. This was a brutal guerrilla war in which neither side recognise the other as legitimate combatants. Kilmichael was also a confused close-range fight in which a moment’s hesitation meant death.  It is entirely possible that one participant’s perception of it would not be shared by anyone else who was there.

We will never know exactly what happened at Kilmichael. But because of its symbolic importance, and because it can be used to show that the IRA were either brave and skilful soldiers, or according to taste, cowardly and bloody terrorists, we may expect it will be argued about for many years to come.

References

[1] Jack Hennessey BMH WS 1,234

[2] Timothy Keohane BMH WS 1,294

[3] Tom Barry’s Memoir, Guerilla Days in Ireland (p38) gives the strength as 36, Jack Hennesssey’s Witness Statement puts it at ’36 or 37’

[4]Peter Hart, The IRA and Its Enemies p27-29, tells us that the Auxiliaries had not mistreated the local population in their nearly two months in the area, an opinion not shared by other sources.  The dead civilian was James Lehane, shot in the back as he was running away, http://homepage.eircom.net/~corkcounty/Timeline/Third%20Brigade.htm

[5] Cornelius Kelleher WS 1,654

[6] Barry, Guerilla Days, p40

[7] Hennessey BMH

[8] Barry Guerilla Days p 42

[9] For the first lorry action see Barry, p43-44 Both quotes Hennessey BMH

[10] Timothy Keohane BMH WS 1,294

[11] Barry, Guerilla Days p44

[12] Hennessey BMH

[13] Meda Ryan, Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter, p43

[14] Eve Morrison, Kilmichael Re-Visited, in David Fitzpatrick (Ed.) Terror in Ireland p 171

[15] The IRA dead were: Pat Deasy, Michael McCarthy and Jim Sullivan. The dead Auxiliaries were, William Barnes, Cyril Bayley, Leonard Bradshaw, James, Gleave, Philip Graham, William Jones, Frederick Hugo, Albert Jones, Ernest Lucas, William Pallister Henry Pearson, Frank Taylor, Christopher Wainwright, Benjamin Webster, Frederick Poole and James Guthrie who escaped but was killed two days later.  See here for Auxiliary casulaties.

[16] The claim was made by a priest Thomas Canon Duggan, BHM Ws 551

[17] Ryan Tom Barry, p95-97

[18] Cited in Hart, IRA and its Enemies, p23

[19] Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence, p121

[20] DM Leeson in his book The Black and Tans, British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, p148 concludes, the IRA, ‘could disarm their opponents and let them go, or they could take them prisoners or they could kill them. In most cases it seems the Volunteers chose the first option’.

[21] Hart, IRA and its Enemies p97-98

[22] Ernie O’Malley, Raids and Rallies, p101

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