Historical Happenings for March 2021

CROSSBARRY

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

One hundred years ago on 19 March 1921, one of the largest and most significant battles of Ireland’s War of Independence took place and here’s how it happened.

General Tom Barry

Attacks on the civilian population multiplied after the introduction of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries (Auxies) in mid-1920 to support the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).  As a result, Michael Collins escalated Republican attacks on them (see January Historical Happenings).  After the Croke Park massacre of 14 innocent civilians (see October Historical Happenings) and the burning of Cork City in December (see December Historical Happenings), Collins unleashed the Republican dogs of war!  Enter Tom Barry!

Tom Barry was an ex-British soldier who quit the Army after learning of the 1916 Rising and asking himself: ‘what the hell am I doing in the British Army?’ In 1920 he joined the Third Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army and commanded therein a Flying Column – a guerilla band that became famous for its discipline, efficiency and bravery; Barry even earned a reputation as the most brilliant field commander of the war.  A week after the Croke Park massacre, Barry’s column ambushed and killed nearly a whole platoon of Auxies at Kilmichael, Co. Cork, an area patrolled by the hated Essex Regiment.  Despised for their treatment of prisoners, Republican successes against them led to more intense interrogations in an effort to find the location of the guerrilla force responsible. According to Historian J.B. Hittle: General Percival, Commander of the Essex Regiment, stood out for his violent, sadistic behavior towards IRA prisoners, suspects and innocent civilians.  He had previously served as an officer at the Battle of the Somme – a campaign in which more than 57,000 casualties were the worst in the history of the British Army.

Barry led a force of 104 Volunteers and the problem with so large a group was that it is harder to move through the countryside undetected by informers and to find food and billeting for them.  However, Barry had faith in the Irish people whose assistance had increased as the British reprisals against civilians escalated.  Eventually, the Brits unmerciful torture succeeded in breaking one of the Volunteers previously captured; they learned that the Third Cork Brigade had its headquarters in Ballymurphy and that Barry’s Column was based near Crossbarry. Percival now planned a campaign to wipe out Barry’s column. He mobilized a massive combination of Military, Tans and Auxies to converge on the area from five directions catching Barry’s men in a pincer movement.  There were 400 to come from Cork, 200 from Ballincollig, 300 from Kinsale, 350 from Bandon and 120 Auxies from Macroom.  The sweep was launched early on 19 March 1921.

At 2:30 that morning, Barry was awakened by scouts who warned that British lorries had left Bandon and were heading in their direction. Soon reports came in of more Brits approaching from the south and Barry correctly assumed there were likely more coming from the north and east.  He knew that his 104 men, with only 40 rounds each, could not sustain a head-on fight and would be trapped if they tried.  They would have to fight their way out of the approaching encirclement.  Then he learned that the Bandon force was well ahead of the others.  He felt that if they could take them on, they could open a way out of the intended trap. 

He set an ambush at Crossbarry crossroads where many locals had once danced in happier times and had his men in position by 5:30AM.  Poor timing caused the segments of the 1,300 plus British force to arrive at staggered intervals and Barry, who was a brilliant strategist, took advantage of that. He would ambush the lorries from Bandon first and, if luck was with them, rout them quickly and open a pathway out of the intended encirclement.  At 6:30AM shots were heard from the northeast direction of Forde’s farm where Commander  Hurley of their Third Cork Brigade, was recovering from a serious wound received in a previous raid.  Barry knew that the shots were sounds of his friend Charlie Hurley engaging the Brits who raided the farm on their way to trap him.  Hurley managed to kill one and wound another before he was killed attempting to escape.

Then at about 8AM, a dozen British lorries came into view approaching Crossbarry crossroads.  Some of the troops descended from the lorries and proceeded quietly on foot hoping to catch Barry unaware.  When they reached the crossroads, they were caught by surprise in a close-range crossfire; Barry even brought a piper to fool the Brits into thinking they were facing a regiment.  The Brits suffered significant casualties before breaking and fleeing the scene.  Barry’s men collected the British arms and ammunition before setting fire to the lorries.  The way was now open for Barry to retreat, but another British unit came into view from the southwest. 

Barry decided that they should take on this new unit now that they were better armed and after a stiff fire-fight that unit also broke and ran.  Two more British units converged on the area trying to dislodge the Republicans from their ambush positions, but again without success as they too fled in disorder leaving many casualties and the road that once felt the steps of happy Irish feet now felt the warmth of British blood.  The action had taken about an hour and Barry took advantage of his victory to get away.  He marched his men to safety while the Brits were still all scattered in disarray.  Upon realizing what happened, Major Percival rushed to the scene with more troops to reorganize the scattered Brits, but they were only able to open a long range fire at Barry’s happily retreating column.

The reports of casualties vary according to the source reporting them,  Barry reported three of his men killed and three wounded while the Brits claimed that the six IRA men were all killed.  Barry reported 40 Brits killed while the Brits claimed only 30 in their report. Volunteer Tom Keleher in Barry’s column claimed that he personally shot and either killed or wounded 22 of them during the fire-fights.  Either way, the Crossbarry Battle was one of the most significant engagements in the War of Independence in which 104 Irish Republican Volunteers led by Tom Barry, outwitted more than 1,300 British forces trying to encircle them in an hour-long battle.  While the casualties were not large as battles go, Crossbarry was a major morale victory for the IRA who had defeated a major British force.  Prime Minister Lloyd George later stated that the Kilmichael and Crossbarry ambushes convinced him of the need for a truce and a treaty with the Irish who could not be defeated militarily. Talks began to that end three months later.

General Tom Barry lived to see his country gain independence for 26 of her 32 Counties.  General Arthur Percival lived to become Commander of Singapore which he surrendered to the Japanese in 1942 in the largest surrender in British military history; it seems he was destined to enter the history books for one disaster or another.  He spent the rest of WWII as a prisoner of the Japanese.

Historical Happenings for November 2017

The Boys of Kilmichael

By Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

Tom Barry of the Third Cork Brigade

On 21 November 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, Tom Barry O/C of the Third Cork Brigade of the Republican forces, sent word to mobilize for a major attack.  Those mobilized into Barry’s flying column numbered 36 and were armed with an assortment of weapons; Lee Enfield rifles 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 which, by Flying Column standards at a time when guerrilla tactics were still being defined, was a large, well armed unit.

Their target was a company of the ruthless paramilitary unit of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) known as Auxiliaries – tough veterans of the First World War, sent to Ireland to put down the spreading republican insurrection. Auxiliary ‘C Company’ was based at Macroom Castle and since their arrival in West Cork, they had brutalized much of the local population with their aggressive raiding and arrests of local men. They also shot and killed one local civilian as he fled from one of their sweeps. They were clearly in the sights of the Cork Brigades.

After a day’s marauding, the Auxiliaries had been taking the same road back to Macroom – passing through a townland named Kilmichael. Barry chose Kilmichael for a fight to the death with these Auxiliaries; the positions he chose allowed  no retreat… As Barry said, the alternative was to kill or be killed to see to it that these terrorists die and are broken.  The place selected for the ambush was a bend in a narrow road running through marshy land with no fences but back a bit off the road were fairly large rock formations. This was not to be a hit and run attack. The Flying Squad, poorly armed and barely trained, would surprise the Auxies’ lorries and sweep them with fire at close range. With no getaway route, it was do or die.

Monument in memory of the Kilmichael Ambush site in County Cork

Barry’s force marched in pouring rain through the night to the ambush site.  Barry divided them into squads; one facing the enemy force as they approached and two others pouring in fire from the flanks at each of two expected lorries. 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 drenched men had a long and uncomfortable wait in the biting cold. They 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 were 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.

What happened next was a remarkably well executed guerrilla action on the part of Tom Barry. Yet the Auxiliaries, commanded by Lt. Francis Crake, who had served in WWI, should have known better than to let their movements become so predictable they could fall into an ambush.  But they fell into a very carefully prepared trap.  Kilmichael was a brutal close-quarters fight, as fierce in intensity as anything in a conventional war. When the first lorry reached the bend in the road, Barry 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 hand to hand combat, all nine Auxiliaries in the first lorry were killed.  Revolvers  at point blank range and at times, rifle butts were used. In less than five minutes they were all dead or dying sprawled around the road.

At the same time the second lorry had been engaged by the other ambush party and was taking heavy fire at close range. The men in this position had let the first lorry pass and opened up on the second. The ‘Auxies’ who survived the initial fusillade flung themselves to the side of the road and were desperately trying to fire back.  Barry had given orders to fix bayonets and charge the road when he gave three blasts on his whistle. Jack Hennessey heard the three blasts and got up from his position, shouting “hands up” to one of the Auxies who had thrown down his rifle as if surrendering.  Suddenly the Auxie drew his revolver; Hennessey shot him dead and got back to cover.  According to Tim Keohane, some of the Auxies faked a surrender only to open fire when Barry’s men emerged from cover to take them prisoner.  Barry called on the enemy to surrender and some of them put up their hands; but when the squad moved on to the road, the Auxiliaries opened fire wounding John Lordan and Jack Hennessy.  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 action 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, Having seen more than enough of their surrender tactics, Barry wrote, I shouted the order, “keep firing on them”. ‘ According to Barry, they kept firing until none were left alive.  After brutal hand to hand combat, 3 IRA and 17 Auxiliaries lay dead.

The aftermath of the Kilmichael ambush, were two burnt out Crossley tenders and 16 Auxiliary bodies (the IRA took their slain with them).  The reaction of British troops and Auxiliaries coming on the scene was intense; by way of revenge they burned all the houses in the surrounding area.  The Kilmichael ambush came just a week after Bloody Sunday, in which Michael Collins’ Squad in Dublin had shot dead 14 British spies and the British retaliated by opening fire on a football crowd, killing 14 innocent civilians.  This was a profound escalation of the War of Independence.

Kilmichael sparked a war of words ever since. To the British it was a ‘brutal massacre’; to Irish nationalists it was a well-deserved victory. Popular ballads still sing of The Boys of Kilmichael and the movie The Wind That Shakes the Barley was based on it.   However, Barry’s tactics at Kilmichael  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 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.  Nor was wiping out enemy detachments something that only the IRA did.  At Clonmult in February 1921, an IRA column of 20 men was captured after being surrounded in a farm house. Twelve were killed (at least seven after surrendering) and 8 only survived because a British officer stopped the Auxiliaries from shooting them.  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 Ernie O’Malley, two of the dead were beaten to death with rifle butts while wounded.  There were also four bound prisoners shot dead on Killaloe Bridge in November 1920.

The controversy over whether or not there was a ‘false surrender’ at Kilmichael or whether Barry massacred the surrendering Auxiliaries is still being argued, but the fact remains they were an alien force terrorizing a country in which they didn’t belong!

Thanks to John Dorney whose account in The Irish Story provided the basis for this presentation.