In the wider perception of European history, the late 1930s is remembered as the time when Nazi Germany began to cast its shadow over Europe leading ultimately to the most destructive conflict in history – World War II. At the same time however, old grievances were bubbling to the surface once more in Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were about to resume their campaign to unify Ireland and expel what they saw as a British military occupation of Northern Ireland.
Earlier efforts to conduct operations against the British government and the British Army in Northern Ireland were curtailed by the turbulent internal politics of the IRA in the 1930s. One major source of contrition was how the organisation should associate itself with the government of the Republic of Ireland with many members viewing it with suspicion and mistrust, accusing it of being an imperialist puppet of the British. In 1938, Seán Russell resumed his post within the IRA’s council having been investigated for misappropriating funds and began gathering support for a coordinated campaign against the British. His plan called for a series of bombings against British industrial and economic targets coinciding with a wider propaganda war aimed at gathering support from the Irish people on both sides of the divide and abroad. Known as the S-Plan (the “S” standing for sabotage), Russell and his supporters went to work training recruits through 1938 and finalising targets in the UK mainland.
By December 1938 the plan was ready to be put in to place. As the propaganda angle was a major factor in the plan the IRA declared itself the true government of all 32 counties that made up the entirety of Ireland in an effort to give their cause an air of legitimacy and even foster a feeling of sympathy from abroad; freedom fighters waging a war against an imperial foe and their collaborators in the south. This was especially important for rallying support from Irish-Americans but served to alienate the government of Irish Republic President Douglas Hyde who the IRA were effectively declaring as illegitimate and which began passing tougher laws to limit and criminalise the IRA as a result.
Despite some reservations within the IRA about the organisation’s readiness for the campaign, they nevertheless delivered the following ultimatum to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax on January 12th 1939;
I have the honour to inform you that the Government of the Irish Republic [32 counties], having as its first duty towards its people the establishment and maintenance of peace and order here, demand the withdrawal of all British armed forces stationed in Ireland. The occupation of our territory by troops of another nation and the persistent subvention here of activities directly against the expressed national will and in the interests of a foreign power, prevent the expansion and development of our institution in consonance with our social needs and purposes, and must cease.
The Government of the Irish Republic believe that a period of four days is sufficient notice for your Government to signify its intentions in the matter of the military evacuation and for the issue of your Declaration of Abdication in respect of our country. Our Government reserves the right of appropriate action without further notice if upon the expiration of this period of grace, these conditions remain unfulfilled.
The British government refused to adhere to the demand and thus the IRA declared war on the United Kingdom on Sunday 15th January 1939. The next day, five bombs were detonated in London, Warwickshire and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. The targets were electricity pylons and power sub-stations in an attempt to specifically harm industrial outputs in those areas. This set the tone for much of the IRA’s campaign and over the following week a significant number of targets were hit but with almost no fatalities since they were aimed at infrastructure, power and gas supplies. This was a key factor in supporting the propaganda war since large numbers of deaths might turn the all-important American support against them.
Throughout 1939 the IRA carried out repeated attacks aimed at further undermining the British industrial complex and the British people’s confidence in their government to protect them. In July 1939, attacks were made on cinemas in London and Birmingham using tear gas bombs which although didn’t kill anyone struck fear in to the wider public that their enemy was on their own streets and walking among them. At the same time, perhaps frustrated by the lack of results thus far, the British government revealed that it had been informed that the attacks on the UK would intensify in the coming months. Not long after this, bombs were detonated at banks across London killing one person while a second was killed in a blast at King’s Cross train station a month later. The British responded with emergency powers that saw large numbers of the Irish community in Britain get deported to Southern Ireland who were themselves introducing legislation to combat the IRA. The British were also increasingly concerned about reported support for the IRA’s campaign coming from Berlin.
Then on August 25th 1939, less than a week before Hitler’s forces crossed in to Poland, a rather inconspicuous-looking bike was placed up against a wall in Broadgate, part of Coventry’s busy city centre. The bike had a basket on the front, common for the time, with a bundle inside it. A rather frustrated man had left it there and walked away having found it difficult to take the bike across the tramlines in the area. His name was Joby O’Sullivan who came from Cork and he was the only one who knew that the bundle in the basket was in fact a bomb. He would later state that he intended to take the already armed bomb to a nearby police station but the tramlines had slowed his progress down meaning the bomb was due to detonate soon and not wanting to be a martyr he left it where it was.
At two minutes after half past two on a busy Friday afternoon, the 5lbs of explosive was detonated by an alarm clock timer. The blast shattered glass which shot out like bullets that cut down people walking by at the time. A young shop assistant, 21-year old Elsie Answell, was killed instantly having been standing by a window near where the bomb detonated. She was due to be married in early September but ended up getting buried in the same church her service was to take place.
In the W.H. Smiths store, 30-year old Rex Gentle who came to Coventry from North Wales for holiday work and 15-year old local boy John Arnott were also killed in the initial blast. 50-year old Gwilym Rowlands was killed while sweeping the roads for the council while the oldest victim, 82-year old James Clay, was struck down as he walked home from his regular café which he had left earlier than usual because he was feeling unwell. Another 70 people were injured many of them with severe lacerations caused by the flying glass.
The British public were outraged and the attack served to further diminish confidence in British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his government who seemed impotent to stop both the IRA at home and Hitler in Eastern Europe. Arrests of people with Irish descent in Britain increased as did hostility towards the Irish community in the UK which should have played in to the hands of the IRA’s propaganda war but the loss of life in Coventry had dealt it a severe blow with their sympathy from moderate US supporters starting to taper off as a result. Behind closed doors the IRA itself began to recognise the potential disaster the Coventry bombing was to their cause and coupled with the lack of results from their operations in the previous months, Russell addressed the Irish world trying to affirm that their time for victory was at hand;
“England’s difficulty – Ireland’s opportunity” has ever been the watchword of the Gael.. Now is the time for Irishmen to take up arms and strike a blow for the Ulster people.
The outbreak of war between Britain and Germany looked set to further Britain’s problems and offer the opportunity for Irish victory especially with Nazi German support, after all it had been the last war that helped secure partial home rule for the Irish people in the south. Alas it was not to be for Russell and his supporters. The outbreak of war increased British security and limited the once commercially available materials in Britain needed for bombs making attacks all the more difficult. Not forgetting the deaths at Coventry, the British eventually arrested five people on the charge of the bombing among other terrorist offences and hung two of them, 29-year-old James Richards and 32-year old Peter Barnes, in February 1940. Joby O’Sullivan was not arrested for the bombing and would only confess to it years later to a reporter.
By 1940 the IRA’s campaign was completely running out of a steam as a result of British and Irish Republic emergency powers to curtail their operations. Arrests and deportations ran high in both countries while the US authorities started to clamp down on IRA members and supporters in America amid the increasing evidence of Nazi support. The hanging of Richards and Barnes effectively signalled the demise of the S-Plan although the last attack associated to it would occur on March 18th 1940 by which time the British people were more concerned about facing their own foreign invader in the form of Germany than paying any significant attention to the IRA’s cause. Indeed, despite Russell believing Nazi Germany could aid the Irish cause the events of the first six months of war actually overshadowed the IRA’s operations which did much to diminish their effectiveness. He believed this to the point where he would actually die in a German U-Boat trying to get to Nazi-occupied Europe.
The IRA leadership would be deeply self-critical of the operation in the years that followed with many members pointing out that there were warning signs of its inevitable failure even before 1939. Many of the attacks were rendered ineffective by poor training of agents, something that was pointed out in 1938 but ignored by Russell, while others cited that the organization had not yet adequately recovered from the disarray of the mid-30s leadership debate. Also, some of the more grandiose plans such as bombing the Houses of Parliament failed to come to fruition.
While the plan failed to establish the unified Ireland under the IRA’s government that it was intended to it did regenerate the feelings of Irish patriotism. Many of those involved joined the list of earlier IRA martyrs that would inspire the next generation of members and keep the organization alive only to flourish in the 1960s and 70s (Sean Russell’s statue is below). The deliberate effort to limit civilian casualties also endeared many Irish communities overseas to give their support to the IRA who were seen as heroic; it can be argued that the propaganda side of the S-Plan was quite successful in the long term despite the Broadgate bombing.
For Coventry, the bombing was unfortunately a mere taster of what was to befall the city in the coming year and a half.