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These accounts of fighting during the War of Independence are taken from the original transcripts of those who took part in the fighting. Dromkeen Ambush Dromkeen Ambush An action of the Black and Tan Period
By Major J.M. McCarthy G.H.Q.
Flaunting defiance from the highest point of a large detached building in the Village of Pallas (New Pallas), Co Limerick, a conspicuous flag in the sombre colours of Black and Tan strikingly, if unconventionally, identified the local police barracks throughout the winter of 1920 -1921. Here, also, was housed the headquarters of a police district in the charge of an officer ranking as district inspector, R.I.C., but whose special category, and that of the greater part of a large garrison, was plainly indicated by the unofficial emblem so prominently displayed. The hoisting of this banner reflected fairly well the tension prevailing in the area at that period, and was expressive of the challenging sentiments of the garrison towards the countryside at large, but particularly toward the East and Mid-Limerick Brigades, I.R.A. These two units were equally involved through the fact that, though Pallas itself was in the East Limerick domain, the inter—brigade boundary ran close by, while the police district, and, needless to say, the police activities, extended into both areas.
For long the operations, and more especially the methods, of the garrison, besides making its personnel exceptionally feared by the general public, had proved a very sharp thorn for the two brigades and faced them with a challenge that had to be met. The police wee defiantly in the ascendant when, early in 1921, they scored what, in the circumstances of the time, was a big success, and for the local I.R.A. a correspondingly serous reverse. By locating and capturing the arms dump of the Mid-Limerick Brigade. Incidentally, the police raiding party took care to celebrate their feat by visiting the house of the on-the-run C/O of the Brigade’s Active Service Column, and staging a feu-de-joie with the captured weapons with the occupants paraded to witness, so they were assured, this proof of defeat and final end of the Columns activities.
These events brought matters to a head. Consultations, already in progress between the two Brigade staffs with a view to common action, were hastened to a conclusion. Plans were considered for an attack on the barracks, but in view of the pitiably poor armament of the I.R.A. disclosed serious difficulties to be surmounted. The nature of the building, its position and defences made for difficulty of approach, and ensured a protracted fight if the defenders were to be overcome. Despite the fairly extensive experience of the East Limerick Column in conducting prolonged and successful barrack attacks, such as that at Kilmallock in the previous May, when the attack was sustained for over six hours, the time factor in this case was a definite obstacle to success. The proximity of Pallas to large military and police centres (Limerick City, 10 miles, Tipperary, 12 miles) made it probable that the garrison would be relieved long before the barracks could be destroyed or captured, notwithstanding all that might be done to impede the arrival of reinforcements. With mere sniping, or demonstration, attack being of no value, since the situation required that the I.R.A. should register a clear cut success, an awkward problem seemed to defy solution when the I/O (Intelligence Officer) of the Mid-Limerick Column came to the rescue. He was able to report that a considerable portion of the Pallas police garrison regularly travelled with a lorry convoy to Fedamore, a 11 miles distant, making the return journey on the same day. Further, he was able to indicate the route normally followed, and even to fix the usual date of the movement as the first Thursday of each month.
Decision to Attack the Convoy.
With this information the decision to attack and destroy the convoy was taken, the first Thursday of February being fixed for the effort as a joint operation by East and Mid-Limerick Columns. An examination of the route led to the further conclusion that a carefully laid ambush along a particular stretch of road (see map) at Dromkeen, some three miles from Pallas, offered the best method of attack. Here a straight section of the route extended for 300 yards, slightly downhill, from a bend at its western (Fedamore) end to a road junction at its eastern (Pallas) limit. Dromkeen House at the bend afforded observation both over the whole ambush position, and westward for a considerable distance towards Fedamore. The road junction presented almost full right-angle turns to vehicles travelling in any direction, and was an obvious site for barricades which would be out of sight until the turn was about to be taken. From this point, too, observation over the entire position, and extending as far as the western bend and Dromkeen house, was feasible from a ruined house at the road fork.
The facilities, and the lay-out of the road section, were definite advantages in the light of a number of factors. The basic decision being to effect complete destruction of the convoy, a fairly lengthy stretch of the route had to be held in order to ensure that all the vehicles were within the position before the action opened. The position had also to be capable of being sealed-off at both ends once the convoy had entered it. The length, at first sight over-long, was therefore not excessive in the circumstances, especially when there was no certainty of the number of Lorries likely to be encountered, nor as to the distance between the Lorries.
To reduce the uncertain element to the minimum, and for other reasons, it was decided to intercept the convoy on its return, rather than on its outward, journey. In this way its strength would be known on its departure from Pallas and, though it had varied somewhat on occasions, might be counted on to be approximately the same when it set out on its return trip from Fedamore. With this knowledge any necessary last-minute adjustments in disposition could be made. Further, the later in the day the action opened the better from the standpoint of the Column’s withdrawal, which it was desired to effect under cover of darkness as far as possible in view of the elaborate military and police reactions anticipated. The other grounds for interception on the return journey were that it made actual occupation of the position unnecessary until confirmation of the movements of the convoy was received, and, by that very fact, lessened the possibility of a long and perhaps fruitless wait in the position itself. Also, by ensuring that occupation would not be affected at all in the convoy did not move out, possible disclosure of intentions was avoided, and the same site could be used another day. This alternative was important in view of the suitability of the location, and the distinct chance that the I/O’s estimate as to the date of the movement might not be borne out by events.
Keeping this valuable alternative in mind, as well as the special caution needed in this particular area, the arrival of the two Column, and their junction with one another, was to be timed that neither would be in the vicinity of Pallas longer than was absolutely necessary. The most distance of the two, the East Limerick unit was mainly concerned in this “approach march.” By the day preceding that fixed for the attack it had reached a billeting area, 9 miles away, near Emly, on the Limerick Tipperary border. At nightfall in moved forward some four miles to the neighbourhood of Kilteely. Here it remained for a few hours before continuing, while still dark, to the previously agreed “assembly area” and rendezvous with the Mid-Limerick Column.
At this point, situated in a secluded locality away from dwellings, and a little over a mile short of the selected Dromkeen position, contact was between the two Columns just before dawn. The combined force, some 40 riflemen strong, then lay up to await developments, a dilapidated shed affording the shelter needed both because of secrecy and because of the fact that the weather during the moves on the preceding nights had been very bad and had so continued. Communication was soon established, with local scouts who, from early morning, were keeping movements in Pallas, and on the adjoining roads, under observation. It was not, however, until close to noon that calculations were in great part fulfilled by the news that two lorries, carrying about 20 policemen, with the District Inspector in charge, had started out along the road towards Fedamore.
A move was at once made to the site for the intended interception through which, as further information soon indicated, the lorries had passed, travelling fast and close together. The weather had now cleared, and luckily, as matters developed, little time was required for taking up position, these having been assigned beforehand. Excepting the farmhouse at the turn of the road to Old Pallas, all the houses and the barn shown in the map provided fire positions, and were occupied in varying strength according to accommodation and field of fire available. The farmhouse, left unoccupied, was used to detain passers-by, some half dozen being thus “interned.” Dromkeen House, on the road bend at the western end, held a party detailed to observe the route towards Fedamore, signal movements from that direction, and prevent withdrawal by the lorries or their occupants by that route. What amounted to C.P. was set up in the ruined house facing the road-junction. Small detachments also took position at intervals on both sides of the straight stretch of the road along its low boundary walls, in the yard of the farmhouse used as “a place of detention” and as the fences covering both the road-fork and two barricades erected there. These barricades were made with farm-carts in preference to other forms of obstruction so that no outward signs need have remained should there have been a postponement. For the same reason no artificial fire were constructed except at the northern boundary wall of the road where lose stones, readily replaced, permitted a limited number of loop-holes. Elsewhere fire was to be brought to bear from the top of the walls and fences, the hay in the barn, and the windows of the house.
These steps completed the dispositions except for two other measures intended to secure the authors of the projected surprise against being themselves surprised. One was the occupation by a party of armed local Volunteers of a position near Dromkeen across the intended line of retreat to keep open that route and cover the withdrawal of the Column. This step considered essential in view of the heavy military traffic in the vicinity. The other security measure was the use of a screen of scouts provided over a wide area by the local Volunteer companies to warn of hostile approach from an unexpected direction. The frequency of enemy patrols in the locality generally, and on the main Limerick-Tipperary road, only ¾ mile distant, made such an outcome not improbable. Weather or not it was appreciated at the time, the fact is, however, that these scouts had no effective means of delaying or rapidly communicating the progress of any hostile formation should the latter, as was likely, have been motorized. Consequently, had an occasion for action by the scouts arisen, this protective measure would in all probability have broken down badly.
It was now a little after 12.30 p.m. with all in readiness. After an uncomfortable night and morning and a 17 mile cross country march to their billeting area in prospect, the Volunteers hoped for an early end to their vigil. In this they were not disappointed, for nearing 1 o’clock the approach of lorries was signalled from Dromkeen House. Hardly had the signal been amplified to indicate the number of vehicles as two, when the first lorry appeared around the road bend, quickly followed by the second at about 50 yards’ distance. Orders had provided for the opening of fire when the first of whatever number of lorries might compose the convoy took the turn at the road-junction. In the event, fire was opened a few seconds before this occurred, due probably to the riflemen in the western half of the position having difficulty in judging the exact moment of the leading lorry’s arrival at the road fork. As matters were, this was of no consequence, though it might have been otherwise had there been a larger convoy, or a wider interval between the lorries. This point, however, serves to emphasize the necessity of a checking up on details least the larger plan be wrecked through a small oversight.
After the opening volley, the first lorry continued along the short distance separating it from the road junction. Confronted with the barricade as he was taking the left hand turn on the usual route – that leading to Dromkeen Station – the driver swerved violently to the right in an effort to take the other turn. Faced here with the second barricade the lorry struck both it and the fence adjoining the ruined house. Thrown, or jumping clear, the driver, who happened to be the District Inspector, and another policeman, both unwounded, reached the adjoining field. Aided by the fact that they alone among the police part were wearing civilian clothes, they succeeded in making good their escape, and eventually proved to be the sole survivors of a total police party of thirteen. A stronger police escort had been expected, but a reduction in the original number had probably been made at Fedamore. Of the five occupants of the first lorry three remained, one of whom was mortally, and two slightly, wounded at the outset. The latter two took cover at the roadside, but shortly after were again hit, this time fatally.
The second lorry contained eight policemen. It had arrived a little beyond mid-way in the ambush position when the first shots were fired. Halting at once, its occupants began to dismount. Some were hit while doing so, others as they took up position at the roadside. Five were killed outright, and one sustained severe wounds that proved fatal some days later. Two managed to get into positions beneath the lorry. From here, firing from behind the wheels, and refusing to surrender, they maintained a steady exchange of shots. Difficult to hit in this situation, they were eventually struck and killed by fire brought to bear from new positions on the road level taken up by a few of the attackers. In passing, it is both of interest, and but fitting to record here that the two policemen responsible for this determined fight against hopeless odds were two of the only three members of the “regular” R.I.C. in the police party. It was in the course of the attack on this second lorry that the Volunteers sustained their single causality, a Volunteer officer on the wall near the church having his hand shattered by a bullet.
This casualty somewhat complicated the pre arranged cross country withdrawal and the “evasive action” to counter the widespread military and police “round-up” that now ensued. For a great part of the march various forms of transport had to called on to permit the wounded officer keeping up with the column. By using field paths and avenues, however, the move was effected mainly across country as planned, with the result that nightfall saw the Volunteers safely through the cordons and installed in billets some 17 miles from Dromkeen.
Ruan R.I.C. Barrack was strategically situated. Commanding one of the approaches to Ennis, it was a pivotal point in the British chain of defences. At a convenient junction in the centre of the Mid-Clare Brigade, it was a useful eye in the enemy’s intelligence machine. The Brigade staff was quick to recognise the benefits reaped by the enemy from the maintenance of this stronghold. They found too, by experience, that it was a thorn in their own side as its peculiar position hampered the free movement of the brigade and battalion officers.
Capture of Ruan R.I.C. Barrack
Mid Clare Brigade Exploit of 1920
The Brigade staff decided to attack the barrack with a view to its capture or the consequent withdrawal of its garrison by the Authorities. This was a formidable task. Well-built, strongly fortified, fitted with steel shutters and sandbags, and encircled with barbed wire, Ruan would seem to be impregnable to all forms of attack without the aid of artillery. There was no artillery available. Nevertheless the Staff was undaunted. The place must be reduced!
INTELLIGENCE OFFICERS FIND HEEL OF ACHILLES.After patient concentration it was discovered this seemingly impregnable fortress had its weak point, after all. It became known to our Intelligence that a constable used to leave the barrack every morning for milk between the hours of seven and eight. The house in which he got the milk stood at the rear of the barrack, at a distance of some three or four hundred yards. Making his exit by the back door, the constable followed a pathway between the two out offices and the boundary wall. The wall was roughly seven feet high. The pathway six feet wide was obstructed by barbed wire entanglements some five feet high. On the outward journey the constable used to push aside a portion of this entanglement and leave it in position until his return. Here was the key to the barrack – the heel of Achilles! On receipt of the information it was agreed that the attack should be made in the morning, and that it should be made to centre round the back entrance. Further reconnaissance revealed minor difficulties within the grounds and in the vicinity. The paved pathway was heard to resound to the tramp of shod feet; the dogs in the neighbourhood, by loud and prolonged barking, signalled the slightest movement by night. For the first of these there was an obvious solution; for the second, one was forthcoming. SYSTEM OF ROAD OBSTRUCTIONS. A most formidable danger still remained – the danger of being discovered and hemmed in by superior forces from Ennis in the course of the attack. To obviate this serious difficulty and elaborate and widespread system of road obstruction was made an integral part of the plan of attack. Two rings of obstructions were considered necessary. One, the inner one, blocked all the approaches to the immediate vicinity of the barrack; the other harassed advance along the remote parts of roads leading to Ruan. The inner ring of obstructions was strong. It consisted of feller trees and hundreds of tons of large stones. Each barricade, moreover, was defended by a section leader and eight men armed with shotguns. The outer ring was far flung, and consisted of some twenty barricades scattered along all roads radiating from Ruan, extending, at times to a distance of ten miles. This network of obstructions was allotted to the Third battalion, assisted by two companies from the First, and two companies from the Fifth Battalions. ATTACKING PARTY AND THE LAY-OUT OF THEIR OBJECTIVE.The barrack was a three storied building, garrisoned by two sergeants and eleven men. The ground floor comprised a kitchen, dining room, hall, pantry and sergeant’s bedroom. Upstairs, there were three bed rooms, one large, one medium and a single room occupied by the other sergeant.
Two officers and five section leaders with twenty nine men were detailed to deal with every apartment of the building: one officer and four men for the kitchen; a section leader and two men for the sergeant’s downstairs bedroom, a section leader and seven men for the large bedroom upstairs, a section leader and four men for the medium sized bedroom, a section leader and two men for the sergeant’s room, a section leader and two men to detain the milkman; and, finally an officer and three men to reinforce or cover the retreat of those entering the room as the circumstances demanded.
Men, picked for coolness, dash and courage, and drawn from all areas of the brigade, were set aside for the immediate work of storming the barrack. They were divided into two sections: the attacking party proper, and the covering party. The attacking party consisted of two officers and twenty one men.
MOBILIZATION. On the evening of the attack the picked men foregathered at various centres, some distance from Ruan. At nightfall they mobilized in a vacant house about four miles from the barrack. Each section was allotted its special task. The nature of the operation was explained, and far from deterring the men, the delicacy of the job filled them with added enthusiasm and eagerness. In the early hours of the morning of October 14th, under cover of darkness, the raiders moved out quietly in the direction of the barrack. The covering party was directed to its position by ten scouts and five guides. This party was divided into three sections, each section consisting of one officer and seven men. These three groups occupied the best available positions in the vicinity of the barrack. Their duty was to deal with any reinforcements that might evade the obstruction parties, and to cover the retreat of the attacking party proper.
In a wood about half a mile from their objective, the attacking party removed their boots and marched barefoot to the high wall to the rear of the barrack. Fortunately there was no comment by the dogs of the neighbourhood. The poison had done its work! Each section leader held his men in readiness for the order to march.
THE ASSAULT. At approximately 7.30 a.m. the R.I.C. man was heard leaving the barrack for the milk; a few minutes later the signal was given for the assault. All sections moved according to plan; the guard was disarmed, each apartment was approached by the allotted group; and the small covering party took up position with clock like precision. The police were disarmed, and surrendered without resistance, except those in the upstairs large bedroom. In an exchange of shots which took place here between the assailants and the R.I.C., three R.I.C. men were wounded, one fatally. When the surrender was complete, our men rendered first aid and hastened to procure a priest and a doctor. No time was lost; the arms, bicycles, ammunition and other equipment was moved to a waiting charabanc, which moved off with an escort to a pre arranged destination. The wounded constables, having received spiritual and medical, were taken to a house in the neighbourhood where they received continued assistance. In the meantime the R.I.C. men were being exercised in foot drill while our men were busy preparing the barrack for demolition. When the demolition was complete the R.I.C. men were conducted to some houses in the vicinity. They were provided with breakfast and warned not to leave these houses for at least one hour. They gave an undertaken – under some pressure – not to countenance, encourage, or take part in local burnings or reprisals of any kind. Local Unionists were warned, moreover, that if Crown Forces carried out any reprisals in the vicinity their mansions, now unguarded, would suffer in consequence. These warnings had the desired effect. BOOTY The booty consisted of thirteen bicycles, fifteen rifles, fourteen revolvers, one automatic pistol, two shotguns, 1000 rounds of .303 ammunition, and 700 rounds of .45 ammunition. 50 rounds of automatic ammunition, 50 rounds of buckshot ammunition, 3 boxes of hand grenades, some very light cartridges and a box of assorted ammunition. This fine haul enabled the brigade to equip a comparatively strong active service unit. The captors were justly proud of their work, which they had carried out with utmost efficiency. Elated and encouraged, they returned to their respective areas.
Raid on Kilmallock R.I.C. Barracks By the spring of 1920, the campaign against R.I.C. barracks was well under way, and was successfully fulfilling its two fold purpose of loosing the enemy’s hold on the country and augmenting the arms of the Volunteers.
By Lieutenant M. Quirke.
It was decided to attack and capture Kilmallock R.I.C. Barracks. It was discovered that the normal strength of the barrack consisted of two sergeants and eighteen men. The building was a very substantial one; and all the windows were steel shuttered and slotted to enable to enable rifles to be fired through them. In addition to a plentiful supply of ammunition, the garrison was well provided with rifles grenades and Mills bombs. In short, the police were in the position of an exceptionally strong military force with every prospect of holding out for days against overwhelming numbers.
The barrack, however, had one drawback, of which great advantage could be taken by daring attackers. Situated in the main street of the village, it was a rather low, squat structure, strongly built, but over-looked by higher building adjacent to it. This gave the attackers, provided they could occupy these building successfully, a dominant position over those in the barracks.
With regard to the movements of the garrison it was learned that, whilst normally the strength was two sergeants and eighteen constables, this number varied almost nightly. Individual R.I.C. men came and departed by train on special plain clothes duty. Occasionally they came by Corssley tender. So that it was never possible to say accurately what the strength of the garrison on a particular night. On the night of the attack the garrison consisted of twenty-eight men.
In our area service rifles were few; and for the attack on the stronghold the greatest difficulty was experienced in getting even thirty rifles. Our leader, Sean Forde, decided that the night of the attack was to May 27th, 1920. The rifles, some ammunition and all available shotguns were dumped on the western side of Kilmallock, and the greater portion of the ammunition, bombs and explosives was dumped on the eastern side.
It was too much to hope that so strong a barrack could be carried out by a short, sharp attack. It would obviously have to be besieged. This constituted the greatest part of our task, because a protracted fight would certainly lead to the possibility of reinforcements coming to the relief of the garrison. Our force was too small for the risk to be lightly rendered.
All available help in the district was accordingly mobilised at 9 o’clock on the night of the attack, and all main roads, bye-roads, and railway tracks for a radius of about fifteen miles around Kilmallock were rendered impassable for any form of traffic.
A prodigious amount of labour went into this work, but it was cheerfully and effectively done, and it was well indeed that it was so, for the barrack proved a far tougher proposition than we had counted upon.
All preliminaries having been completed, the mobilization of the attack began. At 8 o’clock eighteen men from my Battalion concentrated at Garryspillane cross-roads, all in possession of bicycles, and proceeded to Kilmallock direct, to join forces with other Battalions from West-Limerick and East-Clare.
Owing to the toughness of the obstructions over the roads our progressed towards Kilmallock was very slow. The detachment I was with arrived in the town about 10.30 p.m. and linked up with the Command of Sean Forde.
About thirty men, each of whom was recommended by his local commander, were now specially selected, armed with the best of the rifles, given a plentiful supply of ammunition, and detailed for the direct attack on the barracks. The remaining men, to the number of about forty. Armed with shotguns and all sorts of miniature weapons, were detailed to guard minor entrances and exits.
Our detachment, that is to say, those detailed for the direct attack, was next divided into five sections, each choosing its own leader.
Each section received detailed instructions concerning the various buildings surrounding the barrack which they were to occupy and fortify. Clery’s Hotel fell to our lot.
This extensive building stood directly in front of the barrack and afforded an excellent commanding position, being almost twice the height of the barrack. Our intelligence had reported the previous day that Clery’s could not be entered either by front or rear so late at night; in order to make sure of admission the following plan was adopted.
One of the I.R.A. was detailed to proceed to Kilmallock by evening train in the guise of a commercial traveller, and book a bed for the night in Clery’s. This would ensure having a man of our own inside to let us in; and it also meant that he would get a pretty good knowledge of the occupants and the interior arrangements.
This simple plan worked splendidly. The instant our section leader tapped gently at the door our comrade inside laid down the book he was reading and opened wide the door, thus enabling us to enter quietly and take possession.
Houses all round the barrack were now occupied, and the work of fortifying them began. Each man barricaded the window allotted to him with whatever material was available. Needless to say, the material available was not ideal for the purpose, and but a sorry substitute for the steel shuttered windows opposite. But a high sprit of confidence animated us; and by 11.30 p.m. we were all at our posts, with loaded rifles at the ready, waiting with what patients we could for the signal to begin the attack.
About six paces from the gable-end of the barracks, facing south west, another building towered above it. From the roof of the building our leader was to give three flashes of a lamp, which was the signal to begin the attack.
All eyes were now straining towards this point. There was no sign of life or activity from the barrack; and we seemed to have made our occupation of the surrounding houses without arousing any suspicions.
Suddenly from the roof top three flashes of light winked out into the night; and were instantly answered by the roar of thirty rifles. At the same moment our leader cast a 56lb weight crashing through the slates of the barrack roof. Two other 56lb weights followed in quick succession, their crashing noise passing almost unnoticed in the din of rifles and bursting bombs.
This unique method of breaking a fort was very effective, causing a large gaping hole in the roof. Into this opening our leader, from the roof, hurled bottle after bottle of petrol.
The bottles broke and saturated the roof with petrol. Then our leader hurled bombs into the breach. Each bomb burst with terrific force, causing considerable damage but completely failing to set the roof on fire.
Meanwhile the fight was raging fiercely all round the barrack. The large garrison had manned every loop-hole and were returning a hot fire to our attack. It looked as if we would not succeed in forcing them either to surrender or evacuate. The bombing of the petrol soaked roof, upon which great hopes had been set, did not appear to be working out, and unless some other means of reducing the structure of the building was brought into play it was evident that bomb and rifle fire would be unavailing.
It was under those conditions that the real genius of our leader rose to the occasion. He detailed a small party of those guarding the exits to proceed to a yard in the town where there was an American paraffin oil car. It was the tank shaped type so commonly used in distributing supplies to country traders, and contained a huge quantity of paraffin oil. This car was now brought up the street, and with considerable difficulty and danger placed close to the barracks. By means of a hose the paraffin was now poured into the breach in the roof, for the best part of an hour. Then another mills bomb hurled into the breach had the desired effect, and the roof burst into a blaze. Even after the roof had taken fire the stream of paraffin was kept playing on the roof, with the result that in a few minutes it became a roaring furnace.
The battle for possession of the barracks raged without intermission from midnight to 2 a.m. At that hour our leader flashed out the “Cease Fire” signal from his perch on the housetop. It was almost instantly obeyed by the attackers, and the only sound was from the intermittent fire of the defenders.
It was a weird night; and one which the participants are never likely to forget – the smoke of burst bombs and the burning roof billowing around the building, the sudden comparative quiet after fierce noise of the conflict, the red, hungry flames shooting skyward out of the doomed building.
The garrison was called on to surrender; but the reply was, “No Surrender” followed by a volley of rifle and grenade fire. Instantly the three flashes of light for the “open fire” winked out from the housetop and the battle was again in full swing. For upwards of a further three more hours the building – the fire of which was increasing every moment – was subjected to a continuous attack. During all this time the defenders, who showed remarkable courage and pertinacity, directed their main efforts against Clery’s Hotel. They endeavoured to make this position untenable by a continuous attack with rifle grenades. In this they were considerably handicapped by our elevated position and the fact that the street space between the two buildings was filled with dense smoke. Owing largely to these facts. I believe, they failed to get a single one of their grenades in through any of the windows occupied by us. None the less our position was rather precarious, Grenade after grenade hit the wall, dropped to the ground and exploded with terrific force. These repeated concussions were causing considerable damage to the lower portion of the front of the hotel.
The fight had been waged for over five hours and the entire barrack was little better than a roaring furnace. The position of the defenders was hopeless, and it was quite impossible to remain any longer in the building.
Once more the “cease fire” signal flashed out. Silence again took the place of conflict, the garrison, for the last time, were called on the “Surrender.” Their answer was “Never” followed by a few shots. The fight then recommenced and was continued up to about a quarter to 6 o’clock. About that time the entire roof fell in, amidst frantic cheering from the attackers. Flames, sparks, and a cloud of smoke now shot skyward, giving a weird red tinge to the whole scene. The defenders by this time had made a dash to a small building in the yard of the barrack. The building, like the barracks, was fortifies. In their flight they abandoned most of their bombs and ammunition, and the bursting of these within the burning building added to the din and clamour of the fight.
From the small building they put up a stubborn resistance. They fought the fight of heroes; and although we were engaged in a life-and-death struggle with them, we readily acknowledged the magnificent stand they made in the face of an utterly hopeless situation. Their retreat led to a change of our position also. We evacuated our former posts, and got into new ones at the rear without suffering any causalities, although it had now become fairly light.
The fact that the R.I.C. had abandoned most of their reserve of ammunition in their flight from the barracks conferred no great advantage on us. We had begun our attack with a pitifully small supply of ammunition and bombs, and, after more than six hours continues fighting, our supplies were well nigh exhausted. Thus it was that, about 7 a.m., with daylight full across the country, our supplies of ammunition exhausted, and the danger of being trapped by heavy reinforcements, our leader was forced to sound the “retire.” We fired a parting volley and began our retirement.
We retired in good order across the country, leaving the barracks a smouldering ruin. Had the attack started half an hour earlier, or had we another half dozen bombs in our possession, we could have reduced the out building and compelled the R.I.C. to surrender or die fighting in the open. However, we could, without exaggeration, claim that we had accomplished what we had set out to do, namely, to reduce the enemy stronghold in the town of Kilmallock.
The Ambush at Ballyvourney On Friday, February 25th, 1921, took place what has variously been called the Ballyvourney, the Coolavokig, or the Poulnabro Ambush. It was carried out by a Flying Column of Cork Number 1 Brigade in charge of the O/C (Officer Commanding) 1st battalion acting under the Brigade O/C, also present.
By Mr. C Browne
The aim of the attacking party was to surprise and overwhelm an enemy convoy of Lorries, secure their much wanted arms and more vital still their stores of ammunition. The I.R.A. supplies of arms and ammunition were obtained almost solely by this method and the success of an engagement was often measured by the amount of such material captured from the enemy.
If we accept this standard alone the ambush could not be called a success as neither arms or ammunition were captured but then it would obviously be wrong when fighting a powerful enemy to overlook the effect on his morale (else the Customs House fight would have been reckoned a failure) and the infliction of heavy casualties. With the latter taken into account the ambush can be termed a definite success.
Number of Men Engaged coming East or West.
The attacking party consisted of 14 Rifles and 2 Lewis Guns from the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 23 Rifles and 4 Shotguns from the 7th Battalion, and 23 Rifles and 26 Shotguns from the 8th Battalion. It had no Grenades or other equipment. The enemy originally engaged comprised 112 Auxiliaries travelling in 9 Lorries and one car, and it was well armed with Rifles, Machine Guns and Grenades. After a lapse of three hours this was supplemented by some hundreds of military equipped with armoured cars and an aeroplane.
The position on the main Macroom-Killarney road about 7 miles from Macroom and two miles from the village of Ballymakeera, offered distinct advantages for surprise and attack and in its ruggedness afforded excellent means for retreat. As seen in the sketch it is on a winding road flanked on the north side by continues rocky ground varying 10 to 15 feet in height. On the southern side were some isolated rocks from which, owing to the sunken ground between them and the road there was an excellent field of fire.
The position was marred somewhat by the two cottages at the south side of the road and the eastern end. The western one of these was dominated by the positions immediately across the road from it and it was felt that it would be dangerous because of possible cross-fire to occupy it as a post. The eastern cottage with a blind gable facing the road and having no command of it was useless as a post. Both however should have been barricaded to prevent enemy occupation.
Disposition of the Column.
The Column first moved into position at daybreak on February 18th. The forward Lewis Gun was placed at the point marked A in the sketch and had a fine field of fire in front to the cottage along the road to the north-east as far as the cross, and along the road to the south as far as the bend. Number 1 section was in position at this point covering a like area of road. It also covered a permanent block on the minor road, this been out of sight of the main road and arranged to prevent lorries from forcing their way up this road and to the rear of the Column’s position. The command post was also placed here.
The second Lewis Gun was placed at the point marked B, where it had command of the road in front and to the east as far as the bend. Its fire to the west was somewhat restricted because of the intervening rocks but it had an excellent command of the low ground to the south. Number 2 section was placed in position along here at either side of the gun.
Number 3 section were in position on the rocks immediately west and also acted as flankers at the western end. Here a temporary block ready to be pulled across the road on news of the enemy approach was covered by this section.
Number 4 section was placed on the isolated rocks to the south and had a field of fire extending from the western cottage to the temporary road block.
An observation post was placed on Rahoonagh Hill, an elevated position about one mile to the south having a view of the road for four miles to the east and two miles to the west. Messages were to be flag signalled to the position. The stage was now set.
Long Period of Waiting.
On every other day from February the 18th until February the 25th the column moved into position at dawn, waited all day, and moved out to their billets some miles away when darkness fell. Instructions were issued to the men that on no account were they to show themselves to passing traffic, and after the first few hours spent improving and camouflaging positions a long monotonous wait began in cold, though dry, wintry weather. This was not without its effect as time wore on and as day succeeded day with no appearance of the expected convoy, a feeling of disappointment arose, carrying with it a belief that as the Column’s activities could not be hidden from the countryside, the enemy must by now become aware of its being in position and therefore would not come, or else would come in such force as to make the Column’s position dangerous. Among some this bred a certain carelessness and contempt which was to have a disastrous effect on the result of the fight.
As on the previous day the Column moved into position before dawn on the 25th, the signallers leaving for the observation post at the same time. Through a miscalculation these men did not reach the observation post until after the fighting had opened shortly after 8 a.m. and consequently the first intimation of enemy approach was received from the eastern flank when the first lorry past the cross.
Every man was at once on the ready at his firing position. Everything was quiet. Each man waited for the signal to firs which was to come from the western end when the first lorry had reached this point thus enveloping within the position the entire convoy. There was however one man not at his post. This man had slipped unobserved across the road from his position to the western cottage a few minutes before the enemy were signalled, and now when he heard their approach unthinkingly rushed for his position. He was of course seen by the occupants of the leading lorry who opened fire on him as he was climbing to his post. The lorry pulled up bringing the others to a halt as well. The leading lorry’s position was now at the bend below the western cottage and four more lorries were between this and the cross. The five remaining lorries were halted east of the cross and out of sight and one of these immediately turned and raced back to Macroom from whence an urgent message was wirelessed for reinforcements.
When the Auxiliaries opened fire at the man running from the cottage, fire was not immediately returned by the Column as there persisted the faint hope that the lories would proceed further into the position and so become more vulnerable but when the occupants began to dismount it was no longer withheld and some of the enemy began to drop while others raced for the cottages and the dead ground marked on the sketch with a K. Three hostages who were in the lorries did likewise.
The forward Lewis Gun at the point mark A with Number 1 section at points marked D together with about ten rifles of number 4 section were the only arms able to bear on the enemy at this juncture. The remaining Lewis Gun with the arms of the other sections did not come into play until later as the road north and east from the bend below the cottage was hidden from their view. In all one Lewis Gun, 22 Rifles and four shotguns were in action at this vital stage and the presence of the hostages jumbled up with the Auxiliaries in the mad scramble for cover had the disturbing effect on the fire of the attackers. The Lewis Gun two, which was a small Aero type, jammed at a critical stage and was out of action during the rest of the engagement. The occupants of the lorries east of the cross deployed to positions along the fences of the road and a grove adjoining and remained mostly inactive during the ensuing struggle though they were able to prevent the encirclement of their positions.
Fire was now directed by Number 1 section against the front windows and door of the western cottage and also against the position held by the Auxiliaries in the dead ground along the fences, this being promptly returned. In the mean time number 2 and 3 sections were swung round across the minor road to a position on the hillside east of Number 1 position in an effort to encircle the entire enemy force. Owing to the nature of the ground which sloped gently towards the road, it was not found possible in view of enemy fire, to come closer than 500 yards and fire was opened at this range.
Number 4 section at the same time deployed to line the fence immediately south of the western cottage and fire was poured through the rear window. . It was found impossible to bring fire to bear on the windows and door of the other cottage owing to the fences commanding them being under enemy fire at both sides.
The main volume of the attacker’s fire was therefore directed against the western cottage at very close range in an effort to wear down the resistance and capture it. The tack fell to numbers 1 and 4 Sections, the other sections from their more distant positions preventing the enemy to the east from coming to the occupants aid. The Auxiliaries within however fought bravely back and it was only after a considerable time that their resistance weakened and finally seemed to cease entirely.
At this critical juncture it was felt that the surrender of the cottage was at hand, this view being supported by the evidence of the hostages within who were afterwards questioned. Military reinforcements to the number of some hundreds now began to arrive and to deploy in an effort to envelop the entire position north of the road. This force, who came from Ballincollig, was afterwards joined by parties from Bandon and Killarney who endeavoured to link up from the south and west. Nothing remained but retreat.
The order was given to Numbers 1, 2 and 3 Sections to fall back to the north-west and a message was sent to number 4 Section to retreat in the same direction. By a mischance, of which the day seemed to have its share, it did not reach them for a full 45 minutes later and this section continued to fight in unaware of the course events had now taken. After some time, becoming puzzled by the sound of firing from the north which appeared to be growing more distant while that from the cottage was again being renewed, a scout was sent northwards who returned with the messenger who had been detailed with the retreat instructions. This man not knowing their exact location was still looking for them. The Section fell back to the northwest coming under heavy enemy fire at several points and getting through the encirclement movement in the nick of time. It was now after 12 noon, the fight having lasted approximately 4 hours.
They linked up with a portion of the Column at Coomaguire, a glen about four miles to the northwest and the body then moved to Coomaclohy, about one mile further on to join the advance party which had reached there. On arriving they found a sharp engagement in progress between the advance party and the Killarney reinforcements who were trying to encircle them. On seeing the second body the enemy however withdrew and the Column then divided, one party moving to Coolea four miles to the southwest while the other tramped on 12 miles to the northeast to billet under the shadow of Mushera mountain.
Result of the Fight.
While there were no causalities among the Column the number of enemy dead has been put down at 14, including Lieutenant Sodie and the Auxiliary O/C Major Grant. There were 14 likewise wounded among the Auxiliaries and two among the military in the brush at Coomaclohy.
The loss of moral was even greater as British forces rarely ventured into the district again except in very large numbers, exceeding at times, 2,000 men.