Derry's role in the War of Independence: Part 10
In 1921, IRA operations in Derry were ramped up by co-ordinated attacks on police and British Army outposts.
Liam Brady explains how these actions were carried out . . .
1921 - Attacks on RIC
“Eight men, mostly from C Company were served with revolvers and ammunition and one hand-grenade. They were to arrange themselves so that four would be at the bottom right hand corner of Nelson Street and facing the Lecky Road RIC Barracks not later than a few minutes before 8 o’clock. The other four were to be in what was then Watt’s Field at the rear of the same barracks.
“On the stroke of 8 o’clock the four at Nelson Street were to open the attack by throwing a hand-grenade into the barrack yard where the police had a platform lookout erected.
“ The explosion was heard over a wide area.
“This was followed in quick succession by revolver fire.
“The police in confusion fired in all directions. The attack lasted for about 15 minutes when the IRA withdrew and two policemen were wounded. Another attack was arranged for Rosemount RIC Barracks at the same time, but owing to a flaw in the plan it was called off at the last-minute.”
“About 6.30 on Thursday evening, Charles McWhinney O.C. sent for Dominic Doherty and Jim Taylor and asked if they would volunteer for a dangerous and tricky job - the bombing of the Electric Light Station on Strand Road.
“They agreed and were told to visit the site and get a bird’s eye view and make their own arrangements. The hut must be bombed at 8 o’clock that night.
“They were warned to do their planning carefully and make sure of their getaway.
“Setting out on their tour of inspection they noticed the hut and sandbags with steel shutters built against the wall.
“They came to the conclusion that the place could only be bombed, with safety to themselves, from the inner wall of the Mental Hospital which was on the other side of the street.
“How could they get inside without arousing suspicion?
“After a thorough search they came to a spot on Lawrence Hill where they could move to the outer wall without being seen.
“They went back to the Republican Hall and reported their plan.
“After getting something to eat they took the four hand grenades which were supplied to them and made off in the direction of Lawrence Hill.
“Seeing no one in the vicinity they climbed the wall and dropped into the Mental Hospital grounds, a distance of over 20 feet, landing on a grass patch surrounded by thick shrubbery.
“Walking cautiously and keeping out of view of the main building so they would not be seen by any of the housekeepers or inmates, they moved around the grounds, keeping close to the wall, until they arrived after great difficulty, at the selected place.
“About 25 yards away was the military post and though there was a wall that saved them from view, they could hear the soldiers chatting around an open fire.
“There was still 15 minutes to spare, which seemed like hours. At last the Guildhall clock struck 8 o’clock and one of them fired a grenade which burst with a shattering noise.
The other three were fired as quickly as possible and one struck the fire sending showers of red-hot cinders in all directions.
“Then the two men thought of their method of escape and realising that it was impossible to get out where they came in they made for the entrance of an old tunnel which led to Dr Harrington’s house on the Northland Road outside the Mental Hospital grounds.
“They were very fortunate that the entrance to this tunnel was not blocked.
“They entered it an in a few minutes they found themselves safely on the Northland Road.
“They started walking in the direction of William Street and had only got a few hundred yards when they were stopped by 12 policemen who asked where they had been and they said they had been for a walk in the country.
“After being searched and nothing found on them they were allowed to proceed.
“Turning down Great James Street they stopped at Walls’ Fruit Shop and bought a few oranges and had come out just in time to see a company of soldiers making haste in the direction of the Strand Road post.”
Acting on intelligence
“A Republican Intelligence Officer reported the arrival of a British Army sealed supplies wagon from Belfast. A party of volunteers was despatched by road, one in charge of a spring horse van and a number of men by rowing boat. They all arrived simultaneously and proceeded to the quay at the Midland Station in the Waterside where a number of men were engaged in railway shunting.
“The volunteers proceeded to hold the men up and break open the sealed wagon. It was intended to take away as much as possible of the wagon’s contents.
“The job was to be carried out with the greatest caution as British troops could arrive from the nearby barracks within10 minutes. Everything was going to schedule when one of the volunteers who was over-anxious, tripped and fell at the same time discharging a shot which wounded one of the shunters.
“In this way the alarm was raised and the volunteers had just time to empty part of the wagon into the nearby river before their hurried retreat.
“Soon after in a night of clashes with British forces a police sergeant was shot dead. Constable McLaughlin received a shrapnel wound on the forehead. Private Todd, Private Cecil Kearns and Private J. Gordon of the Queen’s Regiment received shrapnel wounds; Constable Michael Kerry and two others were also wounded. The IRA suffered no casualties and British police and troops were alerted all over the city and guards doubled on all buildings.
“The streets were deserted by all civilians. Everyone was expecting large-scale reprisals would be carried out.
“A number of armed IRA men were posted in houses to interrupt the enemy if they attempted to carry out reprisals, but their services were not required.
“Next night, however, a short time before the curfew, about a dozen members of the RIC came into Nelson Street firing indiscriminately.
“They then proceeded to smash the windows in a number of houses with the butts of their rifles.
“Whilst condemning the RIC for allowing themselves to be the willing tools in the hands of the British Government for the suppression of the Irish nation, I must not forget to pay honour to that small number of individual RIC men who supplied valuable information and helped in many other ways the Republican Forces.
“At least five names should be on Derry’s honoured list.
“Thanks must also go to the man who had the Christian spirit to tell the British officer that his services were not required.
Big events were expected in the city and large quantities of rifles, explosives and bombs were being accumulated.
“A select number of the engineering section got the orders to start work on a special job.
“A number of steel plates, punched to specification were procured in the Derry Shipyard together with nuts and screws so that when they were together they would form the cover for an armoured car.
“Paddy Lafferty had given his motor lorry to the IRA for this purpose.
“The engine and lorry had got a complete overhauling and the work was soon commenced.
“Large quantities of explosives had already arrived at the Shamrock Hall.
“An incident that would have been disastrous to the whole movement in the city was averted by myself.
“One day as I entered the Hall as a member of the engineering section attached to A Company, I was horrified by the sight which caught my eyes, for on the floor of the Hall were three large barrels.
“One was filled with a high explosive called Irish TNT, another was filled with Irish Cheeder or Warflower, another very high and dangerous explosives and the third barrel consisted of blasting gunpowder.
“In the room were two young volunteers who had been placed there as guards.
“What horrified me was to see one of these lads take several grains of black powder place it on the table and light it.
“They seemed to like the fun of it scooting with a hissing noise to different corners of the room.
“The lads seemed to be unaware that if one spark had fallen onto any of the barrels disaster of a large-scale would have followed instantly.
“I shouted at them to stop and rushed breathlessly up the stairs to Charles McWhinney who rushed down and ordered the two lads to clear out of the rooms immediately.”