Posts Tagged ‘IRA’

Knightsbridge, Michael Collins and the murder of Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

“I do not approve, but I must not pretend to misunderstand” – Eamon de Valera

The arrest of Reginald Dunne and James Connolly

The arrest of Reginald Dunne and James Connolly in 1922

On December 1921 at 22 Hans Place in Knightsbridge, a treaty was signed between a provisional Irish Government and the British to create what was called the Irish Free State. Six months later, a few hundred yards away in Eaton Place, an assassination occurred, the reverberations of which could be said to have helped start the Irish Civil War in 1922.
Henry Hughes-Wilson in 1918

Sir Henry Hughes Wilson in 1918

Henry Hughes-Wilson 1921

Sir Henry Hughes Wilson in 1921

At around midday of 22 June 1922, Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson unveiled a war memorial at Liverpool Street Station. He made a speech, quoted some relevant Kipling poetry and returned soon after by taxi to his home at 36 Eaton Place in Knightsbridge. Two 24 year old men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, were surreptitiously waiting for his arrival. They watched while Wilson paid for his taxi before running up to him killing him in cold blood and on the footsteps leading up to his front door. In Dunne’s words:

“I fired three shots rapidly, the last one from the hip, as I took a step forward. Wilson was now uttering short cries and in a doubled up position staggered towards the edge of the pavement. At this point Joe fired once again and the last I saw of him he (Wilson) had collapsed”.

Joseph O'Sullivan

Joseph O’Sullivan

Reginald Dunne

Reginald Dunne

The Field Marshall had half withdrawn his sword in a futile effort to protect himself but after being shot seven times he fell face first on to the pavement with blood running profusely from his body and mouth. Dunne and O’Sullivan started to run away but O’Sullivan had been seriously wounded at Ypres during WW1 (both men had fought for the British) and his wooden leg severely hindered their escape. Dunne and O’Sullivan both attempted to shoot their way out of trouble and shot and injured two policemen and a civilian in the process. They were soon surrounded by an angry and hostile crowd, however, and the two men were quickly arrested. Ironically they had to be protected by the police from a mob who wanted instant revenge for Wilson’s death.

The steps of 36 Eaton Place where the Field Marshall fell fatally wounded.

The steps of 36 Eaton Place where the Field Marshall fell fatally wounded.

The killing of Field-Marshall Wilson in Eaton Place turned out to be pivotal in an extraordinarily complex political period of Ireland’s history when a national liberation struggle turned into a civil war. Much of Britain was outraged with the murder and The Times wrote:

Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, the famous and gallant soldier, was murdered yesterday upon the threshold of his London home. The murderers were Irishmen. Their deed must rank among the foulest in the foul category of Irish political crimes.

Six months earlier at 2.20 am 6th December 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed between an Irish delegation, led by Michael Collins, and the British Government at 22 Hans Place. There is nothing on the outside of the building commemorating this historical event and today, in what is probably one of the most expensive property areas of London, it seems to be unused and empty with security boards up in the windows.

22 Hand Place in Knightsbridge

22 Hans Place in Knightsbridge and where the Anglo-Irish Treaty was negotiated

Signing the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1922

Signing the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1922

Michael Collins in London October 1921

Michael Collins in London October 1921

11th October 1921

11th October 1921

Collins outside Downing Street 1921

Collins outside Downing Street 1921

The treaty envisaged an independent Ireland that would be known as the Irish Free State but the agreement was hugely controversial, especially back in Ireland. De Valera, the President of the Irish Republic and who had a difficult relationship with Collins at the best of times, was angry that the treaty was signed without his authorisation – although it was at his insistence that Collins went, with de Valera considering it wrong to be involved in the negotiations if Britain’s King George V wasn’t either. Also controversial was both the British insistence that they continued to control a number of ports, known as the Treaty Ports, for the Royal Navy and that Northern Ireland (which had been created in the Government of Ireland Act 1920) was able to leave the Irish Free State within one month, which of course it duly did.

In April 1922 a group of 200 anti-treaty IRA men had occupied the Four Courts in Dublin in defiance of their Government. Collins, wanting to avoid Civil War at all costs, decided to leave them alone. However after the Field Marshall’s assassination and the subsequent Fleet Street outrage this all changed. It was assumed by the British that Dunne and O’Sullivan were anti-treaty IRA men and after the shock of the Field Marshall’s murder Winston Churchill wrote to Collins threatening that unless he moved against the Four Courts anti-treaty garrison he (Churchill) would use British troops to do so for him. After a final attempt to persuade the men to leave the Courts, Collins borrowed two 18 pounder Artillery guns from the British and bombarded the Four Courts until it’s garrison surrendered. A surrender which almost immediately led to the Irish Civil War with fighting breaking out over Dublin and subsequently the rest of the country.

The Four Courts siege, Dublin 1922

The Four Courts siege, Dublin 1922

Sackville Street, Dublin 1922

Sackville Street, Dublin 1922

Meanwhile back in London at the Old Bailey, and before Mr Justice Shearman, Dunne and O’Sullivan were both tried together for the murder of Sir Henry Wilson on 2 July 1922. Dunne stood with his arms folded while the charge was being read while O’Sullivan stood stiffly at attention. When Dunne was asked, “Are you guilty or not guilty?” he replied “I admit shooting Sir Henry Wilson.” “Are you guilty or not guilty of the murder?” the Clerk of Arraigns repeated. “That is the only statement I can make,” was the response. O’Sullivan made a similar reply and after some discussion the plea was treated as one of “Not guilty.”

Towards the end of the trial, which lasted just three hours, the defence Counsel handed the judge a double sheet of blue official paper given to him by Dunne. After perusing the contents Mr Justice Shearman said – “I cannot allow this to be read. It is not a defence to the jury at all. It is a political manifesto…I say clearly, openly, and manifestly it is a justification of the right to kill.”

dunnes-statement-page-1

Dunne's hand written statement

Dunne’s hand written statement

Dunne and O’Sullivan were sentenced to death by hanging and sent to Wandsworth gaol where they were both hanged together by the executioner John Ellis on the 10th August 1922.

Less than two weeks later Michael Collins was ambushed and shot dead in his home county of Cork by anti-treaty IRA members.

Commander in Chief Michael Collins, July 1922

Commander in Chief Michael Collins in July 1922, two or three weeks before he was assassinated in Cork.

Michael Collins' funeral, O'Connell Street August 1922

Michael Collins’ funeral, O’Connell Street August 1922

The coffin bearing the body of Michael Collins lying in state in the City Hall, Dublin. September 2, 1922 Dublin, Ireland

The coffin bearing the body of Michael Collins lying in state in the City Hall, Dublin. September 2, 1922 Dublin, Ireland

Michael's brother Sean Collins

Michael’s brother Sean Collins

It was never really established whether Dunne and O’Sullivan acted on their own (the assassination seemed pretty badly organised for an official assassination so this was likely) or with the approval and help of Michael Collins. Collins had been a friend of Dunne’s while Sir Henry Wilson was responsible for establishing the Cairo Gang (a group of experienced British Intelligence agents who met frequently at Dublin’s Cairo Cafe) twelve of whom were murdered by the IRA acting under Collins command in 1920. The Cairo Gang killings provoked the British Auxiliaries in Dublin to shoot trapped innocent civilians at Croke Park in not the bloodiest but perhaps the nastiest of the various historical Bloody Sundays.

The infamous Cairo gang

The infamous Cairo gang

Perhaps the ironic aspect to the story of the murder of Sir Henry Hughes Wilson was that Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan were both born and bred in London, whereas Field-Marshall Wilson was born smack bang in the middle of Ireland at Ballinalee in County Longford.
A letter sent to O'Sullivan while waiting for his execution

A letter sent to O’Sullivan while waiting for his execution

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Ross McWhirter and the Balcombe Street gang

Sunday, April 20th, 2008
IRA explosion on Campden Hill Square

IRA explosion in Campden Hill Square, Holland Park

On the 22nd October 1975, the very same day that the Guildford Four were wrongly convicted of a pub-bombing, a man telephoned the large Holland Park home of the Conservative MP Hugh Fraser and his wife, the author Antonia Fraser, and asked what time the MP left in the morning.

The cook, who had answered the telephone, innocently told the caller that it was usually around nine. During that night someone planted a bomb underneath one of the wheels of Fraser’s Jaguar XJ6 that always stood outside his house in Campden Hill Square.

The next morning Professor Gordon Hamilton-Fairley, a neighbour of the Frasers and an internationally renowned cancer specialist, was out walking his two dogs. He noticed a strange device underneath Fraser’s car and bent down to investigate. He accidentally activated the bomb’s ‘anti-handler’ micro-switch and, along with his two poodles Benny and Emmy Lou, he was killed instantly.

Sir Hugh Fraser and Antonia Fraser in 1959

Sir Hugh Fraser and Antonia Fraser in 1959

Had Jonathan Aitken not called at 8.45am that morning, delaying the departure of Fraser and his guest Caroline Kennedy (she was in London attending an art appreciation course at Sotheby’s), they would have died instead.

The world's press on the morning of the explosion at Campden Hill Square

The world's press on the morning of the explosion at Campden Hill Square

campden-hill-square-explosion

This bomb was only one of 40 explosions set off in the capital by the Provisional IRA in a 14 month bombing campaign over 1974-5. It left 35 people dead and many more injured. The IRA Active Service Unit that was responsible for the Professor’s death in Campden Hill Square was actually responsible for the bombings for which the Guildford Four were infamously tried and wrongly convicted.

Edward Butler, Hugh Doherty, Martin O’Connell and Harry Duggan were all in their early twenties and all from the Irish Republic (which meant that they were more difficult to trace by the British police).

After the Campden Hill Square mistake the ASU reverted their attention to prominent ‘ruling class’ restaurants such as the Trattoria Fiore in Mount Street, W1 which they bombed on the 30th October, injuring 17 people, and Walton’s restaurant in Walton Street in Chelsea where they killed two diners.

The bloody aftermath of the Mount Street bomb, 29th October 1975

The bloody aftermath of the Mount Street bomb, 29th October 1975

Police at the scene of the IRA Walton Street bomb

Police at the scene of the IRA Walton Street bomb

At this stage the inhabitants of London, if not panicking, were starting to think twice about going for something to eat in the West End and the restaurants were becoming virtually empty. At a news conference the right-wing Ross McWhirter, one of the twins who created the Guinness Book of Records, offered £50,000 for information leading to the arrest of the terrorists.

Not long after on the 27th of November Duggan and Doherty staked out McWhirter’s house and shot him with an Astra Magnum revolver when he answered the door expecting his wife. One of the gunmen said:

“He thought it was the Wild West. He put a price on our head. The man thought he was living in Texas”

Ross and Norris McWhirter in 1953, a year before the first Guinness book of Records was published.

Ross and Norris McWhirter in 1953, a year before the first Guinness book of Records was published.

Ross McWhirter in the year he was murdered.

Ross McWhirter in the year he was murdered.

Margaret Thatcher and Airey Neave arriving at Ross McWhirter's memorial service

Margaret Thatcher and Airey Neave arriving at Ross McWhirter's memorial service

By now the IRA ASU were acting as if it WAS the Wild West. They were seemingly able to drive round bombing and shooting at ‘ruling class’ restaurants and hotels at will.

However on the 6th December 1975 their luck ran out. The gang had stolen a blue Cortina and were spotted by an observant policeman who noticed that they were driving unnaturally slowly. Following them, he incredulously watched them brazenly open fire at the Mount Street restaurant they had attacked only a few weeks earlier.

Along with fellow officers who had heard his radio call, the policeman followed the four members of the ASU, now on foot after abandoning the car, to Balcombe Street near Marylebone Station. On the way, the gang and the police were now exchanging gunfire at each other with shocked members of the public diving out of the way.

Meanwhile at number 22b Balcombe Street, John and Sheila Matthews were watching an episode of Kojak both presuming, unsurprisingly, that the gun shots they could hear were coming from the television. Suddenly the gunmen burst in through the door and took the couple hostage, unfortunately Telly Savalas was nowhere to be found, and an epic six day siege had started.

The seige was a carefully directed Metropolitan Police operation and they were determined not to create ‘martyrs’ of the gang. On the sixth day, with the gang becoming hungrier and hungrier, some sausages, brussels sprouts, potatoes and tinned peaches and cream were lowered down to the flat by the police and with 25 minutes the whole gang surrendered.
The Balcombe Street siege December 1975

The Balcombe Street siege December 1975

balcombe-st-siege-10th-december-19751

The IRA ASU eventually received 47 life sentences between them and were subsequently given the suitably Wild West style moniker of the Balcombe Street gang. One of the members read out a statement in court:
“As volunteers in the IRA we have fought to free our oppressed nation from its bondage to British imperialism of which this court is an integral
part.”
The Balcombe Street gang were in the end responsible, in a ferocious burst of IRA activity during five months in 1975, for fifteen murders. The no-warning attacks included the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings which together killed seven utterly innocent people.
Relatively soon after the IRA bomb had accidentally killed her neighbour in Campden Hill Square, Antonia Fraser left her husband for Harold Pinter, eventually marrying him in 1980. The couple lived in the same house in Campden Hill Square until Pinter died in 2008. Her former husband, Sir Hugh, died of lung cancer in 1984.
The murdered professor has a plaque in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, the inscription of which reads:
“Gordon Hamilton-Fairley DM FRCP, first professor of medical oncology, 1930-75. Killed by a terrorist bomb. It matters not how a man dies but how he lives.”
In 1998, a fortnight after the Good Friday Agreement, the Balcombe Street gang made a dramatic appearance on the platform of a special Sinn Fein conference in Dublin (they were now in prison in Ireland but the Irish Government gave them a special day-release for the conference). There was ‘stamping feet, wild applause and triumphant cheering’ while the four men stood grinning with clenched fists in the air. At the conference Gerry Adams described them as ‘our Nelson Mandela’s'! They had come home as heroes. Hmm.
Survivors of the Mount Street restaurant bombing 29th October 1975

Survivors of the Mount Street restaurant bombing 29th October 1975

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