The popular memory of the Irish War of Independence, at least if you happen to be Irish, often revolves around the image of the IRA “flying column”. For a large number of people, those two words indicates a very particular type of unit, a sort of mobile platoon that lived and operated in the field, targetted the Crown Forces as they wished, and proved to be the most potent form of guerrilla warfare that the Republic could call upon. There is some truth to this, but in reality the flying columns were a bit more complicated.
Known more officially as “Active Service Units” or ASU’s (technically a slightly different unit, but, especially as time went on, in reality they were much the same), the flying columns were introduced officially in October of 1920, when a GHQ memo called for those men who were already “on the run” to form into such columns for the purpose of providing “standing troops of a well-trained and thoroughly reliable stamp” who could be “an exceedingly valuable auxiliary arm to the remainder of the Republican Army”. Later, the objective of the ASU’s was more militarily defined as a force that would “continually…harass, kill, capture and destroy the enemy forces”. However, as was often the case, GHQ pronouncement was late, essentially endorsing an idea that had already been in existence for some time.
The flying columns, as GHQ noted, arose from the reality of having activists and Volunteers “on the run”, that is, unable to stay in their own homes, or in any one place, for too long, usually because they were targets for arrest, imprisonment, or worse, by the RIC and later the British military. The kind of people who went on the run could vary between active and recognisable members of the local IRA or Sinn Fein organisation, those who had taken part in the early ambushes of the war and had been identified by the police, or any strain of republican organiser. Whether it was in the cities or the countryside, the lives of these people would be ones of moving from safehouse to safehouse, never staying anywhere too long, lest an informer dob them in to the police or they be the victim of a lucky raid. As time went on, and the number of people on the run increased, groups of them formed, who travelled together and stayed in the same safehouses together.
From what was once mere expediency and self-preservation, opportunity arose, as some of these groups decided that they should not just be the kind of people who spent their part of the war hiding, but fighting back. To that end, they got armed, reconnoitered targets, and struck. The first such column was probably organised in the east of Limerick, but the concept spread fairly rapidly as the summer of 1920 dawned, with plenty of columns soon originating in Tipperary, Cork and then other parts of the country.
The columns were also a natural by-product of a change in the war. While the RIC continued to be a primary target for the IRA, as did their barracks buildings, in many respects that section of war had already reached its apogee. The IRA could not re-burn barracks, anymore than the evacuated RIC could re-occupy burnt ones. The remaining stations were those that were the strongest and could hold the most men, therefore making them unlikely targets. If the war was going to continue with the growing ferocity that had marked the first few months of 1920, then the IRA were going to have to pivot their tactics and strategy to allow for attacks on other targets, such as the supply trucks that kept those stations going, or the patrols from the British military or paramilitary forces. The flying columns were the answer.
The typical column’s strength would be somewhere between 12 and 30 men, with typically one arising per brigade area of the IRA. A commander, with an adjutant, would be followed by two subordinates, who in turn would command two units of around four men each, with a quartermaster also employed for arranging supplies and billets. They were to be the permanent soldiery of what was a part-time army, the core of a particular area’s IRA strength, that would add whatever locals they were willing to take on for specific operations, but then resort to that core strength otherwise. Finding men willing to sign-up for such a life was not hard, owing to the possibilities of action and the status that the column membership entailed.
GHQ, committed ever more so to an aggressive strategy, saw the benefit of the columns, not least because the men on the run were otherwise a drain on IRA resources, needing to be housed, fed and guarded, with Michael Collins allegedly insisting in June 1920 that “We’ll have to get these bloody fellows doing something”. GHQ arranged for what arms they could spare to be funnelled their way, alongside training courses in attack and defence tactics. Owing to the nature of their existence, the columns were able to partake in these things to a much greater degree than the rest of the IRA, becoming something very close to being regular military.
That level of professionalism had its wider benefits. Aside from being a threat to the British, column mobility allowed them the chance to be travelling schools of guerrilla warfare, who could move from village to village, town to town, instructing other IRA companies in the minutia of asymmetrical conflict, and giving some of the part-timers direct experience of such military operations. Life could be hard “on the column”, having to constantly move, and with lengthy waiting periods between ambushes, but many of the reports of the ASU’s indicate that the men employed adapted to such things, becoming the hardiest parts of the Republic’s war machine. Having a good column in the area was a tremendous source of pride, a sign that wherever they were operating was at the heart of the war effort.
Columns were mandated to stay within their own brigade area, and were sometimes designated as support for the actions of other units, but they were otherwise given a great deal of leeway, with their O/C’s permitted to pick and choose their own targets of opportunity as they arrived. While this potentially could result in ill-discipline and a lack of inter-communication and cooperation with other units, it also increased the mobility and striking power of the columns, who officially did not need to worry themselves as much with getting higher approval for their actions: many of the most famous column commanders were men who disdained what they saw as the interference of GHQ.
In the end, discipline was not as much of a problem as it might otherwise have been: column members, the good ones anyway, have been noted as having a noticeably higher quality of personal appearance and equipment maintenance than other members of the IRA. They were typically armed with a rifle and a pistol, alongside whatever explosives they could get their hands on, and in many cases wore a distinctive trench coat with a cap worn in reverse, as close to a uniform as the IRA would get.
With a lifetime of experience in the terrain they operated in, that mobility was assured, with the columns knowing their way through the fields, over the rivers and around the urban centres of whatever area they operated in. Very often their members all had access to bicycles, an inauspicious mode of transport that increased their speed without attracting undue attention. They maintained the initiative in the war, being the side that choose the location and moment of contact with the enemy, with their speed and knowledge of the terrain the levelling aspects when confronting a numerically superior force. With the right intelligence – sometimes provided by GHQ, but more often by local apparatus’ – the columns could inflict a great deal of damage on unwary RIC or military, as we shall examine in greater detail at a later point.
For now, it is enough to note that very soon after their establishment, and long before their official recognition by GHQ in Dublin, the columns were making their mark, engaging in ambushes of the RIC, Black and Tans, Auxiliaries or regular British military. By the end of the war, over 25 flying columns would be in some form of existence. However, we must not give a misleading impression. The amount of ambushes attempted were less than is popularly remembered, and many of those failed or were called off. Some flying columns never even attempted one. But in many ways that didn’t really matter. The success of some columns would be of great importance to the outcome of the war, but the mere existence of others, an elite guerrilla force that the British were unable to bring to heel, was a propaganda coup in itself, which may explain why so many columns would pose for photographs during the war, leaving some of the most famous images of the conflict.
The more specific actions of the flying columns are things that we will get to in time. In the next entry we must again change our focus to a new aspect of the war, and turn to the north of the country. The Irish War of Independence was Ulster’s as much as it was Munster’s or Dublin’s and in many ways was a more vicious conflict there, carrying as it did a sectarian bent of a ferocity not matched by the other provinces. One of the biggest flashpoints was the city of Derry, and it is there that we go next.
Owing to next Tuesday being New Years Eve, I will be using that day to do my annual overview of the year’s film from my perspective. Ireland’s Wars should return on the 7th January.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.