The use of airpower in the Irish War of Independence, something to be discussed entirely from the British side of the conflict, is a fairly niche part of the history of this time. The Royal Air Force, constituted from what had been the Royal Flying Corps towards the end of the First World War, had only a sometimes useful, but frequently constrained, impact on the military situation in Ireland, used primarily as a means of transporting mail, dropping propaganda leaflets and, on occasion, reconnaissance. Based out of Dublin, Castlebar and Fermoy, RAF wings were distributed evenly enough around the country. Many IRA volunteers were terrified of aircraft, something that was completely beyond their experience and impossible to deal with, the machines still carrying a semi-mythical reputation in the early 1920’s.
But the nature of a guerilla war, combined with the limited amount of aircraft that British had to employ, and the fact that a large amount of them were unarmed, meant that their effectiveness was limited. Despite Winston Churchill’s desires, they were only rarely more directly involved in the war, such as when planes were used to “buzz” protesting crowds during the hunger strikes. In the dying weeks of the conflict, pilots would be given permission to engage with targets on the ground, but such opportunities were rare, and then extinguished. The British would use some of the lessons learned in Ireland to better tailor the use of airpower in other, similar, conflicts that they would soon be forced to fight in other parts of their Empire, but it is fair to say that the RAF’s role in Ireland is one of little note. However, in mid-August 1920, British air power was at the centre of a significant incident in the War of Independence, but not from on high.
On the 13th (or 14th, depending on who you believe) a Bristol F.2 bi-plane, a standard machine of the RAF at the time, hit the ground near the townland of Clonbanin, in North-West Cork. On a mail transportation mission, it is unclear just why the plane was forced to land, but it was not unusual for them to develop mechanical difficulties and require immediate grounding, whether that was in the form of an outright crash or rough land. The two occupants escaped significant injury, indicating that the landing was not terrible. The plane was certainly considered to be in a good enough condition that it could be repaired, and contained machinery, and perhaps weapons, that would have been tempting for any enemy force (especially given the IRA had no ability to use the aircraft for its intended purpose) and so the authorities sent a guard to watch it, 15-20 soldiers from the garrison based at nearby Kanturk. Among them were men of the Machine Gun Corps, a unit, as the name indicates, detailed specifically to operate machine guns.
The local IRA could not but find out about what had happened though, with the landing of an airplane in the vicinity the kind of event that would attract all sorts of attention. It was a target twice over: first the plane, which might contain guns and other material of war that was valuable, and secondly the men sent to guard it, isolated, sedentary and carrying valuable guns themselves. The battalion centered around Kanturk, backed up by rapidly assembled men from the nearby Millstreet battalion, assembled a force of somewhere in the region of 40, to be commanded by Kanturk’s Jack O’Connell.
The exact nature of what occurred next is somewhat in dispute. Early on the morning of the 14th, the IRA closed in on the site of the downed plane, which was in the corner of a field. The men on guard, much like at Holywell, were assembled around campfires with arms stacked, perhaps not giving the situation the serious attention that it deserved.
If you follow the British accounts, the IRA opened fire, and a two-hour fight was the result, one that was contested hotly by both sides. The British suffered one man dead, a member of the aforementioned Machine Gun Corps, and several wounded, and claimed to have killed several of their assailants. The IRA were driven off after the two hours, and the plane secured.
The IRA accounts tell a somewhat different story. They claim that they intended to launch a broadside on the British from concealed positions before rushing the plane, taking advantage of the element of surprise: while unstated, such a plan was also probably conceived owing to a lack of ammunition for a sustained fight. The plan went awry when a Volunteer fired too early – the shot that inflicted the sole fatality of the affair – alerting the British to what was happening. The IRA further claim the resulting firefight lasted only 15 minutes before they withdrew, and that they suffered only a few slightly wounded in the course of the engagement, and no fatalities.
The IRA account is certainly more believable. It fits with their general lack of ammunition, and the desire to avoid a larger firefight. The idea that the guard could somehow hold off an attack with two hours from their exposed position, without any reinforcements from Kanturk appearing, is also hard to swallow. Finally, their claim at inflicting larger casualties than what the IRA claimed is difficult to accept: the IRA, considering how they felt the entire affair a defeat, would have been more than willing to list their fatalities if they had occurred, to explain the nature of the task they were up against. Much like the Holywell ambush, this attempted attack showcased many of the IRA’s limitations, especially when presented with unanticipated targets of opportunity, and the under-appreciated strength of military regulars, better able to deal with IRA ambushes than the RIC.
The remains of the plane were removed from the site the following day, but the death of the soldier was something that the British felt must be answered. Though the Kanturk IRA remained on the look-out for any reprisals, it turned out to be a more personal response. A few nights after the ambush two members of the local IRA, Paddy Clancy (a senior figure in the Cork No. 2 Brigade) and the aforementioned Jack O’Connell, were caught up in a raid of O’Connell’s home. A combined force of military and RIC, having gotten a tip-off that the two were inside, surrounded the house. The two men, warned by a sister of O’Connell’s, attempted to flee, but were both shot down before they could get too far. Somewhat ironically, Clancy had not taken any part in the attempted ambush, having been in Limerick at the time. Their funerals were large affairs, where British military and RIC were careful to largely remain in barracks, but their deaths undoubtedly had a negative effect on the area’s effectiveness for a time.
The War of Independence, if it was possible, was entering an even scrappier, deadlier phase, with operations like Holywell and the “Aeroplane Ambush” showing how the British could hold their ground even as the IRA became a little bit more daring. In our next entry, we will look at another singular date: the 21st August. On that day, in five different locations around the country, the IRA would strike at the RIC foe. By the end of it, several of them would be dead. Despite individual setbacks, this series of operations would show just how deadly the IRA still was.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.