The War of Independence was a conflict of of small-scale engagements, that frequently amounted to only a few people on either side. Even the larger ambushes tended to perhaps involve a couple of dozen men at most. Geographically they were also small, generally taking place on a stretch of road, a hill or a street. In March 1921, this trend was bucked significantly in Cork, where a substantial force of the IRA was encircled by a huge amount of Crown Forces. The resulting fight has gone down as one of the most famous, and remarkable, events of that war.
At the heart of it all was Tom Barry. He had, of course, became both famous and infamous, depending on who you were talking to, in the aftermath of the Kilmichael Ambush. As previously discussed, Barry had been hospitalised for a time afterwards, suffering from what has most usually been described as a heart attack, but which may have been a simple acute stress reaction to recent events. It only slowed him down temporarily. By the end of 1920 the No 3. Cork Brigade’s column was back in existence, with Barry as a more permanent commander, and was soon involving itself in several relatively minor ambushes and barracks attacks.
In the early months of 1921, things heated up very quickly. In February eleven members of the larger Brigade, many of them members of the column, were killed in a series of raids, botched ambushes, and accidental shootings. The most notable event was at Upton Train Station on the 15th February, where Charlie Hurley led an attempt to attack a train carrying British troops. Ignorant of the true number of soldiers on the train, and their location, the Volunteers were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. In the firefight that followed the instigation of the attack three Volunteers had been killed and a few more wounded (including Hurley, shot in the face but surviving), along with six civilian dead and several wounded. In the same month, the danger of encirclement was exhibited vividly when Barry’s column was almost surrounded when preparing for a barracks raid by occupying a nearby “big house”: a volley of fire dispersed the limited British forces that closed in unexpectedly, and the IRA were able to withdraw without casualties.
The setbacks were evidence of the increasing British presence in Cork, which now began to bear fruit. In other areas similar things were being seen, with increasing numbers of IRA members being arrested or killed, some of them in individual engagements that got quite bloody. Encirclements and sweeps were being used more and more to try and turn the tables on the IRA by leaving them nowhere to hide in an assigned area: in one notable incident that we may come back to before the end of my coverage of the war, 14 Volunteers in total, 12 in the moment and two executed later, were killed after being surrounded in a farmhouse at Clonmult. Such things contributed to a drop in the morale of the Cork IRA who had been unable to replicate the success of Kilmichael, to the extent that Barry describes many Volunteers of this time believing that they were losing the war.
Barry’s unit was to face an encirclement attempt in March. One of the Volunteers captured at Upton eventually broke under interrogation, and told Crown Forces that Barry had moved his unit to the townland of Barrymurphy, roughly ten or so km’s south-west of Cork City, in the hope of enacting an ambush on British troops being moved between Bandon and Kinsale. For the British, it was a huge coup in the making: the chance to zero in on one of the most fearsome IRA units of the conflict, that so often was out of sight and unable to be pinned down. For his part, Barry claimed that his column was actually spotted by a reconnaissance aircraft while moving through that part of the countryside, but this seems unlikely given the placement and usual operation of RAF machines at the time.
The British planned a large-scale encirclement operation, designed to establish a cordon around the area in question so that no escape was possible, before in-depth and coordinated sweeps would commence. This was to be true counter-insurgency warfare, a conscious effort to deny the enemy their usual advantages of mobility and beneficial knowledge of local terrain, that bore some resemblance to the latter stages of the Boer War. One of the key men in charge of the operation was Arthur Percival, intelligence officer of the Essex Regiment. A man who had started the First World War as a private, he was a now a Major, and, alongside his obvious ambition, had gained a fearsome reputation as a brutal counter-insurgent and a serial abuser of IRA prisoners.
Barry’s account claims that the Crown Forces employed amounted to 1’200 men, mostly British regulars but with the support of some Auxiliaries, that converged on the IRA’s location from bases in Cork, Ballincollig, Kinsale, Bandon and Macroom, though it is possible that he mis-counted the columns. Barry’s own column had been waiting in ambush on the 17th but had been disappointed by the non-appearance of the enemy. They marched in good order to nearby Ballyhandle, where they spent the 18th, and then moved to Crossbarry, a small village, in the hope of enacting an ambush on roads nearby, something Barry planned to set-up around 6 AM on the morning of the 19th. Before that, the column went to their billets and got some sleep, ignorant of the ring already being formed around them.
The Crown Forces began to arrive at their designated points very early in the morning, and it was only a relatively short time past midnight on the 19th March when they began to set out. Barry was woken in the early hours of that morning, to be informed that outlying scouts had seen and heard a large number of what could only have been military lorries coming at them from all directions. He realised almost immediately what must be happening, and quickly assessed his options, ahead of what some would call, with some justification, the Battle of Crossbarry.
He had over a 100 men at his direct command, though with only a limited amount of ammunition for each. He correctly estimated that he was severely outnumbered. Staying put would be tantamount to either surrender or death, with the best such a course could achieve being a sustained firefight before either eventuality. There was the option to order his men to disperse, to split into small groups and see if they could break through the cordon, but if the British were organised properly this could prove difficult, and at best only a percentage of his force would be able to escape. There was one other option, and it was the one that Barry decided to dare: to maintain his men as one cohesive unit and attack a single point of the British cordon. It just so happened that he could observe, from nearby high ground and from the lights and the sounds, that one of the British columns was moving ahead of the others, and was going to come into the nearby orbit of the IRA.
He rapidly assembled his men and outlined his intentions, deliberately withholding any mention of an alternative retreat route so that no-one would be encouraged to run. The IRA would be enacting an ambush on the nearby Bandon Road as they had intended, it would just be happening a lot quicker than expected. The 104 men under his command were split into seven distinct sections. Four of these were placed directly along the road, with two others protecting either flank, and the last posted to the rear to ward against any sudden, but inevitable, British assault from that direction. Home-made mines were rapidly placed by engineers on the road. The intention was to wait until British lorries came by that way and then ambush them with the aid of the mines. Then, it may have been possible to escape the cordon. In a bitterly cold March night, the men got into position and waited.
Barry didn’t realise it, but he had lucked into placing his ambush party at the point where they had the chance to do the most damage. The vehicles that came that way were actually mostly empty, having dropped their troops further back so that the regulars could advance on their intended positions by foot, an activity that took some time. As such, the multiple lorries that moved into the ambush position had only a skeleton guard force of men manning them, aside from the drivers.
It was around this time that the first fatality of the operation occurred, but it was far away from the road. Charlie Hurley had been recovering from the wound he had sustained at Upton in a farmhouse of a sympathetic family, not far from nearby Ballymurphy. When the house was surrounded by the Crown Forces, Hurley attempted to break-out of the cordon, and was shot down. The shots fired by both Hurley and the British could be heard by the IRA waiting in ambush closer to Crossbarry, though it would take some time for the reality of what had occurred to become clear. Of the many Volunteers who lost their lives in the conflict in Cork, his death was one of the most keenly felt.
The British lorries came into the ambush position sometime between 7 and 8AM, depending on what account you believe. They had been moving slowly, probably because some of their occupants occasionally dismounted to walk alongside, as part of the search operation. The mines failed to work, or were not detonated properly: regardless, a Volunteer who was exposed brought the convoy of lorries to a halt, and the IRA opened fire immediately, some of them from positions only a few yards away from the targets. The British were caught completely by surprise. Some tried to find decent cover and fire back, but they were enfiladed from different parts of the road and, in a mockery of the larger situation in the area, outnumbered and outgunned. Despite the fact that fire had been opened before the full convoy was in position, the IRA quickly took the upper hand. At this point, it was claimed by many present that Volunteer Flor Begley began playing his pipe, and would do so throughout the remainder of the fighting, going down into legend in the process.
The British took several casualties, and some of their number broke and ran under the onslaught. The officer in charge fired a flare, the sight of which, along with the noise of battle, had other units in the encirclement operation scrambling to reach the location. Despite this, Barry and his men had the time to grab a stash of arms and ammunition, including a Lewis Gun, from the now unoccupied trucks, and set fire to two of them, before the next stage of the Crossbarry fighting began.
A British column appeared coming from the south-west, and ran into the flanking seventh section. The IRA maintained their positions, and the British were unable to make any headway, and eventually withdrew. Shortly after this another force came up from the village to the south-east, and was again met by a flank guard of IRA men. The firefight was hotter here, with the small section being attacked by hundreds of men, but in the darkness of the early morning the British may have been confused about just how many Volunteers they were facing.
The mine that had failed to explode earlier in the ambush now went off, albeit unintentionally: it killed the Volunteer who had been trying to retrieve it, but the explosion helped to ward of the British assault, allowing the badly beset section the chance to withdraw. While all this was happening, the rear-most section held back a British force coming from the direction of Ballincollig, utilising the advantages of some high ground and the ruins of a nearby castle. In all three separate battlefields, the story was largely the same: the IRA maintained discipline from behind cover, confused the enemy by occasionally letting out coordinated volleys that would make it seem like there were more defenders than there actually was, and refused to allow the British to come to close quarters.
Barry, in consultation with his officers, now saw an opportunity, with the Crown Forces in some disarray and possibly in the dark about the IRA numbers and positions. Some have suggested that Barry stayed after the initial ambush because he saw the opportunity to put the hurt on the British, but his primary objective must have remained the safe withdrawal of his men from the situation. Section by section, the column was assembled and moved off to the north-west, engaging in a running, albeit long-range, exchange of fire with various British units as it did so. Having probably intended to escape to the south initially, the IRA now found a gap in the British cordon in the opposite direction – Percival would later blame an Auxiliary unit that he claimed had gone to the wrong point – and were able to escape.
The casualties were disputed, as they often were at the time. The IRA claimed to have killed scores of British in every part of the fighting, but the official records list ten dead and three wounded, the majority of them in the opening ambush (four of the dead were drivers). In exchange, the IRA lost three men killed – one of them from the mine explosion – and three wounded. They also got away with a badly needed load of captured war material, and destroyed two British vehicles.
Crossbarry can only be considered to be a major success for the IRA. From a position at the beginning of the engagement where it appeared likely that the entire column would be neutralised, whether that meant being killed or captured, they had engineered not only an escape, but had inflicted a higher number of casualties on the enemy than they received, in the course of a prolonged fight that lasted at least two hours. Barry had demonstrated cool, collected and reasoned leadership, both in the decision to attack, the tactical outline of the Volunteer position and in the manner in which the column was able to make good its withdrawal. In contrast the British forces undertook their encirclement operation in a somewhat incoherent manner, and were duly punished for it.
There were many bitter recriminations in the aftermath of Crossbarry, which, as previously stated, came at a time when it had seemed to some as if the war in Cork had turned decisively in favour of the British. Percival, who had been present at Crossbarry and been unable to rescue the deteriorating situation, would lead many of those recriminations. His time in Ireland is now little remembered however, in comparison to his later service in the Second World War, where he went down in history as the British General that surrendered Singapore to the Japanese: something Barry, who despised Percival, would make a habit of pointing out whenever the topic came up.
Barry and his column thus escaped, and would continue their activities for the rest of the war. He would later claim that the operation had a substantial impact on British thinking regards the IRA, and may have contributed to their decision later in 1921 to agree to a truce. This is probably hyperbole – the British were already heading in the general direction of a truce before Crossbarry, as we have seen – but it cannot be denied that the event provoked a certain re-appraisal of the IRA as an enemy force, just like in the aftermath of Kilmichael. Criminal gangs would not have been able do what the IRA column did at Crossbarry. At least in the environs of West Cork, the IRA had to be recognised as a disciplined military force that could be more than a match for their enemies.
We move on then, with the war now beginning to enter what we might recognise as its final stages, though there is still a great deal of fighting and dying to be done. But in the next entry we will break temporarily with the conflict in Ireland. The Irish War of Independence was, naturally, a fight where the vast majority of military operations took place on the island of Ireland, but that still leaves a small amount to be looked at outside of it. Men like Michael Collins knew that there was scope for the war to be taken directly into the heartland of the enemy: in the next entry, we will discuss the War of Independence as it was carried out on the other side of the Irish Sea.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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