Little less than a month before the Irish Civil War is officially recognised as starting, the War of Independence, nearly a year finished by that stage, suddenly seemed to re-erupt. The location was a small part of the border between the future Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, in-between the counties of Donegal and Fermanagh. The event would constitute one of the last times that the British military, in an official capacity anyway, held territory they were not entitled to hold, in force, in the 26 counties.
The area in question was what was known as the “Belleek and Pettigo Triangle” or the rather more martial “Belleek and Pettigo Salient” if you prefer: a roughly 24km in length section of the Donegal/Fermanagh border near Lough Erne that jutted in a north-westerly direction, marked by the village of Pettigo at its north-east point, and the similarly sized Belleek in the south-west, with mostly unpopulated countryside in-between. The area, owing to the many rivers coming and going from Lough Erne, could be quite marshy and difficult to traverse in parts. The was then, and yet remains, one of a number of curiosities along the, still nominally provisional, border: owing to the decision to rely on the geographical feature of waterways as the basis of the border in many respects, the two villages were actually bisected by the political divide. Pettigo, a mostly Protestant village known for its cattle markets, lay on the River Termon, with most of its buildings on the western, Donegal, side. Belleek, mostly Catholic, lay on the Erne, with most of its buildings on the eastern, Fermanagh, side. In the midst of the chaos ahead of the Civil War and the enormous tensions on the border area, the unusual status of the two villages, as essentially being mostly on the wrong side respectively, marked them out from other settlements.
Ahead of the planned Northern Offensive elements of both the anti and pro-Treat military has troops stationed in the triangle. IRA units moved from one side of the border in patrols and raids, while National Army garrisons were placed in the empty RIC barracks in either village. On the other side, elements of the British military, the RIC and the USC were based close to the border, and there were instances of the USC crossing it in pursuit of IRA suspects, and engaging in the odd bit of property destruction in the process. It must be remembered that the birder, by this point, was still just a line on a map, and for many from and operating in the area it had no basis in reality. With so many armed groups with competing ideologies occupying the same general area, tensions were rife, and liable to explode.
In late May, things finally boiled over, although the main inciting incident exists behind a bit of a fog. British press at the time reported that four men had been kidnapped by the IRA from a cattle market in Pettigo, with the four later identified, without names, as members of the USC. Given the lack of any further details about these alleged kidnappings from any source, it is quite likely they were a fabrication, but they certainly added fuel to the fire. There was also a raid around that time by IRA into a barracks in Belleek to seek arms. In line with perceived hostility carried out by republicans in the area towards Protestant residents, and the continued back-and-forth between the armed groups in the area, it didn’t take much to set a larger encounter into motion, with the Storment government happy to back, or at least not stop, a more built-up incursion into the salient. What followed was essentially an elongated military campaign in three distinct stages.
On the 27th May, a force of USC crossed the border near Belleek, led by First World War veteran Basil Brooke, a future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, at the time the leader of his own Fermanagh based militia group. An extreme anti-Catholic, even for loyalist circles, Brooke essentially advocated for the ethnic cleansing of Northern Ireland, and was more than happy to put his ideas into practice. That day he and his men crossed Lough Erne in a small fleet of boats towed by a pleasure steamer, the Lady of the Lake, provided for the purpose by its owner, Hazel West. She would soon become something of a temporary celebrity over her involvement, under the name “Mrs Laverton”. Brooke’s men made landfall near Leggs and then marched to Magherameena Castle, roughly seven km’s east of Belleek. There they turned out its only resident, a Catholic priest (the gentry family who nominally owned it had emigrated to Britain), and set up an armed camp. The castle – which, to be clear, was a country house and not a fortified location – lay on both a rail line and road between Belleek and Pettigo, so was a critical point in a strategic sense.
The local IRA were not of a mind to let the incursion go unanswered, and the following day a party of Volunteers, maybe around 30 men operating out of the nearby Cliff House, advanced on the Magherameena demesne. A firefight erupted and the USC retreated from the castle in a degree of disorder, only to be rescued from their predicament by reinforcements brought over the Erne. They managed to escape, thanks again to the efforts of West and her yacht, with some basing themselves in the small Buck Island off of Lough Erne. There appears to have been no casualties, but media spin sensationalised the event into a larger story than it perhaps was, with the USC depicted as bravely beating back an enormous republican assault, led in part by a rifle toting “Mrs Laverton”. A number of USC personnel were left on Buck Island, subject to sniper fire from the “coast”. Efforts to arrange a relief/rescue of these men began immediately from the USC in Fermanagh.
The affair raised the alert among both National Army and anti-Treaty IRA units elsewhere in the region. Just around a hundred men, most of them pro-Treaty, were based in Pettigo, and they now took steps to set the village up for a potential defence. They were right to do so, as USC attempting to reach the Buck Island men were happy to take the direct road-based routes, in what we can call the second phase of the campaign. On the 29th the Pettigo defenders came under attack from a party of USC that opened fire from the Northern Irish side of the border, but they managed to hold their ground, inflicting a few casualties and taking a few on their side before the Specials withdrew. Later in the day an additional attack was made around the village when more USC men attempted to break through. Again they were unable to make any headway, with the pro-Treaty defenders relatively well armed and supplied. The USC then attempted to bypass Pettigo and proceed along the shore of Lough Erne, but ran into a prepared IRA position at the narrow Waterfoot River. Again a brief firefight erupted, and again the USC were forced to turn back.
In Belleek, similar preparations were made by defenders expecting an attack, before a convoy of Specials, including two armoured Lancia cars, approached the village from the south-east. Whatever the USC’s intentions were – newspaper reports would claim they were on a supply run, but they weren’t inside Donegal for purely non-military reasons – their operation turned into a disaster when they were ambushed by a force of anti-Treaty IRA on a narrow country road. The lead driver was killed in the first burst of firing and saw his car crash into a ditch: unable to turn around in the tight confines, the other Specials were forced to reverse on the road for a few km’s, being pursued all the while, and with additional fire levied on them from the Magherameera Castle garrison. Eventually they simply abandoned the vehicles and headed back over the border. Pro and anti-Treaty forces would claim the captured cars, some of which would be used in the future Civil War.
A continuing series of brief engagements and sniper attacks would continue in the area for the next few days, helping to feed the growing furore that reached to the halls of power in Belfast, Dublin and London. The Craig government, and larger Unionist community, naturally categorised the events as belligerent against them, framing the provisional government and anti-Treaty IRA as occupying forces over Pettigo and Belleek, despite the reality that substantial parts of both villages were in the “south”. Further, they argued that the military build-up there was prelude to an all-out invasion of Fermanagh, and in this they were close to the mark, given some of the original intentions of the Northern Offensive. In Dublin confusion reigned, with Michael Collins unclear exactly on what was happening, a situation not helped by the local pro-Treaty commander, Joseph Sweeney, claiming initially that the National Army men under his command had not been involved when he himself had been the subject of sniper fire in Pettigo. In the end, Collins was probably not unhappy with the idea of pro and anti-Treaty forces fighting together, as long as it did not result in a resumption of the war against Britain.
In London, David Lloyd George was more irritated than outraged, considering the idea of committing military forces over what he saw as a skirmish in “the swamps” of Fermanagh to be lunacy. But pressure from unionists, and their allies in the cabinet (especially Winston Churchill), forced him to take action. With the apparent aim of forcing out hostile republican elements from the frontier and safeguarding loyalist communities, a few days after the initial engagements a much larger force went forward towards Pettigo and Belleek. This is significant, as the British, with Churchill the major directing official, were ordering forces to violate the supposed border consciously, and to occupy territory that the Anglo-Irish Treaty still, for the moment at least, signified as belonging to the provisional government. Perhaps he was simply tired of the various Treaty breaches and vanishing weapons on the side of the provisional government, and wanted to make a point. Their advance constituted the third, and final, phase of the campaign.
That force was one of the largest dedicated to a single operation in Ireland in some time, arguably since the Easter Rising, with at least 1500 men involved. There was a large contingent of military regulars of the 18th Infantry Brigade, with several machine gun crews, backed up by paramilitary units of of the RIC and the Specials. They had lots of transport options, including Lancia and Rolls Royce armoured cars. Several “Whippet” tanks were part of the group, armour that the British had tried to use in parts of Ireland before to decidedly mixed success. Several planes of the RAF also took part, though as observers and reconnaissance craft, not as ground attack machines. And, most critically as it would turn out, the entire affair had artillery support. The plan was very simple, with the British taking advantage of their numbers: to come at Pettigo from multiple angles of attack, then do the same to Belleek.
The plan went into operation on the 1st June. Military in Crossley Tenders went forward into Pettigo itself, but the provisional government and IRA were no fools, having learned plenty from the War of Independence. The convoy was allowed to pass the most exterior defenders, before being hit by fire closer to the village, from high ground just outside and the railway station. After a firefight of around 30 minutes where the British were under pressure from multiple sides, they withdrew. It was only a brief respite however, as the British did not retreat too far, and soon their forward posts were capable of firing into Pettigo itself. This remained the situation for several days.
British forces also made moves to the north and south of Pettigo. Elements of the Lincolnshire Regiment crossed the Erne in commandeered boats – again, seemingly assisted by Hazel West – and advanced towards the Waterfoot, running into the same IRA positions as the Specials had done. At the same time, another force marched around the lake and came at the positions from the other direction. The 30 strong IRA unit held out under the attacks, aided by a few reinforcements who arrived from Pettigo. They had the benefit of prepared positions, while the British had difficulty with the swampy ground. To the north, 200 Specials crossed the border near the Donegal townland of Lettercran, terrorising locals there, but were forced back over the border by a party of the IRA dispatched temporarily from Pettigo. The Irish were thus holding in the centre and on both flanks, but the situation could not last forever.
The British military kept up the pressure on Pettigo, with continued sniping and a repulsed night attack, before a convoy of armoured cars attempted to storm across the blockaded Termon River bridge on the morning of the 4th June. This too failed, when the lead driver was killed and flipped his vehicle, only adding to the blockade. Another moment of triumph for the defenders was rapidly cut short however, as the British then elected to employ their trump card. Artillery fire rained down on IRA and provisional government positions and, in line with a renewed infantry attack, this time the defenders were obligated to withdraw. British efforts to encircle the “southern” side of Pettigo from both flanks and trap the defenders proved less successful, and the majority of the IRA/National Army were able too escape to the west, most of them ending up in Donegal Town. The majority of the Irish casualties for the entire campaign were taken here, with three men killed at various points, including two who had held a hill to the west of the village and a member of a machine gun post to the south, at Drumharriff Hill, whose members fought it out until they ran out of ammunition and were forced to surrender. The Waterfoot positions, now with no possibility of support or relief and facing strengthened enemy attacks, were soon after rapidly overrun.
The British were patient in the aftermath, intent on claiming the other point of the triangle in Belleek but happy to solidify their position first, with reconnaissance of the local area and another build-up of men. The Irish could only offer potshots from a distance in terms of counter-moves, and were largely powerless to stop the advance on Belleek when it came on the 8th. Two separate columns skirted either side of Lough Erne in force, two large to be challenged head-on with another ambush. Magherameena was taken first, its garrison having withdrawn back to Belleek. The village was a slightly harder nut to crack: after an initial incursion by an armoured car tested the waters, the British attacked in a more large-scale manner. Belleek Fort, an old 18th century military building that had been long abandoned, lay on the outskirts of the village and was the most significant point for IRA concentration. From there they opened fire on the advancing British. The regulars wee of no mind to draw things out further, and artillery fire rained down on the Fort within a short enough time. Unable to withstand the bombardment, the Irish withdrew. There was no major fight for the village itself, which fell rapidly into British hands. With the exception of some brief, isolated engagements in the surrounding area over the next few days, the salient campaign had come to its conclusion.
Casualties incurred are somewhat hard to determine, partly owing to media sensationalism at the time. Between the taking of Pettigo and the assault on Belleek journalists from all sides had flocked to the area, and were happy to claim that large numbers of British and Irish combatants had been killed. We know that four members of the IRA/National Army were killed, but less certain is how many were casualties on the other side: at least three of the British military died. There were plenty of other casualties, and plenty of Irish defenders were also captured and spent some time in captivity, but while the entire affair may seem like a major military operation, it does not seem like it was an especially bloody one. This might reflect the hesitance of either side to truly commit to an all-out battle, the inaccuracy of artillery and, maybe, just good fortune.
The area in question became an occupied territory for a time. Conflicting reports emerged of Crown Forces running rampant, persecuting innocent Catholic families, and the entire affair being welcomed with a parade-like atmosphere from loyalists, and it is likely that there is some truth in both poles. Some Catholic families certainly did leave the area after the fighting, and there are reports of locals complaining to Dublin about the British military’s behavior, but there was little that could be done. The provisional government was not in a position to force the British out and the best they could do was an informal agreement that the IRA, RIC and USC would not hold the area. The “southern” parts of Pettigo would not be freed from the occupation until early 1923, and the Free State portion of Belleek took even longer, with the last of the British military withdrawing over the border in August 1924. Both villages remain divided by the border today, with either of the non-dominant sides adopting a new name: Ireland’s Pettigo is placed beside Northern Ireland’s Tullyhommon while Northern Ireland’s Belleek is placed beside Ireland’s Magheraboy.
From a tactical perspective, the battles over Pettigo and Belleek demonstrated a few things about either side, some of them well-learned, some of them new. On the Irish side, it showed that the IRA and provisional government forces could work together successfully to a point, they could prepare positions and hold them, and they could inflict plenty of bloody noses on those that came against them. They utilised advantages in terrain and local knowledge to good effect and while they lost the battle, they were able to hold out for far longer against a wave of attacks than would have been thought when hostilities commenced. On the other hand the Irish had been inevitably overwhelmed owing to their paucity of numbers at critical points, which showed that they could only temporarily resist, not stop, incursions over the border in force. They also showcased a weakness when artillery was employed, something that would be seen again in the course of the coming Civil War.
On the British side, they had been able to win a victory and clear the area concerned of militant republicans, doing so with a healthy mix of regular infantry, paramilitary support units, armour, aircraft and artillery. They did so without many losses and, in comparison to so many operations during the War of Independence, the end result of the Pettigo/Belleekk campaign was a total success. But the length of time it took to gain that success, given the multitude of advantages that the British had over their Irish opponents, is noteworthy, and perhaps would give pause to any commander who thought that a total reoccupation of Ireland was the solution to the violence in the North.
On a larger level, the entire affair was undoubtedly a major victory for the British, and more importantly unionist, position. Whatever about the casualties and how long it had taken to occupy the area, Craig’s government and its allies could happily crow about the forces of militant Catholic republicanism being sent packing, and loyalist civilians – whatever side of the border they were on – being “rescued” from oppression. On the other side, both the provisional government and the anti-Treaty IRA leadership were left, despite their not inconsiderable achievement in holding out for as long they did in the area, looking weak and unable to properly defend their territory against sustained attack. Dublin could only meekly protest about what had happened, and in the end the British would only go back over the border when it suited them to do so.
The success of artillery, especially against the sort of guerrilla fighters of the IRA now attempting to act like a regular army, was another lesson that Churchill was keen to play up, in messages to the provisional government and the National Army. It was now June in 1922, with an election in the offing and the sense that whatever degree of unity that existed with those opposed and those for the Treaty was hanging by a thread. Churchill, now more than ever, believed that the anti-Treaty IRA could be defeated by force of arms, but there were a few more twists and turns to come before the provisional government would bet on such a belief turning out to be correct.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.