The coming of the Second World War was, obviously, viewed as an enormous opportunity by the IRA. Their named enemy was now in what could only be described as an existential conflict with an enormously powerful foe, and the opportunity for serious geopolitical change in Ireland was once again in the realm of the possible, if not exactly likely. But the IRA had not waited for the coming of the larger war to launch their own offensive against Britain. Beginning in January of 1939 they had enacted what was known as the Sabotage Plan, better known to history as the S-Plan, the culmination of Sean Russell’s efforts to take over the organisation and the beginning of a new phase of the IRA’s existence.
Russell had been getting ready for the coming campaign for some time, at least as far back as the early 1930s, but the finer details needed expanding upon. For this Russell turned to Seamus O’Donovan, the former Director of Chemicals of the IRA, acknowledged as one of the foremost experts on explosives still remaining within the Republican movement: absent from that movement for some time, he was coaxed back into the fold by Russell. O’Donovan drew up his own notes based on what Russell suggested, which were the genesis of the S-Plan, with additional input from Patrick McGrath.
O’Donovan called for a split approach, between propaganda and military action. The propaganda side would obviously focus on non-violent means of attacking the enemy through the propagation of leaflets, the printing of Republican newspapers, the functioning of the IRA as a legitimate government etc, with a particular emphasis on courting the support of sympathisers in America. It was from there that much of the financial backing for the plan was supposed to come, from men like Joe McGarrity: much of Russell’s focus would be on such things.
It was the military side that was more important. Here, O’Donovan called for the bombing of a wide range of targets: armament factories, various public utilities like waterways or power stations, industrial plants, commercial premises and newspapers. Essentially, there was a twin goal of dealing direct damage to the British state’s ability to maintain its preparations for a coming conflict, and of causing as much disruption and damage to other aspects of public life. Importantly, the targeting of civilians in particular was not a direct part of the plan. though such casualties were inevitable. Similarly, the British military was not to be attacked directly, with such efforts deemed “not promising”: a diplomatic way of saying it would be too dangerous.
The area of operations was to be Great Britain, with an obvious emphasis on those urban areas where IRA cells were large enough in number, especially with significant populations of Irish immigrants or the descendants of the same. Creation of explosives and training in their use was to take place on as large a scale as possible, with O’Donovan intimately involved in this aspect of arrangements. There were plenty of Volunteers between the IRA and Cumann na mBan (exact numbers are difficult to determine, but a middle ground between low estimates of 5’000 and highs of 30’000 are likely) who were already in Britain or sent there. Bombs were made from materials stored in Britain, or successfully transported across the Irish Sea. Early on, concerns were raised about the quality of units in Britain, but there was little delay in what was happening.
The S-Plan did not extend into Northern Ireland. Neither Russell nor O’Donovan seemed to think that the location would be fruitful for the plan they were going to attempt, owing perhaps to the difficulty that the IRA faced in simply remaining existent in the North. Further, they probably did not feel that a bombing campaign in Northern Ireland at that time would be much in their interest anyway. The enemy was Britain, and it was in Britain that this form of war was going to be employed. Any pretensions of fighting in the North were further damaged by the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland in late 1938, with hundreds of suspected Republican operatives and sympathisers soon imprisoned without trial.
Despite this, the first operations of the S-Plan would be along the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, though it would perhaps be more accurate to say that they constituted more of a practice run then a full-on attack. On the night of 28/29th of November 1938, IRA Volunteers planted explosives on six customs buildings on the northern side of the border, that when detonated damaged or demolished the buildings. There were no fatalities among the “enemy”, but there were among the IRA, with three Volunteers killed when one of the bombs exploded prematurely: this allegedly occurred when the fuses were altered, in order to avoid the possibility of the bombs going off when civilians would be nearby. There were seemingly lessons to be learned about the choosing of targets and the creation of explosives, but there was little time to learn them.
As previously discussed, Russell was intent on presenting the IRA as a legitimate entity, that was representative of “the Republic” and capable of acting as a full belligerent. It was for that reason he had courted the remnant of the Second Dail and obtained a declaration from those few TDs that the political power of thee Dail had passed to the IRA leadership. Now he went a step further, with a full-on formal declaration of war against the British. The Army Council first sent an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of British forces from all of Ireland, as “the Government of the Irish Republic”. The ultimatum was, naturally, ignored, and four days after it was sent, on the 15th January 1939, notices sprang up throughout Ireland and Irish communities in Britain, signed by McGarrity and all but one of the Army Council (the lone holdout, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, did not believe the IRA was capable of beginning the planned campaign).
This declared war on Britain, and called on all Irish people to assist in the coming campaign, whether at home or “in exile”. Tying a line directly to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, the document eulogised the “immortal seven” who has signed that publication, before criticising those who had “were foolish enough to treat with an armed enemy within their gates” and allow that enemy to have “won the peace”. Both the Dublin and Belfast legislatures were declared to be controlled by Britain, and both territories liable to be fully occupied by the British military. “…the enthronement of the living Republic” had only been postponed by the events of the previous two decades, and the fight to do so would “redeem the nation’s self-respect that was abandoned by a section of our people in 1923.” The document closed by again re-iterating the demand that “England” withdraw from the North, and that the Irish people work together to compel such a course should they refuse. It was bombastic stuff, probably meant far more for an Irish audience than the British, and perhaps couched the coming campaign in language far more romantic than it really deserved: one suspects that men like Pearse would not have been fully onboard with the idea of bombing non-military targets from afar.
The S-Plan was put into effect almost immediately, with cells long forewarned about what to do. On the 16th January five bombs went off in London, and three in Manchester. Among the targets were power stations and water mains. A railway porter was the only fatality. The next day three more explosives went off around the country, attacking electricity pylons and gas mains. The amount of destruction was variable, but certainly more than enough to draw a great deal of notice. The British government began to increase police presence around such sites, and to more closely inspect ships arriving from Ireland: soon enough such efforts began to produce results, with regular discoveries of bombs and bomb-making equipment, and subsequent arrests.
But it did not stop the bombings. On the 4th February two bombs, seemingly left in suitcases in left-luggage rooms the previous evening, exploded on the London Underground. Though no one was killed these particular attacks caused a great deal of alarm, and the British security response ramped up accordingly, with extra guards assigned to government buildings and a spate of arrests. Some of the IRA cells undertaking the S-Plan were sloppy in response, and O’Donovan’s outline of operations was discovered on one Volunteer when he was arrested. But the hits did keep on coming for s time: incendiary devices left four Coventry stores on fire on the 5th February, before King’s Cross Station was hit by two bombs four days later.
After a few weeks of pause, the IRA was active again on the 2nd March, attempting to burst two aqueduct’s in London and Staffordshire for the apparent purpose of flooding the local area: neither bomb succeeded however. In the latter part of the month London, Liverpool, Coventry and Birmingham were all hit again, in various places, but without serious damage or fatalities. In some instances the bombs were discovered and disarmed before they went off, while in others they failed to go off at all. Over the following few months the IRA would change tack somewhat, using tear gas bombs to empty cinemas, letterbombs to destroy post boxes and mass burnings to destroy government-issued gas masks.
A recurring theme of all of this was a lack of fatalities. It was the stated IRA aim to avoid civilian casualties, therefore bombs were often timed to go off in areas of buildings little frequented by people, or at times of the day when few people would be around. The point was to avoid the propaganda own goal that deaths would bring, but it’s also undeniable that such a stance limited the amount of attention or notoriety the IRA was able to garner from the campaign. Magnesium charges that forced cinemas to close were all well and good, but when viewed in the context of what was meant to be an all-out military campaign, it was generally more of an acute nuisance than an existential threat. In the first six months of the S-Plan over 100 bombings of varying size were carried out, with over 60 injured, but only one dead. In return the British arrested and imprisoned a large number of people, and an anti-Irish hysteria gripped the nation which severely effected the ability of Irish and Anglo-Irish communities to live their lives.
In July, the IRA turned back to train stations: such buildings in London, Liverpool, Nottingham, Leicester, Warwick, Derby, Birmingham, Coventry and Stafford were hit with explosives, with one fatality and many injured. These bombs were a bit bigger than before, and prompted an ever increasing British government crackdown. New legislation passed in the aftermath allowed for a tightening of immigration restrictions, greater leeway in the deportation of Irish nationals and the obligation for Irish in Britain to register with local police. Deteriorating diplomatic relations on the continent dominated the headlines even while these bombings were going on, as it became ever more obvious that the idea of the S-Plan having an impact on British policy in Northern Ireland was fantasy.
Ireland was also not waiting around in terms of legislative efforts to combat this new IRA campaign, which was naturally bringing British pressure to bear. On February 8th two bills were introduced in the Dail. One, the Offences Against The State Act, increased the power of the police to search, arrest and detain people, and introduced the possibility of internment without trial for certain offences. The Treason Act re-introduced the death penalty for the crime of treason, and further clarified that this crime could be held to take place both inside and outside the state. Both laws would be on the books by May. They signified in many respects the final break between Fianna Fail and the IRA, with de Valera no longer willing to be the least bit tolerant of an entity that claimed to be the legitimate government of the country.
We cannot offer a final opinion on the S-Plan until we have covered its final months, but some analysis at this point is still possible. Comparisons to the Fenian Dynamite Campaign are inevitable, though the S-Plan was on a much wider scale. In both instances republican nationalists attempted to use explosives planted on political, industrial and civilian targets to forward their goals, and both with somewhat similar results: a large amount of property damage, some fatalities and a harsh response from authorities. The key difference, for me, is that in the first instance the means were motivated perhaps more as a way of inflicting terror on the enemy, while in the second it was done more as a recognition that the IRA’s preferred methods of waging war were not possible or useful if they were to maintain a military effort. The S-Plan did that, and catapulted the IRA into a role of national relevance in Ireland and Britain that it had not held in some time. What it did not do however, as we shall see in the next entry, is really secure any of the IRA’s stated goals for the campaign.
Despite the deep unpopularity of the campaign among many in Ireland, Sean Russell was defiant in August, insisting that the bombings would continue, and that the IRA was in a strong enough position to maintain their effort for years to come. But this was to prove unfounded. At the end of that month the worst of the bombings in terms of lives lost was to take place, fundamentally altering the perception of the S-Plan by those opposed to it, those who had been in favour and numerous bystanders. In the process, it shines a light on a new aspect of the IRA that would prove a dominant part of its history going forward. The S-Plan was going to fail: in the next entry we will discuss exactly why.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.