Ireland’s Wars: The 1939 Coventry Bombing And The End Of The S-Plan

The S-Plan had resulted in an enormous amount of successful detonations of bombs throughout Britain, and had certainly caught the attention of the British government. But, for the most part, the explosives had not done a large amount of damage, either in the people that were hurt and killed by them, on in the infrastructure they were set off next to. It remained unclear what exactly the IRA could reasonably expect to get out of the S-Plan in such circumstances, after the grandiose declarations of war earlier in 1939. It was stated IRA policy to avoid civilian casualties wherever they could but this was not always possible: in August 1939, the most infamous of the S-Plan bombings would result in a significant loss of civilian life and transform the perception of the campaign radically.

Major British cities had always been the primary targets of the S-Plan, and Coventry had been hit more than once already. On the 25th August, only a week before the start of the Second World War, a member of the IRA left a five pound bomb in the basket of a bicycle leaning up against a shopfront in the Broadgate area of the city. It was a Friday afternoon and Broadgate, one of the main shopping areas of Coventry, was full of people attending or working at markets. Just after 1430, the bomb went off. The resulting explosion ripped through the nearby buildings. Five people, the youngest only 15, were killed, and at least 70 were injured.

The bomb had been planted by Joby O’Sullivan, a Volunteer from Cork, under the directions of local IRA leader James McCormick. There is dispute over just what was planned for that day, with the common belief being that the intended target was an electricity plant on the outskirts of the city, though O’Sullivan would later claim he has been heading for a local police station. Either way, his bike was seemingly disabled after repeatedly getting wedged in tram lines, leading to its abandonment in Broadgate. This is somewhat difficult to understand looking back, especially given McCormick’s stated aims of avoiding civilian casualties: it is hard to believe that O’Sullivan would not be aware of the high possibility of such things occurring where he left the explosive. However it fell out, the bomb went off where it went off, and the civilians of Coventry paid the price.

The dead, injured and images of the same that were plastered over newspapers, outraged public opinion in Britain. There was a temporary but fervent, anti-Irish sentiment within Coventry in the aftermath of the bombing, that saw Irish people with no IRA sympathies turfed out of lodgings, officials with Irish-sounding names obliged to make pronouncements on their Britishness and businesses that employed Irish threatened with strikes, not to mention the rounds of arrests and unofficial harassment from authorities. This was different from the reaction to the previous bombings, which as discussed could sometimes be chalked up to being little more than a somewhat serious nuisance: now the IRA really had everyone’s attention, albeit temporarily. As is so often the case, before, then and as we will see, it was those who had little or no connection with the IRA who were left to bear the brunt of that public outrage.

The response from British authorities was quick. In the round-ups that followed McCormick and Peter Barnes, the latter an IRA Volunteer who had helped to transport the bomb-making materials used in Coventry, were arrested: O’Sullivan escaped detection and eventually made it back to Ireland. In a hastily arranged trial the following month McCormick and Barnes were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death (three others arrested at the same time would be acquitted), with both insisting during the proceedings that they had no intention of endangering life with their actions. The two became something of a cause celebre among nationalist and republican circles in Ireland, with de Valera repeatedly attempting to convince his British counterparts to commute the sentences and extradite the two back to Ireland: these pleas were ignored. Both men were hung in February 1940.

De Valera understood the dangers of creating martyrs for the Republican cause, having been one himself to some degree at several points in his life, but in truth by the time the two men were executed the world had moved on. There were many more bombings in Britain between Coventry and the executions of those deemed responsible, but the declaration of war on Germany in early September relegated the IRA’s campaign in the national mindset of Britain: an existential crisis was more prone to dominate attention than seemingly random IRA efforts to blow up postboxes and telephone kiosks. Moreover, and despite the widespread sympathy for those who would be executed for it, the deaths that occurred in Coventry weakened the resolve of the IRA to maintain the S-Plan, despite Russell’s continued urging to do just that. The continued depredations of the police (in Britain and Ireland), the reduction in bomb-making supplies as a result of harsher immigration controls, greater security on high value targets and perhaps a growing unwillingness of rank-and-file Volunteers to be as involved as they had been all played a part. The campaign petered out into irrelevancy, and is largely taken as having ceased around February of 1940. Seemingly, the IRA had neither the means or the heart to keep going with it. While the following is speculation, we should not rule out the possible reality that some Volunteers were as disgusted as anyone with the deaths at Coventry.

We must analyze the S-Plan both within the context of when it happened and with the benefit of hindsight. The plan was of course a failure: it did not achieve any of the IRA’s stated political goals, or really come anywhere close to them. Despite the multitude of bombs detonated in sensitive areas and vital industries, the IRA was unable to negatively impact the running of such services to a degree that could be considered significant. And, in terms of propaganda, morale and other non-military aspects of struggles, the IRA failed to make the kind of impact that they would have wished, engendering hostility against Irish populations in Britain, failing to undermine British morale as it pertained to their position in Ireland and failing to really enormous amounts of support in Ireland.

There are a lot of reasons for this. The S-Plan was far too broad in its construction, with the idea of a mass bombings without a great deal of higher direction largely a fantasy. Lacking a higher direction – Russell’s absence, as will be discussed, from IRA command during much of this period was also a flaw – the S-Plan became little more than random violence without adequate purpose. The British countermeasures that restricted IRA personnel and supplies accelerated its demise, but it can’t really be said that the S-Plan was as credible a threat as the IRA may have hoped it would be when Sean Russell had taken control a few years previously.

Speaking more long-term, we have to go back to the words of Seamus O’Donovan, one of the main architects of the plan. He never truly believed that it could be a success, and enunciated the opinion before it was even implemented that the S-Plan could be actively harmful to the IRA’s future prospects. Speaking a few decades later, he would summarise the affair as bringing “lasting harm” to the organisation. It is hard to seriously dispute O’Donovan’s thoughts. The S-Plan achieved very little, brought the IRA a lot of negative publicity and, through the countermeasures the British were able to justify, hobbled their operations within Britain for some time. It is hard not to draw comparisons back to the Fenian Dynamite Campaign, that generated similar headlines and ended with similar results: a lack of progression for Republican goals, a negative perception cast onto the movement and a significant proportion of that generation behind bars for at least some period. The resources expended on the S-Plan can be deemed to be largely wasted.

German involvement in the S-Plan was long theorised as being the case to at least some extent, but looking back it seems as if the assistance of the Abwehr was minimal if it existed at all: they certainly do not appear to have supplied arms or other equipment for the cause, despite some IRA efforts to arrange such things. We will discuss the contacts between the IRA and Nazi Germany during this period in more detail in a later entry, but for now it is enough to say that Abwehr leadership seems to have been singularly unimpressed with the S-Plan, especially from the stated IRA goal of forcing a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. In communication with IRA operatives after war had been declared they urged for the S-Plan to pivot away from what it was doing to take in more military targets and to make “considerably better efforts” in the process: they wanted the British war machine to be effected, not its postal service. The failure of the S-Plan may have had a large influence on German belief in the IRA, or rather the lack of it, as the war progressed.

We cannot leave the S-Plan without offering at least some comment on what it portended for the IRA’s long-term future. The use of explosives on non-military targets was nothing new to that organisation, and neither was the, intentional or not, causing of civilian casualties in pursuit of their aims. But what happened in Coventry in late August of 1939 does have a different feel to it. It was in Britain, there was no military value to the target in any way, shape or form and the destruction visited was eye-catching.It is hard not to think of the later forms of the IRA and their activities, and trace some form of line backwards. Perhaps I am overthinking it. Certainly the residents of Coventry largely forgot the 1939 bombing, coming as it did just a short time before the more massive destruction visited upon the city by the Luftwaffe. But it does give one pause as we move forward. The IRA was a changeable entity: a reluctance to risk civilian casualties would not always be a part of the organisation or its successors.

We will remain with the IRA for the meantime. The S-Plan was not the only thing that was garnering its attention during this period, with a need for arms and ammunition also driving operations within Ireland. In the Christmas period of 1939, as Ireland settled in to its emergency state, the IRA would launch an audacious strike at the Defence Forces, in a location that was already part of republican folklore.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The 1939 Coventry Bombing And The End Of The S-Plan

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Christmas Raid | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Plan Kathleen And Operation Mainau | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Irish Neutrality During The Second World War | Never Felt Better

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