The IRA’s initial efforts to launch a new offensive against Great Britain, and to play a part in the wider geopolitical confrontation in Europe, had proved a failure. Undone by one spectacular case of bombing the wrong target and by the harassment of the authorities, the S-Plan was petering out by the end of 1939, with IRA leadership all too aware that pretensions of keeping up a sustained campaign were vanishing bit-by-bit. But they were far from a toothless animal. Still more than capable of audacious coups against their various enemies, in late 1939 the IRA would make a daring bid to seize a metaphorical mountain of guns and ammunition from the Irish military, with the target a place that militant republicans had already hit once before in very different circumstances.
The Phoenix Park’s Magazine Fort had remained in existence after the events of 1916, when some of the very first shots of the Easter Rising had been fired there. Having avoided destruction that day and seen whatever damage had been caused repaired, the Fort had reverted back to its role as a key depot for ammunition and other war material for the British military, and after the end of the War of Independence was among those installations handed over to the provisional government. From then, through the Irish Civil War and the transformation of the National Army into the Irish Defence Force, the Fort had retained its role as a key depot for guns and ammunition: at any given time the amount of such things stored in the Fort could measure into the dozens of tonnes and hundreds of thousands of rounds. As such it had a routine guard, supplied by those units occupying nearby barracks. Over time, as more distance was put between the “present” and the Irish Civil War, it was perhaps only natural that a tight upkeep of this guard would begin to fall away. In such things opponents of the Irish state saw opportunity.
There were numerous reasons for the IRA, that portion of it still active in Ireland anyway, to risk an attack on the Magazine Fort. The plain simple fact was that the organisation lacked guns and ammunition, and in the latter case especially lacked .45 ACP bullets that could be used in Thompson submachine guns. Clan na Gael had helped to import a fair number of these weapons into Ireland for the use of the IRA over the previous decade, but ammunition to make them useful was harder to come by: the Irish Army used Thompson’s as well, so kept a large store of .45 in the Magazine Fort. Observation of the Fort and its routine indicated that the guard was becoming complacent in its boredom, and it was posited that the coming Christmas season would only increase this lack of care.
On a less practical level, men like Stephen Hayes, then Chief-of-Staff owing to the absence of Sean Russell abroad, may well have felt like the Raid had to be attempted. Such an operation had been proposed and rejected a few years previously owing to concerns as to how the IRA could store a haul of captured ammunition, nut now things were different: with much of the organisation interned or on the run in Ireland and Britain owing to the countermeasures of Dublin and London, and with the S-Plan proving itself ineffective as a campaign, the aura that the IRA wished to build for itself through more pro-active measures was fading. An operation where the IRA could capture vital supplies as well as giving the Irish military and state a black eye would be invaluable for morale at such a time.
Hayes gave the go ahead for a raid to be attempted, with the night chosen as the 23rd December. It was to be carried out by members of the IRA’s Dublin Brigade, which was to choose the men and arrange transportation, while other units throughout the country were put on standby to assist with the hiding of captured ammunition. On the 23rd, the Fort was guarded by 15 men, a mixture of regular infantry and reserves, commanded by a Joseph Curran, who had held the task for over a decade at that point: he would later insist that he had made complaints about the limited size of the guard to his superiors. On paper it was a more than adequate force of men for the task of guarding the Fort, but the inexperience of many of those men combined with the mundanity of the task made them vulnerable. Routine had degraded the guard’s adherence to strict procedures as it pertained to the operation of gates and the processing of visitors, especially with the commanding officer’s family prone to coming and going from the Fort. Careful reconnoitring of the position showed the IRA that there were vulnerabilities in how the guard operated, especially in terms of vital gates and doors being left open or unlocked at key times.
At around 8pm on the night in question Curran left the Fort to go into Dublin City Centre. Roughly half-an-hour later the MP assigned to duty at the gates to the Fort was alerted to a stranger outside the outer gate, a civilian on a bicycle, who claimed to have a package addressed to the commander. Such an occurrence was seemingly deemed so unexceptional that the MP went alone to retrieve the package, and in so doing left both the inner and outer gates unlocked. When the outer gate was unlocked, the package deliverer produced a gun, holding the MP up and escorting him back into the nearby guardroom. At that point a number of other men, IRA Volunteers all, rushed through the now open gates behind. A sentry covering the gate from a higher point testified that he was unable to offer assistance as he was held up at the same time, seemingly by an IRA Volunteer that was already inside the Fort: how this could have happened is not easily explainable, as the only person who had entered the Fort between the commander leaving and the raid beginning was the commander’s son, who was presumably readily identifiable. At least one of the Volunteers was identified as wearing an Irish Army uniform.
The IRA Volunteers, their exact number unclear, moved rapidly, holding up both the assigned guards and the “fire piquet” who were housed in different buildings: taken by surprise and not holding their weapons, both groups were easy prey. Curran returned from his sojourn some time later, and was similarly captured. With the garrison secured and locked up, the IRA had a free hand within the Fort, at least for a time.
Over the next few hours, the IRA moved to empty the Fort of as much weapons and ammunition as they could, using up to 13 requisitioned trucks to do so. The captured soldiers were warned not to make any moves in future to identify the raiders, with it claimed the IRA had sympathisers among military ranks who would find out if such identification was made. With that done, they made off, taking with them an enormous haul: over a million rounds of ammunition and dozens of cases of Thompsons. They had done so without a shot having to be fired at the Fort, and with essentially no resistance being offered by its defenders.
But by then things had already begun to turn against the IRA. At nearby Islandbridge Barracks, before the Fort operation had even come to a close, a shooting incident alerted the military that something was amiss. A gate guard was fired upon by a group of four men, perhaps as part of some manner of divisionary effort: if so it inadvertently had the opposite effect. After the shooting was reported to the Islandbridge commander it was noted that the phone line to the Fort was dead, and a “stand-to” party of 13 armed soldiers was soon ordered to drive to the Phoenix Park to investigate. They discovered a number of civilians acting suspiciously in the vicinity of the Fort, and upon closer inspection found one of them carrying guns and ammunition: three were arrested and held. Shortly thereafter the Fort was secured.
With the alarm raised and the full picture of what occurred becoming clear, the stunned Irish military sprang into action, especially when the Chief-of-Staff, Michael Brennan, was informed of what had happened. He, and others, would have been acutely conscious of how humiliating the episode was liable to make the Defence Forces look. In the following few days an utterly enormous manhunt-esque operation was enacted throughout the country, but especially in Leinster. Numerous roadblocks, the use of spotter planes, the searching of properties and farms and the detainment of many IRA members or sympathisers were all aspects of what occurred, with the entire affair dominating the public life of the country at the end of 1939 and into the early days of 1940.
And it worked. The IRA had proven themselves to have eyes bigger than the stomachs, if you’ll pardon the metaphor. Those responsible for arranging arms dumps were men used to hiding a few dozen rounds and a handful of guns; suddenly they were being asked to hide many times that, and with very little in the way of time to do so. The quantities of guns and ammunition brought to some sites were so huge that it was all some could do just to keep them out of sight, piling up .45 in cellars, in parked vehicles and loosely underneath piles of turf. Only in Kildare, where Sean Ashe had been more circumspect than others in preparing dumps, were the IRA able to successfully squirrel away significant amounts: in many other places, the stolen ammunition was rapidly reclaimed by Irish Army and police raids, to the extent that it was reported in the Dail within two weeks that 3/4s of the total taken from the Magazine Fort had already been found.
Worse than the loss of the ammunition of course was the wave of arrests that came with it for the IRA. Discovered depots and dumps invariably led to the detention of the men responsible for them, and the wave of panic and indignation that the Raid had caused also led to an increased arrest rate for the IRA in general in those days. Key men and key equipment, like vital broadcasting equipment the IRA relied on for distributing propaganda and messages, were taken. The leadership, such as it existed, was obliged to vanish even more, and in this period the Army Council contracted owing to arrests and a lack of replacements. The IRA in counties such as Galway and Cork was hamstrung to a huge degree of arrests carried out in the aftermath of the Raid, and took years to recover, if they could be said to have fully recovered at all. Internment camps, like that in the Curragh, swelled with people, their detention aided by the emergency powers the Dail had allowed.
As such, it is difficult to credibly deem the Christmas Raid, as it became known, a success for the IRA. The operation to remove the weapons and ammo from the Fort was carried off pretty much flawlessly, with the Dublin Volunteers taking advantage of the many weaknesses of the Irish military as they existed. From there, the Raid pretty much became a disaster for the IRA. The larger organisation was incapable of handling the vast quantity of ammunition taken, and the haul actually left the IRA exposed in many ways. The round-ups that occurred afterwards lost most of what they had gained, and then made things worse with the arrest and detention of numerous members. In effect, it was a net loss for the IRA, who were able to secure a decent amount of supplies but had less men than they started with able to use them.
Which is not to saw that the Irish Army should be excused for what occurred. Much of the state militaries performance in the incident was shambolic, from the inexperienced men used to guard a huge proportion of the Defence Forces’ stockpiles, the apparent failure to stick to standard security procedures and the inability of the garrison to seemingly put up any resistance during the operation. Despite the recovery of the ammunition and the subsequent blows delivered to the IRA, the recriminations lasted a while, and provoked stormy debates in the Dail about how far up the chain-of-command responsibility should be laid. Coming just months after the declaration of the Emergency, the picture painted of the Irish military was not a complimentary one.
In combination with the failure of the S-Plan, the final fizzling out of which coincided with the Christmas Raid and its aftermath, the operation indicated that the IRA was not yet in a position in which to realistically achieve its goals. The organisation remained fragmented and wracked with inefficiency, with a leadership structure that was marked by absenteeism from the really key figures and lack of ability from those that were left. But it was still going to continue havimg an impact on Irish life. We will come back to it in time. For now, we must turn to the actual war that was going on in Europe. For late 1939 and on into the early months of 1940, a peculiar sense of inactivity marked the conflict, but that was going to change. Irish named regiments would be there when it did.
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