Kilmichael Ambush - 28 Nov 1920

On 28 November a flying column of 36 riflemen under Tom Barry ambushed an Auxiliary patrol. The IRA column had 35 rounds for each rifle as well as a handful of revolvers and two hand grenades. The ambush site was on the Macroom–Dunmanway road, between Kilmichael and Gleann. The Auxiliaries based in Macroom used this section of road every day.

The IRA men reached the ambush site on the night of the 27th and took up positions in the low rocky hills on either side of the road. The ambush took place as dusk fell between 4:05 and 4:20 PM on 28 November

A photograph taken a few years later, shows how barren the landscape was at that time. The modern photo was taken in 2015

The first Crossley Tender carrying 9 Auxiliaries, came round the bend into the ambush position moving fairly quickly. According to his own account, the column commander Tom Barry, dressed in a military style uniform stepped onto the road from behind a low wall, put his hand up and the lorry slowed. When it was about thirty-five yards from his command post he threw a Mills bomb into the open cab of the Crossley tender. He also blew a whistle blew to signal his men to open fire.

The Mills bomb killed the driver of the first lorry, and with its driver dead, moved forward and stopped a few yards from the small stone wall in front of the command post. A sharp and bloody battle ensued with hand to hand fighting, again according to Barry's account. In the close-quarter fighting some of the British were killed, in Barry's account, with rifle butts and bayonets. The British claimed that the dead had been mutilated with axes. All nine Auxiliaries in the first lorry were killed. T/Const Poole was driving the first lorry, and FW Crake, the patrol commander was in it too.

Fleming's map showing where the 17 men fell. Gutherie escaped, but was found and shot.

The second Crossley Tender stopped and came under fire from No. 2  section. The Auxiliaries jumped out of the tender and took up positions along the road to return fire. Three IRA men from the command post, Murphy, Nyhan and O'Herlihy, moved in to attack the second party from the rear. At this point the controversy arises over "the false surrender", which does not concern my narrative. Apart from Forde there were no British survivors, so it is virtually impossible to determine what happened..

Crossley Tender (funeral of Major Holmes in Jan 1921)

16 Auxiliaries now were dead and two badly injured. One of the injured, Frederick Henry Forde in fact had survived, though shot in the head and left for dead by the IRA. He was picked up by the British the following day and taken to hospital in Cork. The other survivor, Cadet Cecil Guthrie (ex Royal Air Force),was badly wounded but somehow escaped from the ambush site - it is not clear when he escaped. However he eventually got to within 2 miles of the Auxiliary Barracks at Macroom, before he was found and shot, apparently with his own gun, his body dumped in Annahala bog. In 1926, Guthrie's remains were disinterred after various negotiations locally and handed over to the Church of Ireland for a Christian burial at the Inchigeelagh Churchyard..

It is impossible to know if this is Forde's actual account or a story made up by the British Propaganda department, or a mixture of both. Another account was written by Cafferata as his own diary, based on what he describes as personal conversations with Forde and does not appear to have been for publication post Kilmichael. . Cafferata was another auxiliary in the same company, and should have been on this patrol, but got last minute leave. His account (which I found in his papers in Palestine Archives of St Anthony's College, Oxford) talks about what Forde told him. The two tenders were traveling at 40 mph, about 50 yards apart.

Crake, the platoon commander and officer i/c the patrol, sat next to the driver of the leading tender. They entered the portion of the road in the form of a narrow S bend. It ran through a heavy bog land which rose a couple of hundred yards away to low rock and boulder strewn hillocks. The whole length of the S bend was about 200 yards in length. The leading tender entered the bend, and about two thirds of the way along saw a large British lorry with its rear end toward them. Two or three figures in khaki uniform grouped around the front end where the bonnet appeared to be open. Crake slowed down his truck in order to stop and offer help. His tender got to within some 15 to 20 yards of the lorry and had all but stopped when the back covers of the canvas covered lorry were whipped back and a machine gun opened up full into the unprotected tender, either killing or wounding its entire compliment. Meanwhile the second tender was entering the bend as the burst of firing broke out. Realising that there was an ambush, the driver slammed on the brakes and jammed his gear leaver into reverse in order to get his tender out of the trap and give the chaps a chance of taking up defensive positions as a withering rile fire was now opening up from the rocks and boulders of the surrounding hillocks. The old Crossley tenders we had were cursed with a great weakness. They had a very poor differential assembly. When the driver to the second tender tried to get back out of it all, his differential broke completely and the tender just ran off the edge of the road and slipped into the bog. A few of them managed to fight for a time - evidence was there in plenty beside their bodies - little heaps of .303 empties, but from first to last they never had a chance.

The savagery which ensued is unbelievable but by some miracle one cadet survived the massacre. A young ex-Captain by the name of Forde . He had three years in France, got his MC, and was one of the nicest chaps I have ever met. Though badly shot about and partially scalped and having lain out on the open road for over 24 hours. Left for dead, when the search party found him he was still alive. The nearest hospital was some 20 miles or more away in Cork. He was taken there in an open Crossley tender and by some miraculous work on the part of the doctors and nurses, he recovered and lived. It was from him that we finally learn the full details of the brutal massacre.

One body was never found, and strangely enough it was the Guthrie who had blown the gaff on the Chichester affair, and had stopped his fellow Auxiliaries from trying Chichester. Gutherie had been in the second tender with Forde who believed that he saw him trying to get across the bog to gain cover behind some of the heavy rocks, but that he had been sucked down by the soft unstable bogland and had drowned.

Forde estimated that some 80 to 100 IRA man had taken part in the ambush, mostly dressed in British Army uniforms. And the arms used were .303 rifles, Lewis guns, Mills grenades and possibly one or two American Thompson sub-machine guns (a number of which were finding their way into the IRA via American sympathisers.

Forde further said that when all resistance from the patrol had been silenced, any survivors were lined up on the road and shot to death out of hand. The leader appeared to be an enormous red headed Irishman who personally inspected each body for signs of life. He was armed with a pistil and a small axe. The last thing Forde remembers was lying on the road with the red headed giant bending over him taking a swing at his head with the axe.

Two IRA volunteers – Michael McCarthy and Jim O'Sullivan – were killed outright during the ambush and Pat Deasy later died of his wounds.

The IRA then set the lorries on fire. It was only about thirty minutes after the opening of the ambush the the IRA column moved away to the south. They marched through heavy rain via Shanacashel, Coolnagow, Balteenbrack and arrived in the vicinity of dangerous Manch Bridge, which was held by the British. They crossed the Bandon River without incident and reached Granure, eleven miles south of Kilmichael, by 11 p.m.

memorial Macroom

The scene after the ambush - Daily Sketch

1920 Nov 29. Colonel Buxton Smith who commanded C Coy in Macroom Castle sent a contingent of Auxiliaries to investigate the disaster and recover the bodies. Included in that group was Lieutenant E. Fleming, whose job was to assess and document the ambush site, and map the site of the ambush. Fleming was able to work out the number of volunteers in each section from footmarks left on the soil and vegetation. He also plotted the positions of the fallen auxiliaries. His map is shown above on this page.

It was around 1 p.m. on Monday 29th November before the British forces reached Kilmichael. Munro's account of what they saw

"No news of the ambush reached the Company that night. But as the patrol had not returned by midnight it was evident that something serious had happened. Volunteers were called to form a search party and two tenders covered every conceivable road that the patrol could reasonably have taken. The night was a filthy one with no moon and rain coming down in torrents making visibility very poor. That is possibly why no one was seen as the party passed the junction where the patrol had turned off ....Nothing was to be gained by sending out a second search party after the first had returned, and it was decided to wait until daylight." Just after 9am on Monday 29th Nov news was brought in by one of the local doctors. "All available transport was got ready and with two only of the tenders manned, we set out to bring in all that was left of the Sunday patrol. The doctor accompanied us as it was not known whether there were any wounded. There was no difficulty in finding the spot in daylight. There were the two wrecked tenders, and scattered over the road what was left of twenty (sic) of the patrol....A strange thing was that one of the worst looking cases was still alive. Even the doctor was amazed that it was possible. He gave his opinion that it was because of the incessant rain that the man's wounds had been kept clean and to this he owed his life. It was far less than a fifty-fifty chance that we could get him to hospital alive, but it was done. He was paralysed for the rest of his life.

T/Cadet A Lewis also briefly gives an insight

"On the Sunday afternoon, old Craig (sic) with whom I had been dining the previous evening at the Victoria Hotel, where I am now sitting writing this letter, took out two cars for a patrol that afternoon. I was fitting a new petrol tank on to my bus, my old one having been punctured, otherwise I should have been on that fatal patrol. I had been on that same road three times with Craig the same week, so Gutherie who was also driving the car, took his instead, they should have been back at seven o'clock at the latest, they did not arrive that night, so the next morning the C.O. came up to me and asked me to get my car out , saying that we had better go and try and find out what had happened to them, we both thought that they perhaps had had a breakdown, we set off and had covered about 10 miles when travelling along the Kilmichael road I suddenly noticed a Crossley tender absolutely burnt out , and lying in the ditch on the left hand side of the road, & a few yards further on I saw a dead body which happened to be poor old Barnes lying on its back in a pool of blood, about 100 yards down the road was the other Crossley, also burnt out, also on the left hand ditch, and around which were all the other dead bodies, at that every one of us went raving mad, I took two petrol cans, went to the nearest farmhouse, out of which all the occupants had fled, emptied the contents all over the place, down the stairs, over the bedding etc, and put a light to the lot, it went up with a roar and that was the finish of that, and the others did likewise to another farmhouse & haystack close by. When we had cooled down a bit we proceeded to pick up the bodies and put them in the tender, then commenced an awful return home, I had my car filled with mutilated corpses while the others walked in front, I have never driven a more gruesome load before and never wish to again, on arriving back at the castle we deposited our awful burden and went to the nearest undertakers to order 16 coffins, which we called for about two hours later, the rest needs no explanations,

An inquiry was held

Oddly the British appear to have lost this in Ireland

Gutherie's parents were later awarded £5200.

Records indicate that it was "no 2 Platoon" with Crake as the Platoon Commander, plus one T/Constable and 14 T/Cadets (inc. Forde who survived) 2 Section Leaders (WT Barnes and PN Graham) The full list of the dead ADRIC men from that patrol is:-

Dist/Insp Francis William Crake MC, 27
S/Leader William Thomas Barnes DFC, 26
T/Cadet Cyril Dunstan Wakefield Bayley, 22
T/Cadet Leonard Douglas Bradshaw, 22
T/Cadet James Chubb Gleave, 21
S/Leader Philip Noel Graham, 31
T/Cadet William Hooper Jones, 24
T/Cadet Frederick Hugo OBE MC, 40
T/Cadet Albert George Jones, 33
T/Cadet Ernest William Henry Lucas, 31
T/Cadet William Andre Pallister, 25
T/Cadet Henry Oliver Pearson, 21
T/Cadet Frank Taylor, 22
T/Cadet Christopher Herbert Wainwright, 36
T/Cadet Benjamin Webster, 30
T/Const Arthur Frederick Poole 22
T/Cadet Cecil James Guthrie, 21

In 2014, a book was published, by Commandant Sean A Murphy's Kilmichael: A Battlefield Study, and is a critical analysis of the account of the Kilmichael Ambush in Commandant Tom Barry's Guerilla Days in Ireland. Murphy was a recently retired Commandant of the Defence Forces. He was a small-arms specialist, he spent most of his service as a mechanical engineer in the Ordnance Corps. Murphy questions key points in the ambush

1. Barry's Flying Column was armed with dangerously defective Canadian Ross rifles which the IRA had raided from Coast Guard stations in Kilbrittain and Bantry. The Ross rifle had a defective bolt. And the Flying Column at Kilmichael was armed with Ross rifles. In Barry's account, the IRA man Jim Sullivan was killed by an Auxiliary bullet flukily striking his bolt during the false surrender. Murphy believes he was killed by the defective bolt of his Ross rifle blowing backwards. "Accepting that O'Sullivan was killed by the action of his own rifle, is to reject Barry's description of O'Sullivan being killed by ADRIC fire, and thereby calls into question the circumstances pertaining to the false surrender, if not the false surrender itself."

.2. Murphy queries Barry's account of the attack on the first Auxiliary lorry. "A more plausible view would suggest the ADRIC were stunned by the opening fusillade and put up little or no resistance. They would have had good hopes of being treated well because only a month before, on October 22, a patrol of the Essex regiment which surrendered had their weapons and ammunition confiscated but were sent on their way unharmed." He is skeptical about Barry's account of the action at the second lorry: "A more credible account would be that the ADRIC members at the second lorry also surrendered following an initial exchange of revolver fire. The specifics of the injuries and the subsequent location of the bodies would support a theory that they were surrounded while shot."

3. From Barry's report after the ambush, Murphy concludes that the total ADRIC patrol fired at most 68 rounds from their revolvers and 31 rounds of rifle ammunition. Murphy suggests that this quantity of ammunition fired by the ADRIC does not indicate an extensive fire fight.and represents about 10% of the ammunition that the patrol carried or only 5 or 6 rounds fired per Auxiliary

Murphy´s conclusions are

1. "The analysis does not support a view that an untrained, inexperienced, inadequately equipped, and irregular grouping of IRA guerrillas were militarily capable of defeating a regular, professional, well- armed, well-trained, and more experienced ADRIC patrol purely through conventional tactical means."

2. "Barry was intent on destroying the ADRIC patrol, and once the IRA gained the upper hand the result was inevitable."

3. He doubts Barry stood up in full view of the first lorry wearing a military tunic. This would have caused the first lorry to slow down and destroyed the element of surprise.

4. He describes as "unlikely" Barry's account of throwing a grenade to the limit of its accurate throwing range of 35 yards, so that it landed in the cab of the first Auxiliary lorry - a feat not noted by Jim "Spud" Murphy who shared the command post with Barry.

5. Murphy dismisses as British propaganda, rumours that the Auxiliaries' bodies were mutilated after death.

6. He points out that Barry could not have moved a large group of prisoners through West Cork. And he and his men could have been identified by released Auxiliaries.

Murphy invites readers to draw their own conclusions from the evidence he presents. My conclusion is that the ADRIC in both tenders surrendered within minutes of the ambush being sprung. They were then shot, probably the ones in the lead tender first. Assuming they surrendered, Barry had 3 options - take them prisoners (impossible for him to keep so many prisoners ), let then go having taken their weapons (it would not have had the dramatic effect that Barry wanted, if he had gone this route, then nobody today would have heard of Kilmichael) or shoot them (ensured that Kilmichael achieved the aims that Barry was seeking)

Incidents during this period