Cecil Guthrie fled towards safety. He would never make it.
Auxiliary policeman and driver Cecil Guthrie had rolled, crawled, then stumbled for miles across country, away from the slaughter on the lonely, marshy bend in the road between Macroom and Dunmanway in west Cork. At a place called Kilmichael.
Back on the road, amid the burning trucks, his comrades lay dead, their killers methodically stripping the bodies of weapons, ammunition and papers. He had been spotted, fired on, but he had slipped away behind a herd of cattle. From that moment, he was marked for death. There could be no witnesses.
For two days they searched for him, but he did not get far. They found him at the townland of Dromcarra, miles from the Auxiliary base at Macroom Castle. Cecil Guthrie was overpowered, disarmed and shot dead with his own pistol. His body was buried in a bog.
Back on that roadside at Kilmichael, 16 auxiliaries lay dead, and another so badly wounded that the ambushers thought he too was dead. The attackers claimed to have left only hipflasks and wallets on the bodies. Then, each man bowed under the weight of the captured weaponry, marched away cross-country.
What we know
What had just happened? The headline facts:
A patrol of 18 auxiliary policemen in two trucks had been ambushed by a 36-man IRA flying column, led by Commandant Tom Barry.
In a close-quarter firefight that lasted 30 minutes, the patrol had been massacred. Sixteen auxiliaries and three IRA volunteers had died. The auxiliary who survived was so badly wounded that his testimony bore no resemblance to what others recalled of those terrible minutes.
It was the first time the auxiliaries had been engaged by the IRA. It was the heaviest loss of life for the British in any engagement of the War of Independence.
This means war
The words of British Prime Minister Lloyd George were prophetic. This ambush, he said, "was of a different character" to what had gone before; Kilmichael "was a military operation".
A week earlier, after Bloody Sunday, his claim that the British security forces "had murder by the throat" in Ireland, had been revealed to be hot air. As the news from Kilmichael sank in, it was now clear to the British that they were not fighting "murder"; they were fighting a war.
The politicians had been slow on the uptake, slower than the soldiers actually fighting the war. Only weeks earlier, at the Curragh Camp, the British Army had set up a school of warfare, to prepare officers and sergeants to fight a new kind of war against the IRA. A war for which none of their previous experience in trenches, deserts or mountains would have prepared them.
This was a war of ambushes, infiltration, cross-country manoeuvres against an elusive enemy. A war in which seconds separated death and survival, defeat and victory, in which an officer sitting in the wrong seat on a truck being ambushed could mean his whole command being wiped out.
With the declaration of martial law across the counties of Limerick, Cork, Kerry and Tipperary two weeks later, came the final recognition by the British of what they were up against.
Ambush or murder?
Kilmichael resonates because it was not only the most dramatic engagement of the war, but the moment-by-moment unfolding of the ambush has generated bitter controversy.
Was it an ambush that descended into murder, or was it a coming of age for a new generation of republican fighters?
In the autumn of 1920, Tom Barry fretted. As an IRA officer in west Cork, he needed to get his unit into action, to break the hold the auxiliaries had over the surrounding countryside. These were tough Great War veterans, re-enlisted in this new force, almost piratically armed with pistols, rifles, grenades and machine guns, roaring up and down the roads of west Cork in trucks and armoured cars, raiding and intimidating the local population. Their swaggering behaviour only added to the new force's reputation for drunken thuggery.
Above all, Tom Barry needed to convince his own men that these auxiliaries could be taken on, and beaten, at close quarters.
And close quarters it would have to be, to nullify the vastly greater war-fighting skills of the auxiliaries. As a former British Army officer himself, he knew how short of that level his own men were, a level only reached with months of hard training and years of experience. The qualities they had were not enough to bridge that gap.
By late November 1920, the auxiliaries of 'C' Company, based in Macroom Castle, had been doing as they pleased, with no interference from the IRA, for months.
Once again in the War of Independence, those who did nothing but watch and note comings and goings were vital to the IRA.
The months without contact with the enemy bred carelessness and complacency among the auxiliaries.
First, they cut back the strengths of patrols, down to two trucks from four, and then went out often without armoured car support.
Worse, they committed the cardinal sin of operations against an underground army: they became predictable. Trusting that the local population were too intimidated to oppose them, they used the same roads for patrolling again and again, until silent observers of their comings and goings could build a pattern.
From that pattern, Tom Barry made a trap.
His ambush plan has been much studied since, as much by professional soldiers as by guerrilla fighters. They recognise in the plan Tom Barry's military training, how he designed the ambush to stop, seal off and then destroy the patrol. There were separate teams to scout the approaches, to cut off the site, to deny the auxiliaries cover to retreat into and, above all, fire teams to do the actual killing.
Tom Barry wanted to choose the ground on which he would fight. Once he decided what that ground would need to look like, his options were in fact quite narrow.
He needed a location as far away as possible from the auxiliaries' base in Macroom, on a road he knew for certain the patrols would use. He needed enough cover and raised ground to place his fighters and scouts on, with enough of a bend in the road to slow the trucks down, but also marshy enough on the margins, to prevent a breakout by the auxiliaries.
He chose a lonely stretch of the road between Macroom and Dunmanway. A place called Kilmichael.
Tom Barry assembled a force of 36 men into a flying column. These columns were different from other IRA units, as their title suggested. They were mobile, not tied to any location, drawing some of the best men from those other units. That day they were armed with rifles and a few pistols and grenades. Ammunition, as always for the IRA, was scarce enough for each man to have only 35 rounds each - on paper a suicidally low number of bullets with which to engage such well-armed enemies.
The patrol to be ambushed comprised 18 men in two trucks, each armed with two pistols, grenades, a rifle, and ample ammunition. They were men of Number Two Section, C Company, Auxiliary Division, Royal Irish Constabulary.
A preliminary scan of the men in those trucks that day would appear to vindicate Tom Barry's fear that the auxiliaries were regarded by his men and the local population as 'super-fighters and all but invincible'. That was the spell Barry needed to break.
They were drawn from ex-officers of all the branches of the British Armed Forces, and even the Merchant Navy. The new force was advertised to potential recruits as a "Corps d'elite", and in the ranks there were ex-colonels, majors, captains, admirals, squadron leaders and flight lieutenants. Many had risen through the ranks, on courage and merit.
The post-war world had demobilised the industrial-scale killing machines. Tens of thousands of men found themselves with skills hard-earned in wartime that no one now had a use for, except in the bushfire conflicts that raged across Europe and the Middle East.
Places like Ireland in November 1920.
All were there for the pay. It was over a pound a day - a fortune - exactly 40 times what the French Foreign Legion was offering men with the same skills and inclinations. At one stage, the daily rate rose to make them the best-paid policemen in the world.
On paper, the men of Two Section, 'C' Company, fitted the pattern. Among the decorations won in war collectively by them were three Military Crosses (one of the highest decorations for soldiers), a Distinguished Flying Cross, and a mention in dispatches. At least eight had extensive ground combat experience, three had flown in aerial combat in the Royal Flying Corps and RAF.
That is the paper record. There is another, much darker record, reflecting the toll years of war had taken on these men, and which had to have had a direct bearing on what happened in those 30 minutes at Kilmichael. In fact, no account of that day is complete without an examination of that record. We will come back to that.
The patrol that set out that day reflected the complacency that had set in among the auxiliaries in west Cork. Two trucks, 18 men, the bare minimum.
As the vehicles approached the bend at Kilmichael, they slowed down, but the drivers kept the regulation distance between the trucks.
As the first truck rounded the bend, the driver and the officer leading the patrol, Inspector Francis Crake, saw a man in some kind of military uniform standing in the middle of the road, beckoning them to stop.
This was Tom Barry, dressed in a volunteer officer's tunic, with captured British field equipment. The first truck slowed down.
Francis Crake has been blamed by some for not realising there was a trap, not assuming the worst once he saw Barry standing there. But confusion and curiosity could be forgiven. There was no pattern of roadside ambushes in west Cork. And not only did the auxiliaries themselves present a confusing mish-mash of all kinds of uniform, but IRA officers often wore captured or stolen equipment, to the extent that there are accounts of them being occasionally mistaken for British Army officers.
Crake could also have been deceived by the sheer nerve of Barry standing there waving them down, knowing that at the first suspicion of a trap, he was dead.
As the lead truck drew near Barry, he stepped forward and threw a grenade into the driver's cab. It exploded, killing Crake and the driver.
From the rocks above, the 10 men of First Section opened fire. Judging by the tiny area around the vehicle that eight bodies were found in later, the fusillade must have been intense, killing all occupants of the truck in minutes. Barry later described the combat here as hand-to-hand, at point-blank range. Two men made it a few yards from the truck before being hit.
The driver of the second truck, Cecil Guthrie, saw the ambush and tried to reverse and turn back. He would have had time to curse the vehicle's notoriously wide turning circle. After reversing a few yards, the vehicle was stuck, and by now, fire was coming at the occupants from the seven volunteers in the Second Section.
The occupants of the second truck, seeing what happened to the first vehicle, had a few seconds to jump out and seek cover. Their bodies were found the next day, scattered along the road.
Closing in for the kill; the final moments
What happened in those final minutes of the ambush is where the controversy is focused.Tom Barry recounted that several of the auxiliaries tried to surrender, but in his account, when three volunteers showed themselves in response, the auxiliaries picked up their weapons and began firing again, killing or fatally wounding the three men. Whereupon Barry gave the order to continue firing until all the auxiliaries were dead.
What is not debated is that combat in those minutes was fought face-to-face, with pistol, rifle, and bayonet.
Years later, IRA volunteers recounted what they said they remembered. In the gathering gloom, it must have been near-impossible to see exactly who was doing what.
Jack Hennessy, in testimony to the Bureau of Military History, in 1955:
"Many of the auxies lay on the road dead or dying. Our orders were to fix bayonets and charge on to the road when we heard three blasts of the O/C's (Officer Commanding – Tom Barry) whistle. I heard the three blasts and got up from my position, shouting "hands up". At the same time, one of the auxies about five yards from me drew his revolver. He had thrown down his rifle. I pulled on him and shot him dead..."
"...The Column 0/C sounded his whistle again. Nearly all the auxies had been wiped out. When I reached the road a wounded auxie moved his hand towards his revolver. I put my bayonet through him under the ribs. Another auxie tried to pull on Jobs Lordan, who was too near to use his bayonet, and he struck the auxie with the butt of his rifle. The butt broke on the auxie's skull."
Timothy Keohane, in testimony to the Bureau of Military History, in 1955:
"Tom Barry then called on the enemy to surrender and some of them put up their hands, but when our party were moving on to the road the auxiliaries again opened fire. Two of our men (John Lordan and Jack Hennessy, I think) were wounded by his fire. Pat Deasy had been wounded, while Jim Sullivan and Mick McCarthy... had been killed prior to this happening... (Tom Barry) immediately ordered an all-out attack, and after a few sharp bursts the enemy forces were silenced. We then found that everybody on the road had been killed."
'The fake surrender'
It is around the question of alleged false surrender that the controversy swirls.
Did the auxiliaries actually surrender, then start firing again?
Were some auxiliaries killed after they had surrendered?
Of the accounts of the ambush later given to the Bureau of Military History, four do not contain any mention of attempts by the enemy to surrender, or any calls by Tom Barry on them to surrender.
The above first-hand accounts, even allowing for the passage of time and a desire to present the events in the best light possible, show the confusion in the gathering dusk. Jack Hennessy may have seen an auxiliary throw down his rifle, but was that an offer of surrender, or was the man just reaching for his revolver to continue the fight?
Supermen, or walking wounded?
This is where the medical and service records of the men in the patrol become of interest to any attempt to put a shape on those fatal minutes.
Working backwards, it is striking that none of them had been in Ireland more than three months. Five had only joined 'C' Company a few weeks earlier. None had been in Cork for more than two months.
They were not a coherent military unit, made up of men who had trained together, who had confidence in each other after common experience of combat.
The officer in charge had been killed in the first moments of the ambush.
Some of the men's medical records would prompt the question as to how on earth they were back on active service at all.
Andrew Nelson, writing in the UK Institute of Historical Research Magazine in 2014, gave details of those medical and service records.
Five of the men had made it through the Great War without suffering any wounds.
Five of the men had been wounded and/or gassed in the course of their Great War service, with no apparent long-term consequences.
Four of the men had been wounded, and/or shell-shocked during the Great War, badly enough to leave them fit only for sedentary duties, no active service. One of them joined the auxiliaries one month after being declared permanently unfit for service in the British Army.
One man was technically deaf, after first being buried alive and later in the war caught in an artillery bombardment. The severe hearing loss in both ears rendered him unfit for frontline service
What relevance has this, for trying to make sense of those final minutes at Kilmichael?
It could explain the confusion over who was trying to surrender and who wasn't, why individual IRA volunteers' accounts later differed in key details.
Given all the factors - brought together only by necessity in a mercenary outfit, the lack of time to form bonds, with no experience of fighting this new enemy that did not play by the rules, the astonishing infirmities of some of them - a case can be made that, in their first test under fire as a unit, ambushed at point-blank range, in the gathering dusk, with their commanding officer dead, whatever cohesion they possessed fell apart, and it was every man for himself. Some wanted to fight on, as long as they had ammunition; others wanted to throw up their hands and take their chances.
That would explain the large amount of unspent ammunition captured after the ambush, it would explain why the bodies of the men in the second truck were all found apart, with no sense that they had responded to the ambush as a unit. Above all, it would partly explain the confusion about surrenders. It is even possible that some auxiliaries, after throwing down their rifles to surrender, realising that others were fighting on, which meant no prisoners would be taken, changed their minds and, too late, reached for their revolvers.
'Kill or be killed'
There are troubling details. Several of the auxiliaries were found to have bullet wounds in the armpit, which would suggest they had their arms in the air at the moment of death. Volunteer Jack O'Sullivan recalled years later that he had taken an auxiliary prisoner, then another of the ambush party shot the man where he stood.
It has been claimed that Tom Barry never intended any of the auxiliaries to survive, so even if any had surrendered, they would have been killed. Certainly there was no talk of prisoners in the hours before the ambush.
He was unaware of any weaknesses in the Auxiliary unit. As far as he was concerned, he was taking on 18 of the toughest men in the British Armed Forces. Men who, if you did not kill them, all of them, they would surely kill you, all of you. Barry told the volunteers as much before the ambush, it would be kill or be killed, and there was no line of retreat, if things went wrong.
The controversy about surrender overlooks how fraught a process that is, in the middle of mortal combat to voluntarily relinquish all control, and throw yourself at the mercy of men you had been trying to kill, a few seconds before.
From my conversations and interviews with veterans of the British, American and German armies, across both World Wars, it is clear that in such situations men had maybe a quarter of a second to decide on the one hand to surrender or on the other, to take prisoners. Anything - bloodlust, fear, anger - could see men with their hands in the air, mown down or bayonetted without a thought.
The volunteers, as they moved across the ambush site, were so affected by the carnage they had inflicted, that Tom Barry had to drill them on the road, in a bid to restore coherence and order. After gathering weapons, ammunition and whatever maps and papers could be found, they moved off, and spent the night 11 miles away.
Badly shaken in the immediate aftermath of the ambush, they had little time for reflection. Barry kept the column together, moving and active, braced for countermeasures from British soldiers and police, already burning their way through the local villages and farms, thirsting for revenge.
One of the issues often neglected in discussing the War of Independence is the effect on the volunteers themselves of the killing and the constant fear, the fear of betrayal, death, wounds or capture. Few volunteers in the war would have experienced what the men at Kilmichael did and saw.
In the records of the Bureau of Military History, there is a revealing aside, in the testimony of Peter Kearney, a former officer in the IRA's Cork Brigade, and an officer in the Third Flying Column in west Cork. He was not involved in the ambush. Speaking in 1950, he referred to the effect of the events of that November evening on some of the Kilmichael veterans:
"The 3rd Dunmanway Battalion had been falling away rather badly since the Kilmichael ambush. A number of men out of that battalion had fought at Kilmichael, but the strain had affected their nerves, to such an extent that a number of the battalion officers were practically useless from that time on, and no resistance was being shown to the enemy, who were very overbearing".
Strategically, the ambush merely confirmed what the military had been saying for months: that the conflict had moved to a new level, that it had acquired a momentum of its own, and that training and equipment had to move to meet the challenge. Meanwhile, the IRA's confidence grew, the flying columns grew bigger and bigger. Within a few months, Tom Barry was leading numbers of men he could only have dreamed of before Kilmichael.
That was in the future. Within two weeks of the ambush, martial law would be declared across Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary. New units of auxiliaries were drafted in to Cork. And Cork city would be put to the torch.
Auxiliary Cecil Guthrie's body lay hidden in the bog at Dromcarra, where it had been buried by the local IRA unit after the ambush. His family never gave up on finding the grave. It was reported that the British government would not pay compensation to his widow without the body. Finally, in 1926, with the agreement of the local IRA, Guthrie's remains were disinterred and buried at Inchigeelagh Churchyard, west Cork, a few miles from Kilmichael.