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Headford Ambush
Part of the Irish War of Independence
Date 21 March 1921
Location near Killarney, County Kerry
Result successful IRA ambush and getaway
Belligerents
Republic of Ireland Irish Republican Army
(Second Kerry Brigade)
United Kingdom British Army
(First Royal Fusiliers)
Commanders
Danny Allman† Lt. C.F. Adams†
Strength
32 volunteers 30 soldiers in first train, more arrive in a second train
Casualties and losses
2 dead 8 dead, 2 fatally wounded, 12 injured,(minimum)
3 civilians dead, 2 wounded in ambush, 1 alleged informer killed after

The Headford Ambush (Irish: Luíochán Lios na gCeann) took place on 21 March 1921, during the Irish War of Independence.

The Second Kerry Brigade (South Kerry) of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) ambushed a train carrying British troops at Headford Junction railway station (near Killarney, County Kerry). A total of at least 15 people died in the incident – 9 British soldiers, 2 IRA volunteers and 4 civilians (including an informer killed after the ambush).

Contents

Background

The guerrilla war in Kerry escalated rapidly in the spring of 1921. The county was occupied by the British Army, Auxiliary Division and Black and Tan paramilitary police, and the ordinary Royal Irish Constabulary police. In the months before the ambush, they had begun rounding-up all the male inhabitants of towns and searching them in order to find IRA suspects. They first did this in Tralee on 11 January. On 23 January, in response to the IRA assassination of RIC District Inspector Sullivan (who was shot while walking with his five year old son), 1,000 soldiers and armed police surrounded Ballymacelligott, arrested 240 men and marched them to Tralee for questioning. British forces, especially the Auxiliaries, also carried out a number of reprisal shootings on local civilians.

In response, the IRA was forced to set up full time guerrilla units (known as flying columns), both in order to avoid arrest and to assemble units capable of taking on British patrols. On 2 March, the Second Kerry Brigade set up its own flying column under Dan Allman and Tom McEllistrim. On 5 March, McEllistrim led 20 volunteers from the column to a successful ambush at Clonbanin, in which they co-operated with Cork IRA units, killing four British soldiers (including Brigadier General Cumming).

The ambush

Buoyed by their success in Cork, the Second Kerry Brigade tried on a number of occasions to ambush British forces in Kerry itself. On 21 March, the IRA party was billeted around four miles from the Headford railway junction when they heard that British troops were returning by train from Kenmare to Tralee. As the train did not go directly, the British would have to change at Headford, making them vulnerable to ambush. MacEllistrim and Allman jumped at the chance.

Allman, in overal command of 30 volunteers, reached the junction only 12 minutes before the train arrived. It was carrying 30 soldiers of the First Royal Fusiliers. The railway staff just had time to flee the scene before the train pulled into the platform, where its passengers had to alight to change trains for Tralee. Alongside the soldiers, the train was packed with cattle and pig farmers, on their way back from the market in Kenmare. Most of the civilians had already got off when the British soldiers began to disembark. Allman himself tried to disarm the first Fusilier but shot him when he resisted. This was the signal for the IRA to begin shooting at the unprepared British troops.

One of the first of the British casualties was their officer, Lt. CF Adams, who was shot dead when he appeared at the carriage door, as were several other soldiers who were standing in front of the engine. The surviving British troops opened fire from the train, while those who had got off scrambled underneath it for cover. In the ensuing close-quarter firefight, conducted at a range of just 20 yards, three civilians and two IRA volunteers (including Danny Allman himself) were killed. However at least two thirds of the British force were killed or wounded. MacEllistrim called on the survivors to surrender and when they refused, the IRA began to move in to finish off those who kept shooting.

Just as they were doing so, another train pulled into the junction, carrying another party of British troops. The IRA column had used most of their ammunition and were forced to retreat, escaping toward the hills in the south.

Casualties

Two IRA volunteers, Dan Allman and Jimmy Baily, were killed in the ambush. One civilian was killed outright and two mortally wounded, with two others (a father and daughter) seriously wounded in the legs. Moreover, in the immediate aftermath of the ambush, Tom MacEllistrim executed a suspected spy whom his men had been holding.

The British official report stated that one officer (Adams) and seven soldiers were killed and twelve wounded. The British Cabinet was told that two of the wounded later died of their wounds. The IRA thought the British had concealed the real death toll, which they believed was up to twenty-five British troops killed.

Sources

  • T Ryle Dwyer, Tans, Terror and Troubles, Kerry's Real Fighting Story, 1913-21, ISBN1856353532, Mercier Press, 2001, p289-295

External links

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