Mass escape from Derry Jail, 2oth March 1943

On the 20th March 1943 the IRA staged a mass escape through a tunnel from Derry Jail. The escape was one of a series of high profile actions by the IRA in the north in the first half of 1943. The escape itself is well covered by an episode of the TG4 series, Ealú. This article looks at the wider context of the escape in terms of the 1940s IRA campaign.

Information about the escape was only disclosed to the Chief of Staff McAteer and the Northern Command Adjutant Jimmy Steele at an IRA army convention held in Ballymacarret in February 1943. McAteer and Steele had themselves escaped from Crumlin Road in January 1943. Finance for the Derry escape had already been (unwittingly) procured in a hold-up in Strabane on 2nd February by Jim Toner, O/C Tyrone, and his adjutant, Joe Carlin which netted £1,500[1]. The outside operation  was to be planned by Steele, Liam Burke, Harry White and Louis Duffin. Toner and Jimmy Clarke would help organise back-up. Word was sent in that the escape was to take place on the Saturday morning, 20th March, at 8.30am.

The planning of the Derry escape had begun in October 1942 when a tunnel was started in the cell of Harry O’Rawe and Jimmy O’Hagan[2]. The month previously, Tom Williams execution had coincided with a military campaign in the north by the IRA (the first formal northern offensive since 1922). A fifteen foot shaft had been sunk and then an eighty foot tunnel burrowed out towards a house in Hardinge Street and all the spoil disposed of. Communication in and out of the jail was by secret text between the lines of letters to Annie Hamill by her fiancé, Paddy Adams, who was O/C of the prisoners (she was also a sister of another internee, Sean Hamill). The tunnel was now nearing completion having gone through all manner of problems including water-logging, a collapse (nearly killing Billy Graham), and even having to dig under a coffin. The excavated soil from the tunnel even clogged the drains which had to be cleaned out but didn’t arouse suspicion.

Twenty men were to attempt to escape, to be supported by waiting IRA units in Derry and across the border in Donegal. Selection was based on those who would commit to reporting back for duty to the IRA, north of the border, once they had escaped. Once the twenty had passed through the tunnel, any other internée was free to follow them and make their own way to safety. It was hoped as many as eighty might escape.

For use in the Derry escape, Liam Burke had went to Currans to hire a furniture lorry and driver on the 18th March. The cost of the hire was to be £9 (this was paid to the firm after the escape). He and Jimmy Steele were to travel up to Derry in the lorry with the driver, called Davy, who was unaware of their true mission.

The lorry was going to be left at the corner of Abercorn Place, so that the escapers, who were expected to emerge in Harding Street, could run down and jump into the back. The escape was confirmed for 8.30 am on the Saturday morning. There were three flights of steps at the top of Abercorn Place, where it met Harding Street, which prevented the lorry being moved to just outside the house where the tunnel would emerge but also meant that it wasn’t close enough to arouse suspicion. Liam Burke was to position himself at the top of the steps to guide any escapers to the lorry.

The tunnel had been propped with bits of wood salvaged from around the prison plus sandbags made from pillow cases. In total 15 tons of clay had been removed for the tunnel. The sound of digging it up had often been masked by music practice. The tunnel itself had been completed before the IRA had organised the getaway vehicles and so there was a nervous wait inside the prison by the internees who were itching to get out[3]. The exit was in the coal bunker of Joseph Logue’s house in Harding Street.

The next day, Friday 19th March, Steele and Burke were picked up by the lorry which then began the drive up to Derry. On the way, the driver Davy wasn’t very talkative. He then stopped off at the main door of an RUC station in Castledawson, parked up the van, and went inside. Steele, sitting in the front seat, and armed with a revolver, had no idea whether the driver had recognised him (his niece worked for the same firm)  or become suspicious and was, at that very moment, giving him away to the RUC. It can’t have been too far from his mind how Hugh McAteer, the previous October, had accepted an invitation to an old school friend’s house only to deliver himself, the Chief of Staff of the IRA, straight into the hands of the waiting RUC without a fight.

To make matters worse, Steele was sitting at eye level right beside a wanted poster that said:

Royal Ulster Constabulary, Reward of £3,000. The above Reward, or proportionate amounts thereof, will be paid to the person or persons furnishing information to the police leading to the arrest of any one or more of the persons whose photographs and descriptions are given hereunder, and who escaped from Belfast Prison on the morning of 15th January, 1943.”

Under the text were pictures and descriptions of himself, Hugh McAteer, Ned Maguire and Pat Donnelly. Eventually, though, Davy returned to the van, got in and drove off (it turned out he had got lost and went looking for directions).  When they reached Derry, Steele produced his revolver and told Davy that his van was being commandeered by the IRA. Davy looked at the revolver and then told Steele that it wasn’t necessary as he was an IRA supporter. He even pointed out that he could drive the van better than anyone else so it would be better if he stayed with them[4]. Steele explained why the furniture van was being commandeered but Davy agreed to remain with them and help out with the escape. As it was, he was the best placed to act as the getaway driver[5] anyway.

Steele and Burke had arranged to be billeted in a safe house in the city. Other members of the Belfast IRA had arrived separately, in twos and threes, to help in the escape.

On the morning of the escape, the prisoners found that the mouth of the tunnel had been blocked. As time wound down to the escape the idea had begun to take hold that the authorities’ failure to uncover the tunnel was a rouse and the plan was simply to shoot the internees as ‘escapers’ as they emerged from the tunnel. So, on discovering the tunnel blocked, they assumed the escape was over. Outside, Steele and Burke were unaware of any of the dramas inside the prison as the agreed time of 8.30 am approached. By now, the prisoners had realised that the tunnel was blocked by two bags of coal which were then transported back through the tunnel and into the prison clearing the way for the escape.

The prisoners then began to emerge from the tunnel and, much to the Logue family’s shock, ran through the house into the road. Kevin Kelly remembers that Joseph Logue had stood with one leg in his trousers in the parlour as they ran through. When he reached the street he saw Liam Burke and Chips McCusker and, even sixty years later, remembered the feeling of elation and how fresh the air was after being inside (Derry Jail was notoriously dark and damp). Kelly himself says:

You could never describe the feeling.”

Burke then handed Kelly a revolver and directed him towards the van in Abercorn Place where Steele was still sat in the front with the driver.

Back in the Logue’s house, Sean Hamill was keeping watch over the Logues as the other members of the escape team emerged from the tunnel. He remained there until the last man came out, even then delaying to make sure no-one else was going to emerge[6]. Kelly had jumped into the back of the lorry while some others delayed in Abercorn Place. To free up space Steele and Burke were going to stay in the city, rather than leave with the lorry, and Ned Maguire took over in the lorry’s cab with the driver for the next part of the escape bid[7].

A young girl who noticed the escapees in the street went to the prison gates and informed the staff (who were already suspicious that something was going on). By the time the warders discovered the tunnel, 21 men had passed through it and had escaped. Fourteen of them climbed onto the lorry. Some, including Harry O’Rawe[8], Hubert McInerney, Brendan O’Boyle, Chips McCusker and Billy Graham didn’t go on the lorry and made their way to Letterkenny on foot[9]. Sean Hamill had remained in the Logues to prevent them raising the alarm. By the time he left the house, the lorry had already driven off. Having previously spent time in the city (he had originally been picked up and interned there), Hamill then decided to stay in Derry on the run, and felt able to make his way across the border. O’Boyle was the last official escapee[10], while Jimmy O’Rawe, the last to escape through the tunnel, was the first non-official member of the escape team to go through the tunnel and the only non-official escaper to get out. He didn’t know Derry well and was picked up during the blackout on Sunday night by the RUC.

Those in the lorry drove off[11], making the four and half mile journey to Carrigans where they were to cross the border with the intention of linking up with the waiting IRA unit on the other side. The journey was pretty uneventful and the apprehension and tension among the escapers in the back exploded in a yell of triumph when they crossed over the border at Carrigans and travelled on to St Johnston where they were supposed to be met by another lorry. Instead, nine ended up surrendering that night to pursuing Free State soldiers and Gardaí. They were re-interned (a certain naivety still existed among northerners about the capacity of Fianna Fáil to support the unionist government), this time in the Curragh. A famous photograph shows eleven men captured by Free State soldiers in the back of a lorry.

Photo showing prisoners re-captured by Free State soldiers in Donegal (published in Tim Pat Coogan's The IRA.

Photo showing prisoners re-captured by Free State soldiers in Donegal (published in Tim Pat Coogan’s The IRA.

Having left the lorry (it was eventually found in Sion Mills), Steele and Burke made an uneventful train journey back to Belfast. Steele was dressed in his Auxiliary Fire Service uniform while Burke was dressed as a priest. After they arrived back in Belfast, the £9 was forwarded to Currans to pay for the hire of the lorry.

Some, like Kevin Kelly, believed the timing of the escape was wrong and they should have gone out in the evening to take advantage of the blackout and then night-time. Within a week only three of the 21 were still at liberty. Lessons from the May 1941  and January 1943 escapes from Crumlin Road had not been learned, like not using getaway cars or trying to co-ordinate with outside help, with obvious consequences (in contrast, it was months before any of the May 1941 or January 1943 escapees were recaptured).

Strategically, the IRA appeared to have an eye, either consciously or subconsciously, on the propaganda value of an escape over the immediate practical contribution freeing 21 experienced volunteers would make to its northern campaign. As the IRA’s centre had shifted to the north in the early 1940s, a growing emphasis was put on positioning the question of Irish unity on the agenda of any expected Versailles-style conference that might happen after the world war. The IRA’s sabotage campaign in Britain had started in January 1939, but by September the start of the world war held out the prospect that a British reverse might be a catalyst to the re-establishment of the Irish republic as declared at Easter 1916 (the IRA’s ultimate objective).

As the possibility of British defeat receded, attitudes changed and, different dynamics emerged, first with the German invasion of Russia[12], and then with US entry into the war. The latter in particular, created the hope of a Versailles-style conference. And this is not as far-fetched as it now sounds. Irish unity had been an active issue in the public discussions of US support for the allies and then participation in the war. And until the Yalta conference in 1945, it was assumed there would be a negotiated end to the war. In Belfast, the IRA, under Hugh McAteer, had issued a number of public statements about the deployments of US troops in the north in 1942 and 1943 hoping to gain some headlines in the US. In his historical novel, An Ulster Idyll, Vincent McDowell (himself a 1940s internee) captures the general thinking among republicans in 1942:

“They could look forward to peace eventually and some kind of normality, but the IRA hoped that they would have a place in the final peace conference, and that the question of Irish unity would be raised, hopefully with the help of the Americans.”

McAteer, in the Sunday Independent in 1951[13] wrote that by the middle of April 1943 the IRA leadership were openly admitting to each other that the military offensive begun in September 1942 was failing:

“…we acknowledged to each other what we had long felt in our own hearts – that the possibility of our plans in the North succeeding was out of the question for the present. The propaganda value of the Derry escape, as evidenced by the many popular ballads, was tremendous; the practical result very small. The mass of the people were thoroughly disillusioned by the attitude of the 26-County Government towards us in the North; hundreds of our more experienced men were imprisoned or interned. The pattern of our work was thus clear. We had first of all to preserve the spirit of the movement, even if we could achieve nothing more concrete, and, secondly, to keep ourselves out of the jails as long as possible, and even this was becoming more difficult.”

By April 1943 then, the IRA’s northern offensive had largely petered out and by the middle of that year there was a clear shift towards dealing with prison issues. McAteer’s statement about the IRA’s thinking in March and April 1943 may also reflect growing public confidence in the possibility of an outright allied victory following Stalingrad and El Alamein and the realisation that a post-war conference to settle territorial claims and disputes was now looking unlikely.

With the possibility of a Versailles-type settlement gone, as McAteer states, the priority was now “..to preserve the spirit of the movement”. That set the stage for next big propaganda coup of the IRA, its 1943 Easter Commemoration in Belfast, which I’ll cover another day.

[1] McEoin (Harry), p133

[2] There are various accounts, including in Harry and The IRA in the Twilight Years, also an episode of the TG4 series, Ealú: To Hell and Back.

[3] Kevin Kelly, interviewed on Ealú.

[4] Hayes, 2004, 69

[5] Hayes 2004, 69

[6] Information as related by Sean to his son Féilim.

[7] Based, in part, on Hugh McAteer’s account (Sunday Independent 13.5.1951)

[8] O’Rawe had stood and watched Eamon Ó Cianáin and others escape over the wall in Crumlin Road in May 1941, only for warders to arrive and end his chances of escape. O’Rawe had helped wrestle the warders away from Gerry Doherty who was the last man over the wall on that occasion.

[9] As Chips McCusker was standing with Liam Burke when Kevin Kelly emerged from Logue’s, those who didn’t go in the lorry appear to have chosen not to do so either to divide the escapers up to evade capture or due to lack of space (McAteer, writing in 1951, implies that they were left behind).

[10] Coogan 1970 The IRA, 185

[11] According to Liam Burke’s account in The IRA in the Twilight Years, the driver and Ned Maguire took the lorry to the border, himself and Jimmy apparently staying the city.

[12] In Ar Thóir mo Shealbha Tarlach Ó hUid describes how a loose collaboration between the broad left in Belfast and the IRA in 1940 came apart over differing opinions over the ending of the German/Soviet pact with the German invasion of Russia. Joe Cahill (in Anderson’s 2002 biography of him A Life in the IRA) also relates that the moods in the prison and relations between warders and prisoners ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of the war and the changing alliances.

[13] Sunday Independent 20th May 1951

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10 responses to “Mass escape from Derry Jail, 2oth March 1943

  1. Pingback: Early Easter Rising commemorations in Belfast | The Treason Felony Blog

  2. Pingback: Obituary for Jimmy Steele, published in Republican News, August 1970 | The Treason Felony Blog

    • Hi Michael – I’m sure you’d find more in the book called Tyrones Fighting Story.
      All I know is that Joe was Adjutant to Jim Toner as O/C Tyrone in the early 1940s.
      One incident of note was the raid on the mail van as it left the station in Strabane on 2nd February 1943. They got £1,500 that was to fund the mass escape from Derry. It didn’t go completely to plan.
      I’m not sure when they were picked up but Jim and Joe were in the Curragh in 1944 and sided with Pearse Kelly in a dispute that saw the 200 or so internées split into three groups. Kelly, also from Tyrone, was a former Chief of Staff – his group was the largest. Joe was a noted fiddler and played in a large music group put together in the Curragh.

      Like

  3. Pingback: Rocky Burns, 1921-44 | The Treason Felony Blog

  4. Pingback: The Great Escape: Derry, 1943 | The Treason Felony Blog

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