30th July - Nineteenth Letter to Poppy
Secret diary: No more entries
Official diary: No more entries
Location: Pallas Green - Tipperary Barracks
My darling old Pip,
I am writing in bed in Col Wilsons house in these barracks.
I managed to escape through some bars in the window at 1PM this morning, and walked hatless in the pouring rain over bogs and mountains till about 7AM when I reached Pallas Green police barracks. Having had no exercise for so long it was rather exhausting, as a result I was passing blood the last part of the journey. I was a nice object when I arrived, drenched and coated with mud and some blood.
I luckily struck the house of the one honest man in the area who put me on the road to the police barracks, had he not been an honest man he would have handed me over again if he could.
The police doctor bandaged me up , and I came on here in the lorry that carries the mails. We were attacked on the way, Sin Feiners having barricaded the road. Out of the party of 8, 2 were killed and one wounded; by great luck another lorry also some police came along after a bit, otherwise we should have been probably captured. I got a slug past the side of my nose which just removed a bit of the skin.
I have been ordered by the doctor to keep quiet today to let the blood passing settle down, and it will be all right tomorrow. I hear they have a new brigadier at Fermoy, this may mean my getting a job elsewhere, but don’t count on it. I shall get more definite information when I get there.
No more news today.
Ought to be able to fix up some leave shortly now.
Poppy didn’t need to hear all the gory details, just that he was safe, but that was the soldier in CHTL – boy’s own stuff! Typically of CHTL the main thing on his mind was getting leave.
CHTL’s letter to Poppy tied in with the accounts from the other side, although the facts were basically the same, the reasons behind the facts were different. No one wanted CHTL back in custody so he wasn’t in danger of being recaptured. He was shooting back in the attack and possibly fighting some of the men that had held him. It’s very sad that it all ended like that, but there was a war going on.
At last CHTL could relax a little after his exhausting and nerve rattling cross-country challenge, fleeing from his captors. In quite a state physically, although on an adrenaline high, CHTL needed the basics of a good feed and a hot bath before he carried on his journey.
General Lucas breakfasted at New Pallas on Friday morning, had a bath and a change of clothes, and expressed his intention to return to his command at Fermoy by the military mail which travels daily from Limerick to Cork via Tipperary and Fermoy.
Newspaper cutting found amongst CHTL’s papers labelled “Connact Tribune”
Being a very senior officer CHTL made the decision as to what his subsequent move would be. He was anxious to get out of the area as quickly as possible and knowing that the mail lorry travelled to Fermoy, decided that he’d hitch a lift.
There are many accounts of what occurred next but the ‘Connact Tribune’ report is probably one of the closest to what actually happened:
The motor mail consists of a lorry in which the mails and a guard of eight armed soldiers are carried. A motor despatch rider precedes the lorry by about 30 yards...not far from Limerick junction, the road swings slightly to the left and downhill. Concealed by the bend was a barricade comprising two country carts and a long ladder. The despatch rider had just swung round the bend and came within sight of the barricade sixty yards farther on, when shots rang out from the thick shrubbery on each side of the road. Lance Corporal Parker fell from his motor-bicycle mortally wounded in the neck. Large pools of blood on the middle of the road marked the spot. The lorry came on but found the barricade obstructing it. A second volley rang out from the rear showing that the lorry was surrounded on all sides. Immediately this was followed by a burst of rifle and gun fire behind the galvanized roof of a low shed behind the cottage opposite which the barricade was erected.
Almost before the soldiers had time to reply, there were four other casualties, Pte. Bayliss being killed dead, Pte. Smelling wounded seriously, and Ptes. Steer and Cornwall wounded slightly. Led by General Lucas, who took command, and who received a flesh wound over the eye and nose, from a gunshot which gazed him, the men dismounted. Utilising the lorry for what cover they could gain from it on the middle of the road, they vigorously replied to the concealed assailants.
An engineering motor-lorry, in which there were two riflemen, was going in the same direction, and hearing the shooting it put on speed. It was followed by six policemen, but by the time these had arrived the fight, which had not lasted more than 10 minutes altogether, was at an end, and the attackers had disappeared through the scrub and hedges in the adjoining fields.
The soldiers did not fire more than sixty rounds. Bullet marks can still be seen on the little cottage, and the bushes on the ditch between the shed and the road were cut through in several places.
Seán O’Carroll, in his witness statement, recalled the planning of the attack on the mail lorry that CHTL just happened to have hitched a lift with:
The first engagement in which those rifles figured was the Oola ambush in the late summer of 1920, and there was quite a few of them out that particular day. From what I know of all the planning that was done before this ambush, it was all based on the assumption that we would be attacking a single Crossley tender, carrying ten or twelve soldiers, with, possibly, a despatch rider on a motor cycle in front. This Crossley tender had been travelling the road from Limerick to Tipperary regularly for some time before, and it was surmised it use [to] carry mail and despatches from one post to the other. Consequently, when the Crossley tender did appear on the scene of the ambush, it looked as if everything was working according to plan.
The appearance of a "bigger and better" lorry on the scene almost immediately, and the fact that all the National Volunteer rifles were out of action after one shot had been fired, put a different complexion on the situation. These rifles were Martini Henrys, a type discontinued in the British army, and their ejectors failed to eject the empty shell of a .303 cartridge.
We were not then aware that General Lucas was in the lorry, on his way to Tipperary, after being picked up around Pallas, but the British were probably under the impression that the I.R.A. were aware of his presence and that the ambush was staged, to try and recapture him.
Everything considered, the I.R.A were probably very lucky to escape in this engagement. The British were more intent on getting away with Lucas than with waiting to fight it out, and follow up the I.R.A. who, due to the failure of the rifles, were not in a very favourable position.
BUREAU OF MILITARY HISTORY, 1913-21. STATEMENT BY WITNESS. DOCUMENT NO. W.S. 1702. Seán O’Carroll, Quartermaster, 6th Battalion, 3rd Tipperary Brigade, I.R.A. 1917-1921.
Dan Breen’s recollection of events, possibly exaggerated by the passing of time, appeared to paint a picture of a much larger battle between the British soldiers (with RIC back up) and the Volunteers:
When I was down the country, there was to be an attack at Ballyclerihan, near Clonmel, but Robinson called it off. So then we ran into the Lucas attack. We went out to get the mail cars which used to come under military escort from Limerick to Tipperary. That was the morning that the famous General Lucas escaped, and instead of running into what we thought was the military mail at first, it turned out to be more than we bargained for. We thought there would be two or three lorries of men there - 4O soldiers - but there were that many lorries present, so after a brief engagement we withdrew. We had to bring about 150 men out of it.
We fought a rearguard action and held them at bay, and we hadn’t more than seven men who knew anything at all about fighting. We got back on our bicycles about a mile back near Oola in the County Limerick.
BUREAU OF MILITARY HISTORY, 1913-21 STATEMENT BY WITNESS. DOCUMENT NO. W.S. 1739. Dan Breen, Quartermaster. 3rd Tipperary Brigade.
Volunteer James Kilmartin recalled his side of events. Apparently he was under the impression that the IRA wanted the soldiers to surrender but that confusion in the midst of the battle meant that the fighting continued. He believed that there were two lorries that arrived as back-up and far more men on the British side than there actually were:
An episode which I should, have mentioned earlier was the Oola ambush which, in fact, took place before the starting of the column. This was the time when General Lucas had escaped and when we ambushed the military party which had picked him up on the road. This was a purely Company activity. It was the Solohead Company which organised and carried out this ambush... There were a few men from Dunohill with us, as well as Breen, Treacy and the Battalion Commander, Ned Reilly.
We had all discussed and arranged the matter beforehand and as far as I remember it was Treacy who had suggested that there was a despatch rider whom we should hold up and capture there. We hardly expected any large force to appear. When, therefore, a small lorry arrived on the scene of the ambush - it was, in fact, the lorry carrying General Lucas - we opened fire on it. We had arranged for a cart with a ladder mounted on it to be pulled across the road when this despatch rider would be due to arrive and when, actually, this small lorry appeared, the cart was pulled across the road.
I was in a position close to this barricade and when the lorry pulled up I stood up and called on them to surrender, which they did at once. Unfortunately, however, there was nobody else near me to take the surrender and some others of our men, who were further away and perhaps not in full view of what was happening, opened fire so that the soldiers in the lorries jumped down and fled for cover.
I remember well that morning when Ned Reilly placed us in position he said very seriously to us that we should remain exactly where we were placed, and that he would shoot the first man who left his position. Consequently, when we called on the soldiers in the lorry to surrender and some few shots had been fired, they put their hands up and said they would surrender but the firing continued from our side from men in other positions and there was only one other man near me so we could do nothing before the soldiers had all cleared off to the side of the road. I did not know at this time where Ned Reilly, Treacy or Breen were but, as it transpired afterwards, they were at the other side of the road. These men were not in a position to see what was happening or whether the soldiers had indicated their willingness to surrender, so they opened fire on them and kept it up. The soldiers standing with their hands up had no alternative but to run for cover.
The next thing was that two more lorries full of British military arrived on the scene and they began to take part in the action. I went to the gate of the field where we were looking for Ned Reilly but could see no sign of him or anyone else, but I could see a policeman from Oola - an R.I.C. man who was above us at a gate - firing down towards where we were. I could see no sign of any more of our men and I decided that they must have left us to shift for ourselves. I came back and told my men that we had better get out of this position as best we could and, in order to do this, we had to cross the road, in the course of which we were fired at all the time by the policemen above us.
The two lorries...did not get into action until we were across the road but they then turned a very heavy fire from machine guns and rifles on the lower position held by our men and made it very difficult for them to get away because the military fire raked all the ditches and cover around. However, our men all succeeded in making their escape from the position and we withdrew, considering ourselves lucky to have got away from a rather ugly position without casualties. I believe there were some casualties on the British side and it was only a good while afterwards that we learned that the first small lorry that we had held up had carried General Lucas.
BUREAU OF MILITARY HISTORY, 1913-21. STATEMENT BY WITNESS. DOCUMENT NO. W.S. 881 James Kilmartin, Member of Irish Volunteers, Solohead, Co. Tipperary, 1917 - Second in Command
The IRA witness statements were collected twenty-eight years after the ambush, in 1948, when the Bureau of Military History was set up. The eye-witness accounts recorded just after the attack state that there was just one lorry with a second that happened to arrive as the attack was taking place, and that there were five or six soldiers/RIC men, maybe a dozen, armed with rifles and not machine guns. One has to remember that in the heat of the battle things can appear to be a lot worse than they actually are.
The Times printed an eye-witness account of the ambush on 30th July:
AN EYE WITNESS’S STORY. Mr John Lynch, a pump sinker, of Cappamore. Co, Limerick, gave a graphic account of the fight at Oola, of which he was an eyewitness. He says:- I was coming to Tipperary this morning with a cartload of timber in company with my brother Tom. It was about half-past 9, and we were about a quarter of a mile on the Tipperary side of Oola, when we heard shots in front of us. We proceeded on our way, and a short distance farther on the wife of a farmer, named David O’Donnell, ran out in a very excited state on to the road, and, putting up her hands, shouted to us to not go any farther, for there was a raid on near Howitt’s Gate. We continued on our way, however, and about 30 yards further on a policeman met us, putting up his hands and warning us to stop. We then left the horse and cart in the middle of the road and went in behind the hedge on the roadside. Looking through the hedge, we saw a motor-lorry some little distance down the road. About a dozen soldiers had got down from the lorry, and were replying with their rifles to shots which came from both sides of the road. Two soldiers lay motionless in the middle of the road, apparently dead. From behind a shed with a corrugated iron roof a heavy and continuous fusillade was directed on the soldiers. I could not say how many men were in the attacking party, but there appeared to be a good number.
When the fight had been in progress about 20 minutes or half an hour a second motor-lorry full of soldiers coming from Limerick raced up to the spot. Following them rushed five or six policemen, rifles in hand. The attackers then dispersed through the fields, firing as they ran, and the military firing after them. When the fight was over the two dead soldiers, and two or three others, who appeared to be wounded, were placed in the lorry, and the two lorries went on to Tipperary.
Volunteer Jeremiah Frewen was under the impression that the back up ’lorries’ just accidentally came across the fight:
The vehicle that the ambush was designed for was a single Crossley tender which carried mails and such-like things daily and would have an escort of about six soldiers. The other lorries came along independently and merely happened, accidentally as it were, upon the ambush position.
BUREAU OF MILITARY HISTORY, 1913-21. STATEMENT BY WITNESS. DOCUMENT NO. W.S. 930 Jeremiah Frewen, Member ’B’ Company Tipperary Irish Volunteers, 1917-; Intelligence Officer and Assistant Brigade Q.M. 3rd Tipperary Brigade, 1918 - .
Interestingly Jeremiah Frewen agreed with the recollection of a British soldier printed in the Derby Daily Telegraph.
We are informed that the driver of the motor-lorry in which General Lucas reached safety after his escape from the Sinn Fein prison was a Derby soldier - Driver Parker, of 13, Curzon-street. A colleague of Driver Parker writes:- ‘‘I was on escort duty on the mail car from Limerick to Cork last Friday, and when we were passing a M.G.C. outpost the driver was halted by the sentry to let a civilian, as we thought, board the car, but we found it to be the stolen General. When we were proceeding round a big turn in a lonely spot on the road the driver noticed three carts put across the road as a barricade. He pulled up dead, and nearly threw us out it was done so quick. His prompt action left us about 25 to 30 yards away from the attackers, who opened fire right away from the front of us at general Lucas and the driver, who both had a lucky escapes, but the N.C.O. in charge of our escort was shot dead through the lungs and another in the neck; three were wounded.
‘‘This lasted for half-an-hour or more, when a three-ton lorry came up from Limerick to Tipperary, with stores on for the R.E.’s store there. This lorry never knew the danger until it was right on top of us. The Sinn Feiners opened a volley of fire straight at it, and the five armed escort that were on returned it. The Sinn Feiners must have thought the lorry had a stronger party on, and they dispersed, and the troops searched all about, whilst others put the bodies and wounded into the lorry. Then the carts were removed, and the driver drove as fast as he could to Tipperary. Then we left the General in safety at the barracks, and we were relieved by the Lincolns, and the driver proceeded with the mails all quite safe to Cork.’’
Sitting in the front of the lorry with the driver, CHTL was fortunate to have survived the head on attack. He was ever the natural leader, and without hesitation he took control of the situation. Ordering the men to take cover and grabbing a rifle, he fired back at the attackers; receiving a slight graze on his face from a passing IRA bullet.
After the tragic affray, General Lucas went on with the lorry to Tipperary.
District-inspector Sabson [?], from New Pallas, telegraphed to Cork for a blood-hound, which arrived six hours later, and was put to the task of tracing the attackers.
The part of the road where the attack was made has a few cottages on either side within a short distance from each other. These were carefully searched subsequently, as were also the surrounding districts; peasants were commanded at a point of a revolver to tell what they knew of the affair, but all efforts to trace the attackers proved futile, no information of any consequence being obtained.
‘Connact Tribune’ newspaper cutting
CHTL having just lost another of his ’nine lives’, demonstrated again his incredible ability to survive. As soon as he was safe in the Tipperary Barracks, CHTL put pen to paper to share his good news with Poppy.