Author: MagisterEquites
Title: The Development of IRA Counter-Mobility Operations 1919-1921

The Development of IRA Counter-Mobility Operations 1919-1921
A fitting start to this essay would be to look at what is meant by ‘Counter-Mobility Operations’ and how the IRA managed to use the underdeveloped road network of Ireland (particularly in Cork, Kerry and Tipperary) to channel the British army into ambush black-spots. Counter-Mobility warfare seeks to limit the ability of the enemy to move and fight in the manner they desire, it also seeks to deny certain areas to the enemy . So, for example, when the IRA trenched all but one of the roads from Macroom to Killarney they were intentionally creating a bottleneck that the British convoy drove straight in to . This essay sets out to examine the development of the IRA’s Techniques Tactics and Procedures (hereafter TTPs) and how it helped them to fight most of their battles on their own terms. It also seeks to examine the economic damage caused by the destructive nature of this type of operation and how that affected the first years of the Free State. The IRA did not, of course, operate in a vacuum, and this essay also proposes to examine the development of British TTPs and the effectiveness of their implementation.

The road network in Ireland covered 9,000 miles of well paved surfaces, this compared most unfavourably with the extensive rail and canal networks. It was not the roads which originally provided the means for the British army and Royal Irish Constabulary to take care of their far-flung garrisons. The army, once it looked likely to be called into action against the IRA carried out tests on the suitability of their motor pool for operations in Ireland. They found the paved services would take a maximum of seven and a half tons while neglecting to factor in weather. So why then, with Ireland’s notoriously poor road network and the unreliability of the British motor pool, did the Crown forces depend on the roads during the rebellion? The answer is that they were prevented from using the railway by the munitions strikers. These strikers, while not particularly republican in their outlook, were unwilling to assist in the persecution of their fellow countrymen by forces of occupation . This strike greatly inhibited the effectiveness of the RIC’s 1920 offensive against the IRA and forced the army, who were now playing a greater active role in assisting the police, to greatly enlarge their motor pool in Ireland.

How effective, or suitable, were the new British vehicles on the infamous roads in Ireland, the war office sent over seventy eight armoured vehicles to Ireland, including 16 tanks, which were totally unsuited to road conditions in the country. As per the British road tests it was found that a practical limit of seven and a half tons was to be observed on the very best roads in Ireland while the lightest of these vehicles weighed in at five tons, before adding the weight of fuel, ammunition and crew. Seeing as it was predominantly along main roads the ambushes occurred, the army and police were understandably reluctant to use these vehicles unless compelled to do so. It was this limited supply of options which enabled the rural IRA information infrastructure to appear so devastatingly efficient to the British troops. It also allowed the IRA to use improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and mines along these main routes to further disrupt British logistical operations, thereby adding a decidedly lethal edge to an otherwise passive campaign. This increased use of IEDs caused no small amount of political fallout as it enabled the British government to brand the IRA as terrorists and cowards .

The IRA further exacerbated the transport and supply problem by carrying out concerted counter mobility campaigns across the country, particularly in Offaly, Laois, Leitrim and Longford . The goal of the rebels in their counter-mobility efforts here appears to have been the cutting off of the Curragh camp from communications in the South, West and North . This demonstrates clearly one of the major principals behind counter-mobility warfare, denying freedom of movement and communications to the enemy. Kautt when he deals with ‘Operations against British transport in Ireland’ seems rather dismissive of the idea that the IRA was using a concerted national strategy to block British communications. This would have worked in tandem with Collins’ famously effective intelligence network. From my own reading of statements and directives issued by the GHQ in Dublin it does seem that the Volunteer GHQ exerted a certain degree of centralizing control on the activities of its scattered battalions , certainly more so than could be expected of any contemporaneous guerrilla campaign. This allowed the IRA, even in otherwise ‘quiet’ counties to aid and abet the more ‘active’ rebels by hindering the efficiency of British communications.

The rebels focused on the use of trenches and constructions to block roads, the most common obstruction was the ‘removal of road surface’ . The removal of the hard top, coupled with even a small trench would make it almost impossible for any British convoy to travel freely across Ireland . The few roads that were left undamaged were unlikely to be used as the rebels could set up ambushes along these routes with relative ease. The IRA battalions in both South Tipperary and West Cork became especially adept at combining both ambush and road obstruction to defeat British convoys. This developing professionalism was either unnoticed or unheeded by the British forces in Ireland for a long time , leading to a certain air of complacency which negated the sensible TTPs laid out in the standing orders issued by the British GHQ (Ireland). This lackadaisical approach to convoy structure made the already effective nature of the IRA’s counter mobility operations even more effective and allowed many ambushes to be more effective than they might otherwise have been.

The ambush at Ballyvourney, Co Cork on 25 February 1921 gives an excellent example of the IRA using road stoppage to funnel the oncoming British convoy into an ambush site. Sean O’Hegarty, Commandant of the local IRA 1st Cork Brigade, ordered his men to trench the secondary road that could possibly have been used to bypass the ambush site. To reinforce this block he detached a section (6 – 8 men) from his ambushing force to over watch the large trench in the road. This shows a sophisticated and intelligent use of terrain, men and planning to make the most effective use of the limited means at the disposal of the IRA. This ambush caused no small amount of concern for the British army for many reasons, firstly with a force of over sixty volunteers armed mostly with service rifles and two Lewis light machine guns showed that the IRA was becoming better armed. Secondly the excellent positioning of the trench and the rearguard detailed to defend it, as well as the columns line of retreat, showed an increasing professionalism on the part of IRA leaders. Thirdly it was one of the few unequivocal defeats suffered by the British in the entire conflict with six experienced members of the Auxiliary division of the RIC killed outright and no IRA casualties inflicted in return .

With the alarming growth in both the frequency and effectiveness of ambushes in Ireland, the British forces were compelled to create new and innovative solutions to the problems of supply and mobility in a hostile guerrilla environment. The standing orders deal with much that would be considered trivial to modern military men, such as having adequate reserves of fuel, trenching tools, axes and steel cable for towing trapped vehicles present in a convoy. As Kautt rightly points out however, this was at a time when large scale motorized operations such as those taking place in Ireland from 1919 – 1921 were a complete novelty and the British army (notorious for its conservatism) were trying to adapt their own experiences in World War One to a much smaller scale conflict. That is not to suggest however that the officers and men were encouraged to act with any less care, aggression or professionalism. Indeed it can be argued, and it often is that for conventional forces, trying to combat a guerrilla threat is more personally demanding than fighting a conventional enemy.

Though the IRA was active in urban areas throughout Ireland and predominantly in Dublin during the rebellion these areas saw little of the concerted destruction of roads that occurred in the countryside. Kautt fails to address this issue, the most likely answer is that this was born from necessity and the cramped confines of the urban environment. Trenching roads and setting up roadblocks are both time-consuming and highly visual tasks, neither of which is suited to the confines of urban guerrilla operations which took the form of random patrolling, assassinations and occasionally large scale ambushes. Yet counter mobility operations are not solely based on the destruction of roads, it was through improvisation and deceit that the IRA ran their counter mobility campaign in Dublin, often misinforming the castle so as to channel the oncoming crown forces into an ambush. One such example of this activity comes from the attempted ambush near Amiens Street Station, where the OC* 2nd Battalion had misinformation sent to the castle so as to lure British forces into an ambush. However due to the size of his ambushing force the castle had already received intelligence about a prospective ambush and so the 2nd Battalion had to beat a hasty retreat.

From these ambushes, both carried out in the final year of the war, the increasing sophistication and complexity of IRA operations can be seen. Gone were the days of Soloheadbeg and the essentially ad hoc nature of operations, instead large, well trained and motivated columns were able to execute quite complicated operations and retard the ability of the British forces to move freely about the country. Indeed, such was the effectiveness of the IRA’s counter-mobility campaign that eventually it became easier for the British to move their troops and equipment around by sea than across it by road . If nothing else then this simple fact pays testament to the effectiveness of the nationwide campaign undertaken by the IRA to limit the ability of British forces to move freely.

As has been noted before neither the IRA nor the British forces were active in a vacuum. The counter mobility policies of the IRA had significant and long lasting effects on the rural economy of Ireland, while the ‘daily destruction of bridges and roads’ may have been slightly exaggerated there can be little doubt that in the cold hard light of day, after the end of the civil war the road network in Ireland was in a state of considerable disrepair. Re-surfacing roads and repairing bridges would constitute a major drain on public finances simply to bring the roads back to the standard they had been before 1919. This burden would keep a budget deficit on the austere books of Cumann na nGaedheal until 1931 when it was finally cleared. Indeed from 1922 – 1932 the government spent £6,670,662 on repairing the road network, with the figure contributed to the road fund growing year on year until 1932 when the government felt able to take £250,000 from the road fund to help meet the costs of unemployment. This level of expenditure far exceeded any of the other capital projects undertaken by the government and help to give a sense of the scale of the counter mobility operations undertaken by the IRA from 1919 – 1921.


-Primary Sources
• Cmdt. O’Hegarty S. – Report of Ambush at Coolavig (Ballyvourney) 25th February 1921
• Department of Finance – Saorstat Eireann Finance Accounts 1922 - 1952
• GHQ Dublin, Dept. Of Engineering – Circular No. ½ 4 ½ 16 January 1921
• O’Malley E. – Raids and Rallies Anvil Books 1982
• Reynolds D.J – Inland Transport in Ireland: A factual survey The Economic Research Institute 1962
-Secondary Sources
• Capt. Buckley D. – The Battle of Tourmakeady: Fact or Fiction? A study of the IRA ambush and its aftermath Nonsuch 2008
• Duggan J.P - A History of the Irish Army Gill & MacMillan 1991
• Kautt W.H. – Ambushes and Armour; The Irish Rebellion 1919 - 1921 – Irish Academic Press 2010
• Lee J.J. – Ireland, Politics and Society 1912 – 1985 Cambridge University Press 1989
• Meenan J – The Economy of Ireland since 1922 Liverpool University Press 1970
• Paret P. (Ed.) – Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age Oxford University Press 2007
• Towshend C. – The British Campaign in Ireland 1919 – 1921: Development of Political and Military Polices Oxford University Press 1989