In the third week of the month of December two daring ambushes took place, one in Ireland and one in Spain. Both were carried out by national liberation organisations and both were very daring, aimed at extremely high-level military and state targets who were well-protected in cities controlled by the occupying state. The ambushes were one day on the calendar apart but 64 years separated them; the date of the Dublin one was December 19th 1919 and the the other took place on December 20th 1973 in Madrid.
BACKGROUND TO THE IRISH ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
The target of the Irish ambush was Field Marshal John French. No-one resident in Ireland could rank higher in the British Empire; the British Queen and state’s representative in Ireland, French had been appointed Lord Lieutenant and Supreme Commander of the British Army in Ireland in 1918. Of course, it was not the first time that the Irish resistance had set its sights so high – in 1882 in Phoenix Park in Dublin, the Republican group The Invincibles had assassinated the Chief Secretary for Ireland, at that time the Queen’s representative, along with Thomas Burke, the Permanent Undersecretary and the Queen’s most senior civil servant in Ireland.
Field Marshal John French had previously held the positions of Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Forces and, at the start of the First World War, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France. Under General Maxwell, he oversaw the suppression of the 1916 Rising and subsequent executions. Had the British government imposed conscription in Ireland in 1918, as threatened, he would have been in charge of seeing it through and had in fact pressed for the measure to be introduced. In the event, the opposition to conscription in Ireland was so widescale, including from the Irish Catholic Church, usually so loyal to the British, that an insurrection was feared if they went ahead with it.
John French was from a Norman-English family settled in Wexford in the fourteenth century with large property in Roscommon and, though his family had gone to live in England in the eighteenth century and he himself was born in Kent, French always regarded himself as “Irish”. John’s father had been a Royal Navy Commander and John himself pursued a military career, first in the Royal Navy and later in the Army. His record in the Navy was below expectations, as was his initial Army career. However, he made his name on a number of military engagements in the Second Boer War and Second Morocco Crisis and with the help of some allies who had political and military clout, was appointed Chief of the Imperial Military Staff in 1912. He resigned his position over the Curragh ‘Mutiny’ incident in 1914 but was given command of the British Expeditionary Force in France and in Belgium during the First World War. He was later forced to resign over his handling of this command, particularly in regard to his difficult relations with high-level French officers, but was given command of the defence of Britain.
In May 1918, French was appointed Lord Lieutenant and Supreme Commander of the British Army in Ireland. The political situation in Ireland was unstable as the republican (or “advanced nationalist”) opposition was gaining ground against the old nationalist opposition. The latter had been embarrassed by the British failure to implement Home Rule, which was on the statute books but not enacted, while the former varied from those demanding Home Rule immediately to those who wanted complete national independence. The formerly Irish monarchist party Sinn Féin had been coopted by the Irish Republican Brotherhood after the 1916 Rising and it became a republican/nationalist hegemonising political force while at the same time being a coalition of different political viewpoints. Outside of this, Labour also had some sway, particularly in some areas and was also opposed to the Nationalist party; Sinn Féin and Labour Councillors cooperated with one another on many occasions. In the British General Elections of December 1918, in Ireland, the newly-changed Sinn Féin nearly wiped the Nationalist party off the electoral map and decided to set up their own parliament, or Dáil, in Ireland and not to attend the British Parliament in Westminster.
The Royal Irish Constabulary, the armed colonial police force in Ireland since 1822, was the subject of a boycott campaign and physical attacks on its members.
The Irish Republican Army, reorganised after the Rising, was in training in many areas. Some of its foremost soldiers and leaders, men like Dan Breen, Sean Treacey, Sean Hogan and Séamus Robinson were of the opinion that only through a liberation war could Ireland be freed from British rule; they were therefore eager for that war to start.
There was no indication that this was the dominant opinion among the elected representatives of Sinn Féin, the TDs (Teachtaí Dála) and, indeed, many were of the opinion that the British could be pressured into a negotiated settlement, without the need for any armed struggle. One of the latter was Arthur Griffiths himself, founder of the party.
On the same day as the setting up of the Dáil and its declaration of independence from Britain, 21st January 1919, Breen, Treacey, Hogan, Robinson and five other less famous IRA volunteers ambushed a Royal Irish Constabulary escort for a consignment of gelignite in Tipperary, during which they shot dead both of the police escort and took their weapons as well as the explosives. The shooting dead of the RIC in the Soloheadbeg Ambush was a calculated act and Dan Breen later wrote:
“ …we took the action deliberately, having thought over the matter and talked it over between us. Treacy had stated to me that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police whom we looked upon as the foremost and most important branch of the enemy forces … The only regret that we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen in it, instead of the six we had expected.”
Nevertheless, they had begun the War of Independence, which was to last three years.
A number of times during 1919, the armed struggle advocates in the IRA carried out military operations through which they sought to provoke a response from the British that would launch the national liberation war and sweep the Dáil into going on a war footing too. Tens of RIC were killed along with a few British soldiers. The British responded by imposing martial law on particular areas and carrying out raids and arrests. The IRA however were moving towards a full war footing with the British and, in many areas, were already there.
As 1919 moved on the British outlawed Irish political and cultural organisations: the Dáil, Sinn Féin, Conradh na Gaeilge and other nationalist organisations and publications had been banned, along with the Freeman’s Journal and some other weeklies. In addition, cattle fairs and other gatherings had been forbidden and all car licences apart from those for lorries had to be applied for to the police, a requirement which had occasioned a chauffeurs’ strike. However, neither Sinn Féin nor the Dáil considered itself at war yet.
The planned ambush on Ashtown Road on 19th December 1921 was intended to change that irrevocably for the target was none other than Field Marshal John French, Lord Lieutenant and Supreme Commander of the British Army in Ireland.
THE ASHTOWN ROAD AMBUSH
According to some sources, the IRA had set out to kill French on 12 separate occasions but each time something had intervened. One of those occasions was on November 11th 1919. Expecting him to pass in minutes on Grattan Bridge on his way to a banquet at Trinity College, Seán Hogan had pulled and thrown away the pins on two grenades and was holding down the timers with his fingers. French did not show and Hogan had to walk all the way to a safe house with his fingers holding down the timers on the grenades in his pockets. Luckily they had spare pins in the house.
In December, French had gone down to his family country estate at Frenchpark, Co. Roscommon, to host a reception there and was expected back in a couple of days. His movements were being monitored and the day he would set off by train for Dublin was reported to the ambush squad. He was expected to get out at Ashtown train station, the last one before the Broadstone terminus, and go from there with military escort to the Lord Lieutenant’s Residence (nowadays the US Ambassador’s) in Phoenix Park. An IRA party of 11, including Breen, Treacey, Robinson and Hogan set out to ambush the convoy and assassinate Lord Lieutenant French. The ambush party was already in place at Kelly’s pub (now called the Halfway House) on the Ashdown road as ‘chance customers’ when word reached them that French had alighted from the train. A Royal Irish Constabulary officer who had accosted them earlier had been knocked unconscious and dumped to one side. The information received was that French would be in the second car in the convoy.
A hay cart had been placed half-way across the road. As the first car and outrider passed it, the IRA Volunteers pushed the cart the rest of the way and engaged the second car with grenades, Mills bombs, rifles and pistols. However, French was in the first car and got away unhurt and the soldiers in the third car in the convoy arrived and began firing with machine guns and rifles at the Volunteers, along with the soldiers in the second car returning fire.
Martin Savage, a Volunteer who had met Breen and Hogan by chance the previous day and begged to be allowed to participate, was fatally wounded and his body had to be left near the scene. Several RIC and British soldiers were wounded with perhaps a fatality and the convoy withdrew towards Phoenix Park. The Volunteers knew that reinforcements would be sent soon so they dispersed to safe houses. Breen had been shot in the leg but managed to get away by bicycle.
The next morning, the Irish Independent published an article which described the attackers as “assassins” and included other such terms as “criminal folly”, “outrage” and “murder.” Taking these terms as an insult to their dead comrade, on Sunday, at 9pm, between twenty and thirty Volunteers under Peadar Clancy entered the offices of the Independent and began to dismantle and smash the machinery.
REACTION OF THE DÁIL AND SOME OTHER REPUBLICANS
Many of the Dáil TDs were shocked by the assassination attempt and among Irish Republicans who severely criticised the IRA within the movement was Charlotte Despard.
This might have been expected since she was sister to Field Marshal French, except that Charlotte had developed Republican sympathies and had settled in Dublin after the War. She had a background in social welfare and socialist political activity in Britain, including active membership in the Social Democratic Federation, the Independent Labour Party and the sufragette Women’s Social and Political Union and was a fierce critic of her brother. During the Irish War of Independence, Charlotte Despard, together with Maud Gonne, formed the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League which organised support for republican prisoners. Later, as a member of Cumann na mBan, she was to oppose the Anglo-Irish Treaty and to be imprisoned by the Free State Government during the Civil War.
REACTION OF THE BRITISH
The British military and police, under orders from French, of course replied to the assassination attempt with intensified repression and harassment of the civilian population in an attempt to drive a wedge between them and the IRA. The ambush and attempt on the life of the Lord Lieutenant and Supreme Commander of the British Army in Ireland no doubt helped Churchill, Secretary of War and Minister of the Air, push his idea of special counter-insurgency forces to act as auxillary police in Ireland, i.e. forces of state terrorism, who were to become known as the “Black and Tans” (abbreviated to “Tans”). Recruitment began that very month in London and the first recruits were in the field in January 1920. In July, the Auxillary Division of the RIC was set up, a much more efficient terror force composed almost entirely of British ex-soldiers of former NCO and officer rank.
With the “Tans” and the “Auxies” in the field, along with the crumbling RIC and the British Army, a full guerrilla war raged in many counties and cities of Ireland from 1920 to 1921, with torture and shooting or imprisonment of prisoners by the British, along with the burning of non-combatants’ homes and cooperatives. The IRA were carrying out ambushes and assassinations of RIC and their special auxiliary forces, British soldiers and Irish spies. Ironically 1921 was the year the Dáil finally declared war on the British and also the year of the Truce, negotiations and the controversial signing of the Treaty by the Dáil’s delegation in London, in which they accepted Dominion status for a partitioned Ireland.
Dominic Behan wrote a song about the ambush. It has been sung in different versions and with some verses added and omitted. Dominic Behan’s version is on here on 30.23 mins:
Wolfhound did their own version here which, on the whole, I prefer, though a little too drawn out and finishing on a climax (which traditional songs never do, anywhere in the world, apparently)
BACKGROUND TO THE MADRID AMBUSH
Like John French, Don Luis Carrero Blanco, 1st Duke of Carrero Blanco, Spanish Grandee, was a military career man. He entered the Spanish naval academy in 1918, at the age of 14 and participated in the colonial Rif War of 1924-1926. When General Franco and the other Generals led the military uprising against the Popular Front Government in 1936, Carrero Blanco was behind the Republican line and took refuge in the Mexican and later French embassies before working his way across the front to reach the fascist side in June 1937 and serving in their navy.
After the victory of the fascist forces in April 1939 and the instalation of General Franco as Dictator, Carerro Blanco became one of his closest collaborators; he was made vice-admiral (1963) and admiral (1966); he held the post of Vice-President of the state council from 1967 to 1973 and commanded the Navy. On 8th June 1973 Franco named Carerro Blanco Prime Minister of Spain.
Carrero Blanco was very much a supporter of the Spanish military-fascist dictatorship of Franco, a monarchist (Franco had himself installed Juan Carlos de Borbón, the present monarch, as King of Spain) and close to the secretive Opus Dei organisation of Catholic technocrats. Opus Dei, although in favour of authoritarian control of society, was opposed to the fascist Falange and favoured liberalisation of some laws and the penetration of foreign capital, particularly from the US and Europe, to which the Falange were opposed.
It is said that Carrero also opposed the state entering into World War II on the Axis side, for which the Falange were pushing. In the event, neither the Spanish state nor Portugal, both under fascist dictatorships, entered the War and as a result were the only two European fascist regimes which were not overthrown by invasion of one or various of the Allied forces or by popular resistance around the end of the War.
In the 1970s the Spanish ruling class was under pressure to relax its fascist grip and bring in the trappings of capitalist democracy: legalised opposition parties, legalised trade unions, a “free” press, etc. But Spain was ruled by a coalition of various interests, including the fascist Falange, the military caste, Spanish aristocracy, arriviste capitalists, Catholic Church hierarchy …. And they faced not only demands for democracy but also for socialism, including from the rank-and-file of the Communist Party of Spain and of the social-democratic party, the PSOE. Other groups specific to regions or nations within the Spanish state also had demands for democracy and socialism. The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and ETA had been raising demands for regional autonomy or independence and a similar desire was evident in Catalonia.
But most of the Spanish ruling class feared the breakup of the Spanish state and also feared socialism. Many opposed even social-democracy, from those who feared being held to account for their crimes against humanity during the Civil War to those afraid of a moral ‘loosening’ and loss of social control by the Church. But they were also increasingly aware that the military-fascist lid could not be kept on the pot forever – the pressure was building up and something would have to give. However, as Franco went into his old age and illness the Spanish ruling class also feared what would happen after his death. He had been such a central figure of authority, his face even on coinage and stamps, and a unifying force either through fear or loyalty. Although Carrero Blanco was not favourable towards the Falange they trusted him to keep the state going essentially the way it was and so Franco nominating the Admiral as his successor calmed a lot of fears.
Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, ETA, had been formed in the Basque Country in 1959 from socialist and Basque patriotic youth. A youth section of the Basque Nationalist Party, tired of the timidity and lack of action of the parent organisation, had been part of its forming and had accepted the socialist orientation of others graduating from the group EKIN. The young ETA organisation was subjected to the repression usual in the Spanish state after the Civil War and particularly harsh wherever the breakup of the State was threatened – and this was particularly so in the Basque Country. ETA’s supporters were watched and arrests and torture were a constant danger.
In the late 1960s some ETA members began to carry arms. On 7th June 1968, ETA member Txabi Etxebarrieta faced a routine road check by the Guardia Civil. Txabi was armed and determined not to be arrested and tortured — he shot a Guardia Civil member dead and fled on foot; he was chased and himself shot dead. The next ETA armed action that year was however a planned operation. Chief of secret police Melitón Manzanas had a long record of torture inflicted on detainees and of hunting Jews escaping Occupied Europe over the French border and returning them to the Nazis. ETA killed him and from then on ETA was on a guerilla war footing.
In the summer of 1973, a group of Basques pretending to be sculptors rented a flat in Madrid to carry out Operación Ogro (Operation Ogre). Over five months they dug a tunnel under the street outside and filled it with 80 kgs of explosives which had been stolen from a government depot.
On December 20th, 1973, Carrero Blanco was being driven from attending mass to his home in Madrid and accompanied by his bodyguard. As it travelled down the road, a bomb exploded in a tunnel under it with such force that the vehicle was blown right over the roofs of nearby buildings and landed on a balcony on the other side. Both driver and bodyguard were killed immediately and Carrero Blanco died shortly after. One epitaph of macabre humour was that Carerro Blanco had lived a very complete life: he had been born on earth, had lived at sea and died in the air.
In an interview explaining their rationale for Operación Ogro, the ETA operation group said:
“The execution in itself had an order and some clear objectives. From the beginning of 1951 Carrero Blanco practically occupied the government headquarters in the regime. Carrero Blanco symbolized better than anyone else the figure of “pure Francoism” and without totally linking himself to any of the Francoist tendencies, he covertly attempted to push Opus Dei into power. A man without scruples conscientiously mounted his own State within the State: he created a network of informers within the Ministries, in the Army, in the Falange, and also in Opus Dei. His police managed to put themselves into all the Francoist apparatus. Thus he made himself the key element of the system and a fundamental piece of the oligarchy’s political game. On the other hand, he came to be irreplaceable for his experience and capacity to manoeuvre and because nobody managed as he did to maintain the internal equilibrium of Francoism.”
—Julen Agirre, Operation Ogro: The Execution of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco (1975)
There was little criticism of the assassination from the Spanish opposition in exile or underground in the Spanish state. The Spanish ruling class of course condemned the action but it was thrown into disarray. In the confusion, the “modernising” and “liberalising” elements were able to take the initiative.
Less than three months after Carrero Blanco’s assassination his successor, the new prime minister Carlos Arias Navarro, in his first speech to the Cortes (Parliament) on 12 February 1974, promised liberalizing reforms including the right to form political associations. He faced opposition from hardliners within the regime but the transition had begun (how much of a “transition” is another issue).
The assassination of Carrero Blanco was an action taken by ETA perhaps primarily for the Basque struggle for independence and socialism but it had a deep effect across the whole Spanish state. It hastened the “Transition” and turned out to be a Christmas present to the Spanish social democratic and reformist opposition. Later years were to witness how badly they were to repay the Basque resistance.