IN previous offerings covering the War of Independence and the Civil War, we have made references to ‘The Squad’ as was required. However, we have never detailed in full who they were or why they had been assembled by order of Michael Collins. This week we will rectify that omission.
Following the 1918 general election on 14 December to the houses of parliament, Sinn Féin won 48 seats, plus 25 others which were uncontested. In their manifesto, they had declared that should they be successful, they would not sit in London but set up an Irish government in Dublin. They followed through on this promise by abstaining from Westminster and on 19 January 1919 in the round room of the Mansion House, they held the first meeting of the first Dáil, which was conducted entirely in Irish. Cathal Brugha was elected ceann comhairle. A number of short documents were then adopted, which were as follows:
- A Dáil constitution
- A Declaration of Independence
- Message to all free nations of the world (seeking recognition).
- A democratic programme.
Following this, Brugha was elected president of the Dáil. Eamon de Valera would assume this office on 1 April following his escape from Lincoln Prison.
Part of the Declaration of Independence demanded complete evacuation of the British garrison. Although this could be deemed as a declaration of war, the British did not treat it as such. Even the Soloheadbeg ambush in Tipperary that same day, which launched the War of Independence, was treated by the crown as a matter for the police and not a path to war.
It was in July 1919 that Collins tasked Dick McKee to put the Squad together, as it was felt that while most members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were careful not to upset republicans (so Sinn Féin desisted from acts of violence, instead using mild persuasion and intimidation to keep the RIC men in check), British intelligence officers had escalated their activities against Sinn Féin and these men and their actions became a thorn in Collins mind, which led to his request to McKee.
The founding members of the ‘Squad’ comprised 31-year-old Dublin-born Paddy Daly (the leader who fought in the Four Courts during the 1916 rising) James Conroy, Ben Barrett, Mick McDonnell, Joe Leonard, Bill Stapleton, Sean Doyle, Jim McGuiness and Jimmy Slattery, a Clare man who had lost a hand in the Custom House fire. Those above were involved in the action on Bloody Sunday and among those added for this mission were Stephen Behan (father of Brendan and Dominic), Sean Lemass, Jim McGuiness, James Ronan, Johnny Wilson, Andy Cooney, Charlie Dalton, Mick O’Reilly and Gearóid O’Sullivan and others.
Detective Sgt Patrick ‘the Dog’ Smith from G Division, which was the plain clothes divisional office of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), became the Squad’s first target by reason of his harassment of Sinn Féin. Collins authorised his assassination, which was carried out when Smith was shot several times near his home in Millmount Avenue in Drumcondra on 30 July 1919. Collapsing at the scene, he was taken to the Mater Hospital, where he died on 8 September 1919.
Although already active, the Squad became official at a meeting held in 46 Rutland Square (now Parnell Square) on 19 September 1919. This was a professional operation and the core members were paid £4.10s a week. Three more were added to the original nine a few months later – Vinny Byrne, Tom Keogh and Mick O’Reilly – so making the ‘12 apostles’, a title first bestowed on them by Austin Stack.
There would also be a second tier available, drawn from a lengthy list, to be used when required. Collins would select men from the Dublin active service unit to either carry out assassinations or supply back-up to Squad members on dangerous missions. When this happened, the Squad would be renamed The Guard. These men would be used sparingly so as to protect identities or as decoys, but at no time was there more than 12 men active in the Squad itself and they were directly under the command and answerable to Collins.
For some reason, we have dedicated a previous article to the Cairo gang while missing out on the Squad. As we correct that omission, we have to reprise the Cairo gang, which was an arm of British intelligence in Dublin, who set up this special plain clothes agency made up of some 20 demobbed British Army officers, along with a few active duty officers, to conduct operations against the IRA.
No-one is sure of where the name Cairo came from. First it was thought that it may have been because these men had served in that city in Egypt, but this was soon discounted and it was considered that because they would meet at the Cairo Café in Grafton Street, the name fell into place. There is no mention of the Cairo gang anywhere in any records covering the 1919-1922 period. Their orders were to go nowhere near Dublin Castle, as it was known that Collins had moles in high places there. Instead, they were to report daily to their commander, Colonel Ormonde Winter, at either Cairo Café or Kidds restaurant on Grafton Street. Whatever the reason for their name, the Cairo gang has crept into our history.
The gang received their training in London, most likely under the special branch with the assistance of MI5. In Dublin, they became known as the Dublin District Special Branch (DDWSB) or D-Branch, under the command of the Dublin District Division.
They arrived in Dublin using aliases (we will look at their real identity as we clarify the lead-up to Bloody Sunday). They took up various jobs in shops, garages and other establishments. They were directed by two men, Lt George Bennett of the Royal Army Service Corps, who had served as an intelligence officer during WWI, and Lt Peter Ames of the Grenadier Guards, who was born in Pennsylvania on 10 June 1888. There is no denying this gang’s objective was the assassination of leading members of Sinn Féin not connected with the military struggle, which, they believed, would lead to a response from the IRA, which, in turn, would bring its leaders into the open.
The Squad, meanwhile, were also continuing their task and Collins had set up a network of intelligence informers which reached deep into the top echelons of their British counterparts. While isolated killings took place, Sunday 21 November 1920 was a day which would enshrine both the Squad and the Cairo gang in our history forever in what is known as Dublin’s Bloody Sunday.
The day began when Collins’ plan to destroy the British intelligence network in Dublin swung into operation. To this aim, the Squad, augmented by members of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA, were assigned the task of killing 35 named individuals active in spying for the British. The plan was to totally – or as far as possible – wipe out the Cairo gang, which was the main security threat to IRA efforts during the War of Independence.
As good as British intelligence was, Collins’ information was better. By now he knew all about the gang, where they lived, who they were and their movements. It was no coincidence that this Sunday was selected as Dublin and Tipperary would meet in a football match in Croke Park that afternoon, the proceeds of which would be donated to the republican prisoners fund. This meant that large numbers of people would be moving around the city, which would lessen the chance of detection. What could not be foreseen was what the British response would be, nor what would take place in Croke Park during that match. Also crucial to this decision was that the IRA had information that the Cairo gang were at the same time forming their own plan to assassinate a significant number of leading republicans.
On Saturday 20 November, the assassination teams were briefed on their targets. These consisted of 20 agents in eight locations across the city. Also included were 50 intelligence officers and informers. However, numbers were reduced and a final target list of 35 was agreed.
The operation began early on Sunday morning. The Gresham Hotel was attacked by 12 IRA men, where Capt P McCormack (33), a noted amateur jockey and vet who was born in Castlebar, where his parents were in the drapery business, was killed. The IRA later admitted his killing was a mistake. Leonard Wilde was also killed; no links were found connecting him to British intelligence. Killed at 28 Upper Pembroke Street by a group of 20 IRA men were Major Mason Dowling and Captain Leonard Price (35). Wounded in this encounter were Captain Kennelly, Major Murray, along with colonels Woodcock and Montgomery. Lieutenant Henry Angliss (29) used the name Patrick Mahon as a cover; he was killed at 22 Lower Mount Street. British Auxiliaries on hearing the gunfire arrived, surrounded the building and two members, Garniss and Morris, were killed in the ensuing gun battle, while IRA man Frank Teeling was wounded and captured, but escaped from Kilmainham Jail a short while later. He was the only IRA man to have a mishap.
A group which included future taoiseach Sean Lemass killed Captain Geoffrey Baggallay (29) at 119 Lower Baggot Street, while at number 92 on the same street Captain William Newberry (45) was also killed by a 12-man group led by Stapleton and which included Leonard, both members of the Squad.
Other areas that saw incidents were Morehampton Road, where Lieutenant Donald MacLean (31), chief of intelligence at Dublin Castle, was shot dead, while his brother-in-law John Caldow was also shot, but survived. A civilian, TH Smith, thought to be an informer, was also killed. Vinnie Byrne and Sean Doyle, part of a five or six-man squad, carried out the shootings. RIC Sergeant (ex-military captain) John Fitzgerald (22), born in Cappawhite, Co Tipperary, was killed at 28 Earlsfort Terrace. Bennett and Ames were assassinated at 38 Upper Mount Street.
In all, 13 men died, with six wounded, and although this was below the number intended, the establishment was shocked and their Dublin intelligence unit was totally dismantled, with many agents and informers heading to Dublin Castle and the majority leaving from there to England.
We have covered the events at Croke Park and the aftermath in a previous Bloody Sunday article. Suffice it to say that the Black and Tans shot 14 people, including Tipperary goalkeeper Michael Hogan, when they ran riot through unarmed spectators in retaliation for the events of that morning. Many would support the belief that this day ultimately led to the Treaty negotiations which ended the War of Independence.