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In his violent efforts to secure Irish Independence, the shrewd guerrilla leader paid back the British ‘in their own coin.’

On Aug. 22, 1922, as dusk settled on the soft Irish hills of southern County Cork, Ireland, a small convoy followed a winding dirt road toward the tiny village of Béal na Bláth. The column comprised four vehicles: a motorcycle in the lead; followed by an open-topped Crossley trans- port carrying two officers and eight enlisted men; a light yellow open-topped Leyland Eight touring car; and, bringing up the rear, a Rolls-Royce Whippet armored car. In the backseat of the Leyland sat two passengers. One, Emmet Dalton, was a major general in the Irish Free State forces. The other, a tall, fine-featured man of 31 wearing a trench coat and officer’s cap, was Michael Collins, chairman of the Provisional Government of Southern Ireland and commander in chief of its Free State army. He was the man known among his Irish brethren as the “Big Fellow.”

For two months a bloody civil war had been tearing the country apart, and Free State forces had only recently wrested Cork from Republican control. Earlier in the day when the Cork-born Collins had been warned of a possible Republican ambush, he had responded, “Surely, they won’t shoot me in my own county.” He was mistaken. As the column rounded a bend, it came to a halt behind an abandoned brewer’s dray. When soldiers jumped from the transport to move the wagon, gunfire erupted from the hillsides. The men behind the guns were members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and their target was Collins.

After a 20-minute exchange there was a lull in the firing, whereupon Collins stood from behind the cover of the armored car for a better angle on his attackers. A single shot rang out, and a .303 round from a Lee-Enfield rifle tore a gaping hole through his skull. Dalton ran to his fallen commander and bandaged his head but recognized Collins was already dead or dying.

Ironically, Collins had been working toward a truce. Just hours before he had reportedly told a local commander, “I’m going to put an end to this bloody war as soon as possible.” But as he died in Emmet Dalton’s arms, so, too, died the hope of a swift cessation of hostilities. The war would drag on another nine terrible months and claim countless Irish lives before finally wearing itself out.

Many in Ireland and abroad would have thought Michael Collins the last person to offer the hope of peace. Over the previous three years he had earned an international reputation as the most brilliant, ruthless and effective guerrilla leader of his day and—in the words of one recent biographer—was arguably “the originator of modern urban terrorism.”

Collins’ involvement in the struggle for Irish independence began when he was a teenager. He joined the Gaelic League at 16 and, three years later, the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), an order committed to establishing a republic through armed revolution. In Dublin in April 1916, 25-year-old Collins participated in the Republican movement’s ill-fated Easter Rising against British forces. In its grim aftermath 16 men were court-martialed, put against a wall and shot; another was hanged. Collins narrowly escaped execution and was among the hundreds of men sent to English internment camps. The British would come to regret the blunder that allowed Collins to escape the firing squad.

Predictably, Irish poets and ballad singers extolled the tragic glory of “the Rising,” as new lyrics were put to traditional tunes. Famed poet William Butler Yeats, previously dismissive of the efforts of the rebels, wrote “Easter, 1916” with its haunting refrain, “A terrible beauty is born.” Collins, however, languishing in a British prison camp, wrote, “I do not think the Rising week was an appropriate time for the issue of memoranda couched in poetic phrase. …On the whole I think the Rising was bungled terribly, costing many a good life.” He had learned a valuable lesson: Irish independence could never be attained by a frontal assault on one of the world’s most powerful nations. As Collins saw it, the goal was not to die nobly for the Cause; it was to win, by taking the war to the enemy and using his own tactics against him. Henceforth, this lesson would define Collins’ role in the struggle, and it would ultimately drive Britain to the bargaining table.

Released in late December 1916, Collins re-entered Dublin on Christmas morning. Over the next few years his rise was nothing short of meteoric: member of the executive council of Sinn Féin, the Irish nationalist political party; adjutant general and director of organization for the Irish Volunteers (precursor to the IRA); minister of finance and home affairs in the nationalists’ shadow government; president of the IRB Supreme Council; acting president of the Irish Assembly (Dáil Éireann)…and the list goes on. An adept accountant, he authored and oversaw the National Loan that kept the revolution solvent. But it was as head of Ireland’s insurgence and counterintelligence efforts that Collins found his true calling. He was, as one biographer described him, “an organizational genius with a natural gift for espionage, and a revolutionary visionary.”

Through meticulous planning and exceptional management Collins established an aggressive and highly effective intelligence organization based on a two-point program.

First, Collins would revolutionize the concept of clandestine warfare by turning Britain’s intelligence program back on its authors. For centuries the British had relied on a network of agents and informers to undermine Ireland’s efforts at independence. Through the use of spies they had foiled rebellion after rebellion and executed Ireland’s strongest revolutionary leaders. Collins was aware the British government was using moles and secret agents, and he set about establishing his own inside informants among the local police forces, intelligence services and in every section of Dublin Castle, the very heart of British rule in Ireland. He literally  spied on the enemy’s spy network, receiving copies of every document relevant to British movements and the security of his own organization. Forewarned, he always managed to stay one jump ahead of the British. As he wrote in 1919, “Without her spies, England is helpless.”

Second, his intelligence program involved the creation of a secret hit squad within the IRA. The team of assassins reported directly to the “Big Fellow.” Collins was strict in establishing the group’s purpose and function. There would be no revenge killings; targets would be selected on a solely political, strategic basis. One member later recalled, “I am satisfied…that no man was shot merely for revenge and that any execution sanctioned by Michael Collins was perfectly justified.” Collins’ team of killers was officially designated the “Squad,” its dozen members irreverently dubbed the “Twelve Apostles.” British authorities referred to them as the “Murder Gang” and put out an immediate kill order on any captured, including their commander.

Aiding Collins’ efforts in no small measure—albeit unintentionally—were the British themselves. J.B.E. Hittle, author of a recent revisionist study of Collins and the role of his intelligence operation, describes in detail a hopelessly dysfunctional British intelligence community. In early 1919—as Collins and the IRA were stepping up their clandestine war— the British government chose to revamp its counterintelligence system, rebuilding it along political lines and employing inexperienced and ill-equipped operatives whose actions were often stymied by blurred departmental lines of responsibility. The resulting confusion, internal rivalry and dissension defined a thoroughly unstable bureaucracy, incapable of staging an effective response to Collins and his organization.

As Collins was keenly aware, the Anglo-Irish War was less a war than a police action involving a minimal number of British troops. The enemy mainly comprised the local police forces, the hated Special Intelligence Division (G Division) of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the latter anchored by the notorious “Black and Tans,” former British soldiers whose brutal tactics surpassed their glaring lack of policing skills.

In July 1920 Britain backed the RIC with yet another paramilitary security force, a 2,000-man group of ex-military officers known as the Auxiliary Division. The “Auxies” were, as author Hittle observed, “far more cunning and dangerous than the Black and Tans.” Many were decorated World War I veterans, and their number “included a sinister sprinkling of sadists and psychopaths.” Each man carried a .45-caliber Webley revolver and a Lee-Enfield carbine, and squads rode about in armored cars fitted with machine guns. Fiercely loyal to the Crown, the Auxies were accountable to no one and committed atrocities as a matter of course.

Collins’ determination to meet brutality with brutality had a darker purpose than simply meeting the enemy on his own ground. As a chronicler of the Squad later wrote, “Collins set out with a plan to eliminate the most effective British detectives and thus knock out the eyes and ears of the Dublin Castle regime in order to provoke the British to retaliate blindly.” The “Big Fellow” knew his enemy and was confident that, deprived of specific political targets, the Black and Tans and Auxies would turn their rage against the Irish people, thereby driving the citizenry into the republican camp. Given the stakes, he was willing to sacrifice innocent lives in order to unite the country, achieve international sympathy and support, and ultimately push Britain into negotiations.

The strategy was simple and brilliant. Should the British not respond, they would effectively be ceding control without a fight. However, should they respond with violence, the world would view them as oppressors. Through the skillful use of global propaganda, Collins proceeded to herd the English into a veritable no-win position.

Time and again Collins’ informants identified his prime targets and pinpointed the location of the enemy’s next strike. One of his most valued sources was Sergeant Eamon “Ned” Broy, whose position as an intelligence clerk within Dublin Castle’s G Division gave him access to the most sensitive British documents. It was his job to review and type up the division’s reports. By inserting a second carbon in his typewriter, he was able to transcribe copies for Collins—a technique that regularly saved IRA lives and cost British ones.

Collins’ master plan began to have the desired effect almost at once. A combination of selective assassinations and regularly intercepted communications prompted British Viceroy Lord John French, to comment, “Our secret service is simply nonexistent. What masquerades for such a service is nothing but a delusion and a snare. The DMP are absolutely demoralized, and the RIC will be in the same case very soon.”

In his frustration Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, chief of the British imperial general staff, proposed an extreme response to the new Irish guerrilla tactics: “Collect the names of Sinn Féiners by districts; proclaim them on church doors all over the country; and whenever a policeman is murdered, pick five by lot and shoot them!…Terror must be met by greater terror.” Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill was equally apoplectic: “It is monstrous that we have 200 murders and no one hung.”

Actually, one young rebel was hanged. An 18-year-old medical student named Kevin Barry was arrested for participating in an IRA ambush of British soldiers, and on Nov. 1, 1920, he was executed. Had British authorities done their homework they would have realized the added affront of scheduling his execution for All Saints’ Day, a holy day of obligation in the overwhelmingly Catholic south of Ireland. Collins and the IRA leadership took a pragmatic and preemptive approach to Barry’s death. On the eve of his execution the Squad shot 16 policemen and a naval officer, seven of whom died, and kidnapped and savagely beat two more.

Collins was correct in predicting random, bloody retaliation by British security forces. What occurred in Tralee is indicative. In response to the spate of IRA killings and kidnappings, the Black and Tans visited a reign of terror on the locals. Descending on the town that All Saints’ Day, they drove their lorries and armored cars back and forth past the town’s churches, firing in the air as congregants emerged. They barred citizens at bayonet point from buying necessities, shut down shops and schools, and prowled the empty streets. They summarily shot two suspected IRA sympathizers. During one senseless drive-by a pregnant housewife was shot and killed.

The international response was immediate; the world press excoriated Britain for allowing such depredations. The situation in Tralee made the front page of The New York Times on three occasions and the Montreal Gazette in four issues. One Gazette headline screamed, TRALEE IS PARALYZED: TOWN NEAR STARVATION, CONDITION IS DESPERATE. The New York World reported that attempts to reopen shops were “met by demonstrations by the police, who appeared on the streets shouting and discharging firearms.” Similar accounts appeared in Le Journal of Paris and, surprisingly, in four major British papers, including The Times of London.

On the fourth day of the siege the Black and Tans began firebombing businesses linked to Sinn Féiners. The Cork Examiner wrote, “The screams of the women and children were heard from the neighborhood of the burning buildings, mingled with the ring of rifle fire and the explosion of bombs.” Finally, after nine hellish days and nights, the occupiers withdrew. That evening Prime Minister David Lloyd George sought to put a positive face on the Tralee debacle by claiming in a speech that Britain’s security forces in Ireland were succeeding and “had murder by the throat.” No one was fooled, and Collins could not have gotten better press had he written the reports about Tralee himself.

Meanwhile, no one in the British secret services had a clue what Collins or any of his “apostles” looked like. With a £10,000 reward on his head, the charismatic guerrilla leader hid in plain sight, riding his bicycle openly through the streets of Dublin dressed as a respectable businessman and using the alias “John Grace.” Meanwhile, the Squad, in union with IRA forces, was effectively and systematically neutralizing Britain’s counterinsurgency efforts.

It was, however, one bold, savage act that solidified Collins’ reputation among the Irish as the ultimate guerrilla leader and among the British as a consummate murderer and terrorist. It has come to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” A number of experienced British intelligence agents, reportedly handpicked by Churchill himself, had been pulled from their stations around the globe and reassigned to Ireland to bolster the flagging intelligence operation at Dublin Castle. Collins conceived a plot to kill all of them in a single spectacular attack. Despite the agents’ supposed skill in remaining anonymous, Collins’ staff knew their names, addresses and favorite haunts. Collins had specified the mission was to begin at exactly 9 a.m. on Nov. 21, 1920: “These whores, the British, have got to learn that Irishmen can turn up on time.” With more than 20 names on their hit list, eight IRA teams—each commanded by a Squad member—set out to eliminate the cream of the British military intelligence.

Despite the glowing reports by writers, revolutionaries and historians, the operation was anything but seamless. Some of the IRA assassins, unaccustomed to shooting men pointblank, missed or merely wounded their targets. Nine would-be victims managed to escape entirely. The hit squads killed 15 men and wounded four others. Some were shot in their beds or in front of their wives. Two of the dead were regular army officers killed by mistake. In the end the rebels lost five of their own—three to bullets and two, ultimately, to the hangman.

Although the operation fell short of complete success, Collins’ operatives dealt British intelligence a significant blow. The shock wave that swept over the British presence in Dublin drove agents, high-ranking officials and officers citywide scurrying into an overcrowded Dublin Castle. The services immediately stationed a number of intelligence agents out of Ireland. Of the handful that remained, most were pulled from cover and provided round-the-clock protection, their usefulness permanently compromised.

The British government had totally underestimated the size and sophistication of Collins’ counterintelligence network. This abruptly changed. As one chronicler put it, “They accepted after Bloody Sunday that they were dealing with an organized and efficient force, and so began their first efforts at negotiation.”

For his part Collins was satisfied with the results. He responded bluntly to criticism the operation was literally a case of overkill: “There is no crime in detecting and destroying in wartime the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.”

Predictably, that same day the RIC and Auxies went on an unrestrained rampage, locking down and then firing on a stadium full of Irish football fans. Twelve men were shot dead, dozens wounded and two trampled in the ensuing panic. But despite the heavy cost, the damage to the British presence in Ireland was irreparable.

And the violence continued. A week after Bloody Sunday, IRA commander Tom Barry’s West Cork Flying Column ambushed two truckloads of Auxies at Kilmichael, killing 17. On December 11, a day after the British declared martial law in Cork, Barry ambushed another auxiliary patrol. In a replay of Tralee, enraged Auxies occupied Kilmichael, looting, burning and shooting up the town. One IRA officer who witnessed the devastation later reflected: “We could have shot most of them that night if we had wanted to…and we wanted to all right, but it would have ruined the whole show. They were doing all they could to help us.” He had learned Collins’ lesson well.

Collins possessed an uncanny ability to find chinks in the enemy’s armor and savagely exploit those weak points. By neutralizing the British spy network in Ireland, while at the same time creating a highly functional intelligence network of his own, he was instrumental in finally forcing Britain to negotiate an Irish Free State. In the process he earned a name for himself as one of the world’s most effective guerrilla leaders.

When Ireland and England signed a truce on July 11, 1921, it was the charming, brutal and infinitely com- plex Michael Collins who was chiefly responsible for silencing the guns. As one of the authors of the peace terms, he helped attain dominion status for Ireland, making it self-governing, although still a part of the British empire. Yet many who had fought with and under him would have nothing less than a wholly independent state that incorporated the six northern counties over which Britain maintained control.

The civil war that erupted in June 1922 lasted almost a year, and its most notable casualty was Michael Collins. It is one of the ironies of history that the man who had humbled the British empire and for years eluded its long hand ultimately fell to an Irish bullet.


Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon and co-author of The Slave Next Door. For further reading he recommends Michael Collins’ The Path to Freedom, J.B.E. Hittle’s Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War, and Tim Pat Coogan’s Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland.

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.