Another Kind of War: IRA Terror incidents in the Thames Valley area in 1939

Terrorism has been very much in our minds in recent months, for obvious reasons, and historians have increasingly turned their attention to the nature of terror campaigns and how such activities were conducted in the past. What lessons can we learn from past history?

The National Archives

London and its suburbs has often found itself to be a target for terrorist groups, and one such campaign – which perhaps deserves more attention by scholars – came in 1939-40, and certainly had an impact (mainly psychological) in the Thames Valley area, including in the Twickenham and Kingston districts. Careful scrutiny of Home Office and other files in the National Archives at Kew, together with analysis of local newspapers, has enabled me to build up a quick picture of this, although further research is needed.

In February, 1939, on the eve of a major sporting event, the Richmond and Twickenham Times reported that a ‘special police guard’ had been placed on the famous Rugby ground at Twickenham the night before. This precaution was implemented, the paper revealed, in view of the international match that was to take place there the very next day and because of ‘the damage being done in London by the IRA’.

At some point in the late 1930s, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had decided to plan and conduct a campaign of propaganda and ‘direct action’ on the British mainland, a strategy which became known as the ‘S-Plan’ or Sabotage Campaign. The group’s Army Council, in a special communique to Lord Halifax (the Foreign Secretary), thus declared ‘war’ on Britain in January, 1939, and – over the course of the next year – conducted a campaign of sabotage and numerous bomb attacks against the infrastructure of the country, mainly targeting power supplies and communication networks.

Man behind the bombs

The campaign commenced on 16th January, 1939, when 5 bombs targeted power cables and power stations. Further numerous attempts to disrupt electricity supplies followed over the next few months. In February, 1939, the transport network was also targeted when two timed suitcase bombs exploded on the London Underground, after being deposited in left-luggage rooms at Leicester Square and Tottenham Court Road tube stations. Similarly, in March, 1939, two bombs exploded on Hammersmith Bridge, in a clear attempt to disrupt commuter traffic and spread fear and alarm. This campaign continued, with plenty of further incidents, right into the month of March, 1940, and London was not the only target. The campaign was widened to include other major cities.

IRA Coventry attack

Possibly the most infamous bombing occurred in Coventry city centre in August, 1939 (see photo), when a bomb killed 5 people and injured 70 others. Although the IRA claimed the loss of life at Coventry was unintentional and was an ‘accident’, in many ways this incident seriously undermined support for the campaign among those who were sympathetic to the IRA’s cause.

In the Thames Valley area, one can certainly detect signs of psychological fear and security concerns over the IRA’s campaign during the course of 1939.  Just two months after the Twickenham Rugby ground scare noted earlier, and in Twickenham again, the threat of the terror campaign nearly became horribly real. At about 11.20pm one evening, Mr. A.W. Esson, of Kingston, who was described as the manager of the Temperance Billiard Hall in Richmond Road, was closing the premises when he found lying in the entrance ‘a strange contrivance’.

Speaking later to the Richmond and Twickenham Times about the device, Esson said: ‘It was a box with a bolt in it, and a piece of wire leading inside. I heard it ticking, and having moved it, sent for the policeman on point duty at the junction. He thought it might be a joke, but when I reminded him that it was ticking, he took it across the road and put it in a horse trough’. A few minutes later, some more police arrived, and when they took it out of the water it was (apparently) still ticking. The newspaper noted that there was no previous evidence of any attacks on the billiard hall, and speculated: ‘It is possible that it was intended for somewhere else, but that the raiders could not carry out their plan’.

The psychological impact and propaganda value of the IRA’s campaign could also be seen elsewhere in the area. Thus, for example, in the same month – April, 1939 – the local Surrey Comet reported that ‘IRA Suspects’ had been seen at an electricity works in Surbiton. The newspaper revealed that ‘special precautions’ were being taken and guards placed on the electricity sub-station of the London and Home Counties Joint Electricity Authority at Hollyfield Road, Surbiton, following reports ‘that Irishmen had been endeavoring to obtain access to the premises’, and that two Irishmen had ‘been found walking around the building’.

The newspaper noted that the sub-station was one of the ‘most vital units’ for the electrical supply of a large area around Surbiton, as it was at this station that a new 33,000-volt bulk supply cable – which carried the main supply from Wimbledon via Kingston – came in to Surbiton. From there, light and power were supplied to Surbiton, Hook, and Chessington, and – when necessary – to other local districts.

The two men ‘with Irish accents’ had been challenged as they walked around the building, and they could give no satisfactory explanation for their presence, and were ordered off the premises. Local police were also instructed to tighten security at other key infrastructure points in the area, while the Armed Forces were also told to increase their vigilance at barracks and defence buildings, including at the Kingston barracks.

Daily Sketch 1939

More generally, the Home Office did its best to try to discourage national newspaper coverage of the IRA’s campaign, arguing that too much ‘news’ on it would play into the hands of the IRA, and editors tended to abide by this.

However, the two IRA bombs on the Hammersmith Bridge, and an attempt to bomb another major Bridge across the Thames, together with some reported scares and incidents at railway depots, still caused some notable comment in local newspapers in south-west London. Many people in the suburbs, of course, were now commuting into work in central London, and the financial and security implications of a continued campaign to disrupt the infrastructure were only too clear to the authorities. The pressure to take firm action against the perpetrators of the bombing campaign increased considerably after the outbreak of war against Germany in September, 1939. There is evidence, for example, that MI5 (the domestic Security Service) feared that the Germans would try and exploit the IRA’s campaign and offer financial and other support.

In today’s digital and hi-tech world, we are even more reliant on the efficient operation of our ‘infrastructure’, especially the continuous supply of power, and I am sure that this is only too apparent to those involved in devising contemporary anti-terror strategies.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

This entry was posted in Archives, British history, Irish History, Local History, Media history, Public History, Research, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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