The Larne gun-running was a major gun smuggling operation organised in Ireland by Major Frederick H. Crawford and Captain Wilfrid Spender for the Ulster Unionist Council to equip the Ulster Volunteer Force. The operation involved the smuggling of almost twenty-five thousand rifles and between three and five million rounds of ammunition from Germany, with the shipments landing in Larne, Donaghadee, and Bangor in the early hours between Friday 24 and Saturday 25 April 1914. The Larne gun-running may have been the first time in history motor-vehicles had been used "on a large scale for a military-purpose, and with striking success".
Background to the gun-running
In November 1910 the Ulster Unionist Council formed a secret committee to oversee the creation of an army in Ulster to fight against the imposition of Home Rule. It approached Major Frederick Crawford to act as its agent to purchase the guns needed to equip such an army. Major Crawford wrote to five arms manufacturers including the Austrian Steyr and the German Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken, seeking quotations for the purchase of twenty thousand rifles and a million rounds of ammunition.
In January 1913, the Ulster Unionist Council instituted the Ulster Volunteer Force consisting of people who had signed the Ulster Covenant. This was an attempt to co-ordinate the paramilitary activities of Ulster’s unionists, as well as to give real military backing to the threats of the Ulster Covenant in resisting the implementation of the Third Home Rule Bill introduced on 11 April 1912 by then Prime Minister H. H. Asquith. These threats had been regarded as a "gigantic game of bluff and blackmail" by Irish nationalist leader John Redmond as well as most Liberal MPs including Winston Churchill. UVF membership grew to around 90,000 members, led by retired officers of the British army, with the organisation under the charge of Lieutenant-General Sir George Richardson KCB, a veteran of the Afghan Wars. By 1913 the UVF had over £1 million pledged to it, and £70,000 invested in attempts to import arms.
Throughout 1913 Major Crawford, with the use of aliases and disguises, had attempted to smuggle in arms bought in Great Britain and Imperial Germany, however these attempts failed when vigilant customs officials seized the goods at the docks. In one instance patrol boats thwarted a gun-running attempt to Carrigart in northern County Donegal carried out by Lord Leitrim.
Major Crawford however would convince the Ulster Unionist Council that he could provide the weapons and ammunition needed "to equip the entire UVF". Thus the stage was set for what would become known as the Larne gun-running, with Edward Carson in response proclaiming;
I'll see you through this business, if I should have to go to prison for it.
Preparations and transport
Crawford secured the services of the SS Fanny to transport 216 tons of guns and ammunition he had purchased from Benny Spiro, an arms dealer in Hamburg. Included in this cache was; 11,000 Mannlicher rifles brought from the Steyr works in Austria; 9,000 ex-German army Mausers; 4,600 Italian Vetterli-Vitali rifles; and 5 million rounds of ammunition[clarification needed] in clips of five — much of which was transported from Hamburg via the Kiel Canal.
On 30 March 1914, these weapons were being loaded onto the SS Fanny on the Baltic island of Langeland when Danish customs officials seized the papers of the ship. The customs officials suspected that the cargo might contain weapons to arm militant Icelandic home rulers who sought independence from Denmark, however the SS Fanny managed to escape into a gale and sailed outside Danish territorial waters. On 1 April, The Times newspaper had correctly claimed that the guns were destined for Ulster rather than Iceland.
In a bid to evade the authorities as the SS Fanny neared Ireland, Major Crawford purchased the SS Clyde Valley in Glasgow. On 19–20 April off Tuskar Rock, County Wexford, the entire cache of weapons was transported from the SS Fanny onto the SS Clyde Valley. On 24 April, the SS Clyde Valley was renamed the "Mountjoy II", with the use of 6-foot-long (1.8 m) strips of canvas painted with white letters on a black background. This was a direct reference to the Mountjoy that broke the boom across the River Foyle during the Siege of Derry in 1689, which gave it a historic symbolism for unionists.
Back in Ulster on the same date, the UVF were given instructions for a full test-mobilisation. The UVF Motor Corps was summoned by the County Antrim commander, General Sir William Adair, and given the following instructions:
It is absolutely necessary that your cars should arrive at Larne in the night of Friday-Saturday 24th-25th instant at 1 a.m. punctually but not before that hour for a very secret and important duty...
This was all part of a "meticulous" and "elaborate" plan to ensure that the operation succeeded with only 12 people knowing the real details of, and reasons for, it; with the mobilisation of the UVF members still officially only a "test mobilisation". Captain F. Hall, the military secretary to the UVF had recorded details of these plans in a memorandum. It included details of the tapping of the private telephone line connecting Hollywood Barracks to Exchange, as well as the short-circuiting of phone and telegraph wires into Larne after the last train, and the "shorting" of the main rail lines.
On the date of the landings, members of the UVF are stated as having manned pickets and patrols along the length of the coast road between Belfast and Larne, as well as the roads leading to the towns of Ballyclare, Ballymena, and Glenarm amongst others. The men at these pickets were to give directions to any who needed them and were provided with reserve supplies of petrol and tools for repairing any vehicle that had problems. In Larne itself, UVF members wearing armlets stood "in line silent as soldiers on parade", and manned cordons that blocked the roads preventing vehicles without a special permit being able to enter or depart Larne.
Captain James Craig would take command of the operations in Bangor, with Adair taking command in Larne. The commander of the UVF, Sir George Richardson, would remain in Belfast on the night of the landings and was kept fully informed of proceedings by dispatch-riders.
The Hoax and real landings
On the arranged date that the UVF Motor Corps had been given for their "test" operation, a decoy ship, the tramp steamer SS Balmerino, was intentionally dispatched into Belfast Lough so that the authorities would investigate it for smuggled armaments in what the UVF leadership called the Hoax.
The Hoax involved a large truck waiting at the Belfast docks in an intentional bid to make it appear as if it was awaiting an incoming load. The captain of the SS Balmerino ensured that by making his ship's approach as suspicious as possible, the authorities would be alerted. Once the ship was docked, the captain set about stalling the authorities for as long as possible with excuses, which further convinced the authorities that they had intercepted the real cargo. Eventually the authorities searched the ship's contents and discovered that its papers were in order and that it was only carrying coal.
Whilst this was happening, twenty miles away the "Mountjoy II" brought the real arms cache into Larne harbour unhindered. After the "Mountjoy II" docked a motor-boat sailed up alongside and cranes transported "thousands" of rifles to it. After it had sailed away a second vessel sailed up to take away more arms. These vessels would transport their loads to Donaghadee.
As the weapons were unloaded onto the motor vehicles, each batch was counted and its destination noted by counting clerks. Due to the volume of weapons, temporary arms-dumps had been set up in the surrounding districts so that the vehicles could return as quickly as possible to receive another load. The Belfast Evening Telegraph remarked that all present "put their backs into it" and that it "illustrated the old adage, 'One Volunteer is worth three pressed men'" and they "toiled like galley slaves". The local population of Larne were noted as having lined the streets exchanging salutes and running makeshift canteens to supply the workers with refreshments throughout the night.
At 5 am the ship set sail from Larne harbour for Bangor to unload the rest of its cargo. Three cheers for "The King" and three more for "the Volunteers" were let out by the ships skipper and its crew as they stood to attention, with the cheers allegedly reciprocated by all those ashore.
By 8:30 am the "Mountjoy II" had completed its mission, and a course was set for the River Clyde to confuse any coast-guards. On its way, the canvas sheets that bore the name Mountjoy II were cut, revealing the ship's real name, and it then proceeded down the Irish sea. After offloading Major Crawford at Rosslare, County Wexford, the SS Clyde Valley set sail for the Baltic sea, travelling along the coasts of France and Denmark. Here it would rendezvous with the SS Fanny to bring back the Ulstermen contingent of its crew. Once this had been done, the SS Fanny was disposed of at Hamburg.
Aftermath and consequences
One of the key figures in the operation was Captain Wilfred Spender, a member of the UVF headquarters staff who is alleged to have been responsible for the entire scheme and helped in the Hoax masquerade. His wife recorded details of the landing itself in her diary for the dates 24–25 April:
... The whole proceedings are almost incredible, and nothing but the most perfect organisation, combined with the most perfect and loyal co-operation on the part of all concerned, could have carried it through without a single case of bloodshed...
The Belfast Evening Telegraph would report on April 25 that:
...There was no rush or bustle in the doing of it. It was accomplished with celerity, yet without fuss or splutter, because it was done in pursuance of a well-formed plan, executed as perfectly as it had been preconceived...So exactly had this mobilisation been arranged that these hundreds of motors reached the assembly point at an identical moment. It was an amazing sight to see this huge procession of cars nearly three miles in length descending upon the town with all their headlights ablaze....
For the Unionist leaders the Larne gun-running was in the end more of a political coup than a military feat. This was primarily due to the fact the Ulster Volunteers remained inadequately armed as the weapons shipment contained three different types of weapon along with a lack of proper ammunition for them. Other historians consider that the Mauser 1898 model was advanced for its time, and that the many other much smaller weapons purchases amounted to just over 37,000 rifles in the hands of the Ulster Volunteers by June 1914.
The Larne gun-running also returned the gun to the centre of Irish politics. It also increased Irish nationalist suspicions, already aroused by the Curragh Incident of the previous month, that the authorities were acquiescent towards unionist militants in Ulster. After the events in Larne, the nationalist Irish Volunteers, which had been formed in late 1913 in response to the formation of the UVF, saw its membership soar.
The UVF's weapons and ammunitions were requested by the government on the outbreak of the First World War. By 1916 the ammunition had largely been transferred, but none of the rifles. In 1920 after the outbreak of the Irish war of Independence the rifles were used to arm the new Ulster Special Constabulary that was formed up (by the same Wilfrid Spender), and the USC was largely recruited from former Ulster Volunteers. In 1940 the rifles were released to arm the British Home Guard after the Battle of France. They were first fired in anger during the East African Campaign of 1940-41, arming the militias of Haile Selassie I.
The Irish Volunteers themselves would import a boat-load of arms in the Howth gun-running of July 1914. The Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), aided by troops of the 2nd King's Own Scottish Borderers, tried—unsuccessfully—to confiscate the weapons. On their return to their barracks in Dublin, some troops baited by a hostile crowd, killed three people and wounded 38. The contrast between the inactivity of the police and military in Larne and the heavy-handed response in Dublin further convinced nationalists of official bias in favour of the UVF. The whole episode saw Ireland draw closer to the brink of civil war.
- Ulster Unionist Council
- Ulster Volunteers
- Ulster Solemn League and Covenant
- Home rule
- Irish Volunteers
- Howth gun-running
- Connolly, S. J: Oxford Companion to Irish History, page 317. Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-19-923483-7
- Bardon, Jonathan: A History of Ulster, page 444. The Black Staff Press, 2005. ISBN 0-85640-764-X
- Bardon (2005), page 445.
- Mac Annaidh, Séamus: Irish History, page 113. Star Fire, 2001. ISBN 1-903817-23-4
- Bardon (2005), page 431.
- Bardon (2005), page 439.
- Bardon (2005), page 434.
- South Belfast Friends of the Somme Association
- Bardon (2005), page 443.
- The Project Gutenburg eBook, Ulster's Stand for Union, by Ronald McNeill
- The Last of the Iron Boats
- Report from The Belfast Evening Telegraph, April 25, 1914
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- Irish Democrat: Book reviews: Ulster and Scotland
- Townshend, Charles: Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, page 54-7. Penguin Books, 2006. ISBN 978-0-14-101216-2
- Townshend (2006), page 51.
- ATQ Stewart, op. cit., appendix.
- Connolly, S. J: Oxford Companion to Irish History, page 264. Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-19-923483-7
- Castlederg Young Loyalists Flute Band - Gunrunners lyrics
- Orange Pages - Gallant Clyde Valley lyrics