The Larne gun-running was a major gun smuggling operation organised in April 1914 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 25,000 rifles and between 3 and 5 million rounds of ammunition from the German Empire, 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 that motor-vehicles were 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, which was proposed to give Ireland more self-government. The Council 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 20,000 rifles and 1 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. They wanted to co-ordinate the paramilitary activities of Ulster’s unionists, as well as to give military backing to the threats of the Ulster Covenant to resist implementation of the Third Home Rule Bill, which had been introduced on 11 April 1912 by 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, but vigilant customs officials had 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. Despite these setbacks, Major Crawford convinced the Ulster Unionist Council that he could provide the weapons and ammunition needed "to equip the entire UVF". Edward Carson said in response:
I'll see you through this business, if I should have to go to prison for it.
Plans that resulted in what would become known as the Larne gun-running proceeded.
Preparations and transport
Crawford secured the services of the SS Fanny to transport 216 tons of guns and ammunition which 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. The SS Fanny managed to escape into a gale and sailed outside Danish territorial waters. In covering the incident on 1 April, The Times newspaper predicted 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 transferred 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 referred to the Mountjoy that broke the boom across the River Foyle during the Siege of Derry in 1689, providing historic symbolism for unionists.
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; only 12 people knew the full details and reason for the mobilisation of the UVF members. This was officially only a "test mobilisation". Captain F. Hall, the military secretary to the UVF recorded details of these plans in a memorandum. These included 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, UVF members 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, 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 from entering or departing Larne.
Captain James Craig took command of the operations in Bangor, with Adair taking command in Larne. Sir George Richardson, overall commander of the UVF, remained in Belfast on the night of the landings and was kept fully informed of proceedings by dispatch-riders.
Hoax and real landings
On the date for the UVF Motor Corps "test" operation, a decoy ship, the tramp steamer SS Balmerino, was dispatched into Belfast Lough as a decoy to attract attention from authorities, to investigate it for smuggled armaments, in what the UVF leadership called the Hoax.
In addition, the UVF arranged for a large truck to be waiting at the Belfast docks as if for 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, and the authorities believed that they had intercepted the real cargo. Eventually the authorities searched the ship's contents, discovering its papers were in order and it was carrying only coal as described.
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 came alongside and cranes transferred "thousands" of rifles to it. After it had motored away, a second vessel came up to receive more arms. These vessels transported their loads to Donaghadee.
There the weapons were transferred to 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 Mountjoy 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 ship's skipper and its crew as they stood to attention, with the cheers reportedly reciprocated by all those ashore.
By 8:30 am the "Mountjoy II" had completed its mission, and it set course for the River Clyde to confuse any coast-guards. On its way, crew cut away the canvas sheets bearing the name Mountjoy II, revealing the ship's real name, and it proceeded south along 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. It rendezvoused with the SS Fanny to bring back the Ulstermen contingent of its crew. After that was 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 n 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 reported on the events on April 25:
...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 even more of a political coup than a military feat. The Ulster Volunteers remained inadequately armed, as the weapons shipment contained three types of weapon and insufficient proper ammunition for them. Other historians consider that the Mauser 1898 model was advanced for its time, and the Larne delivery markedly increased the amount of arms for the UVF. Many much smaller weapons purchases had resulted in the UVF as having just over 37,000 rifles by June 1914.
The Larne gun-running returned the gun to the centre of Irish politics. The Irish Volunteers had been working on their own plan to acquire weapons, and the success at Larne heightened nationalist suspicions that the authorities were acquiescent towards unionist militants in Ulster. After the events in Larne, the nationalist Irish Volunteers, formed in late 1913, attracted many new members.
At the outbreak of the First World War, the government requested all arms and ammunition of the UVF for the war effort. 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). 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 arranged their own Howth gun-running in July 1914, transporting the guns on a private yacht and unloading in daylight at the harbor, in front of a crowd. 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. A fourth man died later. Some nationalists interpreted the contrast between the inactivity of the police and military in Larne (which operation took place in the middle of the night) and the heavy-handed response in the middle of the day in Dublin that authorities were biased in favour of the UVF. The whole episode heightened tensions in Ireland, pulling it closer to the brink of civil war.
Representation in media
- The events of the Larne gun-running and the voyages of the SS Fanny and SS Clyde Valley are remembered in the loyalist songs, "Gunrunners" and "Gallant Clyde Valley".
- 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
- ATQ Stewart The Ulster Crisis (Faber & Faber, London 1967; reprinted 1969; Gregg Revivals 1993; Blackstaff Press 1997); see appendix for numbers and sources. ISBN 0571080669.
- 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