This Sunday, the 25th of August, marks the eightieth anniversary of the IRA bombing of the centre of Coventry. The first chapter of my next novel, ‘The Practice Field’, gives a graphic description of this tragedy from the bomber point of view. It is, by necessity, primarily a fictional account, but I’ve kept to the main facts of the event .
The City of Three Spires
In the back room of a terraced house in Chester Street, not far from the centre of Coventry, Joseph ‘Dody’ O’Sullivan was putting together a bomb. A relatively small bomb as it happens. Five pounds of explosives was hardly enough to blow up a house let alone a police station, but that was not the purpose of this bomb. This was not a bomb to maim or wound, this was a symbolic bomb, a ’show of strengh’. His last instruction came from someone high up in the organisation, someone that hurriedly handed over the canvas carpenters tool sack with the gelignite wrapped in greaseproof paper below the sharpening stone at the bottom of the bag.
‘Don’t endanger any lives,’ was all he said.
Even in the worst of times, Coventry was always a city of moderate prosperity. Its workforce consisted of well-earning engineers, toolmakers, highly trained machinists and technicians. Unfortunately for some poor souls, Dody had none of these skills. Although he was far from being a fool and was competent enough to carry out instructions, even those of a technical nature, he lacked any real understanding of the task in hand. The bomb was simple enough. Gelignite is stable under normal circumstances it cannot, for example, be ignited by flame. He knew that. One of his first lessons in the art of bomb making was when a grey-haired volunteer threw a lump of gelignite into a blazing fire in the middle of a derelict barn on the Galtee mountains of Cork five years ago. As the two novices leapt away, the old man cackled and laughed as the gelignite sizzled and turned to liquid before evaporating; it was as if he had thrown a lump of bacon fat on the fire. Technically, a gelignite bomb blast is caused by a smaller explosion from a detonator which is electrically initiated, usually by a battery or, as seen in cowboy movies, by an old-fashioned plunger with a magneto to create a short electric current. The timing of the battery charge was always the trickiest part in all of this. A clock timer can be made in several ways. By removing the minute hand and using a screw as one of the terminals and the hour hand as the other, it’s possible to make a rough and ready twelve-hour device. However, Dody had assembled a clock timer the way he was taught and the only way he knew how. The end of the hour hand was bent upwards and the minute hand rewound so that when the two hands of the clock met, they would touch each other to close the circuit and charge the detonator from the battery. Simple in concept, one minor drawback is that it can only be safely set for several minutes less than the hour, or in theory, one minute – but only if you have nerves of steel.
Dody knew Coventry well enough, it was formerly a mediaeval walled city and his original plan was to walk, almost in a straight line, from Chester Street through the compact city centre to the police station at Cow Lane and leave the bomb outside. He guessed the time taken for the walk to be thirty minutes. On the day before the attack, just to make sure, he travelled along his planned route. He wasn’t far out, it took slightly longer than he first thought, it was nearer thirty-five minutes. He also found out, by pure chance, that this Friday was the monthly market day in the town centre. He began to worry about the risk of being stopped or being delayed and made a momentous decision; Dody bought a second-hand bike from a local hardware shop.
Around one o’clock he had almost finished. The clock hands were insulated by a plastic washer around the spindle and the ends attached by thin insulated wires to the battery, ideally these wires would have been soldered on, but soldering was not one his skills. Instead they were twisted around and covered in canvas tape. The device was easily tested using a small torch battery. He spun the minute hand round the dial, when it touched the hour hand the bulb burst into life, it worked. Giving a grunt of satisfaction he proceeded to reset the hands and pack the gelignite around the detonator: the bomb was now set to explode in fifty minutes. Once the device was carefully placed in a cardboard box, with a few rags jammed around to stop it rolling around, it was wrapped in brown paper and then tied up with string. Although the bomb was now safe enough to be carried about, Dody carried it at arm’s length under the mistaken belief that an extra couple inches of air space would somehow protect him from the detonated force of five pounds of gelignite. The ‘Karrywell’ bicycle had been safely stored in the backyard and he gently placed the bomb in the metal basket at the front. The back door had to be opened, the bike pushed out and rested against the wall, and the door then pulled closed. The bicycle was then pushed through the back lane, or the jetty as it was called in these parts, down to the end of Chester Street and then on to the main road. It wasn’t in Dody’s calculations, but this part of the operation, from setting the clock until now, had taken five minutes, still not to worry, the bicycle would knock fifteen minutes off his trip to Cow Lane He straddled the bike and pedalled down as far as Bishop Street before he became aware of how busy the city centre could be on market day. Worse, the sudden rattling of the wheels made him look down; he was now clattering along a busy cobbled thoroughfare and immediately realised the wires could easily be dislodged with such vibration. He slowed and turned to head for the pavement when suddenly the front wheel locked almost throwing him over the handlebars. Two young men, no more than boys, laughed aloud as they ran over to help Dody pull the front wheel from the tram track than ran along Bishop Street. It was a common occurrence for the unwary and provided entertainment for the youngsters that hung around the start of the hill leading up to Broadgate, especially on a day like this. Unfortunately, it had unnerved Dody. The pavement was by now mobbed by folk heading down to his right through the aptly named Market Street and as it was proving difficult to move through the crowd pushing a bike; he moved from one side of the road to the other, then back again, both were equally crowded. After ten minutes, it occurred to him that he might have been at the police station by now had he gone by foot. Dody was becoming disorientated, verging on the irrational because of a very simple phenomenon – he had lost track of time.
Coventry is often referred to as the city of Three Spires due the proximity of the tall church spires clustered around Broadgate and, as he finally made it through the worst of the crowd, one of the churches tolled out a single bell, or was it all of the churches in unison? He stopped and rested the bike against a lamp post near the kerb. He was sweating and not just from exertion; he shook his head and mopped his face with a handkerchief, thought for a moment, trying to clear his mind. It was one o’clock… or was it a few minutes early when he set the timer? A single bell rang on the quarter hour, the half hour and then full bells on the hour. So, it was now either half past one – or quarter to two which was it? In any event, he realised, it was almost certainly too late to reach the police station. He then started to wildly overestimate his time spent in Bishop Street, what with bicycle wheels getting stuck he must have been there for… well, twenty minutes at least. It was surely the quarter to two that bell had rang out. The bomb was due to go off any minute. He felt the blood drain from his face; he was almost stricken with panic and it took him several moments to start thinking straight. The pavement was so busy that no one gave him a second glance as he walked away, almost in a daze, from the bike. He walked across the Broadgate and down Greyfriars Lane towards the Coventry rail station. The cycle bomb lay outside Samuels jewellery store. If he had looked up he would have seen one of the biggest street clocks in the city hanging above the shop – it was just gone half past one when he left the bike; the police station was less than five minutes away.
Dody glanced down Cow Lane and continued to walk for another ten minutes. He had almost reached the rail station when heard a muffled bang. It seemed bit louder than he had anticipated. The bang from five pounds of explosive in an open field, he remembered, was not much louder than a large firecracker. Lying on the ground it might throw up a handful of earth clods and a light rain of grass and small stones: a bomb exploding on a steel framed bicycle, however, is almost a mid-air blast.
There might have been faint screams, he wasn’t sure, but he immediately relaxed, his job was over. He increased his stride and was on the station platform in no time. To his surprise a London train had just drawn in and, according to the overhead noticeboard, wasn’t due to leave for another eight minutes. He knew some people in London; a change of plan. He intended to get the first Birmingham train and then on to Holyhead and from there back to Ireland that night. While buying a single ticket for four shillings, he began the process of denial. He wasn’t told about the market day, so how was he supposed to know about the crowds? And no one had even mentioned the tram tracks. He had already decided that any casualties, if there were any, could not be blamed on him, after all he didn’t select the explosives. Satisfied, he boarded the train and calmly lit a cigarette as he sat down, blameless and at peace with himself. He had done his bit for Ireland.
After reading the morning papers the next day Dody O’Sullivan made himself scarce. He never contacted his fellow conspirators again.
Broadway was littered with bodies, glass shards and other debris. Five were killed, two instantly. A young woman standing outside the Samuel shop was literally blown to pieces and only identified by her engagement ring, another was the road sweeper who caught the front part of the bicycle fully in the chest. Three others died within the hour and there were seventy injured, twelve seriously. It was incredible. It was a simple fact that Dody O’Sullivan could not have killed or injured more people with a five-pound bomb even if he had the wit and the expertise. Such was the devastation that for hours, the authorities assumed that a lorry containing live ammunition, including several crates of TNT, that had passed through the town moments earlier had somehow caused the explosion, others claimed a German plane had passed overhead and had dropped a bomb.
A week after the bombing in Coventry the incident was overwhelmed with an even greater tragedy, the Second World War – or as the Irish called it – ‘The Emergency’.