John Corbett Arnott aged 15.
Elsie Ansell aged 21.
Rex Gentle aged 30.
Gwilym Rowlands aged 50.
James Clay aged 82.
n 12th January 1939 the Irish Republican Army, claiming to be the "Government of the Irish Republic", issued an ultimatum to the British Government. It gave them four days to withdraw all British armed forces stationed in Ireland and declare that they would renounce all claims to interfere in Irish domestic policy. If they received no response, they said they would be compelled to intervene actively in the military and commercial life of Great Britain. Four days passed with no reply so a campaign known as the "S-Plan" was launched against Britain. This mainly involved bombing commercial premises, sabotaging electricity supplies, blowing up telephone kiosks, public lavatories, mail boxes and railway stations. Coventry was mentioned by name in the I.R.A. plans, which had singled out its electricity supply as a prime target. Civilians were not supposed to be targeted.
Unless you have a reasonably good knowledge of local history the five names at the start of this article will probably not be familiar to you. They are the forgotten victims of the worst terrorist attack Coventry has ever suffered. On 25th August 1939 all of them had the misfortune to be in Broadgate. It was a busy Friday lunchtime. Elsie Ansell, a shop assistant at Millet's in nearby Cross Cheaping, was on her lunch break and looking at jewellery in the H Samuel shop. She was due to be married a fortnight later. Gwilym Rowlands, known as Bill, was a road sweeper. He and his colleague (John Worth) were working outside Astley's and Burton's shops. John Arnott and Rex Gentle both worked at W H Smiths and were returning after their lunch break. Rex had changed his lunch hour so he could spend it with John. James Clay had left a meeting at a nearby cafe with a business friend earlier than usual due to not feeling well. This was the first time in six years the two friends had not left at the same time. Around 2:30 pm these people and many others were in the vicinity of Astley's shop when the normal hustle and bustle of the city centre was shattered by an I.R.A. bomb.
Ironically, in the city that is regarded as its British birthplace, a bicycle played an instrumental part in the mass murder and carnage that shocked the nation.
On Tuesday 22nd August 1939 James McCormack (alias James Richards), the leader of the I.R.A. unit operating in Coventry, and another unknown I.R.A. man visited the shop of the Halford Cycle Company in Smithford Street, where McCormack purchased a Halford 'Karriwell' - a tradesman type cycle built for Halford by the Birmingham Bicycle Company which had a carrier basket to the front of the handlebars. He gave a false name and address - Mr Norman, 56 Grayswood Avenue, Allesley Old Road, Coventry - and paid a deposit of £5 - pledging to pay the remaining 19s 6d on collection, which would be either Friday or Saturday. On the morning of Thursday 24th August 1939 another unknown I.R.A. man began constructing the bomb at 25 Clara Street, Stoke, Coventry. The house was being rented from Loveitt & Sons by Joseph Hewitt who lived there with his wife Mary, their baby child Brigid Mary and his mother-in-law, Brigid O'Hara. After marrying his wife at St. Peter's Cathedral, Belfast, in August 1935, Hewitt came to Coventry in 1936 to find work. His wife and mother-in-law soon followed. Their baby was born in Coventry in 1938. They moved to Clara Street from Meadow Street, Spon End in June 1939. James McCormack lodged with them. It was effectively a 'safe-house' for the I.R.A. where McCormack had constructed a concrete storage pit under the stairs a few weeks earlier to store explosives, but the Hewitt's were not part of the organisation. That evening, at around 7:00 pm, a Transport Officer in the I.R.A. called Peter Barnes arrived at the house from London. He had travelled by train and brought with him potassium chlorate to be used as the explosive in the device. Barnes' role in the I.R.A. was to ferry explosives from their main ammunition dumps in Liverpool and Glasgow to their operatives across the country. He left later in the evening and returned to London.
The unknown bomb maker completed his task the following morning. It was a 5lb device with an alarm clock used as the timer. The bicycle was collected from Halford's by McCormack at 12:30 pm and left in the back lane (known as a jetty) at the rear of the house around 1:10 pm. By this stage the bomb had been parcelled up in a box that was wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string. The bomb maker placed it in the carrier basket and began his journey into town. Sometime between 1:30 and 1:45 pm the bicycle with its deadly cargo was left standing against the kerb outside Astley's shop where it was to shortly explode with such devastating consequences.
Many victims of terrorism or political conflict are totally forgotten about once the initial outrage or shock has died down. Just a week or so after the Coventry bomb, Great Britain declared war on Germany, and a year or so later our city was to suffer carnage on a much greater scale with the blitz of 14th November 1940. Perhaps these events helped play a part in effectively 'burying' the tragedy that took place in August 1939?
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An excellent book called "Lost Lives" was first published in 1999. It attempts to record all those who died in the Northern Ireland 'Troubles' from the 1960s through to the ceasefires of the 1990s and beyond. It is an incredibly poignant and moving book which had me in tears on several occasions. Below I give a few details of Coventry's "Lost Lives" which were gleaned from contemporary newspaper reports and kindly provided by relatives:
Elsie Ansell, (also called Laura in Newspaper reports) from Clarendon Street, Earlsdon, died instantly. Her face was blown away and her body terribly mutilated. She could only be identified by her engagement ring and clothing. Instead of being married at St. Barbara's Church to her fiancé Harry Davies her funeral service took place there instead on August 30th. On top of her coffin was a wreath of cream roses from Harry. The coffin bearers were from the nearby Albany Social Club. A crowd of 600 to 700 people were at London Road cemetery to see her laid to rest. She was buried in her wedding dress.
John Corbett Arnott, from Daimler Road in Radford, was the youngest victim of the atrocity. After leaving Radford School he went to work for W H Smith in town. With his curly hair and glasses he was a familiar face to many Coventrians through selling newspapers and magazines at the store. At first it was thought his body was actually that of a Mr Hollander of Coundon Road as young John had a bill in his pocket for this man which he was due to deliver. He was buried at London Road cemetery on August 29th with around 100 mourners in attendance. On August 30th the Midland Daily Telegraph published this letter from John's mother:
Dear Mr Editor
Will you please print my thanks where you will, but I feel I would like to put into print my thoughts as well. The doctors and nurses tried to save my boy's life but God said "No."
The kind thoughts of the people go to help me bear my cross. We all have a cross to bear, and when I look at others plight, I feel my cross is only light.
To the kind nurses who took me to kiss him "Good-bye" thanks, and I'll always remember the youngest nurse's sweet face. God gave me these words in the loneliness of the night when his little sister was sleeping by my side. Once again thanks for all your kindness, I'll never forget.
Rex Gentle was born on 3rd April 1909 in Newtown, Montgomeryshire in Wales. He was an identical twin. He left Newtown, where he was engaged to May Jones, to do relief work at W. H. Smith. While in Coventry he lodged with the Arnott family in Daimler Road. Rex had only been in the city for a couple of weeks.
On the day of the explosion, his twin brother Jack was working in Newtown. In the afternoon he was sent home from work suffering from a severe headache. It is often said that when one identical twin suffers pain the other can feel it - Rex had indeed suffered severe head injuries.
After the explosion, word reached the Gentle family in Wales that Rex had been badly injured in an incident in Coventry. His parents could not travel so his twin brother Jack and his wife Rene made the unenviable journey to Coventry. On the train, Jack turned to his wife and told her that he knew his brother, who he was very close to, was dead - again, when he said this it turned out to be almost to the minute that Rex did pass away. When the couple arrived in Coventry a trial blackout was in operation in preparation for the probable forthcoming war with Germany. They could not find the hospital so approached a policeman, who, knowing about the bomb, took them there. Jack was needed to identify his brother but apparently passed out, so his wife Rene carried out the traumatic task. The body was covered in bandages and she identified Rex by his mouth. While they were at the hospital the manager of W.H. Smith paid a visit and had an almighty shock when he saw Rex's identical twin brother Jack - he thought it was Rex! The same thing happened when a sister of the twins in Birmingham was visited. Jack and Rene called on her to break the bad news. She opened the door with, "Hello Rex! What are you doing back here?" Jack explained that he wasn't Rex and informed her of what had happened in nearby Coventry.
Jack and Rene Gentle returned to Birmingham for the Coroner's inquest into the deaths. The report of the injuries suffered by the victims was so bad that Rene arranged for their relatives to be able to choose to leave the room while it was read out. She stayed and Jack left. Despite asking her about what she heard she never told him - the injuries being so horrific.
In 1966 the husband of Jack Gentle's daughter Marie was shown round the police museum at Little Park Street where the remains of the bicycle and some of the evidence gathered during the investigation are kept in a simple glass cabinet. It must have been an upsetting experience to say the least.
Rex Gentle, who was much loved by his family and fondly remembered by them to this day, was buried in Newtown after a service at the local Baptist church.
Gwilym Rowlands, of Poole Road, Radford, worked for the Highways Department of the Coventry Corporation. His wife Mary Ann had the grim task of identifying his body at the public mortuary at 5:00pm on the day of the explosion. His funeral service took place at St. Nicholas Church and he was buried in the adjacent graveyard. A large crowd of mourners were in attendance and the wreaths included one from the Radford Social Club and another from the Transport & General Workers Union, Cheylesmore branch.
James Clay, the eldest victim, was Coventry born and bred but lived at Clarendon Road, Kenilworth. A widower and a grandfather, he was a former President of the Coventry & District Co-operative Society and was working as a Confidential Clerk for C.A. Gray & Son, Printers, of Broadgate. James was a trained printer who took a keen interest in education, being a member of the old Coventry school board, founding the P.S.A. movement in Coventry and also was secretary of the Co-operative Society educational classes. He was also associated with Sunday school work at Warwick Road Church. His burial took place at Kenilworth cemetery on the August 30th and was well attended.
n addition to the dead some 70 others were injured including 12 seriously. Most were treated at the Coventry & Warwickshire Hospital. Twelve blood donors were called on following the explosion and were praised for their quick attendance at the hospital. Extensive damage was caused to 43 business premises in Broadgate and nearby streets. Astley's and its adjacent shops - Burton and Manfields - were hit badly as was Sketchley's directly across the road.
Alexander Ballinger was the manager of Astley's at the time. When the bomb went off he was standing near the front window. The whole frontage of the shop was blown inside and he was blown off his feet suffering several cuts to his knee, right hand, nose and head. He was clearly lucky to survive.
Robert Kinsella was another who had a lucky escape. He was walking past Burton's towards Astley's when the bomb exploded. He described what happened:
"There was a violent explosion that threw me to the ground. I picked myself up and I could see there had been terrible damage done. There were a lot of people lying about on the ground, but the first person I went to was, I believe, old James Clay, whom I picked up; I could see from his injuries he was almost dead. Of course, I then found I was bleeding very badly myself, and I went to the hospital." (He had suffered injuries to his shoulder, feet, stomach and leg.)
John Worth was sweeping the gutter outside Burton's while his colleague Bill Rowlands was sweeping the pavement outside Astley's. John was at the back of the parked saloon car (see picture) when the explosion occurred. He escaped with injuries to both arms and a thigh.
Youngsters Ian Adams and his cousin were on a bus in Corporation Street when they heard a loud boom. They were on their way to see Will Hay in a film called "Oh Mr Porter!". Reaching Broadgate minutes later, they were stopped by a police officer and discovered that what they had heard on the bus was actually a bomb going off. The road was closed and the policeman directed them via a different route to the cinema. After the film the two lads returned via Broadgate where the debris was still being cleared up. Much of it was dumped at a tip on Four Pounds Avenue. (When Ian grew up he served in the Special Branch and in early 2010 his excellent book about this I.R.A. campaign and the reaction to it, called "The Sabotage Plan", was published.)
Prior to this attack the I.R.A. had carried out numerous missions in Coventry. These included bombing telephone inspection chambers, public toilets and commercial premises. In The Sabotage Plan, Ian Adams details several attacks carried out on a single day in the spring of 1939:
On 23rd of March, there were four explosions in underground telephone inspection chambers. The first explosion, at 7.15am was in the Cheylesmore area, and shattered the glass in numerous windows. The bomb blew heavy pieces of metal into a nearby engineering works, and damaged telephone lines, lampposts, and surrounding houses. Three hours later, there was a similar explosion in a telephone junction box in Quinton Road which hurled fragments of the iron box and pieces of concrete paving over a wide area, and through the glass roof of a nearby factory. During the lunch hour there was a third explosion, in an inspection chamber of the electric transformer station at Gosford Green. John Martin, a passer-by, was injured. A fourth explosion in the afternoon, in Coundon Road, hurled a heavy iron manhole cover through the roof of St. Osburg's Roman Catholic presbytery, the church my parents and I often attended, and a Corporation bus was damaged, but nobody was injured. Balloons filled with nitric acid detonated all the bombs. The explosions disrupted many telephone lines.
In June an unexploded bomb was found near a petrol dump. They also bombed the cloakroom at Coventry Rail Station. The device exploded at 6:45 am on July 2nd. Refreshment staff had bedrooms directly above the cloakroom and eight of them had a lucky escape as fortunately the building did not collapse. They were severely shaken but escaped injury. A couple of weeks before the deadly attack on Broadgate an allotment at the rear of Armfield Street was rocked by an explosion leaving a crater two feet deep and three feet wide. A shed was blown to smithereens and two men were seen running from the scene onto Bell Green Road where they boarded a tram and escaped. The local I.R.A. unit stored explosives here and due to carelessness accidentally ignited them. This explains why the explosive used on August 25th was brought to Coventry from Liverpool via London. Up until this point the police believed that an I.R.A. unit operating from Birmingham was carrying out attacks in Coventry.
The aftermath of the Broadgate bomb led to tension between locals and the Irish community in Coventry. It was estimated that over 2,000 Irish people were working in Coventry's factories at the time. There were calls for all Irish workers to be sacked and on the day that inquests began into the deaths, 2,000 workers at Armstrong Whitworth in Baginton downed tools at lunchtime and marched to Pool Meadow to protest against the I.R.A., stressing that the protest was "not directed against peaceful Irishmen." From Pool Meadow they marched through the city centre and held a rally at Market Square where their numbers swelled to 3,000 with shoppers and other workers joining them. A deputation of four then met the Lord Mayor, Sidney Stringer. Many Irish left their lodgings in the city and others were asked to leave. Such was the bad feeling that the Chief Constable of Coventry Police, Captain S.A. Hector, (who was from Somerset) had to deny rumours that he was Irish.
Of course, the vast majority of Irish people in the city were just as appalled by the bombing as everyone else. The attack was condemned during Mass at all Catholic churches in the city the following Sunday. Father Simpson at St. Osburg's denounced the bombers as "fanatics discrediting and dishonouring Ireland" and reminded worshippers that the penalty for belonging to secret societies and plotting to destroy the state or church was ex-communication. The Midland Daily Telegraph was inundated with letters from Irish people living in Coventry expressing their disgust and horror at the attack. Some suggested forming an "Irish Union" pledging that they were 'loyal' and promising to inform the authorities about I.R.A. activity. (Thousands of Irish people continued to work in the factories of Coventry during World War Two - providing an invaluable contribution to the war effort when most young British men had been called up for military service.)
A couple of days after the attack "BUSINESS AS USUAL" signs were up in Broadgate, and though many windows were boarded up the shops were open. Of course, it would never be "business as usual" for the dead and their families. The Lord Mayor launched a relief fund for victims of the bombing which by the end of September had raised the substantial sum of £800.
After initially issuing press appeals saying they wished to interview Dominic Adams about the attack, (Dominic Adams was the Uncle of current Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and suspected of being a senior member of the I.R.A. during this period) the police investigation soon led to Clara Street following the arrest of Peter Barnes in London on the same night of the bombing. An attempt to plant a further three 'bicycle bombs' in the capital city had been thwarted in the morning. At 8:50 pm Barnes arrived home to find Detective Sergeant William Hughes and some of his colleagues from the Special Branch at Scotland Yard waiting for him. They were there because of the attempted attacks in London, but when Detective Sergeant Hughes and the officers with him searched the building at 176 Westbourne Terrace, they found incriminating evidence linking him to Coventry, which understandably raised their suspicions considering what had happened earlier in the afternoon 100 miles away.
Barnes had called at Clara Street previously on August 21st to acquaint himself with McCormack and discuss the role he would play in the imminent bombing mission. During this visit, McCormack asked Brigid O'Hara to buy a suitcase for Barnes and also asked Mary Hewitt to buy two empty flour sacks. The flour sacks were purchased from Celia's on Walsgrave Road but had to be returned as they were the wrong type. Both women returned them. The suitcase was brought from Forey's Ironmongers. For reasons known only to himself - perhaps he had to account to the I.R.A. for his expenses? - Peter Barnes kept the receipts at his lodgings in London where they were found by the police and were to prove crucial in the Coventry investigation. (The owner of Celia's was able to give a very accurate description of Brigid O'Hara. It is believed the flour sacks were to be used for holding the Potassium Chlorate.)
Chief Inspector Cyril George Boneham of the Coventry City Police led the local investigation. He and his team were assisted by Special Branch detectives. On August 28th, Chief Inspector Boneham and Detective Inspector Sydney Barnes of Special Branch led a search of 25 Clara Street. Tools suitable for bomb making, screws, bolts, insulating tape, labels from a battery and crucially a brass setter for the back of an alarm clock were found. This setter, or key, appeared to be new and did not fit any clock in the house. The occupants were detained and initially released while deportation orders were applied for. On September 2nd they were arrested under the Prevention of Violence (Temporary Provisions) Act. As the investigation proceeded and clear evidence of bomb making at the house emerged those being held were then charged under the Explosive Substances Act, 1883. Later that month, on the 27th, after a thorough police investigation and careful consideration, the Public Prosecutor decided that the facts justified a charge of murder against all five people being held. The charge was limited to the murder of Elsie Ansell and not the other four victims.
he trial began on Monday 11th of December at the Warwick Assizes, Victoria Courts, Birmingham. One crucial person was missing - the man who actually built and planted the bomb. He was never captured. It was acknowledged that those in the dock - James McCormack, Peter Barnes, Joseph Hewitt, Mary Hewitt and Brigid O'Hara - had not made or planted the bomb, but as it was believed they had all played an active part in a conspiracy that could clearly endanger life it was a murder charge they faced, and consequently the hangman's noose if found guilty. On Friday 14th December, McCormack, who was tried under his alias of James Richards, and Peter Barnes were found guilty by the jury and convicted of murder. After the guilty verdicts were passed, James McCormack gave this response:
"My lord, before you pass sentence I have something to say. I wish to state, my lord, before you pass sentence of death on me, I wish to thank sincerely the gentlemen who have defended me during my trial and I wish to state that the part I took in these explosions since I came to England I have done for a just cause. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I am not afraid to die, as I am doing it for a just cause. I say in conclusion, God bless Ireland and God bless the men who have fought and died for her. Thank you, my lord."
Peter Barnes said:
"I would like to say as I am going before my God, as I am condemned to death, I am innocent, and later I am sure it will come out that I had neither hand, act or part in it. That is all I have to say."
The Hewitt's and Brigid O'Hara were acquitted - they were later charged with the murder of the other four people who were killed and five counts under the Explosive Substances Act and all three pleaded not guilty. No evidence was offered by the prosecution on the murder charge and the judge ordered the jury to return a formal verdict of not guilty. The women were discharged while Joseph Hewitt was remanded in custody. At the Old Bailey in London on 6th February 1940 he was charged with maliciously causing an explosion and having explosive substances in his possession. No evidence was offered by the prosecution and after a verdict of not guilty by the jury he was discharged. The following day, the guilty pair - Peter Barnes and James McCormack - were executed at Winson Green Prison. An appeal against their convictions had been dismissed in January. In the very same week of the hangings the mother of Elsie Ansell died at the early age of 49. Laura Ansell was being cared for by the mother of Harry Davies, her late daughter's fiancé. Mrs Davies said that she never recovered from the loss of Elsie and died of a broken heart.
The hangings of McCormack and Barnes caused outrage in Ireland and other parts of the world. It was felt unjust that as they had not planted the bomb they should die because of the actions of another person. Appeals for clemency were ignored. Public mourning was observed and flags flew at half-mast in Ireland on the day of the executions.
It has been suggested that the real target for the bomb was an electricity generating station and this is where McCormack and Barnes believed the bomber was cycling to. Some people claim that a faulty timer (the alarm clock) on the bomb caused the bomber to abandon the bicycle in Broadgate while en-route to the real target, but a leading author on Irish Republicanism describes the bomber as a 'psychopath' and as it was placed outside Astley's an hour before it exploded it would seem this was an intentional act by the bomber. Even if the timer was faulty, it would have been a strange decision to abandon the bomb in the busiest shopping street in Coventry which obviously put civilians at risk of death contrary to I.R.A. instructions. Just why he chose to do this we will probably never know.
This particular badly timed and ill-judged I.R.A. campaign against Britain is often said to have petered out following the carnage in Coventry, but in fact there were a further 42 incidents attributed to the I.R.A., with the last bomb exploding on a rubbish dump in London on 18th March 1940.
After their acquittals, the Hewitt's and Brigid O'Hara were deported from England and presumably went back to Belfast. The remains of James McCormack and Peter Barnes were moved from the grounds of Winson Green prison and re-interred in Ballyglass cemetery, Mullingar, Westmeath, Ireland in 1969. 15,000 people attended. Both men continue to be remembered by the Republican movement in Ireland with yearly parades and speeches at their graveside.
In Coventry, no memorial plaque or sculpture marks the spot where the bomb exploded killing five innocent people and devastating families across the city and further afield. There is not even an annual memorial service in any of Coventry's churches. The excellent Police Museum in the basement of Little Park Street Police Station houses the remains of the bicycle and some of the evidence gathered after the explosion. With the kind permission of its curator, Tony Rose, I was able to photograph the remains of the bicycle in June 2010. The handlebars, front wheel and carrier basket are missing but remarkably, much of the rest of it is still intact. Some parts are dented, rusted, scratched and mangled but others bits are unscathed and look nearly new. When Mr Rose opened the cabinet I was hit by the smell of rubber and explosive. It was very sad gazing at this unwitting instrument of death and destruction and my thoughts turned to the victims and their families. I am very grateful to Mr Rose, who is an expert on the history of policing in Coventry, for sharing his knowledge of the incident with me and allowing me to take pictures. The image at the start of this article is copyright of the Coventry Police Museum and is not to be reproduced elsewhere - anyone doing so is liable to prosecution.
Thanks to the Luftwaffe and various town planners, Broadgate has changed almost beyond recognition from that fateful day. I believe the present day location of the explosion somewhere near the Lady Godiva statue. See below for Rob Orland's comparison of contemporary and modern maps. Next time you pass the statue spare a thought for John, Elsie, Gwilym, Rex and James. May they Rest in Peace.
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Below is a 1937 map showing the spot where the bomb detonated.
Clicking on the map will reveal where it occurred on a modern-day aerial view (courtesy of Google Maps).
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Acknowledgements, Sources & Further Reading:
Marie Jones - many thanks.
Tony Rose of Coventry Police Museum & West Midlands Police for permission to photograph and use the image of the remains of the bicycle.
Rob Orland - additional images & web page arrangement.
'Trial of Peter Barnes and Others' (The I.R.A. Coventry Explosion of 1939). Edited by Letitia Fairfield.
Ian Adams - for permission to quote from "The Sabotage Plan" (published 2010). Available from http://www.lulu.com
Midland Daily Telegraph reports from July, August & September 1939.
For details of the I.R.A. campaign launched against the United Kingdom in 1939, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S-Plan
In 2010 a book called "The Devil's Deal: The IRA, Nazi Germany and the Double Life of Jim O'Donovan" by David O'Donoghue was published.
Jim O'Donovan was the architect of the Sabotage Plan. This book names a Cork Republican as the Coventry Bomber and comes to the same conclusion as my article as to his mental state and the actual target where the IRA told him to leave the bicycle. It is claimed that after leaving the bicycle outside Astley's he boarded a train to Leicester at 2.20pm and then made his way home to Ireland via Holyhead. The Police at Holyhead were stopping people who had tickets to there from Coventry and Birmingham, but as he had travelled from Leicester he did not arouse their suspicions. The book is meticulously researched and contains a very moving chapter entitled "Carnage in Coventry" dealing with the Broadgate bomb. Copies are usually available via ebay or Amazon.
On the 26th February 2012 Simon was given the chance to speak about this article to Mollie Green on BBC Radio Coventry & Warwickshire. The clip is available on the left.