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July 13, 2017

Bloody Sunday: How Michael Collins's Agents Assassinated the Cairo Gang, a Group of British Intelligence Officers in 1920

It has to be one of the most evocative photographs of the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921. A group of British intelligence officers, mostly military men, pose for a group shot in a Dublin street, cigarettes drooping from the mouths of some, a grim, determined look on their faces. This is the so-called Cairo Gang, an elite band of spies brought over under cover to Dublin in the summer and early autumn of 1920 to infiltrate and destroy the IRA which, under the leadership of its intelligence chief Michael Collins, seemed always to be half a step ahead of the British administration in Dublin Castle.

English: The Cairo Gang provided information to the British on the activities of the Irish Republican Army. Most of these men were killed on November 21, 1920.

The adjective 'so-called' is chosen deliberately because the name Cairo Gang, which one account says was derived from a cafe named 'Cafe Cairo' at 59 Grafton Street, where they would meet their bosses from Dublin Castle, was not used at the time. Collins' men apparently called them 'the special gang.'

By 1920, the IRA's Dublin headquarters, under the direction of Michael Collins had effectively eliminated, through targeted assassination and intelligence penetration, the G Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, previously the mainstay of the Crown's intelligence operations against Irish Republicans. In response the Dublin Castle administration, the then headquarters of the British government in Ireland were forced to look for external intelligence support.

In January 1920, the British Army Intelligence Centre in Ireland stood up a special plainclothes unit of 18–20 demobilized ex-army officers and some active-duty officers to conduct clandestine operations against the IRA. The officers received training at a school of instruction in London, most likely under the supervision of Special Branch, which had been part of Britain's Directorate of Home Intelligence since February 1919. They may also have received some training from MI5 officers and ex-officers working for Special Branch. Army Centre, Dublin, hoped these officers could eventually be divided up and deployed to the provinces to support its 5th and 6th Division intelligence staffs, but it decided to keep it in Dublin under the command of the Dublin District Division, General Gerald Boyd, commanding. It was known officially as the Dublin District Special Branch (DDSB) and also as "D Branch". In May 1920, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Wilson arrived in Dublin to take command of D Branch.

Following the events of Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920, when twelve D Branch officers were assassinated by the Irish Republican Army under the command of Michael Collins, D Branch was transferred to the command of Brigadier-General Sir Ormonde Winter in January 1921. Winter had been placed in charge of a new police intelligence unit, the Combined Intelligence Service, in May 1920, and his charter was to set up a central intelligence clearing house to more effectively collate and coordinate army and police intelligence. Those members of D Branch who survived Bloody Sunday were very unhappy to be transferred from army command to CIS command, and for the next six months, until the Truce of July 1921, D Branch continued to maintain regular contact with Army Intelligence Centre while undertaking missions for Winter's CIS.

The famous photograph that is widely accepted as showing members of the Cairo Gang is lodged in the National Library of Ireland photographic archive Piaras Béaslaí collection (five copies). An inscription describes the men as "the special gang F company Auxiliaries". There are no names or details on the back of the photos. Three other photos in the collection show Auxiliaries posing on vehicles in the grounds of Dublin Castle. These three photos are similarly numbered.

The Cairo Gang members lived unobtrusively at nice addresses, in boarding houses and hotels across Dublin while preparing a hit list of known republicans. However, the IRA Intelligence Department (IRAID) was one step ahead of them and was receiving information from numerous well-placed sources, including Lily Merin, who was the confidential code clerk for British Army Intelligence Centre in Parkgate Street, and Sergeant Jerry Mannix, stationed in Donnybrook. Mannix provided the IRAID with a list of names and addresses for all the members of the Cairo Gang. In addition, Michael Collins's case officers on the intelligence staff—Liam Tobin, Tom Cullen and Frank Thornton—were meeting with several D Branch officers nightly, pretending to be informers. Another IRA penetration source participating in the nightly repartee with the D Branch men at Cafe Cairo, Rabiatti's Saloon and Kidds Back Pub was Detective Constable David Neligan, one of Michael Collins's penetrations of G-Division, the secret detectives of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Additionally, the IRA had co-opted most of the Irish servants who worked in the rooming houses where the D Branch officers lived, and all of their comings and goings were meticulously recorded by servants and reported to Collins's staff.

All the members of the gang were kept under surveillance for several weeks, and intelligence was gathered from sympathisers (for example, concerning people who were coming home at strange hours, which would indicate that they were being allowed through the military curfew). The IRA Dublin Brigade and the IRAID then pooled their resources and intelligence to draw up their own hit list of suspected gang members and set the date for the assassinations to be carried out on 21 November 1920 at 9:00 am.

Dublin Metropolitan Police Incident Report.


The operation was planned by several senior IRA members, including Michael Collins, Dick McKee, Liam Tobin, Peadar Clancy, Tom Cullen, Frank Thornton and Oscar Traynor. The killings were planned to coincide with a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary, because the large crowds around Dublin would allow easier movement for the Volunteers and make it more difficult for the British to detect Collins' Squad members as they carried out the assassinations.

Clancy and McKee were picked up by Crown forces on the evening of Saturday, 20 November. They were tortured and later shot dead "while trying to escape".

Tortured and killed with them was Conor Clune (the nephew of Archbishop Clune of Perth, who had been senior chaplain to the Catholic members of the Australian Imperial Force in World War I). Clune was manager of the seed and plant nursery owned by Edward MacLysaght near Quin, and Clune and MacLysaght travelled to Dublin on the morning of Saturday, 20 November 1920, bringing with him the books of the Raheen Co-op for its annual audit. Clune was arrested in a raid on Vaughan's Hotel in Dublin, where he was a registered guest.

Nineteen men were shot. Fourteen were killed on 21 November; Montgomery died later, making fifteen in all. Four were wounded. Ames, Angliss, Baggallay, Bennet, Dowling, Fitzgerald, McCormack, MacLean, Montgomery, Newberry, Price, Wilde, Smith, Morris, Garniss were killed. Keenlyside, Woodcock, Murray and Caldow were wounded. Peel and others escaped. The dead included members of the "Cairo Gang", British Army Courts-Martial officers, the two Auxiliaries and a civilian informant.

The Illustrated London News 4th December 1920.


Of the IRA men involved, only Frank Teeling was captured during the operation. He was court-martialled and sentenced to hang, but escaped from Kilmainham Gaol before the sentence could be carried out. Patrick Moran and Thomas Whelan were arrested later and, despite their protestations of innocence and witnesses attesting to alibis, were hanged for murder in connection with the killings on 14 March 1921.

The remaining Cairo Gang members, along with many other spies, fled to either Dublin Castle or England, fearing they were next on the IRA's hit list. Another member committed suicide in Dublin Castle. The deaths and flights dealt a severe blow to British intelligence-gathering in Ireland.

Here's Pathe News clip of funeral:

(via Wikipedia)


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