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 were the 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 in Hertford Street 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, accompanied another unknown I.R.A. man to the shop of the Halford Cycle Company in Smithford Street. McCormack waited outside while the other man 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 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 Hewitts 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 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 for the next 76 years?
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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 fragments of clothing. Instead of being married at St. Barbara's Church to Harry Davies on September 9th, her funeral service took place there instead on August 30th. On top of her coffin was a spray of cream roses from her fianc
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