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?
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 fiance with a card that read "With everlasting love and remembrance, from your husband to be Harry." The two children who were to have been bridal attendants - Joyce and Bobby - sent a basket of pink carnations, and a wreath of white chrysanthemums from her mother Laura bore the inscription "With treasured memories of a most beautiful and devoted daughter". The coffin bearers were from the nearby Albany Social Club. A crowd of 600 to 700 people, mainly women, were at London Road cemetery to see her laid to rest. Many wept as the coffin was lowered into the grave. 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 mop of 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 and engaged to May Jones. Employed as a Trainee Manager at W. H. Smith in Newtown, he had been sent to their Coventry store to provide holiday cover and had only been in the city for a couple of weeks. He lodged with the Arnott family in Daimler Road. It is believed that he changed his lunch hour on that fateful day so both he and young John could eat at the same time at the Arnott family home - thus saving Mrs Arnott the trouble of having to prepare separate meals at different times. It was an act of kindness typical of Rex.
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, had worked for the Highways Department of the Coventry Corporation for four years. Originally from Port Talbot in Wales, he made Coventry his home on the advice of his son William, who had relocated here some years earlier. Both had been Coal Miners and when his son saw a close friend die in an accident at the pit, he decided enough was enough and made a new life for himself in Coventry. Worried that his father would meet the same fate as his friend, he encouraged him to make the same journey and take up a new profession. It was a decision that would haunt him as he wrongly blamed himself for his father's death. He would not speak about his dad or the bombing for the rest of life and visited his grave on his own to lay flowers.
Gwilym's wife Mary Ann received no compensation from the authorities for the loss of her husband and instead was offered a job with the Coventry Corporation (now known as Coventry City Council). After the explosion, she had the grim task of identifying his body at the public mortuary. 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, including a number of colleagues from the Highways Department led by their foreman J. Walker. Floral tributes included wreaths from the Radford Social Club, Transport & General Workers Union and from friends and neighbours at Beake Avenue.
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. A former Blue Gift Schoolboy, James was apprenticed at the age of 13 to the grandfather of J.E. Parbury, where he learned to be a printer. He went on to work for all the leading printers in the city. A well known and popular character, he took a keen interest in education, being a member of the old Coventry school board, founding the 'Pleasant Sunday Afternoon' movement in Coventry, was secretary of the Co-operative Society's educational classes and was also associated with Sunday school work at Warwick Road Church. His burial took place at Kenilworth cemetery on the August 30th and was so well attended that only half the number of mourners, many of whom were from local Co-Operative societies, were able to fit in the cemetery chapel.
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. One of the most severely injured was Muriel Timms, aged 15, from Gregory Avenue. She sustained concussion and horrendous leg injuries with an operation needed to remove a piece of steel from her leg. Muriel was the last of the injured to leave hospital, returning home almost six months later on 22 February 1940.
Another victim was Harold Murdock, aged 43, a tailor from Duncroft Avenue who spent 10 days in hospital. He suffered injuries to his face, legs, buttocks, lower part of his body and hearing - being left "stone deaf" by the explosion. He was off work until November and gave up working altogether in March 1940 when he developed a nervous disposition. From then on he stayed in his bed before dying on 16 April 1940. At the inquest it was stated that his death was the result of advanced pulmonary tuberculosis and a verdict of "Death from natural causes" was recorded. Harold was said to be ill but in moderate health before the explosion, however, the Coroner did note that the injuries and terrible experience he went through may well have accelerated his death.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack many alternative claims of what caused the explosion were mooted by people who witnessed it. Some made reference to an aircraft that had been seen overhead and believed that an air raid had been carried out marking the start of the war. Others claimed that lorries carrying T.N.T. had driven through the area moments earlier and one must have exploded. Some spoke of a second explosion, with claims that another device was planted on the clock above the H. Samuel store which emitted smoke before dropping to the floor and detonating. The police investigation soon proved all these to be false though.
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.)
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. A newspaper report stated that £10,000 damage was caused - which would be over £500,000 in today's money. 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.
The police initially issued press appeals saying they wished to interview Dominic Adams about the attack. An uncle of the former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, he was suspected of orchestrating the I.R.A. campaign in England and is believed to be the man who purchased the bicycle from Halfords while McCormack waited outside. He was very familiar with Coventry and it is highly probable that he ordered the bombing. Adams was not caught but the investigation soon led to Clara Street following the arrest of Peter Barnes in London on the same night of the Broadgate explosion. An attempt to plant a further three 'bicycle bombs' in the capital city had been thwarted in the morning and Barnes was suspected of having supplied explosives to those involved by the police. When news of the outrage in Coventry and how it was carried out reached them, they were sure he must have been involved. At 8:50 pm he arrived home to find Detective Sergeant William Hughes and some of his colleagues from the Special Branch at Scotland Yard waiting for him. When D.S. Hughes and the officers with him searched his room in a boarding house at 176 Westbourne Terrace, they found potassium chlorate in a chest of drawers and an incriminating letter in the pocket of the coat that he was wearing. Barnes had written it the previous day (August 24th) and addressed it to a man in Ireland. Luckily for the police, he had not posted it. In it he made reference to his 'job' being to move the 'S-' from place to place ("S-" meaning "stuff" - the explosives) and stated "I am after coming back from Coventry tonight 11-30 so by the time you get this the paper should have some news." Clearly he expected something dramatic to happen in the city that would make headlines.
Barnes had called at Clara Street previously on August 21st to acquaint himself with McCormack and discuss the transportation of the "stuff". 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. He passed them on to his fiance Sarah Ann Keane for safekeeping and they were found by the police when they searched her home in London following his arrest. These were to prove crucial in the Coventry investigation. The owner of Celia's, Mary Cecilia Downs, was able to identify both women, and Mabel Hubbard, a shop assistant at Forey's, identified Brigid O'Hara as the purchaser of the suitcase.
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 Hewitts 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 fiance. 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 made or 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.
The actual bomber was never betrayed by those who appeared in court charged with the murder of Elsie Ansell. McCormack and Barnes understandably refused to name their comrade, while the others, who would not have been told his name, referred to him simply as "the strange man". It appears he came to Coventry specifically for this task and was not part of the local I.R.A. unit. Since this article was originally published in 2009, he has been widely named as Joby O'Sullivan, who was a native of Cork. In an interview given before his death to an Irish journalist, O'Sullivan claimed that he was responsible for the attack and that the real target for the bomb was Coventry's main police station. He said the bicycle kept getting stuck in tram lines so he abandoned it before making his escape to the railway station. If true, this means he actually cycled past a number of turn-offs for the police station before reaching Broadgate. If he was lost he makes no mention of it which would be a more plausible explanation than being impeded by tram lines. O'Sullivan is described as a "psychopath" by one leading author on Irish Republicanism and according to others spent a lot of time in mental health institutions. Other Republican sources state the target was supposed to be an electricity generating station. Another suggestion is that the attack was quite deliberate and designed to show Nazi Germany the capabilities of the I.R.A. At the time the organisation's leadership was trying to persuade Germany to form a mutual alliance with them to fight the British. There is a wealth of speculation out there but the simple fact remains that a high explosive no warning bomb was left in the busiest shopping street in the city, supposedly contrary to I.R.A. instructions to not endanger civilians. The bomber made a conscious decision to do this and must have known the likely outcome of his actions.
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 Hewitts and Brigid O'Hara were deported from England and presumably went back to Belfast.
A memorial was erected to James McCormack and Peter Barnes in Banagher, County Offaly in 1963. In July 1969, their remains were moved from the grounds of Winson Green prison and re-interred in Ballyglass cemetery, Mullingar, County Westmeath. 15,000 people attended. To this day, both men continue to be remembered by the Republican movement in Ireland and are regarded as martyrs.
On the 14th of October 2015 a memorial stone was unveiled in Coventry to the victims of the attack. It is located on Unity Lawn in the grounds of the Cathedral.
The dedication service was simple but dignified and helped bring closure to the victims' families who have never forgotten their loved ones. Many of them were in attendance and they laid single white roses at its base.
Coventry City Council paid for the memorial and the Cathedral, which is renowned throughout the world as a centre of peace and reconciliation, facilitated its location. It is a short distance from Broadgate. Given that it is almost impossible to determine the exact site of the blast (somewhere near the Lady Godiva statue, see below for Rob Orland's comparison of contemporary and modern maps) and the fact that Broadgate tends to be re-modelled every few years, it was felt by the families that Unity Lawn would be a better location.
The original version of this article had highlighted the lack of a memorial and led to many people questioning why this was the case. One person who read it and subsequently got in touch was BBC News Online journalist Jenny Harby. In 2014, on the 75th anniversary of the attack, her powerful article entitled "Coventry IRA bombing: The 'forgotten' attack on a British city" was published on the BBC News website. Jenny did an enormous amount of work behind the scenes with the victims families and relevant authorities which ultimately led to unanimous agreement for a memorial to be erected. BBC Coventry & Warwickshire also regularly kept the story in the public eye.
Elsewhere in Coventry, the excellent Police Museum in the basement of Coventry Central 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. May they all 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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Marie Jones, Jane Bant and Betty Rowlands - 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.
"Coventry IRA Bombing: The 'forgotten' attack on a British city" by Jenny Harby. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-28191501
Ian Adams - for permission to quote from "The Sabotage Plan".
Midland Daily Telegraph reports from July, August & September 1939.
"The Devil's Deal: The IRA, Nazi Germany and the Double Life of Jim O'Donovan" by David O'Donoghue.
For details of the I.R.A. campaign launched against the United Kingdom in 1939, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S-Plan
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.
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