Following a power struggle within the IRA during the mid 1930s, Seán Russell was reinstated to the IRA in April 1938 and elected to the IRA Army Council in absentia. At a subsequent IRA General Army Convention, Russell and his supporters secured enough support to get a controlling majority vote within the IRA Army Council. It was at this time that Russell began the process of preparing for a campaign of attacks on British soil - a strategy he had decided upon from the mid-1930s onwards.
Seamus (Jim) O’Donovan had been asked by Seán Russell directly after his election to IRAdrgh Chief of Staff in 1938 to formulate his ideas on the possibilities of successful acts of sabotage on British soil. O’Donovan was the former Director of Chemicals of the "old IRA" and an acknowledged expert in the use of explosive material. He had not been active in politics since retiring from public life in 1923. Russell's request followed directly from him taking on the role of IRA Chief of Staff of the "new IRA" army council. The notes which O'Donovan created for Russell became the S-Plan or Sabotage Plan.
On 17 December 1938, the Wolfe Tone Weekly newspaper published a statement issued by a group signing itself the "Executive Council of Dáil Éireann, Government of the Republic". This group perceived itself to be the legitimate government of the 32-County Irish Republic and refused to recognise the legitimacy of partition. In the statement, seven Second Dáil TDs declared that they had delegated what they believed to be their governmental "authority" to the IRA Army Council.
This announcement, coming immediately prior to the S-Plan attacks, sought to present the actions of the IRA as those of a legitimate, de jure government. Within this context, with the IRA Army Council acting as government, with the right to use force and levy war against an occupying power, the IRA declared war on Britain in January 1939.
The S-Plan contained many precise instructions for acts of destruction which had as their object the paralysis of all official activity in England and the greatest possible destruction of British defence installations.
It divided the IRA campaign into two main lines: propaganda and offensive (military) action. The document listed six different types of offensive action;
Operations were strictly concentrated on the island of Britain, in and around centers of population where IRA volunteers could operate freely without drawing attention. No attacks on targets in Northern Ireland or other areas under British control were planned as part of the S-Plan.
Military preparations for the campaign included a series of attacks on British customs houses in Northern Ireland. On November 28 and 29, 1938, British customs posts along the border were demolished using explosives. The only fatalities were three IRA volunteers:
They were killed by the premature explosion of a mine at a house in Castlefin, County Donegal on 28 November 1938.
Russell is said to have distributed O'Donovan's notes virtually unedited to IRA battlegroups as an operational instruction from the Army Council. O'Donovan appears, at the time of writing the S-Plan, to have been oblivious to the decision to begin a campaign of attacks on British soil in 1939. However, because of his level of expertise, he was later involved in a new round of explosives training for IRA volunteers in Dublin from 1938 to 1939.
Sources of funding for the campaign are not known, but once the campaign was operating, the weekly expenses for operations in the field amounted to approximately £700 per week. Operational units were expected to raise any money needed themselves and the men who acted within IRA teams were unpaid and expected to support themselves while on missions.
The make up of these teams is thought to have been different from the cell structure employed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in their campaign against Britain in the 1970s. It is known from arrests made during the campaign that the IRA utilised material dumps in Britain built up in 1938, as well as devices improvised while on active duty in Britain. IRA volunteers arriving from Ireland were also intercepted by British authorities transporting war material for use in the campaign.
The strength of the IRA and Cumann Na mBan at this time was said to be estimated between 5,000 and 30,000 men and women at varying stages of training and ability. Training of volunteers was organized prior to the beginning of the campaign but the volunteers sent to Britain also contained new raw recruits such as Brendan Behan. However, IRA officials who went to Britain to assess the movement's strength there in spring 1938 reported that:
"In general it can be said that the state of the organisation in units which exist is poor and loose, and militarily should be described as almost elementary.
Seán Russell left to pursue the propaganda phase of the S-plan in the United States in March 1939, after the S-Plan military phase began in January 1939. On leaving he appointed Stephen Hayes as Acting Chief of Staff of the IRA. Russell was not to return to Ireland and died from an untreated gastric ulcer in 1940.
On 12 January 1939, the Army Council sent an ultimatum, signed by Patrick Fleming, to British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax. The communiqué duly informed the British government of "The Government of the Irish Republic's" intention to go to "war". Excerpt from the ultimatum:
I have the honour to inform you that the Government of the Irish Republic, having as its first duty towards its people the establishment and maintenance of peace and order here, demand the withdrawal of all British armed forces stationed in Ireland. The occupation of our territory by troops of another nation and the persistent subvention here of activities directly against the expressed national will and in the interests of a foreign power, prevent the expansion and development of our institution in consonance with our social needs and purposes, and must cease.
The Government of the Irish Republic believe that a period of four days is sufficient notice for your Government to signify its intentions in the matter of the military evacuation and for the issue of your Declaration of Abdication in respect of our country. Our Government reserves the right of appropriate action without further notice if upon the expiration of this period of grace, these conditions remain unfulfilled.
- Oglaigh na h-Éireann (Irish Republican Army).
- General Headquarters, Dublin, January 12th,1939, to His Excellency the Rt. Hon. Viscount Halifax, C.G.B.
On Sunday, 15 January, with no reply from the British Government, a proclamation was posted in public places throughout Ireland announcing the IRA's declaration of war on Britain. This proclamation was written by Joseph McGarrity, leader of Clan na Gael in the United States, and was signed by six members of the Army Council: Stephen Hayes, Patrick Fleming, Peadar O'Flaherty, George Plunkett, Larry Grogan and Seán Russell. The seventh Army Council member, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, refused to sign as he believed the IRA was not ready to begin the campaign.
This proclamation also called upon Irishmen both at home and, "in Exile," to give their utmost support to compel the withdrawal of the British from the island of Ireland so that a free Irish Republic could be established. As the campaign began in Britain the same proclamation appeared posted around Irish communities in British cities. The proclamation referenced back to the 17 December 1938 statement by the group naming itself the "Executive Council of Dáil Éireann, Government of the Republic" and read:
"On the twenty-third day of April in the year 1916 in the City of Dublin, seven men, who were representative in spirit and outlook and purpose of the Irish Nation that had never yielded to nor accepted the British conquest, set their humble and almost unknown names to the foregoing document that has passed into history, making the names of the seven signatories immortal. These signatures were sealed with the blood of the immortal seven, and of many others who followed them into one of the most gallant fights in the history of the world; and the Irish Nation rose from shame to honour, from humiliation to pride, from slavery to freedom...."
"Unfortunately, because men were foolish enough to treat with an armed enemy within their gates, the English won the peace. Weakness and treachery caused a resumption of the war and the old English tactics of `divide and conquer' were exploited to the fullest extent. Partition was introduced, the country divided into two parts with two separate Parliaments subject to and controlled by the British Government. The armed forces of England still occupy six of our counties in the North and reserve the right `in time of war or strained relations' to reoccupy the ports which they have just evacuated in the southern part of Ireland. Ireland is still tied, as she has been for centuries past, to take part in England's wars. In the Six Counties, a large number of Republican soldiers are held prisoners by England. Further weakness on the part of some of our people, broken faith and make-believe, have postponed the enthronement of the living Republic, but the proclamation of Easter Week and the declaration of independence stand and must stand for ever. No man, no matter how far he has fallen away from his national faith, has dared to repudiate them. They constitute the rallying centre for the unbought manhood of Ireland in the fight that must be made to make them effective and to redeem the nation's self-respect that was abandoned by a section of our people in 1923."
"The time has come to make that fight. There is no need to redeclare the Republic of Ireland, now or in the future. There is no need to reaffirm the declaration of Irish independence. But the hour has come for the supreme effort to make both effective. So in the name of the unconquered dead and the faithful living, we pledge ourselves to that task. We call upon England to withdraw her armed forces, her civilian officials and institutions, and representatives of all kinds from every part of Ireland as an essential preliminary to arrangements for peace and friendship between the two countries; and we call upon the people of all Ireland, at home and in exile, to assist us in the effort we, are about to make, in God's name, to compel that evacuation and to enthrone the Republic of Ireland.
The first explosion occurred outside the control room of a large power station in London which supplied the whole of south-east England with electricity. It created a large crater in the forecourt of the building. There were no casualties and the control station was reportedly undamaged. A second explosion occurred in London that day, with an overhead cable running from Grand Union Canal to Willesden Power Station being badly damaged. There were also bombs in Birmingham and Alnwick- making a total of 5 that day. The results were panic, destruction of power infrastructure, and damage to business premises. The Times reported, (on 18 January), that an attack had been made on the main extra high trunk feeders from Hams Hall Power Station and 2 of the principal water mains supplying the station.
The British Government sought to improve security of infrastructure in England. All power stations, gas works, telephone exchanges, and the wireless transmitter at Droitwich were put under police protection. Police patrols around the government buildings at Whitehall were strongly reinforced and all ships from Ireland arriving at Holyhead, Fishguard, and Liverpool were closely inspected. An attempt was made to explode an electricity pylon stretching across the Manchester Ship Canal at Barton. A faulty timer meant the bag of dynamite and gelignite failed to explode. Explosions at Hams Hall Power Station, the main source of Birmingham's electricity supply and a crucial link in the Midlands Grid System also occurred. A pylon carrying cable across the Great Barr had also been targetted, but remained standing on one strut. Damage to the Williams Deacons Bank in London was caused when a device exploded, blowing up the pavement and causing damage to gas mains.
The IRA had been declared an illegal organization under the Declaration of Unlawful Organization Order passed June 18, 1936 but the Irish Free State Government had only used this power on a few IRA volunteers. De Valera spoke about the IRA and S-Plan in the Dáil for two hours. Saying the IRA had no right to assume the title "Irish Republican Government," and that the then Irish Minister for Justice, PJ. Ruttledge, planned to bring "energetic measures" before the house to combat the IRA.
"The signatories of the ridiculous ultimatum to Great Britain are men of no account. Nobody in this country would have taken them seriously, but for the recent outrages in Great Britain. As a political force in Éire, the IRA simply does not count."
Sir Samuel Hoare, introduced the Prevention of Violence Act Bill (Temporary Provisions). The bill provided comprehensive powers for the British government to prevent the immigration of foreigners, for their deportation, and for extending to the Irish the requirement to register with the British police.
Hoare referred to the S-Plan of the IRA when presenting the bill to the British parliament. He also stated that a total of 127 terrorist outrages had been perpetrated since January 1939. 57 in London and 70 in the provinces. In the course of these one person had been killed and 55 seriously or less seriously injured. 66 persons had been convicted of terrorist activity. In all, Hoare repeated that the British police had seized;
He explained that up to the present the perpetrators of these attacks had restricted themselves to damaging British property, however recently the government had been notified that the campaign was about to intensify with no regard being paid to human life. He added that the IRA campaign "was being closely watched and actively stimulated by foreign organisations" (a reference to German Intelligence). Hoare went on to claim that Irish terrorists had come within an inch of blowing up Hammersmith Bridge, Southwark Power Station, and an aqueduct in North London. They had collected detailed information about important bridges, railway lines, munition dumps, war factories and airfields and even engaged in a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
"England's difficulty- Ireland's opportunity has ever been the watchword of the Gael.. Now is the time for Irishmen to take up arms and strike a blow for the Ulster people.
The Hewitts were a married couple and Bridgid O’Hara was Mrs. Hewitt’s mother. All pleaded not guilty to the charge of murdering 21-year-old Elsie Ansell, (the prosecution had limited the charge to one victim). Three days later, the verdict of guilty was returned. James Richards and Peter Barnes were sentenced to death by hanging. This sentencing triggered off a whole series of IRA attacks on British post offices, pillar boxes and mail trains.
"opinion here is either that 2 innocent men will hang, or that it is the partition of Ireland by the British who forced these young Irishmen to perpetrate such outrages. Anglo-Irish relations could markedly deteriorate through the hanging of these men."
Lot of protests followed this. Simon Donnelly, former IRA leader, made a speech in Dublin in which he proclaimed to the crowds jubilation:
"We know very well what outcome we want to this war. We want the enemy, who has kept our people in bondage for 700 years and who continues to pour insults on us, to be pitilessly vanquished. Until such time as the Irish Republic is established, Ireland's youth will continue to sacrifice itself. If the government does not bring foreign overlordship to an end, others must be entrusted with the task."''
There is solid evidence from the Abwehr war diaries that methods employed by IRA units carrying out the S-Plan generated only annoyance and frustration in Germany. Attacks against mostly civilian targets while causing panic and loss of confidence in the authorities, were not perceived as helpful to damaging British capability for waging war.
Evidence of German Intelligence's frustration can also be seen in the message from Abwehr II’s Director which was hand delivered to Seamus O'Donovan on 9th February 1940 by Abwehr agent Ernst Weber-Drohl.:
"The Pfalzgraf Section very urgently requests its Irish friends and IRA members to be so good as to make considerably better efforts to carry out the S-plan, which they received some time last summer, and to be more effectual against military as opposed to civilian objectives.
By the time of Russell's journey back to Ireland in August 1940, German Intelligence chief Wilhelm Canaris appears to have lost faith in attempts to infiltrate into England via Ireland.
There is no evidence that IRA teams during the period were involved in co-ordinating or guiding Luftwaffe planes to, or within, the airspace of Britain, Northern Ireland, or the Éire. This was not a feature of IRA/Abwehr contact, during the period.
The five deaths during the Coventry bombing on August 25th effectively ended the campaign. By late 1940, the introduction of the Treason Act 1939, Offences Against the State Act in Éire, and the Prevention of Violence (Temporary Provisions) Act in Britain had seen many IRA members interned in Éire, arrested in Britain, or deported from Britain. The granting of extra powers to the Irish Justice Minister under the Emergency Powers Act in January 1940 lead to 600 IRA volunteers being imprisoned and 500 interned during the course of World War II alone.
Increases in the security surrounding rich infrastructure targets in Britain also had a major effect on IRA team's ability to conduct operations. The seizure of war material and inability to get newly-acquired war material into Britain under wartime restrictions meant increased improvisation which in turn lead to increased exposure to discovery. It is also clear that the campaign generated a good deal of anti-Irish sentiment which increased the British public's suspicion of Irishmen/women in general. All these factors led to attacks tapering off around early to mid-1940. The death of Seán Russell on August 14th 1940, (he had already been effectively incommunicado since April 1939), and the succession of Stephen Hayes as IRA Chief of Staff also contributed to the petering out of the attacks.
At the time, the author of the S-Plan, Seamus O'Donovan noted his views on the S-Plan campaign in his diary entry for 23 August 1939 as:
"hastily conceived, scheduled to a premature start, with ill-equipped and inadequately-trained personnel, too few men and too little money....
..unable to sustain the vital spark of what must be confessed to have fizzled out like a damp and inglorious squib
Reflecting in the 1960s, O’Donovan, assessed the results of the campaign even more critically:
"It brought nothing but harm to Ireland and the IRA.
M.L.R Smith writing in "Fighting for Ireland? The military strategy of the Irish Republican movement", has argued that the S-Plan campaign:
"..can be seen not as a serious attempt to advance the nationalist cause, but as a sign of the movement reverting to type, as a vehicle for preserving the doctrinal purity of the republican vision. The bombing campaign underscored that a 'militarist caste' was exactly what the IRA had become.
The main outcome of the campaign was the Prevention of Violence Act in Britain which remained in force until 1954. Allowed to expire in 1953 and repealed in 1973, it was reintroduced in 1974 as the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act to combat the successor to the S-Plan- Provisional IRA attacks on British soil.
The final figures resulting from the S-Plan are cited as 300 explosions, seven deaths and 96 injuries.