The Headford Ambush was carried out by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on 21 March 1921, during the Irish War of Independence. The IRA's 2nd Kerry Brigade ambushed a train carrying British troops of the Royal Fusiliers at Headford Junction railway station near Killarney, County Kerry. This sparked a battle lasting almost an hour, in which at least 14 people were killed – nine British soldiers, two IRA volunteers and three civilians. The IRA withdrew after another train carrying British troops arrived.
|Part of the Irish War of Independence|
British soldiers searching a train in County Kerry, 1921
Irish Republican Army|
(2nd Kerry Brigade)
(1st Royal Fusiliers)
|Commanders and leaders|
|Danny Allman†||Lt. C.F. Adams†|
|32 volunteers||30 soldiers in first train, more arrive in a second train|
|Casualties and losses|
|2 dead||7 dead, 2 fatally wounded, 12 injured (at least)|
|3 civilians dead, 2 wounded in ambush, 1 alleged informer killed in the aftermath|
The guerrilla war in Kerry escalated rapidly in the spring of 1921. The county was occupied by the British Army, Auxiliary Division and Black and Tan paramilitary police, as well as the Royal Irish Constabulary. From the autumn of 1920, they had been burning suspected Republicans' property and shooting suspected IRA sympathisers. By early 1921, they had begun rounding up male inhabitants of nearby towns and villages and searching for IRA suspects. This began in Tralee on 11 January.
On 23 January, in response to the IRA's assassination of RIC District Inspector Sullivan (who was shot while walking with his five-year-old son), 1,000 soldiers and armed police surrounded Ballymacelligott, arrested 240 men and marched them to Tralee for questioning. British forces, especially the Auxiliaries, also carried out a number of reprisal shootings of local civilians. The IRA set up full-time guerrilla units (known as flying columns), to avoid arrest and to assemble units capable of taking on British patrols. IRA GHQ in Dublin also sent an organizer, Andy Cooney, to Kerry to oversee the setting up of flying columns. On 2 March, under Cooney's direction, the 2nd Kerry Brigade set up its own flying column under Dan Allman and Tom McEllistrim. On 5 March, McEllistrim led 20 volunteers from the column to a successful ambush at Clonbanin, in which they co-operated with Cork IRA units, killing four British soldiers (including Brigadier General Cumming). Buoyed by their success in Cork, the 2nd Kerry Brigade tried on a number of occasions to ambush British forces in Kerry itself.
On 21 March, an IRA party of the 2nd Kerry Brigade was billeted about four miles from the Headford railway junction when they heard that British troops were returning by train from Kenmare to Tralee. As the train did not go directly, the British would have to change at Headford, making them vulnerable to ambush. Allman, commanding 30 volunteers, reached the junction only 12 minutes before the train, which was carrying 30 soldiers of the 1st Royal Fusiliers. The railway staff just had time to flee before the train pulled into the platform, where its passengers had to change trains for Tralee. Alongside the soldiers, the train was packed with cattle and pig farmers, on their way back from the market in Kenmare. Most of the civilians had already got off when the British soldiers began to disembark. Allman himself tried to disarm a Fusilier but shot him when he resisted. Other accounts say the soldier was shot dead as he went to use the lavatory. This was the signal for the IRA to open fire on the British troops.
One of the first British casualties was Lieutenant CE Adams DCM, who was shot dead when he appeared at the carriage door, as were several other soldiers who were standing in front of the engine. The surviving British troops opened fire from the train, while those who had got off scrambled underneath it for cover. In the ensuing close-quarter firefight, conducted at a range of just 20 yards, three civilians and two IRA volunteers (including Allman) were killed. Two-thirds of the British force is estimated to have been killed or wounded. Most of those killed were hit in the initial firing. Afterwards, the IRA gunmen had no direct field of fire into the troops who were hidden under the train.
MacEllistrim called on the survivors to surrender and when they refused, the IRA began to move in to finish off those who kept shooting, by throwing hand grenades under the train. Just as they were doing so, another train pulled into the junction, carrying another party of British troops. The IRA column had used most of its ammunition and was forced to retreat, escaping toward the hills in the south.
The British Army reported that seven soldiers were killed outright and that two more were fatally wounded. There were a further twelve non-fatal injuries among the troops. The IRA however thought there were far more British casualties. One of the attackers recalled, "twelve coffins left Killarney later and that wasn't all". Tom McEllistrim reported to his superiors that as many as 25 British soldiers had been killed. Allman and another IRA guerrilla, Lt Jimmy Baily, were killed in the ambush. One civilian was killed outright and two mortally wounded, with two others (a father and daughter) seriously wounded. In the immediate aftermath of the ambush, McEllistrim shot dead a suspected spy whom his men had captured.
- "The War of Independence in Kerry". The Irish Story. 2016-12-02. Retrieved 2017-03-22.
- T Ryle Dwyer, Tans Terror and Troubles, Kerry's Real Fighting Story. Mercier Press, 2001. pp. 270-73 ISBN 1-85635-353-2
- "Today in Irish History: The Headford ambush, March 21, 1921". The Irish Story. 2014-03-13. Retrieved 2017-03-22.
- Dwyer, pp.281-284
- "The Headford Ambush, Co. Kerry, March 1921". History Ireland. 1921-03-21. Retrieved 2017-03-22.
- CWGC entry for Lieutenant Adams, cwgc.org; accessed 22 March 2017.
- Dwyer, p. 293
- "Headford Junction Ambush - 21 March 1921". Cairogang.com. 1921-03-21. Retrieved 2017-03-22.
- Dwyer, p.294.
- Dwyer, p. 291