“…armoured cars with their attendant Crossley tenders, having their beautiful machine guns mounted in front….with their low fire-spitting eye, levelled at the people….” (Joe Leonard’s vivid depiction in 1948).
Armoured Cars at The Custom House 25 May 1921
The crown forces reaction to the attack on the Custom House included two armoured cars. One was a Rolls Royce (RR), the other a Peerless. They effectively surrounded the building and cut off the attackers’ escape routes.
At least four cars were on call for support to the Auxies in Dublin at any one time. There were in all 20 armoured cars available to British forces for general duties in Dublin military district.
In those times an armoured car was so highly valued by the British military that if one was captured, the crew faced court martial. That rule may have stemmed from the original British users of armoured cars in WWI – the Royal Naval Air Service! Its parent the Royal Navy traditionally brought – and still brings – any captain who loses his ship before a court martial. Such an event actually occurred in Ireland in 1921 when the IRA – several Custom House men among them – captured a Peerless armoured car in the daring attempted rescue of Sean MacEoin from Mountjoy Jail 11 days before the Custom House burning. The NCO in charge of the Peerless was subsequently court-martialled (but acquitted).
The RR vehicle was more modern, lighter and practical even though designed earlier than the Peerless; but both types were formidable and potentially deadly opponents for the very lightly armed IRA that day at the Custom House. As well as being almost invulnerable to small calibre bullets, both types carried machine guns in turrets. Several IRA fatalities were said to have been hit by machine gun fire.
The actual RR car used on 25 May 1921 is believed to be shown, covered by its regular users, in the photo (captured & labelled by IRA Intelligence) of F Company Auxies and military in Dublin Castle yard where it was based, below.
The RR cars were known as Whippets; apparently this was not a British term but seems to have been coined at some stage by the Irish.
The vehicle was designed in 1914 and built on a Silver Ghost car chassis. Its speed was pretty fast for the time. It had a crew of three, supplied from the Tank Corps.
An imposing sight on a Dublin street or lane – especially when you were confronted by one – even as a ‘totally innocent’. It must have been particularly worrying if you – as an IRA man or woman – came across one, with its accompanying foot soldiers, while you were carrying a little ‘pop-gun’ or bomb or some incriminating message. Armoured cars were used extensively by day and night in the city.
The RR was armed with a Vicker’s heavy machine gun which could fire .303 calibre (rifle) bullets at a rate of up to 500 rounds per minute from a belt holding 250 (At least 1,000 rounds were carried in the cars). The barrel was encased in a water-filled cooling jacket to prevent overheating from sustained firing. The gun’s effective range was 2,000 metres, which in the close quarters of the fight around the Custom House was overkill and totally lethal. The writer was impressed by a close-up view of such a gun at a Griffith-Collins commemoration in Glasnevin in the recent past.
A searchlight could also be mounted on the turret.
Peerless Armoured Car
As the Reader will probably agree just by the look of it, the Peerless was a dog: a primitive, early attempt at an armoured car. It was not suited to Irish conditions in any event – too heavy for typical rural roads or bridges, clumsy and hard to manoeuvre. Although they were generally reliable, back axles tended to break. Most were well used and worn out. As an example, the one captured by the IRA on 14 May 1921 could not reach a speed of over 10mph and failed to make it up the hill on Malahide Road from Fairview. It was abandoned and set alight after its machine guns were taken out and spirited away (another story for another day).
Based on a truck chassis made by the American Peerless Motor Company, the bodies were manufactured from 1919 by the British Austin motor company (who more successfully and much later gave the world the iconic Mini car).
It was equipped with two side-by-side turrets which mounted British Hotchkiss machine guns. Peerless cars were crewed by private soldiers drawn from British cavalry, infantry and artillery units in Ireland and were driven by Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) personnel.
In a fanciful postcard drawing in the Vinny Byrne scrapbook collection, one thing is beyond argument and totally unmistakable – that is a Peerless illustrated with its uniquely weird double turrets firing at the Custom House.
Below is a more realistic photo of the RR armoured car at the Custom House burning.
Later Irish military service
Both types of armoured cars entered service in 1922 with the Provisional Government Army, later the National Army. The machines were designated ARR (armoured Rolls Royce) and AP (armoured Peerless). They saw much action in the Civil War, overwhelmingly with the Free State forces.
Two were famously used by republicans. ‘The Mutineer’, ineffectively, in defence of the Four Courts (But see another conclusion in comment by Conor McHenry, below). It was later employed by the Free State under the name ‘Ex-Mutineer’. The other was in Co Sligo (originally called ‘Ballinalee’ by the Free State and then ‘Lough Gill’ in republican service) which changed hands at least twice. There are many photos of armoured cars in Civil War action to be found by a simple Google search. One, below – although the cars are just parked at Wellington Barracks – includes a familiar Custom House attacker.
Leaving those and other stories to another day, it says a lot for British design and engineering that most RR’s acquired in 1922 were used up to 1944 by the Irish Defence Forces (DF) and were also still in service with the British in WW2 (examples can be seen in historic film footage from the early stages of the North Africa campaign).
Only two of those survive in running condition
ARR-2 (Sliabh na mBan) restored by DF and based at Curragh Camp – a tribute to Irish engineering and preservation of historical artefacts; and
ARR-1 (originally named Danny Boy, then Tom Keogh after his death in the Civil War) rebuilt by a private collector and kept in England.
In addition, a restored/rebuilt Peerless armoured car – is kept by the DF Cavalry Corps at Curragh Camp. We wonder if it’s in the Civil War photos below?
Apart from their accompanying armoured cars, Auxies were always heavily armed and had Crossley Tenders as transport. For a patrol, an individual cadet could select from this impressive list of weapons:
- Handgun & 50 rounds – Webley service revolvers and various automatic or semi-automatic pistols;
- Lee Enfield rifle (.303 calibre), bayonet & 40 rounds – particularly accurate and deadly in experienced hands;
- Winchester repeating rifle & 40 rounds – famous from old cowboy films;
- Winchester shotgun & 40 rounds;
- Lewis Machine gun (.303 calibre) plus 5 drums of ammo – at least one was deployed by crown forces at the Custom House;
- Flare pistol & 25 flares;
- Mills hand grenade.
A whole Dublin Brigade IRA Battalion would have done well in 1921 to equal the arsenal of weapons available to a mere section of Auxies whose ammunition supply alone would have greatly exceeded that available in Brigade dumps around the city at any time.
Of course the Auxies carried their armaments legally and openly under Britsh rule and did not lose weapons or ammo to raids and captures on anything like the scale the IRA suffered. But some of them (like many ordinary British Tommies), did sell arms to the IRA on occasion and several were caught and jailed for such offences.
Hopefully above illustrates the scale of opposition, based on weapons alone, faced by the IRA at the Custom House.
By the way, during the War of Independence British tanks were used in Dublin, mostly for barracks defence and sometimes as battering rams on raids. But none appeared at the Custom House battle.
Note: A more detailed and expert review of the weapons used at the Custom House can be found in an excellent book by Kieran McMullen available from Kilmainham Tales Teo.