When IRA bombs brought terror to towns across Lancashire

Firefighter examines the scene following an IRA bomb attack at Blackpool Town Hall on August 26, 1939
Firefighter examines the scene following an IRA bomb attack at Blackpool Town Hall on August 26, 1939
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Eighty years ago a string of IRA bombings targeted Lancashire’s seaside towns as Siobhan Regan reports

Between 1939 and 1940, the re-emergence of Irish Republican Army activity saw terror and confusion spread throughout the United Kingdom.

Aftermath of the IRA blast at Blackpool Town Hall on August 26, 1939

Aftermath of the IRA blast at Blackpool Town Hall on August 26, 1939

After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, a division in the opinion of supporters and opponents of the peace treaty meant that the frustrations of the Irish Republican Army sympathisers had reached a breaking point.

On January 1939, the IRA Army Council declared war against Britain and the Sabotage Campaign, otherwise known as S-Plan, was born. This campaign was designed to sabotage the civil, economic and military infrastructure of the United Kingdom through a series of bombings.

Despite Ireland’s neutral position during the Second World War IRA operatives worked closely alongside German forces in the aim of causing maximum devastation to the UK. Many of these early 1939 bombings were planned in and around London, which as England’s densely-populated capital, was a perfect location for maximum impact.

However, one of the most devastating attacks took place in Broadgate, Coventry, place on August 1, 1939 when an IRA bomb exploded after it was planted in the basket of a tradesman’s bicycle killing five people and injuring 70.

Lancashire Post report after the IRA bomb attack on Blackpool Town Hall of August 26, 1939

Lancashire Post report after the IRA bomb attack on Blackpool Town Hall of August 26, 1939

Another attack at Kings Cross Train Station on July 26, 1939 left a mass of debris and sparked mass panic throughout the surrounding area. Other major cities were also targeted in the wave of attacks, including Manchester and Birmingham. As tourists headed for the coast in the summer the IRA’s focus turned to the Lancashire seaside.

Blackpool, Southport, Morecambe and Fleetwood found themselves a prime target for the terror campaign. The first wave saw a series of mysterious fires started in bedrooms of the Carlton Hotel, Blackpool; the Grand Hotel, Morecambe; and the Victoria Hotel, in Southport, between Friday, May 19 and Saturday, May 20.

At the time, Chief Constable of Lancashire Capt. A.F. Hordern told the Lancashire Daily Post, “The fires seemed to have been pre-arranged and set going according to an elaborate plan.”
He went on to appeal to hotel proprietors in the area to, “take every precaution with visitors who came to their hotels to book rooms.”

The Chief Constable was right to warn hotel owners as this was just the first of a string of attacks on hotel and public buildings in the coming months. On Wednesday, August 9 the IRA struck at a Post Office in Blackpool when a postal sorter spotted two suspicious packages. These were filled with explosive devices and came from fictitious addresses which were untraceable. Thanks to the sorter’s vigilance, police were quickly informed and the packages were rendered harmless.

Damage from IRA bomb attack at Blackpool Town Hall on August 26, 1939

Damage from IRA bomb attack at Blackpool Town Hall on August 26, 1939

Then on Tuesday, August 15, 1939 two further attacks were co-ordinated by suspected IRA sympathisers in hotels in Southport and Fleetwood. The Southport attack occurred in the Sandringham Hotel on the Promenade when a fire broke out following an explosion which took place shortly after midnight in a second floor bedroom.

Fortunately, Southport Fire Brigade subdued the fire and little damage was done. The source of the explosion appeared to be a celluloid doll, after a fuse and a metal container which were found in a wardrobe drawer. The bedroom had been occupied by a 30-year-old man described as having an Irish accent and a 27-year-old woman with a distinct Belfast accent who signed their names as Mr and Mrs G Hirst.
Both occupants reportedly left the room at 8.15pm and were nowhere to be found following the explosion. On the same date, a similar attack in Fleetwood occurred in the North Euston Hotel on the Esplanade in a room occupied by a woman in her mid-20s with an Irish accent who signed the name Miss M Hull or Hall in the guestbook.

The woman was seen carrying a suitcase into her room and, at the time, it was reported that, ‘it was thought that she intended to stay overnight and catch the Isle of Man steamer this morning. Nothing further was ever seen of her’.
Shortly after midnight, hotel guests were awoken by a loud explosion which blasted into the unoccupied room next door. It is believed the suitcase was the source of the explosion which was found behind a wardrobe with only the bottom half of the suitcase and the handle remaining. Later the same month, the IRA orchestrated three further bombing attempts in Blackpool.

On Saturday, August 26 the Central Police Station, the Town Hall and a sidestreet by Tower Circus were all targeted. The first bomb damaged the front of the Town Hall with such severity that it ‘rocked’ the building and the clock stopped due to the sheer force of the explosion.

The second attempt was on the resort’s Police Station but thankfully an anonymous visitor alerted the officers to the 12 sticks of gelignite found in the grounds so the bomb never went off.
Finally a balloon bomb was hidden in a dustbin in a narrow high-street which divided Woolworths from the Tower Circus.

The bomb’s discovery was made by two Blackpool Tower watchmen, Ernie Sanderson and Isaac Melling, who spotted flames coming from the bin. The Lancashire Daily Post reported that after the men had extinguished the flames, ‘Sanderson made an examination of the dustbin...in doing so he found a parcel containing the balloon bomb at the bottom of the bin’.

A short while later, a taxi driver reported that a group of men driving a suspicious maroon car which had passed him directly after Town Hall the explosion. Police pursued the suspect car but to no avail and no subsequent arrests were made.

By targeting these beach towns, the IRA specifically pinpointed summer businesses and holidaymakers to produce both civil and economic unrest, just as their Sabotage Campaign intended.