Hardy: the great escaper

Belfast-born ‘Hoppy’ Hardy, a decorated war hero, was a ruthless murderer in the War of Independence

Jocelyn Lee ‘Hoppy’ Hardy, a lieutenant in the Connaught Rangers, made numerous attempts to escape German prison camps before finally succeeding. (Courtesy, National Library of Ireland)

Jocelyn Lee ‘Hoppy’ Hardy, a lieutenant in the Connaught Rangers, made numerous attempts to escape German prison camps before finally succeeding. (Courtesy, National Library of Ireland)

 

In the recently aired episode about comedian Brendan O’Carroll on BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, much of the focus was a whodunit exposition on the murder of Brendan’s grandfather Peter O’Carroll in October 1920. In the end, all eyes turned upon Jocelyn Lee Hardy, one of the most ruthless British operatives working in Dublin during the Irish War of Independence.

“Hoppy” Hardy earned his sobriquet when, having lost a leg on the Western Front, he became so adept at using a wooden prosthesis that, if he walked at speed, it was almost impossible to notice.

The amputation of his leg in 1918 ended what had been a remarkable wartime career. Hardy was born in 1894 to a family of prominent Belfast haberdashers and drapers. His father, a wool merchant, was born in Hollywood, Co Down, but later settled in London where Hardy was born in 1894.

Hardy’s Irish connections helped secure the 19-year-old a commission as a second lieutenant in the Connaught Rangers in January 1914. With the outbreak of the Great War eight months later, the Rangers sailed for France where they were observed marching through Boulogne, belting out verse and chorus of It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary.

Less than two weeks later, Hardy was with a group of 20 Connaught Rangers captured by the Germans during the Great Retreat from Mons. He was transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.

“There are some wild birds who settle down in captivity,” wrote author Arthur Conan Doyle, a friend of Hardy’s. “There are others who alternate between brooding on their perch and dashing themselves against the bars. Of the latter breed is Captain Hardy, once of the Connaught Rangers. Many times he dashed himself against the bars, and then at last on one glorious day he slipped between the bars and was free once more.”

Hardy’s first rather basic effort was from Halle Camp, a derelict machine factory near Leipzig. Having spent five months discreetly scraping a brick wall, with a view to one day breaking through it, he deduced his plan was impracticable. Nonetheless, he used his time to learn fluent German, reasoning that a successful escapee must know the language of the locals.

In the summer of 1915 he was moved to a new camp on the outskirts of the medieval city of Neubrandenburg. Ten days after his arrival, a dozy guard prompted Hardy and a Russian officer to slip away while the prisoners were having a bath outside the camp. The duo made it all the way to the port city of Stralsund on the Baltic coast before they were rumbled.

Litany of mishaps

Soaked to the skin, he stumbled to the railway station and boarded the first train he could find. “My father has died and I’m going to his funeral,” he mumbled to the ticket clerk. After a litany of mishaps, he reached the town of Delmenhorst but the temperature plummeted to such an extent he was unable to think straight. Struggling with pneumonia and hunger, he spotted a roaring fire through a window, broke into the house and fell asleep.

Captured again, he spent three weeks in solitary confinement before being sent to Magdeburg, an island prison on the River Elbe. Surrounded by barbed wire, blazing arc lamps and about 30 sentry posts, security was assumed to be airtight until Hardy and a Belgian comrade broke free.

Hardy once again reached Stralsund but a suspicious customs officer foiled their getaway. When the customs officer wound up dead, Hardy and the Belgian were charged with his murder. Remarkably, they were acquitted before being sent back to Magdeburg where Hardy spent another 10 weeks in solitary confinement.

Transferred to Fort Zorndorf, a damp, miserable and utterly impregnable prison 70 miles east of Berlin, Hardy had another shot for freedom when, during a visit to the camp commandant, he and a British air ace took a running jump over a fence and sprinted at full speed into the forest. Once again he was captured and sent back “for a little solitary confinement”.

Other attempts included trying to slip out wearing a lady’s nightgown and an ill-conceived effort to scale a wall using a ladder that was too short.

He finally completed a successful escape in February 1918 when he and another man broke out of Schweidnitz (now Swidnica) in what was then Silesia, eastern Germany, clambering over a wire fence and a wall topped in broken glass.

With days of his return, he was presented to King George V and a Distinguished Service Order followed. By August 1918, he was back on the Western Front where he won a Military Cross before the incident at Dadizeele where he lost his leg. As he fell to the ground that day, he apparently shouted “Stop the war! I’ve been hurt!”

‘Notorious murderer’

Boy’s Own

Hardy moved to Dublin where, although he continued to wear his Connaught Rangers uniform, he was seconded to the Royal Irish Constabulary’s Auxiliary Division. His subsequent service with ‘F’ Company led Michael Noyk, Arthur Griffith’s solicitor, to refer to him as the head of the “Murder Gang”, while Michael Collins similarly spoke of him as “a notorious murderer”.

He was an exceptionally vicious interrogator, with Kevin Barry and Ernie O’Malley amongst those to undergo his torture tactics. As well as orchestrating the murder of Peter O’Carroll, he orchestrated the death of Seán Treacy and, perhaps most grimly, the killing of Peader Clancy and Dick McKee, two senior members of the Dublin IRA, and Conor Clune, a Gaelic League member. The deaths of Clancy, McKee and Clune marked the start of Bloody Sunday – Hardy was due to be executed by Collins’s squad that same day but he escaped again.

In fact, he eluded several assassination attempts before retiring to a farm in Norfolk where he lived with his wife and two children. He became a successful novelist and two of his books were made into films. His most successful book was his biography I Escape.