Coventry remembers ‘forgotten’ IRA bicycle bombing

City dedicates memorial to victims of attack that killed five and injured 70 in 1939

 Aftermath of the IRA bicycle bomb in Coventry, England,  in 1939. Photograph: National Media Museum/SSPL/Getty Images

Aftermath of the IRA bicycle bomb in Coventry, England, in 1939. Photograph: National Media Museum/SSPL/Getty Images

 

It was a bustling Friday afternoon, two weeks before her wedding day, when Elsie Ansell went browsing in Broadgate, Coventry’s main shopping street.

As the 21-year-old shop assistant stopped to look in a jeweller’s window, an explosion rocked the street, shattering glass and mangling metal, killing five people and injuring 70.

Elsie, who was identified by her engagement ring, was buried in her wedding dress five days later.

The five who died on August 25th, 1939, in the Broadgate bombing, part of an IRA campaign that targeted British cities, have been all but forgotten.

On Broadgate, now a vast concrete plaza dominated by a Primark store at one end and a Starbucks at the other, nobody can today identify for certain the place where the bomb went off.

But yesterday, on a small, windswept lawn a few streets away, Coventry dedicated its first memorial to the victims.

A few dozen people gathered for a short service to unveil the simple, sandstone monument next to Coventry Cathedral, including relatives of four of the dead.

Jane Bant laid a flower in memory of her uncle, John Arnott, who was on his lunch break from WH Smith, where he sold newspapers and magazines, when the bomb killed him.

It was his first job since leaving school and he was just 15 years old.

Bant said her mother, who was seven when John died, remembered her brother as “a jolly, happy chappie with a mop of curly hair”.  

Bicycle carrier

The bomb, which had been placed in the carrier of a bicycle, exploded a week before the outbreak of the second World War and the following year brought much greater horrors to Coventry as a succession of Luftwaffe aerial bombing raids flattened much of the city, killing hundreds.

“My mum used to talk about what had happened, you know, that so many people had been killed and there had been a bride. So everything was relayed down to the family,” Bant said.

“But I think in those days you didn’t speak very much of it and because it happened just prior to World War Two, that’s why it was brushed aside a bit.”

Two men from Co Offaly, Peter Barnes and James McCormick, were convicted for their part in the bombing and hanged but Joby O’Sullivan, who actually made and planted the bomb, escaped to Ireland.

In an interview with RTÉ radio in 1969, O’Sullivan claimed that they had not intended to leave the bomb in a crowded street but the bicycle carrying it got stuck in a tram track and they abandoned it.

The IRA’s “S-plan” bombing campaign, which began in January 1939, was ostensibly aimed at forcing a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland but according to historian David O’Donoghue, its real purpose was to attract the attention of the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence service.

In his book The Devil’s Deal: The IRA, Nazi Germany and the Double Life of Jim O’Donovan, Dr O’Donoghue describes how O’Donovan, an IRA volunteer who worked for the ESB, used the campaign to establish links with Germany.

Reconciliation

In a reflection during yesterday’s service, the Dean of Coventry, John Witcombe, placed the commemoration in the context of the city’s experience of reconciliation with Germany since 1945.

The memorial to the five victims of Broadgate stands on the cathedral’s Unity Lawn, a place of reflection, memory and reconciliation.

“They were innocently caught up in a conflict which had nothing to do with them. That’s so often what happens in violent conflict – the innocent are the ones who die,” Dean Witcombe said.

“In Coventry, we have found a way of marking and remembering the brokenness of the world, the terrible tragedies which scar our history. We have made it our practice to do that without pointing the finger of blame.”

Blame

The issue of who was to blame for the Broadgate bombing may, however, be partly responsible for the long delay in commemorating its victims. Jane Bant believes that, in a city with a large Irish population, which was targeted by the IRA again in 1974, political sensitivities played a role.

“I think a bit of it was the politics, because it was an IRA bomb. I think there was sensitivity on that. I think perhaps they didn’t want to bring it up,” she said.

“I don’t know, that’s what I’m assuming. But I think now, we’re in the city of reconciliation and we’re moving forward.”