The Daily Beast, under a typically sensationalist headline, “Why Did The IRA Assassinate This American?“, details in a rather selective manner the life and death of Peter Ashmun Ames, the Pennsylvania-born leader of a British “murder squad” operating in Ireland during the island nation’s War of Independence. Unsurprisingly the exact nature of his military service on behalf of British imperialism against Irish republicanism is left somewhat obscured.
““Ash” Ames was born June 10, 1888, in Titusville, a town north of Pittsburgh that was then the center of America’s oil industry. His father worked for Standard Oil and by the time of the elder Ames’s death at age 40 his widow and the couples’ four children were financially set for life. Mrs. Ames promptly moved the family to Morristown, N.J., where Ash and his siblings grew up in wealth and privilege. Though raised Roman Catholic the children attended secular schools, and following high school Ash earned an engineering degree from Stevens College. In 1912, at 24, he moved to London to take a position his mother had arranged through her social contacts.
In 1917, before America’s entry into World War I, Ames renounced his U.S. citizenship and joined the British army’s elite Grenadier Guards. As a second lieutenant he fought in France at Passchendaele and Cambrai, and was lightly injured by mustard gas. In April 1920 Ames relinquished his commission and attempted to reintegrate himself into civilian life. Part of that reintegration was a blossoming romance in London with Millicent Orr Ewing, an aristocratic young woman he’d met through Terence Langrish, a former Irish Guards officer engaged to Millicent’s best friend, fledgling writer Barbara Cartland.
Though Ames’s romantic life was going well his professional life wasn’t. He was among thousands seeking postwar work and was unable to secure anything commensurate with his skills or social standing. Ames and Langrish—who was also finding gainful employment elusive—therefore volunteered for service in Ireland. Embroiled in an increasingly violent war with Irish nationalists, the British government was recruiting veterans for undercover operations in Dublin as part of a small, “hush-hush” sub-unit of Military Intelligence known by the suitably cryptic designation MO4(x). The work paid a very generous £600 per year, and also offered men bored with civilian life the chance to again serve king and country by helping defeat a nationalist movement many saw as a threat to the cohesion of the Empire.”
The article goes on to describe the manner of Ash’s execution by the Irish Republican Army in late November of 1921 but none of the war crimes that led to it.
Throughout the near-decade of the Irish Revolution, from 1916 to 1923, the British military and paramilitary forces in Ireland carried out dozens of unacknowledged murders, assassinations and summary executions, most of which were attributed by the domestic press and general public to “murder gangs” operating with the connivance of the UK authorities. However, strictly speaking, there were only a handful of organised death squads functioning in the country during the crucial years of 1919 to 1921, the rest being ad hoc groups of killers serving with the British Army and Royal Irish Constabulary, Britain’s colonial gendarmerie on the island. Many murders in rural towns and parishes were carried out by locally garrisoned soldiers and police officers acting on impulse, in revenge for losses incurred in attacks by the Republican Army or to cower communities deemed to be hostile to the “Crown”.
The dedicated death squads on the other hand were integral to Britain’s war effort, tasked with kidnapping, torturing and murdering suspected volunteers of the Irish Republican Army and the wider revolutionary government of the Irish Republic. Probably the most notorious, if actually ineffective, of these groupings was based in Dublin city, a hotbed of insurgent activity. It was called the Dublin District Special Branch (DDSB) or “D Branch” by the British, while their Irish opponents dubbed it the Special Gang; though these days it is better known as the Cairo Gang, principally in reference to its habit of frequenting the then fashionable Cairo Cafe on Grafton Street in Dublin. The core of the unit was some twenty serving or recommissioned officers from Britain, most of whom were veterans of World War One or the Empire’s colonial conflicts, who were recruited for secret work with the British Army Intelligence Centre in Ireland. Following several weeks of training in London under the auspices of the Security Service, MI5, and the Special Branch of the London Metropolitan Police, most of the men arrived in Dublin in early 1920 where they were assigned to the Dublin District Division, later under the command of a Lieutenant Colonel Walter Wilson.
The officers were ordered to live covertly in civilian quarters around the capital, most of which were in affluent, middle-class districts regarded as relatively safe from incursions by the Republican Army (that is, quasi “Green Zones” close to military barracks, often with significant numbers of unionist or pro-British individuals among the resident population). Several also assumed jobs as travelling salesmen or shop assistants. In reality their attempts at secrecy were an abject failure, partly through their own brutality and debauched behaviour, and partly through the successful penetration of the UK’s Dublin bureaucracy by republican supporters. Within six months of arriving in Ireland their names and addresses were known to the Irish Republican Army’s Intelligence Department (IRAID), several of the servants in their homes agreeing to report on their activities. In addition three IRAID intelligence officers were meeting with the Gang’s chief gunmen on a regular basis, posing as would-be informers, often socialising with them at the Cafe Cairo, Rabiatti’s Saloon and Kidds Back Pub, establishments frequented by the middle ranking members of the British military and police. In time a series of high profile arrests and murders of people associated with the defence forces and government of the underground Irish Republic by the Cairo Gang sealed its fate, and on the morning of Sunday the 21st of November 1920, a dozen associates of D Branch were targeted in a series of coordinated attacks by the Intelligence Unit (IU) of IRAID, the famous “Squad”, augmented by regular volunteers of the Dublin Brigade.
At No. 28 Pembroke Street Upper members of the IU shot dead Major Charles Milne Cholmeley Dowling (the Grenadier Guards) and Captain Leonard Price (the Middlesex Regiment/Royal Engineers), while fatally wounding Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Montgomery (the Royal Marines and GHQ Staff, cousin of Major Bernard Law Montgomery, head of the brutal intelligence section of the British 17th Infantry Brigade in the province of Munster. The latter would gain fame in World War Two as Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein). At least three other men were injured, Captain Brian Christopher Headlam Keenlyside, Colonel Wilfrid Woodcock (both of the Lancashire Fusiliers) and Lieutenant Randolph George Murray (the Royal Scots Regiment). A cache of documents were removed from the dwelling including a suspected hit-list of republican activists. Inside No. 117 Morehampton Road, Donnybrook, Lieutenant Donald Lewis MacLean (the Rifle Brigade) was shot dead along with a civilian traitor, Thomas Herbert Smith. MacLean’s accomplice and brother-in-law, John Caldow (formerly of the Royal Scots Fusiliers), survived his wounds and returned to Britain.
At No. 92 Lower Baggot Street, Captain William Frederick Newberry (the Royal West Surrey Regiment) was shot dead while attempting to escape out of a window at the rear of the premises, while at No. 38 Upper Mount Street, the former American citizen, Lieutenant Peter Ashmun Ames, and his Indonesian-born colleague, Captain George Bennett, were executed together in a bedroom after a maid gave members of the Squad prearranged access to the house. No. 28 Earlsfort Terrace witnessed the shooting dead of Irish-born Sergeant John J. Fitzgerald of the Royal Irish Constabulary (also known as Captain Fitzgerald and Captain Fitzpatrick). Having survived a previous assassination attempt the collaborator did not escape this time. Documents recovered from his house detailed the movements of senior officers of the Irish Republican Army over the previous few months.
The shootings in No. 22 Lower Mount Street took the life of Lieutenant Henry James Angliss (alias Patrick Mahon, of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers) but missed Lieutenant Charles Ratsch Peel (baptised Carl Francis S. Ratsch, of the Labour Corps) and Lieutenant John Joseph Connolly (aka. Mister Connolly, of the Leinster Regiment). Peel, the son of German immigrants to Britain, escaped death by hiding in his room, piling up furniture behind the locked door. Several shots fired through the obstacles failed to hit him. The second man, Wexford-born Connolly, was in bed with Angliss when the raiding party burst into the room. He threw himself to the floor as the first shots rang out and later took a ship to the UK, refusing to return to Ireland to help the authorities in their enquiries, until arrested by military police and dragged back by armed officers.
Connolly’s two compatriots were professional spies and had been recalled from involvement in the Russian Civil War to organise intelligence operations in south County Dublin. Angliss had survived a previous assassination attempt when he had been targeted in retaliation for the murder of a civilian lawyer, John Aloysius Lynch, from Kilmallock in County Limerick. Lynch, an elected Sinn Féin county councillor and judge with the Republican Courts, had been summarily executed while staying as a guest in the Royal Exchange Hotel, Dublin, on the morning of the 22nd of September 1920, by uniformed members of the Cairo Gang, including Angliss and Peel.
The IU section which raided Lower Mount Street was interrupted part way through its operation by a large foot-patrol of the RIC Auxiliary Division, an elite mercenary contingent of the Royal Irish Constabulary primarily staffed with ex-officers of the British Forces. Two of the “Auxies” were dispatched to the nearby Beggars Bush barracks to fetch reinforcements but were intercepted by volunteers of the Dublin Brigade and shot dead at No. 16 Northumberland Road. The dead gunmen were Cadet Cecil Augustus Morris (formerly a 2nd Lieutenant of the Middlesex Regiment) and Cadet Frank Garniss (an ex-2nd Lieutenant of the Leicestershire Regiment). Unfortunately a young IRA volunteer, Francis “Frank” Teeling, was wounded in a running firefight with the Auxiliary patrol and taken prisoner. He narrowly escaped being executed by his frenzied captors when a senior British Army officer intervened just as the trigger was being pulled on a loaded gun held to his head.
Around the same time, at No. 119 Baggot Street, a senior military prosecutor, Captain Geoffrey Thomas Baggallay (of the South Wales Borderers Regiment), who had participated in the show trials of a number of suspected Republican Army volunteers, was shot dead in his bedroom. Several weeks earlier an IRA double-agent within the Dublin Metropolitan Police and MI5, Detective David Neligan, had provided evidence to the insurgents that the Great War veteran, Baggallay, identifiable by his wooden leg, was also involved in the murder of John Aloysius Lynch.
The prestigious Gresham Hotel on Upper O’Connell Street, a home-away-from-home for dozens of UK officials, was the scene of the shooting dead of Captain Patrick McCormack (formerly of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps) and 2nd Lieutenant Leonard William Wilde (aka. Leonard Aidan Wilde or Alan Wilde, a veteran of the notorious Sherwood Foresters Regiment and the empire’s diplomatic service in Spain and France). The volunteers – from D Company, 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade and not the Intelligence Department’s IU – gained access to the men’s rooms by posing as British soldiers with important dispatches. A number of staff members helped the attackers with information, while some fourteen volunteers briefly commandeered the building.
Several other targets survived their injuries, many more escaping, while a tranche of files were known or feared to have fallen into republican hands at the scenes of the shootings. In any case, the UK’s intelligence system in Dublin effectively collapsed in the wake of the killings, dozens of agents, spies and informers pouring into Dublin Castle, the seat of British rule, seeking refuge, in some cases bringing their distraught families with them. Others fled back to Britain on the first transport they could find, while the government and press in London was momentarily mute with shock. Of all the executions that day, the two regarded as the most important by the Irish side were the removal of the American, Peter Ashmun Ames, of the prestigious Grenadier Guards, and his British companion, George Bennett, of the Royal Army Service Corps (Motor Transport). The Intelligence Department of the Republican Army had identified the duo as the leaders of the Cairo Gang, and the principal planners of its operations. By killing the two officers the IRA knew that it had stopped the D Branch dead in its tracks, subsequent events largely proving this to be correct.
Shortly after the shootings the British Occupation Forces in Dublin exacted a terrible revenge for their losses that morning by attacking a Gaelic football match at Croke Park, a sporting stadium in the heart of the capital, killing fourteen players and spectators, including two boys aged ten and eleven, and wounding at least sixty more. The atrocity was soon dubbed the Bloody Sunday Massacre by the Irish and international press, though their UK counterparts sought to censor and then justify the killings. Around the same time two senior officers of the Irish Republican Army, Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, along with a civilian, Conor Clune, who were being held captive by the British at a city barracks were subject to several hours of torture by dozens of solders taking turns at beating them, before being murdered. An official statement from the UK authorities said that the three had been shot dead “while trying to escape”, a common excuse for summary executions. Unfortunately for Britain young Clune, the manager of a plant nursery, was the nephew of Archbishop Clune of Perth, who had been a senior chaplain with the Australian Imperial Force in World War One. His brutal death was to propel his uncle onto the international stage as one of the chief supporters of the Irish republican cause in Australia and New Zealand, adding to London’s diplomatic woes.
Though other murder squads existed or were to shortly come into existence, notably the Igoe Gang (aka. Tudor’s Tigers or Tudor’s Toughs) in Dublin and the Cromwell Gang in Belfast, both part of the regular RIC, as well as F Company of the notorious RIC Auxiliary Division, and the amorphous Anti-Sinn Féin League in Cork, the steam was slowly running out of the UK’s war machine. While some sixty to a hundred agents and spies remained in the struggle with the Irish Republic, enough that the IRA planned another series of assassinations, only the Irish-British Truce of July 1921 preventing its execution, Britain’s war was over.
On the 14th of March 1921, two officers of the Irish Republican Army, thirty-three year old Patrick Moran and Thomas Whelan, aged twenty-two, were executed by the British, accused and convicted by military tribunals of involvement with the killing of the Cairo Gang members, despite a vigorous defence offered by the prominent Jewish-Irish lawyer and republican, Michael Noyk. Eighty years later the bodies of both men were exhumed from unmarked graves in Mountjoy Prison and buried with full military honours in state funerals organised by the government of Ireland.