A remarkable incident took place off the south coast of Ireland during the closing phase of direct British influence in the island of Ireland. Remarkable in that it was an act of piracy.



The Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in London on 6 December 1921, brought into being the Provisional Government of Ireland with jurisdiction over the so-called southern 26 counties. The Treaty also made provision for a separate Governing body in the remaining six northern counties which would, by popular mandate, remain within the framework of the United Kingdom. A direct result of this was the subsequent partition of the island into two distinct political, religious and geographical groups. The ‘south’, to be known as the Irish Free State with Dominion status, officially came into being exactly a year later replacing the Provisional Government in Irish politics. The northern six counties, exercising their rights under the Treaty, remained as a self-governing part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Although this avoided a north/south civil war, anti-Treaty elements within the Republican movement and the Irish Republican Army were unwilling to accept the terms of the Treaty principally, the likely partition of the country and the requirement for Free State politicians to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. This unwillingness eventually developed into outright hostilities and subsequently, a brutal civil war between the pro (Free State) and anti (IRA) treaty military and political elements which range d throughout the Free State from 1922 – 1923.

As 1922 progressed, pro-Treaty members of the Army (later to be known as the Free State Army) who remained loyal to the Provisional Government in Dublin were increasingly subjected to the same guerrilla style tactics which had proved so successful against British rule in the recent past. This was particularly true of the southern province of Munster and, though the city of Cork was in the main pro Treaty, it was nevertheless firmly under the control of the IRA. Throughout the province , IRA sympathy was widespread and consequently, the writ of the Provisional Government virtually non-existent.

As in any war, arms, ammunition and information form an essential element in the winning of a conflict. In this the Free State Army, formally established under the Treaty, were to enjoy a distinct advantage, namely that of British material and political support for the emergent new state. On the other hand, the anti-Treaty faction, notwithstanding an excellent system of intelligence gathering, found their traditional sources of material were generally no longer available to them. Consequently, faced with limited financial support and dwindling military resources, they were forced to rely on other localised means. Raids mounted against police stations, lightly manned military posts and the ambush of Free State patrols became their modus operandi.

The Upnor incident was but an extension of this policy.


On 3 April, the Irish Correspondent of the New York Times filed a brief but detailed report of an incident of piracy which took place off the south coast of Ireland four days earlier. The vessel detained was the RFA (Royal Fleet Auxiliary) Upnor, a small British naval armament freighter on passage from Cork to Devonport, in south west England. This article, the initial report by the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches and the subsequent Admiralty Board of Enquiry combine to give a fuller picture of what actually occurred during the days between 28 and 30 March 1922.

Reported as bound for the Royal Naval Base at Devonport, Upnor was involved in a routine shipment of arms and ammunition from the redundant naval base on Haulbowline Island. Located in the outer reaches of the River Lee below the city of Cork , the base, at that time, was in the process of being decommissioned.

Originally scheduled for closure in 1922, the Provisional Government had asked that the facility remain in British hands for a further year, probably due to the political and military uncertainty in and around the city of Cork. Consequently, the hand over to Free State forces was delayed until the following year.

Upnor sailed from the Naval Base just after noon on 29 March having loaded a cargo of armament and general naval stores. Clearing the headlands at the entrance to Cork harbour, a south easterly course was set to pass south of Land’s End, followed by a short run up the English Channel to Devonport Naval Dockyard. Two hours after this, the privately owned tug Warrior mysteriously slipped her moorings in Queenstown (Cobh) and, without her Master, followed in the Upnor’s direction eventually overhauling her at 1800 that evening, some 35 miles off the Irish coast.

The Warrior, owned by The Elliott Steam Tug Company of Fenchurch Street London, had been previously chartered to tow the decommissioned ex-HMS Medusa from Queenstown to an undisclosed cross channel port for breaking up. Sailing with her charge on 28 March, Warrior’s Master soon realised that he could make no headway in the prevailing sea conditions and reluctantly returned to port. At 1030 on the morning of 29 March, tug and tow arrived off Queenstown and eventually returned Medusa to her original moorings in Monkstown Bay. On completion, Warrior secured alongside the deepwater berth at Queenstown. Shortly after noon, the Master went ashore and called at the offices of Horne & Co, his owners Agents in an effort to contact his owners and seek further instructions.


Events which governed the next 18 hours had their origins in Cork city earlier on 29 March. Captain Collins, a former Mercantile Marine Officer and now a serving member of the Cork Harbour Commission was taken by armed civilians, driven to Queenstown, and placed onboard the Warrior at about 1430. With the tug’s Master already detained ashore and the English crew confined below decks, their places were taken by a similar number of armed men. Collins was ordered to take the tug to sea. She subsequently sailed at 1445.

That evening, armed men visited those city merchants known to have ‘motor lorries’ and demanded that they provide both vehicles and drivers for an undisclosed purpose. Intimidation, threats and probably some sympathetic collusion led to 80 vehicles being provided which immediately set off in an easterly direction towards the small fishing village of Ballycotton. To prevent outside interference, trees were felled and all access to the area cut off, hardly necessary given that by this stage in political proceedings, British Forces were largely confined to barracks. This point is made abundantly clear in C in C’s report which records, “There being no police in Queenstown no news of the holding of the master of the Warrior reached me’’. The report goes on to say, “I regret that all civilians live in such fear of their lives that they will take no action against the forces of disorder”.

On coming within hailing distance, Upnor was advised that Warrior had been instructed to deliver an urgent hand message from the Admiralty. Somewhat surprisingly, no questions were asked and a boat, crewed by four men, left for the RFA. On boarding the Upnor, the Captain was informed that his vessel was being detained, that he was to proceed to Ballycotton Bay in company with the Warrior and that no attempt to escape should be made.

Arriving at 0100 on 30 March, unloading was immediately commenced using locally pressed men as stevedores, who incidentally, each reportedly received £7.10 d for their labour! Quoting from C in C’s report, “the raiders withdrew at about 1030”, probably due to the sighting of two destroyers (HM ship’s Heather and Strenuous) outside the bay, before unloading had been completed. This early departure meant that a large proportion of the arms and ammunition remained onboard Upnor. The report also noted that after the ‘raiders’ had departed the local population ‘continued looting and breaking (open) cases and throwing the cargo of the Upnor into confusion’. Before leaving, the crew of the Warrior were ordered to remain in Ballycotton until 1300 and although no similar instructions to the Master of the Upnor are recorded, a later remark does suggest that the vessel was ‘ashore’, meaning she may have grounded on a falling tide and therefore been unable to leave. Warrior was subsequently met by the two destroyers at 1330 off Power Head, to the east of Cork Harbour. Having ascertained that Upnor was still in Ballycotton harbour, Heather and Strenuous found her afloat and tied up alongside the harbour wall. Upnor and Warrior escorted by the two warships returned to Haulbowline Naval Base.



Under guard, the crews of both ships were questioned in an effort to establish exactly what they knew of the events which had taken place during the preceding 48 hours.

In the case of the Warrior , the Master, having been detained in and removed from his Agent ’s office on the morning of 29 March, he obviously had no knowledge of events at sea. However, he did give a graphic description of armed men entering the office seeking to charter the tug on behalf of the Provisional Government (in fact they were anti treaty members of the IRA). When told that this would not be possible as the vessel was already on charter, they left only to return a few minutes later to say that they had commandeered Warrior and now intended to detain the Master. He was removed from Horne’s offices and remained a prisoner until 1400 the next day. When questioned regarding his captors, he said the men were armed with revolvers, were not in uniform and that he could recognise ‘all I had to deal with’. Their leader, and the person in charge of the operation was later named as Thomas Berry an ex (IRA?) liaison officer in Cork.

Following the questioning, C in C Western Approaches (Vice Admiral Sir Earnest Gaunt, KCB, CMG) was authorised by the Admiralty to release the tug’s crew provided there was no suspicion of complicity on their part. Though no details exist regarding this authorisation, the crew being entirely English, and having regard to their forceful detention and subsequent events, there would seem to have been no grounds for further detention. No doubt, Warrior and her crew were released without delay.

No documents relating to the questioning of or statements made by the Master and crew of the Upnor have been found other than a brief but illuminating comment from the statement made by the Mate of the Upnor. When questioned, (enclosure No 4 to C in C Western Approaches report to the Secretary to the Admiralty) he said that the rebels ‘had been waiting to do this for three weeks’. Supporting this view, Colonel John Ward MP informed Parliament that the matter had also been widely discussed in some London clubs the week before the Upnor was detained. Not a good recommendation for the intelligence services of the time!

Though not all the cargo of armament stores were removed from the Upnor at Ballycotton, the brief list below gives some idea of the range and quantity that was in fact taken: CARGO TAKEN FROM UPNOR Loaded Missing Small Arms 1 ,00 800 Small arm ammunition 1,443 cases 1,440 cases (approximately 600,000 rounds) Small arm spares Not known 266 cases (estimated) Mixed cartridges 280 cases 243 cases.

In addition, 1,300 cases of filled shells and 750 boxes of fuses and other fireworks were removed. “A WELL-MOTIVATED GROUP OF OPERATIVES”

The speed with which this operation was put in place would suggest highly skilled planning and a well-motivated group of operatives. Though Upnor’s departure date would have been common knowledge in the area, Warrior’s return to Queenstown on the morning of 29 March could hardly have been anticipated. Quite obviously it was upon Warrior’s availability that the whole operation depended. Is there possibly an unanswered question? Furthermore, it is somewhat surprising that a commercial tug wishing to deliver an Admiralty message did not raise some concerns with Upnor’s Master.

The detention of the Upnor on the high seas was indeed audacious, but was in the final analysis, the result of excellent intelligence, planning, co-ordination, timing and speed of execution. Nevertheless, it was an act of piracy.

I have to thank Peter Robinson for his research that made this Article possible.


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