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Provisional IRA's Balcombe Street Gang

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Balcombe Street Gang
Participant in the Troubles
IdeologyIrish republicanism
LeadersIRA Army Council
ASU's Commander Joe O'Connell
HeadquartersSafe houses in London
Area of operationsMainly London
Size8. At least 6 known male members and at least 2 unidentified female members, no more than 4 at anyone time were active
Part ofProvisional Irish Republican Army
Opponent(s)British Army, London Police, British Establishment targets, Economic targets.
Attacks include...

The Provisional IRA's Balcombe Street Gang was a Provisional IRA active service unit (ASU) (also known as the Balcombe Street Four or the Balcombe Street Unit) who carried out a bombing campaign in southern England in the mid 1970s. The vast majority of their attacks and attempted attacks took place in London and the rest in Surrey, Hampshire and Wiltshire. Between October 1974 and December 1975 they carried out approximately 40 bomb and gun attacks in and around London, sometimes attacking the same targets twice. The unit would sometimes carry out two or more attacks in one day; on the 27 January 1975 they placed seven time bombs in London.[1] On 25 November 1974, they carried out three bomb attacks in the centre of London injuring 20 people.[2] They were eventually caught during the Balcombe Street siege in December 1975, thus ending their 15-month bombing campaign in England. They have been described as "the most violent, ruthless and highly-trained unit ever sent to Britain by the Provisional IRA".[3][4]

Active members

The six known members of the Balcombe Street Gang's ASU were Hugh Doherty, Joseph O'Connell, Eddie Buttler and Harry Duggan (these four volunteers were captured at the Balcombe Street Siege). Liam Quinn (a US-born volunteer) and Brendan Dowd were also active volunteers within the unit, there were also at least two unidentified female members who accompanied Dowd and O'Connell during the Guildford pub bombings.[citation needed]

O'Connell and fellow ASU member Dowd flew from Shannon Airport, County Clare, to Heathrow in early August 1974, under the pretense of looking for work in London. They rented a flat in Fulham, West London, for both living quarters and the storage of nitroglycerin and other bomb making equipment.[citation needed]

O'Connell, as the bomb-maker of the group, was responsible for making the first devices the ASU detonated in their campaign, during the Guildford pub bombings on 5 October 1974. This was the beginning of a wide range of attacks O'Connell was involved in. They varied from the kidnapping of a bus inspector and the bombing of the Kings Arms, Woolwich, to throwing hand bombs in Sir Edward Heath's club and the murder of an insurance broker.[5]


The Balcombe Street Unit was possibly the most successful IRA unit ever to carry out a bombing campaign in England. They had a focus on London (in particular the West End of London where they targeted pubs, clubs and restaurants with bombings and shootings. They attacked several of their targets twice. Within the space of nineteen days the ASU days they had planted their first six explosive devices, two in Guildford on 5 October, another two in Seymour Street and St. James's Square on the 11th, another at St James's Square on the 22nd and one in Harrow on the 24th.[6]

In spring 1973, the IRA extended its bombing campaign to mainland Britain, attacking military and symbolically important targets. The aim was to both increase pressure on the British government by swaying popular British opinion, with the goal of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

It began on 8 March 1973 when an 11-person ASU, (which included now well known Irish republicans including the Price Sisters and Gerry Kelly) bombed the Old Bailey courthouse. Despite warnings, one person died of a heart attack and about 200 were injured, some seriously. The IRA always believed that one bomb in England was worth about 30 in Belfast and the huge media response seemed to prove this theory.[7]

The ASU behind the Old Bailey bombing was caught trying to leave England by plane to Ireland. Although the IRA achieved its objective, it was a tactical error to try to leave so quickly, as British security forces would be extra vigilant at escape routes from England to Ireland.[8]

The IRA General Headquarters realised this mistake. Instead, they decided that instead of sending over a large 10-person ASU for just one day of spectacular bombing, they would use smaller sleeper cells of three or four volunteers to carry out several bombings over a number of months.[9]

IRA attacks in England for the rest of 1973 soon started to become more professional and sophisticated. The following attack was on 18 August 1973 when two IRA firebombs exploded at Harrods Department store, causing some damage but no injuries or deaths. This was the start of their prolonged bombing campaign in England. Just four days later an IRA book bomb exploded at the Conservative Party Central Office in London, injuring several people but none seriously. A few weeks later IRA bombs went off at King's Cross & Euston stations causing 13 injuries and wide spread damage, and panic in central London. From then on IRA bombs became a regular occurrence in London and other major English cities.[10][11]

By 1974, mainland Britain saw an average of one attack - successful or otherwise - every three days. These attacks included the Birmingham pub bombings on 21 July which were possibly the first major attacks on the Midlands.

It is believed that republican Brian Keenan was in charge of the IRA bombing campaign in England from 1974–1976. After the Balcombe Street unit was arrested in 1975 Keenan visited a separate unit in Crouch Hill, London, to give it further instructions. In follow-up raids after the siege, police discovered crossword puzzles in his handwriting and his fingerprints on a list of bomb parts. A warrant was issued for his arrest. He was arrested by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) at Banbridge in March 1979 on charges relating to the London campaign in the mid-1970s.[12][13]



Sometime in August 1974 the first members of the Balcombe Street Unit moved into its first safe house, a London home in Fulham, in Waldemar Avenue SW6. Dowd and O'Connell start drawing up plans with a list of targets for the campaign to start in Autumn.[14]


  • 5 OctoberGuildford pub bombings The IRA unit planted two bombs in Guildford pubs. The Bomb in the Horse & Groom pub killed five people and injured 65. The bomb in the Seven Stars pub injured seven people including the pub owner who received a skull fracture and his wife a broken leg, five staff members and a customer just leaving received less serious injuries.[15] At the time this was the second worst attack the IRA carried out in Britain in terms of death toll and it provoked a strong reaction from the British public against the IRA. This was the start of "phase one" of the campaign. Four innocent people nicknamed the "Guildford Four" received large jail sentences for the bombings in 1975 until their convictions were quashed in 1989.[16][17]
  • 9 October - IRA Volunteers Brendan Dowd and Joe O'Connell plus an unknown young female volunteer mistakenly kidnap Basil Dalton, East Kent bus inspector, from the coach station in Buckingham Palace Road SW1. He is later found unharmed in the boot of his Corsair, having spent about fours in the back of it. The IRA volunteers believed they were kidnapping the head of the British Bomb Squad.
  • 10 October - Volunteers Harry Duggan and Eddie Butler arrive in London, and join the cell unit after being vetted by O'Connell. They rent another flat in Waldemar Avenue.
  • 11 October – The IRA attacked two different London ex-servicemen's clubs in Seymour Street near Marble Arch and the Army and Navy Club in St. James's Square, each time using a hand-thrown bomb, this was the first time the unit had used a hand thrown bomb. One person was injured in total.[16][18]
  • 18 October - Police officers PC Lloyd & PC Nichols, noticed O'Connell and Dowd trying to hi-jack cars in multistory car park in Semley Place car park. As the officers approached the IRA Volunteers, Dowd pulled out a .45 caliber pistol on the officers. Officer Nichols managed to make a run for it & escaped, but the officer Lloyd was tied up & thrown into the back of a stolen Ford Cortina. The IRA Volunteers knowing that the escaped officer would raise the alarm Dowd and O'Connell made a quick break for it.[19][20]
  • 22 OctoberBrook's bombing The IRA threw a bomb into Brook's club injuring three people.[16][21]
  • 24 October – The IRA bombed a cottage in the grounds of Harrow public school which used to house the head of the school's Combined Cadet Force, which was probably the bombers' target. Nobody was hurt in the attack. This was the first time the unit gave a telephoned warning before a bombing occurred.[16]
  • Six bombs were planted or thrown by the unit in October 1974.


  • 6 November - The IRA unit planned to plant a bomb at the Kings Arms public house in Woolwich, but after doing some reconnaissance on the pub the unit decided planting a bomb inside is too risky, and to use a thrown bomb instead. They make the bomb and drive to the Kings Arms but there are not enough people inside.
  • 7 NovemberWoolwich pub bombing The IRA threw a bomb into the King's Arms pub in Woolwich, killing two people and injuring 35. Two members of the "Guildford Four" were also charged with this bombing.[22][23]
  • 11 November – London insurance broker Allan Quartermaine was shot dead by the London IRA gang while he was waiting in traffic. It is believed the killing was a case of mistaken identity.[23]
  • 25 November - The IRA unit uses small bombs, using pocket watches as timers, which are planted in three pillar boxes: one at King's Cross which explodes at 5:50pm, one at Piccadilly Circus that exploded at 6:00pm and one at Victoria station which exploded at 6:50pm. 20 people are injured from the three attacks, the worst was at Piccadilly where 16 people were injured and two each at the other two locations.
Daithi O Conaill in Dublin says that the IRA had not authorised the pillar box bombing: "To bomb civilians just because they are civilians, I would class as murder." This is a warning to the London ASU to stop. They ignore it.
  • 27 November – The London IRA unit carried out two bomb attacks in Tite Street, Chelsea. The first bomb was placed in a post office pillar-box at 8:30 pm. About 20 minutes later a second, larger bomb, exploded close to the first. The second bomb injured 20 people including an explosives officer, six policemen and two ambulance men.[23]
  • 30 November Talbot Arms pub bombing – The IRA unit threw two bombs into the Talbots Arms pub in Little Chester Street, Belgravia injuring five people.[23][24]
  • Eight bombs were planted or thrown by the unit in November 1974 (including the dud bomb at the Talbot arms).


  • 11 December – The IRA threw a bomb into the Long Bar of the Naval and Military Club in Piccadilly. Later on there was an IRA gun attack on the London Cavalry Club, Butler used a Sten SMG to attack the club. Nobody was hurt in either attack, mainly due to the Sten gun kept on jamming.[25][26]
  • 14 December – The IRA carried out a gun attack on the Churchill Hotel in London. Three people were injured in the attack.[27]
  • 17 December – The IRA planted three time bombs at telephone exchanges in London. One person George Arthur (34) who worked as a post office telephonist was killed in the blast, as well as injuring two more civilians, a police officer & a telephoner worker.[28][29]
  • 19 December – The Balcombe Street Gang used a car bomb for the first time, outside Selfridges department store on Oxford Street. The bomb caused £1.5 million worth of damage. There was 100 lbs of high explosives in the car, the biggest bomb the IRA had used in England at that time.[30]
  • 20 December – A bomb left by the IRA at a railway station in Aldershot was defused.[31]
  • 21 December – The IRA firebombed Harrods department store in Knightsbridge injuring two people.[32] A second bomb at the King's Arms public house in Warminster, Wiltshire was defused.[33]
  • 22 December – The IRA unit threw a bomb into the flat of former British Prime Minister Edward Heath. Heath was not home at the time of the attack and there were no injuries.[34]
  • Eight bombs were planted or thrown by the unit in December 1974.



  • 19 January – The IRA attacked two hotels in London. They fired shots into the Carlton Tower Hotel and later the Portman Hotel. Twelve people were injured in total from both attacks.[35][36][37]
  • 23 January – The Balcombe Street gang exploded a time bomb at the Woodford Waterworks pumping station in North London. Three people were injured in the blast.[35]
  • 24 January – The unit shot Alfred Knott, a 45-year-old deputy head of Roan School in Greenwich, but he survived his injuries. They mistook him for a British Army brigadier who lived next door to him in Maze Hill, Greenwich.[38]
  • 27 January – The Balcombe Street Gang planted seven time-bombs at multiple spots in Greater London. At 6:30 pm a bomb exploded at Gieves, in Old Bond Street. At 9:30 pm bombs exploded at the Moreson chemical plant in Ponders End and a disused gas works in Enfield. Only minimal damage was caused by these two bombs. Two further bombs exploded in Kensington High Street and Victoria Street. A warning was given of a bomb in Putney High Street and a British Army bomb-disposal officer was able to defuse the device. A warning was also given for a bomb in Hampstead and it was defused. Two people were injured from the Kensington High Street bomb.
  • Eight bombs were planted or thrown by the unit in January 1975.

This was the end of "phase one" of the campaign, 30 bombs were planted or thrown by the unit during "phase one", they also carried out six shootings.[35]


  • 26 February – Balcombe Street Gang member and IRA Volunteer Liam Quinn shot police officer Stephen Tibble dead while being chased. During a subsequent search operation, a bomb-making facility of the Balcombe Street Gang's was uncovered in Hammersmith.[39][40]


  • 10 July - IRA Volunteer and former Balcombe Street Gang member Brendan Dowd is arrested in Manchester.[41]


  • 27 AugustCaterham Arms pub bombing The IRA planted a time bomb in a pub in Caterham, Surrey. The explosion injured 33 people including ten British soldiers. This began "phase two" of the Balcombe Street Gangs campaign.[42]
  • 28 August – The IRA exploded a bomb outside the south-east corner of Selfridges store on Oxford street, seven people were injured.[42]
  • 29 August – A British Army bomb-disposal officer Captain Roger Goad died when a bomb that was planted by the IRA at Kensington Church Street exploded while Captain Goad was trying to defuse the bomb.[42]
  • 30 August – The IRA planted a time bomb outside the National Westminster Bank in High Holborn, London. Nobody was injured in the explosion.[42]
  • The unit planted four bombs in August 1975.


  • 5 SeptemberLondon Hilton bombing The Balcombe Street gang left a time bomb in the Hilton Hotel in London. A 20-minute warning had been given but this was not passed on to the hotel. Two people were killed and 63 others were injured.[43][44][45]
  • 15 September - The IRA exploded two letter bombs in London, first at 12 Callcott Avenue in which one person was injured and at Alcan Aluminium Ltd., 30 Berkley Square injuring one more person.
  • 22 September - The IRA exploded a bomb at the Portman Hotel in Portman Square, London's west end, injuring three people, two civilians and a police officer.[46]
  • 25 September - Two policemen were injured when an IRA car bomb exploded outside the Hare and Hounds pub in Lower Boxley Road in Kent.[47]
  • 28 September – The IRA denotated a bomb in Caterham, Surrey. There were no injuries.[44]
  • 29 September – The IRA left a time bomb in Oxford Street injuring seven people.[44]


  • Seven bombs were planted or thrown by the unit in September 1975.


  • 9 OctoberGreen Park Tube Station Bombing. The IRA left a bomb at a bus stop just outside Green Park tube station. One person was killed and 20 were injured.[49][50]
  • 12 October – A bomb at Lockett's Restaurant in Marsham Street, Westminster, a popular haunt of Tory MPs, was defused.[51]
  • 23 October – The IRA planted a booby-trap bomb under the under the car of Conservative MP Hugh Fraser. A passer-by noticed the bomb under the car, and by mistake detonated the device killing himself.[52]
  • 30 October – The IRA unit explode a bomb at the Trattoria Fiore in Mount Street W1 which injured 17 people.[51]
  • Four bombs were planted or thrown by the unit in October 1975.


  • 3 November – A booby-trap bomb intended for MP John Gorst, residing in Connaught Square, is instead placed under the car of neighbour Richard Charnley. The bomb exploded but Charnley survived his injuries.[51]
  • 4 November - At a news conference, right-wing Ross McWhirter, one of the twins who

created the Guinness Book of Records, offers a £50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the terrorists. He outlines his suggestions, including: all Irish people in England to be compelled to register with the local police and to hand in signed photographs of themselves at hotels and hostels and when renting flats.


  • 6 December – The IRA unit fired shots using a sub-machine gun into Scott's restaurant as they drove past it in a Ford Cortina,this was the same restaurant they blew up a month earlier. British police were observing the IRA unit and gave chase once they left the restaurant. The police cornered the unit inside a London flat where the IRA unit took a middle-aged married couple hostage. This was the beginning of the six-day siege of Balcombe Street.[59][60]


  • In total between "phase one" & "phase two" of the active service units campaign they either planted, threw or sent by letter 49 bombs, several of these bombs either were defused or failed to explode, but the vast majority of them successfully detonated killing 16 people. The unit also carried out nine shootings in which three people were killed. From both the bombings and shootings, around a further 380 people were injured.


The Balcombe Street four came to trial at the Old Bailey on 24 January 1977. On 9 February 1977, the jury acquitted the defendants on twenty-six of the hundred indictments. On the remaining charges, the Balcombe Street Four were found guilty and each received a thirty-year minimum sentence. All were released on 14 April 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.[61]

Type of attacks

Most of the attacks carried out by the unit were bombings, but they were also involved in several shooting incidents.

The gang used several different methods to deliver and explode their bombs. The unit's favoured method was using hand-thrown bombs. The unit made and used a series of these grenade-like devices. These were small devices with around 2–5 pounds (1–2 kg) of gelignite in them with a short fuse attached. The fuse would be lit and then thrown at its target by one volunteer while another volunteer would keep lookout. This method was used in the Woolwich pub bombing of November 1974 and the Waltons bombing of November 1975.

Another common method was making either a time bomb or an incendiary device with a timer on it which would then be planted inside a pub, club, hotel etc. This method was used in the Guildford pub bombings of October 1974 and the Hilton bombing of September 1975. They also detonated a car bomb at Selfridge's department store on Oxford Street in December 1974. Booby-trap bomb were occasionally used, as were letter bombs in post boxes. During these attacks they would also placed a hidden second bomb with a timer nearby to try and kill or injure security services reacting to the initial bombing.

On several occasions they fired shots from rifles and machine guns (usually Sten guns and M1 carbines) into hotels and restaurants, as in the attacks on the Carlton Tower Hotel and the Portman Hotel in January 1975. The gang also shot dead several people, the most famous of whom was Guinness Book of Records founder Ross McWhirter in November 1975.

Nineteen people were killed from the ASU's campaign: 16 from bombings and three from gun attacks. Six of the dead were British military personnel, one was a London police officer, one was a member of the bomb squad and 11 were civilians.


Weapons used by the London ASU included...


After the Balcombe Street unit was arrested a new active service was sent to England to carry on the bombing campaign in London. This new unit began its campaign on 29 January 1976, planting a dozen bombs around London's West End which exploded during the night, another bomb was found which was defused by police.[62] The unit was also responsible for the West Ham station attack which killed one person and injured nine others.[63] And also the carried out the 1976 Olympia bombing which killed one person and injured 85 others, some seriously. The bombing campaign soon fizzled out after this attack.

See also


  1. ^ Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1975".
  2. ^ Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1974".
  3. ^ "Balcombe Street gang were sentenced to more than 600 years in jail between them".
  4. ^ "'Our Nelson Mandelas' - The IRA's Balcombe Street Gang - Flashbak". 10 December 2013.
  5. ^ 'Time Bomb: Irish Bombers and English Justice' (Bungay 1988) McKee G. & Franey R. p.87.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Peter Taylor - Behind The Mask: The IRA & Sinn Fein p.179 - 183
  8. ^ Robert W. White - Out Of The Ashes: An Oral History Of The Provisional Irish Republican Movement p.108
  9. ^ Peter Taylor - Behind The Mask: The IRA & Sinn Fein p.203
  10. ^ Robert W. White - Out Of The Ashes: An Oral History Of The Provisional Irish Republican Movement p.117,118
  11. ^ :
  12. ^ "HTTP Error 404 - Not Found / Erreur HTTP 404 - Non trouvé". 2 May 2014. Archived from the original on 10 December 2006.
  13. ^ Bowyer Bell, J. (1997). The Secret Army: The IRA. Transaction Publishers. pp. 472–473. ISBN 1-56000-901-2.
  14. ^ Moysey, Steven P. (12 January 2016). "The Road to Balcombe Street: The IRA Reign of Terror in London". CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform – via Google Books.
  15. ^ Steven P. Moysey - The Road To Balcombe Street: The IRA Reign of Terror in London p.88
  16. ^ a b c d Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1974".
  17. ^ Sutton, Malcolm. "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths".
  18. ^
  19. ^ Steven P. Moysey - The Road To Balcombe Street: The IRA Reign of Terror in London p.96,97
  20. ^
  21. ^ "1974: Bomb blast in London club". 22 October 1974 – via
  22. ^ Sutton, Malcolm. "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths".
  23. ^ a b c d Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1974".
  24. ^
  25. ^ Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1974".
  26. ^ Steven P. Moysey - The Road To Balcombe Street: The IRA Reign of Terror in London: Second Edition p.133,134
  27. ^ Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1974".
  28. ^
  29. ^ Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1974".
  30. ^ Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1974".
  31. ^ Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1974".
  32. ^
  33. ^ Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1974".
  34. ^ Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1974".
  35. ^ a b c Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1975".
  36. ^
  37. ^ Scotland Yard Probing Machinegun Attacks on Two Jewish-owned Hotels; 8 Injured in Attack
  38. ^ "The Year London Blew Up: [3] January to June 1975".
  39. ^ Sutton, Malcolm. "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths".
  40. ^ Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1975".
  41. ^ Paul Hill & Ronan Bennett - Stolen Years|Paul Hill: Before And After Guildford p.269
  42. ^ a b c d Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1975".
  43. ^ Sutton, Malcolm. "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths".
  44. ^ a b c Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1975".
  45. ^ "1975: London Hilton bombed". 5 September 1975 – via
  46. ^ NYTIMES: Bomb Injures Three At Hotel In The West End Of London
  47. ^
  48. ^
  49. ^ Sutton, Malcolm. "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths".
  50. ^ "1975: Man killed in Piccadilly bomb blast". 9 October 1975 – via
  51. ^ a b c "The Year London Blew Up: [4] August to November 1975".
  52. ^ Sutton, Malcolm. "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths".
  53. ^ Sutton, Malcolm. "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths".
  54. ^ a b Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Events: IRA Truce - 9 Feb 1975 to 23 Jan 1976 - A Chronology of Main Events".
  55. ^ a b Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1975".
  56. ^ Sutton, Malcolm. "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths".
  57. ^ Sutton, Malcolm. "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths".
  58. ^ "1975: TV presenter Ross McWhirter shot dead". 27 November 1975 – via
  59. ^ Sutton, Malcolm. "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths".
  60. ^ "1975: Balcombe Street siege ends". 12 December 1975 – via
  61. ^
  62. ^
  63. ^ "1976: Tube driver shot dead". BBC On This Day. 2008. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
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