‘Auxies’ – the 20th century’s first special forces


Eminent author and historian Paul O’Brien has written a series of meticulously researched books on the Easter Rising (Crossfire, Shootout, Fields of Fire and Battleground), which offer a fly-on-the-wall look at the actions of that momentous week. They should be required reading in schools throughout the country. Paul has written several other books on the period both during and after the Easter Rising.

His latest book, Havoc: The Auxiliaries in Ireland’s War of Independence, offers fresh insight into the brutal actions of the notorious Auxiliary force sent to put manners on the IRA. I’m delighted to say that Paul has written a fabulous article on the impact the Auxies had during the War of Independence, which he’s sharing with HistoryWithATwist. Check it out below… 



A group of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries

During the Irish War of Independence, the rank and file of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police bore the brunt of attacks by the Irish Republican Army. A campaign of intimidation and violence against policemen and their families had, in a short period of time, forced many officers to resign from the force. In order to bolster the police in Ireland, the British Government hastily advertised for recruits. The recruitment of the Black and Tans, an ancillary force with a mixed uniform of police and military attire, were rapidly deployed to augment the dwindling ranks of the police. Their intervention did little to stem the death and chaos.

In the aftermath of the Great War and the conclusion of the Versailles peace talks in 1919, the British Empire found itself overstretched by ever increasing demands to police its interests in places such as Germany, the Middle East, India and Ireland. The government was concerned that the unrest in Ireland would have a domino effect and spread to Britain’s other colonies. The authorities were unprepared and under equipped to deal with the large number of nationalists demanding independence, and the possibility of increased numbers of violent and bloody insurgencies that might occur. In Ireland, the government depended on the civil administration based in Dublin Castle and the Royal Irish Constabulary to deal with the situation.

As the unrest in Ireland intensified, Sir Winston Churchill suggested a Gendarmerie to restore law and order in Ireland. In July 1920, a new force, a specialist force, that of the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (ADRIC) were raised. These ex-military personnel, all ex-officers, were assigned by Prime Minister David Lloyd George to do a rough and dangerous mission – to take the fight to the IRA.

HavocSpecial Forces are units which conduct military operations by specially designated, trained and equipped forces, manned with selected personnel, using unconventional tactics, techniques and modes of employment. Rather than aligning the new force with the army, it was decided to incorporate them into the police, with the new recruits being called Temporary Cadets. It was envisaged that the Auxiliary Division was to be maintained as an autonomous force and was to be deployed into areas where the IRA was most active, with the mission of find, fix and destroy.

The first recruits arrived at the North Wall Dock, Dublin where they were then transferred to Hare Park camp at the Curragh Training Camp in County Kildare. Here they underwent a brief, yet inadequate training course consisting of the rudimentary skills of policing. They also received a refresher course in weapons training consisting of firing and bombing practice, for which they provided their own instructors. Beggars Bush Barracks were later to become their depot headquarters. The unit was equipped with up-to-date weaponry and an array of vehicles for rapid insertion into areas of operations.

Fifteen Companies had been formed by the end of August 1920, and four were immediately deployed to areas of considerable insurgent activity in counties Dublin, Kilkenny, Cork and Galway. In total, there were to be 21 Companies, numbering between 40-80 T/Cadets, organised along military lines, deployed as an elite body to seek out and eliminate the IRA.

Realising that IRA intelligence had infiltrated the police, the ADRIC established their own intelligence units to gather information on Republican operatives. Utilising their military skills, they began a violent counter-insurgency campaign with raids on IRA safe houses and the lifting of suspects. Their aggressive tactics alienated the population and their actions and techniques were often questioned in the House of Commons, bringing condemnation from both sides of the house.

The insurgents hit back with planned ambushes against ADRIC patrols and the assassination of Cadets, both on and off duty. An attack on a motorised ADRIC unit at Kilmichael in County Cork by Tom Barry and his Flying Column resulted in the annihilation of the patrol. Retaliation by crown forces for such attacks was brutal, with the houses of locals being destroyed and the destruction of local industrial and agricultural infrastructure which was, in many cases, was sanctioned by the authorities.

The burning of Cork by ADRIC forces

The burning of Cork by ADRIC forces

The very nature of counter-insurgency warfare found the ADRIC operating in a hostile environment with little or no support from the local population. The pressures of operating under such austere conditions often resulted in certain units taking out their frustrations on the local populace, as can be seen with the burning of Cork city after an earlier ambush in the vicinity.

The force was involved in numerous operations throughout the country and also was accused of conducting black operations resulting in the killing of high-value targets.

Two Companies of Auxiliaries responded to the attack on the Custom House, Dublin, by the IRA in May 1921. A fierce gun battle commenced as the building caught fire and IRA operatives tried to shoot their way out, with some being killed.  In the aftermath of the operation over one hundred members of the IRA were arrested and imprisoned, leading to a shortage of trained and experienced operatives to continue the fight against the British in the capital. Smaller operations did take place but not to the same scale as that of the Custom House raid.

The aftermath of the Customs House attack

The aftermath of the Customs House attack

The British authorities in Ireland believed that the Republican campaign was nearing an end as the lack of experienced manpower, weapons and munitions were having a detrimental effect on the organisation.

Initial talks between the two sides resulted in a ceasefire and later to peace talks which gave Ireland a ’Free State’ status.

One of the conditions for the cessation of hostilities was that the recruitment of cadets into the Auxiliary Division of the RIC cease and operations be suspended. The British government agreed and the force was disbanded in early 1922, with many officers looking to Palestine and its new gendarmerie for employment and adventure.

During World War Two, Churchill requested ‘specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast’. The Royal Marine Commandos are considered by many to be the prototype for the modern special forces but it was Churchill’s request in 1920 which saw the formation of the Auxiliaries, a controversial force,  considered by some to be the 20th century’s first Special Services unit.

(This article originally appeared in the Defence Forces magazine,  An Cosantoir, 2017)


About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to ‘Auxies’ – the 20th century’s first special forces

  1. Wonderful post David. Churchill was MP for Dundee at this time and he got his ass booted out the town in 1922. The largely Irish population chose to elect a prohibitionist, despite being the drunkest city in the Brit empire at that stage.

  2. Ha! Brilliant Shehanne. That says a lot about peoples’ opinion of Churchill

    • Lol well Daivd, he thought it was a seat for life so he was known as the WC wi nae seat here. Anywye, he held this rally and at it, the Suffragettes, who he had also crossed big time, parachuted in from the roof, at regular intervals. They were joined in terms of disruption by the city’s Irish who burst into Fenian songs every time he opened his mouth, the Socialists, who the second they finished chimed in with the Red Flag and then there were the women. Dundee women of ‘She Town’ were not ever to be messed with. Their understandable beef was the husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, they’d lost at the Front. I gather he was given a police escort and spirited away in tears, complaining that Dundee people were a set of Fenian lions with Communist teeth. My husband got a great story from a very old guy in his nineties …we used al this and this story is a play we recently staged btw…about how he was serving in the desert in WW2 and in comes Churchill to inspect the troops. So he did the ‘Where are you from Soldyah?’ bit. ‘Dundee.’ SHudders and moves on. Asks the next guy. Gets the same response. The whole line were from Dundee. Eventually he comes to the now old guy. ‘Dundee,’ says the guy, ‘I got put out the mills there but you got put oot the town and I’m glad.’ Sufficient to say he got 14 days in jail. Churchill was offered the freedom of the city after the war. He turned it down.

  3. Let us know ! The city is on the up so I am sure you would love it . you can find the maggot plaque. It is displayed x

  4. jazzfeathers says:

    Great article. I have never read Paul O’Brien’s books. I have to hunt them down 😉

  5. Pingback: Gang Roundup - September 2017 - The Old Shelter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s