25 April 2006


Daily Record

24 April 2006


THE DEADLY DEPRESSION...A prison wagon is ambushed...a police officer shot dead in a mass gunfight...this isn't a movie, it's happening on the streets of Glasgow

THE Black Maria spluttered and spat as it neared the top of the hill. The driver changed down a gear and revved harder, but the weary motor was going to be the least of his worries.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usIt was Wednesday May 4 1921. The cop wagon with the worn-out engine was ferrying prisoners from Glasgow's old Central Police Court in St Andrew's Square to Duke Street Prison, like cop wagons did five days a week. (Duke Street Prison - click photo to view - image from The Glasgow Story)

No one paid any heed. Well, almost no one.

The back of the van was split into what they called dog boxes. They still do. Small metal compartments, a yard square stretching from the floor to the roof.

Each one housed a prisoner, separated from all the others. Too cramped to get up to much badness - that was the theory.

Cramped as he was, Frank J Carty might well have been pleased that he was separated from the only other con being transported that day. The bloke was a small time low-life facing charges of indecent assault - not the kind of company a Commandant of the Sligo Branch of semi-automatic shooters would keep.

In 1921, there were three cops in the front of the van, squeezed in beside the driver. Each of the escorts had a handgun. That was top security back then.

It wasn't much and the cops knew it. They were nervous, tense, tight-lipped. But they were almost there when they turned off the High Street and started along the prison walls.

The cops were beginning to relax. That's when the bullets started flying.

Scores of attackers came streaming at them from three sides, out of Cathedral Street, Rottenrow and a nearby lane. Bullets smashed into the van and the windscreen was shattered.

Early on, one slug hit Detective Superintendent Robert Johnstone, ripping off a chunk of his skull. The officer fell from the open door of the van, tried desperately to get up, then collapsed there on the street.

Johnston's colleagues, Detective Sergeant George Stirton and DC Murdoch McDonald, were out after their gaffer in a flash, guns in hand. Standing over Johnston's blood-spattered body, they traded shots with the IRA.

The ambush had been planned perfectly. The cop wagon was stuck.

Also known sometimes as Frank Somers, Carty had played an active part in the IRA's battle to free Ireland from British rule.

It was only five years after the Easter Rising, which saw the IRA take over the main post office in Dublin in a bloody shoot-out with the British Army.

These were dangerous days and Frank Carty was a dangerous man. A man the Irish authorities couldn't hold - he had escaped from two of their jails in the previous two years.

Now he had fallen into the Glasgow cops' hands on minor charges. That morning he had appeared at court and been bound over until the next weekend.

Enough time to ship him back to Ireland. But would they be able to?

The Scottish cops had been warned that there was going to be an attempt to free Carty during the journeys to and from the court.

These days there would be helicopters hovering above, a convoy of cop cars, an armoured and bulletproof wagon for the prisoner, motorcycle outriders and more between the walls of Duke Street Prison and a water pumping station. All walls, no windows, no witnesses.

Gunmen surrounded the cops, pinning them down with heavy fire at the front of the Black Maria, then moved in.

Stirton was wounded in the wrist but kept firing. Even the unarmed police driver, Thomas Ross, did his best, fighting hand to hand with the gun-toting attackers

As all that action happened at the front of the van, the IRA ambushers tried to free their comrade at the rear.

But the doors wouldn't budge. One man shoved the barrel of his heavy-duty pistol right at the lock, and blasted.

In the movies, the metal doors would have just swung open. But this was the streets of Glasgow. The door stayed shut.

Swearing loudly, the gunman fired again, and again. Inside the van, the bullets pinged off one wall to another and ricocheted again, almost blasting the head off Carty. Still the doors wouldn't budge.

In fury, the ambushers yanked at the doors, booted the locks - with no result.

Realising what was happening, Sergeant Stirton, bloodied and with his gun arm wounded, headed towards the ambush party, pointing his pistol at them.

The IRA group turned to deal with him and he stood there face-to-face, only feet away. He lifted his gun, his arm shaking with pain and promptly dropped it.

Stirton's arm was too badly injured even to pull the trigger. Now he was a sitting duck, a dead man for sure.

But suddenly, one of the gang gave a signal and they were off. Attack over.

The IRA team knew what they were doing. They broke up into small groups and headed away in many different directions, down different lanes and closes. Again, they had chosen the location well.

Three minutes and it was all over. Or was it?

DS Stirton had given chase but soon wearied, due to the loss of blood from his wounds. As other cops arrived, and medics tried to save Detective Superintendent Johnstone, Ross managed to get the bullet-riddled Black Maria started and finally drove it into Duke Street Prison.

There, prison staff found that the back doors of the old wagon had stuck. That was why the IRA gang couldn't open the doors.

In fact, it took several hours, and specialist equipment, to free Carty and the other prisoner, now weeping hysterically.

Back at the scene of the ambush cops were questioning bystanders.

The IRA team had disappeared. But the police knew where to start looking.

By night time, cops had raided numerous houses in Abercrombie Street in the Gallowgate where they believed Republican sympathisers lived.

But word of the ambush had spread fast through the city, and crowds were congregating at the ambush scene and all through the east end.

Bad blood, on a religious divide, was rife in the city. In the few decades before, thousands of Irish immigrants had been forced to move to Glasgow to escape famine back home.

The Irish believed, with some justificantion, that the authorities were biased against them. Massive gangs had been formed, such as the mainly Protestant Billy Boys and Roman Catholic Norman Conks, and they took their sectarian violence to the street with razors and coshes.

The IRA ambush was just one step further down that line, and the police were desperate to stamp their authority and nab the culprits. In doing so, they arrested as many people as they could, until the mob sussed them out.

The arrest of a priest is thought to have triggered the violence. When the cops came out of a house in the Gallowgate they were met by a screaming mob, looking for blood.

Later that day, an even larger crowd chased a team of police who tried to arrest five well - known young men.

By evening, an estimated 2000 rioters milled around the Gallowgate, making it a no go area for the police. The mob chanted, threw stones, smashed up shops and attacked trams.

That night, they lit bonfires and continued the rampage, looting and robbing. They assaulted everyone in a uniform, and anyone they suspected to be on the side of the police.

Glasgow had turned in to a lawless city. Detective Superintendent Johnstone had died and DS Stirton was in a critical state.

The police were armed and moved through the streets in convoy, determined to get the suspects. The Army moved to a central location in the city and waited for orders to act.

In the houses the cops hit, they didn't just find suspects. They found more than 50 handguns, dozens of rifles, boxes of ammo, gelignite and blades.

At the time, the weapons finds were the biggest ever in Scotland. Glasgow was a sectarian tinderbox.

The riot raged all that night and rumbled on for days after.

Only 12 people were arrested for rioting - a mark of how the mob, and not the cops, ruled the streets. But 34 suspects were arrested in connection with the ambush.

All the suspects faced possible charges of murdering Detective Superintendent Johnstone, and attempting to murder DS Stirton and Constables Ross and McDonald. These were hanging offences.

Days after the ambush, Carty was secretly and quietly transported to Dublin.

A short while later, Detective Superintendent Johnstone was buried, after one of the biggest funeral processions Glasgow had ever seen.

Now it was the turn of citizens to mourn a cop they thought of as a hero.

Eventually, 13 men appeared at the High Court in Edinburgh in August 1921, charged with murder, attempted murder and conspiring to free a prisoner.

DS Stirton, not yet fully recovered, had positively identfied nine of the accused. All the men pled not guilty, and their skilled defence counsel produced alibis for every one of them.

It was down to the jury to decide who to believe - the police officer who had almost died in the line of duty, or the accused, their friends and relatives.

On August 61921, the jury was out and Scotland held its breath. Would anyone be punished for the biggest street battle Glasgow had seen in those troubled times?

Six of the accused were found not guilty, the other seven not proven. The jury had chosen to believe the accused, not Stirton the police hero.

Someone had murdered a policeman in Glasgow and walked away free. Someone had tried to murder another cop and would never be brought to justice.

No one else was ever tried over the Battle of Rottenrow. But 85 years on, there are still bullet holes high up on the old prison walls - a sad reminder of the day Glasgow's streets ran red with blood.

The cop was a dead man for sure. Then one of the gang gave a signal and the attack was over

Can anyone give the names of the people arrested for this event I'm doing some research on glasgow irish history
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