The Larne gun-running was a major gun smuggling operation organised in Ireland by Major Frederick H. Crawford and Captain Wilfrid Spender for the Ulster Unionist Council to equip the Ulster Volunteer Force. The operation involved the smuggling of almost twenty-five thousand rifles and between three and five million rounds of ammunition from Germany, with the shipments landing in Larne, Donaghadee, and Bangor in the early hours between Friday 24 and Saturday 25 April 1914. The Larne gun-running may have been the first time in history motor-vehicles had been used “on a large scale for a military-purpose, and with striking success”.
In November 1910 the Ulster Unionist Council formed a secret committee to oversee the creation of an army in Ulster to fight against the imposition of Home Rule. It approached Major Frederick Crawford to act as its agent to purchase the guns needed to equip such an army. Major Crawford wrote to five arms manufacturers including the Austrian Steyr and the German Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken, seeking quotations for the purchase of twenty thousand rifles and a million rounds of ammunition.
In January 1913, the Ulster Unionist Council instituted the Ulster Volunteer Force consisting of people who had signed the Ulster Covenant. This was an attempt to co-ordinate the paramilitary activities of Ulster’s unionists, as well as to give real military backing to the threats of the Ulster Covenant in resisting the implementation of the Third Home Rule Bill introduced on 11 April 1912 by then Prime Minister H. H. Asquith. These threats had been regarded as a “gigantic game of bluff and blackmail” by Irish nationalist leader John Redmond as well as most Liberal MPs including Winston Churchill. UVF membership grew to around 90,000 members, led by retired officers of the British army, with the organisation under the charge of Lieutenant-General Sir George Richardson KCB, a veteran of the Afghan Wars. By 1913 the UVF had over £1 million pledged to it, and £70,000 invested in attempts to import arms.
Throughout 1913 Major Crawford, with the use of aliases and disguises, had attempted to smuggle in arms bought in Great Britain and Imperial Germany, however these attempts failed when vigilant customs officials seized the goods at the docks. In one instance patrol boats thwarted a gun-running attempt to Carrigart in northern County Donegal carried out by Lord Leitrim.
Major Crawford however would convince the Ulster Unionist Council that he could provide the weapons and ammunition needed “to equip the entire UVF”. Thus the stage was set for what would become known as the Larne gun-running, with Edward Carson in response proclaiming;
I’ll see you through this business, if I should have to go to prison for it.
The Larne gun-running also returned the gun to the centre of Irish politics. It also increased Irish nationalist suspicions, already aroused by the Curragh Incident of the previous month, that the authorities were acquiescent towards unionist militants in Ulster. After the events in Larne, the nationalist Irish Volunteers, which had been formed in late 1913 in response to the formation of the UVF, saw its membership soar.
The UVF’s weapons and ammunitions were requested by the government on the outbreak of the First World War. By 1916 the ammunition had largely been transferred, but none of the rifles. In 1920 after the outbreak of the Irish war of Independence the rifles were used to arm the new Ulster Special Constabulary that was formed up (by the same Wilfrid Spender), and the USC was largely recruited from former Ulster Volunteers. In 1940 the rifles were released to arm the British Home Guard after the Battle of France. They were first fired in anger during the East African Campaign of 1940-41, arming the militias of Haile Selassie I.
The Irish Volunteers themselves would import a boat-load of arms in the Howth gun-running of July 1914. The Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), aided by troops of the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers, tried—unsuccessfully—to confiscate the weapons. On their return to their barracks in Dublin, some troops baited by a hostile crowd, killed three people and wounded 38. The contrast between the inactivity of the police and military in Larne and the heavy-handed response in Dublin further convinced nationalists of official bias in favour of the UVF. The whole episode saw Ireland draw closer to the brink of civil war.