The story of the UVF’s dramatic gunrunning operation during the third home rule crisis is one that has often been told. Masterminded by the maverick unionist Fred Crawford, a man credited by Wilfred Spender as ‘perhaps the first man to appreciate the necessity of arming the Ulster Volunteers’. Crawford’s appreciation of the necessity for UVF arms was predicated plainly and simply on defeating the home rule bill, “If I succeed then Ulster will be free forever from Home Rule. No government could coerce her with the arms and ammunition that I shall bring in.” And bring them in he did; a mix of c.20,000 Austrian and German rifles along with ammunition. The transaction had been arranged in Germany, only a matter of months before the outbreak of the First World War.
What is less well-known about the UVF’s gunrunning story, however, is the fate of the man who provided the weapons.
The Chief Secretary’s Office at Dublin Castle estimated that 24,879 weapons were already in the hands of the UVF in March 1914, one month before the German consignment arrived. Crawford was behind the majority of it, he had been bringing weapons into the country from as early as 1910 and from a variety of sources. In 1911 an agreement with a firm in Berlin turned into a dispute when 1,000 rifles failed to appear after money had been transferred. Eventually Crawford decided to try another option, this time in Hamburg which he visited in person. The Hamburg firm was ‘Benny Spiro’ run by a man called Bruno Spiro.
So, who was this man Bruno Spiro and what became of him?
Bruno Spiro was born on 24 February 1875 and he resided in Hamburg in Germany. Spiro was the sole proprietor of the firm ‘Benny Spiro’, founded in 1864 by his father Benny. Public adverts show that the company’s business was ‘Import – Export, Iron – Steel, Machinery, Automobiles, Military Equipment’. German Archive records indicate that Bruno Spiro sold machine guns, rifles, pistols and ammunition to groups in Czechoslovakia and Palestine, and that he had carried out business in Hamburg, Berlin and Paris. What the German Archives don’t tell us about is Spiro’s role in supplying weapons to Ireland, for that we must turn back to Fred Crawford.
Crawford approached Spiro as a potential candidate to replace the unreliable Berlin firm. “I [then] called on Spiro, and though he is a Jew I was struck with the man's apparent honesty and instinctively trusted him as much as I suspected the other. On my return I reported that the Berlin man was a rogue and that the other man was, I believed, all right and recommended a second thousand to be bought from Spiro.” Crawford’s casual antisemitism is striking, but sadly it was all too common at the time. From that moment on though, Bruno Spiro was the key man who would get Crawford the weapons that he so craved for the Ulster Volunteers up to and including the audacious April 1914 operation.
Fast-forward to 3 July 1936, Bruno Spiro was arrested by the Gestapo and charged with what were described as “serious allegations”. As well as arms smuggling, Spiro was strongly suspected to have shifted export contracts abroad, to the detriment of the German economy. The Gestapo also discovered evidence that Spiro had sold foreign-held securities, including unnamed securities, and that he had used the proceeds for his own business in Switzerland, rather than repatriate the proceeds from the securities sales to Germany as required by German law. Spiro contested the charges against him.
However, it was not only the alleged economic crimes that formed the basis of the Gestapo’s case against him. German Jews had by this time been declared as enemies of the state, and the Gestapo (directed by the SS) were responsible for making their lives as difficult as possible. For three months the Gestapo carried out an intensive interrogation of Spiro in the hope of uncovering a network of “international Jewish arms smugglers”. The interrogation was unsuccessful though, and as such, a German court ruled that the state could not seize his German bank accounts, much to the frustration of the Gestapo.
On 29 September 1936 Bruno Spiro ‘committed suicide’ in a protective custody cell at the notorious Fuhlsbüttel Concentration Camp in Hamburg. On the face of it, Spiro’s death caused great complications for the Gestapo in their pursuit of prosecutions in this case, however we must be mindful of the Nazi’s track record when it comes to recorded cases of ‘suicide’ in concentration camps. A poignant Stolpersteine memorial stone for Bruno Spiro on Heimhuder Straße 40 (Eimsbüttel, Rotherbaum) suggests that he was, in fact, ‘ermordet’ (murdered), though no evidence has been provided to support this. These small brass plaques, in the pavement in front of houses of which the (mostly Jewish) residents were persecuted or murdered by the Nazis, mention the name, date of birth and place (mostly a concentration camp) and date of death. Today more than 5,000 stones in the streets of Hamburg draw attention to its persecuted citizens.
We’ll probably never know the exact fate of the man who supplied weapons to the UVF during the home rule crisis, but what we can say for certain is that Bruno Spiro suffered his premature death as a result of Nazi persecution.