The Siege of Sidney Street
It was a cold January morning in London. Police detectives had tracked three suspects to an address in the East End as part of an investigation into the activities of foreign terrorists in the city. During the early hours of 3rd January, the residents of neighbouring buildings were evacuated for their own safety. One of the suspects, a female, was lured to the door on a pretext and snatched by police. The remaining two suspects were now isolated and surrounded by over 200 police. An initial attempt to make contact ended in a volley of gunfire. Realising that the suspects were well-armed with modern semi-automatic pistols, the local police commanders asked the Home Secretary for military back-up and the request was sanctioned. A contingent of Scots Guards arrived and deployed to cover the building. Medical staff and firemen were also in attendance. The Home Secretary himself, Sir Winston Churchill, arrived to observe the operation. This was the scene as the “siege of Sidney Street” got underway. This was London in 1911.
The events surrounding the “siege of Sidney Street” raised a series of issues that echo many current concerns. The two “terrorists” were part of an immigrant tide that had arrived in London during the previous decades. By 1914, over 100,000 immigrants had arrived from Eastern Europe. The majority were Russian Jews fleeing the programs but they also included other Eastern Europeans. Most settled into their new lives in London, in some cases populating entire streets in the East End. There was inevitably some negative public reaction. The immigrants were linked in the press to a rise in crime and to violent crime in particular. There were calls to amend the Aliens Act of 1905, which had introduced immigration controls for the first time in Britain and also required the registrations of new arrivals. In certain respects, there was genuine cause for this concern. Within the influx of immigrants there were some revolutionaries, invariably referred to as “anarchists” or “terrorists” in the press. They included Russians and Latvians and some were linked to revolutionary activity in Russia.
The two suspects who fought it out with British forces in Sidney Street were Fritz Svaars and William Solokoff, part of a Latvian anarchist gang that had killed three policemen in Houndsditch the previous December during a failed robbery. During the course of the day, they engaged police and army from the windows of 100 Sidney Street and the firefight reached its peak around midday. Smoke was seen to be coming from the building and shortly afterwards, Solokoff was killed by gunfire. It is believed that Svaars was killed as the fire caught hold and gutted the building. Interestingly, further army detachments arrived with a maxim gun and also two field guns. These weapons were never deployed but their presence suggests a willingness to use heavy weapons in the capital. This was the first time that the army had aided the police in a siege situation in London.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were numerous issues that now needed to be addressed. In the immediate aftermath, the police were issued with more modern weapons including semi-automatic pistols. Police-Army liaison procedures were reviewed. There were suggestions that the Aliens Act needed to be amended to enforce tighter immigration control but this measure failed to gain political support.
There was also some debate as to the role of the nation’s fledgling intelligence services. The Secret Service Bureau had been founded in 1909 and this would evolve into Military Intelligence 5 (MI5) during WW1. The new service initially had a tiny staff and was tasked with identifying foreign spies and engaging in counter-intelligence. Strictly-speaking, the activities of domestic “terrorists” did not fall within the remit of the Secret Service Bureau. This was the remit of Special Branch of London Metropolitan Police, which had been set up in 1883 as the “Special Irish Branch” to counter the activities of the IRB. This situation remained for much of the 20th century, with MI5 focusing its efforts on counter-intelligence work. The increase in IRA activities from the 1970s caused a major rethink and from that time MI5 co-operated more closely with police forces. This has remained the case and the three intelligence services in the UK (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) co-operate closely with the police services in light of recent security threats.
This pattern has been repeated across Europe as major domestic intelligence agencies such as Germany’s BfV and France’s DGSI have refocused their efforts to deal with foreign espionage, cyber espionage and also internal terrorist threats. Ireland remains a notable exception within the EU for its lack of a dedicated national intelligence agency. All recent experience has highlighted the need for good intelligence and some attacks have been thwarted by intelligence-led operations. It is a daunting task as services struggle to cope with attacks emerging from within their own national populations. As the global security situation rapidly transforms, in Ireland, we have yet to really begin the conversation about national security.
Pathé film footage survives of the siege of Sidney Street. To a modern eye it looks both archaic and modern at the same time. At the remove of over a century, we can watch as police, army and emergency services co-operate under the watchful eye of the Home Secretary to deal with an “ongoing terrorist event”.
Dr. David Murphy lectures in military history and strategic studies at Maynooth University.