27th August 1979
The Assassination of Lord Mountbatten
Christ in Triumph over Darkness and Evil by Gabriel Loire (1982) at St. George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, South Africa, in memory of Lord Mountbatten.
Mountbatten usually holidayed at his summer home, Classiebawn Castle, in Mullaghmore, a small seaside village in County Sligo, Ireland. The village was only 12 miles (19 km) from the border with Northern Ireland and near an area known to be used as a cross-border refuge by IRA members.
In 1978, the IRA had allegedly attempted to shoot Mountbatten as he was aboard his boat, but poor weather had prevented the sniper taking his shot.
On the 27th August 1979, Mountbatten went lobster-potting and tuna fishing in his 30-foot (9.1 m) wooden boat, Shadow V, which had been moored in the harbour at Mullaghmore.
IRA member Thomas McMahon had slipped onto the unguarded boat that night and attached a radio-controlled bomb weighing 50 pounds (23 kg). When Mountbatten was aboard, just a few hundred yards from the shore, the bomb was detonated. The boat was destroyed by the force of the blast, and Mountbatten’s legs were almost blown off. Mountbatten, then aged 79, was pulled alive from the water by nearby fishermen, but died from his injuries before being brought to shore.
Also aboard the boat were his elder daughter Patricia (Lady Brabourne), her husband John (Lord Brabourne), their twin sons Nicholas and Timothy Knatchbull, John’s mother Doreen, (dowager) Lady Brabourne, and Paul Maxwell, a young crew member from County Fermanagh.
Nicholas (aged 14) and Paul (aged 15) were killed by the blast and the others were seriously injured. Doreen, Lady Brabourne (aged 83) died from her injuries the following day.
The IRA issued a statement afterwards, saying:
The IRA claim responsibility for the execution of Lord Louis Mountbatten. This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country. …
The death of Mountbatten and the tributes paid to him will be seen in sharp contrast to the apathy of the British Government and the English people to the deaths of over three hundred British soldiers, and the deaths of Irish men, women, and children at the hands of their forces.
Six weeks later, Sinn Féin vice-president Gerry Adams said of Mountbatten’s death:
The IRA gave clear reasons for the execution. I think it is unfortunate that anyone has to be killed, but the furor created by Mountbatten’s death showed up the hypocritical attitude of the media establishment.
As a member of the House of Lords, Mountbatten was an emotional figure in both British and Irish politics. What the IRA did to him is what Mountbatten had been doing all his life to other people; and with his war record I don’t think he could have objected to dying in what was clearly a war situation. He knew the danger involved in coming to this country.
In my opinion, the IRA achieved its objective: people started paying attention to what was happening in Ireland.
In the May of 2015, during a meeting with Prince Charles, Adams did not apologise. He later said in an interview, “I stand over what I said then. I’m not one of those people that engages in revisionism. Thankfully the war is over”.
On the day of the bombing, the IRA also ambushed and killed eighteen British soldiers in Northern Ireland, sixteen of them from the Parachute Regiment, in what became known as the Warrenpoint ambush. It was the deadliest attack on the British Army during the Troubles.
On the 5th September 1979 Mountbatten received a ceremonial funeral at Westminster Abbey, which was attended by the Queen, the Royal Family and members of the European royal houses. Watched by thousands of people, the funeral procession, which started at Wellington Barracks, included representatives of all three British Armed Services, and military contingents from Burma, India, the United States, France and Canada. His coffin was drawn on a gun carriage by 118 Royal Navy ratings. During the televised service, the Prince of Wales read the lesson from Psalm 107.
In an address, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, highlighted his various achievements and his “lifelong devotion to the Royal Navy”. After the public ceremonies, which he had planned himself, Mountbatten was buried in Romsey Abbey.
As part of the funeral arrangements, his body had been embalmed by Desmond Henley.
Two hours before the bomb detonated, Thomas McMahon had been arrested at a Garda checkpoint between Longford and Granard on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle. He was tried for the assassinations in Ireland and convicted on the 23rd November 1979 based on forensic evidence supplied by James O’Donovan that showed flecks of paint from the boat and traces of nitroglycerine on his clothes. He was released in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
On hearing of Mountbatten’s death, the then Master of the Queen’s Music, Malcolm Williamson, wrote the Lament in Memory of Lord Mountbatten of Burma for violin and string orchestra.
The 11-minute work was given its first performance on the 5th May 1980 by the Scottish Baroque Ensemble, conducted by Leonard Friedman.
Mountbatten took pride in enhancing intercultural understanding and in 1984, with his elder daughter as the patron, the Mountbatten Institute was developed to allow young adults the opportunity to enhance their intercultural appreciation and experience by spending time abroad.
Canada’s capital city of Ottawa, Ontario, erected Mountbatten Avenue in his memory. The avenue runs from Blossom Drive to Fairbanks Avenue.
THE WARREN POINT MASSACRE
27th August 1979
The Warrenpoint ambush, also known as the Narrow Water ambush, or instead called the Warrenpoint massacre or the Narrow Water massacre, was a guerrilla attack by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) on the 27th August 1979.
The IRA’s South Armagh Brigade ambushed the British Army with two large roadside bombs at Narrow Water Castle outside Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland. The first bomb was aimed at a British Army convoy and the second targeted the reinforcements sent to deal with the incident. IRA volunteers hidden in nearby woodland also allegedly fired on the troops. The castle is on the banks of the Newry River, which marks the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Eighteen British soldiers were killed and six were seriously injured, making it the deadliest attack on the British Army during the Troubles. An English civilian was also killed and an Irish civilian wounded by British soldiers firing across the border after the first blast. The attack happened on the same day that the IRA assassinated Lord Louis Mountbatten, a member of the British royal family.
The ambush took place on the A2 road at Narrow Water Castle, just outside Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland. The road and castle are on the northern bank of the Newry River, which marks the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Republic’s side of the river was an ideal spot from which to launch an ambush: it was thickly wooded, which gave cover to the ambushers, and the river border prevented British forces giving chase.
The First Explosion
On the afternoon of 27th August, a British Army convoy of one Land Rover and two four-ton lorries—carrying soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment—was driving from Ballykinler Barracks to Newry. The British Army were aware of the dangers of using the stretch of road along the Newry River and often put it out of bounds. However, they had to use it sometimes to avoid setting a pattern. At 16:40, as the convoy was driving past Narrow Water Castle, an 800-pound (363 kg) fertiliser bomb, hidden among strawbales on a parked flatbed trailer, was detonated by remote control by IRA members watching from across the border.
The explosion caught the last lorry in the convoy, hurling it on its side and instantly killing six paratroopers, whose bodies were scattered across the road. There were only two survivors amongst the soldiers travelling in the lorry; they both received serious injuries. The lorry’s driver, Anthony Wood (aged 19), was one of those killed. All that remained of Wood’s body was his pelvis, welded to the seat by the fierce heat of the blast.
Immediately after the blast, the soldiers said they were targeted by sniper fire, coming from woods on the other side of the border. According to Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) researchers, the soldiers may have mistaken the sound of ammunition cooking off for enemy gunfire. Two IRA members arrested by the Gardaí (Irish police) shortly after, and suspected of being behind the ambush, had traces of gunsmoke residue on their hands and the motorbike they were riding on.
On hearing the blast, two civilian bystanders—William Michael Hudson, a 29-year-old from London, and his cousin Barry Hudson, from Dingle—drove to the riverbank on the Republic’s side of the border to see what was happening. The men were partners in Hudson Amusements and had been running their funfair in Omeath at the time. Soldiers fired across the border at them; William was shot in the head and killed, Barry was shot in the arm and wounded.
The surviving paratroopers radioed for urgent assistance, and reinforcements were dispatched to the scene by road. A rapid reaction unit was sent by Gazelle helicopter, consisting of Lieutenant-Colonel David Blair, commanding officer of the Queen’s Own Highlanders, his signaller Lance Corporal Victor MacLeod, and army medics. Another helicopter, a Wessex, landed to pick up the wounded. Colonel Blair assumed command once at the site.
The Second explosion
The IRA had been studying how the British Army behaved after a bombing and correctly predicted that they would set up an incident command point (ICP) at the stone gateway on the other side of the road. At 17:12, thirty-two minutes after the first explosion, another 800-pound bomb exploded at the gateway, destroying it and hurling lumps of granite through the air. It detonated as the Wessex helicopter was taking off carrying wounded soldiers. The helicopter was damaged by the blast but did not crash.
The second explosion killed twelve soldiers: ten from the Parachute Regiment and the two from the Queen’s Own Highlanders. Colonel Blair was the highest-ranking British Army officer to be killed in the Troubles up until then. Only one of Colonel Blair’s epaulettes remained to identify him as his body had been vaporised in the blast. The epaulette was taken from the scene by Brigadier David Thorne to a security briefing with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to “illustrate the human factor” of the attack.
Mike Jackson, then a major in the Parachute Regiment, was at the scene soon after the second explosion and later described seeing human remains scattered over the road, in the water and hanging from the trees. He was asked to identify the face of his friend, Major Peter Fursman, still recognisable after it had been ripped from his head by the explosion and recovered from the water by divers from the Royal Engineers.
Press photographer Peter Molloy, who arrived at the scene after the first explosion, came close to being shot by an angry paratrooper who saw him taking photographs of the dead and dying instead of offering to help the wounded. The soldier was tackled by his comrades. Molloy said, “I was shouted at and called all sorts of things but I understood why. I had trespassed on the worst day of these fellas’ lives and taken pictures of it”.
The Warrenpoint ambush was a propaganda victory for the IRA. It was the deadliest attack on the British Army during the Troubles and the Parachute Regiment’s biggest loss since World War II, with sixteen paratroopers killed. General Sir James Glover, Commander of British forces in Northern Ireland, later said it was “arguably the most successful and certainly one of the best planned IRA attacks of the whole campaign”. The ambush happened on the same day that Lord Louis Mountbatten, a prominent member of the British royal family, was killed by an IRA bomb aboard his boat at Mullaghmore, along with three others.
Republicans portrayed the attack as retaliation for Bloody Sunday (30th January 1972), when the Parachute Regiment shot dead 13 unarmed civilians during a protest march. Graffiti appeared in republican areas declaring “13 gone and not forgotten, we got 18 and Mountbatten”. The day after the Mountbatten and Warrenpoint attacks, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) retaliated by shooting dead a Catholic man, John Patrick Hardy (43), at his home in Belfast’s New Lodge estate. Hardy was targeted in the mistaken belief that he was an IRA member.
Very shortly after the ambush, IRA volunteers Brendan Burns and Joe Brennan were arrested by Gardaí (the Irish police). They were stopped while riding a motorbike on a road opposite Narrow Water Castle. They were later released on bail due to lack of evidence. Burns died in 1988 when a bomb he was handling exploded prematurely. In 1998, former IRA member Eamon Collins claimed that Burns had been one of those who carried out The Warrenpoint ambush.
According to Toby Harnden, the attack “drove a wedge” between the Army and the RUC. Lieutenant-General Sir Timothy Creasey, General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland, suggested to Margaret Thatcher that internment should be brought back and that liaison with the Gardaí should be left in the hands of the military. Sir Kenneth Newman, the RUC Chief Constable, claimed instead that the British Army practice, since 1975, of supplying their garrisons in South County Armagh by helicopter, gave too much freedom of movement to the IRA.
One result was the appointment of Sir Maurice Oldfield to a new position of Co-ordinator of Security Intelligence in Northern Ireland. His role was to co-ordinate intelligence between the military, MI5 and the RUC. Another was the expansion of the RUC by 1,000 members. Tim Pat Coogan asserts that the deaths of the 18 soldiers hastened the move to Ulsterisation.
Lieutenant-Colonel Blair is remembered on a memorial at Radley School.
ROLL OF HONOUR
(QUEENS OWN HIGHLANDERS)
MacLEOD – Lance Corporal Victor
BLAIR – Lieutenant Colonel David
ANDREWS – Corporal Nicholas J.
BARNES – Private Gary I.
DUNN – Private Raymond
WOOD – Private Anthony G.
WOODS – Private Michael
GILES – Corporal John C.
ROGERS – Sergeant Ian A.
BEARD – Warrant Officer Walter
VANCE – Private Thomas R.
ENGLAND – Private Robert N.
JONES – Private Jeffrey A.
JONES – Corporal Leonard
JONES – Private Robert D.V.
IRELAND – Lance Corporal Chris G.
FURSMAN – Major Peter
BLAIR – Private Donald F.
The August Bank Holiday Monday of 1979 was hot and sunny. I was a Major, commanding B Company of 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (2 Para) serving in Northern Ireland. We had been on operations for several days and we had come in to the HQ of the Queen’s Own Highlanders at Bessbrook, County Armagh, to sort ourselves out. The plan was to stay a night or two.
Meanwhile, 2 Para’s Support Company was due to be relieved in Newry later that day by A Company. My opposite number in A Company was Major Peter Fursman. He was already in Newry in the process of taking over from Major Barry Rogan, commanding Support Company. We were all good friends.
A Company would be coming in by road convoy, which was always a concern; the route would be chosen at random to vary any pattern we might have been setting. The choice was to be a fateful one. The convoy, a Land Rover and two lorries carrying 26 men of A Company, was sent south along the coast and then up the eastern shore of the estuary of the Newry River.
For several miles above the port of Warrenpoint, the estuary funnels into a tidal lough about 200 yards wide. Known as Narrow Water, it marks the border with the Irish Republic. Thick woods came down to the water’s edge on the republic side, providing cover for terrorists, who had a clear view of traffic on the road on the Northern Ireland side.
There were no obstacles to interfere with a radio signal detonating a bomb and, being in the republic, an IRA team would have a good chance of escaping after an attack. It was an ideal spot for an ambush, in other words.
The Army had long recognised the vulnerability of this stretch of road and frequently put it out of bounds. However, there were only a few routes into Newry from the 2 Para base at Ballykinler and, if we were to avoid establishing a predictable pattern, we had to use this one from time to time.
In studying the Army’s procedures following a bomb attack, the IRA had noted that we invariably set up a control point near the scene, from which to evacuate casualties and collect forensic evidence. They decided to exploit this procedure by placing two bombs close to each other on the estuary route, the second located where the incident control point was likely to be.
The first bomb was hidden beneath straw bales in a trailer parked the previous night in a lay-by. The second was hidden about 200 yards further along the road towards Newry, in the gate lodge of a country house.
B Company was relaxing back at Bessbrook when the dreadful news of Lord Mountbatten’s murder came through at about midday. He and members of his family had been heading out to sea on a fishing-trip from Mullaghmore, County Sligo, when a radio-controlled device hidden in the boat was triggered from the shore.
As well as the Earl, three others had been killed. We were deeply shocked. But a bad day was about to get much worse.
Shortly before 5pm I was in the officers’ mess at Bessbrook when the intercom buzzed. It was my colour sergeant.
“I think you’d better come upstairs,” he said. “Now.”
There had been an explosion on the road from Warrenpoint to Newry. Men from 2 Para were involved.
The bomb in the lay-by had been detonated at 4.30pm as the rear lorry of the convoy was passing. It took the full force of the explosion and was hurled on its side. Bodies of the soldiers who had been riding inside the lorry were scattered across the road.
Convinced they were being shot at from the other side of the water, surviving soldiers opened fire, killing an innocent tourist and wounding another. One soldier spotted movement behind a roadside wall; pointing his gun, he shouted an order to come out with hands up. Several shocked children appeared; they had been picnicking with their mother.
Lieutenant-Colonel David Blair, commanding officer of the Queen’s Own Highlanders at Bessbrook, was airborne in a Gazelle helicopter when he heard the news, and headed to the scene. Barry Rogan and Peter Fursman also headed there, coming by road from Newry.
On arrival, they made the fateful decision to set up the incident control point at the gate-lodge. A Wessex helicopter carrying a medical team landed nearby in the road and began loading the wounded.
At that moment the watching terrorists detonated the second bomb. The lodge disintegrated in the huge explosion. Lumps of granite were hurled through the air. The Wessex was showered with rubble but, though severely damaged, it managed to take off and reach Bessbrook.
Back in Bessbrook there was much confusion about what had happened. Brigadier David Thorne, Commander of 3 Brigade, arrived at Bessbrook from his HQ in Dungannon and took control of the situation. Then he noticed me.
“Hello, Mike,” he said. “What are you doing here?” I explained that we were untasked, having just come off an operation.
“Right,” he said. “Get down to Warrenpoint and sort it out.”
Within minutes I was flying to the scene with my immediate command team, followed in fairly short order by the rest of the company. Our job was to relieve the soldiers on the ground and contain the scene. I remember saying: “We want to be bloody careful that there isn’t a third one around here somewhere.”
I arrived at the incident within half an hour of the second explosion. As we circled before landing, I could see two craters and large scorch-marks on the road. I found Barry Rogan, now the senior officer on site, his forehead covered by a field dressing; after a quick briefing, he handed over to me. It was a horrifying scene.
There was human debris everywhere – in the trees, on the grass verge and in the water. Mostly unidentifiable lumps of red flesh, but among them torsos, limbs, heads, hands and ears. I had seen the effect of bombs before but never carnage on this scale.
When a bomb goes off, the air inside the body is compressed and often forces its way out through the joints. All that was left of the driver of the rear lorry was his pelvis, welded to the seat by the intense heat. In such circumstances your emotions shut down and training takes over.
It stayed light late that warm summer evening. It seemed unbelievable that something so terrible could have happened in such a beautiful spot. One of the divers from the Royal Engineers asked me quietly to come and look at something he’d found in the water.
It was a human face that had been blown clear of the man’s skull. The line of a moustache was still visible. The diver asked if I recognised the man. I felt a shiver of horror.
“Of course I do,” I said in a shaky voice. “He’s a good friend of mine.”
It was Peter Fursman; that was all we ever found of him. David Blair was identified only by the crown and the star of his rank on his epaulette.
I was told that back at Ballykinler the wives and families were waiting to hear who had been killed. Apparently, there was a rumour that I was one of the dead. The final body count was 18 soldiers killed – 16 Paras and two from the Queen’s Own Highlanders. Six more Paras were seriously wounded.
This was the highest number of soldiers killed in any single incident during the whole bloody history of the Troubles. The loss to the Paras was the worst in a single contact since Arnhem in 1944. The clear-up was very hard for the soldiers because these were their mates.
I still have ugly pictures in my head from that terrible day. Once you’ve seen such appalling sights you can’t close your mind to them. But I don’t have nightmares; fortunately my temperament isn’t like that. My attitude is: move on, put that away, because if you get bogged down in thinking too much about it you might start losing your own courage – and that wouldn’t do at all.
Peter Fursman’s widow, Christine, said she wanted to see where her husband had died. I took it upon myself to escort her around the site of the bombing; it seemed to me that I owed it to them both. For me this was the hardest moment of the whole incident.
Christine’s fortitude was tremendously affecting. I felt close to tears myself as I watched her holding back her own. I was very anxious that there might still be body parts lying around, but if she did catch sight of anything of that kind she didn’t react.
Peter and I were the same age and the same rank. We’d been friends for years and spent a lot of time together. It occurred to me later that if the cards had come off the pack in a different order, it could have been B Company rather than A Company travelling along the road that day.
Murdered by the enemies of Ulster
Lest we forget.
‘Soldier’ by General Sir Mike Jackson
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