SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: The lynch mob, the man of God and the truth about an atrocity seared on Britain's psyche
- Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes murdered in Belfast 25 years ago
- They were killed after straying to an out-of-bounds IRA funeral
- Army said they had been carrying out ‘routine maintenance’ work
- Corporal Howes’s father Robert said he hopes military will tell the truth about why the two soldiers were present
- Senior officer says that the pair were involved in undercover operations
A Roman Catholic priest kneels in a car park as he administers the last rites over the bloodied and almost naked body of a British soldier. It is an iconic image, a horror frozen in time.
Father Alec Reid’s hands are clutched in prayer or anguish, his left cheek smeared with blood because he’d tried to give the man the kiss of life.
Minutes earlier the NCO had been seized by a frenzied mob, tortured and executed. A few yards away, out of frame, lies the corpse of a colleague, similarly abused and then slaughtered.
Warning graphic content
Brutality: Catholic priest Father Alec Reid administers the last rights to Corporal David Howes, one of two British soldiers brutally beaten and murdered in Belfast 25 years ago
No one who saw the harrowing photographs or film footage of the deaths of Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes in Belfast — 25 years ago next week — can ever erase the memory. A nationalist MP was later to tell the House of Commons: ‘What happened to the two soldiers was . . . the nearest thing to the crucifixion of Christ that one could see.’
The murders of Wood and Howes were the culmination of a fortnight of mayhem during which blood had fed blood.
At its end, eight people were dead and 60 injured. One massacre was averted by a triple killing, but the result was another atrocity. That in turn led to the double lynching of the British corporals — an act of such barbarity that the wider world awoke to the true horror of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
At the centre of the maelstrom on the day they died was an extraordinary figure; the local missionary priest, Father Reid, who was in fact privy to so much secret, high-level peace negotiation that the head of the IRA’s Belfast brigade nicknamed him ‘Behind the Scenes’.
And the two soldiers who died were not the ordinary signallers the Army later described to the world.
Why had their car blundered into an IRA funeral? What was their true role in the province? And why, with the world watching, couldn’t they have been saved?
Desperation: Corporal Wood, with a gun in his hand, is pictured moments before he was dragged from his car by members of the crowd
The authorities have never given satisfactory official explanations. This coming week, a quarter of a century after the events, we can go some way towards giving authoritative answers.
I have spoken to former Army special operations officers who were on duty in Ulster that day. One was in the Army’s West Belfast control room and watched live feed of the unfolding murders — ‘the stuff of nightmares’ — beamed from the camera of an Air Corps surveillance helicopter overhead.
He knew the two men’s true jobs and spoke of the ‘horror and anger’, and feelings of frustration as the outrage unfolded.
Another was an RAF special operations pilot who claims a communications breakdown contributed to the soldiers’ deaths.
This week Father Reid also spoke for the first time, to the BBC, about his courageous attempts to save two lives. Their combined testimonies build a compelling new account of a day that shocked the world.
Account: Father Reid spoke out about his attempts to save the two soldiers for the first time this week
In May, 1987, the SAS ambushed an IRA attempt to blow up the police station at Loughall in Northern Ireland, killing eight terrorists. On Remembrance Day that year in Enniskillen, an IRA bomb killed 11 and wounded dozens, in what proved to be a PR disaster for the organisation.
Pressure increased on all sides for a way out of the violence, and warring factions began to emerge in the republican movement.
One man ideally placed to play a role was Father Reid, a priest based at the Clonard monastery in West Belfast, with which the family of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams had close links.
Reid knew that IRA operations had to be reined in if real progress was to be made towards peace.
But there were hardliners who wanted to pull off a ‘spectacular’ as the 20th anniversary of the beginning of ‘the Troubles’ approached.
The softest of soft military targets was chosen. A bomb would be exploded next to an Army band as it played during the weekly changing of the guard at the British governor’s residence on Gibraltar.
The plan was compromised. On March 6, 1988, the three members of the IRA active service unit chosen to perform the attack — Danny McCann, Seán Savage and Mairéad Farrell — were intercepted on the Rock and shot dead by members of the SAS.
No matter that the intention was mass murder, nor that Spanish police soon found the intended bomb-making material, including 64kg of Semtex, in a car across the border in Marbella; there was outrage in republican circles that the three IRA bombers were unarmed when killed. Tensions mounted in Belfast as the bodies were brought home. Father Reid knew all three — Savage had been an altar boy at Clonard — and met the coffins in Dublin.
The funerals were held at the Milltown Cemetery, off the Falls Road, on March 16. Because of the powder keg circumstances, security forces agreed to suspend their usual policy of heavy and close policing of terrorist burials. The stage was set for Michael Stone — a member of a loyalist paramilitary group — to take ‘revenge’ for the Enniskillen bombing.
Using two pistols and several hand grenades, Stone killed three people in the cemetery — including an IRA man called Kevin Brady — and wounded around 60 before being chased and caught by mourners.
IRA man: Alex Murphy being led into Belfast city Magistrates' Court. He was jailed for life for the murder alongside Harry Maguire, but the two were released under the Good Friday Agreement
He was only saved from lynching by police intervention. Fear and hatred soared in republican West Belfast, and reached a peak two days later when Kevin Brady’s funeral took place.
Corporal Derek Wood was 24 and came from Surrey. Corporal David Howes was a year younger and from Hackney in East London.
Their parent unit was the Royal Corps of Signals. Indeed, after their murders on March 19 — at Brady’s funeral — the Army said they had merely been engaged in ‘routine maintenance’ work on a transmitter.
They had been dressed in civilian clothes and were travelling back to base in an unmarked silver VW Passat saloon. Both were armed with standard issue Browning 9mm pistols for self-protection.
But that was not the whole picture. It was at best a semi-fiction, which was maintained even to the men’s families.
‘At the time the (undercover army surveillance) structure over there included two specific units,’ a senior army officer who was engaged in Ulster intelligence operations told me this week.
‘There was the main surveillance unit known variously as 14 Int, or The Unit or The Watchers. And there was a support unit called 12 Int, from which the two corporals came.
‘12 Int used to go under the cover name of the Northern Ireland Couriers. On that day there was a handover. One of the corporals had just arrived in the province, and the other was about to leave.
‘The new arrival was being shown the routes and places to pick up and drop off equipment and documents for 14 Int.
Loyalist Michael Stone attacked people attending a funeral of IRA members at Milltown Cemetery, off the Falls Road, in a 'revenge attack'
‘I believe they were coming back from [the base at] RAF Aldergrove when it went wrong.’
The officer recalled that because of the republican funeral, an ‘out of bounds area’ had been issued for everybody, but that — fatally — the corporals strayed into ‘the box’.
‘The reason why they cut the corner [into the funeral] was never clear to me or anyone else. Whether it was bravado or just a wrong turn, a mistake, I don’t know.’
The consequences were swift, terrible and very public.
Contemporary TV and photographic footage from the large media presence shows the funeral cortege advancing slowly along Andersonstown Road towards Milltown Cemetery, headed by a number of the black taxis favoured by the IRA.
It was at this moment that the corporals’ car, with Wood at the wheel, came towards it at speed from the opposite direction. Its driver clearly panicked — Army sources believed the men knew they had been identified by IRA ‘dickers’, or spotters — the car mounted the pavement, scattering mourners, and turned into a blocked side street.
Film footage then shows it reversing across a junction before becoming boxed in by the black taxis in the cortege. Male mourners quickly surround the VW and attempt to get at the men inside. A warning shot can be heard, fired in the air by Wood.
Sinn Fein politicians Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams pictured at the funeral that was attacked by Stone
The crowd briefly scatters before surging forward again. The men are now hopelessly trapped.
One notices the mundane detail of the mob. One man has a newspaper stuck in the back pocket of his jeans, as if he’s just emerged from the bookies.
Another, in a turquoise anorak, smashes the front passenger window with something in his hand. He and others begin to try to haul Corporal Howes out.
The mood is febrile. Wood, clearly holding a handgun, half climbs out of his own window but is grabbed from behind by several men and pulled down and out of sight. Improvised weapons appear. A man is on the VW’s roof smashing the windscreen with a wheel brace.
Father Reid was at the scene, and this week he explained his part in the tragedy. ‘Everyone thought immediately that this was another loyalist attack,’ he said. He followed the mob as it carried the two corporals to nearby Roger Casement Park.
How the murders were reported on the front page of the Mail on Sunday
‘They put the two of them face down on the ground and I got down between them . . . I had my arm around this one and I was holding the other by the shoulder,’ recalled the priest.
‘They were so disciplined . . . they just lay there totally still and I decided then to myself that these must be soldiers.
‘There was a helicopter circling overhead and I don’t know why they didn’t do something, why they didn’t radio to the police or the soldiers to come up.
‘I remember saying to myself: “This shouldn’t be happening in a civilised society”. I kept asking for an ambulance . . . and next thing someone came in, picked me up and said “Get up or I’ll f*****g well shoot you as well.” And then he said “Take him away”, and two of them came and kind of manoeuvred me out.’
While still in the park, the soldiers were mercilessly beaten, stripped to their underwear and searched. It was then perhaps their fate was sealed irrevocably. One of them was carrying a pass which bore the name ‘Herford’.
This was a place in West Germany where the British Army had a divisional HQ. But in West Belfast it was mistaken for ‘Hereford’, the HQ of the hated SAS, which had so recently killed the IRA team on Gibraltar.
‘I came back (to the park),’ said Father Reid. ‘I knew the men were going to be shot. It was a terrible, tense atmosphere.
‘I remember saying to myself: “I’m going to try to stop them”. And the next thing I realise they had put them over a low wall.’
The pair were put in a black taxi, which drove off at speed, one of the IRA men waving a fist in triumph.
The priest then heard shots further up the road. He followed the reports and walked up to an area of waste ground off Penny Lane, 200 yards away.
‘There was no one else there, just the two bodies. And I went up to the one nearest me and he seemed still to be breathing. So I started to try to give him the kiss of life.
‘After a while a man came in behind me and said “Look Father, that man is dead”. I anointed him and went over to anoint the man three yards away, lying on his face.
‘Two women came over and covered him with a coat and said he was somebody’s son. I felt I had done my best to save them. I was very shocked. I had failed. It was a tragedy.’
Wood had been shot six times and stabbed four times, as well as suffering multiple lesser wounds. From start to finish, their ordeal had lasted no more than 20 minutes.
Later that day the IRA issued a triumphalist statement: ‘The Belfast Brigade IRA claims responsibility for the execution in Andersonstown this afternoon of two SAS members, who launched an attack on the funeral cortege of our comrade volunteer Kevin Brady.’ As with so many statements about the affair, it simply wasn’t true.
Could the corporals have saved themselves once they were hemmed in? To their credit, they did not try to shoot their way out against apparently unarmed opponents around the car. But the former army intelligence officer who saw their deaths thinks it unlikely they could have.
‘The fact that they had only two pistols showed they were not part of the specialist “watcher unit”, he said. ‘They were under-armed. At most they would have been carrying one magazine and possibly a spare.
‘This is not OK Corral weaponry. Between them they would have had a maximum of 48 rounds. They were surrounded by hundreds of people, got boxed in and overwhelmed. The second factor is that they were not [SAS] and did not have training to extricate themselves.
‘Sitting in the car really wasn’t a sensible option. Their best hope was to kick their way into a nearby building like a shop that had restricted approaches, and wait for the cavalry to arrive.
‘With IRA members in the crowd, armed with automatic rifles, it was always going to be very one-sided.’
Why didn’t the security forces rescue them? A former RAF special operations pilot told me there was a communications breakdown between the Army helicopter overhead and a nearby Royal Ulster Constabulary rapid reaction unit.
But the Army officer disagrees: ‘The Gazelle helicopter had constant communications to the West Belfast army battalion’s HQ at North Howard Street Mill, and to 39 Brigade HQ in Lisburn, both of which would have had RUC liaison officers present.
‘It shouldn’t have been a problem. I was not on their (radio) network but I am pretty sure the corporals got an alert out early [on their personal radio]. I have also heard stories of reticence to react on the part of the security forces.
‘But it was simply down to the speed of republican reaction and the number of people in the street: they were very angry and some of them very heavily armed.
‘Physically there was not a way [for British soldiers] to get through without it turning into a major armed incident. We were all very, very angry that night. Frustrated at not being able to reach them and save those blokes’ lives.’
A year later, two IRA men, Alex Murphy and Harry Maguire, were found guilty of the murder of the corporals. They were jailed for life in 1989, with a recommendation of a minimum 25 years. But as part of the Good Friday agreement they were among scores of murderers who were freed in 1998. Even Michael Stone, sentenced to 638 years, was released two years later.
Corporal Wood’s father, also called Derek, who is now dead, was moved to say in 1998: ‘I have no shred of comfort in thinking that the death of those two lads helped the peace process. Derek died for nothing and I cannot forgive and forget.’
He added: ‘Information given to us by the Army about what the soldiers were doing just didn’t ring true. The Army has never let us meet anyone from Derek’s unit.’
This week, I tracked down Corporal Howes’s father Robert, who is now living in the Far East.
As to the precise nature of the work the soldiers were engaged in, he said: ‘We hope that one day the military will tell the truth about why the lads were there. This was not young man’s bravado.’
And of those who butchered his son, he added: ‘I try not to think about the terms of the peace process which released those responsible from prison, because it still makes me very angry.’
It is a sentiment echoed by the army officer who watched the murders unfolding: ‘I was bitter about the release of their killers, and I think a lot of us were.
‘They were dreadful people. I suppose it was the price for peace, but it was a huge price to pay.’
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