There is, perhaps, a legitimate debate to be had over what to call killings which are carried out in the name of a political cause. No-one in their right mind would label the millions of soldiers who died in the two world wars of the 20th century as murder victims. The wearing of a uniform, and the acceptance of the King’s shilling has always legitimised the act of pulling the trigger, firing the shell, or dropping the bomb.
But what about guerilla activities? What about resistance movements? When does a killing become a murder? Is one man’s freedom fighter another man’s terrorist? I am far from unique in being unable to resolve those conundrums. The men who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich on a Prague boulevard in June 1942 have been hailed as heroes. What about the Irishmen who killed eleven British soldiers in a few hours on the streets of London in July 1982? They wore no uniform and carried no flag, but in their hearts their targets were legitimate.
My view? Emotionally, I am drawn to the view that soldiers engaged in ceremonial duties in a nation’s capital are not fair game. Therefore, I am treating the events of 20th July 1982 as murder. Cold blooded murder, pure and simple.
London, 20th June, 1982. The weather was warm, but unsettled, with a promise of showers. A troop of The Household Cavalry, the ceremonial guardians of the English monarch, were calmly riding along South Carriage Drive in Hyde Park, on their way to the ceremony known as The Changing Of The Guard. Unknown to them, a blue Morris Marina car, parked alongside their route, was packed with gelignite and nails. At 10.40 a.m. the device was triggered, presumably by a nearby operative. The result was carnage.
The road was littered with flesh, of the three guardsmen who were killed instantly (that telling euphemism which denotes catastrophic injuries) – and that of horses. The three soldiers who died at the scene were Lieutenant Anthony Daly, Trooper Simon Tipper and Lance Corporal Vernon Young. Corporal Raymond Bright was rushed to hospital, but died on 23rd July. The men are pictured below, left to right.
Just a couple of hours later, as emergency services struggled to deal with the mayhem in South Carriage Drive, the terrorists struck again. It seems barely credible that in another part of the city, life was going on as normal. Remember, though, that these were the days before mobile ‘phones and social media, the days when news was only transmitted in print, by word of mouth and on radio and television. The regimental band of The Royal Green Jackets was entertaining a small crowd clustered round the bandstand in Regent’s Park. They were playing distinctly un-martial music from the musical ‘Oliver!’ when, at 12.55 pm, a massive bomb went off beneath the bandstand. The blast was so powerful that one of the bodies was thrown onto an iron fence thirty yards away, and seven bandsmen were killed outright. They were: Warrant Officer Graham Barker, Serjeant Robert “Doc” Livingstone, Corporal Johnny McKnight, Bandsman John Heritage, Bandsman George Mesure, Bandsman Keith “Cozy” Powell, and Bandsman Larry Smith.
Keith Powell’s mother, Mrs Patricia Powell was later to say:
“On the day (20th July 1982) at 1pm – I was rinsing a cup at the sink in my classroom – I suddenly felt very ill and mentioned it to a colleague – saying I’d no idea why I felt so ill. On the way home I went to the music store to purchase the score of Oliver – No idea why I wanted it suddenly nor did I have any idea this was what the band was playing. Got it – went to the bus station and saw on the placards news about the bombs in London – I knew instantly that he was dead. This was confirmed later that evening.”
Keith Powell’s comrades gave him his nickname because of the celebrated rock drummer Colin Powell, who played with bands such as Black Sabbath, the Jeff Beck Group and Whitesnake. No-one was ever convicted of the Regent’s Park atrocity, but responsibility was claimed by the IRA. In 1987, Gilbert “Danny” McNamee, an electronics engineer from Northern Ireland, was jailed for 25 years after being found guilty of building the radio-controlled bomb used in the Hyde Park attack.
He was released from prison in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and later that year the Court of Appeal overturned his conviction on the grounds that it was unsafe. Another suspect, John Anthony Downey, was to be tried for his part of the Hyde Park bombing as recently as 2014, but his trial collapsed when it was revealed that he was one of those Republican activists who had been sent a ‘comfort letter’ by the British government, promising them immunity from prosecution. Following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought something resembling peace to Northern Ireland, there was an ongoing issue over what to do about IRA suspects who were still “on-the-run”. As part of the peace deal, IRA terrorists serving prison terms were granted early release but that could not apply to those on the run. A deal was reached between the Tony Blair government and Sinn Fein to carry out an exercise whereby checks would be carried out and for those who were no longer wanted by police, they would be sent a letter informing them of that fact.
Downey (right) may or may not have been implicated in the Hyde Park murders. Only he knows for certain. At least he had the decency to cancel a party planned in his honour when he was released. He said:
“The party had been planned as a simple get-together of family, friends and neighbours who supported me after my arrest. Some elements of the media are portraying the event planned for tonight as triumphalist and insulting to bereaved families. That was never what it was about.”
There was a macabre and tragic postscript to the Hyde Park murders. One of the horses, named Sefton, survived the attack despite terrible injuries. The horse became something of a media celebrity, which is not surprising given the British public’s sentimental obsession with animals. Sefton’s days of celebrity were, at least, harmless. Not so the fate of his rider on that day, Michael Pedersen. He survived the attack physically, but suffered irreparable hidden mental damage. In 2012, after two failed marriages, he drove himself and his two children, Ben and Freya, to a remote lane near Newton Stacey in Hampshire, stabbed them to death, and then took his own life.