The inside story of the brutal killing of Wood and Howes
As a young student from Cork with Republican links, Sean Hartnett considered joining the IRA. But he stunned his family when he ended up joining the British Army. Posted to Northern Ireland in 2001, he worked in the British Army's most covert surveillance units as a member of the Joint Communications Unit - Northern Ireland. Its function was the "covert surveillance and apprehension of terrorist suspects, both republican and loyalist". For the next three years, using a vast network of cameras and hi-tech equipment, his unit, known as 'the Det', worked to stop armed paramilitaries, succeeding in many cases. But he also witnessed some of the biggest blunders in British intelligence. In his new memoir Charlie One - the call sign for the British Army's most wanted targets - he gives a detailed insider account of the secret war fought on the streets of the North.
Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30
During his training to work in surveillance in Northern Ireland, Sean Hartnett was given the inside story from British Intelligence of how Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes were killed by the IRA when they were caught in a funeral cortege in Belfast in 1988. It was one of the most notorious incidents of the Troubles.
Like anyone my age with even the slightest awareness of Northern Ireland, I didn't need to be told the story of what happened to Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes, but one morning we were given the graphic, no-holds-barred version in a briefing.
I could feel my stomach tighten and my nerves on edge throughout.
In the darkened room, we were shown the crystal-clear images taken by the specialist camera of the surveillance helicopter that had been covering the funeral of IRA volunteer Kevin Brady on March 19, 1988.
The funeral cortege was shown moving down the Andersonstown Road in West Belfast towards Milltown cemetery.
Sinn Fein stewards were marshalling traffic and providing security in anticipation of another Loyalist attack.
Armed PIRA volunteers were mingling with the mourners. The security forces were noticeably absent, giving the area a wide birth in an effort to reduce tensions. Three days previously, during the funerals of three IRA volunteers shot dead by British Special forces in Gibraltar, loyalist gunman Michael Stone had launched a gun and grenade attack at the funerals in Milltown cemetery.
Three people had been killed, including Kevin Brady. The events of those two previous weeks had produced some of the most tense moments of the Troubles. Northern Ireland at the time was a powder keg waiting to explode.
In the images we were shown, a silver VW Passat could be seen approaching the cortege and being stopped by the Sinn Fein stewards and directed to turn around and move away.
The vehicle reversed at speed and mounted the pavement. Panic set in among those in the cortege. They must have wondered if this was another Loyalist attack.
In fact, in the vehicle was Corporal Derek Wood and Corporal David Howes, both members of the British army's Royal Corps of Signals attached to Joint Communications Unit (JCU), Northern Ireland, known as "the Det".
Nonetheless, the vehicle was quickly surrounded, with black taxis boxing it in from the front and rear.
As the crowd surrounded the vehicle, Wood drew his pistol and for a few moments the crowd pulled back a little.
Wood used this time to try to get out through the window on the driver's side of the car, which had already been smashed in, but the crowd moved in again and began to drag him out of the vehicle.
On the passenger side, the window was smashed and Howes was set upon, though he didn't produce a weapon at any stage. A warning shot was fired into the air by Wood, it was the first and only shot to be fired by either soldier that day. (I had always wondered why they hadn't fired more.)
The crowd forced TV camera crews to stop filming and in some cases confiscated or smashed equipment - but the Det's helicopter kept filming. Both men were eventually dragged to the rear of nearby Casement Park where they were strip-searched and beaten further.
A man could be seen trying to hold back the attackers from the two men as they lay prone, side by side on the ground.
He was escorted away though he remained close by. That was Fr Alec Reid, a Catholic priest who would go on to be instrumental in the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The men were then thrown over a wall, bundled into taxis and taken a couple of hundred metres away to waste ground near Penny Lane. The beatings and then stabbings continued until both men were eventually shot multiple times at point-blank range.
From the moment of their arrival on the scene of the funeral, Wood and Howes were dead in just over 12 minutes.
As our briefing on the killings continued, the television screen went blank and the lights in the room came up. There was a lump in my throat and I swallowed hard to keep down whatever it was.
I was sitting in the front row, the only Irishman in the room, and I could feel the eyes burning into the back of my head. I understood how they must be feeling. It was a deeply uncomfortable moment and for the first time in my British army career, I felt ashamed to be Irish.
Thankfully, no one said anything and the briefing continued.
How this happened from a procedural point of view was the question we needed answered. In the immediate aftermath, and for many years thereafter, there was considerable speculation about the two men and why they were in that particular location that day. As always, the MOD had refused to comment and had never clarified what they knew. I only learned the truth that afternoon.
One of the officers, a huge Welsh man who had spent the previous 20 years as a special duties operator in the North, stood at the top of the room and gave us the full story.
"Wood was the 'pronto'. A pronto is the head communications non-commissioned officer in a Det. He was coming to the end of his current tour in Northern Ireland and was due to rotate back to a normal Royal Corps of Signals unit.
"Howes was the incoming pronto, just arrived in Northern Ireland and as green as grass as far as working with the Det was concerned.
"Let's be clear: as the head communications operator, a pronto never has call to be on the ground, irrespective of what the rumour mill might have been saying. All his work is based from the operations room at each Det. Routine maintenance, fault repairs and new installations of communications equipment are carried out by the camera and radio technicians, based in Lisburn.
"Neither was Special Forces-trained, otherwise the outcome would have been very different that day. For starters, they were nowhere near as armed as a Special Forces operations team would have been, carrying only Browning 9mm pistols.
"More critically, though, they left Moscow camp that morning without checking the 'out of bounds' board and went on a tour of the city ignorant of what was going on.
"Wood probably just wanted to show Howes around various JCU locations and maybe a few of the main hot spots too, but this was not part of any official handover procedure. Wood was showboating.
"Had he checked the board, he would have seen that all of Belfast and most of the rest of Northern Ireland was coded red that day.
"Even the Det's own operator teams weren't on the ground. Furthermore, no one from the regular army knew that Howes and Wood were driving around the city that day.
"When they blundered into the funeral cortege on the Andersonstown Road, they panicked. As the vehicle was surrounded and Wood was being dragged out, he produced his pistol and fired a single warning shot in the air. While his restraint was admirable, it ultimately proved to be fatal.
"If you look closely at the image on the screen you can see that the magazine housing is empty. Either Wood had been sitting on his pistol for quick access while driving around and accidentally sat on the magazine ejector switch, or it was ejected during the scuffle to get him out of the vehicle.
"Either way, when he went to fire a second shot all he got was a dead man's click. David Howes never even got to fire a first shot."
My hand moved under my shirt to my own pistol, still warm from a morning spent on the firing ranges. It was reassuring to have it there.
"As all this was happening, the Det's helicopter was frantically relaying the vehicle's details back to their operations room based in Palace Barracks. They were convinced that this was another loyalist attack and, to add to the difficulties, being military, JCU vehicles are not logged on the normal vehicle registration system, but are assigned civilian addresses for security purposes.
"The car's details were checked on the normal system and came up as a normal civilian vehicle without any flag going up. (At that time there was no central database for JCU vehicles.)
"It was a monumental screw-up, yes. But think for a second what might have happened if there'd been a sudden influx of soldiers or police, with armed PIRA members in the crowd. There could have been carnage. I'm not trying to justify what happened or saying that they deserved their fate, but they should never have been there.
"There was no special mission, no clandestine operation, and no cover-up, as has been suggested by some. Howes and Wood were the architects of their own demise. The incident changed forever how special duties and support staff operate in Northern Ireland and beyond. Many of the drills that you have gone through in the last week of training are a direct result of the deaths of those two men.
"Get this into your heads: you are not Special Forces and if you ever find yourselves in a similar situation, forget all this warning shot bullshit. Shoot first and make it count! It's better to be judged by 12 than carried by six."
Charlie One by Sean Hartnett is published by Merrion Press
Extracts edited by Kim Bielenberg