Friday 20 September 2019

The day my dad was killed by the Provos

Alexandra Blair

"David's dead." The words were barely audible, but moments later I heard my mother sobbing in the next room. Numb with shock and disbelief, I carried on watching 'The Great Escape' with Andrew, my eight-year-old brother. Then my grandfather came to us. He, too, was in tears.

That was exactly 25 years ago, the evening of August 27, 1979, and I was 10 years old. My father, Lieutenant-Colonel David Blair, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, The Queen's Own Highlanders, had been killed by the IRA at Warrenpoint, along with Lance Corporal Victor Macleod and 16 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.

It was the British Army's worst single peacetime loss since the Second World War.

Nobody has been arrested or prosecuted for the killings.

Hours earlier, Lord Mountbatten of Burma (79), his grandson Nicholas Knatchbull (14), Paul Maxwell (15), a local boatman, and Lady Brabourne had been blown up while fishing in Donegal Bay on holiday.

My father had been my hero. Dark-haired, 6ft tall, with green eyes, he was fit, strong and handsome, and always with a ready smile. My father treated me as an adult, encouraged me to explore and learn. The last words I remember him telling me before he left our home in Redford barracks in Edinburgh, where we lived with the rest of the regiment, were: "Look after Mummy and Andrew."

Today the now-notorious stretch of road at Narrow Water bears few scars of the devastation wrought that day. The Elizabethan stone-keep overlooking the 50-yard stretch of water that separates Northern Ireland and the Republic is bathed in warm summer sunshine.

A boat is moored upriver and bobs peacefully in Carlingford Lough and the hills of southern Ireland rise a few hundred yards away.

I had dreaded my first visit to Narrow Water, not knowing what to expect, nor even why I had to go there, but I found it surprisingly peaceful. Only when I arrived did I realise that I had come to lay ghosts to rest and somehow to reassure myself that my father was not waiting for me to take him home.

Every year, three wreaths and 18 poppies are nailed to a fence at the spot where my father and his comrades were killed. Every year they are ripped off by IRA supporters. And every year they are put back.

Billy McKinley (74) remembers every minute of that day. He was the senior firefighter at Warrenpoint, in charge of 18 men, all part-timers. By day he worked in a corrugated box factory, just three quarters of a mile from Narrow Water. He said: "I was on the 3pm to 11pm shift and we had been discussing the bomb which had killed Mountbatten. About five minutes later we heard this unmerciful bang and the whole place jumped."

Billy and his men arrived on the scene within 10 minutes. A 700lb bomb, packed into milk churns among bales of straw, had been hidden in a trailer and parked overnight in a lay-by. Brendan Burns (24), a local man, lay in wait with a second man a few hundred yards away in the Republic, waiting for an army convoy to pass.

For the young soldiers of 2 Para that day, a Bank Holiday, had begun much like any other. They were being driven to Newry, where they were to spend the next two months. Everyone was shocked by Mountbatten's violent death, but nobody suspected the IRA would mount another attack. At 4.40pm, a Land Rover and two lorries drove past the lay-by. Burns and his friend detonated a remote-control device, killing six men in the last lorry and leaving just two survivors.

A dark mushroom cloud hung over the scene as straw and body parts snowed down across the road. Remnants of suitcases and at least one soldier's leave pass were scattered for hundreds of yards.

Ammunition was exploding from the burning lorry and, believing they were still under attack, soldiers began firing across the lough.

Tragically, William Hudson (29), the son of one of the Queen's footmen and who was holidaying in the Republic, had looked across the lough to see what was happening.

In the confusion he was mistaken for a bomber and shot dead.

Within minutes a Wessex helicopter landed, carrying my father and Corporal Macleod. The IRA had been studying the Army's response in the aftermath of bombings and had worked out exactly how long it would take for support to arrive at Warrenpoint.

Nineteen minutes after the first blast, as survivors were being carried aboard the helicopter, the second bomb exploded. It was even larger than the first, at 1,000lb, and was detonated by a timer.

My father's death was quick, just a fraction of a second. All that remained of him were two epaulettes. He was 40 years old. Eleven other men also died, almost vapourised by the blast.

Sweet revenge for the IRA, for Bloody Sunday seven years earlier when 14 civilians were shot dead by Paras in Derry.

News of Lord Mountbatten's death and the first bomb had just reached my mother in Edinburgh. Anxious to reach my father, she rang the headquarters late that afternoon. "The colonel is unavailable," a voice said. He was probably already dead.

Brendan Burns died nine years later, accidentally blowing himself up. He is thought to have killed at least seven other people with large-scale bombs. My father's other killer still walks free.

In a sense the absence of justice never mattered to my family. We knew that neither justice nor revenge would bring our father back. Instead, we were looked after by the tight-knit community of the Queen's Own Highlanders. Nobody could have wished for a closer family and without them we would not have survived.

There is no memorial at Warrenpoint for fear that it would be defaced. A harmony of a sort reigns in the area now, and with that lives the hope that one day both sides will talk openly and make a permanent peace.

I wish them well. But as I walked away from Warrenpoint, I was not sure that I would ever wish to return.

The Mountbatten Years: See

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