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Chelsea Barracks, an IRA Bomb & the Regiment of the Irish Guards

London Newspaper Group — Chelsea News / Westminster & Pimlico News 16-10-1981

'May have hit wrong target' say Guards

By Christopher Long

See Hyde Park IRA Bomb (1982)

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s anti-terrorist and bomb squad officers set to work to trace the four or five men believed responsible for the Chelsea Barracks bomb, there was speculation that the IRA missed their real target. If the bombers had triggered the device a few minutes later they would almost certainly have caught two bus-loads of Irish Guards travelling in close convoy from Buckingham Palace perhaps doubling the carnage that in fact occurred.

"One way and another I think we could almost say we've been very lucky," said one officer as he speculated on what might have happened had two buses been hit simultaneously.

A further stroke of pure luck was that a group of about thirty boy cadets was not caught up in the affair.

The cadets were guests of the Irish Guards and had walked out of the barracks earlier in the morning to walk to Buckingham Palace to watch Saturday's last Changing of the Guard by members of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards before they prepared for a few years of service in Germany.

The boys, dressed in army cadet uniforms, walked back from Buckingham Palace for refreshments at Chelsea Barracks. By mistake or good fortune they approached the barracks from the north and entered by the West Gate instead.

Officers of the Irish Guards and Press officers were unable to say that the bombers has 'picked the wrong target', but they were agreed that Saturday's incident could have been even more tragic if the timing had been different.

As the already tight security at the Chelsea Barracks was made still more stringent there was understandable relief that the attack had come from outside rather than inside the establishment.

The explosion could not have come at a more poignant moment for the Irish Guards. Banned from taking part in security operations in Northern Ireland during the past 12 years of the 'troubles', they have concentrated their effort on security operations in Great Britain and overseas – including Belize.

Guardsmen come from all over Ireland and from both Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in Liverpool and Birmingham.

Only half an hour before the explosion occurred, officers of the Guards had been saying at Buckingham Palace that the battalion represented the sort of peaceful existence and harmony that most people would wish to see in Ireland itself.

Ten minutes later the previous night's guardsmen were on their way back to Chelsea Barracks from Buckingham Palace in two buses.

The deafening explosion was clearly heard by Guards officers and off-duty journalist Christopher Long as they made their way from Buckingham Palace to the Officers' Mess at St James's Palace.

X Within minutes news of the disaster reached senior officers and police and security teams who cordoned off the area fearing that a second bomb would be detonated later.

Twenty-two of the twenty-three guardsmen in the bus were injured as Pimlico resident Mrs Nora Fields lay dead in the road and a total of 40 were ferried to Westminster Hospital for treatment.

Among those injured were two children and one guardsman who has lost the sight of one eye and was described as being in a serious condition.

The picture in the article above right was taken by John Tyson shortly after the explosion. More news and pictures on the bomb on pages two and three.

By pure chance...

... I was a private guest of Irish Guards officers at a pre-lunch drinks party at their mess in St James's Palace that day. I had 'befriended' 1st Battalion Irish Guards professionally and had tried to support its colonel, David Webb-Carter, in making connections with their surrounding local community in Chelsea.

With me on this fateful day was a friend and colleague, Carol Allen. Conversation with our Irish Guards hosts (who included Bernard Hornung and, I think, the Hon. Jeremy Stopford and Robert Frewin) inevitably included the subject of the IRA bombing campaign in mainland Britain and the fact that the British army was among the IRA's principal targets.

Minutes later we heard a loud explosion and we dashed into the yard below to see a tall column of black smoke from far beyond the southern wing of Buckingham Palace. Immediately we knew that this came from Chelsea Barracks and that the target might have included bandsmen we had been speaking to only minutes before.

Driving at break-neck speed across Victoria we were on the scene within minutes and able to enter the exclusion zone around the nail-bombed coaches and blood-drenched young bandsmen.

This tragedy need never have occurred – see Hyde Park IRA Bomb.

As in other almost identical IRA bombings in London during this period, the building opposite the explosion – a block of flats – was covered in scaffolding from which bombers posing as builders could lay cables, have a good view and an easy means of escape. I become convinced that IRA bombings were occurring at or very near places where buildings had scaffolding on them. This was the case in IRA bomb incidents such as Knightsbridge, Harrods, Regent's Park, Chelsea Barracks, etc.

Astonishingly, however, when I contacted Scotland Yard's 'bomb squad' and the security services to suggest that there might be a link between bomb attacks and the presence of scaffolding (from which bombers posing as builders could lay cables, have a good view and an easy means of escape), my information was rejected out of hand and disregarded. The IRA's London bomb attacks continued remorselessly through the 1980s – killing and maiming hundreds. This need not have been the case. — Christopher Long

Thirty years later...

... on 27 August 2012, just over 30 years after this terrible incident, a remarkable survivor contacted me. His name is Colour Sergeant John Radley who, though suffering severe and permanent injuries, retains clear memories of that Saturday lunchtime. Together we agreed to share our memories of an event that lasted only a second or two but which transformed the lives of those injured and all those who loved and cared for them afterwards. This is John's account, followed in italics by Christopher's memories:

"Hi Christopher, This story is from my point of view. From being injured and the effect the bombing has had on my life and my family.

On October 10th 1981 I was a part of the dismounting Tower of London guard.

I was a member of – and still serve – the 1st Battalion Irish Guards and even now to this day I am fiercely loyal to my regiment and I love it with a passion.

On turning onto Ebury Bridge Road I was sitting next to the window with John Wallis beside me near the front of the coach.

I was the first one onto the coach and could have sat anywhere but as I was meeting my brother so we could go to the West Ham versus Everton game, I thought I could get off the coach quickly, meet my brother and get to the game.

Nearing the gates of Chelsea Barracks I was half asleep with my head resting in my left hand and leaning on the window frame.

There was a tremendous explosion and, as I looked around the coach, everything seemed to be in slow motion. The coach was wobbling from the shock wave and the glass and paintwork, wood splinters and six-inch nails were all flying around inside the coach.

I felt drunk and everything seemed somewhat surreal, as if I wasn't there, but I was.

I put my hand up again to my face and then something, I don't know what, hit me in the face with such force that my head immediately hit John Wallis's shoulder.

I must of thought I was dead as the very last thing I remember thinking was: "Who's going to look after Pat?" (my wife).

I didn't know it at the time, but I had sustained servere injuries and I would suffer from these injuries for the rest of my life.

After the explosion the Guard was 'medivaced' from the coach. However, on checking me lying on the seat with my face in absolute tatters, a decision was made that I had not made it and was dead.

After a while I came round and sat up. The scene was from a disaster film. There were armed Irish Guardsmen running around and taking aim; John Wallis was sitting up against the barracks wall with a first field dressing covering his eyes; and my friend Tony Kearney was barking out orders.

When Tony spotted me, and I saw him, I attempted to stand up but could not. Tony jumped on the coach and he and Guardsman Gary Davis got me to the medical centre.

As I sat in a chair awaiting the ambulance I went to sit back when I felt a sharp pain in my back. I had a six inch nail which had entered my neck, travelled down through the inside of my body and tried to exit out of my back. However, my uniform had kept the nail half in and half out of my body. As I sat back I had pushed the nail further inside my body.

It transpired that I was on the operating table for 11 hours. I had received a chunk of glass lodged in my right eye. My left ear drum was so badly damaged a new drum had to be made from membrane from inside my head. My left hand was severely damaged, the top of my nose sliced off and my left jaw smashed to pieces.

As you said in your article [see above], it could have been a lot worse. What if it had not rained? The regimental band along with the Buckingham Palace and St James Palace Detachments would have marched back to Chelsea Barracks and carnage would have ensued.

If it was meant that I would have to be injured and suffer the way I and my family did in order for all my comrades not to be hurt or injured, then so be it. I will accept it every day.

As I mentioned earlier two things saved my life. Without doubt I am only here today because of Pat and the fact that my left hand took the impact of the explosion thereby saving the rest of the left side of my face.

After my initial hospital treatment I returned to the 1st Battalion [Irish Guards]. On the battalion being posted to Germany, I was employed in the Regimental Police and was promoted. I loved this job and was told that this was where my career lay. I finished my service as the Regimental Police Colour Sergeant. I could not have been happier. I was employed in a great job with fantastic guys and I knew where my career lay.

I still had many many out-patients and operations to undergo but I accepted them all and concentrated on getting better and fit.

Then all of a sudden the rug was pulled out from under me and I was discharged – nine years after the bombing. I felt and still feel betrayed by the army and, to be honest, disappointed and let down. I do not blame the Irish Guards I blame the MOD [Ministry of Defence]. I still feel they owe me a debt.

Over the years I have found it incredibly hard to settle down and even now I cannot work for a 'normal' 9-to-5 employer.

I still have my injuries to cope with and I am reminded of the bombing every day when I look in the mirror. I have a disability rating of 90% and suffer from PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder].

However, I will not be defeated. I am an adult instructor and train the Irish Guards cadets in Ascot. I am a member of the Irish Guards Association (London Branch) and I work for Regimental Head Quarters as a welfare officer.

I run my own security company Pro-team Security Services Limited and am looking to build the business.

My wife has been brilliant and she and our three daughters have supported me and backed me one hundred per cent.

Have no doubt, they have suffered with me. They have cried with me and they have got angry for me and with me.

I do not drink nor smoke but I do try the Euro millions every Friday. If anyone deserves not to worry for the rest their life it's Pat. She seeks no thanks nor fame and is happy as long as I am happy. She deserves more and I wish with all my heart I could give it to her... One day maybe?

Lastly my memory has really suffered. I cannot recall names, places or events from the past. I live for today and for what tomorrow may bring.

Thanks Christopher. Kind regards, John."

"John – Your account of that day and its consequences is extraordinary and I congratulate you on finding the words to describe so much (too much). I'm also most touched that you were able to trust me, a complete stranger. Everything you say makes absolute sense and it's clear that you have the most amazing support system in Pat, your children, your friends and the regiment. The fact that you can never really put it all behind you and that you will live with some of the physical and mental consequences of it for the rest of your life does not surprise me either. I have reason to know a little about PTSD and I too have a wonderful wife who has had to live with the collateral damage of it...

The fact that the MOD treated you the way it did later on does not surprise me either. I remember troops (young lads) from the D&Ds parked up under canvas in a very dodgy position in a muddy valley near Vitez in Bosnia, waiting all tensed up and ready for orders from General Wilsey to break through to Sarajevo – and it was then that they got letters from the MOD telling them they were to be made redundant and none of them knew whether their wives and families would even have anywhere to live in six month's time... they were asking me because their officers didn't know! I felt ashamed to be a citizen of a country that could treat its frontline troops so appallingly... I also remember watching police officers get out of their car in Victoria Street at 3 o'clock in the morning to stamp on the fingers of homeless men sleeping in doorways and to kick them in the kidneys. I had sometimes chatted with these men and many of them were former servicemen and ex-Falklands suffering all the anguish that you and I know a bit about...

But as far as the 10th October 1981 is concerned, your description of things is remarkable. My side of the story is very banal and uninteresting but since we may well have met during 1980-81, I'll tell you briefly about my connection with the Irish Guards.

I was a journalist and a specialist in Central London affairs for the London Newspaper Group and the Evening Standard and contributed to numerous magazines, radio programmes, etc. Quite early on I decided to 'befriend' the Irish Guards because I felt that they were in a tricky position being the only British regiment unable to engage in Northern Ireland (especially since the Irish Guards was a model for how Irishmen of all backgrounds could live well together!). So, I agreed to help Col. David in his efforts to engage with London life, in and around Chelsea in particular, and to promote their interests where I could. This meant that I was a frequent visitor to Webb-Carter's office and guest at the Officers' Mess. I covered quite a number of regimental events and was even invited to the Sergeant's Mess one lunchtime (I think it was on an occasion linked to the wolf-hound, perhaps in 1980 and perhaps we met then?) and my little blue VW Beetle was very familiar to guards on the western gates!

Mainly my links were with two captains, Bernard Hornung and Jeremy Stopford. Bernard became a friend. Some of us knew a little of the inside story of the Prince of Wales's relationship with Diana Spencer during the run-up to their wedding and at that time Bernard himself was due to marry Tracy, the daughter I think of the governor of the Royal Hospital! In fact, on the day of the Charles/Diana wedding, I was invited to join Irish Guards officers in the guard-room at the southern end of the parade ground at Buckingham Palace. It's possible that you and I met on that occasion too (many of us also met up that morning on and around the parade ground at Wellington Barracks).

On the 10th October Bernard and Jeremy invited me to drinks and lunch at the mess at St James Palace – a sort of 'thank-you' gesture, I think. As you say, it was raining (I had forgotten that!) and they had asked me to bring a female colleague as a guest. We were having drinks when there was a very loud bang which I think we all knew instinctively was a bomb. We ran down to the yard below and out to where we could see a tall column of black smoke in the distance over the rooftop of the southern end of Buckingham Palace. From the position of the column we just knew it was Chelsea Barracks. You're quite right about the rain and the returning guard because that was one of the first things that occurred to Bernard (I had forgotten that too)... and I wish I could remember other things they were saying. Our reactions were amazingly fast.

Since there was a shortage of vehicles I was asked to drive somebody (Jeremy Stopford or Robert Frewin, perhaps) from the St James's mess to the scene as fast as possible and so I left my colleague Carol Allen in the Mall. I remember the streets were surprisingly clear and that I went via Hyde Park Corner and Belgrave Square. Presumably I was trying to avoid the inevitable police and ambulances further south. Perhaps I hadn't really thought which way to approach the Barracks and so naturally drove in from the north towards the Officers' Mess entrance as usual. I think I must have dropped off my passenger near the north-east corner of the barracks. Bernard had driven along the usual guardsmen's route via Ebury Street because I gathered later that he was on the scene well before me.

Amazingly no one stopped me parking my car in the street although I was severely warned off approaching the main west gate by a couple of ashen-faced lads who were pretty fired-up. The barracks were already in lock-down. Of course I couldn't see what was happening at the south gate from where I was (at the west gate) so I walked down the main road towards the corner of the street where your bus was slewed across the road opposite the block of flats with scaffolding all over it (a Peabody Estates building, perhaps).

By this stage most of the rescued men were sitting about, slumped or standing dazed with bloody faces and ripped uniforms inside or around the south gate. I knew there was nothing useful I could do. I remember feeling extremely cold and that these were young men that I "knew" in some sort of way. It was then that I met police clearing the whole area who turned me back saying they'd been told there was strong chance of a second explosion. A mixture of anger and disbelief was my only real reaction and I certainly didn't fear a second explosion although I ought to have done. Strangely however I was very worried that my car would be blown up by someone in a controlled explosion so I went back pretty fast and drove out up Sloane Street, I think.

The effect of that day was pretty terrible. The regiment seemed to turn in on itself and sought support from within 'the family' and suddenly contacts with outsiders like me were less easy. I pretty much lost touch with people I had grown to like and respect. And the following year I found myself a witness (while walking my dog in Hyde Park) to the horrendous attack on the Blue & Royals – quite obscene. The year after that, I think, it was the Harrods bomb.

The tragedy was that these last two attacks could have been prevented. The one thing that seemed obvious to me as I looked at the debris of your bus was that the device must have been triggered by someone who could see the bus arriving and slowing down in order to turn right into the south gateway. The only likely position for that person was in the Peabody Building flats opposite the gateway, probably using the scaffolding that covered the building for cover and to get in and out. It was unlikely that they would have been operating from within the barracks or from the Royal Hospital grounds across the main road so the scaffolding seemed to me to be the key factor.

But Scotland Yard and the Security Service were completely uninterested in listening to me, the police simply advising me to address my query to their Press Office! Needless to say when the Knightsbridge bomb went off there was scaffolding all over the National Farmers' Union building opposite and when the Harrods bomb went off the scaffolding was all over a house opposite called Flow House (where my cousin Kostia Rodocanachi had, at that time, a penthouse flat called The Over Flow). I'm pretty certain the Regent's Park bomb involved scaffolding too but I wasn't there and now I can't remember for certain after 30 years!

I'm really delighted you made contact. I feel honoured that you felt you could tell me what you have. In an ideal world I would love to add what you say to the page you read on my web site because it would be good for others to learn that years of love and courage can see one man and his family through so much pain and that the support of his family and friends can achieve miracles. But you may feel you'd prefer me to keep your story to myself. Anyway, think about it and let me know.

Meanwhile I do hope we'll stay in touch. If you ever find yourself in Normandy, Sarah and I would be delighted to meet you and Pat. How about a long weekend here next Spring?

Take care, John, and I send you my warmest good wishes – Christopher"

See Hyde Park IRA Bomb (1982)

See Main Index

See Print Journalism Index

See London Newspaper Group Items

© (1981-2012) Christopher A. Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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Christopher Long

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