Some 200 people who attended the scene of the Narrow Water bombings for a 40th anniversary service today heard that the 18 soldiers who were killed “absorbed the violence” and “died here for peace”.
Clergy, senior army officers, and relatives of those killed assembled on the picturesque shores of Carlingford Lough where a double IRA bomb attack on August 27, 1979 claimed the lives of 16 members of the Parachute Regiment and two members of the Queen’s Own Highlanders.
The attack at Narrow Water Castle resulted in the highest death toll suffered by the Army on a single day in Northern Ireland.
The first bomb was planted under hay on a flat bed lorry at the side of the road. When it exploded it killed six soldiers who were travelling past in an Army lorry.
As their colleagues arrived to help, a second device exploded some 30 minutes later, killing 12 more soldiers.
A civilian coachman for the Queen, Michael Hudson, who was bird watching on the other side of Carlingford Lough was killed by soldiers who opened fire.
The explosions happened just hours after the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten, was killed in an IRA bomb attack in Co Sligo.
Dozens of veterans of the Parachute Regiment were in the crowd in honour of their fallen colleagues, many making the trip from England back to the scene of the atrocity for the first time.
Also present were former members of the UDR and Royal Marines in blazers and berets and many other Army veterans who had travelled from right across Northern Ireland to show their support. Several rows of seats were reserved for widows and relatives of those who were killed.
The main message was brought by Rev Andrew Rawding, who had himself served as an Army officer in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and now serves as a Church of Ireland minister in Coalisland.
“This today is about peace,” he said. “Those who died here absorbed the violence of people who were trying to create instability and trying to bring a lack of peace in order to grab power.
“But they have not prevailed. And we are standing here today because they and many members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces were willing to put their lives on the line for peace.
“Whatever anyone else might want to say, they might want to marginalise us, stigmatise us, politicise our pain, politicise our actions and say we were something else – no.
“I came here for peace and we are here today for peace. And anyone who uses these deaths in a way to cause more conflict, to create more turmoil, to create more instability or a lack of peace, I am telling you now, you are not remembering them. Because they came here for peace and they died here for peace and we will go from here to build peace.”
Ben Higgins from the Queen’s Own Highlanders read the Roll of Honour for those killed from his regiment, Lt Col David Blair and Lance Cpl Victor MacLeod, while Tom Caughey 2 Battalion the Parachute Regiment read the names of his former colleagues: Cpl Nicholas Andrews, Pte Gary Barnes, WO Walter Beard, Pte Donald Blair, Pte Raymond Dunn, Pte Robert England, Maj Peter Fursman, Cpl John Giles, Lance Cpl Christopher Ireland, Pte Jeffrey Jones, Cpl Leonard Jones, Pte Robert Jones, Sgt Ian Rogers, Pte Thomas Vance, Pte Anthony Wood, and Pte Michael Woods.
Binyon’s Ode was read by Rev Dr Paul Bailie; “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old ...”, and the bugler played the Last Post, followed by several minutes silence.
Around a dozen representatives from the regiments and relatives of those killed came forward to place poppy wreaths.
General Sir Mike Jackson, former head of the Army, was among the veterans who attended the event.
As wreaths were laid, he was one of those who stepped forward to place his own.
He was one of the first to attend the scene of the atrocity in 1979 as he was serving as a member of the Paras in NI at the time.
“These men did not die in vain,” he told the News Letter yesterday.
Among others who attended were DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP MLA Jim Wells, former UUP MLA Danny Kennedy and former DUP MLA and military welfare campaigner Brenda Hale.
A former Para who knew all 16 members of his regiment who died in the bombings said people on all sides must “move on” or the past will reoccur.
The 61-year-old, who now lives on the Welsh borders, escaped the double bomb attack without any physical injuries.
‘Dave’ decided to attend the scene for the first time on the 40th anniversary as he did not think he would see the 50th.
He knew all the men who were killed and the experience has given him something of “an identity crisis”.
His great grandfather was an Irish Catholic who was killed during WWI and his widow married a Protestant in Liverpool, changing his family’s religion. “So had it not been for a German bullet I’d have been a Catholic.”
“And what they did on that day amounted to nothing really. All they did was kill a bunch of people that were here because they had volunteered to be here because that was their job – to be here in the role of peacekeepers.”
The impact “took a while to process”.
“It does create dark places and the Lord alone knows how the families of the bereaved felt. You soldier on but it does come back to haunt you. But 40 years is a long time. There is no anger now, no real sadness. I think too long has passed. It has dissipated over time and you move on, otherwise we will see reoccurrences of this, if people on all sides don’t move on.”
Meanwhile, the widow and brother of a Para who was killed said they were glad that they made the “emotional” journey back to the scene after 40 years.
Para John C Giles, 22, from Cheltenham was killed in the double IRA bombing.
“This is the first commemoration I have been able to attend and I thought it was amazing,” his brother Tony, also a former Para, told the News Letter.
“It was emotional for me and Carol, the wife of my brother. It is an honour for my brother.”
Tony was nine years older than John when his younger brother was killed.
“It did set me back, but it was important to come here to honour him and the rest of the guys that passed away, from a Parachute Regiment point of view, as we all served together.”
Carol was living in Northern Ireland in 1979 when her husband was killed.
“But this is the first time I have been back in 40 years. It was very emotional but lovely, it was really beautiful,” she said after the commemoration service against the scenic backdrop of Carlingford Lough.
It was hard to believe 40 years have passed since the bombings, she added.
“He has missed all his grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
The couple already had three children when John died.
Forty years on they also have six grandchildren and a great-grandson.
The couple’s son and daughter also attended the event.
Carol laughed when she remembered the good times with her husband
“He was comical. He could drive you mad, but he was gorgeous – both in and out of uniform.”