Thirty years on: corporals offered '˜little or no resistance' as they were driven to their deaths
Three days after Michael Stone's murderous gun and grenade attack on mourners at an IRA burial in Belfast, the sheer barbarity witnessed in the slaying of two Army corporals at a subsequent funeral would produce some of the most distressing images of the entire Troubles.
In the years that followed, some hardened republicans would admit that brutal beating and summary execution of Derek Howes and David Wood could not be justified, however, many more expressed support for those responsible – claiming the fact that the plain-clothed soldiers were armed made the murders entirely justifiable.
Having inadvertently strayed into the path of the IRA funeral cortege of Milltown victim Kevin Brady on March 19, 1988, the two Royal Signals’ corporals showed remarkable restraint by not killing civilians in an attempt to save their own lives.
Television cameras and press photographers covering the Brady funeral were on hand to record the horrific drama that unfolded as the soldiers’ Volkswagen car suddenly appeared beside the mourners on the Andersonstown Road before attempting a desperate manoeuvre to escape down a side street.
Tensions were running high following the Milltown attack and the angry crowd quickly surrounded the car forcing it to a halt.
Television camera zoomed in as the two men inside the car brandished their pistols in an effort to disperse the large number of people now frantically trying to smash their way into the vehicle.
When it became obvious that occupants were at the mercy of the mob, Derek Wood produced his semi-automatic pistol, learned out of the window and fired a single warning shot in the air, momentarily causing their attackers to pull back.
However, the crowd quickly regrouped and resumed their assault. Harrowing footage of the incident shows the pair being pulled from the car, beaten to the ground and disarmed. As they were being stripped of their clothing, documents recovered from their pockets identified the men as serving soldiers.
Seemingly resigned to their fate, the two corporals appeared to offer little or no resistance as they were driven to the nearby Casement Park GAA ground/Penny Lane area where they were again viciously assaulted before being shot dead.
Two members of the IRA received life sentences for the murders, with several others convicted on lesser charges.
At the murder trial of Alex Murphy and Harry Maguire, Sir Brian Hutton, sentencing, said: “All murders are brutal, but the murders of Corporal Howes and Corporal Wood were particularly savage and vicious.”
According to newspaper reports from the time, at a Sunday service the following day parish priest and former Maze prison chaplain Fr Tom Toner told his Andersonstown congregation many of them had witnessed “savagery”.
“We bring to the altar our shame, our fear and any guilt we feel for what was done in our parish,” he said.
“We bring too, the hatred, anger and rage that caused people – Catholic people – to behave as they did.”
Fr Toner added: “We had foul murders committed in our parish yesterday.”
At a separate service, Catholic bishop Cahal Daly said: “For a ghastly half-hour the mask slipped. The real face of IRA violence was shown.”
Despite the widespread revulsion at the brutal murder of the two corporals, former IRA prisoner-turned author and academic Anthony McIntyre remains adamant the deaths were a “fair action” against armed soldiers, and “no more brutal than the attack by the SAS on the people in Gibraltar”.
Speaking to the News Letter ahead of the 30th anniversary, Mr McIntyre said: “Emotions were running high at the time and you can see the way the crowd attacked...republicans regarded them as fair game.”
• Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes were members of the Royal Corps of Signals said to have made a “tragic mistake” on March 19, 1988, driving into the middle of an IRA funeral.
Wood was a 24-year-old from Carshalton in Surrey, while Howes, 23, was from Northampton.
The pair were travelling in an unmarked car and dressed in civilian clothes.
It has been widely reported that they were in the area out of curiosity rather than having any military purpose.
Their main role of their regiment, in Northern Ireland and wherever the Army deploys, is to ensure the troops have secure and effective communication systems. As such, soldiers from the Royal Signals are often attached to other regiments to provide that expertise.
Responding to fresh speculation around the role of the two corporals on the day of the attack, one former soldier posted a message on an Army veterans web forum in an effort to counter some “incorrect conclusions” that the pair were engaged in “military tourism”.
“I was a junior NCO on duty in a Lisburn ops room that day. The incident was a tragic mistake on the part of the 2 Royal Sigs lads who accidentally strayed into an OOB (out of bounds) area,” he said.
“Many units moved people, equipment and documents around the province using civilian vehicles with armed soldiers in civvies.
“I can’t comment on why green (military) callsigns didn’t react sooner. However, given that the area was OOB to all callsigns that day, I suggest that the nearest help was some distance away.”