not a member? click here to sign up
The Firing Ceased, There Were White Handkerchiefs. Then A Moment Later, People Started Screaming...
The evidence of two British soldiers about the shooting of unarmed civilians, heard in public for the first time, but largely overlooked in coverage of the Saville inquiry, is a direct challenge to the “official” line on bloody sunday which has held for more than 30 years.
Eamonn McCann, 25 Sep 2003
Evidence from two British soldiers to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry has inflicted potentially serious damage on the case being put forward by the British Army. The evidence has largely been overlooked in coverage of the Inquiry.
Soldier 134, a gunner with the 22nd Light Air Defence regiment, testified to the Inquiry under Lord Saville at the Central Hall, Westminster, on September 10. Soldier 1237, a member of Support Company of the First Parachute Battalion, followed him on the witness stand six days later.
The testimony of the pair came during a period when the Inquiry was considering various applications relating to anonymity from Paddy Ward, a former Derry IRA man who claims that Martin McGuinness helped distribute nail-bombs to young Provos on the morning of the massacre; and when the statement of a soldier code-named “L” was published, claiming that Bishop Edward Daly had hidden two rifles under his clothes on the day and that soldiers had been out to kill Bernadette McAliskey and to capture McGuinness “dead or alive.” The headline treatment given, naturally, to these stories overshadowed coverage of 134 and 1237. But what the two soldiers had to say was more significant for the truth about Bloody Sunday than the colourful details of the McGuinness/McAliskey/ Daly scenarios.
Soldier 134, an 18-year-old on Bloody Sunday, explained that he had been stationed in an attic in a derelict building overlooking the Bogside, from where he had a panoramic view of much of the area where the shooting took place. He said that at no point had he seen any civilian with a gun. He described watching as a number of civilians were hit by soldiers’ gunfire and fell.
He described one killing: “I saw a man running along and parallel to the south side of Block B of the Rossville Flats....The man was not sprinting, he was just jogging....He did not appear to be carrying a weapon in his hands and I did not see a weapon anywhere else on him. The next thing I saw was a soldier from the Parachute Regiment...He knelt down by a lampost. The paratrooper I was watching definitely fired because I heard a shot and could see the smoke coming from the barrel of his gun....I looked back towards the man in the long coat. He had fallen onto the floor face down....”
In the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, Soldier 134 had given essentially the same information to the Royal Military Police (RMP). He described to Saville how, after signing his RMP statement, he had been called to a meeting to discuss his evidence at the British Army’s headquarters at Lisburn. This meeting was attended by Lt. Col. Colin Overbury, the second in command of the British Army’s legal services department, who had been sent from London to coordinate the army case at the first Bloody Sunday Inquiry under Lord Chief Justice Widgery. He was then interviewed by two of Widgery’s officials, John Heritage and a Mr. MacMahon. But he was never called to testify to Widgery.
Asked by barrister Arthur Harvey representing a number of the Bloody Sunday families: “Were you ever given any explanation as to why you were not called to give evidence at the Widgery Tribunal?” 134 replied: “None whatsoever, sir.” His testimony to Saville, more than 31 years later, was the first occasion on which his account of what he saw has been set out in public. In all, he witnessed four civilians shot. None of them, as far as he could see, was armed.
Paratrooper 1237, who’d just turned 21 at the time, was alongside fellow members of the anti-tank platoon of Support Company during shooting around a barricade in Rossville Street, where four men were killed. He described his unit tumbling from their armoured personnel carriers onto Rossville Street and facing an angry crowd hurling insults and missiles.
“I was standing holding my rifle in the ready position...I did not fire any shots at this stage or at any stage during the course of the day. I was scanning all the surrounding buildings...” He told that “within seconds” of his unit debussing, “They opened fire at the crowd with their SLRs (self-loading rifles). I imagine about 30-40 (possibly more) shots were fired intermittently over a period of a few seconds although it seemed to last an eternity. These were not random shots. They were very purposeful aimed shots. I could see that the lads were tracking their rifles from side to side as if aiming at a particular target and then firing.” He recalled six to eight members of his platoon standing “in a line, and some or all of them firing.”
1237 went on that he did not see any civilians with guns, nor was he aware of any incoming shots: this didn’t mean, he pointed out, that there were no civilian gunmen or incoming shots. Asked by Dilal Rawat for the Tribunal, “Could you explain why you could not see any of the targets at whom your colleagues were aiming?” the paratrooper replied: “No, sir.”
“After the firing had ceased,” he continued, “the crowd was still there. They were no longer threatening us. They had been subdued. I remember quite clearly that it was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. At the same time, I remember this vision of a crowd of about 500 or 600 people all waving white hankies above their heads which gave the impression of the crowd suddenly becoming a lot bigger. All I could see in front of me, really, was white hankies. Then, a moment later, people started screaming. There were screams in general, not just directed at us. People were screaming, ‘Get help’, or ‘You shot them’...”
Seamus Treacy, for the families, asked: “You were obviously an eye-witness to what occurred on the ground, and indeed, on your own evidence, were in the thick of it: is that not right?”
A: “Yes, sir.”
Q: “Were you asked to make a statement?”
A: “No, sir.”
Q: “Do you know why you were not asked to make a statement?”
A: “No, sir.”
Q: “Were you asked to attend the Widgery Inquiry?”
A: “No, sir.”
Q: “Do you know why you were not asked?”
A: “No, sir.”
Q: “Were you surprised that you were not asked to make a statement or to attend the Inquiry?”
A: “Yes, sir.”
Q: “Was that because you realised that you were an important witness to the events which had unfolded in Rossville Street?”
A: “I would have thought that they would have interviewed everybody that was in the immediate area.”
September 16th this year was the first occasion on which 1237 has been able to tell his story in public.
Both 134 and 1237 gave lengthy evidence, only a small proportion of which has been touched on here. Some other details of their testimony are strongly contested by the families. The pair are among a small number of British soldiers whose account of Bloody Sunday directly contradicts the version of events of the vast majority of their colleagues which has formed the “official” British line for more than 30 years. They may prove more significant witnesses than the sparse coverage of their evidence may have suggested.