[Special thanks to Colin ‘Taff’ Edwards, Geoff Butler and others who sent in many of the photographs used in this article.]
Fifty years to the day after the car-bombing by the IRA of the 16th Parachute Brigade Headquarters’ Officers Mess, a new memorial honouring those who were killed was unveiled on February 22nd 2022 on the site of the old Montgomery Lines in Aldershot. the memorial it replaced had long been seen by many as inadequate.
Some critics went as far as saying that it was disrespectful to the memory of the victims, including the single serviceman amongst the otherwise civilian victims. An IRA spokesman in Dublin told the press after the atrocity: “Any civilian casualties would be very much regretted as our target was the officers responsible for the Derry outrages.”.
The ceremony, which was attended by various important guests, including HM Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire Nigel Atkinson Esq, Regimental Lieutenant Colonel The Parachute Regiment Liam Cradden MBE and, of course, relatives of the dead, was the culmination of years of work by survivors Geoff Butler and Tommy Simpson.
Tommy Simpson, well known for his tireless work for the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces Memorial Fund and other commemorative initiatives, and Geoff Butler were responsible for the unofficial annual ceremony first held twenty years ago before forming the Aldershot Bomb Memorial Group, which has a Facebook page.
The ABMG gathered many supporters, including the Aldershot Branch of the Parachute Regimental Association and former paratrooper and Landlord of The Trafalgar, Richard Stacey, who runs the pub as a more interactive kind of memorial to The Parachute Regiment’s long association with Aldershot, its garrison town from 1940 to 2003.
Tommy Simpson told Hermes: “The area is going to be developed by Grainger Plc in Aldershot over the next couple of years, with a Memorial Garden around the Memorial so the site must remain under lock and key during that time, for security and safety reasons. However, anyone wishing to visit the Memorial can do so by appointment.”. [Contact details at the end of the article –– Editor]
The Aldershot Bomb, as it is generally known, was the Irish Republican Army’s first such mission on the British mainland during the 1969-1997 Troubles, the euphemism adopted to minimise in the minds of the general public in Britain and elsewhere an armed conflict that amounted, in effect, to a civil war on British soil.
Open plan and fenceless, HQ 16 Para Bde was an easy target. The terrorists were able to drive the Cortina containing a time bomb consisting of 280 lbs or 130 kg of gelignite into the complex at around 05:30 hours on February 22nd 1972 and park it outside the Officers Mess in Pennefather’s Road. The bomb expoloded at lunchtime, destroying the Officers Mess and badly damaging a number of surrounding buildings.
Tommy Simpson, then a Corporal in 3 PARA, was sitting in his billet in Bruneval Barracks when the IRA car bomb exploded: “I saw the window bow inwards before it shattered. Then I heard the explosion. It was very strange, seeing the glass distort like that. I’ve never forgotten it.”.
Four facets of the seven-sided memorial honour Thelma Bosley, Margaret Grant, Jean Lunn and Jill Mansfield, who worked as cleaning ladies at the Officers Mess. The Official IRA also succeeded in killing Sheri Munton, who was a waitress, and John Hasler, who was the gardener; their names each occupy two more facets.
The seventh side remembers Padre Captain Gerard Weston MBE, a Liverpool-born Roman Catholic priest who was the Padre of HQ 16 Para Bde. Fr Gerry Weston had worked in some tough areas of his home town before accepting an Army chaplaincy in 29th Armoured Brigade in 1967.
The earlier memorial, consisting of an engraved plaque on a plinth, made no mention of Fr Gerry Weston’s military status or his MBE. Many Parachute Regiment veterans, including survivors of the blast, believe this was due to a reluctance to admit publicly that the terrorists had managed to kill a paratrooper.
Geoff Butler was one of those survivors. Then a seventeen year-old Parachute Regiment soldier detailed to work in the officers mess complex that day, he recalls: “I had just left the 2 PARA Officers Mess to go for my lunch. I had passed Captain Tom Foster coming into the mess on my way out. I saw Father Weston drive by and park his car just before the bomb went off.
“We were twenty yards from the mess and in the open when the car bomb went off without warning. Ian Marshall was just in front of me. We were both blown off our feet by the blast, which went in all directions. It broke almost every window in the Garrison lines and as far away as Ash and Aldershot Town.”.
To his lasting surprise, Geoff Butler was unharmed. He rushed back into the2 PARA Officers Mess where Captain Foster was trapped under rubble in the gentleman’s toilets: “I got Tom out of the Gents and out of the building alone. Ian had run to find a medic. He flagged down a car to get Tom to hospital. We were good mates, me and Ian, having served in Junior Para in 1970 together
“After getting Tom to casevaced to hospital with the medic.”, continued Geoff Butler, “We ran to the Brigade mess and saw the tragic scene. We were unable to save anyone else. It had become a recovery operation not a rescue mission.
“We got another telling-off from Tom before we left him with the medic for risking our lives by going into a bombed-out building that might contain another bomb, a favourite IRA trick. Ian and I went into the mess to help the others. There was nothing to be done for them. All of the windows had been blown in by the blast from the car bomb. It was horrific.”.
Ian Marshall said: “I thought Captain Foster was a goner, to be honest. But he survived in the end. He was still able to try to stop us from going back into the building. I suppose there could have been another explosive device but you can’t think about that when there might be other survivors. You have to go in. But everyone was dead. That was very clear to me and Geoff.
“Any Tom, Dick or Harry could wander in and out of the complex without being challenged because of the lack of any kind of security barrier. The IRA could have mined every building in Brigade Headquarters at their leisure. There was no need for them to bother with a car bomb. It’s amazing that they never came back for another go.”.
The IRA or, more precisely, the Official IRA claimed to have killed at least a dozen Parachute Brigade officers and added that their action demonstrated the “capacity of the IRA to strike back at the very hearts of those who impose a reign of terror on the Irish people.”.
The Dublin police moved fast, arresting several senior Official IRA members, including its Marxist Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding and OIRA volunteer Tony Heffernan, who was also the joint General Secretary of Sinn Féin.
Jenkinson had fled to Dublin to find OIRA Adjutant-General Seamus Costello, who had ordered the attack without the approval of his superiors. However, Costello was never arrested in connection with the Aldershot Bomb.
Jenkinson returned to London where he was arrested with two accomplices, Michael Duigan and Finbar Kissane. Jenkinson, Duigan and Kissane had been traced by the police through the engine number of the Ford Cortina transformed into a car bomb. The three Official IRA volunteers were said to have been ordered to steal a car for the bombing but had used a fake driving licence to hire the Cortina.
Jenkinson was given a life sentence for the bombing in November 1972. The trial judge recommended that he serve no less than thirty years. Duigan and Kissane, convicted of complicity, received short prison sentences of, respectively, two-and-a-half and two years.
The Aldershot Bomb proved something of an own goal for the Official IRA, as Geoff Butler points out: “This bombing had big implications for the Official IRA. Many members resigned as they were opposed to killing. They were after control of Stormont [Editorial note: the Parliament of Northern Ireland 1921-1972].
“As well as those who were killed, nineteen other people were wounded by the explosion. The blast went in all directions. It broke windows as far away as Ash, over a mile away. Some of the children of those killed ended up in council care and orphanages while others were adopted by relatives.”.
After the death of divorcee Mary Thelma Bosley, known to everyone as Thelma Bosley, her three younger sons were split up and placed in separate children’s homes. The eldest, aged twenty-two, was serving in The Parachute Regiment. In 1995, one of the Bosley brothers applied to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board and was awarded £1,500.
Three of Thelma Bosley’s sons, Bryan, Dave and Karl, would serve in The Parachute Regiment. Their brother John Bosley stated: “I have personally experienced the chaos of the four lives left behind. For reasons those who know me know, I have the utmost respect for The Parachute Regiment but I feel that it should be remembered as a civilian massacre.
“Yes, it took place within MOD confines but only one of the dead was a serving individual. I understand that a sum running into hundreds of thousands was raised. This was in 1972. And most of it gradually disappeared. There were seven fatalities so the number of bereaved due any payment or award was relatively small.
“I challenge anyone in places other than Aldershot to name IRA bombings from the 1971-2010 period. They will cite Birmingham, Brighton, Hyde Park, Manchester or Canary Wharf but never Aldershot. This is because of the efforts of the Establishment to erase this event from the records.
“People lobbed rocks, people got shot. Easy. People not happy. People want revenge, people get their revenge on single mothers, young married women, a semi-retired gardener and a priest. The state failed to put any security measures in place despite receiving intel that a reprisal was coming.
“The Para base was left open as normal. Embarrassment all round so they all decide to pretend it never took place. Those blown to pieces as a direct result of Bloody Sunday got a plinth with a brass plaque in a disused military camp.
“There was a £900,000 inquiry into Bloody Sunday, the catalyst for this bomb attack. I could have saved everyone the money. It’s easy: lob rocks and paving slabs at Paras. Paras will hit back. It is what they, above all other military units, are trained to do.
“Instead of giving the funds raised to the bereaved, the relatives were told to shut up and fuck off. The legal profession made a massive fortune, the MOD fools kept their positions, titles and incomes and the world kept turning. The Lord Mayor’s Fund awarded me a school uniform and a bicycle for the loss of my mother at the age of six.
Geoff Butler said: “There were fences around barracks in Northern Ireland but years after the Aldershot Bomb, we still had no fences. There was no excuse for this. It showed MOD disregard for the safety of its soldiers. It was negligence of the highest degree. We were lucky that the IRA didn’t attack again.
“The press often describe the Old Bailey attack as the first IRA bomb on the mainland. Aldershot is conveniently forgotten, swept under the carpet. Aldershot was also the first bombing with no warning given. Deliberately. They didn’t care who they killed. As I said, they killed six working class people and a highly respected Catholic priest.”.
After serving in Aden, Fr Gerard Weston volunteered for P-Company. In 1971, Fr Weston served for four months as 2 PARA’s Chaplain in Ulster, detached from the Royal Army Chaplain’s Department. His CO, later General Sir Geoffrey Howlett KBE MC, recalled: “He was a marvellous chaplain. He often went into the streets alone and unarmed, trying to do his bit to improve relations with the local community.”.
Fr Gerry Weston’s attempts to win fellow Catholic hearts and minds in Belfast’s tough Turf Lodge and Ballymurphy districts earned him death threats but also brought him an MBE, which was gazetted on February 15th 1972, just a week before he was blown up. Fr Weston was due to return to Ulster at the time of his death.
“The Padre was sent back to Aldershot at the request of the IRA who told the CO, Lieutenant Colonel Howlett.”, recalls Geoff Butler. “They didn’t want to accidentally kill a priest as he walked around Catholic areas with his Red Beret on, preaching, alone. How ironic that he arrived back and was killed.
“They were trying to get British Workers on their side. They had just killed six British workers and a Roman Catholic priest. This destroyed their credibility in terms of the Civil Rights movement in Ulster. They were now seen as no better than the hotheads who had formed the Provisional IRA. The Official IRA was widely condemned in Southern Ireland.”.
Joe McCann and Seamus Costello were the senior OIRA officers who planned the Aldershot operation without permission from the OIRA leadership. McCann was shot dead in April 1972 by Parachute Regiment soldiers manning a nearby roadblock in Belfast as he ran from Royal Ulster Constabulary officers attempting to arrest him.
Much was made of the fact that McCann was unarmed when he was stopped. Half a century later, in two elderly Parachute Regiment veterans involved in McCann’s death were brought to Belfast and tried for murder. The trial judge, Mr Justice O’Hara, ruled the accused’s 1972 statements inadmissible and acquitted them.
During the 2021 trial, it emerged that Joe McCann had killed at least fifteen British soldiers and was also involved in kidnapping and torturing civilians, all of which was –– allegedly –– against the Official IRA policy of the day.
A former OIRA member recalled: “Joe McCann was respected but seen as completely out of control. He’d been ordered to report to the Army Council in Dublin and lie low there for his own safety. He was unarmed when he was shot but that was because his personal weapon had been confiscated from him. We’d probably have ended up shooting him ourselves.”.
Eventually court-martialled and expelled by the Official IRA in 1974, OIRA Adjutant-General and senior Sinn Féin official Seamus Costello then formed the Irish National Liberation Army, widely seen as the most violent of the republican terror groups of The Troubles. Costello was shot in his car in Dublin in 1977. His killing is generally believed to have been an OIRA execution.
Various IRA and Sinn Féin commentators have contended that Noel Jenkinson, who died in HMP Leicester of a heart attack in 1976, was framed by London’s Metropolitan Police and that he was murdered in prison.
This narrative ignores the fact that several completed bombs were found in Jenkinson’s London home. Another popular Sinn Féin-IRA narrative is that Jenkinson was punished more for his extreme leftist activities than his alleged membership of the IRA. Jenkinson was certainly a far left extremist: the British Communist Party had expelled him in 1964 because of his radical Stalinism and Maoism.
Born in 1929 to a Protestant family in the Southern Irish county of Meath, Jenkinson had emigrated from Dublin to England in 1958, where he was employed as a bus conductor by London Transport. He was for a time the Secretary of the Highgate Branch of the Transport and General Workers Union. At some point, Jenkinson had joined the IRA although elements within the Official IRA, as the movement dubbed itself as a riposte to the formation in 1969 of the Provisional IRA, and Sinn Féin have sometimes denied that he was an IRA volunteer.
However, the June 1975 issue of the United Irishman journal, published by Sinn Féin, contained a letter from one Noel Jenkinson, inmate of HMP Parkhurst, crediting him as an Official IRA volunteer. Shortly before his transfer to HMP Leicester from HMP Wormwood Scrubs in London, Jenkinson wrote an open letter supporting the Provisional IRA. In other words, Noel Jenkinson left the OIRA and joined the PIRA. Today, a Sinn Féin Facebook page names Jenkinson as a member listed on Sinn Féin’s Roll of Honour, maintains his innocence of the Aldershot bombing and implies that he was murdered in prison.
No account of the Aldershot bombing would be complete without mentioning former Women’s Royal Army Corps member Judith Ward, who spent eighteen years in prison after being convicted in connection with the Manchester bombing, also known as the M62 Coach Bombing.
Ward was given twelve life sentences with a recommendation that she serve thirty years. Arrested in February 1974 whilst sleeping on the streets in Liverpool, the Mancunian ex-WRAC driver was wanted in connection with the Euston bombing in London and told police interrogators during questioning to involvement in the M62 and the Aldershot bombings.
During her successful appeal, it was alleged that the prosecution had concealed evidence of Ward’s psychotic state from defence counsel. Campaigning human rights lawyer Gareth Pierce described Ward as having been wrongfully convicted and then “buried alive” in the British penal system until her release in May 1992.
In Dundalk, Ward is remembered by some locals as an IRA groupie. The IRA is said to have regarded her as unreliable but, as we have seen in other cases like those of Seamus Costello, Joe McCann and Noel Jenkinson, unreliability does not seem to have been a disqualifying factor when recruiting –– and promoting –– members.
Judith Ward is known to have joined Sinn Féin and photographs of Ward in IRA uniform were produced in court. Was Ward really involved in these atrocities or was she the mentally ill fantasist the IRA and her defence lawyers claimed her to be?
Geoff Butler remembers Ward from her time at the Aldershot Garrison signals centre: “I met her in the Aldershot pubs, the barracks and the swimming baths. She was English and went to Dundalk as a stable girl. When she returned to England in 1970, she joined the WRAC.
“She trained at Guildford and was posted to Aldershot as a duty driver at the signals centre, delivering confidential signals around the garrison. She knew all the barracks layouts and routines and many of us knew her. Then she went Absent Without Leave. During her time AWOL, she used to ring her former colleagues and brag about the IRA and her involvement.”.
Perhaps, in soldiers’ parlance, she was a deranged ‘Walt’, exploited by an Establishment in need of scapegoats. Perhaps she was useful to republican terrorists who, like their unionist counterparts, had no moral qualms about employing nutters, criminals and assorted lowlife to do some of their dirty work, like the dealers selling drugs in pubs in Ulster and mainland Britain to fill paramilitary coffers.
The Aldershot Bomb led to the declaration by the Official IRA of a ceasefire although the ‘Red IRA’ as some PIRA critics called it, would subsequently murder a further seven British soldiers between May 1972 and mid-1975, as well as an unknown number of civilians. To this day, the allegedly disbanded organisation is said to maintain numerous arms caches.
From 1969 to 1977 and the execution of Seamus Costello, the Official IRA is believed to have killed between fifty and sixty people of whom almost half were civilians, like six of the victims of the Aldershot Bomb. Unlike his brother officer Gerry Weston, Tom Foster survived and died aged eighty-nine just a few weeks before the unveiling of the new memorial.
Geoff Butler said: “Tom was in hospital within fifteen minutes of the bomb, saving his life. Ian Marshall and I had given Tom and his family forty-nine years together. Doing that was better than getting a medal. Bravery never comes into it; you never leave a wounded comrade on the battlefield, no matter what the risk.”.
Neither Geoff Butler nor Ian Marshall received any form of official recognition for risking their lives to save lives that day by going back into a bombed-out building that might either have contained a second bomb or collapsed on top of them. They did not want medals then and they still do not want medals. However, Fr Gerry Weston has finally been recognised as a decorated military padre on this long overdue memorial.
[Those wishing to visit the memorial should contact Lucy Crockford at Grainger PLC by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone on 01252 351966. Alternative contacts are Aldershot PRA Chairman Iain Rodgers at email@example.com or Aldershot PRA Secretary Stuart McLaren at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Since the publication of this article, former 2 PARA officer Richard Gittings has contacted us with the following remarks for inclusion: “There were several members in the mess at the time, We were fortunate to be in the bar at the back of the mess; had we been in the dining room matters might have been very different, but we all walked out!
“Mostly we were just covered in dust, but F/O John Cole RAF PJI –– stood next to me –– was spattered with glass fragments. He was having bits that worked to the surface removed years later.
“I thought Gerry Weston was coming to see me. He had joined me on jungle training in Kenya only a couple if weeks before, insisting on taking a turn on night sentry duty on the GMPG and asking me: ‘When can I fire!’ He was a great character; I believe at one time a professional football goalie!”.