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20.3.1972: Lower Donegall Street Bombing, Belfast

  • Posted on 17 Mar 2024
  • 17 min read

Editorial Foreword

Four weeks after the Aldershot bombing in February 1972, the Provisional IRA set off a 200 lbs car bomb in the centre of Belfast towards midday on Monday, 20.3.1972 with the obvious aim of killing and maiming as many office workers, shoppers and school children as possible.

PIRA has always claimed to have given ample warning but the initial warning calls gave wrong information about the car bomb’s real position. The explosion killed seven people and wounded 148, some them very gravely. Was the incorrect location given by the PIRA callers intended to gull the security forces into evacuating civilians into the real kill zone of the bomb?

Geoff Butler, who had survived the Aldershot bombing a month before, was on the scene as an eighteen year-old 2 PARA soldier.

Geoff Butler Remembers

Geoff Butler near Crossmaglen in 1973

This was my first major incident in Belfast. I was just eighteen. I was also a lucky survivor of the Aldershot bombing in very close proximity [Editor’s note: Ptes Geoff Butler and Ian Marshall risked their lives in the aftermath of the Aldershot bombing but have never been officially rewarded for it].

To counter the usual IRA hate campaign against The Parachute Regiment this month and to discredit the IRA and their sympathisers, I have put together this short article about the Donegall Street bombing in March 1972. Even though fifty-two years have passed since the event, these lies are still spread to poison young minds, and our Government does nothing to counter them.

I was the radio operator that day with a foot patrol. Like Aldershot, it was another lucky escape for me because the police officers I was with a few minutes before got killed. Along with other soldiers from 1 and 2 PARA, we raced to the scene and risked our own lives rescuing others.

That morning — Monday, March 20th 1972, at 11.45 am, a local carpet dealer received a telephone call warning that a bomb would explode in Belfast city centre’s Church Street, which was crowded with shoppers, office workers on lunch breaks, and schoolchildren. 

My section was already out on patrol in the city centre through which Church Street and Lower Donegall Street run. Having been out for four hours already, we were returning to base for lunch. As the patrol’s radio operator, I received the message saying that we had to evacuate Church Street due to a bomb alert.

My patrol from D Company 2 PARA and the RUC officers already on the ground immediately began to evacuate people from Church Street into nearby Lower Donegall Street and North Street. This was at great risk to ourselves, knowing the bomb could explode at any time, but we ran to the scene in a few minutes as we were in North Street. Other units of 2 PARA and 1 PARA were dispatched to the area.

We arrived at the corner of Church Street and Lower Donegall Street, clearing Church Street of people as we went. The second warning call to the Irish News daily newspaper seven minutes after the first also gave Church Street as the location of the device. We spoke with a couple of Royal Ulster Constabulary officers, who then walked off down Lower Donegall Street.

Then a final call came at 11.55 am to The News Letter advising that the bomb was instead placed outside their offices in Lower Donegall Street, where the crowds were being sent. The street was full of evacuated civilians. One detail I clearly recall was the dustbin men carrying on working. At 11.58 am, the bomb exploded, killing seven people and wounding 148.

Newspaper staff inside the building, at at 55-59 Lower Donegall Street, had been told by the caller that they had fifteen minutes in which to leave the building, but this was untrue and they never had a chance to evacuate. The bomb went off less than three minutes after the call. This third warning call came too late for the security forces to clear Lower Donegall Street.

Ernest McAllister

The two RUC men we had been talking to, Ernest McAllister (Protestant, 31) and Bernard Malachy O’Neill (Catholic, 36), who were examining the Cortina were blown to pieces. Just a few minutes before, they had been helping our patrol to move people out of Church Street. We’d been speaking with them. They were both married, each with two children.

Bernard O’Neill

The bomb consisted of 200 pounds of gelignite in a green Ford Cortina. The explosion sent a fireball rolling down the street. The blast wave ripped into the crowds of people who had run into Donegall Street for safety, tossing them in all directions and killing another four men outright.

Three of the dead were Corporation dustbin men: Ernest Dougan (39), James Macklin (30) and Samuel Trainor (39). The fourth was Sydney Bell (65). Sam Trainor was also an off-duty Ulster Defence Regiment soldier. Henry Millar (79) was seriously wounded and would die in hospital on April 5th. Most of the dead were hard to identify.

Many of the wounded were hit by flying glass, wooden splinters and falling masonry. People lost one or both eyes. Body parts littered the scene and emergency workers would recover severed limbs from buildings whose fronts had been blown in. All of the surrounding buildings sustained heavy damage. Donegall Street was full of dazed, bleeding women and schoolgirls wandering around.

The carnage in Lower Donegall Street after the blast

Screaming could be heard from ambulances carrying the wounded away to hospital. Doctors and medical teams were performing emergency surgery, including amputations, at the scene. It was the most horrible thing that I, just eighteen years old, had seen. On top of that, I had the radio set and heard many messages of horror and calls for ambulances. This still haunts me today.  

All throughout, however, soldiers from 1 and 2 PARA were helping where they could, knowing that the Provisional IRA could set off a second bomb at any time. These were the same Paras who, according to the republican movement and some politicians north and south of the Irish border and at home in Britain, hated the people of Ulster, especially if they were Catholics. Yet here they were, saving lives and comforting people without any discrimination.

There were many scenes like the one photographed by the Associated Press photo-reporter Derek Brind of paratroopers tending to wounded Czechoslovak art student Blanka Sochor (22), who had fled her homeland in 1969 after the Prague Spring rebellion the previous year to study in Belfast.

British Paras tend to art student Blanka Sochor — © Derek Brind

Miss Sorchor spent a year in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast after doctors agreed not to amputate her legs. Of the two Paras who comforted her, she told the BBC in 2019: “They were just talking to me, holding my hand, putting pressure on the wounds, which were mainly on my leg. Just being there for me, even though they didn’t know if there were snipers or other bombs about to explode. People were saying to run away, but they didn’t — they basically risked their lives for mine.”.

It was later established that the PIRA had been unable to park in Church Street and had instead left the bomb in Lower Donegall Street. The bomb exploded less than three minutes after the third, correct warning call. The record shows that the first warning calls unequivocally gave Church Street as the location.

This did not stop the Provisional IRA and its accomplices from saying that the Paras had deliberately shepherded people towards the car bomb, one of the many anti-Parachute Regiment slurs repeated to this day by hard-line republicans and their fellow travellers on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Seamus Twomey was the PIRA Belfast Brigade commander in March 1972

Soldiers of The Parachute Regiment helped save many Catholic and Protestant lives during The Troubles. So did the soldiers of other regiments sent to Ulster to keep the peace. My recollections here represent just a few hours of the many years of The Troubles.

Although many members of the Provisional IRA were rounded up by police in the wake of the Lower Donegall Street atrocity, none of the suspected bombers was ever charged in connection with the bombing. And nor shall they ever be charged because those still living have all been pardoned.

Over fifty years later, my comrades and I watch dumbfounded as elderly British veterans continue to be prosecuted over events that took place decades ago in Northern Ireland whilst the terrorists responsible for all kinds of violent and murderous crimes get free passes.

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