March 1988-Wood and Howes Killings..Richard Pendlebury


The IRA lynch mob murders and one mother’s awesome act of defiance

By Richard Pendlebury



Two weeks ago the Mail published an article I  wrote, about a landmark horror of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.

It happened 25 years ago on Wednesday, March  19, 1988, when two British soldiers in plain clothes — Corporals David Wood and  Derek Howes of the Royals Corps of Signals — blundered into the funeral cortege  of an IRA man who had been killed in a loyalist attack on another paramilitary  funeral.

Initially mistaken for loyalist terrorists  and trapped in their car, they were dragged out in front of the world’s press  and viciously beaten in nearby Casement Park. Minutes later they were executed  as suspected SAS members.

Brutality: Catholic priest Father Alec Reid administers the last rights to Corporal David Howes, one of two British soldiers brutally beaten and murdered in Belfast 25 years ago Brutality: Catholic priest Father Alec Reid administers  the last rights to Corporal David Howes, one of two British soldiers brutally  beaten and murdered in Belfast 25 years ago

Although armed, they did not fire on the  civilian mob, and faced their deaths with forbearance. The killings were  compared to the Crucifixion.

My article threw new light on what the  corporals were doing in Northern Ireland — acting as support staff for  undercover surveillance soldiers — and why they were not rescued.

Catholic priest Alec Reid, who tried to save  them, had spoken for the first time about the terrible events. Also breaking a  quarter-century silence, Corporal Howes’s father asked for the Army to tell the  truth about the episode.


The piece attracted a powerful response.  One  soldier, who was on duty in Ulster that day, recalled how his unit had  begged to be allowed to go the soldiers’ aid but been refused — apparently to  avoid inflaming the situation. He said of the soldiers: ‘They were just left to  die.’

But the most unexpected and  extraordinary  reaction came from a Catholic woman who was then living in a  hard-line Republican area.

Nuala Cassidy, as I will call her, lost her  father to The Troubles, and her family was terrorised by  paramilitaries  from both sides. Her mother was a witness to the corporals’ lynching.

Desperation: Corporal Wood, with a gun in his hand, is pictured moments before he was dragged from his car by members of the crowd Desperation: Corporal Wood, with a gun in his hand, is  pictured moments before he was dragged from his car by members of the crowd

Nuala was so horrified — and moved — by her  mother’s account that in an extraordinary act of courage and defiance of  sectarian prejudice, she named her first child after the two slaughtered   soldiers.

She has now told me: ‘As an Irish Catholic, I  am so very proud of them. They taught me the meaning  of true Englishmen.  They were strong, brave, honourable men who gave their lives for those who  killed them.’

Today, in an open letter to Corporal Howes’s  father, she writes of the indelible mark left on her own life by the atrocity.

She does not want to use her real name, as  many members of her family still live in and around nationalist areas of  Belfast. There is a kind of peace now — but the scars have yet to fully  heal.

Richard  Pendlebury


Dear Mr Howes,

For 25 years I have so wanted to get in touch  with you but I was afraid to, in case contact by a stranger with my background — a working-class Roman Catholic from Belfast — would upset your family and that  of Corporal Derek Wood.

Also, if the IRA had found out, my life would  have been over. These days I don’t fear them as much. I don’t think I ever  really did, for myself. It was more being scared of how a ‘mistake’ on my part  would impact on my family. We had already been through enough, as I will  explain.

But Easter Week is a good time to reach  out.

Maybe first I should tell you a little bit  about myself. I was born in Belfast at the very start of ‘The Troubles’. I  wasn’t so very  different in age to your son David. A few years younger.  What set me apart from most of those around me was that my Catholic mother had  fallen in love with a Protestant man. I was the result, and as they weren’t  married I am the proverbial you-know-what.

IRA man: Alex Murphy being led into Belfast city Magistrates' Court. He was jailed for life for the murder alongside Harry Maguire, but the two were released under the Good Friday AgreementIRA man: Alex Murphy being led into Belfast city  Magistrates’ Court. He was jailed for life for the murder alongside Harry  Maguire, but the two were released under the Good Friday Agreement

At first we all lived together as a family in  a Catholic enclave, which was also an IRA stronghold. But my dad was considered  an outsider, given his religion, so ‘they’ came for him one night and he was  warned to stay away from the area.

He found lodgings on the [Protestant]  Shankill Road, and sometimes Mom and I stayed over with him. One summer’s day in the early  Seventies, out of  the blue he came to visit us. The week before, Mom had found out she was  pregnant again. There was talk about us all moving to the city where Dad was  from.

But Mom was horrified by his visit. She knew  he wasn’t safe, as he had been threatened to stay away ‘or else’ by the IRA as  recently as March.

In our neighbourhood, everyone was watching  everyone. And my  parents’ relationship was strained enough — through being  forced to live apart. Mom asked Dad to leave the area, promising they would talk  another time, somewhere more safe. 

Account: Father Reid spoke out about his attempts to save the two soldiers for the first time this week Account: Father Reid spoke out about his attempts to  save the two soldiers for the first time this week

The next thing she knew, my dad had been  murdered.

No one claimed responsibility for his death  but it was likely a loyalist killing, given he was found in one of the spots  where the notorious Shankill Butchers gang [thought to have killed at least 30  people] used to dump their victims. My father had been shot.

After that, my mother — who’d loved across  the sectarian divide — just wanted to get on with her life without interference.  She didn’t want to be involved with any paramilitary or political  activities.

But every week, Republicans in our area  collected house-to-house for the Prisoners’ Relief Fund. Every time an IRA ‘volunteer’ was killed, they collected more money. My mother never contributed  anything, and that drew the worst kind of attention to us.

In our neighbourhood, there was a group of  men who terrorised people and thought they were untouchable. My mom wouldn’t let  her house be used for IRA operations, and it all went from there — stone-throwing at the house and my family, following us, threatening and beating  us. As  a teenager, I got into trouble for  hitting a girl who had  threatened  my mother.

Our mistake was to try and stand up for  ourselves. I can’t in a few words describe how difficult it was, and still is.  It would take an entire book.

And so to that terrible day 25 years ago… I  will never  forget it. It was a Saturday. I was unemployed but was out  doing some work at an old people’s home. There were no buses that day and my mom  was trying to get by foot to Poleglass [a district in the west of the city],  where my Granda lived.

To do so she had to walk along the same route  as the funeral cortege — which was heading along the  Andersonstown Road to  Milltown Cemetery — but in the opposite direction. Only just before she saw the  procession did it dawn on her that something strange was going on. Men wearing  earpieces were checking under cars for bombs.

She was walking past Casement Park [a large  Gaelic games stadium on the Andersonstown Road], keeping her head down, when  suddenly she heard people screaming: ‘The Brits are in, they’re going to kill  us.’

Loyalist Michael Stone attacked people attending a funeral of IRA members at Milltown Cemetery, off the Falls Road, in a 'revenge attack' Loyalist Michael Stone attacked people attending a  funeral of IRA members at Milltown Cemetery, off the Falls Road, in a ‘revenge  attack’

Out of nowhere the car containing your son  and Corporal Wood had blundered into the cortege, and within seconds had become  trapped. Everyone was screaming and shouting. A crowd surged towards the car. I  think their initial reaction was one of pure fear, caused by the deadly attack  in Milltown Cemetery a few days earlier by the loyalist gunman Michael Stone. He  had killed three mourners at the funeral of the IRA gang shot dead on  Gibraltar.

Mom tried to get away but she became stuck  where she was. To  her everlasting regret, she saw most of what  followed. As your son’s car was  surrounded, other people near my mom were fighting off the watching press. She  recalls there was a photographer from the Belfast Telegraph. Some wee runt took  his camera off him and shoved him about.

Mom shouted over: ‘Leave him alone, it’s  Stanley Matchett from the Telegraph [a well-known figure in the local press].’ The fella was quite abusive back to her.

Then there was a single gunshot [Wood fired  once into the air in an effort to disperse the mob]. Mom tried to move off  again. She didn’t know what was going on but surely, she thought, if they were  attacking the mourners, the men in the car would have done more than fire a  warning shot. She didn’t understand it. In  the panic she found herself being moved through one of the entrance gates of  Casement Park. She remembers a woman with a baby in a pram go into the park with  her. Mom thought she could take refuge there until the situation in the  street  outside had calmed.

Sinn Fein politicians Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams pictured at the funeral that was attacked by Stone Sinn Fein politicians Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams  pictured at the funeral that was attacked by Stone

It was to prove no hiding place. Mom was only  there a short time when men from the cortege dragged in the two soldiers. The  gates to the park were then closed. The horror began.

Mom wanted to go and help your son and his  colleague but was afraid. She asked a man standing in the park if she could be  allowed to leave, and he said no. She was told not to watch.

She walked away a little but could not help  but see. When relaying it to me later that day, she was able to describe  everything in detail, from their clothes to their body movements. Mom said they  never fought — they were still the whole time.

Mom’s been talking about the attack again  this week. She said your son was brought in first and they laid him down on the  ground. He was already covered in blood.

She said she saw a big man with reddish hair  being particularly cruel. He was later identified as Henry Maguire. He seemed to  be the one in control. Maguire [later jailed for the soldiers’ murder but freed  early under the Good Friday Agreement] kept jumping on your son’s head and  kicking him.

How the murders were reported on the front page of the Mail on Sunday How the murders were reported on the front page of the  Mail on Sunday

Corporal Wood was next to be brought in, and  he seemed bigger in stature. He endured the same ordeal. They never moved, cried  or did anything. She wasn’t sure but even then she thought they must be military  with that level of discipline. 

Mom wondered why no one came to help them. In  Belfast, the police are omnipresent but on that day they were nowhere to be  seen. Why didn’t the Army helicopter that was directly overhead just lower  itself closer to distract the attackers until help arrived? All those unanswered  questions.

The attack seemed to go on for a long time  but the gang then threw the soldiers over the wall before  taking them to  some spare ground behind a shop on Penny Lane.

Mom didn’t know what happened after that,  until she saw it on TV. She left Casement Park as soon as she could, and as she  was hurrying up the road, she heard the shots — she prayed for the two men as  she walked quicker and quicker.

It took so long for the security forces to  respond. Mom had time to walk as far as the bottom of Stewartstown Road [some  two miles] before the Army and RUC Land Rovers went screaming by.

Mom got to my Granda’s, and by that stage it  was on the news.  No one knew the truth, and there was a lot of fear in the  city.

When I got home, Mom told me everything. For  weeks she kept  crying. She felt the most awful guilt and shame that she  couldn’t help.

She’d had to bury our dad. She didn’t want  someone else doing the same with their loved ones.

She talked about them over and over — how  Corporal Wood fired one shot and Corporal Howes fired none. She said that in the  middle of them being attacked, they chose to hold back — not to hurt  anyone.

They basically sacrificed their own lives for  those who killed them. During that time in the park, when they were attacked,  they were the bravest soldiers England would want. We could not forget. When my  youngest son was born a few years later, he was a little poorly and it seemed  the right thing to do to give him the middle names ‘Derek David’ as some tribute  to them.

Yes, a Catholic boy from Belfast named after  your son.

I know you and your family and Corporal  Wood’s family will always love them and be proud of them. I just wanted you to  know how much people even over here remember them after all this  time.

It never once goes away, the pain or  frustration. Every time we pass the spot, we pray. And now my  son carries  a little of them around.

We all have our theories on what they were  doing there. I know you haven’t been told the full story.

People here were terrified after the previous  attacks, and the Security Forces backed off so the community could self-police.  Some people said the soldiers panicked as the cortege approached, and that is  possible.

I think they were on some kind  of  intelligence mission when something happened to frighten them and they tried to  leave. These men weren’t rookies. Their determination to hold on to their lives  until they were shot proved their strength.  We could spend forever asking  questions. All I know is that as an Irish Catholic, I am so very proud of them.  They taught me the  meaning of true Englishmen.

They were strong, brave, honourable men who  gave their lives for those who killed them. From the bottom of our hearts, we  are  eternally grateful for their bravery, and so very proud of them. We  will never forget them.

And what of my son who bears their  names?

When he was still small I gave him up for  adoption. Our life in Belfast had become too much. I felt I had no way out. I  wanted more for him, which I could not give.

We not only had been kicked around by the ‘ra’ [IRA] but our mother couldn’t cope — and took it out on us. I didn’t want  my son to suffer the way my sister and I suffered.

I think I’m a very different person now. But  the past cannot be altered. We all bear the scars. Our sons, who have the same  names, bear them too.

Nuala Cassidy


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