Thursday 19 March 2020


The Provisional IRA shot dead two British soldiers who had inexplicably interrupted an IRA funeral in west Belfast.  The incident became known as the 'Corporals Killings' and was caught on film by journalists at the scene and an army surveillance helicopter.  The murders of Cpl Derek Wood and Cpl David Howes were the final act in a series of killings that began in Gibraltar less than two weeks earlier.  Three IRA men were shot dead by the SAS, a joint funeral for which was to be held on March 16.  That funeral was attacked by a loyalist UDA gunman who killed three mourners, including IRA member Caoimhín MacBrádaigh.

It was MacBrádaigh's funeral three days later at which the corporals were captured and killed.  For reasons that have never been explained, the plain-clothed soldiers drove their unmarked car towards the funeral cortege and became trapped in it.  As they reversed at high speed in an attempt to escape, the mourners suspected that another loyalist attack was in progress and attacked the vehicle.  Wood drew his personal protection weapon, briefly scattering the mob, but they returned within seconds and overpowered the two men, dragging them out of the car and beating them.

Cpl Wood, weapon in hand, briefly forces the mob back

The soldiers were dragged into a nearby sports ground, stripped down to their underwear and searched by the IRA.  A military ID was found on Cpl Howes that referred to a military base in Germany called Herford.  In a cruel twist of fate the IRA misread this as 'Hereford', where the SAS is based.  Having concluded that the men were SAS, they were put in a black taxi after being severely beaten.  In actual fact the two soldiers belonged to the Royal Signals Corps.

A short distance away they were taken out of the taxi onto waste ground and shot dead.  Both men had suffered multiple injuries.  Cpl Wood was shot six times, but had also been stabbed four times.  A Catholic priest who had earlier tried to intervene in their capture ran to the scene of the shooting and tried to give CPR to one of the men who was still breathing.  Having realised both men were now dead he administered the last rites, a moment that was captured in one of the most famous images of the Troubles.

Father Reid administers the last rites to Cpl Howes

"I got down between the two of them and I had my arm around this one and I was holding this one up by the shoulder.  They were so disciplined, they just lay there totally still and I decided to myself they were soldiers.  There was a helicopter circling overhead and I don't know why they didn't do something, radio to the police or soldiers to come up, because there were these two of their own soldiers".
Father Alec Reid describes the moments before the soldiers were taken away

"How did we let it happen?  He [Cpl Wood] passed within a few feet of myself and dozens of other journalists.  He didn't cry out, just looked at us with terrified eyes as though we were all enemies in a foreign country who wouldn't have understood what language he was speaking if he called out for help".
Mary Holland, Irish Times reporter

Troops arrived at the scene three minutes after the corporals were shot, but by then it was 16 minutes after their car was initially surrounded.  An army patrol was seconds away throughout the incident, but those soldiers were reportedly told not to intervene.  The army later said it was wary of a larger IRA ambush and needed time to assess the situation.  During this period the security forces had adopted a relaxed 'hands off' approach to IRA funerals.  

Meanwhile, the IRA were still convinced they had killed two SAS men and released a statement to that effect a short time later, saying that the men had 'attacked' the funeral cortege.

Corporal Derek Wood was 24 and came from Carshalton in Surrey.  His grandmother had watched the attack on television, unaware her grandson was involved.  Corporal David Howes, 23, was from Northampton.  He had only arrived in Northern Ireland a week earlier, having previously served in Germany and the Falklands.  His fiancée also watched the attack on TV, but did not discover his involvement until she heard his name read out on the radio later that day.  He had previously told her he would be confined to an office during his tour and would not be in any danger.  Both men had joined the Army Cadet Force aged 13.  Margaret Thatcher was among those present as the bodies of the men were flown into RAF Northolt ahead of their respective funerals.

Two Belfast IRA members were later found guilty of the murders and sentenced to life in 1989, although the actual gunmen who fired the shots were never found.  The convicted pair were released nine years later under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.  Several other men were charged in relation to the attack, but as of 1998 they had all been released.