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Narrow Water survivor ‘at peace’ 40 years after atrocity which killed 18 soldiers

UK News | Published:

The double IRA bombing in Co Down in 1979 was the Army’s worst loss of life in a single incident in Northern Ireland.

A survivor of a double bomb attack which killed 18 soldiers in Co Down says he feels at peace with himself 40 years on.

Tom Caughey, a former member of the Parachute Regiment, was left so badly injured following the IRA attack on August 27, 1979 that doctors told his family he would only survive if he fought.

He said he struggled in the years afterwards with survivor’s guilt but now feels at peace with himself.

The Warrenpoint ambush has been described as the Army’s worst loss of life in a single incident in Northern Ireland.

Warrenpoint Bomb/Army truck
The remains of an Army truck which caught the full force of an IRA bomb at Warrenpoint, County Down, Northern Ireland killing seven soldiers instantly. (PA Archive)

There was a 19th victim when William Michael Hudson, 29, a civilian visiting the Republic of Ireland from London, was hit by a bullet fired by soldiers across the Newry River to where he was standing with his cousin Barry Hudson, who was injured.

Mr Caughey is the last survivor of the first blast, which detonated at Narrow Water as a convoy of vehicles brought soldiers from Ballykinler barracks to Newry.

Seven of the nine soldiers in that truck were killed. The only other survivor, Paul Burns, died in 2013.

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Minutes later the IRA exploded a second bomb, where they correctly predicted survivors would seek cover. That blast killed 11 soldiers.

The incident came just hours after Lord Mountbatten and three others, including a Fermanagh teenager, were killed in a bomb off the coast of Co Sligo.

“It was a lovely day, sun shining, we were messing about out the back of the wagon with cars, making faces at kids with orange peel in our mouths,” Mr Caughey told the PA news agency.

“When the initial blast went off it was behind me, it wasn’t a big bang, it was a flash, a rumble and a sensation of flying, like when you were a kid in a car going over a bump and your stomach would turn.

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Former Parachute Regiment soldier Tom Caughey was left seriously injured after surviving the first blast at Narrow Water which killed 18 of his colleagues on August 27, 1979. (Rebecca Black/PA)

“Coming to, I was sitting up against a fence, my vision was orange, like looking through orange sunglasses, everything was on fire.

“I remember seeing my legs on fire, I couldn’t see anyone moving, it was carnage.

“Next thing the boys were putting water on me and cutting my clothes off to get the flames out.

“They almost got me on the second explosion – the other survivor Paul Burns and I were in the chopper when the rumble, the flash, it all started again.

“The tail end of the Wessex was bent but the pilot kept it up.”

Narrow Water bomb survivors Tom Caughey and Paul Burns meet the Prince of Wales
Narrow Water bomb survivors Tom Caughey and Paul Burns meet the Prince of Wales (Tom Caughey/PA)

Mr Caughey was later taken to the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital in Woolwich.

“My mum told me when she arrived in Woolwich, the colonel looking after me said to her, ‘it’s entirely up to him, if he fights he might keep his legs, if he doesn’t, he might lose his legs and probably his life’,” he said.

Graham Eve was also a member of the Parachute Regiment and was deployed to secure the scene after the bombs.

“When we were flown in, there had been the two explosions and we thought it was militarily fantastic, and as we took up position we were wondering if they had a third one covered as well, we were very alert,” he said.

“There were clear plastic bags everywhere full of bits and pieces of people. I’ll never forget those plastic bags full of body parts, and you think who did they belong to and think which of my mates are they.”

Mr Caughey and Mr Eve both joined the Parachute Regiment in 1977 as teenagers.

Tom Caughey as a young Paratrooper with his mother
Tom Caughey as a young Paratrooper with his mother (Tom Caughey/PA)

They saw service in Berlin in 1979, which included guarding the senior Nazi Rudolf Hess.

Deployment in Northern Ireland was next, before being sent to the Falklands War in 1982.

However Mr Caughey was kept back.

He had spent 14 months in hospital and rehabilitation, even learning how to walk again.

Mr Eve said: “It was hard for Tom because we went off to war, to the Falklands, his battalion was away and he couldn’t go and that was one of the hardest things for him.”

Former Parachute Regiment soldier Graham Eve who was among the troops who were sent to secure the scene at Narrow Water in Co Down after 18 soldiers were killed in two roadside bombs. (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Caughey left the Army, and said the next ten years were difficult, frankly describing himself then as “not a nice person”.

“I didn’t know who I was or what I was, it took me about ten years to seek help,” he said.

“I was going to kill someone, dunno who, dunno when, dunno why, but I knew I was physically going to kill someone.

“I had no understanding of why but I knew it wasn’t me,” he said.

“I would go down to Narrow Water and sit and talk to them; it helped but it didn’t, I had survivor’s guilt, I did not want to be on this earth, I wanted to be with them.

“Then I walked into hospital in Ards, the psychiatric bit, and said I need to speak to someone.”

Now Mr Caughey said he feels at peace with himself.

“I am glad to be alive and enjoying life, I have a lovely little granddaughter and she is my world,” he said.

“I am very much at peace with myself.”

Mr Eve added: “There is no bitterness with either of us, it’s our grandchildren now, it’s their future and we should put it all to bed.”

The IRA claimed responsibility for the attack.

Its members are believed to have detonated the bombs from across the Newry River at a spot in the Republic of Ireland.

No-one has ever been brought to justice for the atrocity.

Two men, Joe Brennan and Brendan Burns, were questioned by police, but never charged.

Mr Caughey said: “I always get asked about Joe Brennan. He means nothing to me, why would I carry him about with me in my life?

“I am not looking for justice, I didn’t expect it, and probably don’t want it. It’s never going to bring anyone back.”

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