In the line of fire
In A Force Like No Other: The Next Shift, Colin Breen's follow-up to his bestselling debut collection of real-life stories from RUC men and women working through the Troubles, more officers share searingly honest memories of the violence they witnessed and the colleagues they lost.
‘Stanley was shot in the back by two gunmen on the steps of his church’
When I was stationed in the Rosemount area of Londonderry, I worked with a number of part-time RUC Reserve members.
One man in particular comes to mind, Constable David Stanley Wray. He lived on the west bank of the Foyle in the Glen Estate, a Housing Executive estate that was once considered a Protestant enclave in a nationalist area, but the Protestant population had been gradually moving out as a result of intimidation and fear.
Stanley was a family man who worked at the DuPont Maydown plant in the city. I never knew him to be a religious person, or at least he never discussed religion when at work in the police station anyway.
Sometime around 1976, Stanley was ambushed at his home in the Glen Estate, suffering severe gunshot wounds to his chest.
At first it was feared that he would not survive the attack, such were his injuries, but he did.
After the attack the family were forced to leave their home and move to the Waterside area of Londonderry, which would have been considered a much safer area for a police officer to live.
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One would be forgiven for thinking that Stanley, having survived a murder attempt, would have distanced himself from the RUC Reserve, or indeed resigned from it completely.
However, Stanley was old school and made of sterner stuff.
He was not that easily intimidated.
It took him about a year to make a full recovery and Stanley appeared back at work as a part-time member at the RUC Station in Rosemount. I remember one night on patrol I was speaking to him; he told me that he believed his recovery from the gunshot wounds was down to a miracle.
He said that he had prayed to the Lord during his recovery and promised that, if he survived, he would attend his church every Sunday.
By this time, Stanley and his family had settled into their new home and life in the safer Waterside area of Londonderry.
However, his place of worship, Claremont Presbyterian Church, was on the nationalist west bank where he used to live.
Still, he honoured his vow and did indeed attend his church every Sunday along with his family. On Sunday, May 20, 1979, while accompanied by his teenage son and daughter, Stanley was shot in the back by two gunmen.
He had been approaching the steps of his church on his way to worship.
Stanley died at the scene, watched by his children.
Sadly, the Provisional IRA had no respect for any form of life or religion, Protestant or Catholic, borne out by the fact while Stanley was being murdered, the driver of the car hijacked for use in the killing was being held hostage at St Colman's Catholic Church during morning Mass.
Stanley's funeral took place at Glendermott Presbyterian Church in the city, the church where he had been married.
‘The scene at Teebane was one of absolute carnage... one man was lying halfway out of the van’s cab, barely alive and calling for his friends’
I was stationed in Greencastle, a country area near Omagh in Co Tyrone. It was a very republican area, dangerous for police and Army to work in as threat levels were high.
My predecessor, Malcolm, had been murdered when a bomb exploded beside the police car he was travelling in. It was a landmine detonated by the IRA between Gortin and Greencastle. He was in the car with another officer when the bomb was detonated, blowing their car off the road. His companion was seriously injured but, sadly, Malcolm's injuries were fatal.
There had been a lot of searches going on in the area and he had been driving around as a sort of mobile boundary patrol while the searches were carried out.
A secondary device was detonated by the IRA when police arrived at the scene of the landmine attack. Fortunately, no one was injured by the secondary device.
After Malcolm's murder there were no more vehicle patrols allowed, it was all helicopter to foot - you got helicoptered to the area you were to patrol, went about your business on foot, then the helicopter would return to pick you up at an agreed location later.
It was January 17, 1992. We had just got started on a drop and foot patrol when we heard this massive explosion. The IRA had planted a roadside bomb at Teebane Crossroads.
They had targeted a Ford transit van that was carrying 14 ordinary workmen: plasterers, electricians and joiners who had been working at Lisanelly Army barracks in Omagh. They were all from the greater local area.
No one had ever paid any great attention to them because no one ever thought that they would become a target. We were immediately diverted from where we were. Ambulances were arriving as we got out of the helicopter. The ambulance people were making their way through what was left of the van to see if they could help people.
Police vehicles were also on their way and arrived shortly after. The scene was one of absolute carnage, that's the only way I can describe it. The van had been blown down the road by the force of the blast.
The side of it that was closest to the explosion had just been ripped completely away. Of the 14 people who were in the transit van, eight of them were killed and the other six were very seriously injured.
The fatalities were pretty much all on the side of the van that had been closest to the explosion. Some of the bodies of the dead and dying had been blown into a nearby field.
Two men were lying dead on the grass verge, while a third was lying halfway out of the van's cab, barely alive and calling for his friends.
A driver of a passing bus had stopped to help, using a scarf as a tourniquet on a man with severe head wounds. He later said, "I braked and turned around and saw the van coming skidding down the road on its roof. Up the road there were bodies."
We eventually found the command wire from where it was detonated a hundred yards away. The IRA men involved had made their escape. We were there until about midnight or so. By then they had got the bodies away. The scene would have been preserved all night, of course. Examination would not commence properly until the dead had been removed and first light was established - much better than spotlights.
It was a terrible scene to have to attend. It was all brought back to me when it came time to get the survivors' accounts of the incident.
Some had got their cheques cashed early the day of the explosion and were discussing where they would go that night. At first they didn't know what the explosion was. One of the victims said, "It was just like our van had struck something. I was sitting two down from the passenger side. There were just two long seats on either side of the vehicle, plus three up front for the driver and two passengers.
"All on the driver's side were killed and one on our side was killed. I looked and all I could see was fire.
"I needn't say I was yelling, I was screeching … I thought we had been electrocuted because of the pain. I have experienced getting an electric shock, but fire was coming out of my eyes … I just squealed for breath and I seemed to be heading away. I seemed to be literally going to float away. I felt like I was going backwards."
He said that he came round on the ground and said a prayer, "Lord, don't let me die, save me … I was lying on the broad of my back and I couldn't see down to see my legs and I couldn't feel them. I had pain in one foot … When I looked around me, I saw there was a fella lying beside me, just at arm's reach. I knew it wasn't a power line that had fallen, it was a bomb.
"There were people lying on the ground. I couldn't tell you whether there were two, three or five lying there … I was trying to get up.
"I had plenty of power in my two arms, but no power anywhere else. I saw a fella who had been sitting beside me on the bus staggering around and I yelled and shouted at him, but he never heard me.
"Then a passer-by came across the road and he recognised me. I said, 'Are my legs on?' and he said, 'You're all right,' and he shook my legs, but I couldn't feel them.
"I said, 'Get me up,' and part of my kneecap came off, but I knew my leg was there and I thanked God that I was living. The fella said to me, 'Are you all right?' and I said, 'There's a fella lying face down, could you turn him over quick, maybe he can't breathe?'
"I lay a minute and I watched him but there wasn't any movement from him, not a fraction."
A Force Like No Other: The Next Shift by Colin Breen is published by Blackstaff Press, £9.99. The previous volume is called A Force Like No Other and is also on sale at £9.99