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Tommy Stoker: Tragic tale of the teenage soldier whose 'friendly fire' death amid the Troubles is all but forgotten

How author and former soldier Ken Wharton is ensuring the story of the young squaddie shot just two days after being posted to Belfast is given its rightful place in our troubled history

A memorial to war dead
A memorial to war dead
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

A simple and fast-fading headstone in a small Yorkshire churchyard gives no clues about the tragedy that lies behind the death of a forgotten victim of the Ulster Troubles 47 years ago.

For the memorial in the graveyard of St Michael's Parish Church at East Ardsley, near Wakefield, bears no references to how or where Thomas Albert Stoker died at the age of 18 in September 1972.

But Australia-based former soldier turned-best-selling writer Ken Wharton knows the story of Tommy Stoker only too well and every year when he returns to Britain from Down Under he visits the grave to pay homage to the teenager, who died in a shooting in north Belfast that few people remember.

But it wasn't an IRA bullet that took young Tommy's life in Ardoyne. The shot that fatally wounded him came from another soldier's gun.

Ken, who is also from East Ardsley and who attended the same school as Tommy, has researched the young soldier's story.

Tommy had joined the Light Infantry Regiment, which was deployed to Belfast in 1972 just before his 18th birthday, but he wasn't allowed to travel there with his colleagues.

That was because a 17-year-old squaddie John McCaig had been murdered by the IRA in an infamous 'honey trap' shooting in March 1971 when he was one of three Scottish soldiers lured to their deaths by women who had befriended them in a city centre bar in Belfast.

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Tommy Stoker’s headstone
Tommy Stoker’s headstone

After the killings Edward Heath's government ruled that soldiers couldn't serve in Northern Ireland until they reached the age of 18, so Tommy Stoker was sent to Belfast after his birthday to join his colleagues in their base in the disused Flax Street Mill, off the Crumlin Road.

Just two days after he arrived Tommy and another soldier were assigned to a covert observation post in a derelict house at Berwick Road in Ardoyne.

Their mission was to observe and report back on the movements of gunmen known to be operating in the IRA stronghold.

Author and former soldier Ken Wharton on a visit to Belfast
Author and former soldier Ken Wharton on a visit to Belfast

Ken Wharton says: "While Tommy kept watch from one window, a comrade in an adjoining room was fitting a sniper scope to his SLR 7.62mm rifle; unwittingly he had a round chambered, with the safety catch set to off."

As the other soldier struggled with his high velocity weapon a round was fired, passing through a wall and hitting Tommy in the back.

He was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital two miles away where he survived for nearly eight weeks. Ken says: "He courageously fought for his life but finally succumbed to the fateful wound 52 days later with his parents at his side."

Tommy was accorded full military honours at his funeral at St Michael's Church in East Ardsley, which is where the late comedian Ernie Wise was raised.

A nearby war memorial in the St Michael's graveyard records the names of soldiers from the area who died during the two World Wars but it was only after a persistent campaign by Tommy's family that their son's passing was recognised.

Ken explains: "He is listed as T.A. Stoker and the inscription says he was killed 'in Ireland', which fails to even record the correct land in which he died.

Murdered soldiers Donald McCaughey and brothers Joseph and John McCaig
Murdered soldiers Donald McCaughey and brothers Joseph and John McCaig

"The very fact that he is there at all is a tribute to his family, who fought the intransigence of the local parish council to have his name etched alongside with the soldiers who fell during the two wars."

Ken has long railed against what he calls "the arrogance and insensitivity" of the British authorities, whom he has claimed refuse to properly acknowledge the hundreds of deaths of soldiers during what became known as Operation Banner in Northern Ireland, which he said was a war in every sense of the word and not just "as a police action in aid of the civil power", as it is recorded in some places.

Ken has revealed that by a remarkable twist of fate, Tommy Stoker had been caught up in a murder on his own East Ardsley doorstep in 1968, four years before he was killed in Belfast.

He was a friend of an eight-year-old girl, Mary Gibson, who was murdered by a 17-year-old youth called Stephen Bernan.

Tommy, who was 13 at the time, had been walking Mary and another girl home when his friend realised she had forgotten a pair of shoes and ran back to her school to retrieve them.

Ken says: "Tommy waited for her but there was to be no return as, tragically, Mary was strangled by a predator on her way back to him."

Her body was found in the garden of an empty house and Bernan was arrested.

Ken said he often reflected on what impact that tragedy had on the young soldier, adding: "One can only wonder, although entirely blameless, were thoughts of Mary still in Tommy's mind on that day in north Belfast a little over four years later?"

Ken has penned 10 books about the Troubles, including A Long Long War, many of them focusing on his own experiences of Northern Ireland, and others are written from the perspective of soldiers who, like him, served in the province.

In a reference to Tommy Stoker in one of the books, the author said he wasn't embarrassed to admit that during his annual pilgrimages to his fellow villager's grave he invariably sheds a tear as he lays flowers and stands in "silent contemplation of a young life so needlessly lost".

Tommy's mother is buried in the same grave which, as well as the names of her and her son, also has an inscription 'Peace' on the headstone.

Even though they were from the same village Ken didn't know Tommy Stoker particularly well. He says: "Our paths crossed as we were at the same school and lived very close to each other in the same village. East Ardsley was only small, and everyone knew everyone."

Ken has lost track of Tommy's family and has no idea if they received compensation or support from the Army. The families of other soldiers who died in similar circumstances reportedly received £5,000.

He says: "No one in the area appears to know what became of the family. There was a court martial and a soldier was found guilty of negligence."

Tommy was the third soldier to die in accidental shootings by other troops in north Belfast in the summer of 1972.

The others were Ronald Rowe (21), shot when he was mistaken for a terrorist in Ardoyne in August 1972, and Robert Cutting (18), mistaken for a sniper in the New Lodge the following month.

Ronald Rowe's death was initially excluded from the RUC's official list of casualties, but was added to it when it was revised in 1995.

Ken puts the three deaths down to "tragic coincidences".

Tommy's death is mentioned briefly in the Lost Lives book that contains information about all the victims of the Ulster Troubles but the authors said he was not listed on official records.

And while an official online Light Infantry roll of honour does include Tommy Stoker among the dead, it doesn't say he was the victim of an accidental shooting.

"The Army don't like to broadcast their mistakes, but Tommy's name is on the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas in Staffordshire," continued Ken.

Lost Lives records that there were conflicting reports and confusion about Tommy's death but didn't elaborate on them.

Ken says he spoke to soldiers who were in Ardoyne and based his accounts on what they told him.

In his books, Ken has also highlighted the "heartbreaking" deaths of other soldiers around the world who, like Tommy, were shot and killed in "unavoidable circumstances, carelessness or through irresponsible horseplay".

Many of the deaths are classed as 'friendly fire' or 'blue on blue' killings.

Looking back at past conflicts, Ken says that the US Army killed an estimated 8,000 of their own troops in Vietnam. And he added that 20% of British Army operational fatalities during the First Gulf War were at the hands of their American allies.

Ken adds that he is hoping to publish another book linked to the Troubles but this time about a victims' group here and their members' stories about the losses of their loved ones.

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