Belfast Telegraph

Soldier who lived through Narrow Water attack 'still haunted by what he saw'

Tom Caughey now
Tom Caughey now
Tom Caughey in uniform in 1981
Narrow Water survivors Paul Burns (centre) and Tom Caughey (right) with Prince Charles
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

A man who survived the Narrow Water massacre has told how the horror of that day still haunts him 40 years on.

Tom Caughey was an 18-year-old Paratrooper travelling in an Army convoy from Ballykinler Barracks to Newry which was ambushed by the IRA.

He was seriously injured when the first 800lb bomb exploded, killing six of his platoon.

Mr Caughey was being airlifted to hospital when the second blast detonated, killing 12 more soldiers, many of whom had come to assist the wounded and dying.

Shortly before the bomb, Mr Caughey had swapped seats with a friend - his friend was killed.

One of only two survivors from that convoy, for years Mr Caughey felt guilt.

The bombs took place on August 27, 1979. Just hours earlier the IRA had assassinated Lord Mountbatten in a separate bomb attack in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo.

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the attacks.

Mr Caughey, now 58 and a father of two living in Newtownards, had joined Junior Parachute Company as a boy of 16.

He said that day at Narrow Water, near Warrenpoint - and the scenes of carnage that confronted him - haunt him even now.

"That afternoon we were driving into Newry to take over from Charlie Company for six weeks," he recalled. "There were two four-tonners and a Land Rover in our convoy.

"The Land Rover was at the front, and the two bigger wagons were at the back.

"About 10 minutes before we got to Narrow Water I swapped seats with my friend Gary Barnes. His eyes were very red from the exhaust fumes, so I took over from him as 'Tail End Charlie', which was basically keeping watch out the back door.

"Then the bomb went off behind me. It was a flash of light, a loud rumbling, then the sensation of flying.

"I don't remember this, but years later some colleagues who had been running up said they saw me crawling down the carriageway still on fire into hard cover.

"My training must have kicked in. I just remember sitting up, having my back against a fence and looking about."

Mr Caughey said it was a scene of "total carnage". He added: "Everything was on fire. My legs were on fire. But this didn't register with me. I just looked around.

"There were bits of bodies everywhere, the only way I can describe it as being like something out of an abattoir. I couldn't see anyone alive.

"The majority of the guys were in parts, rather than whole people. Everything was on fire. The smell of burning flesh still haunts me to this day.

"Suddenly the reality hit me that my legs were burning and I couldn't move.

"But guys ran to me from the other two wagons and put me out and took me into the middle of the road. Charlie Company from Newry came out and took hard cover at the lodge gates. I remember the pain in my face and my legs was really severe."

Shortly after the first explosion, as the helicopter took off carrying some of the injured, the second device was detonated.

Mr Caughey added: "I remember being put onto the chopper and just as it was taking off, there was another mighty rumble. That was the second explosion.

"The pilot somehow kept the chopper in the air. The next thing I remember is waking up under hospital lights in Musgrave."

Mr Caughey was transferred to London for treatment for his injuries and spent a year in hospital both in England and here at home.

He had 35% burns to his lower limbs and multiple fractures. He had to learn to walk again and still undergoes treatment for his injuries.

He said the mental scars have never healed.

"Gary, my friend who I had swapped seats with, was killed," he added.

"The men on that truck with me were my friends. We had a strong bond. We looked out for each other, we watched each other's back. They were all good lads.

"For 10 years I felt guilt that I had survived. I didn't know where I was. I was upside down. I just wasn't the same person.

"Even today when I go into a hospital I smell burning flesh. It's just a trigger in my head. I am still haunted by what I saw that day. It never leaves you.

"The flashbacks aren't as often but there are certain times when it is there and it just comes on you.

"It took me years to realise that I was lucky to be alive and still here for a reason. For years I had wanted to be with them. I'm not talking about feeling suicidal or taking my own life, rather that I didn't die that day with them. I thought 'why me?'"

No one has ever been convicted for the Warrenpoint bombing.

Mr Caughey, who went back into the Paras for a period following his recovery, said he doesn't spend time thinking about those who carried out the attack.

"I don't think of them," he says. "I don't carry them about with me.

"It was their lucky day if they couldn't get the evidence against them. That is the way it is. They obviously believed in what they were doing."

The Narrow Water massacre came seven years after Bloody Sunday, when members of the Parachute Regiment killed 13 civil rights protesters in Derry. A 14th died later.

Mr Caughey added: "The Parachute Regiment were demonised, and continue to be demonised. Everyone has their own thoughts on it.

"But I can honestly say that any soldier in the Parachute Regiment that I served with and knew never went out on patrol with the intent of killing anyone.

"Obviously the republican and loyalist paramilitaries did. That was their intention. I will never get justice. There is no sense wanting something that I know I will never get. I don't think I'll ever see anyone in jail for the attack.

"But I don't carry that with me. I get on with my life. My life is my family, my friends and what I'm doing now.

"That is something that happened to me 40 years ago and I remember every day, but I don't dwell on it.

"I'd be a very sad person if I did that. I am happy and I rejoice being here now. I don't mourn my comrades deaths on that day. I celebrate their lives. That's what gets me through it." He said the current pursuit of Army veterans through the courts is "appeasement for someone".

"No death is justifiable to me," he added.

"Right or wrong, let the courts decide. The British Army and Crown Forces kept records. The paramilitaries didn't.

"I don't want to be equal with a terrorist, because I, the soldiers and the policemen were there doing a job. They weren't going out to kill people.

"If terrorists hadn't been on the streets, there would have been no one killed. People say that it's a witch hunt. To me there is appeasement for someone somewhere."

Mr Caughey said the fragile peace here must be cherished.

He added: "No death is worth it. I have seen first hand the damage the Troubles have done. We don't want to go back there.

"No good comes from anything like that for anyone. You are either going to end up in jail or dead or injured."

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