Belfast Telegraph

Alan Simpson: Three RUC colleagues and I spent four weeks secretly digging for Thomas Niedermayer's body

A new book on the kidnapping and murder of the German industrialist gives insufficient credit to the dedicated police team that recovered his remains, writes retired detective superintendent Alan Simpson

An undercover police team digs for the remains of Thomas Niedermayer
An undercover police team digs for the remains of Thomas Niedermayer
Thomas Niedermayer with wife Ingeborg and daughters Renate and Gabrielle
Thomas Niedermayer

By Alan Simpson

Several weeks ago I learned that David Blake Knox, who is an established author, film director and journalist, with strong links to The Irish Times, was about to publish a book entitled The Killing Of Thomas Niedermayer. As a retired RUC detective superintendent who served at the coal face of anti-terrorist work during most of the Troubles, I had dealt with the case. So, unsurprisingly, I was keen to read the contents of this new book and pre-ordered it direct from the publishers.

Having now read it, I'm left with impression that the author does not do full justice to the uniqueness of the investigation and the work that my team put into resolving one of the great mysteries of the Troubles.

The victim was a German national who came to Northern Ireland in the early 1960s to take charge of the Grundig factory in Dunmurry, where hundreds of people from both sides of the political divide where employed in the manufacture of tape-recorders.

He brought with him his wife Ingeborg, and together they raised two daughters Gabrielle and Renate in a modern bungalow in Glengoland Gardens, on the edge of Andersonstown. In addition to being the general manager of the Grundig factory, Niedermayer had been awarded the OBE and he was proud to have been appointed as the honorary West German consul to Northern Ireland.

When the Troubles erupted in 1969 the Niedermayer family must have been somewhat perplexed by the political violence on our streets, much of which was taking place in west Belfast, just a short distance from their home.

They did their best to ignore it and carried on with their daily lives, with Thomas Niedermayer travelling daily to and from his factory.

On December 27, 1973, fate took a cruel turn when, literally and metaphorically, the Troubles arrived on their doorstep. The time was around 9.30pm when their front doorbell rang. Thomas was lured outside by a man who claimed to have collided with his parked car. A second man appeared and together they bundled him into a waiting vehicle, which then sped off.

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The detectives who worked on the case put a huge amount of effort into the investigation and fully expected there to be some form of demand from the kidnappers. But, instead, there was total silence. After several months the case was put to rest until some new information came in.

In 1980 I was a detective inspector and was heavily engaged in interviewing republican and loyalist terrorists.

In the course of this work I took a particular interest in any who could be turned into informers, and I had success with a middle-ranking member of the IRA, who was given the code name 'Disciple'.

He had acted as courier for the Belfast Brigade of the terrorist group, moving among different units throughout the city, passing on instructions from the overall commander.

He was a goldmine of information and, during a debriefing session, I asked him if he knew anything about the disappearance of Niedermayer. He said it was a "closed subject" within the IRA.

However, in the intervening seven years since the crime he had learned that he had been kidnapped in the hope that it would force the Government to move Marian and Dolours Price to a prison here, where they would benefit from special category status (the sisters were held in an English jail, having been convicted of planting car bombs in London that injured more than 200 people).

'Disciple' added that he regularly drank with the OC of the Andersonstown IRA unit and, when inebriated, he had let slip that the operation had failed, as Niedermayer had done a "wobbler" in the early days of his captivity and had been killed and buried at the rubbish dump just beyond the bridge on the Colin Glen Road, not far from the Lenadoon housing estate. The OC had cynically said he had been buried face down so that he could "dig himself in deeper".

This last, cruel comment made me more determined to solve the case, but my ambition took a steep nose-dive when I visited the dump expecting to find some light fly-tipping, but instead found thousands of tons of rubbish. It looked more like a municipal dump.

I kept the operational head of the CID informed and selected a team to work on the case with me.

In the ensuing weeks we set up a fictitious organisation, giving it the name of the West Belfast Environmental Action Group.

We were given finance to employ an earth removal company to take away all of the rubbish and to restore the glen to the state of natural glory it had been when Niedermayer disappeared.

The work commenced in March 1980 and three other detectives and I worked under the guise of environmental employees.

There was a danger that the nearby units of the IRA would discover what was really happening, so we armed ourselves with our personal Walther pistols and two of us carried concealed sub-machine-guns.

The weather was absolutely foul, with constant rain, but, to my great relief, we found Niedermayer's body on the first day of the fourth week of work.

We brought all of the scenes-of-crime unit to the glen (this included a forensic pathologist).

He examined the remains and determined that the victim had, indeed, been buried face down and his arms had been tied behind his back and his lower legs bound together. During the examination at the mortuary he discovered two depressed fractures on the skull, caused by blows from a handgun.

These were the principal cause of death.

We didn't let the investigation rest there and, in the following weeks, we brought to justice two members of the IRA who had been involved in the crime.

We learned from them that the operation had been the brainchild of Brian Keenan, who was on the IRA's army council.

He had at one time been an employee in the Grundig factory in Dunmurry, where he had been a trade union shop steward.

Given his status within the IRA, the failed operation was a great embarrassment to him; hence all the efforts to cover up the crime.

One would have thought that the Niedermayer family had been visited with enough tragedy, but in the ensuing years Ingeborg took her own life in the sea at Greystones in the Republic.

And then, almost unbelievably, Renate and Gabrielle killed themselves in separate incidents. Renate's husband also took his own life.

In the history of the Troubles, there can hardly be a more depraved and squalid crime than the total destruction of this family - and all in the cause of Irish unity.

Alan Simpson is the author of Duplicity and Deception (Dingle: Brandon Books, 2010)

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