Lieutenant-General Sir Steuart Pringle: Marine who survived an IRA car bomb
'I heard the sound of falling bits and pieces and then silence,' he said. 'My right leg was a mess'
Monday 06 May 2013
Steuart Pringle, scion of a Scottish baronetcy as old as the Royal Marines in which he served, survived wars around the world before the Provisional IRA's bombing campaign on the British mainland in 1981 nearly killed him at home. This was the year of the hunger strikes of Bobby Sands and others in protest at the London government's denial of political status to IRA prisoners, and the mid-point of the “Troubles”, during which the Marines took their turn doing Northern Ireland tours.
Pringle, a commando signals officer who had come unscathed through combat in Malaya, Borneo, at Suez, and in Cyprus, was badly wounded by a magnetic bomb that had been stuck to the wheel-arch of his car outside his home in Dulwich, south London. The device exploded as he drove off at 11.30am, off-duty, on Saturday 17 October 1981, in his red Volkswagen Passat with his Labrador Bella in the back. The blast blew the bonnet off, catapulted half the engine away, and ripped Pringle's legs to shreds.
“I heard a roar and saw my legs moving to the nearside of the car,” he said in a statement read out at the bombers' trial in February 1985 at the Old Bailey. “Then I heard the sound of falling bits and pieces and then silence... I saw that my right leg was a mess. My right foot and shoe were on top of my leg. I knew that I was badly injured but that I was not going to die.”
Thirty years' war-zone experience told him there might be a second bomb set to catch rescuers, and, trapped as he was, and would be for three-quarters of an hour, he urged people to keep back. He told his 22-year-old son Simon to look after his mother, stay away, and call the colonel. He also asked: “Is my dog all right?” She was. It took surgeons three hours to get Pringle, who had to be cut from the car, into a stable condition.
The bombers, Thomas Quigley and Paul Kavanagh, both 29 and from Belfast, were jailed with multiple life sentences for that attack and others in London that autumn, including the nail-bombing of Chelsea Barracks on 10 October, in which two passers-by were killed and more than 40 soldiers and civilians injured, and the killing on 26 October of Kenneth Howorth, a Metropolitan Police bomb-disposal officer, as he tried to defuse a device in Oxford Street. They were released under the Good Friday Agreement after serving less than 16 years.
Pringle, with the heroism and defiance that inspired his men, as the Royal Marines' history records, refused to let his injuries keep him from his post for long. The Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, in the House of Commons, noted Pringle's “speedy recovery”, as the Government sought, in March 1982, to renew the terms of the 1976 Prevention of Terrorism Act.
By 1 April Pringle was back at the Ministry of Defence; he continued as Commandant-General until 1984. The handover put him back at work only 24 hours before Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Pringle chaired a generals' meeting at the MoD, and on 4 April joined 40 officers in the ballroom at the Marines' Plymouth headquarters, Hamoaze House, to hear the then RM Major Ewen Southby-Tailyour present his detailed study of the islands' geography, knowledge which was to be invaluable later for the amphibious landings at San Carlos.
Pringle stayed in London close to the heart of decision-making while his men, led in the field by Brigadier Julian Thompson and later by Major General Moore, learned to “yomp” on foot across the rough terrain, after the Argentine air force destroyed the helicopters that could have ferried them.
From Port Stanley Brigadier Thompson wrote Pringle a letter of appreciation of the policies he had put into practice, training Marines in toughness, self-reliance and expectation of a minimum of support, achieved by winters in Norway's snowbound wastes, and emphasis on amphibious landing skills: “I remember that you have always said that it does not matter where we finally fight, the training and experience that we have gained in Norway in winter will stand us in good stead, and that has been the case during 'Operation Corporate' [the Falklands campaign].”
Pringle pushed on with his own physical challenge; he could eventually get about on an artificial foot with a walking stick. He used his experience of disability to advise wounded Falklands veterans, and took these ideas farther, campaigning to help disabled people, soldiers and civilians, find work and improve mobility.
He served from 1984 until 2000 as President of St Loye's College, the foundation for the disabled established in Exeter in 1937, allowing it the use of the Marines Training Centre at Lympstone, and with his wife, Jacqueline, attending many events in its support in Devon. The founder, Dame Georgiana Buller, had been, like him, an able-bodied person forced to adapt after injury, in her case a riding accident that damaged her spine.
Exeter University awarded Pringle an Honorary LLD in 1994. He already had an Honorary DSc from City University awarded in 1982, and he was a liveryman of the Plaisterers' Company, promoting skills training. He was chairman and chief executive from 1984-91 of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, preserving for education one of the Marines' oldest bases.
Steuart Pringle was educated at Sherborne School and commissioned into the Royal Marines as a Second Lieutenant in 1946. His specialty became signalling, and after a spell instructing, he was appointed Brigade Signal Officer, 3 Commando, stationed with No 2 Comcen (communications centre) Troop Joint Communications Unit at police headquarters in Kuching on Borneo. During the uprising against the Sultan of Brunei in 1961, the Marines commandeered boats, rescued hostages and drove rebels into the jungle.
From 1964, after staff college, Pringle was on the defence planning staff, and his destiny of command became clear with his appointment as the Marines' Chief Signal Officer (1967-69). He served with 40 Commando in the Far East before becoming CO of 45 Commando Group (1971-74).
After periods at Commando Forces' HQ and the Royal College of Defence Studies he was promoted to Major-General, serving as Chief of Staff to the Commandant-General, Lieutenant-General Sir John Richards (1979-81). He contributed to the books Peace and the Bomb (1983) and The Future of British Sea Power (1984). Pringle, who became 10th baronet Pringle of Stichill on his father's death in 1961, married Jacqueline Gladwell in 1953. He is succeeded by his son Simon.
Steuart Robert Pringle, soldier: born Dover 21 July 1928; married 1953 Jacqueline Marie Gladwell (died 2012; two sons, two daughters); Bt. 1961; KCB 1982; died London 18 April 2013.
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