A soldier fired three shots into the air. Then all hell broke loose

Kim Sengupta scoured the Saville report to produce this definitive account of events

At 16.07 on 30 January 1972, Brigadier Patrick MacLellan, the commander of the Army brigade in Derry, picked up a radio at his headquarters and ordered the soldiers of 1 Para to start an operation to arrest young rioters. What took place over the next hours became one of the most violent, emotive and painful episodes in recent British history.

By the end of the afternoon, 13 people were shot dead, many others injured. It inflamed an incendiary political situation and sowed bitter hostility and mistrust of Britain among many in the Catholic community. As Lord Saville concluded in his report yesterday: "Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland."

The killings came at a particularly violent time in the Troubles. Spiralling violence had been met with the internment of more than 700 people without trial, virtually all of them republicans, at the insistence of the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, the Unionist Brian Faulkner, against the advice of senior military officers. The result, it was subsequently acknowledged, was more bitterness among Catholics and the growth of the IRA.

For the nationalists Derry was "Free Derry". "No-go" areas had been created in the city. There was daily, ritualised fighting between "Derry Young Hooligans" and British troops. At the beginning of January, the Army's second most senior officer in Northern Ireland, Major-General Robert Ford, came up from Belfast and did not like what he saw. In a secret memo to his immediate superior, Sir Harry Tuzo, general officer commanding, he wrote that soldiers were standing and taking hails of missiles like "Aunt Sallies" and the answer was to shoot the ringleaders.

It was against this background that 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment – which had a reputation for "hard" public order enforcement – arrived in Derry on the day that the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had decided to defy a ban on marches to protest against internment and hold a rally outside the Guildhall. The authorities, against the wishes of Chief Superintendent Frank Lagan, the police officer in charge of Derry, decided that the demonstration must be stopped.

Although authorising the arrest operation, Brigadier MacLellan specifically told Lt-Colonel Derek Wilford, the commanding officer of 1 Para, who had wanted to carry out the arrests, not to enter the staunchly nationalist Bogside, to prevent soldiers chasing rioters into the path of the peaceful civil rights marchers. Colonel Wilford chose to ignore this stricture, sending his support company on armoured carriers into the Bogside. He did not tell brigade headquarters what he was doing. Had he done so, Lord Saville pointed out, "Brigadier MacLellan might well have called off the arrest operation altogether."

Unchecked by their commanding officer the troops of the support company, which included the mortar platoon, drove their armoured carriers at the car park of a council estate, Rossville Flats, knocking over two people, Alana Burke and Thomas Harkin.

Attempts to carry out the arrests proved tricky among the crowd and the Paras took recourse to firing plastic baton rounds. Only six people were arrested, none of them particularly important for the security forces, at a cost of provoking the local people by being in Bogside.

Some of those gathered tried to wrest back one of the arrested men and Lieutenant N – granted anonymity by the inquiry, along with other soldiers – fired three shots over the heads of crowd in an attempt to disperse them.

Perhaps, as Lord Saville suggests, fearing that they were under attack, other soldiers in the mortar platoon opened fire with their SLR 7.62mm rifles at the car park. Among the victims were 17-year-old Jackie Duddy, who soon died, and Margaret Deery, 38, Michael Bridge, 25, and 22-year-old Michael Bradley. Some of the bullets went into the flats, hitting 40-year-old Patrick Brolly. Other people suffered cuts from debris thrown up.

Jackie Duddy, by all accounts, was running away from the soldiers when he was shot. He "probably" had a stone in his hand – he had engaged in throwing stones earlier – but there was no evidence that he intended to attack the troops when a soldier known as Private R opened fire. Michael Bridge was shot as he walked towards soldiers standing around an armoured carrier, shouting at them about the shooting of Jack Duddy and "in his anger inviting the soldiers to shoot him". According to the tribunal "it was probably" Lt N, the first one to open fire, who shot him. Giving evidence, he was to claim that he was sure that his target was about to throw a nail bomb at the troops, but no such bomb was found on the victim.

Other troops, meanwhile, had gone to the Rossville Street area where they opened fire, fatally wounding Michael Kelly, 17, whose body, covered in blood, was moved away by local people. There then followed what appeared to be concentrated fire hitting Hugh Gilmour, John Young, Kevin McElhinney, William Nash, Michael McDaid and Alexander Nash.

Nash, 52, was carrying out a frantic search for his son, William, after hearing the sound of gunfire. He found him lying next to a barricade or rubble put up by the protesters, and, as he cradled him, he himself was shot.

The atmosphere in Bogside now was one of confusion and fear. Screams echoed across the streets and groups of people appearing waving white handkerchiefs to try to find the dead and the wounded. The shootings continued. Within a few seconds of arriving at the Glenfada Park North area, soldiers opened fire, hitting William McKinney, 26, Joe Friel, 20, Michael Quinn, 17, Patrick O'Donnell, 41 and Joe Mahon, 16. Jim Wray, 22, was already mortally wounded, lying on the ground, when he was shot again, his killing described by his family as a "cold-blooded execution".

Using 7.62mm ammunition in an urban setting was having a deadly effect. Gerard McKinney, 35, was shot in the Abbey Park area, the bullet passing through his body and hitting Gerald Dogherty, 17, killing both men.

The Paras afterwards claimed, always, that they were responding to shots fired at them. Lord Saville concluded that that none of those killed on the day had used a firearm or posed any kind of threat to the troops.

However, it has emerged that there was some firing by republican gunmen. Martin McGuinness, who was at the time the commander of the Provisional IRA's Derry Brigade, told the inquiry he "engaged in paramilitary activity during the day". He was, Saville reported, "probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun" at some point in the day. Saville concluded: "Although it is possible that he fired this weapon, there is insufficient evidence to make any finding on this, save that we are sure that he did not engage in any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire."

Mr McGuinness denied having a sub-machine gun. When asked about the Saville finding that it was probable that he had the weapon, he replied: "No". He said the report had cleared everybody in the city.

Some in the military dispute Lord Saville's account. General Sir Michael Rose, who commanded United Nations forces in Bosnia, was a young officer in Derry on the day and insists: "Of one thing I am certain, it was the IRA who started firing... It was the IRA who started firing with the Thompson machine gun, and inflammatory as it may sound, I believe they started firing with the express intention of causing civilian deaths." The inquiry stated: "When shooting breaks out in an urban area it is difficult or impossible to establish who is firing, or where it is coming from. The same applies to baton rounds and we have little doubt that sound of baton rounds could have been mistaken for sound of explosions.

The inquiry stressed that none of this confusion could explain why Bernard McGowan was shot in the head and killed instantly when he was waving a white cloth as he moved slowly along the road in an effort to show that he was a non-combatant; or when Patrick Doherty was shot in the back as he was attempting to crawl away to safety, while wounded, leaving a trail of blood; or when Patrick Campbell was also shot in the back as he ran away.

One soldier, Lance Corporal F, the inquiry concluded, shot Doherty and Mr McGuigan. It was also " highly probable" that he also shot Mr Campbell and Mr McGowan. The report identified L/Cpl F along with three other soldiers, Corporal E, Private G and Private H as those who could not justifiably claim that some of the men they shot were about to use bombs or firearms and nor could it be said that they were in a "state of fear and panic".

Of all the casualties on Bloody Sunday, only one, Gerald Donaghy, was overtly linked to a paramilitary group, the Provisional IRA's youth wing. After being shot he was taken to an Army first aid post where four nail bombs were found in his pocket. Mr Donaghy's friends had claimed that the bombs had been planted, the inquiry rejected that but stated: "We are sure that Gerald Donaghy was not preparing or attempting to throw a nail bomb when shot."

Lord Saville concluded: "What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict for the years that followed."

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