British Army corporals Derek Wood and David Howes are killed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) on March 19, 1988, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in what becomes known as the corporals killings. The soldiers, wearing civilian clothes, both armed with Browning Hi-Power pistols and in a silver Volkswagen Passat hatchback, drive into the funeral procession for IRA member Kevin Brady.
The Brady funeral is making its way along the Andersonstown Road toward Milltown Cemetery when the corporals’ car appears from the opposite direction. The car drives straight towards the front of the funeral, which is headed by several black taxis. It drives past a Sinn Féin steward who signals it to turn. Mourners at the funeral say they believed they were under attack from Ulster loyalists, as three days earlier, loyalist Michael Stone had attacked an IRA funeral and killed three people. The car then mounts a pavement, scattering mourners, and turns into a small side road. When this road is blocked, it then reverses at speed, ending up within the funeral procession. Corporal Wood attempts to drive the car out of the procession but his exit route is blocked by a black taxi.
An angry crowd surrounds the car, smashes the windows and attempts to drag the soldiers out. Wood produces a Browning Hi-Power 9mm handgun. He climbs partly out of a window and fires a shot in the air, which briefly scatters the crowd. The crowd then surges back, with some of them attacking the car with a wheel-brace and a stepladder snatched from a photographer. The corporals are eventually pulled from the car and punched and kicked to the ground.
The attack is witnessed by the media and passersby. Journalist Mary Holland recalls seeing one of the men being dragged past a group of journalists. “He didn’t cry out; just looked at us with terrified eyes, as though we were all enemies in a foreign country who wouldn’t have understood what language he was speaking if he called out for help.”
The men are taken to nearby Casement Park sports ground, just opposite. Here they are beaten, stripped to their underpants and socks, and searched by a small group of men. The BBC and The Independent write that the men were “tortured.” A search reveals that the men are British soldiers. Their captors find a military ID on Howes which is marked “Herford,” the site of a British military base in Germany, but it is believed they misread it as “Hereford,” the headquarters of the Special Air Service (SAS).
Redemptorist priest Father Alec Reid, who plays a significant part in the peace process leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, intervenes and attempts to save the soldiers, and asks people to call an ambulance. “I got down between the two of them and I had my arm around this one and I was holding this one up by the shoulder….They were so disciplined, they just lay there totally still and I decided to myself they were soldiers. There was a helicopter circling overhead and I don’t know why they didn’t do something, radio to the police or soldiers to come up, because there were these two of their own soldiers.”
One of the captors warns Father Reid not to interfere and orders two men to take him away.
The two soldiers are placed in a taxi and driven fewer than 200 yards to a waste ground near Penny Lane (South Link), just off the main Andersonstown Road. There they are taken out of the vehicle and shot dead. Wood is shot six times and Howes is shot five times. Each also has multiple injuries to other parts of their bodies. The perpetrators quickly leave the scene. Father Reid hears the shots and rushes to the waste ground. He believes one of the soldiers is still breathing and attempts to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Upon realizing that the soldiers are dead, he gives them the last rites. According to photographer David Cairns, although photographers have their films taken by the IRA, he is able to keep his by quickly leaving the area after taking a photograph of Reid kneeling beside the almost naked body of Howes, administering the last rites. Cairns’ photograph is later named one of the best pictures of the past 50 years by Life magazine.
The whole incident is filmed by a British Army helicopter hovering overhead. An unnamed soldier of the Royal Scots says his eight-man patrol is nearby and sees the attack on the corporals’ car but are told not to intervene. Soldiers and police arrive on the scene three minutes after the corporals had been shot. A British Army spokesman says the army did not respond immediately because they needed time to assess the situation and were wary of being ambushed by the IRA. The large funeral procession also prevents them getting to the scene quickly.
Shortly after, the IRA releases a statement:
“The Belfast Brigade, IRA, claims responsibility for the execution of two SAS members who launched an attack on the funeral cortege of our comrade volunteer Kevin Brady. The SAS unit was initially apprehended by the people lining the route in the belief that armed loyalists were attacking them and they were removed from the immediate vicinity. Our volunteers forcibly removed the two men from the crowd and, after clearly ascertaining their identities from equipment and documentation, we executed them.”
Two men, Alex Murphy and Harry Maguire, are sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, but are released in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Several other men receive lesser sentences for their part in the corporals killings.
(Pictured: Catholic priest Father Alec Reid administers the last rights to Corporal David Howes, one of two British soldiers brutally beaten and murdered in Belfast)