David Cuthbert is not listed among those who lost their lives in the Troubles. The young Royal Navy sailor was shot dead 50 years ago this month by Brazilian guerrillas waging an armed struggle against their own country's military dictatorship. But his death illustrates how the bloody turmoil that engulfed Northern Ireland in 1972 reverberated about the world.
Cuthbert arrived in Rio de Janeiro aboard the HMS Triumph, one of six ships visiting Brazil's former capital to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Brazil's independence from Portugal. On a hot Saturday night, he and a shipmate caught a taxi from the quays where their squadron had docked to attend one of the receptions being held in honour of the visiting British.
As their taxi made its way down Avenida Rio Branco, it was followed by two cars filled with eight guerrillas drawn from local far-left organisations. The taxi stopped in front of the São Francisco hotel and Cuthbert’s shipmate entered with their driver looking for someone who spoke enough English to communicate where the sailors wanted to go. These language difficulties probably saved their lives.
Outside, one of the cars following the taxi drew up beside it. Several guerrillas jumped out, one firing a machine-gun while another threw a bundle of crudely typed and copied pamphlets at it. They then fled, leaving the teenage navy cook on his first tour of duty dead in the back seat. It was February 5th, 1972 – six days after Bloody Sunday.
“The motivation for that operation was the massacre in Ireland,” explains Carlos Alberto Sales, one of the last surviving participants in Cuthbert’s killing, speaking publicly about the operation for the first time.
There was no existing plan to target the English. It was an ad hoc operation
The worldwide sense of shock at Bloody Sunday can be tracked in Brazil's main newspapers. The story stayed on front pages all week, from Monday's initial reports about "Domingo Sangrento" to reports of Bernadette Devlin striking Reginald Maudling on the floor of the House of Commons through to a series of photos in Friday's Jornal do Brasil of foreign minister Patrick Hillery looking tense and drawn at the United Nations above the headline, "Ireland Defies England With Unrest in Newry".
“There was no existing plan to target the English. It was an ad hoc operation. There was the massacre there, their ship was here, so we could retaliate and help the comrades in Ireland,” recalls Sales, who though just 20 at the time was already into his third year of revolutionary activity. His generation of Latin radicals felt intense solidarity with similar movements across the world, among them the burgeoning armed resistance to British rule in Ireland.
“You have to understand how closely we followed the struggle in Ireland,” says Perly Cipriano, a former guerrilla who went on to serve in Brazil’s first left-wing government. “It was very interesting to us, because it had a revolutionary element like the struggles here in Latin America, but also a national liberation component.”
As with all guerrilla actions, Brazil’s authorities sought to downplay the killing of Cuthbert. They only released the sparsest of details two days later, making no mention of the supposed motive. The British press also made little of the link to Bloody Sunday, instead following their embassy’s line that the attack was an attempt to strain relations between the two countries.
It was left to US reporters based in Rio to report the operation was revenge for Bloody Sunday and in solidarity with the IRA. The pamphlets left at the scene and not released to the media at the time show their sources were sound. It opens: “Assassins! Out of Brazil! Assassins! Out of Ireland!” and closes by expressing “solidarity with the combatants in Ireland and all over the world”.
Signed by four militant groups, the “manifesto” says of the visiting British squadron: “These same officials and soldiers who seek with wide smiles and presents to gain the sympathy of our people, are those who today massacre the Irish people, to maintain them under British exploitation and domination.”
The intellectual author of the attack appears to have been James Allen da Luz, who Sales remembers today as an effective operator but “very radical”. In a 2015 deposition to researchers, Flávio Neves Leão Salles, who provided the logistics for the operation, recalled how Allen approached him: “James came and said, ‘Look Flávio we’re going to to do the following, a ship from the [royal] navy has arrived and we’re going to mount an attack to throw pamphlets explaining all this [armed struggle] here. It’ll be good because it’ll have international repercussions.’”
Censorship helped stymie that ambition. In the attack’s immediate aftermath, the Royal Navy crews were confined to ship and on-board visits were cancelled. Then authorities in London ordered the squadron to leave a day early and cancelled calls in Salvador and Recife further up the Brazilian coast. But the British embassy worried the decision would hand the guerrillas a propaganda victory and offend the Brazilian government, then emerging as a major customer for the British arms industry. Following further consultations, the calls at Salvador and Recife were reinstated.
After the ships left Rio, Cuthbert’s body was flown home. His father told the local press the family had been planning a second Christmas dinner for when he returned home. Instead, they held his funeral in his village church in Long Compton, Warwickshire.
British authorities viewed Brazil’s anti-communist dictatorship, in power since 1964, as “among the angels” and so moved swiftly on from the incident. In his annual review of 1972, ambassador Sir David Hunt wrote glowingly of Brazil’s progress and celebrated the “containment”of the guerrilla threat. Cuthbert’s “tragic” death merited only a single line in his report, with the ambassador not even referring to the “British naval rating” by name, and the guerrillas’ motives for targeting him misrepresented.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian security services went about hunting down his killers with their customary ruthless efficiency. The break in the case came on March 29th, when police stopped a taxi driven by Sales and Hélio da Silva, a childhood friend who had introduced him to the revolutionary underground following his own radicalisation while working in Rio’s railyards.
‘It was brutal’
Inside the taxi police found guns, ammunition and subversive documents. The men were quickly sent for interrogation. “It was brutal. I was partially paralysed for months afterwards from the electric shocks and could barely eat because of the beatings to my jaw,” remembers Sales.
Hélio quickly cracked under the pressure, failing to hold out for the usual 48 hours in order to give his comrades outside time to find new safe houses. The night of his arrest, he led his interrogators to a house in Rio’s Quintino neighbourhood.
What happened after it was surrounded remains disputed.Authorities say they were met with gunfire. But evidence suggests officers summarily executed three of the occupants, all militants, among them Lígia Maria Salgado da Nóbrega, who had thrown the pamphlets at the scene of Cuthbert’s killing. She was two months pregnant. Allen, her partner and the cell’s leader, escaped. A year later he would disappear in the south of Brazil, his body never identified.
The roll-up of the group that killed the young sailor is further evidence of how Brazil’s armed struggle was in existential crisis by 1972. In a telegram to Washington, the US consul in Rio noted how local observers considered Cuthbert’s killing a clear sign of the inability of “terrorist groups” to mount more sophisticated operations.
The guerrillas’ operational ability had been severely degraded by the ferocity of the counter-offensive mounted by the security forces, who were now close to breaking them as viable organisations. The four groups who co-operated on the Cuthbert operation did so because they were no longer capable of operating independently.
Inside the prisons and among militants on conditional release, there was already an intense debate about the effectiveness of armed struggle in a country where the ruling administration, overseeing an economic boom, had considerable popular support. Those still wedded to the gun increasingly looked like dead-enders.
“Our main leaders were dead and we had suffered many loses. A self-criticism was starting to take place about armed struggle, that it was not the path back towards democracy. So many of us felt the killing of the British sailor made little sense,” says Amílcar Baiardi, a commander in the VAR-Palmares group that Carlos Alberto Sales belonged to.
We realised the Brazilian people were not going to embrace our cause
Fifty years later, Sales still defends the legitimacy of his armed struggle. Born to a labouring father and a mother who worked in a textile factory, as a child he sold sweets on Rio’s commuter trains to help his family put food on the table. “I knew what injustice felt like in my bones. Our cause was just. The guerrilla movement was a response to the military coup. We were fighting for democracy, for social justice.”
But like other comrades, once in prison he too began to reflect: “We realised the Brazilian people were not going to embrace our cause.”
He and Hélio were tried and convicted by military courts for their subversive activities, including their roles in the Cuthbert killing. The military prosecutor had sought the death penalty. Instead, they were sentenced to decades in prison. The struggle against the dictatorship continued behind bars, Sales taking part in four hunger strikes. He was released in 1979 following a general amnesty as the military began to prepare for a return to civilian rule, which was completed in 1985.
From a poor background and with little support available to him on release, Sales drifted out of politics: “I had to quickly find work just to survive.” Now aged 70, he runs a small bakery business in a Rio slum. Here the social injustices he fought against a half century ago remain as entrenched as ever.
Now the guns are in the hands of local traffickers who openly deal drugs on tables set up on street corners, while a former army captain who hero-worships the dictatorship’s torturers is the country’s president.
Sales long ago gave up believing armed struggle was the solution to his country’s many ills. A half-century later, recalling the killing of the young British sailor, he says: “It was an action carried out in the emotion of the times. We had suffered so many casualties. We felt the loss of those we considered comrades even if they were abroad. It was an act of revenge in solidarity with them. But I realise it didn’t achieve anything. Maybe the Irish comrades felt good when they heard about it. But today I wouldn’t do it.”
In 2010, Cuthbert’s surviving family were among the first to receive the Elizabeth Cross, a new award granted to the next-of-kin of members of the British armed forces “killed on operations or as a result of terrorism as a mark of national recognition for their loss”.
How the British gave lessons in interrogation
When the guerrillas who killed David Cuthbert wrote in their “manifesto” that Britain’s “imperial troops... sustain in all the world regimes like the Brazilian one responsible for the misery in which live millions of men, women and children”, they were unaware of the full extent of London’s relationship with Brazil’s dictatorship.
US diplomats in Brazil had by the early 1970s started picking up reports that in certain interrogation centres there, the traditional brutal methods of electric shocks and beatings were in some cases being replaced by more sophisticated torture techniques that, while highly effective, left fewer physical marks. It was only in 1979 that a senior regime official revealed that these methods – very similar to the five techniques used on the Hooded Men in Northern Ireland – had been learned from the British.
“The idea of inviting Brazilians to London for lessons in these techniques was part of a broader effort to deepen relations with an eye to winning military contracts,” says historian João Roberto Martins Filho, whose book, State Secrets, details Anglo-Brazilian relations during the dictatorship. “Brazil’s economy was booming and London was seeking opportunities to resume its previous role as a major weapons supplier to it, a position it had lost to the USA since World War II.”
Such was the sensitivity of the matter that British officials insisted this training of Brazilians be kept secret even from its US ally, the main provider of training in torture to armed forces across Latin America.
The co-operation paid dividends. The generals in Brasília placed orders for frigates, submarines, helicopters and other military hardware with British manufacturers.