Claim human skull used as ashtray by British soldiers ‘a fantasy’

‘It is like the KKK, it is like a brotherhood, they are sticking together’ – ex-serviceman

Relatives of those killed in what became known as the Ballymurphy Massacre are pictured outside an inquest at  Laganside Courts. Photograph:  Charles McQuillan/Getty Images.

Relatives of those killed in what became known as the Ballymurphy Massacre are pictured outside an inquest at Laganside Courts. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images.


A claim that part of a person’s skull was used as an ashtray by soldiers is a fantasy, a witness told the Ballymurphy inquest.

Henry Thornton from south Armagh was shot dead by a paratrooper on Belfast’s Springfield Road in August 1971.

The victim’s van had backfired and the soldier thought it was an attack, an inquest into Mr Thornton’s death found.

The ashtray allegation was contained in a book by a former serviceman, Henry Gow, who was in west Belfast at that time.

A hearing at Belfast Coroner’s Court is examining the deaths of 10 civilians, including a mother of eight, across three days in August 1971 which became known as the Ballymurphy Massacre.

Rioting had been ongoing since early on August 9th, after the British army moved into republican areas across Northern Ireland to arrest IRA suspects after the introduction by the Stormont administration of internment without trial.

An ex-corporal in the British army known as witness M597 on Monday urged the families of the 10 people shot dead at Ballymurphy to discount the assertion about the ashtray.

“I truly am sorry for any part that I played in this and I would like you today to leave here not believing what Harry Gow told you last week, because it is not true,” he told the Belfast inquest into the Ballymurphy killings.

“It is not true about the person’s skull being used as an ashtray... it is fantasy.

“You need to wipe that clear. I would hate for you guys to be going through the rest of your lives thinking that – it was just not true.”

The Ballymurphy families sat opposite the witness in two rows at the other side of the courtroom.

M597 said: “He is talking garbage for his book.

He said the claim that a sweepstake was run by Mr Gow’s unit to reward soldiers who “got a kill” was “absolute rubbish”.

“It is fabricated. I feel, sitting here today, I feel terrible for those people there.”

Earlier on Monday he told the inquest that out -of-control soldiers were prepared to shoot anyone innocently on the streets during the Ballymurphy killings in west Belfast.

Some within the Parachute Regiment were rogue “psychopaths”, who “revelled” in what they had done and congratulated each other afterwards, he said. “Rogue soldiers were out of control, killing people on the street and knowing that they would be protected.”

He added: “They were saying, anything out there that moves, we consider them to be in the IRA or associated with the IRA, and for that alone they could be or should be shot.”

He broke down in the witness box and described claims of a continuing culture within the military of covering up killings.

“It is like the KKK, it is like a brotherhood, they are sticking together.”

He maintained he was at the Henry Taggart base in west Belfast shortly after an incident in which the four people were fatally shot.

B company, a unit of up to 150 soldiers, was based at Henry Taggart, but M597 was part of a different company.

He recalled a conversation between soldiers there; three or four bodies lay nearby.

He was told officers in charge of B company had “lost control”, that the Paras were of the opinion that anyone, regardless of sex or age, on the streets could or should be shot.

The witness, now aged 70, said: “They were shooting innocent people, that was my interpretation.”

He alleged they had no feeling or respect for the dead. He added: “They seemed to think they could do anything and get away with it.”

He paid tribute to some good and professional soldiers. Others were from broken homes, and had avoided going to prison if they joined the army, he told the inquest.

“There were also psychopaths in there, there were people who were dangerous to have around.”

He could not recall any briefing or debriefing after the killings and claimed young soldiers were left to fight for their lives.

He was challenged by a lawyer about why he did not raise an issue with the soldiers’ conduct or why he did not just leave early.

He added: “It was not an organisation where you could go to an officer and say that type of thing.

“It just is not that type of organisation, you would have been in real deep trouble had you done that.”

He was investigated over a separate shooting of a petrol bomber and was congratulated by other servicemen, who told him how lucky he was to have a “notch on my rifle”.

He said the Parachute Regiment was no different today than it was 50 years ago and referred to recent Facebook postings by ex-servicemen surrounding prosecution of soldiers.

“Death, dementia and delay.

“What they are saying is delay it, delay it and we will all be gone.” – PA