Explainer: What happened on Bloody Sunday in 1972?

13 people were shot dead by British paratroopers in space of 10 minutes

The 13 people killed on Bloody Sunday were shot dead by members of the 1st battalion (1 Para) of the British Army's Parachute Regiment in the space of 10 minutes shortly after 4pm on January 30th, 1972.

Fifteen people also were wounded in the Bloody Sunday shootings with one of them, John Johnston, dying as a result of those injuries four months later. At least two others were badly injured when struck by British army vehicles.

1 Para was sent to Derry that day to deal with a banned anti-internment march that started in the Creggan area of the city and by a circuitous route was to end at the Guildhall in the city centre.

Rioting quickly broke out close to a British army barrier with British soldiers responding by firing plastic bullets

An estimated 15,000-20,000 people participated in the parade. When it reached the city centre the organisers, knowing that marchers would be prevented from terminating at the Guildhall, decided they would avoid the Guildhall and instead parade to Free Derry Corner in the Bogside to hear anti-internment speeches.


When the civil rights march reached the junction of William Street and Rossville Street, many people diverted from the main parade including, as Lord Saville said in his 2010 report into Bloody Sunday, "those who were eager for a confrontation with the security forces".

Rioting quickly broke out close to a British army barrier with British soldiers responding by firing plastic bullets and spraying the rioters with jets of water fired from water cannon. Lord Saville said that soldiers from the Royal Green Jackets “acted with restraint in the face of the rioting at this barrier (at William Street) and deployed no more than properly proportionate force in seeking to deal with it”.


This was happening shortly before 4pm. At this time two British soldiers from a machine gun platoon fired five shots between them from a derelict building on William Street wounding 15-year-old Damien Donaghey in the thigh.

“Unknown to the soldiers,” as Lord Saville reported, “John Johnston (aged 55), who was a little distance behind Damien Donaghey, was also hit and injured by fragments from this gunfire.” Mr Johnston died in June that year, his death blamed on those injuries.

Very shortly after this shooting a member of the Official IRA – known by the pseudonym OIRA 1 – fired from across William Street at British soldiers, hitting a drainpipe. He and another Official IRA member – known as OIRA 2 – said this shooting was in reprisal for the wounding of Damien Donaghey, although Lord Saville believed the shooting was an opportunistic sniping attack, rather than an act of retaliation.

The killings were over in minutes, the trauma and fallout continuing close to half a century on

1 Para was under the command of Colonel Derek Wilford who was answerable to Brigadier Pat MacLellan. The brigadier had operational control and issued orders from Ebrington Barracks across the River Foyle.

At 4.07pm Brigadier MacLellan gave 1 Para orders by radio to mount an arrest operation by sending one company of soldiers through the barrier at William Street – known as Barrier 14 – but not to conduct a running battle down Rossville Street. This meant, said Lord Saville, “not to chase people down that street”.

Colonel Wilford did not comply with Brigadier MacLellan’s order. He deployed one company through Barrier 14 as he was authorised to do, but “in addition and without authority” he deployed a support company in vehicles through another barrier in Little James Street – known as Barrier 12.


The vehicles travelled along Rossville Street and into the Bogside, where the soldiers disembarked. It was thereafter that the killings started. Lord Saville said that it was Lieutenant N who fired the first rifle shots in the Bogside, shots used to disperse people who had been attempting to rescue a man who had been arrested by one of the soldiers. No one was injured in this shooting.

Soon after soldiers opened fire in the area of the car park of the Rossville Flats mortally wounding 17-year-old Jackie Duddy and wounding or injuring several others.

Six people were killed at a rubble barricade that had been erected across Rossville Street: Michael Kelly (17), Hugh Gilmour (17), William Nash (19), John Young (17), Michael McDaid (20) and Kevin McElhinney (17).

Others soldiers went into Glenfada Park North where they mortally wounded William McKinney (26) and Jim Wray (aged 22) and wounded four others. "Jim Wray was shot twice, the second time probably as he lay mortally wounded on the ground," reported Lord Saville.

One of these soldiers then went to nearby Abbey Park where he fatally wounded Gerard McKinney (35), his shot passing through his body and mortally wounding Gerald Donaghey (aged 17).

Some of the soldiers who were in Glenfada Park North went to its south-east corner, where from a road entrance to Rossville Street they fired across the street instantly killing Bernard "Barney" McGuigan (41) and fatally wounding Patrick Doherty (32).

The killings were over in minutes, the trauma and fallout continuing close to half a century on.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times