Fifty years on: the Bloody Sunday revenge bomb that left seven dead

The 50lb car bomb was detonated at the Aldershot base of the Parachute Regiment

John Bosley whose mother Thelma was one of five women killed in the Aldershot bomb blast 50 years ago. Photograph: Brian Garwood

In February 1972, Thelma Bosley was a troubled, abused woman struggling to rear three boys, David (15), Karl (14) and John (six), while suffering from depression.

Her eldest son, 21-year-old Brian, had already left home to follow in the footsteps of his father, Richard, into the Parachute Regiment. An abusive husband and violent, he had left home two years before.*

Despite his conduct, Mrs Bosley sank into a chronic depression after he left. She would often disappear for days at a time, leaving her younger boys at home to fend for themselves.

Following a month off work, she was forced because of a shortage of money to return to the kitchens of the 16th Parachute Brigade headquarters in Aldershot on Monday, February 21st, 1972.

Thelma Bosley was among seven people killed in the Aldershot bombing. Photograph: S Clarke

A day later she was killed when the Official IRA planted a car bomb outside the army mess. The bomb was a revenge act for Bloody Sunday which had occurred three weeks previously.

The Parachute Regiment had been behind that massacre, as it had been behind the one at Ballymurphy, west Belfast, in August 1971 where 11 innocent civilians were killed.

The 50lb bomb in a stolen Ford Cortina was intended for the officers responsible for Bloody Sunday, but the 1st and 2nd Battalions stationed there were away. The only officers left were delayed.

The 12.40pm detonation killed Mrs Bosley (44) and four other civilian canteen workers. All were women – Jill Mansfield (34), Joan Lunn (39), Cheri Munton (20) and Margaret Grant (32).

A gardener, John Haslar (58), and one British officer, Captain Rev Gerard Weston (38), the regimental Catholic chaplain, were also killed.

The Aldershot bombing was carried out by the Official IRA in February 1972, killing seven people. Photograph: Getty Images

Life-long consequences

The bomb would have life-long consequences for the Bosley family, already sundered by violence and infidelity. David, Karl and John went to live with their father and his new partner.

Army service was a family tradition. John Bosley’s three brothers ended up in the Parachute Regiment but John would not join because of Bloody Sunday, opting instead for the Royal Marines.

Neither he nor his brothers were allowed to serve in Northern Ireland. John admitted he hated all things Irish after his mother's death, as did Karl who was arrested after petrol bombing an Irish pub in London in 1975.

"It was a fantastic decision not to send me to Northern Ireland. I have learned a lot since. I was 19. I had been raised in a family of rigid and incorrect views on the world.

“There was no solution to my anger that was going to come from any authority. I had to devise my own way of dealing with it,” he told The Irish Times in an interview to mark the bomb’s anniversary.

"I educated myself and I have come to a whole different point of view about the whole thing. Where do you start? Eight hundred years of subjugation and Oliver Cromwell.

“Sending the Paras to keep peace is like sending a butcher to take your teeth out. I read about Irish history. I still do. If I was raised in a community of that sort, hearing the stories passed down, and with my volatile nature because I am quite cold-blooded, I would take up arms.”

Mr Bosley believes his mother and the others killed in the Aldershot bomb were as much victims of Bloody Sunday as the 14 people that died in that massacre.

Today, he still feels bitter about the lack of security at the barracks. How were the bombers able to drive into an army barracks, park up in front of the mess and leave without being detected?

The Parachute Regiment was responsible for Bloody Sunday, yet it never expected or prepared for a reprisal: “Because of our connection with the Paras, we couldn’t scream at the top of our voices.

“We couldn’t criticise the lack of restraint [Bloody Sunday] on one hand and the complacency on the other. We couldn’t denigrate where we came from, if that makes sense,” he said.

Following the pub attack in London, his brother Karl was sent to borstal. Described as a “festering timebomb”, he joined the Parachute Regiment, married an Irish woman from Belfast and went to art school.

He sought answers about the Aldershot security blunders, but never received any. In 2002, he spoke at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation before Prince Charles, the colonel-in-chief of the Parachute Regiment.

Yet, he could get no solace: “It drove him [Karl] over the edge,” says Mr Bosley. “He ended up losing his job and going to prison. He was in an armed stand-off with police in south London. He went downhill.”

Last year, aged just 62, Karl killed himself. “Gradually over a 20-year period, he drank himself to death,” recalls Mr Bosley, who is “100 per cent” certain that his mother’s death led to Karl’s suicide.

“We don’t have exclusivity on suffering, not at all. I have met people that have made my heart bleed. We were dysfunctional already because my father was extremely violent. He was a scary guy.

“He left and my mother was devastated. It was a cruel irony that my mother was of Irish descent (her mother was a Devlin) and from a staunch Catholic background.

Universal revulsion

“Our house was adorned with statues of Mary and crosses. She had bright red hair and a fiery temper,” he said. After his mother’s death, things got worse for them in their new home.

Aldershot was the first republican bomb attack in Britain during the Troubles. Outside republican circles, it provoked universal revulsion on both sides of the Irish Sea.

It was a public relations disaster for the Official IRA, then facing a threat from the Provisional IRA. Moving in the direction of revolutionary left-wing politics, it went on a permanent ceasefire in May 1972.

Noel Jenkinson, a Protestant Marxist from Co Meath, was eventually convicted of the bombing and sentenced to 40 years in jail. He died of a heart attack in prison four years later.

Veteran republican Liam MacGabhann observed that all sympathy for the Officials “held by the ordinary people of Ireland” died that afternoon: “It is buried with the corpses of the women of Aldershot,” he wrote.

The victims will be remembered on Tuesday, when a memorial is finally unveiled at the housing estate that has replaced the barracks in Aldershot, one paid for by the developers, Grainger PLC.

For years, former Para Geoff Butler, an eyewitness to the bomb, visited the site on the anniversary. He was just 20ft away when the bomb went off, and was saved by an embankment that took the blast's force.

Shortly afterwards, he turned 18 and joined his regiment in Northern Ireland. Just a month later he was was close to the Donegall Street bombing in Belfast by the Provisional IRA, which killed seven.

He knew nothing about Ireland when he was posted later to Ballymurphy. “I couldn’t understand why there was so much hatred against us. Of course now, I understand why,” he recalled.

"A lot of our guys were working class. We didn't know Irish history. I'm not against a united Ireland. None of us were. The Protestant and Catholics thing, we couldn't get the jist of it. Nobody cared in England. "

Meanwhile, Mr Bosley will visit the Aldershot memorial, but not today because he objects to the publicity over the presence of the Parachute Regiment, who he blames partially for his mother’s death.

“We will hear a lot about what happened in Aldershot, but not about the why it happened,” he told The Irish Times sadly, “it’s the same people making the same decisions”.

*This article was amended on February 21st, 2022

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times