Bloody Sunday – Wilford and culpability by ‘Der Whig’

I’m taking the unusual step of reproducing in full a comment submitted by ‘Der Whigphilosophie der Geschichte’ on the first ‘Bloody Sunday’ thread.

Der Whig – as he shall henceforth be known – is a regular-ish commenter on threads discussing the conduct and operations of HM’s armed forces and has previously volunteered the fact that he has frontline experience in the British Army. His contributions are never less than thoughtful and informative. Here, he is responding to my comment that Colonel Derek Wilford (Lieutenant Colonel in charge of 1 Para on the day), who disobeyed the orders of Brigadier McClellan and sent his men into the Bogside on a snatch operation which had little or no prospect of success, should have been court-martialed (as opposed to receiving the OBE 6 months after Bloody Sunday) and bears the bulk of the responsibility for the fact that 14 civilians (13 on the day) lost their lives.

It’s a comment any prospective Bloody Sunday thread contributor – whatever their viewpoint – would do well to contemplate.

I share some of your perspective on Wilford’s culpability, although I would disagree over the reasons why.

I don’t believe he directly encouraged his men to engage in mass murder on BS, and the available evidence of his orders and behavior of the other companies in the same battalion under his command appears to substantiate that. I think the Paras were certainly expected to inflict some physical but non-lethal violence during the arrest process on rioters (and engage the IRA with small arms) and trigger more rioting when they entered the Bogside. That prospect was greeted with equanimity by the army command given what they saw as the failure of more moderate elements in Londonderry to respond to a lengthy period of relative restraint by the army and police which had simply let the rioting and arson of the DYH continue unchecked.

Wilford pushing his battalion’s arrest operation into the Bogside earlier than the Brigade command might have wished could not reasonably have been expected to result in a massacre, as previous experience generally demonstrated – if anything, I suspect it could be justified as trying to preempt the more organised mass rioting, petrol-bomb attacks and sniping which would have met a slower incursion to the Bogside.

To my mind the culpability lies with the soldiers who did the firing, and the section- and platoon-level officers and NCO’s who were immediately alongside them (Corporals, Sergeants, at least one Lieutenant) – they were the people with the responsibility to impose and maintain fire discipline even in a major wartime fire-fight and they failed to do so on BS. Where Wilford was demonstrably wrong in my mind was in his post-facto backing of the unjustifiable, where his responsibilities amounted to more than excusing the inexcusable done by men under his command due to some form of misguided loyalty to his troops. I have to say that all Wilford (and other British officers and officials) did then, wrong though it was, was no different from what I personally observed nationalists and unionists doing frequently in NI when they sought to diffuse the crimes of republicans or loyalists by minimising or ignoring their culpability and concentrating on the misdeeds of ‘the other side’.

Distinguishing between civilians and gunmen in the kinds of rioting experienced by 1 Para in Northern Ireland in 1970-72 was often hard; in my opinion more difficult than nationalists have ever been prepared to admit. Those situations often involved collaborative or collusive rioting between the rioters and the IRA against the army, and featured substantial gun attacks on the soldiers involved. That doesn’t excuse the unjustified killings of civilians in those circumstances, but it does explain why the soldiers involved were expecting significant violence directed at them and why that may have conditioned their responses.

In conclusion, the potential for BS existed on dozens if not hundreds of occasions in NI. In my opinion, what happened on BS was that at least two platoons of Paratroopers abandoned fire-control discipline for a short space of time [I’ll explain my understanding of why they did later if required, but it centres upon the decisions and over-reactions of individuals and small groups of soldiers]. The results of that were bad enough, and it was made worse by the refusal of the army and government to confront that reality, but it does not mean that the Paras or the army as a whole did the same as a matter of policy; if that had been the case, the civilian death toll would be closer to the levels experienced on the Eastern front in WW2. The fact that the Paras colluded and some of them clearly lied in their testimony to the RMP at the time indicates that they knew they had gone beyond what they thought the army would tolerate.

Nationalists have plenty of legitimate grievances about BS (and other events of that period) IMO, and the culpability for BS in particular lies firmly at the feet of the army, but one factor preventing an earlier acknowledgement of that is the kind of ill-founded and often hyperbolic accusations of systematic behavior that have often been made about the rest of the British army on the basis of what some Paras did on BS.

I’ve since responded to Der Whig, but my response doesn’t merit the prominence his comment clearly deserves.