Twenty-five years after a massive terrorist bomb ripped through the Royal Marines School of Music, one survivor of the blast has told his harrowing story for the first time. Sam Bannister reports.
Frozen on the face of a Royal Marine’s wristwatch is the very moment a terrorist bomb sent shockwaves around the world – leaving a mark upon the corps which can still be seen today.
At 8.22am on September 22, 1989, a 15lb bomb detonated in a changing room at the Royal Marines School of Music in Deal, Kent.
The sound of the blast was heard for miles, smashing windows of nearby homes and flattening the barracks in an instant.
It was a devastating attack – carried out by the IRA during its bloody war in the dispute over Northern Ireland – which sparked widespread condemnation and killed 11 bandsmen.
But while the wreckage has long been cleared away, the scars upon those who survived the blast have taken longer to heal.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the attack, and yesterday two former bandsmen presented personal items to the modern day Royal Marines School of Music, which is now based in Portsmouth.
One of them, Terry Holland, handed over his wristwatch, smashed and frozen on the exact time the bomb went off.
Despite being seriously injured and buried in the rubble, Mr Holland, 44, from Emsworth, was rescued and went on to make a full recovery.
‘For me, the moment on that watch is when all time stopped,’ he told The News.
‘I remember going for breakfast that morning, and then I woke up in hospital two weeks later. I can’t remember where I was but I must have been very close.
‘Being caught up in the bomb and recovery afterwards, I didn’t know what happened to my watch until some time after it happened.
‘The police did a presentation to the band service about how the investigation was coming along, and they had a slideshow of images.
‘The last image was of my watch. I asked for it back and it took six years, because it was all part of the evidence.
‘I wanted to get it back because it was quite a personal thing for me, considering it had stopped on the exact date and time of the blast.
‘But it has been sat in my loft ever since.
‘It has the damage and the date and time there so that for me is very personal.’
Nobody has ever been convicted of causing the deaths, caused by the device planted in the changing rooms of the marines’ recreational centre.
A housing estate now sits on the site of the former school, along with a memorial garden.
A service is held there every year to remember those who died.
In the 25 years since the attack, Mr Holland did not once return to Deal until this year.
‘I didn’t have any counselling in the last 25 years and I think that has caused me problems,’ he adds. ‘This year is the first year I have gone back to Deal and I just found I was walking around in tears.
‘The bombing changed me as a person and I switched off my emotions. When I came round after the bomb and I learned what had happened I was angry. Just really angry.
‘I had missed the funerals by that point so I was very sad about that.
‘I also felt very guilty about why I had survived and other people had died.’
Mr Holland carried on serving for a further 14 years, before the effects of the blast on his hearing took their toll for good and he was medically discharged.
Now he has returned to the Royal Marines School of Music, but this time as a civilian working in the band’s music storeroom.
Mr Holland presented his wristwatch to the current Royal Marines School of Music in Portsmouth yesterday, alongside retired Lieutenant Colonel John Ware, 70, who was then the principal director of music for the Royal Marines Band Service.
Lt Col Ware handed over letters of condolence from President George H W Bush and Margaret Thatcher sent in the wake of the attack.
The letters and watch were yesterday put on display in a memorial room at Portsmouth Naval Base.
Lt Col Ware said: ‘Before I took up my appointment I spent some time with the United States Marine Corps in Washington DC and I was, as far as we are aware, the only British officer to take part in the inauguration of President George H W Bush.
‘As a result, we received this letter from President Bush. When I left I took these letters with me for safe keeping and now is the time for me to return them to where they should be.
‘It is a very poignant moment for me to be presenting these letters to the Royal Marines School of Music.
‘It has taken 25 years for me to come back to face up to things.
‘I went to Deal for the memorial concert this year and it is the first time I have been because I knew I would find it very difficult.’
Lt Col Ware was in Gosport at the time of the attack, sitting on an interview board.
When the news came through of an explosion at the Royal Marines School of Music, he was flown to Deal within the hour.
‘My memory after that is very blurred as there was so much to do,’ he adds. ‘I visited surviving family members and spent considerable time talking to them.
‘There was a lot of anger and shock but also a lot of fortitude and determination that this wasn’t going to stop them doing their jobs.’
That fortitude went on display one week after the bombing, when the staff and students of the School of Music decided to march through the town of Deal leaving gaps in their formation to mark the positions of those who had been killed or injured.
The parade was watched by thousands, who applauded the marines as they marched.
‘It was very emotional,’ says Warrant Officer 1 Simon Tripp.
WO Tripp, 43, of Lee-on-the-Solent, is today the bandmaster of the Royal Marines School of Music in Portsmouth.
He was based in Deal at the time of the bombing and took part in the rescue operation and the march a week later.
‘People were applauding us, and then 5ft further down you had people crying their eyes out,’ he adds. ‘The presentation of the watch and letters is a really fitting tribute to those who lost their lives on that day.
‘The training band that I was in was on the parade ground at the time.
‘I still remember that we were playing the Luftwaffe March, and in exact timing as we finished the march, there was this huge explosion.
‘We immediately broke off and assumed it must have been a gas explosion or something.
‘We offered help wherever we could. I picked up a stretcher being carried by a paramedic but I couldn’t see who was on it. I later realised it was Terry Holland.’
Thousands of people in Deal bid an emotional farewell to the school in 1996 when it was relocated to Portsmouth.
The long bond between the town and the Royal Marines became even stronger as a result of the attack and local people had raised more than £1m for the victims’ relatives.
Royal Marines were first stationed in Deal in 1860.
The School of Music was based at Eastney in Portsmouth from 1903 to 1930 when it moved to Deal.
Thanks from music director
Lieutenant Colonel Nick Grace is the current principal director of music for the Royal Marines Band Service.
‘This year is a very special year for the Royal Marines Band Service, with it being 350 years since the creation of the corps, 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, 70 years since D-Day and 25 years since the IRA bombing in Deal,’ said Lt Col Grace, who was a serving member of the Portsmouth band at the time of the bombing.
‘We heard that morning of a possible gas explosion and it was only later on that were told about the devastation that went on, where 11 Royal Marines died as a result.
‘I am extremely grateful to Lt Col Ware and Mr Holland for what they have presented to the Royal Marines School of Music.’
- The 11 bandsmen killed were: Musician Michael Ball; Band Corporal Trevor Davis; Musician Richard Jones; Musician Chris Nolan; Musician Mark Petch; Musician Bob Simmonds; Band Corporal Andy Cleatheroe; Musician Richard Fice; Band Corporal David McMillan; Band Corporal Dean Pavey; and Musician Tim Reeves.
Letter from Margaret Thatcher
Dear Colonel Ware,
Thank you very much for accompanying me during my visit to the Royal Marines School of Music and to the various hospitals where those who were injured in the bomb explosion are being cared for.
It has been a devastating blow for the people of Deal.
I wanted to show with my visit that the whole country is united in sharing your sorrow, but also in admiration for the courage and fortitude of the Royal Marines and their band, which gives such enormous pleasure to so many people year after year.
I should be grateful if you could convey my gratitude and admiration to all those at the School of Music.
Letter from George Bush
Dear Colonel Ware,
Please accept my condolences on the tragedy that the British Royal Marines suffered. The loss of such fine people in a brutal terrorist attack is truly shocking.
I remember your visit to the United States when you marched next to Colonel Bourgeois with our Marine Band on January 20; this expressed so appropriately the kinship between our two countries. This memory deepens my grief over this incident.
Your parade through the streets of Deal last week was an inspiring tribute to your brave men. The spaces in your ranks were not only a stark reminder of the horror of terrorism but also a symbol of the pride of the British Royal Marines. All the world joins the citizens of Deal in applauding you and your fine men.
I join with Colonel Bourgeois and the men and women of The President’s Own in sending our sympathy and encouragement to the members of the Royal Marines School of Music and to their loved ones.