People were reeling in shock at the cold-blooded assassination of TV personality Ross McWhirter on November 27th, 1975.
Together with his twin brother Norris, he was co-founder and editor of the Guinness Book of Records. It brought him to public attention through regular appearances on the hit BBC TV show “Record Breakers”, fronted by Roy Castle.
But Ross McWhirter (pictured) was also a political activist and an outspoken critic of the Provisional IRA. He had even held a press conference at which he personally offered a cash reward for information leading to a conviction in relation to several high-profile bombings in England, for which the IRA had claimed responsibility. The reward was £50,000, equivalent to around £385,000 in today’s terms.
Fifty-year-old Mr McWhirter knew it would make him an enemy of the IRA and routinely took precautions such as checking for car bombs under his Mercedes and varying his routes to and from work. But nothing could have prepared him for the events which unfolded 42 years ago today.
It was in the early evening, around 6-45pm, when his wife, Rosemary, arrived at their family home in Enfield, North London. Her husband was inside, where he had been getting ready for an evening at the theatre.
As Mrs McWhirter got out of her car, she was approached by two men holding pistols, who had been waiting out of sight in the garden. She ran into the house as her husband came to the door to greet her, and seconds later heard two shots fired. Ross McWhirter had been shot in the head and chest with a powerful .357 Magnum handgun.
The two gunmen fled the scene in Mrs McWhirter’s car, a blue Ford Granada, which police later found abandoned a few miles away in Tottenham.
Mr McWhirter was rushed to hospital, but died soon after arriving there. His wife and her two sons were taken to a secret address, where they were guarded around the clock, while Scotland Yard launched an investigation into the shooting and searched for clues that would lead to the killers.
Nine days later, four IRA men in a stolen Ford Cortina pulled up outside a popular restaurant in Mayfair and fired gunshots through the window. They had previously bombed the same restaurant just a few weeks earlier, killing one and injuring 15 more. This time the police were waiting and two unarmed plain clothes officers flagged down a taxi to tail the men as they attempted to escape through London’s busy streets.
More officers were alerted by radio and joined the chase, with the four men firing shots at their pursuers. As the net closed around them, the increasingly desperate gunmen forced their way into a council flat in Balcombe Street, Marylebone, taking hostage the middle-aged couple who lived there.
It was the start of a six-day siege, watched by millions on TV and which led to the men being dubbed the ‘Balcombe Street Gang’. Finally, they gave themselves up and were arrested after hearing a BBC radio broadcast which claimed that elite soldiers from the SAS were planning to storm the building.
The gang – part of a six-man IRA ‘Active Service Unit’ (ASU) based in London – were charged with 20 bombings and seven murders, including that of Ross McWhirter. At the conclusion of their trial in 1977, they were each handed multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole. In the end they served 23 years before being freed in April 1999 under the terms of the previous year’s Good Friday Agreement, the multi-party peace deal for Northern Ireland.
Following his twin brother’s murder, Norris McWhirter continued to edit the Guinness Book of Records for the next 10 years and appeared regularly on the Record Breakers TV show until 1994. He died in 2004, aged 78.