A six-day armed siege in the centre of London gripped millions of TV viewers after it began on December 6th, 1975.
The ‘Balcombe Street Siege’ involved four members of the IRA who burst into a flat and took its two occupants hostage to escape police officers who were pursing them across London. Unwilling to jeopardise the lives of the hostages, armed police surrounded the building and sealed off nearby streets, beginning the tense stand-off.
The day’s events began outside Scott’s restaurant, in Mayfair. Almost a month earlier, on November 12th, the IRA had thrown a bomb through the restaurant window, killing one and injuring 15 others. It was part of an organised campaign of gun and bomb attacks targeted on London in 1974 and ’75.
Police noticed a pattern in which some targets were attacked more than once, so after the November 12th attack they mounted surveillance on Scott’s. It paid off on December 6th when an undercover officer saw a Ford Cortina slow to a halt outside the restaurant before its occupants opened fire on its front window.
A radio alert immediately went out and two other plain clothes officers flagged down a taxi as the fleeing gunmen approached their position, telling the driver to follow the stolen Cortina. Despite being unarmed, the officers – Inspector John Purnell and Sergeant Phil McVeigh – tailed the terrorists for several miles across central London. They used their radios to bring other officers into the chase, with the IRA men firing shots at their pursuers
As the net closed around them, the increasingly desperate gunmen abandoned their car and forced their way into a block of council flats in Balcombe Street, Marylebone. When the occupant of 22b, Sheila Matthews, opened her door to see what all the commotion was, the gunmen barged past her, barricading themselves in her flat and taking Sheila and her husband John as hostages.
Holed up in the flat and surrounded by police, the IRA men demanded a plane to fly both them and their hostages to Ireland. The police refused, beginning several days of protracted negotiations by phone and loud hailer, all watched from a distance by TV crews, press photographers and reporters. Millions of people followed the real-life drama through regular news bulletins.
Psychological pressure was used against the hostage takers, including broadcasting some misinformation in news bulletins which the police knew the gang could hear on a radio. They finally gave themselves up and were arrested on December 12th, after hearing a BBC radio broadcast which suggested elite soldiers from the SAS were planning to storm the building and release the hostages.
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 co-founder of the Guinness Book of Records, Ross McWhirter. He was assassinated after publicly offering a £50,000 reward for information on IRA activists in London. 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 behind bars 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. Several of the police officers involved in the chase across London and subsequent siege were decorated for bravery, including Insp. Purnell, who was awarded the George Medal.