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Today in history… mortar bomb attack on Downing Street

12:00am | & Lifestyle

A PERILOUSLY near miss by IRA bombers targeting the top tier of British government led to heightened security and widespread shock at just how close they had come.

It happened on Monday February 7th, 1991, when three mortar shells were fired at the rear of 10 Downing Street during a high level Cabinet meeting. Two of them overshot, landing on the adjacent Mountbatten Green, but the third exploded in the rear garden of Number 10, shaking the building and scorching its wall.

Four people, including two policemen, sustained minor injuries, but although no-one was killed, the attack was far too close for comfort. The Provisional IRA, in its fight for a united and independent Ireland, had used homemade mortars several times on Irish soil, but never before on the British mainland.

Mortars are simple tubes which launch explosive shells in a high-arcing trajectory to drop on their targets from above, a bit like a ‘lob’ shot in tennis. The difficulty is in aiming them accurately enough to land successfully on a specific target. The IRA sanctioned the idea of a mortar attack on Downing Street some years in the mid-1980s, hoping to assassinate its number one target, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Planning was well under way when she unexpectedly resigned in November 1990, so it was decided to proceed against her successor, John Major.

Two mortar experts were sent from Ireland to help build the mortars and scout a location from where they could be fired at 10 Downing Street. They were assembled in the back of a Transit van with a hole cut in its roof for the shells to be fired through. The chosen firing location was at the junction of Whitehall with Horse Guards Avenue, more than 200 yards from the target. It required the shells to be launched up and over several tall buildings, with no line of sight to the target.

With the planning in place it was just a matter of waiting for a time when it was known in advance that senior government figures, including the Prime Minister, would be meeting inside 10 Downing Street. That opportunity came on February 7th, with a meeting of the ‘War Cabinet’ to discuss the ongoing Gulf War, attended by several senior Ministers, other Cabinet members and civil servants.

At around 10am, with snow falling in the capital, the unknown driver of the van parked it at the predetermined location and set the timed fuses on the three mortars inside before making good his escape on a motorbike which had been left nearby. At 10-08am a policeman was walking towards the van to investigate it when the mortars launched in quick succession, followed by an incendiary device designed to set the van on fire and destroy any forensic evidence.

Each mortar shell was four-and-a-half feet long, weighed 140lbs and carried a 40lb payload of plastic explosive, designed to detonate on impact. Two shells overshot their target and landed on Mountbatten Green, one exploding and making a large crater, but the other failing to detonate. The third exploded in the back garden of 10 Downing Street, just 30 yards from where the Cabinet Meeting was taking place inside.

It left a crater several feet deep and shook the building, scorching its back wall, but the netted bomb-proof windows of the Cabinet Office held firm. Inside, people ducked under the table for cover, as they had been trained to do, half-expecting another explosion. When it didn’t come, the Prime Minister calmly announced: “I think we’d better start again… somewhere else.”

The room was quickly evacuated and the meeting reconvened just 10 minutes later in the more secure Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBRA) in Whitehall. Meanwhile, hundreds of police officers converged on the area around Downing Street, sealing off the ‘government district’ from the Houses of Parliament to Trafalgar Square. It remained on shutdown for around eight hours, with hundreds of government employees locked in their buildings for their own safety.

The Provisional IRA quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it served as a warning that nowhere was safe for the British government and it would be “forced to meet in bunkers”. The Prime Minister responded by pointing out the attack had failed, saying: “Our determination to beat terrorism cannot be beaten by terrorism. The IRA’s record is one of failure in every respect, and that failure was demonstrated yet again today.

However, Peter Gurney, head of the Explosives Section at the Metropolitan Police’s Anti-Terrorist Branch, was less dismissive in his appraisal of the attack: “It was a remarkably good aim,” he said, “if you consider that the bomb was fired 250 yards across Whitehall with no direct line of sight.

“Technically, it was quite brilliant and I’m sure that many army crews, given a similar task, would be very pleased to drop a bomb that close. You’ve got to park the launch vehicle in an area which is guarded by armed men and you’ve got less than a minute to do it. I was very, very surprised at how good it was. If the angle of fire had been moved about five or ten degrees, then those bombs would actually have impacted on Number Ten.”

Having personally defused the unexploded shell, Mr Gurney was in no doubt of the carnage that could have been caused if there had been a direct hit on the building.

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