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Twenty-five years on memories of the IRA bombing of Royal Marines Barracks at Deal are still raw for many

On a bright September morning in 1989 a massive IRA bomb was detonated in the Coffee Boat rest area at Deal barracks.

Eleven Royal Marine musicians were killed and another 11 were injured in the blast, which sent shock waves through the quiet, close-knit seaside town.

Yet despite the horror of events that morning, the day and its aftermath bore witness to acts of courage, to the unbreakable spirit of the Royal Marines, and to a proud community that refused to be broken.

The Royal Marines band performing at Walmer bandstand
The Royal Marines band performing at Walmer bandstand

Today the town marks the 25th anniversary of the attack with a concert on Walmer Green, performed by the Royal Marine Bands Portsmouth and Collingwood.

Since the closure of Deal barracks in 1996, the Royal Marines Band from Portsmouth has returned most years to perform on the Walmer Green bandstand, built as a memorial to the 11 musicians who were killed.

Memories of September 22 1989 are still raw for many. When Colour Sergeant Jay O’Neil offered his bandsmen a lie-in because they had been playing at a retirement party at Deal barracks the night before, his decision saved many lives.

There were just 25 bandsmen in and around the rest area known as the Coffee Boat, instead of the usual 70, when the bomb that was hidden underneath a sofa went off.

Former Royal Marine Bandsman Jay O'Neil
Former Royal Marine Bandsman Jay O'Neil

But C/Sgt O’Neil, the leader of the orchestra, had reported for duty as usual that morning and was standing in the foyer when the blast ripped through the Coffee Boat.

Now aged 62, Jay O’Neil recalls that moment as if it was yesterday.

He says: “I can even hear the sound of the blast now and being lifted off my feet and flying through the air. It was like travelling around in a hurricane and I was flung out of the window.

“I landed on my side with my legs trapped together under the collapsed roof. I remember looking up and seeing live electric wire hanging down and shouting for people to turn the power off as I thought they had been a gas explosion.

“I could see there was a hole in my kneecap which had been made by my other knee that had been forced onto it. I had cuts from glass and my hair was singed and matted together.”

An aerial view shows the extent of the devastation after the Deal barracks bombing
An aerial view shows the extent of the devastation after the Deal barracks bombing

His injuries were treated at Deal Hospital, but they left Jay in a wheelchair for weeks after the blast, followed by a lengthy period on crutches.

The ex-Royal Marine said that the toll of dead and injured would have been much worse if all of the bandsmen had reported in. “We could have lost most of the band in the explosion,” he shudders.

The closeness the musicians had as a group made the trauma harder to bear.

“The band service was like a family; the men became your brothers and we looked after each other,” Jay says.

Royal Marines Commandant Richard Dixon
Royal Marines Commandant Richard Dixon

Former Commandant of the Royal Marines in Deal, Richard Dixon, had been in South Barracks when he heard the explosion.

He raced to the North Barracks where he came across Royal Marines trying to dig their fellow bandsman from the debris.

“The men who escaped the blast were diving into the rubble and clawing away at the masonry with their bare hands to rescue those trapped,” he recalls.

Floral tributes outside Deal barracks after the bombing
Floral tributes outside Deal barracks after the bombing

They had been a close-knit group – Royal Marines first, but also friends.

“It was a comfortable environment in which we lived,” the former Commandant states matter of factly.

“I was in control but I was close enough to sense that the Royal Marines were very happy in Deal.”

In the wake of the tragedy, the band marched through the streets of Deal leaving empty spaces for those who were killed. The townsfolk were out in force, lining the streets in tribute to the men.

Lt Col Dixon says: “Eleven men were killed because of what happened that day but the band service went on.

“It is what they would have wanted and it was the proudest moment of my life.”

Townpeople watched as the band marched through the streets of Deal leaving empty spaces for those killed
Townpeople watched as the band marched through the streets of Deal leaving empty spaces for those killed

Nursing officer Maureen Bane had just finished sorting out her mail at Deal Hospital and was putting a letter in the internal post when she heard a bang.

“I didn’t know what the bang was but I had a funny feeling about it and said to the receptionist that I would go down to casualty,” she recalls.

Her instincts had been right and not long after there was a frantic knocking on the door.

“There was a man standing outside covered from head to foot in dust. He took me to his van where an injured young man was lying on the corrugated floor inside the vehicle.”

“When they arrived at the hospital, it swung us into action and I said to the girls 'let’s get casualty cleared for arrivals'.

"But there was no panic and I’m so proud of all the hospital staff and of their professional reactions,” says Maureen.

She added that she was overwhelmed by offers of support after news of the explosion had filtered through.

“Everyone was asking ‘can I help?’ Maureen says. “GPs left their practices to come in, off-duty nurses arrived and catering and domestic staff volunteered for duties.

“I sent a sister and two nurses to the barracks to see if there was anything they could do at the scene.

“But in the meantime I had to ensure the whole hospital was running smoothly, that the regular patients were kept calm.”

Nursing officer Maureen Bane, taken at the time of the Deal bombing
Nursing officer Maureen Bane, taken at the time of the Deal bombing

When firefighter Malcolm Cowie left for work on the morning of September 22, he heard a bang in the distance.

He was on his way to start a shift at Deal fire station in London Road and had left his home in Beechwood Avenue.

“It was more like a boom in the air and I didn’t really take much notice,” the station sub officer said. “I had heard mines being blown up on the Goodwin Sands before, so I didn’t think much of it.”

As he approached the station, two fire engines were already on their way up the road and not much later on he would learn the horrifying truth – the distant boom that he had registered somewhere at the back of his mind was a bomb ripping through the Royal Marines barracks.

“Everything was in chaos,” said Malcolm. “It was a terrible kerfuffle at the start and there were people all over the place.”

A sense of order was established within 30 minutes, helped by the arrival of six fire engines from Dover, Sandwich, Eastry, Thanet, Folkestone and Canterbury.

Firefighters outside the barracks on the day of the bombing
Firefighters outside the barracks on the day of the bombing

Lifting gear was also brought in from Folkestone to deal with the collapsed roof at the centre of the explosion. The station had the equipment to deal with emergencies in the Channel Tunnel, which was under construction at the time.

Malcolm said: “There was the possibility of a secondary device going off and we had to get as many people away from the barracks who didn’t need to be there.”

The canteen became a makeshift home for the walking wounded, while other injured Royal Marines had to be treated in situ.

Malcolm said: “We had to free people by hand who were caught in the rubble and one casualty was trapped in the locker room, wedged behind the lockers, and it took an hour to free him.”

The sombre task of recovering the dead began in earnest while those who had suffered blast injuries, burns and multiple cuts were desperately in need of help.

Armed guards stood watch following the explosion
Armed guards stood watch following the explosion

Malcolm described the state of shock in the aftermath of the carnage.

“It was a calm, almost surreal scene with the only noise the sound of the rescue equipment whirring.”

But he said there was also a sense of quiet dignity too in the way that the Royal Marines dealt with the horror that had befallen them.

“This was a Royal Marines barracks and they were a disciplined service,” he explained.

His thoughts at the time echoed those of many in Deal and further afield. It was a sense of utter disbelief. “I couldn’t believe that someone would target Deal. I thought ‘Deal – really? The Royal Marines band – why?’”

Twenty-five years on Malcolm, 60, remains at Deal fire station as officer in charge and the same question remains unanswered – Why?

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