The Birmingham Bombings

by Keith Fleetwood

If you ask people what they understand by the Birmingham Bombings they will always refer to the Pub Bombings. There were however certainly more than that, many of which involved British Transport Police Officers.

In August 1973 a new IRA cell of 9 commenced a very vigorous campaign of bombings and between August 1973 and August 1974 it is believed they were responsible for 20 of the 31 bombs in Birmingham. They were later jailed for a total of 260 years.

At the beginning of the campaign on the 20th August 1973 the BTP were involved. The first attack started midday with 3 incendiary devices planted in the New Street shops. One was in a Gantburry card shop in the Birmingham Shopping Centre (now known as Pallasades Shopping Centre)[1] which in the 70‟s was policed by the Force. Fortunately the device had been put in a paperback book and placed in amongst the other books on sale. The book was so tightly packed amongst the other books that when it ignited it actually caused a small explosion blowing the book out of the rack onto the floor, never actually catching fire. Unfortunately Freeman Hardy & Willis Shoe Shop was destroyed during these attacks.

Although it did not affect the BTP, shortly after this campaign started on September 17th 1973 Captain Ronald Wilkinson was killed whilst attempting to disarm a bomb. Surprisingly this was the only fatality in Birmingham up until the Birmingham Pub Bombings in November 1974.

On the 4th January 1974 the Army and Navy Recruiting offices were one of the targets. The night shift Inspector on this night was Reg Ellams and his Sergeant was Paul Nicholas (later Assistant Chief Constable). Coming up towards midnight on this night a message was received to say that there were two bombs in Birmingham City Centre. The one message said “There is a bomb in an empty unit in the Birmingham Shopping Centre”. It was their patch and Paul knew there was only one empty unit left and that was opposite the Army and Navy Recruiting offices.

Reg Ellams had just returned to work after suffering heart problems and as Paul was keen to race away Reg said “Paul hold back, wait for me” several times as they went towards the unit. Reg again told Paul to slow down as they were getting near to the corridor which led to the unit. Paul saw the glass in one of the shop windows bow inwards and shouted “Down” and they all dropped to the floor as the corridor was ripped out in front of them. Directly near the centre of the explosion the roof was intact but opposite where Paul and the other Officers were about to turn into the corridor, the roof and all the shop windows were ripped out. If Paul hadn‟t listened to Reg Ellams he would have been in the unit and his career would have ended at Sergeant.

The other miraculous escape of this night was a Birmingham City Officer searching Colmore Circus Gardens Underpass (near to Birmingham City HQ Lloyd House and the Birmingham Law Courts). He had just picked up a duffel bag from outside a sweet kiosk and had opened the bag as he heard the Shopping Centre bomb explode and instinctively he threw the bag towards the centre of the gardens only for it to explode in mid air.

This night was extremely lucky for both the British Transport Police and Birmingham City Police.

Paul describes how the shock of the explosion caused him to see everything in slow motion, an experience I will describe later.

On April 6th 1974 at approximately 20.00hrs a call had been received to say that three bombs had been planted in Birmingham. One had been located in the Hagley Road area. A suspected bomb had been placed in the street level entrance to the Birmingham Power Box and cordons had been placed around the area. As a third device was outstanding it was decided that the track level of the Power Box be searched. Sergeant Frank Henson, along with myself and PC Brian Preece, along with two other Officers, went to search the area of all the connections to the signals and points in the Birmingham area.

Shortly after we commenced searching the bomb at street level exploded, effectively one floor above us. All of the windows exploded above our heads with a strange whistling sound as all the debris flew across the void, (this was the area at the country end of New Street just before the tunnels) only to hear it all fall to the ground once it hit the far wall of the station.

As we all stood frozen to the spot a loud hailer was heard in the street above saying “Stand back there may be another bomb”. This was just around the corner from the Pub where the Birmingham Retired Officers‟ functions take place. Needless to say we beat a hasty retreat with me being left holding the cordon at the end of the platforms.

Brian Preece assisted to man a cordon along with Birmingham city police officers at the junction of Navigation Street and Stephenson Street. Later in the night I was stood down and Brian continued duty.

In addition to BTP covering the Birmingham Shopping Centre there was also a security company called „Phillips Security‟ patrolling. One of the guards was known as ‘Arthur the Hat’. If you imagine a cap that is 2 sizes too big you can understand where he got the name from.

At 06.05hrs Brian Preece was in the BTP control room when he received a message from Arthur with words to the effect that he had found a duffle bag containing wires and batteries in amongst some rubbish in the boiler room doorway at street level below the Army and Navy recruiting office, which was adjacent to Navigation Street and Stephenson Street.

Arthur was told to keep everyone away from the area.

Brian attended and was joined by a Birmingham city Police Sgt on their arrival Arthur the hat was standing in the doorway with the duffle bag in one hand and his radio in the other.

Brian beckoned him to put the duffle bag down and leave (not as politely as that) which he did. The Sgt and Brian then crossed the road and looked into the bag confirmed it was a bomb and beat a hasty retreat

Thankfully the bomber hadn‟t the nerve to throw the activation switch but whilst thinking about it left a beautiful thumb print on the switch later leading to his arrest and conviction.

If this bomb had exploded at the same time as the Power Box bomb then many people would have possibly been killed as the location where the bomb was found was where the cordon barriers had been placed at the junction of Navigation Street and Stephenson Street with hundreds of spectators in the area. Another great escape for both the public and BT Police

The duffel bag contained 15lbs of high explosive.

On the 15th July 1974 a total of five bombs and incendiary devices exploded in the Birmingham area none of which were actually on our patch but two were extremely close with our officers giving assistance. One was placed in the Rotunda at the end of the station approach road (later the scene of the Mulberry Bush pub bombing). The other an incendiary device was placed in a timber yard adjacent to the Curzon Street Parcel Concentration Depot and Banana Yard which at that time was a one man patrol post, causing £250,000 worth of damage.

After the period up until August 1974 there were other bombings in or around the Birmingham area, the most infamous being the Birmingham Pub Bombings on the Thursday night of the 21st November 1974. At this time the New Street office was running a course to assist Officers with promotion exams. Consequently, the office was quite full of Officers.

I had to drop something into the office for Sergeant Ted Graham and then, as it was a Thursday night, I went to the Booking Office to pick up my pay packet. I signed for my wages and then walked towards the glass doors at the station entrance looking up at the clock which was coming up to 20:20 hours. I then walked across the front yard towards my car and saw the Mulberry Bush Pub at the end of the station approach explode. I took everything in slow motion and saw a large ball of debris rolling up the side of the Rotunda and tried to work out why the windows were exploding in front of the debris.

I then ran down the approach road to the Mulberry Bush. As I arrived there I recognised the voice of Sergeant Mike Bevan shouting “Watch yourselves, there may be another”.

Many of the walking wounded were taken from the remains of the pub and quickly assessed. All the Taxis from New Street Station and the City formed a queue and we carried or walked casualties to the Taxis with a Birmingham City Officer directing Taxis alternately to the City Hospital or Accident Hospital. As we were doing this we were shaken by another explosion around the corner at The Tavern in the Town in New Street.

The Fire Service laid down a large tarpaulin between the Station perimeter wall and the side of the pub. This was used to place the fatalities and body parts on and as this was starting the Odeon Cinema was evacuated with one of the exit doors being at the side of the pub. Thankfully many of the people looked into the remains of the pub and were unaware of what lay on the tarpaulin to their right.

Initially the majority of the Officers at the Mulberry Bush explosion were BTP with the scene being fully handed over to Birmingham City Police after the bulk of the casualties were removed.

This was not the end of BTP‟s involvement with evidence, arrests and informants‟ information, all relating to the Pub Bombings.

Birmingham had a large Irish population and as a result of the backlash and publicity that the IRA and Irish population received, this was the last of the bombings in Birmingham during the current campaign.


Extract from the March 2013 edition of History Lines (No. 43)

[1] As of September 2015, the shopping centre has been re-built and re-opened as Grand Central, Birmingham.