Former RUC officer recalls narrow escape from death in Troubles

Only the alertness of a police driver stood between an officer and death.

He was on patrol in the 1980s in Londonderry and retracing a route when the man behind the wheel noticed a bin which had not been there earlier and slammed on the brakes.

The retired officer recalled: "Then it exploded."

Republicans had used a booby-trapped device hidden inside the waste container to target the vehicle.

The blast missed obliterating the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers by inches.

Another time, a van was parked suspiciously and the former reservist had driven past it and was radioing in registration details when it exploded.

He recalled: "I was worried I had set it off with my radio."

He was only 18 or 19 when he started in Northern Ireland's second city in 1985 with minimal training.

Shortly afterwards he was "introduced" to senior IRA figures in the Creggan estate, having to maintain a nonchalant demeanour when inside he was terrified.

He added: "I just felt overwhelmed, those experiences desensitised you to a lot of things."

He had memorised the faces of 250 terrorists, watching them but he also knew they were watching him.

He talked to them, once realising that they knew where he lived, knew who his family was.

"It was like something out of a cowboy film, only not funny."

He had to drive to work in Fort George in his own car in the early days, vulnerable to attack from unseen snipers.

"You were hyper-sensitive, you were going down thinking is it going to be me, will I die."

There was great camaraderie with other officers but isolation from friends outside the force who could not understand.

The attacks continued, with explosives using sweet jars containing petrol mixed with sugar. It created a napalm-like substance which burned and stuck to the skin.

"You were mostly a soldier - nowhere was a no-go area."

Vehicle checkpoints came under attack, he graphically recalled pulling away a colleague attempting mouth-to-mouth on a soldier whose limbs had been blown off and who was beyond saving.

Some workmates were not coping and six drank themselves to death, he said.

He had been brought up among Catholics and was non-sectarian.

Chance encounters bestowed deeper understanding of the suffering experienced in the city.

When he told a resident at a checkpoint that his policeman friend had been killed two weeks previously, he was reminded: "It was not done in my name."

On another occasion, he was manning a bridge checkpoint when a fellow officer who had just been shot pulled up in his car bleeding profusely and seeking help.

An ambulance driver would not take him to hospital and the police had to drive the ambulance themselves.

There was black humour.

A suspect was being interviewed at Strand Road station in Londonderry when the IRA mortar-bombed it.

The interview went on, with the suspect quizzed while under the cover of a table.