A few posts back I related a few examples of the very robust policing that I was exposed to when I first hit the streets of London in 1970 as an 18 year old cadet and during my formative years thereafter. There were a lot of long service officers all over the country who had been at war and joined the police after de-mob`, their blue and white police long service medal ribbon nestling shoulder to shoulder with real warrior ribbons such as The Burma Star, Atlantic Star and many others I didn't recognise and didn't get around to asking about. I was a rookie amongst some extremely admirable and honourable men, several of whom I was in awe of. I did my best to live up to them and have had cause to thank them under my breath many times over the years, for the grounding that they gave me.
Our divisional head (holding the rank of `commander`, a Met rank equivalent to an asst chief constable) was a former Royal Marines Commando and to have him alongside you at a demonstration, which were weekly occurrances on my division, was nothing if not inspirational and if there wasn't anything particular to get inspired about he'd wade in and throw you a prisoner to `draw the line in the sand` and set the common minimum standard for the rest of us. I only saw the likes of him, at that sort of rank, twice more during my remaining 2 decades service in the county force I transferred to.
Feb 5th 1972 was a bizzarre day for me. I was slated for demonstration duty in central London and the following day I was to start a couple of night duties at Buckingham Palace. The demonstration was a fairly large affair and started up in Cricklewood, North London, outside The Crown pub, a hostelry much frequented by the large Irish community of that area. A week earlier there had been the infamous demonstration and disturbances in Londonderry that later became known as `Bloody Sunday`. The march was led by a courtege of thirteen coffins to signify the thirteen deaths that occurred on that awful day. By the time the march had reached Trafalgar Square there was a decent crowd of demonstrators tagging along. It had been a long cold day, the excellent 3 course roast dinner we'd been served at New Scotland Yard at 10am(??!!) was wearing off and the evening chill was starting to get through to us, but we were expecting things to warm up before too long.
The coffins eventually appeared coming down Whitehall in line astern, passing the Banqueting House, where King Charles the First was beheaded for high treason on January 30th (calm down, it was 323 years and 51 weeks earlier, in 1649). The sighting of the coffins was preceded by the low roars, random shouts and general rumbles you get from a big crowd with a common cause. Chanting Zulu's they weren't, but the sound of a big crowd at a demo that you knew was highly likely to bring trouble with it always put you on your toes. I took up my position by some fire extinguishers that had been positioned at the bottom of Downing Street, along with a very strong double cordon of a few hundred officers - a human shield for the Prime minister's residence. I was a few paces behind the second row and together with my colleague and former cadet compadre, Den Brown, had the task of extinguishing any petrol bombs that may be thrown. At the top of the street behind us, out of sight, was a contingent of the magnificent Metropolitan Police Mounted Branch - our cavalry. Later that night they would save my bacon, something they would do on several more occasions in the future, unbeknown to me at that time. Along with the Mounties, also out of sight, were several serials of the Special Patrol Group, acting as a fast moving mobile reserve. Petrol bombs weren't that common outside of Northern Ireland policing which, as far as Dennis and I were concerned, was no bad thing as in those days we just had standard police uniform, no NATO riot helmets, no shields and no flame retardent coveralls, just a Mk.1 issue gaberdine macintosh, traditional Bobby's helmet, leather gloves and the old style truncheon (`with some guts behind it`, as Colour Sergeant Bourne of the 24th Regiment of Foot,Warwickshire Regiment at Rourke's Drift, might have said). My truncheon was made of Rosewood but many of the older ones were of Lignum Vitae and much coveted they were too. Most of the experienced officers would be wearing football shin guards and cricket boxes - once bitten etc.
The finer details of what eventually transpired is another story but suffice to say, they wanted to march up Downing Street and lay the coffins down in the road, opposite the Prime Minister's front door - yeah, right, that was really going to happen? I think not. Unsurprisingly, this request was firmly but politely declined by our Commander. The last thing I remember hearing was one of the organisers, shouting through a megaphone ( shouting via megaphone, how Irish is that?) and pretty much saying that as it was the police that had refused permission to enter Downing Street to feel free to take out any frustrations on them. It all kicked off with the usual preamble of pushing into our cordons with the agitators, as usual, pushing from the back like the good agent provocateurs they were. Police helmets went flying, arms and legs started thrashing and arrests started being made.
Watching all this happen from just inside Downing Street was a very interesting and adrenaline- inducing experience. We couldn't see what was happening at the `points of contact` because at street level it was just a wall of people in front of a cordon of police. All we could see was the heaving and swaying of our mates as their lines bent, bulged and slowly rippled, resembling a sort of stormy human sea. Occasionally an officer would be helped away through injury and, similarly, demonstrators would suddenly appear looking dazed, confused and occasionally bleeding. Judges Rules applied in those days, but Queensbury Rules didn't. Whitehall at this location, just up from The Cenotaph, is a very wide road and it was packed and heaving with bodies, most densely packed around the junction of Downing Street and stretching a good 100 yds either side. Beyond this, the crowd was slightly less dense but not by very much. You could not get a vehicle up or down the road. Estimates put the crowd at between three and five thousand. Directly opposite was the grassy area in front of the Ministry of Defence and from this area demonstrators were starting to break up paving stones and heave them in my general direction. Then the prisoners started appearing, in ones and two's to start with, then as the dynamics took over, in tens.
Dennis grabbed my arm and shouted that he could see a Pc getting a kicking right in front of us. I couldn't see anything in the huge scrum that was rucking before us but Den pulled me down and as we both squatted on our hams he pointed through a Sargasso Sea of legs. About twenty feet in, towards the middle of Whitehall, we could see him, rolling on the road trying to cover his head. Going down on the deck at any time is a very dangerous thing for a police officer; surrounded by a hostile crowd was potentially lethal. Without further conversation we left our fire extinguishers, vaulted the temporary barriers and crawled into the midst of the fray, legs and boots all around us but strangely quiet. I often puzzled over that eerie silence and it wasn't until some years later, when I received a lot of psychological input during my level 1 tactical firearms training, that I realised why that was. By the time we got to him he was just about all in and on his belt buckle. Den grabbed one arm and I grabbed something else and between us we heaved him back towards Downing Street and relative safety. Strangely enough, I don't think Den or I took any hits, I certainly can't remember any, which was amazing considering all the hundreds of boots and legs we could see, but we figured our mates could see us and were doing their level best to cover our backs as we withdrew.
As we got to the barrier our injured mate seemed to recover sufficiently to get to his feet with our help. His eye was a mess and rapidly closing and his lip was bleeding nicely. As we climbed back over the barrier, half carrying him with us, I felt a massive blow to my right ankle which hurt like hell, before slowly going numb. I got the injured Pc to one of the many ambulances that were standing by at the back of Downing Street, in Horse Guards. As we were walking him past Number 10, I was mindful of the fact that my mates on the front door were both armed with semi automatic pistols and whether or not they would be presented with justification for using them that night depended on the rest of us. As we reached the ambulance I remember seeing a plain clothes officer walking a prisoner past me to the rapidly filling prison vans. The officer had his short `detective` truncheon in one hand and the prisoner in a hammerlock and bar on the other. This thrashing, kicking prisoner actually got free of the armlock and took a swing but the officer brought his stick down right across the back of his fist. There was this almighty, sickening smack-crunch sound and the prisoners mouth and eyes opened wide and then froze in a grotesque expression like the album cover of "In The Court of the Crimson King", but no sound came forth - it must have hurt that much. I think I may have said `Ow` on his behalf. .
We returned to Whitehall and headed towards a scuffle involving our Commander and several demonstrators. One of them broke free and ran up Downing Street towards us. Bad mistake. Dennis was a member of the Met Police Cadet Corps rugby team. Wham, bam, out went the lights.
We helped the man to his feet, propped him up against a wall and coaxed air back into his lungs. He stopped gulping, produced a Press card and spluttered, "News of the World". Den escorted him away from Number 10 and gave him some advice. The bloke actually quoted Den in the report in the paper the next day. I think it went, "I was rugby tackled by two burly police officers and punched in the stomach. Once I'd shown my Press card one of them swore at me and shouted, `Do you really think we like doing this s**t on our day off. He then told me to p*** off``". Well that was just crap, it was a clean tackle - and I just watched.
We made an arrest. A man was trying to pull the halter and bit out of a police horses mouth. We finally dispersed the crowd with a combination of a few flying wedges, a couple of baton charges from the SPG and an advance, at the canter, by the cavalry. A magnificent sight and the good news was that there were very few serious injuries, although a Pc had a broken arm and I believe the chap we rescued had a nasty eye injury. I finished processing my prisoner at Paddington Green nick and was off duty by 11pm. In todays police, with today's unbelievably slow custody procedures, I'd be lucky to have got off at 11pm if I'd arrested a shoplifter at 3pm on a normal late shift.
I got to my girlfriends flat at 11.30pm. Ironically, she lived just around the corner from The Crown at Cricklewood, where the demo started - and she was Irish. My foot had swollen up so much that I could barely get my boot off. I ended up cutting some stitching open with my penknife. The ankle was up like a melon for a few hours but the following night I was on duty at 10pm, outside Princess Anne's bedroom in Buckingham Palace. It was fairly quiet in there, that night.