Surviving the Mountbatten bombing: Timothy Knatchbull’s example to us all

A review of From a Clear Blue sky by Timothy Knatchbull

Monday 27 August 1979 was a glorious summer’s bank holiday in Britain and Ireland. I remember it very well. Mum, Dad and I enjoyed a day trip to Seaton in Devon. We’d spent a happy week there earlier that month, so a return trip was a bonus. We made the most of that lovely Monday.

The following morning, my father brought me a mug of tea and told me the awful news that the IRA had murdered Lord Mountbatten and 18 soldiers. It was only later that I realised that these were separate terrorist atrocities. Mountbatten had been killed by a bomb on his boat in Ireland, along with three others: his grandson Nicholas Knatchbull, aged 14, 15 year old Irish boy Paul Maxwell and Nicholas’s 83 year old grandmother, who died the following day.

The killing of Mountbatten was shocking, but it was the cold blooded murder of two teenage boys and an 83 year old woman that seemed so wicked at the time and in retrospect. It prompted the same kind of revulsion as the later terrorist attacks on America in 2001.

That August Tuesday, I wrote LLM (for Lord Louis Mountbatten) and the date 27.8.79 on a book I bought the previous day in Seaton, to commemorate a summer day that saw four lives wiped out on a similar family outing. I was a similar age in 1979 to the two boys killed in the attack.

Reading Timothy Knatchbull’s moving account of the attack and the aftermath took me right back to that summer’s week in 1979. Timothy survived the bombing along with his parents. Yet his loss was unique. For he was Nicholas Knatchbull’s identical twin. Losing a twin is especially traumatic, and Timothy had the added pain of not being able to say goodbye to his brother. (He was rescued unconscious from the water, and was too badly injured to return to Britain for his brother’s funeral.) Much of the book describes Timothy’s 25 year journey to understand Nicholas’s last moments, to mourn his brother and to find his own peace in Ireland, especially in the places that meant so much in his childhood before Monday 27 August 1979.

It’s a painful book to read at times, especially the poignant description of the days leading up to the bombing of Shadow V and the harrowing accounts of eye witnesses of the desperate hours after the killers struck. But I read it knowing that Timothy’s pain was far, far greater – and inspired by his description of the amazing care that he and his parents received in Sligo hospital, and his love of Ireland despite his family’s terrible ordeal in 1979.

It was hard even in the summer of 1979 to understand how Lord Mountbatten had not been better protected by the Irish and British authorities. That August marked the 10th anniversary of the ‘Troubles’ as Northern Ireland’s murderous conflict was euphemistically known. Mountbatten’s boat was barely guarded, so it didn’t take a genius to place a bomb on it. Knatchbull describes how every summer Mountbatten would write to the British and Irish authorities to check if it was safe for him to visit his Irish castle. Every year the authorities said yes. In 1979, that complacency proved a death warrant for two old people and two teenage boys.

Knatchbull’s is no ordinary family. The royal connection (Mountbatten was Prince Philip’s uncle) made them a target. Later, Timothy lightly describes how the Queen invited him for Christmas and tenderly helped him in his grief. But he also demonstrates the timeless and classless qualities of love that his own family shared to get through the months and years after the tragedy.

The story of Monday 27 August 1979 is just one of many across the years of the troubles that blighted Ireland and Britain. Timothy and his family showed that the bonds between our two countries and people were too strong for murderous people to destroy. Timothy also had the intelligence and compassion to realise that peace could only come by including terrorists in the peace and reconciliation process. Ironically, as he says, Lord Mountbatten understood this decades earlier in his own role ending British rule in India and insisting that Burmese nationalists be included in the liberated 1945 government in Burma. Mountbatten instinctively sympathised with the Irish, and even had sympathy for the ‘old’ IRA. Mountbatten’s enlightened attitudes were reflected in the grief and sympathy shown in India in the days after the bombing, and by the respect shown by the touring India test cricket team in the fourth test that started at The Oval later that week.

I’ll leave the last words to Timothy Knatchbull, writing in his journal during a return to Ireland as part of his delayed mourning for his lost twin:

“Today in Sligo, 24 years after the murders, I sensed that [bomber] Thomas McMahon’s moral vacuum has been defeated. The bloodbath he engineered failed to turn me to hatred. Instead I left Ireland feeling a love which I projected primarily onto one man, Tony Heenan [whose devoted care in Sligo hospital saved his life and those of his parents]. He has wit, humour and above all compassion. He cares. And my heart sings because I recognise that on 27 August 1979 Heenan defeated McMahon and I am the proof.”

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