The Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten died when the IRA bombed his fishing boat off the coast of Mullaghmore in the Republic of Ireland in 1979
Every August, Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma holidayed with his daughters, Patricia and Pamela, and their families at Classiebawn Castle, on the west coast of Ireland.
There, in 1979, the IRA unleashed an audacious and brutal attack.
Because of his royal connections and position as a highly respected member of the Establishment, the Provisional IRA repeatedly threatened to assassinate him.
Undeterred, Mountbatten, 79, would declare: ‘Who the hell would want to kill an old man anyway?’
A controversial new book this week alleges Mountbatten and his wife Edwina had an open marriage with each taking multiple lovers. But nothing can detract from the horrific nature of his death.
Here, in a gripping minute-by-minute account of an atrocity that shocked the world, Jonathan Mayo charts that fateful summer day.
Monday, August 27, 1979
In the harbour of Mullaghmore village, Shadow V bobs on the tide. It is a sturdy 29ft vessel, painted in the green-and-white colours of admirals’ barges in the Royal Navy.
Silently, two men clamber onto Shadow V, carefully lift the engine hatch cover and place a package inside. The small boat now has a deadly cargo — a bomb made of 50lb of plastic explosive designed to kill and maim Lord Mountbatten and his family, who are asleep in nearby Classiebawn Castle.
Yesterday, Mountbatten had been out in Shadow V laying lobster pots and today he plans to lift them to see what they’ve caught.
Every August, Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma holidayed with his daughters, Patricia and Pamela, and their families at Classiebawn Castle, on the west coast of Ireland
Classiebawn Castle’s butler Peter Nicholson knocks on Mountbatten’s bedroom door to wake him in time to hear the 8am radio news. Nicholson is wearing the dark blue livery with the Mountbatten coat of arms.
Parked in a Ford Escort, Irish police (or Garda) Special Branch detective Kevin Henry and uniformed officer Kevin Mullins keep watch on the property. When the family arrived in Dublin that summer, they were met by the British ambassador, who warned of a tip-off that the Provisional IRA might attempt something in the next few weeks.
Mountbatten thanked the ambassador, but said his holiday plans remained unchanged.
In HIS bedroom above the dining room, Mountbatten is carrying out his daily morning exercise regime designed by the Royal Canadian Air Force. His grandson, Michael-John Knatchbull, later said: ‘Grandpapa went to extraordinary lengths to try and maintain his fitness … in some ways it was rather pathetic how he couldn’t accept growing old, in others it was rather endearing.’
Michael-John’s 14-year-old identical twin brothers, Nick and Tim, are in a bedroom nearby.
Tim is out first and heads to his parents’ room. He kisses his father John (Lord Brabourne), who is listening to the BBC radio news and moves round the bed to where his mother, Patricia, is writing her diary. Their dog, Twiga, emerges from under the eiderdown, hoping that Tim will take her for a walk.
Five minutes before breakfast is served, Mountbatten walks downstairs wearing a dark blue jersey with the crest of his ship HMS Kelly — sunk off Crete in 1941 — on the front and above it the nickname of the destroyer’s flotilla, ‘The Fighting Fifth’. Today is the first time he has worn it.
One of Mountbatten’s identical twin grandsons arrives for breakfast and the old man lifts the boy’s chin to find out which one he is. He sees a familiar mole and kisses him, saying: ‘Morning, Timmy!’
‘Morning, Fighting Fifth,’ Tim replies. Mountbatten tells Tim’s older brother, Philip, 18, that because he hasn’t spent enough time working on school assignments he can’t come out on Shadow V. Philip is disappointed.
Lord Mountbatten died when a bomb was planted on his converted fishing boat. His 15-year-old grandson, the Hon Nicholas Brabourne, also died in the blast as well as his boatman, Paul Maxwell
Mountbatten goes outside to greet Garda detective Kevin Henry and tell him that he and the family plan to go out on Shadow V. The boat is the focal point of holidays at Classiebawn; the family love to trawl for mackerel, search for seals and explore nearby islands. Mountbatten once said: ‘It is wonderful to have such a delightful family. I am indeed a lucky person.’
In Mullaghmore harbour, a 15-year-old schoolboy from over the border at Enniskillen named Paul Maxwell, whose family have a holiday cottage in Mullaghmore, is getting Shadow V ready.
He is wearing jeans borrowed from a friend of his sister and is trying not to get them dirty.
Mountbatten usually employs a local fisherman but he had been unavailable and Paul was recommended as someone who knew about the sea. For Paul, this is a dream job; yesterday he sent a postcard to his grandmother saying that he was ‘having a great time working at the castle’ and had taken Lord Mountbatten out in Shadow V ‘about six times and I find him very nice’.
Philip Knatchbull is in a room high in the castle’s turret. He looks down and sees his younger brother Nick practising his golf swing. A ball lands among some old trees.
‘You idiot!’ Philip shouts.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Nick calls back. ‘I’ll find it later.’
Mountbatten’s grandson, 16-year-old Ashley Hicks, is on his way into Mullaghmore with his cousin Amanda Knatchbull, 22, to secretly buy cigarettes — his family don’t know he’s started smoking.
Earlier in the year, Prince Charles had proposed to Amanda and she had refused. He wasn’t surprised, recognising that to become his wife ‘does seem an immense sacrifice and great loss of freedom’.
Ashley wants to get back in time to go on Shadow V, because his cousin Nick is going and they are close — ‘more like a brother to me than a cousin’.
Paul Maxwell’s father, John, has come to the harbour to buy a newspaper and he sees his son working on Shadow V. John waves, and Paul reciprocates.
Up at the castle, picnic hampers are loaded into the car. Mountbatten asks his granddaughter, India Hicks, to look after his black labrador Kimberley while he’s out.
Mountbatten, his grandsons Nick and Tim Knatchbull, their parents John and Patricia and John’s 83-year-old mother Doreen, the Dowager Lady Brabourne, drive from the castle.
Dachshund Twiga is along for the ride. Tim sits on his father’s lap and steers the car until they reach the end of the castle drive. The Gardai follow in their Ford Escort.
The IRA had repeatedly threatened to assassinate Mountbatten to which he was heard to declare: ‘Who the hell would want to kill an old man anyway?’
Ashley and Amanda arrive back from their trip to the village too late to join the fishing party. The cousins decide to watch a Laurel And Hardy film on TV instead. Mountbatten says ‘good morning’ to people on the quayside at Mullaghmore harbour where he’s been well-known for 30 years.
The twins, Tim and Nick, climb down the harbour wall and onto Shadow V, then carefully help their grandmother Doreen into the boat. On the quayside, before getting on, John Knatchbull takes a picture of Shadow V with his father-in-law smiling up at him.
Mountbatten, a former admiral of the fleet, steers Shadow V away from the harbour wall. Patricia and her mother-in-law Doreen sit in the stern. Twiga the dachshund is on Patricia’s lap.
Tim is standing close to his grandfather, hoping for a chance to steer. His brother Nick is inside the cabin. Garda Kevin Henry watches Mountbatten steer the boat out of the harbour then turn to port to follow the coastline.
A member of the Garda used to go out with the family in Shadow V, but the last man to do so was so seasick Mountbatten suggested it was no longer necessary.
Also watching the fishing party leave are the IRA men with binoculars. One is holding a remote-control detonator.
Paul Maxwell asks Tim Knatchbull the time. Tim looks at his watch and says: ‘11.39 and 40 seconds.’ As it looks unlikely his grandfather is going to let him have a turn at the wheel, Tim climbs onto the cabin roof to look out for the lobster pots as their lines could get caught in the boat’s propeller.
People in other boats are also enjoying the weather. Lady Brabourne and Patricia sit with their legs up in front of them in the warm sunshine. Lady Brabourne says: ‘Isn’t this a beautiful day?’
Detective Kevin Henry drives along the coast road while Kevin Mullins watches the boat through binoculars. On the rocks, 14-year-old Denis Devlin, whose family have a holiday caravan on the cliffs above, looks up and recognises the green-and-white colours of Shadow V. He sits down to watch it.
Tim Knatchbull calls out to his grandfather and points: ‘Buoy 20 yards ahead and slightly to port!’ There is no response. ‘He was in another world,’ he said.
Shadow V has now reached the lobster pots, so, on the cliff, Mullins and Henry pull over. Henry gets out and looks down at the boat. John Knatchbull calls out to Mountbatten: ‘You are having fun today, aren’t you?’
Suddenly, there is an enormous explosion. Tim Knatchbull feels a sensation ‘as if I was hit by a club’ and is thrown into the air, losing consciousness before landing in the water.
‘In a second, the boat had disappeared,’ Kevin Henry said. John Knatchbull finds himself swirling around under water. He surfaces, shouts for his wife and clutches a piece of wreckage.
His wife, Patricia, is submerged with the sound of water in her ears. She remembers her father saying what he did when HMS Kelly sank, so she puts her hands over her nose and mouth to stop herself swallowing water.
She makes it to the surface and passes out. A mushroom cloud of smoke is rising in the air above the boat’s wreckage.
Watching aghast from the rocks 30 yards away, Denis Devlin hears people screaming in the water. John Maxwell, sitting in his back garden reading his newspaper, knows instantly that it’s a bomb — he has heard them before at home in Northern Ireland.
He tells his wife, Mary, to stay put and, wearing only shorts and sandals, jumps into his car and drives towards the sound of the blast.
At Classiebawn Castle, Mountbatten’s grandchildren Philip, Amanda, Edwina and India are in deckchairs. They hear the explosion. Philip fears it was a bomb, but goes to ask butler Peter Nicholson if he had slammed a door. Nicholson says he hasn’t and keeps to himself the idea that it must have been a bomb as ‘the thought was never very far from our minds’. He carries on setting the table for lunch.
Fishing in an inflatable dinghy, tourists Charles and Kathryn Pierce, and Kathryn’s brother William, speed to the scene. They were so close to the detonation that wreckage from Shadow V dropped into their dinghy.
They find Patricia first, who is ‘semi-conscious and bewildered’, then with her safely on board they rescue Doreen who is clearly in pain and keeps saying: ‘Don’t bother about me. I’m all right. Look after the children.’
Next, they get an unconscious John Knatchbull into the cramped 12ft dinghy. It’s now so low that water is coming over the side.
Then they see the lifeless and near-naked body of Lord Mountbatten floating face down. He was knocked unconscious by the bomb and has drowned. There is no more room on board, so the Pierces hold onto Mountbatten’s body, keeping his head out of the water.
One of the few items of clothing left on him is a fragment of his blue HMS Kelly jersey. In another boat, Dick and Elizabeth Wood-Martin, who had also been retrieving lobster pots, spot what looks like a football in the oily water.
As they get closer, they can see it’s the top of a head. It is Tim Knatchbull. As they lift him, they have no idea what they will find.
To their relief, Tim is in one piece, but his face is peppered with wooden splinters and he has a massive black eye. The other eye ‘had the sort of glazed look blind people have’, Elizabeth said.
‘What happened?’ Tim asks. He can’t see and feels terribly cold.
Local businessman Edward Dawson, out in a Zodiac rubber dinghy, assumed a boat engine had exploded. As he makes his way through the wreckage of Shadow V, which includes life-jackets, shoes and anoraks, he sees the Pierces’ dinghy with an old man with white hair being held up alongside it.
As he gets close, Charles Pierce says to Dawson: ‘Do you know who this is? This is Mountbatten.’ For the first time, Dawson realises the enormity of what’s happened. ‘I was shaken a bit, but I was terribly angry,’ he said.
They lift Mountbatten’s body into Dawson’s boat. Dawson places a rolled-up towel under his head and covers him with wetsuits. Dawson keeps Mountbatten’s face exposed as he thinks he might still be alive.
As the two boats move slowly to the harbour, Kathryn Pierce starts saying the Lord’s Prayer.
From his boat, Gus Mulligan, a neighbour of the Maxwell family, spots the dead body of Twiga the dachshund in the water and then the body of Paul Maxwell.
At first, Paul’s body is too deep for Mulligan to reach, but then he floats to the surface. Mulligan drags Paul into the boat and covers him with a blanket.
Paul’s father, John, has reached the cliffs and parks by the Devlin family’s caravan and sees bits of floating wood below him.
He asks Denis Devlin’s mother, Jennifer: ‘Was that Lord Mountbatten’s boat?’ She says it was. ‘My God, my son is aboard,’ he replies. Jennifer recalled: ‘We had to physically restrain him from swimming out to the wreckage. He was distraught.’
‘I kind of lost my head,’ John said later.
In the bottom of the Pierces’ boat, John Knatchbull opens his eyes. Alongside him, his mother Doreen is awake and — to his surprise — doesn’t seem to have a hair out of place.
John feels something move beneath him and realises he is lying on top of his wife, Patricia. Her face is badly disfigured and blood is pouring from her eyes.
A speedboat pulls up, crewed by Belfast doctors Brian Best and Richard Wallace, who were about to start waterskiing when they heard the explosion.
They carefully lift John and Patricia into their speedboat; Dr Wallace then heads back to the harbour with them while Dr Best stays with Doreen.
Though John is in pain — both his legs are broken — Wallace tells him to hold his wife’s jaw so she won’t swallow her tongue. John fears Patricia is dying.
As Dick and Elizabeth Wood-Martin slowly make their way to the harbour, Tim Knatchbull is blinded, confused and distressed. They are worried he will try to jump out of the boat.
Dick shouts ‘Will you lie down!’ and Tim finally settles. He said later: ‘I couldn’t see, I could hardly hear — the bomb had perforated my eardrums — and I remember attempting to say, ‘I’m cold’ because that was the only thing I felt; that and a sense of shrivelling into an inner core. I just wanted to shrink into the bottom of the boat.’
Scores of people are in the harbour, waiting to help. Someone has found an old door to use as a stretcher, while bedsheets from the nearby Pier Head Hotel have been torn into bandages.
Someone fetches broom handles to act as splints so Dr Wallace can set John Knatchbull’s leg and Patricia’s arm. Tim is carried into the hotel.
Kevin Henry can’t get through to Sligo Garda on his radio, so he heads to a village payphone. A woman in the phone box tells him he’ll have to wait and carries on with her call. Henry opens the door and lifts her out.
Edward Dawson steers his boat into the harbour and runs it onto the beach, shouting: ‘Is there a doctor, is there a nurse?’ He still thinks Lord Louis may be alive.
Dr Wallace examines the body, which is covered in bruises and cuts but is otherwise not disfigured. ‘He’s dead,’ he tells Dawson. Men carry Mountbatten up the beach on the door. ‘All the people stood in silent respect for this great man,’ Dr Wallace remembered.
John Maxwell is in the harbour frantically looking for his son. A man says: ‘There’s some survivors and one is Paul and he’s in the Pier Head Hotel.’
Overwhelmed with relief, John runs inside and sees a fair-haired boy lying injured on the floor wrapped in a sheet, but it is Tim Knatchbull, not Paul.
Distraught, John heads to the quayside where he’s told Paul’s body is in Gus Mulligan’s boat. Unable to get to the boat because it’s in the middle of the harbour, John paces up and down the quay, raging against the bombers, screaming that they are ‘cowards’ and ‘bastards’.
Dr Best asks John Knatchbull how many people were on Shadow V. He says there were six. Only five have been accounted for — Nick is missing.
John Maxwell is finally able to get onto Gus Mulligan’s boat and discovers Paul lying with his head in a bucket of mackerel that had rolled across the deck.
‘I picked him up and his body was still warm, so I thought he might still be alive. But he wasn’t. But you know, you hope these things.’ John shouts in despair: ‘Look what you’ve done to him! I’m an Irishman. He’s an Irishman. Is this the sort of Ireland you want?’
In an ambulance by the quayside, Tim sees his father John being carried towards him. Trying to be brave, Tim props himself up and says, ‘Hello, Dad’ and faints with the effort.
Mountbatten is carried to the Pier Head Hotel. On the beach, Dr Best watches a child playing in a sandy pool that has filled with Mountbatten’s blood.
That evening, the IRA announced his ‘execution’ would bring home to the ‘English ruling class and its working-class slaves that their government’s war on us is going to cost them as well. We will tear out their sentimental, imperialist heart.’
In 1972, Mountbatten had told the Irish ambassador privately that he was in favour of a united Ireland, saying: ‘Reunification is the only eventual solution.’
The body of Tim’s twin brother, Nick, is found by a lifeboat and brought back to Mullaghmore. The crew do their best to shield his body from the large crowd and when a reporter starts asking questions, one lifeboatman angrily rips up his notebook.
Prince Charles is told the news while fishing in Iceland. He calls the Queen at Balmoral, ‘hoping that it was a nightmare’. That evening, he writes in his journal: ‘Life will never be the same now that he has gone and I fear it will take me a very long time to forgive those people who today achieved something that two world wars and thousands of Germans and Japanese failed to achieve.
‘I only hope I can live up to the expectations he had of me and be able to do something to honour the name of Mountbatten.’
At Warrenpoint, in Northern Ireland, the Provisional IRA trigger a 500lb bomb hidden in a lorry, killing six soldiers. Thirty-two minutes later, a larger bomb hidden in milk pails kills 12 reinforcements. It is the deadliest attack on the British Army during the Troubles.
Tim Knatchbull and his parents were the only survivors of Shadow V. Eighty-three-year-old Doreen, Dowager Lady Brabourne, died from her injuries the following day.
Three days later, Tim was told his twin had died. ‘I realised I would never again hear Nick say ‘Goodnight’ or ‘God Bless’ to me from the next-door bed. I was on my own,’ he wrote.
Tim and his parents were too ill to attend Nick’s funeral in Kent. Patricia needed more than 120 stitches to her face and eyeballs, which she later nicknamed ‘my IRA facelift’.
Patricia wept every day for a year following the tragedy.
After five weeks in hospital, Tim was invited by the Queen to stay at Balmoral. He and his sister Amanda arrived at 3am to find the Queen and Prince Charles waiting up for them.
Mountbatten’s funeral took place on September 5, 1979. He had arranged every detail.
Only one IRA bomber, Thomas McMahon, was convicted. He was released in 1998 as part of the Good Friday Agreement. John Maxwell said: ‘Somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind, the horror of what he’s done to my son must be there.’
When, in 2012, the Queen shook hands with Sinn Fein politician and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness — about which the Queen had consulted her friend the Countess — Patricia commented: ‘She was absolutely right to do that. I very much approve of anything that will bring about peace.’
now a TV producer and father of five, Tim Knatchbull has visited Ireland many times to make sense of what happened that day. ‘I reached a point where I could accept, understand and move forward,’ he says.
‘It’s a long time, but I still miss Nicky terribly. I think I always will. But then I consider what my mum and dad went through, or John and Mary, the parents of beautiful, blameless Paul Maxwell, and I am humbled.
‘I have my children. They each lost a son.’
Jonathan Mayo has also written Titanic: Minute By Minute (Short Books, £8.99)