British soldiers used shot Catholic man’s skull as ashtray

Henry Thornton
Former soldier Henry Gow gave evidence to the Ballymurphy inquest

A former Paratrooper told the Ballymurphy inquest yesterday that a ‘sweepstake’ was run by his unit to reward soldiers who “got a kill”.

Henry Gow, whose company of the Parachute Regiment was not involved in the shootings in west Belfast, said the winner “got the pot” and would use the money to “go for a piss-up”.

The claim was one of a number made in Mr Gow’s autobiography Killing Zone, which he wrote under the name Harry McCallion and which was published in 1995.

The former policeman, SAS member and Paratrooper also alleged that a soldier recovered part of the skull of a man which was then used as an ashtray.

The family of a man whose skull was used as an ashtray by members of the Parachute Regiment after he was shot dead have spoken of their “deep distress.”

Henry Thornton (28), from south Armagh, was killed as he travelled along Belfast’s Springfield Road in August 1971.

Details of the disturbing actions of British soldiers were raised this week at an inquest into the killing of 10 people over three days in Ballymurphy in west Belfast in 1971 by the Parachute Regiment.

Former Paratrooper Henry Gow told the coroner’s court how a colleague recovered part of the skull of another man killed in the area, Henry Thornton, and used it as an ashtray.

Gow had previously recounted the grizzly episode in his autobiography Killing Zone, which he wrote under the name Harry McCallion and which was published in 1995.

Mr Thornton died almost instantly when British soldier Allan McVittie fired twice at the van he was driving close to the former Springfield Road RUC station. McVittie has since died.

A father-of-six from Silverbridge, Mr Thornton had been working in Belfast and was living temporarily in the city when he was killed.

During questioning this week Mr Gow said that a ‘sweepstake’ was run by his unit to reward soldiers who “got a kill”.

Henry Gow, whose company of the Parachute Regiment was not involved in the Ballymurphy shooting,s said the winner “got the pot” and would use the money to “go for a piss-up”.

The Thornton family lawyer Pádraig Ó Muirigh last night they were aware of Henry Gow’s evidence.

“The allegation that the remains of their loved one was treated in such an undignified manner is a source of great distress to them,” he said.

“This revelation and others such as a sweeptake being organised for soldiers who ‘got a kill’ are deeply disturbing but nonetheless indicative of the culture that prevailed in the Parachute Regiment.”

Mr Ó Muirigh added: “A litany of murder and brutality has followed this regiment in their various tours of duty whether in the Ballymurphy area, Shankill Rd, Ardoyne or the Bogside in Derry.

“The Parachute Regiment have had a bloody and dishonourable record in the north of Ireland which has come under further scrutiny at the Ballymurphy Inquest.”

An inquest into Mr Thornton’s killing heard that he and another man had been driving to work when their van backfired prompting McVittie to open fire.

Under questioning at Belfast Coroner’s Court yesterday, Mr Gow maintained these events were true.

The inquest is examining the deaths of 10 people in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast over a three-day period following the introduction of internment in August 1971.

Relatives of the victims, who included a priest and a mother-of-eight, have insisted none of them was armed or involved in any paramilitary activity.

Mr Gow, who has practised as a barrister for the past 25 years, was part of A Company, 2 Para which was not based in Ballymurphy but which escorted ammunition to the Henry Taggart base in the area in the early hours of August 10.

He said in his book that the soldiers there were “on a high” and when he entered the hall he understood why, seeing six bodies sprawled at the bottom of a raised stage, at least one of which was a woman.

When asked as to what he meant by a “high”, Mr Gow said it was because the soldiers had survived an armed action.

He said that although he did not witness any killings in Ballymurphy himself, he spoke to a fellow soldier who told him he had shot two people – one of which he (Mr Gow) later understood was Fr Hugh Mullan, and that the priest had been shot after picking up a weapon.

Mr Gow said he had been told by many of the men involved that they “only shot at armed people” and that the woman killed was armed with a gun.

However, when pressed on the names of those who had carried out the shootings, he told the court he could not recall them.

Outside the inquest yesterday, relatives of Ballymurphy victims also strongly rejected claims that victims were armed.

Barristers representing a number of the families accused Mr Gow of lying to the coroner’s court.

Mr Gow said he had not wanted to appear at the inquest but had been summonsed to do so and that he believed it to be a “witch hunt”.

He maintained he had “never told a lie from the witness box” and said although he did not still have original records, he had re-read his book before appearing in an effort to help the coroner.

He also described west Belfast in August 1971 as “gripped by insanity” and said he had never seen anything like it since then.

“Everything was coming at us – shooting, petrol bombs. There were no idle bystanders. Everyone I saw was involved in a collective madness,” he said.

He said that in his unit, soldiers ran a sweepstake if anyone “got a kill”.

He said: “Our aim was to kill terrorists, not to kill civilians. It wasn’t measured by how many civilians we killed.”

Mr Gow also claimed that “the people of west Belfast should be thankful for the discipline of the British army” as the Paratroopers only shot people who were armed.

He added: “The death toll would have been much higher if it had been a different army. They were all proud of what they did.”

In response, there was a shout of anger from the public gallery.

A barrister put it to him: “All Parachute Regiment soldiers were of the opinion that anyone in the street was in the IRA or participating in the IRA and could be shot.”

“That’s a load of rubbish,” Mr Gow replied.


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