Thirty years ago a team from ITV Cymru Wales This Week were completing their final day of filming with the soldiers of the Royal Regiment of Wales in Belfast. As the day drew to a close, an explosion was heard which echoed through the city. Twenty year old Private Andrew Bull from Nant y Glo in Gwent had been caught in a bomb blast, while on a routine patrol along the Falls Road, in the West of the city. The explosion left him severely injured and in a critical condition.
Some months later, though blind and severely scarred, Andy had pulled through the worst of his injuries and ITV Cymru Wales This Week caught up with him to hear his account of what had happened that night. Now, thirty years on, Andy a member of Blind Veterans UK returned with ITV Cymru Wales to the Falls Road in Belfast for the first time, this time reliving those near fatal moments through the eyes of his wife Nicola. The result is a moving documentary by Alun Jones.
Below is a written account by Andy and at the end of this account there is a link to ITV Cymru Wales This Week website where you can watch Alun’s documentary of Andy’s return to Belfast with his wife Nicola. Andy begins.
On 24th November 1983 in West Belfast we were the primary brick with call sign Lima. The patrol consisted of myself Lt Brayshaw, Sgt Rummage attached from Int Section, Pte Pember and two RUC Officers. As we made our way down to the junction from the White Rock estate we turned left onto the Falls Road.
I was the second man in relation to the formation of the patrol on the immediate left as we turned into the Falls Road. The Falls Road was really busy as it was late evening and there was a queue of rush hour traffic with everyone on their way home. As I made my way along the Falls Road I passed the Rock bar on my left, up ahead of me and on the opposite side of the road I could see Lt Brayshaw and just in front of him the two RUC Officers. That day I was carrying on my back a special piece of equipment, which to the every day person looked nothing more than a normal military Klansman radio. I was wearing a headset that had a mouthpiece very similar to the ones in Thunderbirds. However this particular piece of equipment would override and cut out the signal emitted from a remote control device used by the IRA in the detonation of their bombs.
Unfortunately for me and everyone else who was injured that day, the IRA chose a command wire to detonate their bomb. Had the bomb been remote controlled I would have heard a series of intermittent high pitched tones in my head set. I often wonder now and then had the bomb been detonated by remote control would the equipment have done its job that day, I suppose I shall never know. As the patrol continued the traffic was a constant stream of noise and hustle and bustle as it flowed into the city centre of Belfast. Walking towards me was a young woman and as we passed one another I wished her a good evening.
I can’t remember if she answered me or not because no sooner had we passed one another, when there was a tremendous explosion. I didn’t hear the bang or if I did my brain couldn’t comprehend what had happened, my only recollection of that day is of the terrible high pitched screaming buzzing sounds in my ears. It was like a giant switch had been thrown, because all the sounds from the immediate traffic and the normal everyday sounds of a busy city environment had disappeared. I can only describe it as a sea of silence apart from the high pitched buzzing in my eardrums. To my left was a wall that ran for at least a thousand yards or more into the city of Belfast that was quite thick and made of the old dressed stone. The bomb had been behind the wall. It was a large welder’s acetylene bottle that had been packed inside with nails, nuts and bolts, and about six pounds of semtex plastic explosive.
All I remember today was the horrendous high pitched buzzing that was in my eardrums and it felt like there was a great weight on my chest and I couldn’t fill my lungs with air. It was a feeling that I can only describe as drowning. I kept trying to lift my hand towards the headset to remove it from my head in the hope of releasing the noise in my ears. I was as weak as a new born baby, and try as I may I just couldn’t work out why I couldn’t perform this simple action.
All around me was mayhem and destruction with people screaming, some bleeding, some crying and many just stunned into silence with shock. To the onlookers the Falls Road had been turned into a giant scrap yard at the flick of a switch. In the distance could be heard the mournful cry of the sirens as the emergency services raced towards the scene.
As the carnage unfolded around me I was totally oblivious to it all, I didn’t know half my face had been crushed in, that my throat had been sliced open by shrapnel and that my juggler had been nicked, most of my upper body had been peppered in shrapnel, the reason for my drowning feeling was not only the blood pouring down my throat, but my one lung had collapsed. As my comrades from the other patrols hurried to secure the area and give assistance to the wounded they described to me many months on how they couldn’t see for five minutes because of black billowing smoke and debris still falling to earth. They told me of how their training paid off that day especially following the rules of first aid the four Bs: Breathing, Bleeding, Breaks, and Burns. They told me of Lt Brayshaw’s injuries where his femur had been snapped and that he was screaming like a banshee, but they realised immediately who was the priority casualty – and that was me. I was on my back not moving and as I found out later a good rugby friend and colleague of mine Pte Wayne Bragger was working over me trying to save my life.
He couldn’t work out where the blood was escaping from until he opened my combat jacket and unzipped the bullet proof plate that was covering my heart. Where I was on my back my flak jacket had pushed up against my neck and the bullet proof plate had wedged under my throat. He told me that he had never seen so much blood in his life and was only too grateful when the Paramedics arrived and took over. I was quickly put in the back of the ambulance and Wayne came along as well not only for emotional support but as protection. It would not be the first or the last time that IRA terrorists had murdered members of the security forces in an hospital bed. I will always remember in years to come as the ambulance blue lighted away, as I lay on the stretcher and the Paramedics fought to save my life Wayne said that I spoke out and said “do you fancy pie and chips from the chippy then?” All I know on that day was one moment I was in the land of the living, and the next moment I had been beamed up to a different planet.
I left behind me a road full of crushed and smashed cars, as well as wounded people. Where the bomb had exploded the thick dressed stones of the wall had been flung brutally broadside into the busy traffic. The youngest casualty that day was a six month old baby, who was lying in a baby seat in the rear of the car when the rear wind screen exploded covering the baby in glass and debris. From the moment the ambulance arrived at the Royal Victoria hospital a trauma team were waiting to receive me. My clothes and equipment were cut away from me, and I was rushed into the surgeons theatre immediately. I don’t remember how many hours I was in theatre, but what I do know from being told was that when I came out I was hooked up to a life support machine and two RUC officers stood guard over me whilst I lay in intensive care. The next 4 hours would be the crucial time as to which way I would go, either I would make it, or I would become yet another British soldier to be murdered by the IRA in Northern Ireland.
That same night as I lay in intensive care linked to a life support machine, my parents were called upon by the local police. A Sgt and a PC broke the sad news to my mother and father informing them that I had been severely injured by an IRA bomb whilst on a routine patrol in Belfast. My parents had never flown in their lives and to this day my elderly parents have no recollection of the flight or landing at Aldergrove airport. They were taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital where they sat vigilantly at my bedside, my mother holding my hand. The next 48 hours passed and the doctors made a decision for me to have further surgery, my head apparently had swollen to the size of a pumpkin and this was giving them concern that the brain was swelling. I went down to theatre once more and was then taken back up to intensive care. When my parents next saw me my mother burst into tears because she thought that the doctors had amputated my ears because there were big red plastic bags covering my ears and protruding from them were long drainage tubes. We sometimes laugh at this when looking back.
I think it was about a week to ten days later when I regained full consciousness, I had no idea where I was or what had happened. I thought because it was so quiet that I had died and gone to heaven and this is what it was like on the other side. Finally a voice spoke to me from the darkness, and told me that I was in hospital having been seriously injured. I thought I had bandages over my eyes and I couldn’t touch my face as the backs of my hands had tubes going in and I was still connected to the respiratory machine. I knew I had stitches in my face because I had asked the nurse who had first spoken to me, she told me that the consultant would be along to speak to me. When I finally spoke to the consultant he gently told me in the best way that he could the severity of my injuries and that considering how close I was to the explosion it was a miracle that I had lived. I just laid there absorbing the reality of his words, that I had lost my right eye completely and that they had tired to save my left eye but unfortunately it was beyond their medical skills. I had thought my lack of sight was due to the fact that I had bandages over my eyes, but the truth of the matter was that I no longer had my eyes. I found out later that the doctors had asked my parents if they wanted to break this devastating news, but my mother and my father could not bring themselves to do this, and I respect them both for what courage and emotional turmoil they were going through at that time. I was still trying to absorb and register everything the consultant had told to me, but for whatever reason there was a sense of denial that he must be mistaken.
My Company Commander and CSM came to visit me as did many of my comrades on numerous occasions. Most of the bones were broken in my face including my upper jaw, stopping me from being able to talk. Apart from my jaws being wired together, I also had a what can only be described as a mini scaffold screwed into my face known in the medical profession as a Mount Vernon halo frame. When I had visitors my only means of communication was by pen and paper, I would use a medical chart board for support whilst I wrote what I wanted to say. This caused great consternation because my writing was perfectly legible and straight. They couldn’t get their head round how I could still write when I was totally blind, but the doctors explained that this is a purely normal reflex because of how long I had already been writing, but in time this would deteriorate. I can still write however I am told it is very child like and this is purely down to not having written for so long, when you have sight you reach for a pen automatically when you are blind you reach for a Dictaphone or typewriter. Eventually the visits from my mates were stopped – the reasons given were that my mates were getting upset and that I was still in a very weakened state and I wouldn’t argue with that because I would get tired very quickly. As the weeks went by I formed a very strong and loving bond with the nursing staff, and we would have some great laughs on occasions. I am six foot two and I was about 16 stone when I was rushed into hospital, but I lost about five stone as a result of my injuries. As the saying goes I was like a stripped down racing pigeon. Everyday one of the nursing staff therapist would lower me down flat and then push down on my chest and get me to try and use my lungs independently. I used to dread when she came in as it felt like she was pushing all the air out of my lungs and I felt like I was going to have a heart attack at any moment. Although I used to give her a hard time she knew what she was doing. It was my ignorance at that time as I didn’t appreciate that she was doing her best for me.
As the only way I could have food was through a straw my food was liquidised, and of my medication given through the drips in the back of my hands. Sometimes the nurses would describe my dinner by saying it’s a good job you can’t see your dinner Andy and we would laugh together.
One day one of the nurses told me that a state of the art five deck stereo system was to be delivered to me by the Japanese maker Iowa as they had heard what happened and that I loved my music but had nothing to listen to it on and they were only too glad to help. I received lots of get well messages and cards from friends and family, but also from complete strangers. With the get well messages also came hundreds of music cassettes, I could have become a DJ and run my own hospital radio show. One evening as I lay on my bed listening to an Elvis Presley song, whether it was the relaxed melancholy atmosphere or not I don’t know, but suddenly the words of the doctor came flooding back into my thoughts: “You’re blind, you’re blind, you’re blind”. The enormity of his words had finally breeched any barriers of denial to which I had built, and the full impact of this hit me with the force of a hurricane gale force wind. The dam finally burst and I could no longer hold back my tears, I don’t remember which one of the nurses held me that evening, but she held me tight as I threw my arms around her and buried my face into her neck as I shook uncontrollably and cried my heart out. Eventually the river of tears receded and finally stopped, and the nurse and I talked into the early hours of the morning when I finally surrendered to my sleep.
The next day I looked back on yesterday evenings events, and to the questions that I had asked. Where I thought I was the only blind man in the world, or the only blind person in the world, at no time did it cross my mind that there were millions of people who were blind or partially sighted. I never thought of children born blind or that people lost their sight as a result of cancer or some other disease. I thought of how I had asked the nurse who would want to marry a blind man, putting to her would you marry a blind man. I remember she said that it would make no difference to her whether he was blind or not as it was the persons personality that is the most important and if she loved that person his blindness wouldn’t matter one bit.
From that very next day I went from strength to strength, it was if by opening the flood gates the despair and vulnerability and reservations that I had held had all been washed away in one great tidal wave. Soon came the time where I was well enough to leave the R.V.H to be transferred to Musgrave Park military hospital. This was a sad time for both the staff and for me as we had all come a long way together, however as time has passed we unfortunately lost touch with one another.
At Musgrave Park I couldn’t wait to be transferred to London. Finally I was flown back in a Hercules aircraft and taken to the Woolwich military hospital in London. I remember being stretchered from the back of the ambulance, and as they carried me up the ramp of the Hercules and strapped me in I was the main focus of attention for a number of squaddie’s who were also in the back of the Hercules but they were going on leave. As the two nurses attended to me I can only imagine what the other squaddie’s were thinking at that time.
You can watch Andrew’s story in full in the Wales This Week documentary at itv.com/walesthisweek After the Fall when he returns to Belfast and speaks about his life over the last 30 years and about Blind Veterans UK.
Blind Veterans UK provides free support to blind Armed Forces and National Service veterans. To request free support call 0800 389 7979.