The Wimpy Bar Bomb
On the 26th October, 1981, we received a call to go to a standby point, known as an RVP. (Rendezvous point) There was an incident taking place in Central London, and there might be a need for an ambulance. We were told that it was a ‘suspect package’, possibly a bomb. This was not that unusual at the time, as the IRA were bombing the mainland on a regular basis back then; at least they had been during the 1970’s, though there had been a lull during 1980. Sixteen days earlier, there had been a bomb outside Chelsea Barracks that had killed two people, and injured around forty more. When we arrived at our RVP, at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street, a policeman confirmed that it was an explosive device, and that it was in the basement of one of the Wimpy Bars.
For those of you unfamiliar with the layout of London, Oxford Street is the main shopping area of the city. It runs for a considerable distance from East to West, with the landmarks of Marble Arch at the western end, and Centre Point ( a tall office block), at the eastern. Just over halfway along its length, is the major junction called Oxford Circus. All the major stores are nearby, or on the street itself, (except Harrods) with branches of most high street retailers, as well as huge department stores, like John Lewis, and Selfridges. Closing this street, for any reason, causes traffic and pedestrian chaos over most of the area of London known as the ‘West End’. In 1981, there were two branches of the Wimpy Bar chain on this street. It was a popular burger restaurant, and existed in the UK long before Burger King, or MacDonald’s.
We were soon informed that the branch nearest to us was not the one targeted. The restaurant where the bomb had been planted, in the basement toilets, was at the other end, so out of sight from our position. The Police asked us to stay anyway, ‘just in case’, and we took our place with various other emergency vehicles, from the Fire Service, as well as the Police. It was then a case of ‘hurry up and wait’. We had got used to these alerts, and they often turned out to be false alarms. Cases left by forgetful tourists, shoppers’ bags overlooked in a rush, or parcels placed in inappropriate spots. I wouldn’t say that we were blase, just used to it, and unexcited by the prospect of sitting there, staring down the now deserted shopping area. Chatting to nearby policemen, we were told that the Metropolitan Police Bomb Disposal officers were dealing with a device that was confirmed to be a deliberately planted bomb. This made us sit up, and keep an eye out. It was not unknown for secondary devices to be planted, or detonated, once there had been a gathering of the emergency services to deal with the first one.
We had already checked our equipment that day, but we went over all of it again, to make sure we had anything to hand, that we might need in a hurry. Even though we were some distance from the location, we had no idea how large it was, and what devastation might be caused, if it went off. Getting back into the front of the vehicle, I was sure that I heard a loud ‘thump’ from somewhere, and my colleague confirmed that he had also heard it. Moments later, we could see dust swirling around in the distance, and what appeared to be smoke, a long way off. I asked the nearest policeman if we should go and check the area, but he told us to wait, as they were unsure about other devices.
What seemed a long time later, we were told by a senior police officer that we could leave. He thanked us for attending, but said that we would not be needed. I presumed that the bomb disposal officer had got out, and remotely detonated the thing. That was not the case. The sombre looking policeman told me that the officer had been killed, as he tried to defuse the bomb, in a ‘massive explosion’ that had killed him instantly. ‘We won’t need an ambulance’, he told me, ‘it’s a crime scene, a coroner’s job’. We left the scene, feeling very bad about what had happened in that elusive cloud of dust and smoke.
Kenneth Howarth was 49 years old, and married with two children. After serving as a bomb disposal officer in the British Army, he joined the Metropolitan Police, as a civilian explosives officer, in 1973. He went into that basement on his own that day, and paid the ultimate price for his dedication and service. In 1983, he was posthumously awarded the George Medal, one of the highest honours for gallantry that can be bestowed on a civilian.
I think of that day often, and of the lonely death of a brave man.