THE MAIDSTONE ESCAPE: SWIMMING TO FREEDOM (Part I)
A hungry seal, hacksaw blades, a couple of gallon cans, a brush, a rope, a few tins of black boot polish, a few pounds of butter, a skiffle group, fine drizzle, a doubledecker bus and sheer guts and determination were the ingredients that went into one of the IRA's most daring and sensational escapes of the last 30 years of struggle.
On 17 January 1972, seven republican prisoners detained on the Maidstone ship, which was anchored in Belfast Lough, took their lives in their hands and swam to freedom. In doing so they proved to the world that the much vaunted 'escape proof' prison ship was anything but, much to the embarrassment of the unionist government at Stormont and the British military who had told the media some days before the escape that their men would ensure that no one would escape their tight security.
Belfast man PETER ROGERS was one of the IRA's gold-medal swimming team. JIM GIBNEY spoke to him last week about the escape. As you will see from Peter's account, it is an incredible story which has gone down in the annals of gaol history as one of the best escapes ever. If there was a flush Irish film industry then this is one escape that would make it to the big screen.
"The Maidstone escape has to be seen in the context of two other escapes, both from Crumlin Road gaol: Martin Meehan's escape with Dutch Doherty and Hugh McCann and the Crumlin Kangaroos. The unionists were going mad about these escapes. Paisley was on TV ranting about a lack of security, prisoners walking out of high security gaols. It was all over the media. Both escapes were great boosts to the IRA and the people.
"So to reassure the unionists and themselves, a senior British soldier gave interviews. He told the media that the difference between the Crumlin Road gaol and the Maidstone was that his men had complete control of security. He said the ship was surrounded by 'electrified fencing' and that there were 'certain devices' in the water. It was, he said, 'escape proof'.
"We took this as an added incentive. Not only were we determined to escape, we also wanted to embarrass the Brits as much as we could.
"But it was a massive task. There were about 700 Brits on board. They lived in about three-quarters of the ship and patrolled an area on the docks adjacent to the ship. There were about 150 detainees, made up of uninvolved people, IRA volunteers and Official IRA volunteers.
"There were three decks. We exercised a few hours a day on the top deck. There were two decks below; we slept and lived there the rest of the time. The Brits patrolled the top deck and the perimeter of the ship and prison warders patrolled our living quarters. There were about 100 men on the inside upper deck and 50 on the lower deck. On both decks there were toilets, recreational areas and a kitchen. On both sides of each deck were the bunk beds, some three tiers, others two tiers. We moved freely between the decks and there was a designated area where the men made handicrafts.
"Most of the men were determined to escape but it was Martin Taylor who came up with the idea of swimming the Lough. It seemed a crazy idea. When you looked through the porthole to the dockside the distance involved frightened you. It seemed impossible. But then familiarity breeds contempt and after a few days I thought I could jump from the ship to the dockside.
"I wasn't a strong swimmer but I could float - that was good enough for me. I was prepared to take the risk involved.
"One of the major pressures the escape plan faced was time. We were called detainees, not internees. Brian Faulkner, the unionist prime minister, had to decide within 28 days whether to release, charge or intern you. And that decision could be made any time. Once he made the decision, you were immediately moved to the Crumlin Road gaol or Long Kesh and bang went your chance to escape. We were nearly three weeks on the ship. So we had to move very fast.
"The other big problem was the level of security and scrutiny of the portholes. The screws were very vigilant and patrolled our living quarters continuously. We had to find a way of normalising the situation.
"There were two sets of warders, those from the Six Counties and those brought in from England. The local screws hated us and were determined to keep us there at all costs, so they were alert at all times. The warders from England were less so. They were also interested in the handicrafts the men were making and would often stand and talk to them about the handicrafts when they should have been on security duty. We decided to play them off against each other.
"The warders from England were getting £20 to £40 more than the local screws and there were adverts in the papers to this fact. We postered the adverts around the ship and every chance we got we talked to the local warders pointing this out and saying to them things like 'why are you running around checking the portholes when the English warders are doing nothing and getting more money?' It took us time but eventually the security collapsed and both sets of warders ended up talking to the lads making the handicrafts instead of patrolling.
"We had to check out whether there were sounding devices in the water. An opportunity arrived when a supply ship pulled up one night alongside the Maidstone. The security lights from the shore cast the Maidstone's silhouette onto the side of the supply ship. Through the porthole on the silhouette we could see the outline figure of the Brits patrolling the ship's top deck.
"We filled gallon cans with water and when the Brit above came in line with a porthole we dropped the can into the water. Falling 30 feet, it made one hell of a noise but the Brit didn't react. We knew immediately he could neither see nor hear what we had done. And furthermore, and this was crucial, the cans also proved there were no sounding devices in the water because no alarm was sounded.
"But was there an underwater electrified fence or wire? Were there barbed wire entanglements alongside the ship below the water line which would have prevented us from swimming away from the ship? A hungry seal came to our rescue. It fed off the waste food we threw out the portholes. And you could see it bobbing up and down in and out of the barbed wire entanglements and catch nets. It was swimming freely and if it could swim freely then so could we. The escape was on for us and it was cleared at the highest level of the Army outside.
"The Brits had, of course, anticipated the possibility of an escape attempt and they had welded onto the side of the ship catchnets and entanglements to prevent anyone from sliding down the ship's side. But they made the mistake of leaving the area around the porthole free and fatally for them they didn't see that one of their hawser steel ropes, which was used to stabilise the ship during the pitch and fall of the tide, overshot the entanglements and with a stretch and using a brush we could reach it and pull it towards us. All we had to do was slide down it and into the water. Two days before the escape, however, the Brits mounted a spotlight which shone onto the hawser. We worried about this, as it turned out unnecessarily.
"Prior to us spotting the hawser rope, I had made a 20- foot rope out of short strips of leather which held up our bunks. We were going to use the rope to lower ourselves down from the porthole onto the angle iron which was used to shore up the catch nets and entanglements and then into the water. But in the event we didn't need it.
"The shape of the ship was of great assistance to our plans. The upper deck had a curved apex, if that is not a contradiction. It turned out to be a blind spot for the warders. Looking down the deck they couldn't see what was going on. We decided to form a skiffle group. Martin was the lead guitarist and Tommy Gorman was the main chanter. The rest of us were a ragtaggle bunch playing the comb, tin whistle and mouth organ.
"We practised as often as we needed time to plan the escape. Other lads helped out by subtly blocking the screws' pathway by playing each other at draughts or chess or other board games. Obviously, the warders were unaware that they were being deliberately prevented from doing their rounds, that is checking the portholes when the skiffle group was playing. In fact, most of the lads who were performing this blocking role didn't know about the escape plans either. It had to be tight for it to succeed. We created a docile environment. We lulled the warders into a false sense of their own security behind which we schemed.
"But there was one warder by the name of Hamilton. He wore the peak of his cap over his eyes. You know the type. He was hard to break down. He required special attention, special pressure. He thought he was cleverer than we were. He was scrupulous. I'm delighted to say that he was on duty the night we went over the side. We all relished in that.
"Thirty years is a long time when recalling details but my memory is someone asked me 'can you swim, do you want to go?' I jumped at the chance.
"We watched the flow of the currents for hours on end. We could see from the movement of the rubbish in the Lough that the currents were very strong and this was very worrying for those of us who were weak swimmers. Jim Bryson and Tommy 'Toadler' Toland lived in the Falls Park coolers. They could swim like fish.
"We made a pact with each other. If anyone got into difficulties in the water they were not to call out and ruin the escape for the others. It was a pact, which really meant that you had to go under, to drown for the sake of your comrades and the success of the escape. Thankfully, no one was put to that rigorous test.
" For days beforehand we acclimatised our bodies for the swim in the cold Lough by taking showers in freezing water. We stood naked under the showers until our bodies were blue with the cold.
"It was serious business we were at but there was fun along the way. My mother sent me in a pair of underpants that resembled what the boxer J L Sullivan would have worn. I tried to hide them but Gorman got his hands on them. He put them on and pranced around the deck causing no end of laughter.
"The word came in from outside 72 hours beforehand that everything was in place from their end. The IRA would have enough cars and backup for us. We were to be picked up at 6 45pm on Monday night at an agreed rendezvous.
"For some who had worked and worked hard on the escape, disaster struck 48 hours beforehand. There was a move on. At the time no one knew who was to be moved so we were all anxious. But the roll call was made and a number of those who had been preparing to go on the escape were given brown bags by the warders and ordered to leave. My heart went out to them, as their chance for freedom slipped from their grasp. But they were amazing. They didn't lose heart. As the lads went down the gangway with their worldly possessions in brown bags on their shoulders they started singing the 'Boys of the Old Brigade'. We all joined in. There was a great spirit.
"That was it we knew we were safe. No more moves were pending. We could settle ourselves down and prepare for the swim of our lives.
"Every day the warders did a head count every three hours. It took a few minutes. It was routine and normally uneventful. We decided we'd make the bid after the 6pm count on Monday. We had to be off the ship and on dry land for our pickup and before the military patrol boat did its rounds at 7pm. They were Marines and regular as clockwork.
"At about 5pm we decided to put as much boot polish and butter over our bodies to insulate us from the cold and the water and to cut down time wasting after the count. We put our clothes back on us and acted as normal.
"The skiffle group took up position and started playing, as did the chess and draughts players; tables were placed alongside portholes; nothing too obvious, no overkill. It was just like any other early evening on board the prison ship Maidstone.
"We calculated it would lake us 20 minutes to hacksaw our way through the two iron bars covering the porthole. So time was precious. We had none to play with.
"But we were jinxed again. The six o'clock head count went askew. The numbers didn't add up. A prisoner was missing. For 20 nerve wrecking minutes we were all frantically searching for the missing man. No one, the screws or ourselves, could find him. The escape was in jeopardy. Then casually he walked in. He'd been sitting reading a book on the toilet and everyone overlooked him. We breathed a huge sigh of relief.
"Suddenly the plan, which was balanced on a knife edge, was back on. The warders withdrew from the deck; we finalised our plans 20 minutes behind schedule.
"Everyone took up their positions. The skiffle group struck up the music. We stripped down to our underpants and put black boot polish and butter on our faces. Our entire bodies were waterproofed.
"I can't remember who cut through the first porthole bar. I have a memory of Jim Bryson being there. We were all excited and were standing around the porthole ready to go. Everyone was singing at the top of their voices to drown out the sound of the hacksaw cutting through the bars. The adrenaline was pumping the atmosphere was electric. To our surprise and delight we had to make only one cut in the bar not two because the top weld on the bar snapped like a twig when it was pushed outwards. That meant we reclaimed 10 of the 20 minutes we lost at the head count.
(Next Week: The swim and the getaway)