It has been 40 years since Lord Mountbatten was killed – or “executed” as the IRA put it – while on a boat trip during his annual Irish summer holiday, in a bomb blast that also killed three others, including two teenage boys. Hours later, two more bombs went off 100 miles away, killing 18 soldiers from the parachute regiment, the biggest single loss of the British army in Northern Ireland. Not a day that is easy to forget, but what is clear from The Day Mountbatten Died (BBC Two) is just how present the emotions of loss are four decades on.
The rescue helicopter crew member who pulled Mountbatten’s 14-year-old grandson, Nicholas, out of the water says unflinchingly that he sees his face “over and over … I’m OK with that because I brought that kid home”. India Hicks, Mountbatten’s granddaughter who, aged 11, was there on holiday (but not on the boat that day) seems surprised at how tearful she becomes. “The damage that was done was so much deeper than any of us could ever have imagined,” she says, voice barely holding up. “And adult lives are still being horrifically disrupted.”
The film is a plea to remember, while skilfully telling the story of the day – and the context in which it took place – mainly through those who were there (although it’s a shame that Timothy Knatchbull, who wrote a book about surviving the blast that killed his two grandparents and his twin brother, didn’t feature).
Every year, Mountbatten – the Queen’s second cousin and the last viceroy of India – took his family to Classiebawn Castle in Mullaghmore, County Sligo, just 13 miles from the border. “The heart of the holiday was going out on the boat,” remembers Hicks. It seems impossible to make a BBC documentary featuring the royal family that doesn’t have the sheen of unctuousness. Mountbatten and his family, said his biographer Philip Ziegler, were regarded as “benevolent, well-meaning, helpful” by the villagers. They brought “glamour” and jobs. One, who worked as a waiter at the house, treasures a photograph of himself serving the family; his mother still has a Barbara Cartland book given to her by Mountbatten.
It’s not all cosy paternalism. “Classiebawn itself had been a fairly early example of what you might call English colonisation,” says Ziegler. Hicks remembers the mountainside where “there was a big painted sign saying ‘Brits go home’. You arrive for your summer holiday and that’s the welcome.” The family had protection from the local police, but not to an excessive degree.
The retelling of the blast itself – caused by a 50lb remote-controlled bomb planted the night before – was gut-wrenching. It was like a crack of thunder, recalls Mary Hornsey, the mother of 15-year-old Paul Maxwell, who had a summer job as Mountbatten’s boat boy. “I knew he was dead because I felt a part of me go.”
A few hours later, a bomb targeted an army convoy near Warrenpoint. Tom Caughey, one of just two survivors from the lorry that was hit, vividly describes gathering his strength to let his troop know he was still alive. They were doing, he says, “a roll call of the dead”. Half an hour later, another bomb went off by a gate lodge – the IRA unit rightly believed that was where the solders would regroup – taking the toll to 18. It was, says the company commander, Mike Jackson, with stiff upper lip understatement, “a pretty grim sight”, before going on to remember there were body parts in the trees. A civilian also died, shot by a soldier who wrongly believed he was involved in the attack.
The feel of the IRA prisoners, remembers Anthony McIntyre, a former member who was in the Maze prison, was “exuberance, exhilaration” at the news. Olivia O’Leary, a reporter at the Irish Times, puts it in context of the horrific events of Bloody Sunday seven years earlier. “There was a particular feeling of dislike towards the paratroopers,” she says.
But the targeting of Mountbatten and his family was different. “Almost everybody spoke with regret and shame about what had happened to Mountbatten,” says O’Leary. McIntyre, pointing out that senior IRA figures would have known children would have been on the boat, calls it a “war crime”.
There was nothing truly revelatory here, not even the fairly flat disclosure from Kieran Conway, the one-time director of intelligence for the IRA, that an assassination attempt on Mountbatten had been considered four years earlier. But there was plenty of genuine feeling. “I wanted to be with them,” says Caughey of his dead comrades. “Why did I survive?” The grief of Maxwell’s mother is almost unbearable to watch.
In contrast is the weirdness of the upper classes. Hicks remembers being taken with her siblings into the castle’s study and given pills to swallow. “Dear God. Would you give an 11-year-old Valium?” she asks, incredulous. She was sent off to boarding school just a week after her grandfather’s state funeral, where other girls made horrible jokes about his death. A clip of Prince Charles giving a speech about the murder of his mentor shows him reciting poetry instead of talking like a normal person.
O’Leary swiftly punctures his invocation of Yeats’s line about peace “dropping slow”. “Peace has to be worked at damn hard,” she says. It is not, she says, “a passive thing. It is always going to be a continuing responsibility on all of us in these islands to make sure that the conditions in Northern Ireland do not encourage the breakout again of sectarian tensions.” Maddeningly, there are people now who need to be reminded of this.