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7 February 2002 Edition

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MAIDSTONE ESCAPE: SWIMMING TO FREEDOM (Part 2)

The swim and the getaway




In the concluding part of An Phoblacht's two-part special on the daring escape of seven IRA prisoners from the Maidstone prison ship in January 1972, Belfast man PETER ROGERS tells JIM GIBNEY of the IRA group's swim to freedom through the freezing waters of Belfast Lough and their subsequent adventures as they succcessfully evaded capture in a double decker bus to make good their escape.


"I'm not completely sure but I think Jim was the first to go out the porthole. I was second last. Whoever it was I watched in horror and disbelief as he swam away from the ship towards land. He was clearly visible. Each swimmer was bathed in bright security lights. It was like swimming across a floodlit football pitch. My heart lifted as I watched them swim away.

"I thought we'd be spotted for sure. But that night the weather was on our side because there was very fine drizzle falling. Even the best of guards will take shelter on a watch and we didn't know that their shelter was a perspex covered hut. When the rain settled on the perspex they couldn't see out.

"In my underpants I climbed out the porthole with help from my comrades. I grabbed and then climbed onto the hawser. I slowly slid down the deep descent over the devices that were supposed to prevent us from escaping and into free water.

"We wore socks over our hands to protect our skin from being cut by the hawser steel rope as we slid down it into the water. To my surprise it was the smoothest of steel ropes. I gently and effortlessly slid down the rope into the water. As I did so I found five pairs of discarded socks floating around.

"The mixture of boot polish and butter had very effectively waterproofed our skins. The polish irritated our skins, causing heat, which the butter then insulated within our bodies. I hardly felt the cold as I entered the water.

"When I steadied myself and looked across to my destination I was shocked at the distance. Had I been able to I would've climbed back onto the ship. But the die was cast. I had to swim.

     
The mixture of boot polish and butter had very effectively waterproofed our skins. The polish irritated our skins, causing heat, which the butter then insulated within our bodies. I hardly felt the cold as I entered the water
"Underneath the keel of the ship, out of sight of the guards, I swam for home doing the breast stroke.

"All the while I am waiting for the sound of gunfire, for the alarm to be sounded and yet I am making steady progress. As I take each stroke and as I see the lads in front of me my confidence grows that I can make it.

"A few minutes into the swim I noticed Sean Convery ahead of me had run into difficulties. I was heading in his direction to help him then suddenly I heard this voice behind me, 'I'll get him Peter'. It was Toadler cutting through the water like a speedboat towards Sean to give him whatever encouragement he needed, putting him back on his stroke.

"A little later I ran into difficulties. The current was too strong, my arms were tired and I was getting weaker. I turned over on my back and floated for a while and did the back paddle. Water then seeped into my right ear, which had been damaged by the RUC during interrogation in Hollywood barracks some weeks before. I then developed a sharp pain in my ear. So I'm shaking my head to get the water out of my ear to ease the pain while I am trying to swim. And then I thought I saw a ship coming towards me. I soon forgot the earache and resumed swimming. The phantom ship turned out to be a buoy, but the fright gave me the spur I needed. It took away that moment of doubt.

"Toadler joined me as I approached the pier. We tried to climb up it but it was too dark and we cut ourselves to pieces on the barnacles. Fortunately, we found another opening.

"There was no sign of Sean. We thought he had foundered, drowned. But there was no time to dally. We had to get to our pick up. We met up with the rest of the lads hiding in the dark shadows. Some of them had lost their underpants in the swim. They were naked. It was now past 7pm. We searched for the pick up. We couldn't find them. We were running late. They must have moved on, thinking we were not coming.

" Five minutes passed, and still no sign of Sean. We thought the worst. The clock was ticking. We urgently needed transport. We divided up and went in search of alternative transport. We came across a car. I fumbled at it, trying to 'hot wire' it. We had no keys. My fingers were numb and swollen from the cold water. We couldn't get it started. Then out of the blue Sean comes on the scene. We are all together again; great jubilation. Nobody was lost; come what may, that was the main thing.

"I grabbed a rug out of the car and threw it over me. Bryson grabbed a bowler hat and an umbrella and put the hat on and we started running down the pier. As we ran alongside each other Bryson turns to me, bowler hatted and umbrella in hand, and asks me for my rug. What a spectacle. What a laugh. That was Jim - he was an amazing character.

"Then another twist. Gorman appears dressed in a busman's coat. He had spotted a double decker bus. Barefooted, we headed for it some distance away at the power station. We hugged the dark shadows. We were taking another big risk because the power station was patrolled by Brits but we had no option.

"Then a car with its headlights on came into view. It spun round and its lights fell on us. I squashed my body against the darkened wall. So did the other six, all in a line, all naked. That was some sight as the beam of light fell on us and passed by. It was comical.

"We were off again after the bus. The bus was empty. In a previous life I was a busman. I jumped into the driver's seat, revved up the engine to a high pitch, then the bus driver and two security guards came running out to challenge us. As they neared the bus, Tucker Kane landed a huge punch on one of their jaws. He fell into the arms of the other two. The rest of the lads jumped on board. The engine is screeching its head off, the lads are screaming at me to get moving and then we were off. I had built up enough air in the brakes for the engine to engage.

"We had a two-mile journey in front of us to get clear of the docks. The alarm was bound to be raised; the dock gates would be locked and we'd be trapped. I was flying along at full speed all the while being encouraged by the lads. They were raking about, shouting and waving at people waiting to be picked up by our bus, 'Up the Provos!'.

     
We piled into the bar. The punters were in shock. It was unreal: seven naked men standing in front of them, one with a bowler hat on, a busman's coat and a rug
"As we neared the gates, I saw the security man running out to swing them closed. He was trying to block our escape. I nearly ran him down as I sped through them into the traffic. Then someone shouted 'we are being followed'. There were two vehicles behind us in hot pursuit, one of them was the harbour police.

"We got out onto the road. It was after 7pm. The road was clear. The traffic was light but we were being pursued. We decided to head for the Markets to dump the bus and seek help. I was like a weaverbird, zigzagging across the road to prevent the harbour police catching us. In the middle of all this chaos, Martin Taylor says to me, 'Don't be stopping at any red lights!' As if I would. The lads were shouting to me, letting me know which side they were trying to overtake us on, then I moved to close them down. That is how it went till we got to the Markets via Queen's bridge and Oxford Street.

"I flew round into Cromac Square on practically two wheels. I then manoeuvred the bus into Verner Street. It was a tight squeeze, like putting a cork into a bottleneck. Our pursuers left us, afraid to venture into the area.

"I pulled up outside a local bar. These excited kids came from nowhere, 'Mister, Mister, what are you doing with the bus?' We piled into the bar. The punters were in shock. It was unreal: seven naked men standing in front of them, one with a bowler hat on, a busman's coat and a rug.

"Someone shouted: 'IRA, we need your help. We escaped off the Maidstone. We need clothes.'

"Through the air, jackets, shirts, trousers came flying at us. We hijacked one of their cars and inside four minutes we were off again, piled into the car four in the back, three in the front. It was a tight squeeze but it was warm. I was late into the bar, so I didn't get any clothes. Gorman drove the car. At one stage in the journey, he says 'I'll stop for some petrol'. We all burst out laughing. That was the mood. That's what got us through.

"Believe it or not, from that point on it was plain sailing. We travelled through all loyalist areas to our safe houses in Andersonstown. We were split up into different houses. I was with Jim and Toadler. We watched with great delight the nine o'clock news. And in warm clothes we smiled contentedly as a British soldier told the media that he was confident we were still in the Markets and that he would have us back on the Maidstone by midday the following day. Seamus Twomey, then O/C of the IRA in Belfast and himself very much on the run, was the first to call and congratulate us. He hugged us and shook our hands. It was a great

feeling being free again.

"All over Belfast there were bonfires that night. The people danced in the streets with joy.

"There are so many people to thank, the IRA on the outside, the people in the safe houses, but the people in that bar in the Markets were great. We could not have done it without them.

"It was a collective effort but the success of the escape was down to each individual. That is where the strength of it lay. It is sad to say that Jim and Toadler later died in a feud with the Sticks and Tucker died in a car accident. The remainder stay in touch and we had a bit of a reunion for this, the 30th anniversary.

"They were tough times but boy, it was a remarkable escape, and worth every minute of anxiety and effort."

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

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