The chilling order given by Colonel Gaddafi before the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in 1984
John Murry & Matt Hohnson
In an intensely personal new book, the officer who cradled her as she lay dying outside the Libyan Embassy recounts the inside story of that terrible day.
The scream from behind me jolted me back to reality. ‘Get in, John!’, yelled a voice. Howard Turner, my sergeant, was ordering me into the ambulance. I hesitated, uncertainty paralysing my leg muscles as my brain tried to process what had happened. WPC Yvonne Fletcher, my tiny, cheeky, perpetually smiling friend, had been shot. I could not take it in.
Around me outside the Libyan Embassy my mates were getting stuck in, ripping open first aid kits, pressing hands onto wounds, calling on radios to warn others what had happened. One of the men they were treating was crying out in pain as he begged for help.
‘Wake up, mate. She needs you.’ Howard’s voice had become measured and calming. He placed a strong, encouraging hand on my shoulder. I glanced back, expecting to see his resolute face. What I saw was fear.
‘Now or never, lad,’ said a paramedic as he began closing the ambulance door. I looked inside. Yvonne was on her back on the bench behind the passenger seat.
Her hand reached out towards me, the fingers bloodied and trembling. As I stepped forward and into the cramped interior of the ambulance, the door slammed behind us.
The vehicle lurched forward and my feet skidded beneath me. I glanced down to see where my boots had left marks in the fresh blood streaked across the floor. ‘Talk to her, mate,’ said the paramedic. ‘Try and keep her conscious. I’ll be with you in a minute.’
On the opposite bench to Yvonne were two of the Libyans who’d been involved in what was supposed to have been a peaceful protest outside the Embassy against the murderous regime of their country’s leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Both looked deathly pale, the face of the nearest to me creased in pain. With every breath, he emitted a deep, rasping moan.
I squeezed past the paramedic, knelt beside Yvonne and took her hand. The ambulance weaved from side to side as we dodged through the traffic. One of the Libyans was muttering something in Arabic. He sounded frightened.
Yvonne pulled her hand away from me and reached across the aisle. ‘Everything will be OK,’ she said to him, with a smile. He nodded, seeming to appreciate the gesture.
The next moment, her face became lined with pain. The movement must have been too much and she began to pull at the waistband of her skirt. I checked her leather belt. It was tight, really tight, and I could see her face was becoming pale.
She’s bleeding internally, I thought, as I recalled my first aid training. This doesn’t look good. I felt for a button or zip, something to release the pressure. ‘My tummy hurts, John,’ she said, softly.
I had no idea how a uniform skirt worked and was struggling to find a solution when the paramedic leaned across.
He pointed at a small tray in a compartment above Yvonne’s head. ‘In there,’ he said. ‘Scissors.’ I found the scissors and, with fingers trembling, I undid Yvonne’s belt and then slipped the metal blade inside her waistband. As I cut, she let out a sigh. ‘Oh God, thanks,’ she whispered, her voice weak but still clear. ‘You’ll be OK,’ I said. ‘We’ll be at the hospital in a couple of minutes.’
‘What happened?’ she asked. I wasn’t sure what to say. I recalled being warned that shock is the greatest life-threatening risk to a casualty. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘You’re hurt, but not too bad.’
‘It hurts like hell. Who did it?’
‘I don’t know. Someone from inside the Embassy, I think.’
‘Make sure you nick them.’
‘I will, I promise. I’ll find out who it was and I will get them for this.’ ‘We’ll get them, John. We’ll get them.’ Yvonne’s eyes locked on mine for a moment before rolling back in their sockets.
I held her hand and spoke to her again, but she’d slipped into unconsciousness. ‘Keep talking to her,’ said the paramedic as he began checking for life signs. ‘She’s a fighter, I’ll tell you that.’
The ambulance driver turned off the two-tones as we began slowing to a halt. We’d arrived.
Someone opened the rear doors and, next thing, a melee of uniforms and white coats were pushing past me. Within seconds, I was alone, standing by the ambulance. A nurse appeared at the hospital door. ‘Come and wait in here,’ she called. ‘They’ve taken your colleague through to resus.’
I followed and found myself alone in a small office near reception.
Another ambulance arrived. More casualties. More screams. More people in pain. More rushing around of uniforms.
The office door opened. A doctor in a green surgeon’s gown, cap and mask stood in the doorway for a moment, seemingly talking to a nurse further along the corridor. ‘PC Murray?’ he asked as he turned. I stood to greet him.
‘Your colleague’s been shot through the elbow and it appears the bullet has lodged in her abdomen,’ he said. ‘We’re taking her through to theatre now. We think she should be fine.’
My legs gave way. ‘Thank Christ for that,’ I said, as I sat down again. ‘She’s going to be OK.’
Yvonne Joyce Fletcher was born on June 15, 1958, in the pretty village of Semley, Wiltshire. The eldest of four sisters, she was just three when she told her parents she wanted to be a police officer. Aged 18, on March 14, 1977, she joined the Metropolitan Police.
Standing only five feet one-and-a-half inches tall, Yvonne had already been rejected by two forces on account of her height. But after her interview at the Met the panel decided to make an exception.
‘What Miss Fletcher lacks in height, she more than makes up for in personality and determination,’ the board chairman wrote. She was posted to Bow Street in central London, one of the country’s oldest police stations.
Yvonne was keen to learn and soon endeared herself to her new colleagues, among them John Murray, then 19. In 1981, when she and Murray were given the job of training and mentoring new recruits to Bow Street along with their beat duties, they became close friends.
Later that year John moved into a police house in East London with his future wife Julie-Ann.
Yvonne, meanwhile, began dating a fellow officer, Mick Liddle, in the autumn of 1983. Within a few months she and Mick had announced their engagement.
A former colleague, Pete Rogers, recalls that time. ‘Yvonne was friendly, conscientious and a popular member of staff,’ he says. ‘She was happy in her work and personal life. Everything seemed to be coming together for her.’
But in the background a series of sinister events that would lead to the Libyan Embassy shooting was already unfolding. In the months before, Gaddafi had sent assassins to punish Libyan dissidents and critics in exile across Europe and the U.S. His strategy was to lure the ‘stray dogs’, as he described them, to London, where they could be seized.
On April 15, 1984, two popular students critical of Gaddafi’s regime were publicly hanged at their universities in Libya, the executions transmitted live on TV.
The aim of this brutal act was to provoke Gaddafi’s UK-based critics into demonstrating outside the Embassy in London, where his followers would be waiting for them. The strategy worked.
Anti-Gaddafi protesters immediately applied for permission to gather outside the Embassy in St James’s Square, near Piccadilly. The Met agreed and began preparations, ordering steel barriers to be put up outside the building in the early hours of April 17.
At 12.30am that day, two Libyan diplomats turned up at the Foreign Office to complain about the demonstration. It later emerged that Gaddafi’s people inside the Embassy had been caught off guard by the timing of the protest and wanted more time to prepare their attacks on dissenters.
The Foreign Office duty officer explained they couldn’t stop the protest — in a democracy it was perfectly legal. They passed on the diplomats’ complaint to the Home Office and Special Branch.
But, for reasons that are unclear, the intelligence was not made available to the nearby police stations, including Bow Street, which would be responsible for maintaining order.
Meanwhile the CIA and GCHQ had intercepted a communication from Gaddafi to the London Libyan Embassy giving them three options: clash with the demonstrators and abduct ringleaders; get the British Government to prevent the demonstration; or shoot the demonstrators from inside the Embassy. But again the information was not received by police.
On the morning of the demonstration two Libyan men, one wearing a grey jacket, the other in a tweed jacket, came out of the Embassy and tried to stop contractors erecting the barriers. As fast as they were put up, the two men took them down again.
‘I’m not taking responsibility for you or these things,’ the man in the grey jacket told the contractors, indicating the barriers. ‘Because we have guns here and there’s going to be fighting today.’
Unsure of the seriousness of the threat but fearing trouble, police arrested the two, Dr Omar Sodani and Saleh Ibrahim Mabrouk, and took them into custody, despite both men claiming diplomatic immunity.
On being told that the demonstration was to go ahead, Colonel Gaddafi’s orders from Libya were chilling and ominous.
‘Cover the streets of London with blood,’ he said.
PC JOHN Murray had been expecting a routine day on April 17 and a chance to catch up on some jobs. But, shortly after his arrival at 8am, he was spotted by John Walters, the station’s duty sergeant, as he walked with Yvonne towards the staff canteen.
‘You two, what are you doing today?’ said Walters. ‘Can you do me a favour? There’s a demonstration at the Libyan Embassy and I’m two short. Can you fill in?’
The two agreed and Sergeant Howard Turner, in charge of the Bow Street contingent, told them they would, with four others from the station, be assisting with traffic control at what was expected to be a noisy but well-behaved protest outside the Embassy.
‘Although we’d heard it was an anti-Gaddafi demonstration, we didn’t know much about him,’ remembers Murray. ‘Instead of talking about what we were going to be doing that day, we chatted about everyday things and enjoyed a bit of banter. Mick and Yvonne sat together.
‘They’d just become engaged, so we were teasing them a bit. We were looking forward to an easy job, a couple of hours, and then back to Bow Street.’
Arriving at 9.30am, they took up positions outside the Embassy with their backs to the building. Because their journey had been slower than expected, the traffic duties on the periphery of the square to which they’d originally been assigned had now been reallocated to another group of officers.
Inspector Alex Fish, from nearby Vine Street station, asked for a volunteer to stand guard by the buses bringing the demonstrators to the square.
Yvonne Fletcher was one of those he approached. ‘I had two WPCs with me that morning,’ says Fish. ‘I remember Yvonne Fletcher said that if it was all going to kick off, she wanted to be with the lads. I didn’t know Yvonne well, but it didn’t surprise me. She returned to the barrier line [outside the Embassy] next to John Murray.’
Nearby, out of sight of the Embassy, a pro-Gaddafi counter-demonstration was building in the streets around the square. ‘We were surprised that one or two of them didn’t try to get closer,’ says Fish. ‘But they stayed where they were. It was as if they knew something was about to happen.’
At 10.18am, Fish looked up at the Embassy to see a black object poking out through an open window on the first floor. It was also spotted by a worker in a nearby office. ‘I was looking up at a window where I’d seen a man shaking his fist,’ PC Simon Withy told the later inquest. ‘At that very moment, a gun barrel appeared.’
David Robertson, a painter and decorator who had been working in an adjacent street, added: ‘I saw a movement and looked up at a window on the first floor to the left of the Libyan flag. I saw a man holding a gun, smaller than a rifle, larger than a pistol. I turned and spoke to someone who had also stopped to watch. ‘F*** me,’ I said. ‘He’s got a gun.’
Fish heard shots and saw flashes of light from the nozzle of the weapon pointing through the window. It was like ‘spitting fire’, he later told the inquest. He saw the crowd suddenly split apart, and Yvonne Fletcher collapse onto the Tarmac.
John Murray explains that it sounded like a jumping-jack firework had gone off. In front of him, people in the crowd dived and fell in all directions. To his left, he was aware of Yvonne collapsing. The square fell silent.
‘Everything seemed to freeze for a second or two,’ says PC Steve Marriott. ‘No sounds, no reactions.’ Alex Fish adds: ‘Many around me had no idea what had happened. We had no protocols to deal with a weapon being fired. It was a nightmare.’
Rob Collins, a worker from another nearby office, was watching the scene from four storeys up. ‘I saw the WPC was on the ground, apparently in agony, and behind the barriers, it looked like several people had been hit.
‘The police were standing still at that moment; all seemingly aware something had happened, but not what. One of them went immediately to help the WPC.
‘A second or two earlier, the square had been filled by deafening shouts. It was now silent.’
Something had happened that no police officer in mainland UK had ever seen before, something none had ever been prepared or trained for, something no one had ever imagined possible.
A machine gun had been fired at a demonstration. Slowly, as the reality of the situation began to dawn, people ran for cover or to help the injured. Demonstrators screamed in either pain or panic, with several bleeding badly.
Howard Turner was the first to reach Yvonne. At first, he didn’t realise she had been shot. John Murray then knelt beside his friend and cradled her in his arms.
Murray recalls: ‘I asked Yvonne what had happened. Where did it hurt? She didn’t reply. At first I thought she must have fallen over and hurt her leg.
‘It was then we saw the blood. Her eyes were open and she was trying to say something, but she was struggling for breath.’
Turner called for an ambulance and instructed Murray and another PC to get ready to carry Yvonne to safety. Murray, who had his back to the Embassy, glanced over his shoulder. He remembers thinking: ‘We were sitting ducks.
‘If the gunman shoots again, we’ve had it.’
JOHN Murray sat alone in the small hospital waiting room for about an hour and a half before the doctor he’d met earlier came back to see him. This time, the doctor had taken his mask and cap off and John could see he was young, around his own age.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said to John, his gaze fixed on the floor.
He began to cry. ‘Your friend died on the operating table. There was too much internal damage. Her spleen was in pieces.’
John stepped forward, held out his arms, and the two men embraced as they cried together.
A Chief Superintendent, who John had seen earlier, appeared with instructions for him to accompany Yvonne’s body to Westminster Coroner’s Court, where a Home Office pathologist would be waiting to meet him. Someone who was able to identify Yvonne to the pathologist had to go with her.
As John climbed into the rear of the van used by the Coroner Service, he discovered his friend was already inside, lying on a trolley, a shroud covering her from head to toe. Although the drive to the mortuary was just a few hundred yards, to John it felt like an eternity.
He felt unable to look at the outline of Yvonne’s features, to imagine it was actually her lying so close, warm but devoid of life.
It was only when they arrived that Murray realised that, rather than simply identifying Yvonne’s body, he was expected to remain for the whole of the post-mortem examination. ‘I couldn’t believe it,’ he says. ‘I just stood there, unable to speak. It was like something out of my worst possible nightmare.’
Afterwards, a car arrived to take Murray back to Bow Street police station. The first person to meet him was John Walters, the duty sergeant who’d assigned him and Yvonne to the demonstration.
‘John Walters kept repeating, ‘It was my fault. I sent you there,’ Murray recalls.
On the Tube going home later that day, Murray found himself sitting opposite a couple of female American tourists.
‘I remember one said to her friend, ‘Did you hear about this woman police officer that’s just been shot?’
‘I still had Yvonne’s blood on my shirt and I wanted to shout out, wanted to tell them that was my friend they were talking about.
‘I didn’t. I just sat brooding as I thought to myself, if only they knew.’
John Murray’s life would never be the same again. From that moment on, his pledge to Yvonne dominated his waking thoughts and actions.
But it would be almost 40 years before his relentless campaign saw British justice catch up with the man in the grey jacket.