Today (April 10) in London History – Bombing London

The IRA and INLA bombing attacks on London climaxed in the 1990s. The worst attack of all – the campaign began in 1973 and finally wound down in the 1990s – in the 1990s took place on April 10, 1992. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London Calling.

And right on cue, there you are. Glad you could make it.

Anyway, yes, Welcome to London.

Welcome to London Walks.

Welcome to the Today in London History Podcast.

London History with a little added extra. In short, London History –bygone London – prefaced with a bit of our London – London Today. A London tip, a London recommendation. A London appetiser. Just to get us underway. And on this day – April 10th – the London Walks recommendation is Don’t put it off: Get Thee to the Churchill War Rooms. Preaching to the faithful here, but let’s get it said: Formerly known as the Cabinet War Rooms, it’s the underground nerve centre, the British government’s World War II operational headquarters, the more or less bombproof secret bunker from which Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British government directed the war effort. A claustrophobic maze of dimly lit passageways and tiny rooms and makeshift wiring and plumbing and signage – it’s like an underground submarine –  the CWR – Cabinet War Rooms – is an endlessly fascinating place. But now really is the time to pay them a visit. Because of their Special Exhibition: Wartime London: Art of the Blitz. The Exhibition is a great fit, it makes for a special pairing for the Cabinet War Rooms. You’re down there where Winston Churchill and his government were hunkered down but you’re simultaneously seeing what life was like for ordinary Londoners. As the exhibition programme puts it, “This carefully curated selection of artworks, on display for a limited time only, shines a new light on the experiences of ordinary people forced into new patterns of living by Nazi air raids.”

And “on display for a limited time only” is the operational phrase here. It’s the operational phrase because the light on the Wartime London: Art of the Blitz special exhibition is right now changing from green to amber. Yes, that’s by way of saying, the exhibition only has two more weeks to run. It ends on April 24th.

Ok, let’s segue now from Today in London to Today in London History. Spinning the roulette wheel of London years for April 10th the division the ball comes to rest in is 1992. 

So, yes, this one’s a living memory. For a lot of us. And it’s not a good memory.

It’s no small mercy that it’s now in the past. Plain fact of the matter is, it’s a huge mercy. And a silent prayer going up here – never again, please. I’m talking about the horrific IRA and INLA attacks – mostly bombing attacks – in London that ripped through the last three decades of the 20th century. It was particularly bad in the two decades that bookended that period – the 1970s when it started and the 1990s when the Good Friday Agreement finally wound it down. It’s almost too many to count – way over 100 IRA and INLA attacks dating back to 1973 – and, as I said, it was especially bad in those early days – but it peaked in the 1990s. The list of places attacked in those three decades is a roll call of shame, of infamy: railway stations and tube stations, government buildings, including 10 Downing Street and Parliament, pubs, Madame Tussauds, the Boat Show at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre, the Tower of London, Heathrow Airport, Harrow School, gentlemen’s clubs, telephone boxes, London pillar boxes, hotels, Selfridges and John Lewis and C & A Mothercare on Oxford Street, Liberty’s on Regent Street, Harrods in Knightsbridge, small shops, litter bins, restaurants, barracks, cinemas, royal parks, private residences the London stock exchange, the Baltic Exchange, Docklands, the BBC, the doorstep (so to speak) of the British Museum and the YMCA, a Royal Mail sorting office, a London bus, hijacked and stolen vehicles, the National Gallery, shopping centres, the Royal Festival Hall, the Imperial War Museum, the Planetarium, a book store (for Gods sake, yes, a book store)… the list could almost be a tourist’s itinerary, a tourist’s Places to See, Things to Do in London checklist.

But here we’ll zoom in, we’ll grimace and take a closer look 

at the two “bongs” attacks in the 1990s. By “bongs” attacks I mean they were the lead items on the News that night – they came right after those stern, solemn bongs that introduced, that announced – this is the News At Ten. They were the biggest story of the day in other words.

The first one was the mortar attack on a Cabinet Meeting at Number 10 Downing Street. It happened on February 7th, 1991. A van was parked on the other side of Whitehall, about two hundred yards up from Downing Street. The roof of the van was opened. A mortar rocket was launched from the back up the van. The rocket went up through the open roof of the van and arced across those 200 yards or so, came down into the No. 10 Downing Street garden. Prime Minister John Major was holding a cabinet meeting. He said, “I think we better leave here.” Their aim was that close. An adjustment by a millimetre or two of the angle of the firing device and the British government would have been wiped out.

The other major attack in those grim times owns this day in London History. April 10th, 1992. A 100 lb. bomb exploded in the City of London. It killed three people and injured nearly a hundred others. It destroyed the Baltic Exchange. It blew out hundreds of windows in neighbouring office blocks, including the Nat West Tower, which at the time was the tallest building in London. 

Writing about this has brought back some of the feelings. It was a grim time. There was resentment that often flared up into anger, rage even. But it was impotent anger. What could we do? There was anxiety. There was resignation. There was that awful feeling, this is going to go on forever. This will never end. (More or less the feeling all of us probably have from time to time these days about Covid.) And sometimes anxiety ratcheted up to fear. You got on the Tube you looked for stray packages, unattended packages. You wondered, is that terrible one in a million chance going to happen to me on this trip – this Tube journey, this night at the theatre, this going into a pub for a drink. 

And always there was that horrible calculus: the security services having to get it right every time, the people who were doing this to our city, to our neighbours, to our fellow Londoners, to our lives only having to get it right – get it right in their terms – once in a hundred times, once in a thousand times.

I remember when the terrible thought dawned on me, the only way to bombproof a city – make it completely safe – is to abandon it, empty it of people. I remember thinking, “guarding a city against car bombs – it can’t be done – how do you stop and search every car? You can’t do it. Think of what’s going on at Dover at the moment – 23 mile-long tailbacks. It’s hydraulics. A two-minute delay at one end comes out as a 23-mile long tailback at the other end. And searching a car for explosives – if you’re doing it thoroughly – is a lot longer than a two-minute operation.

In those days I rode a motorcycle. There are over 100,000 motorcycles in London. I don’t know how many of them have top boxes but it’ll be tens of thousands. And every single one of them will have that storage space under the seat. I remember parking the bike and thinking as I glanced at the topboxes on the maybe twenty other bikes in the parking bay, “any one of those could be carrying a bomb.”

And, yes, the chances were less than that standard cartoon depiction of urban bad luck – you know the one I mean, a man blithely walking along on a city street unaware that a safe has just fallen off a roof twenty stories up and is about to flatten him. 

Glancing at those top boxes wasn’t a high anxiety moment – I was supremely confident that none of them was about to blow up in my face – but you know what, life would have been fractionally better if the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. If instead of occasionally thinking, “this is London, this is my city, this is where I live and yes, bombs go off in London” I had the much happier thought, “I live in London – bombs don’t go off in London – I don’t live in a war zone.”

And on that note, good night from London. See you tomorrow. Something a bit jollier for you tomorrow. 

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