At 1008 am, on 7th February 1991, as Prime Minister John Major’s War Cabinet sat down to meet in the Cabinet Room, an IRA mortar hit 10 Downing Street. Several police officers were injured but nobody was killed.
An account of this as told to me by Prime Minister John Major, is part of the kindle book “Forgotten Voices Gulf War One”.
It had been fired from a white transit van outside the Ministry of Defence, 250 metres away parked – near where King Charles the First had been executed.
The Cabinet Room’s bomb-proof windows buckled inwards but didn’t shatter. The building shook and the Prime Minister’s War Cabinet took cover underneath the substantial table.
After the shock and then a considerable aftershock, the politicians and civil servants moved downstairs to the safety of Downing Streets underground protective levels. They continued with their meeting in Cabinet Office Briefing Room A – “COBRA”.
The success of this IRA mission was downplayed at the time. But the damage to Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street – the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer’s official residences, was considerable. Despite shattered windows, the heavy bomb-proof net curtains then in every government building, prevented glass injuries.
A total of three mortars were fired. One landed in the garden of 10 Downing Street, just ten yards from the Cabinet Meeting Room windows, making a large crater several feet deep. The other two went further to land on Mountbatten Green.
As a result, the entrance to Downing Street (a cul de sac) from Whitehall was blocked with a large wrought iron security gate – to prevent car bomb attacks.
This attack was of considerable sophistication and daring, carried out with impressive precision. Security forces had not detected the reconnaissance and measurements that made it possible – although it’s likely these took place months before the actual attack.
The missiles were entirely homemade; gas cylinders packed with explosives, fired using fast-burning propellant of the weed killer and sugar type, from metal tubes welded in a line inside the van. They were fired in two volleys: first as a pair to balance the recoil, then a single in the middle, from the cut-out roof of the van just behind the driver – using the van both as delivery vehicle and as the mortar base plate. It’s unlikely the mortars had impact fuses. Instead, burning time fuses would have been lit just before setting off the mortar firing charges.
The timing of this would have been critical. It’s remarkable that nobody at the time appeared to have observed the van being positioned, or the bombers escaping before it exploded.