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banner Friday, 24 March, 2000, 13:16 GMT
Col Wilford: Don't blame my soldiers
Bloody Sunday still
Thirteen civilians were killed on Bloody Sunday

Colonel Derek Wilford has always been outspoken in defence of his men.

As the officer in charge of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday, he has never wavered from his conviction that his soldiers were fired on first.

Speaking to the BBC during the making of the documentary Remember Bloody Sunday in 1992 he said: "I don't believe my soldiers were wrong.

"There might have been things wrong in the sense that some innocent people, people who were not carrying a weapon, were wounded or even killed. But that was not done as a deliberate malicious act. It was done as an act of war."

A 38-year-old lieutenant colonel in 1972, Derek Wilford was a well-respected high-flying officer.

His battalion had arrived in Belfast from Cyprus 18 months earlier for a two-year tour of duty.

Col Wilford: The shootings were "an act of war"
On the morning of Bloody Sunday the paratroopers were bussed into Londonderry. Rioting was expected and arrests were planned. The paras also knew there was a possibility they could be shot at by snipers.

In Derry the local battalions were regularly pelted with stones and other missiles - particularly at "Aggro Corner" - the point at which the nationalist Bogside area known as Free Derry ran into the city centre.

The soldiers were dubbed "Aunt Sallies" because they resembled such easy targets and they never advanced. Col Wilford made it clear that his paras would not meekly accept the same treatment.

At 1600 on Bloody Sunday a shot - which appeared to be directed towards the soldiers - rang out from the Bogside. It was heard 10 minutes before the paratroopers moved in to make arrests in their "scoop-up" operation.

The shot meant they knew there was at least one gun in the Bogside. Half an hour later 13 civilians lay dead and another 13 injured.

It is an event that is in my subconscious all the time... I suppose, in fact, it has made me rather anti-war.

Col Derek Wilford
Col Wilford was exonerated by the Widgery tribunal and six months after the event he was awarded the Order of the British Empire by the Queen.

But he left the army 10 years later and has since said he feels he was made a scapegoat for the events that took place on Bloody Sunday. He maintains that his men were doing their duty.

"If you get into an enormous crowd which is out to make mischief you are in the first instance a party to it.

"If you are on the receiving end, as we were, then you have to assume that they are all out to make mischief."

At a secret briefing two days before Bloody Sunday the colonel said he asked: "What happens if there is shooting?"

He never got a reply and believes his failure to pursue this question was his gravest mistake.

Bloody Sunday has had a profound effect on Col Wilford's life.

"It is an event that is in my subconscious all the time... I suppose, in fact, it has made me rather anti-war. It made me also anti-politicians and anti a hierarchy which allows a situation to go on," he said.

Outspoken views

Col Wilford, who now lives abroad, fiercely objects to his men being publicly named during the Bloody Sunday inquiry. He says they could still face reprisals from the IRA.

When being interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, last year, he angered the relatives of those killed and injured during Bloody Sunday by suggesting that almost all Northern Ireland Catholics were closet republicans.

Although he later apologised for his comments, the army distanced itself from him and issued this statement:

"Col Wilford retired from the army 16 years ago and the views he expressed [on the Today programme] do not represent those of today's army.

"Indeed, such views are potentially damaging to the army's position of absolute impartiality. They were, in short, as inaccurate as they were unhelpful."

Col Wilford is likely to be called to give evidence before the new inquiry in the next few months.

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