This Is Their Story
On the 10th March 1971, John McCaig, Joseph McCaig and Dougald McCaughey were looking forward to spending the afternoon off duty.
For them, having a few pints with friends in the city centre bars would be an ideal way to spend this time.
Tommy Anderson, Charlie Robertson and Donny Letham were with the boys leaving Girdwood Park Barracks that afternoon. Dougald's younger Brother, David, was tasked with guard duty shortly before leaving which saw him remain at camp.
When they arrived in Belfast City Centre, the group split up, and the three boys went straight for a pint while the others went for a bit of shopping, they had a small list of things the men on duty back at camp had requested. They had all arranged to meet again at the pub a short time later. They wouldn't have had much time to enjoy; the British Army had a strict curfew which ordered all Soldiers to return to their camp for 18:30.
The group never found each other again.
The boys did not stay at Mooney's Bar. They went on to visit several other bars that afternoon. During this time, the boys were befriended by PIRA terrorists portraying themselves as friendly locals. Their sole intention was to follow an evil and brutal plan organised only days before. John, Joseph and Dougald were now in the company of some of the most ruthless men known to be operating in the Provisional Irish Republican Army at the time.
Andy, Donny and Charlie returned to Girdwood Barrack at approximately 17:30 having been unable to find the boys.
Now firmly in the grips of the PIRA, the boy's movements would be carefully manipulated to ensure they were lured to Kelly's Cellars. This pub was explicitly selected due to its discrete location and sympathy for the Republican cause. Even standing in the middle of a Republican bar surrounded by those who would do them harm, the boys were unsuspecting.
In another part of Belfast, there was a separate PIRA Team organising logistics and weapons preparing to meet their counterparts currently with the boys.
When John, Joseph and Dougald did not appear back at their barracks by 18:30, they were listed by the Officer on duty as AWOL (absent without leave). David McCaughey, Dougald's young Brother, was still on guard duty at this time.
Before the 10th March 1971, there was never any attempt to harm off duty soldiers. Those back at Girdwood Barrack would have never suspected the boys would be in grave danger, perhaps thinking they were simply enjoying themselves and lost track of time.
At approximately 19:00, a man arrived at Kelly's Cellars in a car. John, Joseph and Dougald entered that car with their new acquaintances, still unaware of the real intentions these disguised terrorists held. Perhaps they thought they were going to a party, another pub or even offered a lift back to their barracks.
Twenty-five minutes later, gunshots are heard coming from the direction of White Brae and vehicles are seen speeding back towards the City. Those fleeing the area would be leaving behind a crime so evil it would never be forgotten.
John, Joseph and Dougald were found dead at 19:45. Children discovered their bodies left on the side of the road while playing in the fields nearby. One of the children said:
"We were just standing there frightened and not knowing what to do. Two men came along, and one of them touched the head of a man who was lying over another. His head fell back, and the man said," they are stone dead".
At 20:00 on the 10th March, Belfast was preparing for sleep, but it has now wakened by the whispers of three slain young soldiers laying on the White Brae.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary and British Army race to the scene and immediately lock it down, the whispers they feared now confirmed – three British Soldiers have been murdered.
The identity of the boys was confirmed to Police by an Officer of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. He confirmed this was his missing Soldiers marked AWOL at 18:30 earlier that evening.
Journalists began to arrive in large numbers and struggled to have any details relayed to them by the Police and Army. A Belfast Telegraph Journalist approached a Police Officer at the cordon and after multiple attempts to get information was told "three soldiers have been murdered. When asked how he knew they were soldiers, he replied "their socks". The boys were wearing their British Army issued socks.
Back at Girdwood Barracks, there was a sudden increase in activity, David McCaughey was still on guard duty. He did not know this was in response to the murder of Dougald, John and Joseph.
The confusion started to spread through the camp when all men of 7 Platoon were ordered back to their rooms. Platoon Sargeant, Phineas Sloan and Platoon Commander, Major McCreedy, entered the room and announced the painful news.
Anticipating the raw emotion and anger that would be felt throughout the men when hearing this news, the decision was taken to strip all weapons from the Platoon.
David McCaughey was taken to the Commanding Officer. He was given a glass of whiskey and informed Dougald, John and Joseph were dead.
Back in Scotland, the McCaig and McCaughey Families have been told the heartbreaking news their sons were dead.
They were off duty; they were innocent young boys; they were now dead. This heinous crime would change everything. The Provisional IRA had just plunged the conflict in Northern Ireland to new depths.
Revulsion and anger turned into public displays of emotion from individuals gathered in their tens of thousands.
Locals began handing gifts into Girdwood Barracks to show their solidarity with the British Army. They wanted to make clear that this vile crime was not a reflection on them.
Mrs Mary Cooley was one of the locals to visit Girdwood Barracks. She handed over a cheque of £200 to Lt. Col Anderson of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. This money was collected from the families of Ballysillan estate for the McCaig and McCaughey Families.
Shipyard and other factory workers walked out in protest, demanding tighter security and internment be introduced to combat the escalating violence.
Over 20,000 people attended ceremonies in Belfast City Centre and Carrickfergus. Rev. Ian Paisley led mourners to lay wreaths at the Cenotaph in Belfast, and the gathering crowd sang the National Anthem.
The murders of John, Joseph and Dougald, created a turbulent period for British politics. British Home Secretary, Reginald Maulding, informed the House of Commons of the brutal killings and that new protective measures for all off duty soldiers were being reviewed. The minimum serving age for soldiers serving on operations was raised to 18.
Reginald Maulding also said: "The battle now joined against the terrorists will be fought with the utmost vigour and determination. It is a battle against a small minority of armed and ruthless men whose strength lies not so much in their numbers as in their wickedness".
The Coroner, James Elliot told the inquest jury "You may think that this was not only murder but one of the vilest crimes ever heard in living memory".
Platoon Sergeant Phineus Sloan said "I will never forget those poor boys. Every time I think of the way they died, I go cold".
Thousands of people continue to remember the story of John, Joseph and Dougald. The story of how three young and innocent men were lured to their brutal murders by cowardly Terrorists disguised as friends.
There is no justification for the brutal murders of John McCaig, Joseph McCaig and Dougald McCaughey. They were sent to Northern Ireland to keep the peace and were murdered for it.
In 1971 three young off-duty soldiers were slain in cold bold by IRA gunmen. No-one has ever faced trial for their murder. Their families continue to search for truth and see justice served after 50 years.