“Some say it was a battle; the second Battle of Trafalgar.
In military circles, I doubt the term is accurate.
I was there, frightened and in fear of my life. I do find it convenient to draw on such comparison.
At night, when I’m often not quite awake. I smell the distilled rank breath. I Sense the hate.
I touch the angry faces, biting, spitting venom just beyond the shield wall.
Under the statue of Nelson, I felt myself divided.
Perhaps the better half of me is lost.
All that remains is a baser measure.
When fear takes over reason, when morals are tested and the life of the man next to you means more than your own, the application of law and order, if I could think on it at such a time, might make me smile…
Of course, I was there to serve the people, if I could have found just one that did not wish to kill me, then I would have cared for all of them.”
Extract, from the official Home Office de-briefing notes of Constable Samuel Brindle after The London Poll Tax riots. April 1990.
1600hrs. Saturday March 31st 1990
The rooftop of The South African Consulate. Trafalgar Sqaure.
He bound up the fire escape stairwell two steps at a time. Updates from his colleague on the rooftop echoed from his radio along the fire escape stairwell. Vibrations from a slammed door still resonated through the metalled floor grills. He stumbled and held on to the rail. From a strap around his neck, a pair of service issue binoculars clattered against his chest. He gripped the consulate manual tighter in his hand, segments of its emergency protocols flashed through is mind,
‘The worst of war is Civil War. Violent civil unrest is little better. It portends a troubled future for a citizenry fuelled on desperation and lack of hope.’
Again he stumbled, this time he swore and cursed. He looked up and at last noticed the roof top access door and crashed into it. ‘A superior vantage point of any battle is elevation…’
The door flew open and Archie stumbled into warm afternoon air and vast blue skies. He stood and caught his breath, allowing his narrowed eyes to adjust to natural daylight. He saw his colleague, Peter, straining, leaning out over the stone rooftop ledge. Archie joined him and placed the emergency manual to one side.
“Glad you could make it boss.”
“Shut up.” Archie shot him a rueful glance and smiled. Both men peered out through there binoculars.
Peter glanced across at his senior officer. “You need to work on that cardio-vascular boss.”
“And you need a bush-craft refresher course. I’ll have you scratching twigs in the sand to hide your dunnie deposits before you know it.”
“Whatever you say boss.”
The two South African Secret Service officers, hopped from rooftop to rooftop. A panoramic view from the roof of South Africa House, at Trafalgar Square, served adherence to emergency protocols well. With binoculars trained on the disturbances afforded them a view of The Square, Whitehall, Northumberland Avenue and The Strand. Here, in safety, they ascertained the threat level to the security of personnel within the South African Consulate.
“The seats of power, my friend. The authorities will throw everything at this. Mark my words.” Archie withdrew his green service issue binoculars from his eyes and nudged his friend Peter in the ribs. Both men wore single-breasted dark grey suits, white shirts and green ties adorned with small flecks of gold thread. Both remained impassive to the anarchy unfolding below.
Peter kept his eyes trained through his binoculars. “Yes mate, I reckon they will. Of course back in South’ Africa we’d just shoot them all and go home for tea, right?”
Archie smiled and with casual indifference cast his eyes onto the Square below.
Columns of police officers cut the square off from its tributary streets. Stationary on Whitehall stood a cordon of Police Officers’ all brandishing batons and mounted on horseback.
On The Strand, a cordon of foot patrol officers formed another line of bodies across the street. Some wore riot gear; most were dressed in normal operation police uniform. They held wooden truncheons, similar to those used by their forebears for the last two hundred years. They waved them over their heads at baying crowds of near berserk civilians.
For their own part, the civilian protestors threw rocks, pieces of wood, masonry, roadside traffic lights and metal road rails, anything not fixed to the ground toward Police. They in turn, ordered to stand and absorb the assault by senior management safe within elevated walls at New Scotland Yard.
Under a gradual erosion of bombardment, the professionalism of the officers wore thin; tested by a growing sense of frustration and apparent indecision they taunted the mob. Upon impact from each missile, stone and petrol bomb the cordon lines bent, burnt for a while, and held.
Archie grimaced and shook his head as he observed one police officer, caught in a hailstorm of masonry stagger backward, his white shirt turned a glossy red before his knees buckled and he sank to the ground.
His colleagues surrounded the fallen officer. Their Sergeant detached himself from and waved an arm in the air, his instruction lost in the noise of battle.
His officers responded with renewed vigour and ran headlong into the baying mob, hacking and swiping at anyone unwitting enough to remain within range of their pent up fury.
Below him to his left, the line of Police Officers creating a solid cordon cutting off the Strand was also under attack from a swollen tide of riotous protestors. They pushed against the wall of police, spat and verbally abused them. The police cordon bent and yielded under the weight of numbers against it.
“Here, look, Pete, they’re about to break down there.”
Peter glanced in the direction his senior colleague indicated and nodded, “Yes they are. They can’t hold that number off for much longer. Look at their faces. You can tell they’re about to break.”
“Whoa! Look at that…!” Archie cut in. A Police carrier; emergency lights on and sirens blaring drove from there flank, slightly behind into the crowd, bowling people over as others dived out of the way’. The vehicle forced the mob back and offered temporary relief and a little time for the cordon of officers to regroup.
Within moments, all the windows of the Police vehicle were shattered; it veered, almost out of control.
A traffic light cluster flew through the air and landed skidding off its roof. It fell amongst the mob knocking some over and causing those around to curse the police lines anew, blaming them.
“The front doors to the Consulate are down there Peter.”
“Yeah I know. And if they force those doors and come in off the street onto South African soil…”
“We shoot them.” Archie cut in, his tone lacking emotion.
“They’ve broken! Look.” Peter placed his binoculars under an arm and pointed. Below, the Police cordon had split forced apart at its weakest point. They poured through the police line enveloping the officers, the latter slipped away along the building line to bolster the Northumberland Avenue and Whitehall Police lines. The Strand at Trafalgar Square they surrendered to the mob.
Archie trained his binoculars further down the road and noticed a hundred or more rioters gathering at the other end. He moved his attention to the middle of the road. “Oh no. Look!”
Peter gazed open mouthed at the area his colleague indicated. He took a few moments to respond. “They don’t stand a chance.” He muttered. At the same time, the crowd at either end of The Strand also began to notice … In the middle of the road, isolated from any reinforcements, a group of Sixteen uniformed Police Officers decanted with haste from two vans.
“What on Earth are they doing there, mate?” Peter asked.
Archie sighed. “They just got off that bus to the right. I think they were here to relieve or assist this lot below us who were just breached and disappeared.”
“Then they’ve left those that came to assist them exposed! With friends like that … They’re gonna’ get slaughtered, mate. Look, they’ve only got those silly wooden sticks and shields. What good is that?”
“Don’t underestimate them Peter. You’ve only been in country for three weeks. One thing I’ve learnt about these Brits, they often bring a knife to a gunfight, as you can see for yourself. But don’t ever force them into a corner. It’s as if they just like being cornered and they’ll fight like Devils. Look! Look at that one, the Sergeant with the scar across his left cheek. In the middle, calm as you like. Look! He’s forming bloody square. Magnificent. He knows the score.” Archie’s personal radio crackled into life and he paused to listen to its transmission.
Peter looked across and nodded, indicating Archie’s radio. “What’s that mate?”
Archie stared at his colleague and grinned. “It’s a radio, mate, but that’s not important right now.”
“Ha bloody ha, mate.”
“It’s the reception desk supervisor. There are reports of Two hundred thousand demonstrators here.”
“I can believe it, mate. How many cops are here? Does he say?”
“Yeah he does …Two thousand. No more than two thousand.”
Peter’s mouth dropped open. “Bloody hell, mate, it’s gonna’ be a massacre down there. They need gunships, not sticks.”
Archie nodded. “And we’d better make sure we have enough ammunition to worry them should they break our doors down.”
Both men watched the scar faced Sergeant. He appeared aware of the precarious and dangerous situation his term stood exposed to. He shouted and harangued his officers into a circle of shields, ready to face threats from all around.
The Strand 1605hrs
Sergeant Penn ordered his team out of their broken police bus. Another, carrying eight other officers stopped near-by. Its driver leant out of his side window. “What’s up Sarge?”
“It’s dead.” Penn looked up and down The Strand and noticed a large mob gathering at either end. “We’re trapped, with no way out.” He whispered. “Usual bollocks.”
The Police cordon originally meant to be at the head of The Strand and Trafalgar Square no longer existed, its officers, gone. Penn had been ordered to this location to offer them assistance, now, his team stood exposed and vulnersable. Behind, a mass of angry rioters, smashed windows, tore up street furniture, and began to take notice.
Penn sucked in a deep breath and scratched the scar at the side of his face. “Right you lot. Out! Drink some water. Kit up … With shields. On me, form a shield wall. Cordon!”
The officers followed his instructions before he finished voicing them. Penn placed a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “This is going to be another bastard day for every swinging dick on parade my friend.”
Sam slipped a shield loop along his left arm and took hold of its handle. He looked up and down The Strand and spat. “The great unwashed are out to kill us today. Same old, same old.”
“Yep. The real demonstrators have distanced themselves from all this anarchy. We’re left to deal with the spoilers and soap dodgers.”
Sam nodded his agreement. “The irony is, whilst I face this lot, I agree with the argument of the protestors. Who wants to pay Poll Tax? Bloody silly idea, if you ask me.”
The vociferous gathering mob taunted the officers. When ready, Penn gathered his team of fifteen around him. “We don’t have much time. Don’t be sorry for what you do here today. Sorry, is for men who finish too early for their ladies pleasure.”
One of the officers looked up at him, her blonde hair escaped in rivulets from the sides of her police hat. She smiled.
“None taken Sarge.” She stuffed her hair under her hat.
Penn nodded once. “Don’t be gentle and kind with these people. Save that for children and babies. Above all, do not think. Just act. Survive this day with me, and I’ll buy the drinks in the pub, whilst we lick our wounds and talk nonsense and lies to each other of our daring feats. Because no one else will give a damn. On me, Shield wall! Cordon!”
The unit turned and presented a wall of reinforced fire retardant Perspex shields to the baying mob, just in time to avert injury from the first missiles that rained down on them.
Penn stood in the middle of a circle of Officers, their knees bent in a fighting stance ready to receive the inevitable charge of the mob. Shouting, he cursed his officers, placing a supportive hand on shoulders as the mob advanced. “On my order, present shields to the running lines, and knock their bloody blocks off! Later, they’ll have pictures of us, and they’ll hate us, but because of rough men like us, they’ll sleep safely at night. Gentlemen!”
The female officer looked back at him in mock admonishment, her hair escaping from under her hat once more.
“And you Sarah.”
“Thank you Sarge.”
“Gentlemen … And Sarah. Prepare to defend yourselves!”
Petrol bombs fell, igniting them up in rolls of fame. They placed there fighting arm across their shoulders and angled the shields, tucking their necks downward to deflect the worst of the flames.
“Remember your training! The first petrol bombs are the worst, you’ll soon get used to it. Before the end of this day you’ll be drinking petrol and spitting glass, from Hell! Stand! Stand with me! Hold. Wait for the order. The bombs will cease as they charge. Wait for it.”
The officers remained silent as the shouts and footfall from the rioters approached them.
Penn turned in time to see Sam’s arm rise up and take a missile from the air just as it was about to tear into the side of Penn’s face.
“I bet that hurt?”
“You’ll never know.”
Both men stared at each other for several seconds then began to laugh.
As one, the unit presented the rioters with the edges of their shields and jabbed with all their strength cutting them down. Rioter upon rioter fell before them as those behind pressed forward, until the mob realised the futility and grievousness of their situation and they gained space to back off. Between the mob and the circle of unbroken shields the rioting public struggled to their feet, some holding there bloodied faces, others struggling for breath.
“No Man’s Land. Leave ‘em to it. Stand and hold. Stand and hold.” Penn crouched amongst his officers, offering words of encouragement, cursing them with banter. He placed a hand on Sam’s shoulder again. “You saved her from a burning police car at Broadwater Farm, Sam. If I fall, make sure Sarah gets away safe.”
Sam kept his eyes to the front. “Bollocks. We fall together, or we don’t fall at all. She knows that. With respect Sergeant.”
Penn moved away. “Here they come. This is it. Fight like b******s, stand, and hold!”
The rioters charged the small police circle of shields. The first to make contact fell beneath the shield wall and the officers stamped on them. Others climbed over the fallen. Under the weight, the shield wall bent, buckled and yet held. Officers hacked and slashed at any exposed flesh. In the panic and blood lust of the mob, petrol bombs rained down on everyone.
The mob converged high over the shield wall blocking out daylight, turning the inner circle of the cordon into a writhing living bowl of night. Above the din of battle, Penn continued to shout his orders. His officers, their knees unstrung, bent and bowed at awkward angles around him cursed and spat at the tangled mass above. Under the weight of a sea of hate, one by one and fighting still, beneath their shields they yielded and fell.
At the very last, Penn took hold of Sam’s outstretched hand, and smiled.