Remembering The Great Escape
Only two years after the 1981 hunger strike had ended, Irish Republican prisoners were determined to organise a break out in Long Kesh, the most secure Gaol in Europe.
In addition to 15-foot (4.6 m) fences, each H-Block was encompassed by an 18-foot (5.5 m) concrete wall topped with barbed wire, and all gates on the complex were made of solid steel and electronically operated.
Republican prisoners, Bobby Storey and Gerry Kelly had started working as orderlies in H7, which allowed them to identify weaknesses in the security systems, six handguns had been smuggled into the prison to be used in the escape.
On Sunday, September 25th 1983 at roughly 2:30 pm Republican prisoners armed with guns & knives started to take over H7, one prison officer was stabbed and another shot during the takeover of the block, by 2:50 pm H7 was is complete control of republican prisoners without an alarm being raised.
The prisoner officers were stripped of their uniforms, at 3:25 pm a lorry delivering food to H7 arrived and its occupant's taken hostage, the prisoners some now dressed in prison officer uniforms climbed into the lorry, the lorry driver was told under gunpoint to drive out of Long Kesh as normal.
A rearguard was left in the block to watch over the hostages and make sure they didn't raise the alarm, at 3:50 pm the lorry with 38 prisoners inside left the block and reached the main gate at 4 pm, where the prisoners intended to take over the gatehouse.
Ten of the prisoners who were dressed as prison officers got out of the lorry, entered the gatehouse and took the officers hostage, but some of them resisted and the alarm button was pressed, when other staff rang to see what the problem was, a prison officer who was being held at gunpoint said it had been pressed in error.
Prison officers now starting their shift began arriving in the gatehouse, more and more hostages were being taken which made it difficult for prisoners to manage, scuffles broke out and some prison officers ran out but were pursued by the prisoners, one the prison officers would later die of a heart attack.
A British soldier in the watchtower reported that the prison officers were fighting amongst each other, when the alarm was raised again the prisoners had by that time raised the gate but some prison officers had blocked the path of the lorry with their cars so the prisoners had no option but to make a run for it and others used cars to make their escape.
There was much confusion as the British soldiers in the watchtower at times could not make out who were the prison officers and who were the prisoners, of the thirty-eight all but three made it out over the fence or out the main gate which by 4:18 pm was closed and the Gaol secured.
Fifteen prisoners were captured that day and a further four were captured over the next few days, so that left nineteen prisoners, eighteen of which made it to South Armagh, where safehouses were provided.
Some of the prisoners settled in the United States, Europe & the 26 counties under false identities but some of them were caught and extradited back to the six counties. Others went back on active service for the IRA and some were killed in action, of the 38 who escaped two have never been tracked down.
The escape was the biggest prison escape in Europe since WW2 and was a huge morale booster for the Republican movement at the time and a huge embarrassment for the prison service and the British Government led by the hated Margaret Thatcher.
Larry Marley who helped plan the escape was released from Long Kesh in 1985 and settled back in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, in 1987 Loyalists with the help of the British security services murdered him in his home.
Marley's funeral was delayed for three days as the RUC repeatedly attacked the mourners, but thousands showed up in defiance and he was finally laid to rest.
In 1997 the escape is portrayed in the opening scenes of the movie "A Further Gesture" starring Brendan Gleeson & Stephen Rea.
In 2017 a film was made about the escape called "Maze" which by all accounts is a fairly accurate portrayal of the escape and is now available on Netflix.