It was touted as the “most secure prison in Western Europe.” It was supposed to be a place for the “safekeeping” of IRA (Irish Republican Army) paramilitaries arrested in Northern Ireland. It was Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, or more commonly known as “The Maze.”
And it became the scene of one of the most daring, well-executed prison escapes in twentieth century history.
Things weren’t supposed to happen this way. The prison itself was incredibly secure. It was actually located inside the Royal Air Force base of Long Kesh, near Lisburn in County Down, Northern Ireland. So even if prisoners could get out of the prison complex itself, they would still be in a military facility. The odds against a successful escape were practically nil.
But the IRA hadn’t heard about the odds. And here we see demonstrated just what a disciplined, motivated militant organization can do, when acting with the element of surprise. The death of hunger striker Bobby Sands in the Maze in 1981 had hardened attitudes considerably on both sides. There was strong desire on the IRA’s part to inflict a humiliating defeat on British authorities, to show them that they could not be broken. The solution seemed clear: stage the greatest prison break in IRA history. Planning would take months, and information was on a strict “need to know” basis.
It is important to appreciate just how difficult this task would be. The Maze contained a number of “H” shaped buildings, each of these being what would today be called a “supermax” facility. Prisoners were moved on a routine basis so they could not get too used to their environments. They never knew precisely what the entire facility looked like. They never really knew exactly how all the buildings looked like. But the IRA had an incredibly resilient command structure. The decision was made to break out about forty prisoners from H7, one of the buildings in the prison.
The first step was to get the guards (called “screws” in prisoner parlance) to lower their psychological defenses. The IRA needed to bring down the level of antagonism between the prison administration and the inmates. So the decision was made to befriend as many guards as possible.
Prisoners began to use guards’ first names. They began to do small chores for the guards, like cleaning, buffing the floor, and getting the guards tea and toast. The idea was to get the guards to “ease up,” and begin to see the prisoners as human beings. The plan worked. Soon enough, prisoners were being permitted to enter the administrative complex (the “cross-bar” in the H-shaped building). This fact would prove crucial in the months ahead.
The second part of preparation was to find out exactly what the layout of the prison looked like. Prisoners had visitors smuggle in anything that could help: aerial photos, old diagrams, maps, anything. Everything was digested and processed. During the course of these intelligence collection activities, it was learned that a small “lorry” or truck made its delivery rounds at the prison at different times during the day. The IRA men also found out that the lorry driver, and his truck, were not searched with regularity. He was often just waved through from one checkpoint to the next, based only on facial or verbal recognition.
The plan became this: the IRA would take over an entire H-block (H7) by seizing its nerve center, the “cross-bar” building between the two “bars” of the H. They would detain all the guards, strip off their uniforms, put them on, hijack the lorry, and pilot it out of the Maze. At this point, the IRA pulled off an incredible coup, one that was critical to the escape. They somehow had several small automatic pistols smuggled into the prison. How this was done has never been disclosed. Were pistols smuggled in piece by piece? Was there an accomplice on the inside? We do not know.
But the IRA has a long history of impressive intelligence capabilities, dating back to the time of Michael Collins. Somehow, they got pistols into the complex. Even former inmates are not precisely certain, as information was always on a “need to know” basis.
The escape was planned for a Sunday in September 1983. This day of the week was the most relaxed, and the day when everyone’s guard would most likely be down. The plan was executed with military precision. On the appointed day and time, a prisoner asked to use the “bumper” or floor polisher. When he was let out of his cell to do his work, he produced a pistol and immediately rushed the guards.
Essential to the escape plan was the need to instill maximum fear and disorientation in the guards. The guards needed to know that this was a serious operation, and that they meant business. Verbal aggression would be used to swarm over and intimidate the guards. Any hesitation or display of weakness could mean the failure of the escape plan. Other pistols came out. About 12 guards were thrown into the control room of H7 and made to lie on the floor. Their uniforms were taken off, and then they were bound, gagged, and hooded.
Once the control room was seized, the prisoners had access to phones, the panic button, and the intercoms. Somehow during the takeover of H7 two shots had been fired, but apparently these were not heard, and no general alarm was raised.
The IRA men now had to wait for the lorry driver to arrive at the command center, as they knew what his schedule that day would be. The terrified lorry driver was seized, roughed up, and a pistol placed against his head. He promised his cooperation, and alerted the prisoners to other obstacles that they had previously been unaware of. Thirty-eight prisoners loaded into the back of the lorry.
As the lorry driver went off, one of the prisoners lay on the floor of the vehicle with his pistol pressed against the driver’s stomach. Any attempt to raise the alarm would have meant his death. The lorry slowly wound its way through checkpoints, towards the prison gates. The last remaining obstacle was a small structure called the tally house, located beside an armed guard-tower near the exit gate. The tally house was filled with guards. The prisoners rushed into the house, brandishing pistols, and made them all lie on the floor. One of the “screws” tripped a silent alarm, which prompted an incoming phone call to the tally house.
A guard was forced to answer it, with a gun to his head. The voice on the other end of the phone as asking about the alarm. The guard said it had been an accident, but didn’t know how to turn the alarm off. He was then told how to do it. The guard had actually tried to signal the man on the end of the line, but he had not picked up on it.
And then things escalated dramatically. A melee broke out between the escapees and the captured guards in the tally house. Humiliated and seething with anger, one of the guards rushed the prisoners; a fight then erupted in which four guards were stabbed. No prisoners were injured. The fight was seen by the armed guards in the watchtower, but incredibly, they thought it was simply a fist fight among the guards (since the escapees were wearing the captured guard uniforms).
Finally someone figured out what was going on and sounded the alarm. A guard tried to block the exit with another vehicle, but by this time all the prisoners had made a run for the gate, and had made it through. They had pulled it off. It was without doubt one of the most impressive escapes of that century.
On The Run
The escapees split up into three separate teams, and then hijacked two cars. A few escapees crossed a few fields of farmland and attempted to hide in a river; they were spotted by searchers and apprehended.
Another group forced entry into a local house, and hid under the floorboards of house for weeks until the coast was relatively clear. They had Republican sympathizers in the area pick them up and drive them across the border to the Republic of Ireland. They lived undercover in rural Ireland for a time, and then flew to Europe in 1984 using false documents. They were eventually captured in Holland by Dutch police some time after.
But the deed had been done. The myth that the Maze had been “escape-proof” was now shattered once and for all. Of the 38 men who broke out, 19 were discovered and returned within two days. The remaining 19 made it into Ireland. Four of these actually escaped to the United States. One of these has never been seen or heard from again. The Maze became less and less used during the 1990s as most of its paramilitary prisoners were released. By 2000, it had become a complex without a purpose, and it was demolished soon after.
Read more exciting historical accounts in my new, original translation of Sallust’s The Conspiracy of Catiline and The War of Jugurtha: