Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Rob Webb’s sister, Laura, was murdered in the July 7 bombings. As he grieved Rob, a well-known PR officer in Wales, found himself at the centre of the biggest news story in the world.

Rob is in London today, remembering Laura and the other victims. I found this interview with him in my archive. In it, he discusses Laura, the bombers and how his PR skills helped him deal with the media in the aftermath of the terror attack.

 

WHEN PRIVATE GRIEF IS WORLD NEWS

First published in The Big Issue September 12-18 2005

 

After the London bombings Rob Webb spent days doing media interviews in a desperate search for his sister. He tells Greg Lewis how it felt to mourn her death under the glare of the media spotlight.

 

MOHAMMAD Sidique Khan made his horrific mark on the world at 8.51am on Thursday, July 7.

That morning he got up to kill as many people as he could and to change the lives of hundreds more. Among them, Rob Webb and his family.

Rob arrived at work that day at the usual time, around 8.30am. He spent the first hour going through emails at his office in Cardiff’s County Hall.

At 9.30am he attended a daily briefing and got back to his desk by 10am.

On the internet he read the first reports about a ‘power surge’ on the London Underground. Trains were being stopped and stations evacuated. Like many others Rob thought of friends and family in the city.

He wondered about his sister, Laura, a personal assistant in central London.

He rang her mobile phone but it went to voicemail. “There was no way I could know it but Laura was already dead,” he says now.

As the full horror of what was really happening became clear, Laura’s family began their desperate search for their loving sister, daughter, girlfriend.

Thinking she could be lying unidentified in a hospital or walking around the city in a daze, they began a massive media campaign – and public relations man Rob found himself at the uncomfortable heart of an international news story.

The family’s fears were already growing by lunchtime on the day of the bombing. Laura had neither got to work nor returned to her home in Islington. She was not the kind of person to forget to call: she knew people would be worried.

Rob – who lives in Cardiff – contacted the missing person’s bureau and then, after a discussion with brother David, decided to make an appeal through the press. Over the next week, the 39-year-old, who writes press releases everyday, had to write the two most heartbreaking of his life.

“At 6am on the Friday I wrote a press release saying Laura was missing and sent it out with a photograph taken at Christmas,” he says. “It showed her smiling, a happy beautiful woman. It would be used on television and on the front of a national newspaper.

“We just wanted to get it out there because we knew she could be in a hospital somewhere. We knew there were injured people who weren’t identified. We had everything to play for. We had to do something.”

Rob distributed the picture through his contacts in the Welsh media and then, through a friend, to the newsdesks of newspapers and television stations in London.

On the Friday, as well as featuring on the front of the South Wales Echo, he began to do interviews for the London press.

“In these situations you look at what you can do,” says Rob. “Often when it comes to helping your family PR comes fairly low down the list of skills – it’s not like I’m a plumber or something.

“David and I wanted to do as many interviews as possible. We would never give up on Laura. Never. The police were giving us no indication either way as to whether they thought she was alive or dead. We would do her a disservice if we didn’t do everything we possibly could.”

The brothers spent an hour-and-half outside King’s Cross – the unofficial meeting place for desperate relatives and journalists – on the Saturday, speaking to UK and then foreign crews.

“It started off alright but some of the overseas crews became too much,” he says. “I’m used to doing photocalls and organising other people to be interviewed. David and I were on our own. In the end my partner Bethan jumped in to help us. It was just a scrum.”

Some British crews drove David around from hospital to hospital. “We would hear rumour after rumour and we followed them all up,” he explains.

In the meantime Rob’s family – including his parents and Laura’s partner Chris Driver – were appointed family liaison officers by the police. Rob says the officers are amazing and he remains in contact with them now.

“However, the longer time went on, when the police would call, we felt it was more and more likely they would be bringing bad news,” he says.

It was at 6pm on the following Wednesday that the police arrived at the family home in Kingston-on-Thames, where they have lived since the early 1970s, to bring the news they had dreaded.

Using a DNA swab from her parents, the police had identified Laura. The bomb at Edgware Road carried by Khan – the ‘quiet terrorist’ who worked with special needs pupils and deprived teenagers in his home community of Leeds – had killed the 29-year-old instantly.

Rob says of that meeting: “It was horrible.”

The police then drove Rob to break the news to Chris.

“It was heartbreaking,” he says. “I will never forget that day and never want to go through it again.”

Rob then had to sit down and write his second press release of the week, confirming the death of a “kind, loving and beautiful” young person – their Laura.

Fifty-two innocent people died in the four explosions on July 7 in London. Seven hundred were injured, with many left with horrific wounds.

In the weeks since there has been much debate about what caused the first suicide attack on British soil. The invasion of Iraq – which Rob now reveals Laura marched against – has been blamed.

Rob, though, is emphatic: “The only people responsible were the people who carried the bombs and the ones who supported them.

“It’s too simplistic to say the bombings are about Iraq. The bombers aren’t showing any interest in innocent Iraqis that are dying. A million people marched against the war on Iraq but a million people aren’t going out suicide bombing.

“Laura cared about moral rights and wrongs. She actually went on the march against the Iraq war. I’ve never spoken about this because I knew the news angle would be: ‘the tragic irony’.

“Well, no, it’s not irony. The bombings were indiscriminate. It doesn’t matter if Laura was in favour or against the Iraq war. The fact is she got up in the morning, went to work and got killed on the way there by a maniac.

“These people got up in the morning with the intention of killing people. Anybody.”

Rob – who had announced his engagement to Bethan only weeks before Laura’s death – knows there are still tough times ahead for the family. A National Memorial service in November. Christmas, Laura’s favourite time of year. The anniversary of her death and of her private funeral on July 22 (which 500 people attended).

But they have been sustained by a faith in God and in humanity.

“It was an act of evil by four bombers that killed Laura and the other innocent people,” he states. “But hundreds of people took the time to text our family, to ring us, to send us cards – they filled our home with flowers. That shows me the world isn’t a bad place. Good outweighs evil.”

 

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A Life on the Edge, Eric Jones/Greg Lewis

A Life on the Edge, Eric Jones/Greg Lewis

‘Beware,’ a fellow adventurer once told Eric Jones. ‘The reaper lurks.’

But perhaps he truly has nine lives.

He was the first British man to solo the Eiger North Face – one of the greatest challenges in the climbing world. On the Matterhorn, he was swept within 10 feet of a sheer precipice.

As he soared over Mount Everest in a hot air balloon, he had to climb outside the basket to relight the burners.

He has climbed dangerous mountains on five continents, parachuted onto the North Pole and BASE jumped from skyscrapers, bridges, masts and mountains.

He skydived into the Cave of the Swallows in Mexico, dropping into the 1,400-foot hole in the earth.

Astounded people often ask Eric a question: Why do you do it?

It is something that cannot be answered simply. For Eric’s life on the edge is quite a story.

And this is it.

Want to know a little more about Eric? Check out this five minute film.

“Eric’s many solo ascents can be respected for being free from any sense of heroics, and for his sense of humour when his stories are told. His strength, self-sufficiency and silent courage are admirable.” REINHOLD MESSNER

IMG_1047Update:

Canadian airman Bill Robertson’s return to the crash site in Hasselt made national news in Belgium.

See the full clip here: Bill Robertson

Bill Robertson and John Evans

Bill Robertson and John Evans

A Pembrokeshire airman, who was shot down over Belgium during World War 2, has enjoyed an emotional reunion with a former member of his crew.

Pilot John Evans, who was born in Goodwick, was visited by his former bomb aimer, Bill Robertson, who travelled from Canada for the meeting.

The two men are the last of the crew of a Halifax bomber which was set alight by a German night-fighter on the night of May 12/13, 1944.

They had been taking part on a raid on the railway marshalling yards at Hasselt.

The whole crew parachuted to safety. Both John and Bill were able to make contact with the local resistance.

“We were kept together for a while, then taken to separate safe houses and did not know anything about each other until after the war,” said John, who is now 95.

Many of the people who helped John and Bill were later arrested by the Gestapo. Both met up with those who survived after the war.

“The people who helped us took the most tremendous risks,” said Bill, 93. “For themselves and for their families.”

Both men were hidden until September 1944 when they were liberated by the advancing American forces.

On saying goodbye to John, Bill said: “This may be the last time we see each other. But, who knows, we didn’t think we would have this meeting.”

The men met in Calverton, near Nottingham, where John now lives near his daughter, Judy.

He still has a number of relatives in Pembrokeshire, including his brother-in-law Tom Morris, a retired police sergeant from Cardigan Road, Haverfordwest, and his niece Georgina Youngs, of Fishguard.

On his trip to Europe, Bill also met John’s brother, Doug, who lives in Surrey and was himself a bomber pilot during World War 2.

Bill then travelled to Hasselt where local historians have laid a memorial stone where the men’s Halifax bomber crashed.

* The book ‘Airman Missing’ which told John’s story is currently out of print but is planned for it to be released as an e-book later this year.

STA77423

A number of Welsh veterans of the Gallipoli campaign went on to write poems about their experiences.

Among the poems unearthed by historian Anne Pedley were ‘The Heroes of Suvla Bay’ by Sergeant WR Williams, of the 6th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and ‘The Boys of Suvla Bay’ by an unknown author.

Anne helped research the Radio Wales programme ‘Quarry Boys: The Welsh at Gallipoli’. Together we contacted singer Helen Bradley, who had heard about the poems and wanted to record one.

She worked with Neil Dunsire, of TAPE Community Music and Film, of Old Colwyn, who worked with Helen to combine the lyrics of the poems and put them to music.

They made a fantastic job of it. Hear it on ‘Quarry Boys: The Welsh at Gallipoli’ which is due to be broadcast on BBC Radio Wales at 12.30pm on Sunday, April 26, and repeated at 6.30pm on April 27 and 5.30am on April 28.

This is my grandfather in the centre. Photo taken in Alexandria in 1916 with two other survivors of Gallipoli. He was a sergeant - CopyOne hundred years ago this weekend (April 25, 1915) the Allies launched a land invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey.

The plan was to capture Constantinople and take Germany’s ally Turkey out of the war.

The landing failed and the battle developed into a stalemate – the trench warfare of the Western Front in miniature.

Every year on April 25, Australia and New Zealand mark the sacrifice of their troops in the battle on what is known as Anzac Day.

But thousands of Welsh troops took part in the Gallipoli campaign too and their contribution has been largely forgotten – until now.

This weekend Radio Wales will broadcast ‘Quarry Boys: The Welsh at Gallipoli’, a programme to commemorate the men who fought and died in the Dardanelles.

Among the men who served in the campaign was William John Jones, of the Penmaenmawr Company of the 6th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

The company was composed of men who worked at the quarry in the town of Penmaenmawr, near Llandudno.

William Jones’ grandson, Dennis Roberts, said: “When he was an early teenager he joined a fife and drum band which was part of the local [army] volunteers.

“He moved from the little cadet band to be an active soldier in the volunteers.

“War broke out and they wondered what was going to happen to them. As volunteers they didn’t have to go abroad – they had to be asked nicely. I am sure most in 1914 said they were happy to go – they daren’t say no.”

The Quarry Boys did not take part in the initial landings at Gallipoli, although many Welshmen did.

On the first day of the landings at Helles in the south, the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers lost three officers and thirteen men. The battalion would remain at Helles until evacuated in January 1916. They would leave behind more than 500 dead.

After the April landings the invading force was held back at the coast. It dug in and held on to the small amount of territory gained.

By August 1915 a new strategy was needed. A fresh invasion with even more troops.

The 4th battalion of the South Wales Borderers, the 4th and 8th battalions of the Welsh Regiment and four battalions of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers prepared to play their part in the coming battle.

On the Greek island of Lemnos the Quarry Boys of Penmaenmawr were writing final letters home.

They moved onto boats in the early hours of August 9th, 1915. Ahead of them, their target: a rocky stretch of the Turkish coast called Suvla Bay.

Private Richard Jones, a friend of Williams Jones, later wrote in his diary: “I could hear something dropping in the middle of another regiment. I felt rather nervous. Another followed in a few seconds and she fell about 15 to 20 yards the other side of me.

“We all were laying down flat on the ground wondering where the next was going to drop.”

But it was on the following day, August 10th 1915, that the Quarry Boys fought their most terrible battle, charging ahead in full view of the Turkish guns.

Dennis Roberts, whose grandfather was a Quarry Boy1

Dennis Roberts said: “There was no cover, they had to cross a salt lake which in summer dried up. But the men were struggling to cross this lake, the mud was above their knees.”

Private Richard Jones wrote: “I could see one of the shells dropping in the middle of our boys and knocking about nine of them down.

“A little further on we came to a bush and we attended to some wounded here. Here I saw Sergeant Roberts, of Holyhead, he was shot through the leg. In about two minutes we had a few wounded behind this bush and I was thinking to myself that my last day had come.

“I saw Dick Williams wounded – a very bad wound, too. We put him to lay on one of the stretchers. The poor lad was shouting for his mother. There was poor hopes for him.”

By the end of the day it was clear the attack had not succeeded. But the Quarry Boys were ordered into battle again.

This time they had to make a bayonet charge up a hill.

They did what was asked of them – but the plan was a disaster and they lost their leader, Major Gus Wheeler, who in peacetime had been the quarry manager.

“I get angry,” Dennis Roberts said. “Those who led the lads down in Turkey – well, I don’t know what they were doing.”

Once again, after these initial attacks, the campaign developed into a stalemate.

In the dust and heat of the Turkish summer the soldiers were desperately short of water. In the early stages of the campaign all men could do was risk the local wells – but each of these was covered by a Turkish sniper.

Quarry Boy RJ Davies wrote in his diary: “There are dozens of Turkish snipers. They are painted green all over – the same colour as the trees. We shoot at every tree we see but we cannot get them. Some of them are women. Three or four dropped yesterday, one of them was a woman. They do a lot of damage to our chaps. There are a lot of dead lying close to every well.”

By January 1916, the campaign was over and the Allied soldiers had been evacuated. More than 1,300 men who served with Welsh regiments were dead.

Williams Jones served in Palestine but survived to return to work in the quarry at Penmaenmawr.

Sunday’s programme features a specially recorded ballad, using the poems of soldier WR Williams and an unknown comrade from Suvla Bay. It is sung by Conwy Museums Officer Helen Bradley and the music is composed by Neil Dunsire, of TAPE Community Music and Film, of Old Colwyn.

* ‘Quarry Boys: The Welsh at Gallipoli’ is due to be broadcast on BBC Radio Wales at 12.30pm on Sunday, April 26, 2015, and repeated at 6.30pm on April 27 and 5.30am on April 28.

Upcoming radio programme for those interested in World War One and Gallipoli in particular:

Quarry Boys: The Welsh at Gallipoli

To be broadcast on BBC Radio Wales  Sunday, April 26 at 12:30pm. Repeated on Monday, April 27 (6.30pm) and Tuesday April 28 (5:30pm)

More info here soon.