Written by: Brian Williams
The Battle of Orgreave
The events of June 18th 1984 during the 1984-1985 Miners Strike have been mythologized as the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ a modern day Peterloo Massacre, writes Brian Williams – a victory of ‘Maggie’s Boot Boys’ over the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the ‘Enemy Within’.
- Thanks very much to Martin Shakeshaft for permission to use photographs from his Strike84 collection.
The events at the Orgreave coking depot inSouth Yorkshirethat day must rank as the most controversial incident in the most controversial public order policing operation ever mounted by the British police.
Early in 1984 the NUM began picketing the coking depot at Orgreave inSouth Yorkshire as part of its dispute with the National Coal Board and, indirectly the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. Day after day thousands of pickets attempted to stop coal lorries from moving in and out of the plant while thousands of police officers were drafted in from across the country to keep the supply lines open by manning cordons. A mass confrontation appeared inevitable.
It came on the morning of 18 June 1984. A mass picket of 5,000 to 6,000 miners converged on the plant. They were met by 5,000 police, many equipped in riot gear including long shields and crash helmets who confined them to the field adjourning the road.
The following eight hours saw the most bitter and violent clashes of the entire year long strike. Shocked observers and TV viewers saw police horses cantering through crowds of miners, baton charges by units of riot equipped officers, stones and missiles being thrown by miners, barricades set on fire with scores of both police officers and miners injured. There was an infamous scene of a police officer seemingly going berserk and repeatedly truncheoning a fallen miner in front of a TV camera.
Inevitably in the aftermath of the clashes there was a serious conflict of evidence between the police and the pickets. Both sides had suffered terrible injuries in the fighting and both blamed the other for starting the violence. The vast majority of the media blamed the pickets but a trial of arrested miners charged with ‘Riot’ collapsed in the face of allegations of police malpractice and excessive and unnecessary force.
The police, the South Yorkshire Police in particular, have been accused of provoking the ‘battle’ by attacking the pickets first as part of a pre-planned confrontation, using paramilitary style riot control tactics and equipment never seen before in the policing of a British industrial dispute and mass picket. It has been further alleged that they did so under the unwritten instruction and encouragement of the then Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.
My own view is that the confrontation of 18 June 1984 escalated into the now infamous ‘Battle of Orgreave’ due the misjudgment of Assistant Chief Constable Tony Clement in ordering his police horses to advance in response to a surge on the cordon by sections of the crowd.
In 1985 BBC documentary series Brass Tacks obtained the police official video from 18 June 1984 and showed it to the former Chief Constable of Devon andCornwall, John Alderson. Alderson viewed the video and told the interviewer that while he didn’t regard the miners as being as good natured and peaceful in their shove against the cordon, he felt that Clement by ordering the mounted police to canter into the crowd in response to the surge by miners on had escalated the situation which had resulted in increasing violence. The police line would have held without releasing the mounted officers. Alderson further commented on Clements decision to order the horses in:
‘I would describe it as the sort of thing that you might read in a manual but on the spot this is where judgment comes in. If you are trying to police with minimum force and get away from this field today with few casualties, then the police should not start the escalation on any scale.’
In this article I will present the factors which I believe led to the decisions taken by Assistant Chief Constable Tony Clement, the senior South Yorkshirepolice officer in command that day. I will argue that the police tactics and strategy used on 18 June 1984 were a culmination of changes to public order policing developed many years before that day.
‘Battle of Saltey Gates’
Saltley Gate Coke Depot in Birmingham was the site of the one of the largest mass pickets during the 1970s. On February 10th 1972 30,000 Birmingham engineers walked out on strike. They struck to deliver solidarity to striking miners. Up to 15,000 people then marched to join 2,000 miners who were picketing Saltley Coke Depot. The blockade forced the Birmingham police, who had kept the depot open all week amid mounting clashes with the pickets, to close the gates. The Birmingham Constabulary under Chief Constable Derek Capper had been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the mass picket. Although 800 officers had been deployed to police the pickets, efforts to draft in further officers from forces across the country failed. Chief Constable Capper received intense criticism not only from newspapers and Conservative MPs but also within the Police Service for not keeping the depot open, for not using greater force against the pickets and even for not requesting the use of troops.
The ‘Battle of Saltey Gates’ was seen by many observers as a defeat of the police in the face of large scale protest and a victory for militant trade union pickets. Many chief constables saw the decision to close the depot gates as total capitulation of the police duty to maintain public order and were determined for it never to happen again.
In response to the perceived policing failure at Saltey Gates there was a joint Home Office and ACPO review of police contingency plans to react to similar large scale public order situations through the rapid mobilization and deployment of police officers across the country. This review led to two of three key factors which influenced the South Yorkshire Police operation at Orgreave. The National Reporting Centre (NRC) and the Police Support Unit (PSU)
The National Reporting Centre
The National Reporting Centre was based at New Scotland Yard and acted as a coordinating unit for the rapid call up and deployment of police manpower acrossEngland andWales. In the period of the ‘Cold War’, the bulk of NRC planning went into Civil Defence with police being mobilized in the event of a national emergency.
The effect on the policing of 1984-85 dispute of the NRC was profound. The NRC had the ability to mobilize thousands of police officers, form them into Police Support Units and send them to any part of the coalfields of Yorkshireand Nottinghamshire that needed further police reinforcements. At Orgreave on 18th June 1984 a total of 181 PSUs from 12 police forces were deployed to reinforce the South Yorkshire Police. 50 police horses and 58 police dogs were also deployed. The mass picket of 5,000 miners was matched by an equal number of police officers.
The Police Support Unit
The Police Support Unit (or PSU) was based originally on mobile units created for reacting to the build up and aftermath of a nuclear war with theSoviet Union. They were renamed PSUs in 1974 and following the Saltey Gates confrontation the PSU concept was developed for peacetime public order roles. At the time of the 1984 miners’ strike a PSU consisted of 20 PCs, two sergeants and an inspector. The Metropolitan Police already used a similar system called ‘Serials’ which had been created by then Chief Inspector (later Commissioner) Kenneth Newman for the 1968 anti Vietnam War demonstrations at the US Embassy atGrosvenor Square. Every constabulary was to create a number of PSUs of officers to be called up upon request and sent to whatever constabulary across the country which had requested assistance.
The Riots of 1981
The third factor which played a key role in the policing both of the miners’ strike and of the Orgreave depot was the experience of the large scale urban riots which hit the inner city areas ofLondon, Liverpool and Manchester. In both Brixton and Toxteth the scale and intensity of the violence towards police, the use of petrol bombs and the hundreds of injured officers was a deeply traumatic event forBritain’s police. The riots revealed deep failures in police equipment, training and leadership with untrained, ill equipped officers in traditional tunics and helmets, reduced to cowering helplessly behind long shields unable to advance, make arrests or even defend themselves against missile and petrol bomb attack. Only inManchester did the Greater Manchester force under James Anderton, by using aggressive ‘rapid dispersal’ tactics, quell the rioting with few police injuries and many arrests.
The shocking nature of the violence and the highly publicized inability of traditional police tactics to contain them led to total reappraisal of British public order policing tactics and equipment. Most importantly there was a determination not to send police into hostile crowd situations without proper protective clothing and equipment and the tactics to deploy them effectively.
The response of Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) to the 1981 riots was to send a working party both to the Royal Ulster Constabulary inNorthern Irelandand to the Royal Hong Kong Police to research potential riot control tactics and equipment. From the Royal Hong Kong Police in particular ACPO developed its Public Order Manual laying out tactics including the use of police horses to canter directly at rioters, the tactics of PSU officers in fire resistant overalls and protective visor helmets using long shields. It also overhauled procedures for forces to train, equip and mobilize its PSUs. As a result police forces across the country trained and equipped their PSUs in the new public order tactics. The Public Order Manual provided a set of tactics with PSUs with shields advancing behind mounted officers in coordinated movements with officers using their batons to ‘disperse and/or incapacitate’ and police horses being used ‘to create fear’ among a crowd.
The manual also brought into being a radical development in British public order policing; the short shield unit.
Orgreave on June 18th 1984 saw the first large scale deployment of British police officers using short or round plastic shields in a public order situation. Following the advance of the police horses, the short shield units ran through the gap created in the police line and baton charged the pickets. The short shield officers were trained for fast aggressive action by running at the crowd with drawn batons, breaking it up and making arrests.
Push and shove
Prior to the 1984-85 Miners Strike the policing of industrial disputes on the British mainland had involved ‘trudging and wedging’, the famous unarmed thick blue cordon seen at the Saltey Gates and Grunwick disputes but also at mass protests such as those at Aldermaston and Grosvenor Square. The tactic involved cordons of police officers in traditional uniforms shoving themselves right against a crowd in order to contain or move it with running human wedges of officers deployed to break the crowd up if needed. Among pickets the traditional push on the police cordon became known as the ‘Push and Shove’. The unarmed, non paramilitary approach of the British police officer to crowd disorder was described famously by Sir Robert Mark as ‘Winning while appearing to lose’
However those observers inclined to sentimentalize this approach to the policing of large scale unrest and protest should recall the large numbers of injuries among police officers and protesters at front of the scrum. By 1984 senior police officers across mainland Britain had decided that the cost of these traditional tactics was simply too high in terms of injuries to police officers and loss of police control of public order situations.
In my view these factors outlined greatly impacted on the policing of Orgreave and in particular the South Yorkshire Police response to the mass picket of 18th June 1984. The experience of Saltey Gates in 1972 with the resulting intense criticism of loss of police control and victory for ‘mob rule’ was further added to with the loss of police control seen in the urban disorders of 1981. There was a clear sense among Chief Constables and among lower ranking officers that no similar public order situation should see police either withdrawing or retreating in the face of crowd pressure and hostility or sustaining injuries without means to defend or quell the disorder. The National Reporting Centre allowed a police commander, like Assistant Chief Constable Clement in charge at Orgreave to request and to receive a level of police reinforcement previously unheard of in previous confrontations.
The system of Police Support Units drawn across constabularies across England and Wales provided for the mobilization and deployment of thousands officers trained and disciplined in new public order tactics and formed into units. At a command level the ACPO Public Order Manual provided options for police commanders at the scene of public order situations that were out of reach to senior officers in command at earlier high profile confrontations at Saltey Gates, Grunwick andGrosvenor Square. These factors culminated in the tactics ordered by South Yorkshire Police’s ACC Clement and carried out by officers from 12 different constabularies that day. It should be stressed thatSouth Yorkshirepolice officers were greatly outnumbered by the officers from the outside forces drafted in as Police Support Units.
The issue of who provoked and escalated the violence during the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ remains contentious after 28 years with the pickets present insisting that they subjected to a brutal and sustained assault by paramilitary trained riot squads. However it must be stated that the overwhelming majority of police officers who have commented on their experiences that day, either publicly or anonymously, have made clear their belief that they in turn faced intense violence from the pickets that day.