He had an idyllic childhood in Kent, growing up in Mersham near Ashford. But in 1979 at the age of fourteen, Timothy Knatchbull’s world was shattered when he took a boat trip off the coast of Ireland. The Provisional IRA blew up the vessel assassinating his grandfather, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, the last Viceroy of India, and three other members of the family. Timothy’s twin brother, Nicholas, was among the victims.
30 years on after the tragedy, Timothy now says he has come to terms with his loss and forgives those behind the bombing. He started off by telling me his fond memories of growing up right here in Kent.
Well it was a wonderfully happy childhood. I was born in London and at a few days old I came down and lived in Mersham. I was a tail end Charlie of a large family. My parents had seven children. They had five and they thought they would just go for one more and then, about two or three weeks, I think, before the birth they were told it was to be twins. They were very, very happy.
We were born November ’64 and my identical twin brother, Nicholas, was 20 minutes older than me. He was christened Nicholas Timothy and I was christened Timothy Nicholas. From that day we really had a fantastically close, almost symmetrical relationship. Very different personalities. We grew up with five elder siblings in the family – a very close family.
My father worked in London in the film industry and my mother was based mainly locally. We grew up in a very happy home in the village of Mersham and I went to school in Ashford and had a wonderful time. At nine years old we went away properly for the first time, went to boarding school.
But throughout my education I always continued to come back to Mersham, that is the family home. It really is a home from home. I finished my education and went to London and made my own career in media and later worked abroad. So Mersham’s a terribly special place to me. My mother still lives there. Her name confusingly is different from mine, it’s Brabourne – Lady Brabourne. I visit her regularly and have very happy memories.
So the side of the river for you presumably is ‘Man of Kent’ or is it ‘Kentish Man’?
Quite right. For me I’m a ‘Man of Kent’, very proud of it and I’ve never felt more proud to be coming back. A few weeks ago I dropped in at Chatham and went to the printers there, Mackays, where I saw rolling off the presses – a very impressive machine – the book that I’ve written about my childhood experiences in Ireland in 1979. That book From a Clear Blue Sky was published yesterday and documents an intense experience that I had when only fourteen years old.
The experience I had at that time was something that has stayed with me ever since. We went on a family holiday in the West Coast of Ireland. We visited my mother’s father, Lord Mountbatten who had a family home there. We had, from my earliest memories, my twin brother and I, had gone out with the rest of our family to Ireland and had spent summer after summer there.
In August 1979, 27th of August, we went out from the harbour in his small fishing boat as we often did. A delightful little twenty nine foot long, green painted, rather smelly but gorgeous fishing boat.
A dream for a child, a dream for you and your brother to go out on the boat.
And he was a dream grandfather; always interested in us, full of fun, fantastic sense of humour. Well he wasn’t childish but he was child-like. He had this fantastic facility to find an interest in the things we found interesting – our toys, our games. It was that infectious enthusiasm that really dominated out childhood.
When the news hit the headlines in 1979 that Lord Mountbatten of Burma had been assassinated, perhaps no one knew what else was happening. A real family story and a story that left you with the loss of your brother and the loss of your grandfather and a big hole in the family along with three members of your family.
That’s right, it was a day that changed my life, changed the life of my family and others beyond completely, utterly shocking. From the most tranquil and happy possible circumstances, seven of us on the boat. My father’s mother was on the boat. Her name was Doreen Brabourne, she was eighty three years old and she turned to my mother in the stern of the boat – this was at about 11.45 that beautiful Bank Holiday Monday in 1979 – and said, ‘Isn’t this a beautiful day’. Very shortly afterwards there was an incredible explosion.
My memory of it is really just an impression, a snatched impression, very violent force. The next thing I remember, and it must have been a couple of minutes later, was coming round in the bottom of a very small boat. I knew it was very small because I could feel wooden floor boards and close by I could detect a small engine and I could feel the vibration coming through the floorboards and very close to me I could hear just two voices. Two very emotionally charged voices, very kindly, very caring, Irish accents and they were just asking me, reassuring me really, ‘It’s OK, you’re alright’.
I knew that I was in a terrible condition that something terrible had happened. At that stage I just tried to concentrate really minute by minute and tried to work out what was wrong with me.
I couldn’t see, I couldn’t even work out I couldn’t see but I had no sight at that stage. I had both eardrums blown in but thankfully I had all of my limbs. I was taken into the harbour, which was only about three quarters of a mile away. From there, again, I received fantastic care from the people in the village.
We were taken to hospital in Sligo in the west of Ireland, about half an hour away. We started the process of a recovery. My eighty three year old grandmother died in the bed beside me in Intensive Care, early the next morning. My mother was in the bed opposite me in Intensive Care. She had 117 stitches in her face with 20 in each eyeball. She had a machine breathing for her and I’m told was really barely recognisable, not only as my mother but as a human being. She was a mass of wires. My father grievously injured as well.
What I didn’t know for those first three days when I was Intensive Care is that my grandfather had died instantly in the explosion as had a lovely, local Irish boy, fifteen years old, much the same as us, called Paul Maxwell. He was working on the boat, helping out on the boat that summer as a job to earn pocket money.
But most horrifically for me was the news broken to me by one of my sisters that my beloved identical twin brother, Nicholas, was dead.
Timothy Knatchbull, the grandson of Lord Mountbatten talking about the boat trip that changed his life.
It was a boat trip that changed one Kent man’s life forever. Fourteen year old Timothy Knatchbull who grew up in Mersham near Ashford was on a family holiday off the coast of Ireland when his boat was blown up.
His grandfather, Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, and two other members of his family were killed in the attack. It’s been a long and difficult journey for Timothy Knatchbull but thirty years on he say’s he forgives the IRA.
Earlier he spoke about the moment in the attack which left him perforated eardrums and how he could not see. He spent the first three days in Intensive Care and it was there that he found out that his twin brother, fourteen year old Nicholas Knatchbull, had also been killed in the boat bombing.
I never truly healed from that moment in a way that was complete. In 2003 I went back to Ireland to really address that question: the lack of a goodbye to my dead twin and a wish to try and get to a new stage of healing, a new stage of understanding and forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s what I’ve written about in this book.
It’s impossible to imagine what any family that goes through with this kind of atrocity. We hear these stories of many families around the world who find themselves, and we’re still hearing of our soldiers who find themselves on road blocks, who are blown up on a daily basis. And for any family dealing with the hurt, you were right at the very centre of what happened.
I mentioned earlier the headline of the story which of course in people’s minds they think of Lord Mountbatten and they think of him perhaps alone. For you as a family to move on from that, to try and move on, lots talked about a resolution. I know that eight years later from when that happened there was a bereavement counsellor that came into your life, that I understand helped to at least not move on – I’m not sure anyone could – but to get a sense of peace with what happened.
That’s right and it was the beginning of a process of unlocking in me things that needed to be unlocked.
The thing that really changed me was falling in love with my wife, with Isabella, marriage, children. On the birth of my first daughter, Amber in 2000, like any new parent I suppose, I was in love, not with the experience but with my little girl and looking into her eyes it made me ask a lot of questions about life, about parenting. It made me think about the loss my mother had suffered in losing her son.
I wrote a letter almost by reflex, I wrote a letter to the couple who had been in that little boat I described in Ireland and I said to them essentially, ‘Thank you for saving my life, you’ve no idea what it means to me, day by day, to be loving the gift of life and now to be seeing a little girl’.
And as I went back to Ireland what I discovered lay at the very epicentre of my on-going emotional wounds which had not healed, was the inability to say a proper goodbye to Nicholas.
Now on the 6th of September 1979 there was a funeral in the church in Mersham, St John the Baptist, and it was the funeral of my grandmother and of my identical twin brother. That day, my parents and I were unable to travel; we were in our hospital beds in Ireland. We had no way of listening to the service. A very kind broadcasting unit at William Harvey Hospital made a recording and they got that to us and that was the first time that we heard the music, we heard the prayers.
We held our own very short service, about five or ten minutes, with a wonderful chaplain in the hospital and with some great friends of ours who had come out to be with us when the rest of the family had returned for the funerals. That was key. It was a tremendous extra sadness not to be at his funeral because it was that failure to say goodbye properly which had stayed with me as an overhang.
In 2003 I went back to Ireland, very quietly and very privately; just to spend time in the West of Ireland. I made the time to go and spend about a week there, alone in August 2003, the anniversary of the bomb that was coming up – 24 years at that stage. Things started to unlock for me. As I spent the following month, another four or five days, and the month after that and so on, right through that year until we reached August 2004, which was the 25th anniversary when I stopped.
By that stage I had managed to piece together, for the first time, a true understanding of what had happened that day. Of who had attacked us, how they’d attacked us, why, when, how they had moved. And that was part of what I needed to start getting into a new state of forgiveness and healing.
And on that state of forgiveness, on that state of healing, you have forgiven those who caused it?
That’s been one of the blessings for me that right from the get-co, my mother and father leading really from the front and the rest of my family as well, they harboured no bitterness. We just had an acceptance of what happened. I was very impressionable, I was a fourteen year old, and I followed their example. Never recriminations, no bitterness, we got on with our lives. But by going back to Ireland, piecing it together, I was able to address many of these unanswered questions and thereby came to this sense, of this extra sense of forgiveness which I feel now.
When I went back to Ireland I wanted to make sure that first and foremost I wasn’t going to do anything to bring injury or open up old wounds for anybody. I went there to try and just patch up some old wounds of my own which I was able to do and move forward.
And I wanted the same for other people. And time and again I was just bowled over when I found in talking to people they said, ‘Well in talking to you we’ve found a little bit of extra peace for ourselves. We wanted to say goodbye to you. You disappeared in a whirlwind with the violence and the security and the trauma of it.’
Really, the process for me has allowed me to say goodbye to my dead twin, has allowed me to say hello much more to the present much more in which I’m living and the joy of having a wonderful family of my own, of seeing my own children beginning to grow up and indeed learning about these things is part of that, and to have this happy time.
And what a joy it is to come back to Kent on a regular basis to see my mother to see the home and of course, from time to time, to visit the grave of my twin brother Nicholas.
And has the sound of the bomb blast stopped and disappeared from your mind?
Well it’s something of a miracle for me that that has happened. I couldn’t really hope for sure that it would happen but you’ve mentioned the sound of the bomb and quite right, that is what I found happen to me. I had something that would trigger it, sometimes more than once a day, sometimes more than half a dozen times a day and the sound of the bomb would fill my head.
Well in going back to Ireland that has stopped, almost completely and it is a wonderful gift, small mental reminders like that have gone. And it’s a wonderful situation now to be rid of that and to be seeing Ireland in this increasingly peaceful state. Of course my dearest wish is to see that continue, because the pain and the suffering, one wouldn’t want that on anybody.
Timothy Knatchbull, the grandson of Lord Mountbatten, talking about how he has come to terms with the IRA bombing which killed his grandfather and two members of his family. He’s written a book, it’s called From a Clear Blue Sky and it came out this week.