That Time the Queen Was Almost Murdered

They almost never make the news until years later, but Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the British Royal Family have been the target of several assassination attempts – and planned attempts – over the years. And some of them came close; HM almost didn’t become the longest reigning British monarch.

The two attempts that came closest to cutting the Queen’s life and reign short – and thus came closest to giving us King Charles several decades early – both occurred in 1981, one in Scotland, the other in New Zealand. From the Daily Record:

The day the IRA tried to bomb the Queen: Provos’ failed bid to kill Monarch at Sullom Voe is a forgotten episode in Scots history

THE Provos’ attempt to kill the monarch in 1981 was soon forgotten as attention was diverted by the assassination attempt four days later against Pope John Paul II.SHARE


08:09, 9 APR 2016

Monarch steps ashore at the huge complex(Image: PA)

FOR the people of the Shetland Isles, May 9, 1981 was to be a day to remember – the day the Queen arrived for the official opening of the giant new oil terminal at Sullom Voe.

Six years in the building, the terminal was the jewel in the crown of the then burgeoning North Sea oil industry.

The Queen’s presence at its inauguration highlighted its importance to the British economy.

But there were others determined to make it a day to remember for all the wrong reasons.

As the band struck up the national anthem and the Queen prepared to deliver her speech marking the terminal’s opening in front of 700 guests, a bomb was set to go off less than 500 yards away in just a few seconds’ time.

It had been planted at the oil terminal days earlier by the Provisional IRA, who hoped to deliver a shattering blow to the British state with their most devastating attack yet – the assassination of Queen Elizabeth II.

The IRA made it clear they regarded the Royal Family as “legitimate targets” during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee visit to Northern Ireland in August 1977, warning that they would give her a “jubilee bomb blitz to remember”.

Although the royal visit passed off without serious incident, two years later the Provos made good on their threats by murdering the Queen’s cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten on a fishing holiday in Mullaghmore in the Republic of Ireland.

The Queen meets workers at Sullom Voe, oblivious to her brush with near tragedy(Image: PA)

Their next attack would target the Queen herself, and take place not in Ireland but the Shetland Isles, where she was due to open the oil terminal at Sullom Voe.

Employing more than 6000 workers and costing £1.2billion, the facility was one of Europe’s largest construction projects.

Unknown to the site’s operators BP, one of the workers there was a member of the Provisional IRA.

After six years, in 1981 construction of the vast facility was completed and it was announced that an opening ceremony would be held in May, at which Her Majesty the Queen would officially inaugurate the terminal.

Across the water, tensions in Northern Ireland that month were at an all-time high. The death of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands at the Maze prison on the 5th sparked fierce rioting in nationalist areas and an upsurge in IRA attacks.

While violence raged in Northern Ireland, in the Shetland Isles the IRA’s man at Sullom Voe received a parcel posted from Ireland, containing 7lb of gelignite and a 12-day timer device.

On the morning of the 9th, the Queen, Prince Philip and the King of Norway arrived. In such a quiet corner of the UK, where violent crime was almost unheard of, royal protection officers must have believed the most serious threat they would face would be crowds of overenthusiastic locals.

Aerial view Sullom Voe

Just before lunchtime, however, as the Queen prepared to deliver her speech in the engineering services room, there was a sharp bang from the nearby power station, all but drowned out by the band as it played first the Norwegian, then the British national anthems.

Around the same time a statement from a “P. O’Neill” – the usual pseudonym used by the Provisional IRA – was issued through the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau in Dublin, claiming the IRA had “breached the English Queen’s security” by setting off a bomb at Sullom Voe.

“While the British occupation in Ireland continues, members of the British ruling class and administration will continue to be the subject of IRA attacks,” the statement concluded.

At Sullom Voe few people were even aware that an explosion had even taken place and the remainder of the ceremony went ahead as planned, much to the IRA’s chagrin.

“The PIRA Overseas Department was deeply disappointed not to hear news that the inauguration ceremony had been disrupted,” revealed Professor Christopher Andrew, MI5’s official historian.

At first the authorities maintained a public silence on the blast, while the plant’s operators BP insisted it had been caused by a minor electrical fault connected with a power station boiler.

But behind the scenes there was furious activity by the security services at the site as a team of investigators from Northern Constabularly, assisted by a Special Branch officer from the Met, were dispatched to the scene.

After combing through a mass of debris caused by the explosion in the power station, the police found the partially destroyed detonator, which fortunately had failed to set off the main charge.

IRA had already claimed the life of the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten(Image: Getty)

Meanwhile the IRA, frustrated that their carefully prepared attack was receiving scant media attention, released a second, more detailed statement, reiterating their claim of responsibility and accusing the British authorities of trying to hush up the explosion.

The statement added chillingly that “had we managed to place Saturday’s bomb close enough to the British Queen she would now be dead”.

In the Commons two days later the Secretary of State for Scotland George Younger finally confirmed that the blast at Sullom Voe had indeed been caused by a terrorist bomb.

“Messages purporting to come from IRA sources and warning of the presence of a bomb were received,” he revealed.

“Detailed investigations were put in hand immediately by police and explosive experts, and subsequent forensic examination of material has confirmed that the damage was caused by an explosive device. Police inquiries are continuing.”

Although the Government were anxious to play down the incident, the police investigation found that the attempt on the Queen’s life had been much more serious than the authorities were prepared to admit in 1981.

MI5 had been concerned about the vulnerability of the oil terminal to terrorism and before the attack recommended a strengthening of security, though BP were reluctant to implement the recommended security measures on cost grounds.

The company also came in for criticism for publishing a timetable of the royal party’s itinerary for the visit in a newsletter distributed to staff at Sullom Voe a few weeks before the event.

Bloody scenes during the Queen’s visit to Ulster(Image: Bettmann Archive)

Rejecting the criticism, a BP spokeman pointed out: “People had to know where the royal party would be, and every inch of the route was examined by security experts, then cleared and sealed off.”

Special Branch also discovered that the IRA’s original plan had been to detonate not one but two bombs. The second device was delayed in the post and the terrorist at Sullom Voe, fearing it had been intercepted by the security services, fled back to Ireland before it arrived.

Had both bombs been successfully planted, and detonated fully, the carnage at Sullom Voe would have been immense.

The IRA’s attempt to kill the Queen at Sullom Voe was soon forgotten as media and public attention was diverted by the assassination attempt four days later against Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square. The incident became an obscure footnote in the Queen’s long reign.

But had the Provisionals’ attack gone according to plan, May 9, 1981 would now be remembered as one of the darkest days in British history.

The NZ teen’s attempt, from ABC:

New Zealand teen attempted to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II during 1981 Dunedin visit

The World /

By Michael Walsh and Nick Fogarty

Posted Tue 16 Jan 2018 at 8:33pmTuesday 16 Jan 2018 at 8:33pm, updated Tue 16 Jan 2018 at 10:29pmTuesday 16 Jan 2018 at 10:29pm

Britain's Queen Elizabeth sits with Prince Philip as they leave Buckingham Palace.
Queen Elizabeth survived an assassination attempt on a visit to Dunedin in 1981.(Reuters: Kieran Doherty)

In October 1981, Queen Elizabeth II made a royal visit to the city of Dunedin in New Zealand’s south.

The otherwise uneventful trip ended up becoming the subject of a bizarre assassination attempt, when a teenager fired a single shot from a .22 calibre rifle at the Queen’s procession.

The incident is now the subject of a six-part investigative piece by journalist Hamish McNeilly, which examines how 17-year-old Christopher John Lewis plotted to kill the Queen.

The Snowman and The Queen series, published by the website, also looks into how police allegedly covered up the assassination attempt to save face.

Christopher John Lewis in 1987. He wears a puffy jacket and jeans in the black and white photo.
Christopher John Lewis used a stolen .22 rifle in his attempt on the Queen’s life in 1981.(

Mr McNeilly spoke to a number of witnesses to the Queen’s Dunedin visit, and researched official police documents and a memoir written by Lewis.

“The 17-year-old Christopher John Lewis was almost a hardened criminal by that age,” Mr McNeilly said.

“He was a kid who was expelled from kindergarten, [and expelled from] intermediate school for playing sex games. At high school he was suspended and got the most canings.”

Lewis’ bad behaviour would soon become criminal. He formed his own so-called National Imperial Guerrilla Army with two friends.

The group went on a crime spree around Dunedin, which included stealing guns from an arms store.

“He would send anonymous letters through to police saying they were about to do a reign of terror on the city,” Mr McNeilly said.

The three teenagers later robbed a post office. Wearing camouflage jackets over their school uniforms, they stole more than $5,000 in cash and escaped on their pushbikes.

Police said gunshot noise was a firecracker

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh wave as they step off a plane, on their second visit to Australia in 1963
Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in Australia in 1963.(National Archives of Australia: A1777/1)

Lewis would later use one of the stolen weapons, a .22 rifle, in his attempt on the Queen’s life as her motorcade was making its way through Dunedin.

Holed up in a toilet cubicle on the fifth storey of a building, with the rifle stuck out the window, he waited for the Queen’s motorcade to arrive.

Witnesses to the royal visit told Mr McNeilly they heard the shot ring out, however police made up a number of excuses for the noise.

“My understanding is that some of the royal reporters from the British press were asking the local police about [the noise], and they were adamant it was just a council sign falling over,” Mr McNeilly said.

When British media caught wind of the story, police argued it may have been someone letting off firecrackers nearby.

Mr McNeilly said the incident was covered up to avoid potentially global embarrassment.

“They were worried that they would never get another royal tour,” Mr McNeilly said.

“They had no police officers on buildings, keeping an eye out for the Queen. Bear in mind this was the same year where there were assassination attempts on [then-US president Ronald] Reagan.

“They should have been on heightened alert, but clearly that didn’t happen.”

Teen initially faced attempted treason

Queen Elizabeth
Lewis initially admitted to shooting at the Queen, but redacted documents say that he shot at the road only.(Reuters: Joel Ryan)

The post office robbery would eventually link Lewis back to the .22 rifle used in the incident.

Police came across one of the teenagers involved in the robbery — identified by his camouflaged jacket — and all three including Lewis were taken in for questioning.

Officers seized their cache of stolen weapons, but the rifle Lewis used on the day of the Queen’s visit was missing. He would later lead police to the bathroom, where they found the weapon.

Police files obtained by Mr McNeilly show Lewis was interviewed on suspicion of trying to kill the Queen, and was at one point even charged with attempted treason.

“The released documents I have show him facing an attempted treason charge. He admits to shooting [at] the Queen initially, but in some of the redacted documents, it later says that he shot at the road only,” Mr McNeilly said.

“That is not backed up by people that were there on the day, his lawyer and a former police officer who interviewed him.”

The attempted treason charge was later downgraded when Lewis went to court over the earlier robberies.

“He was up for a raft of charges with his two offsiders. Then there were a couple of minor charges to do with discharging a firearm and possession of a firearm,” Mr McNeilly said.

“And it just said it coincided with the day of the Queen’s visit.”

Christopher John Lewis. He is wearing round glasses, he has red hair and a black Quicksilver sweatshirt on.
Lewis took his own life while in prison in September 1997.(

Lewis got free holiday during later Royal visit

Despite never being officially charged with attempted treason for the 1981 incident, police felt it was necessary to keep Lewis away from the Queen during her next visit to New Zealand in late 1995.

“Years later when he was an adult — he had spent most of his twenties in prison — he was out and he was on I assume a list of some sort, and he was given a taxpayer-funded holiday to Great Barrier Island, which is in the gulf of Auckland,” Mr McNeilly said.

Police paid for the 10-day getaway, which they said was organised for security reasons.

Lewis took his own life while at Mt Eden prison in September 1997, where he was awaiting trial after being charged over the murder of a 27-year-old woman the previous year.

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