In 2001 EventPlan recreated the climactic clash at Orgreave for conceptual artist Jeremy Deller, Artangel Media and Channel 4. Here we offer a non-political and hopefully unbiased account of what happened on that hot, violent day.
All photos are from the re-enactment. Click for more pictures.
In 1984 the NUM under Arthur Scargill was confronting Margaret Thatcher’s government in a bitter miners’ strike. For the former, the dispute was about preventing an overzealous programme of mass pit closures and saving mining communities, whilst the latter sought to break union power - seen as “the enemy within" - and introduce market forces to “old” industries which they saw as inefficient. It could only end in a major confrontation.
Following serious public disorder in Toxteth and Brixton at the start of the ‘80s, the police had secretly refined new techniques, effectively “softer” versions of colonial riot tactics as used, for example, by the Hong Kong Police, which in turn featured remarkable similarities to classic Roman military tactics with shields, lines of “foot soldiers" and “cavalry". These would now be used against pickets where deemed necessary.
The British Steel coking plant at Orgreave, South Yorkshire had already witnessed a number of clashes with lines of police officers keeping the roadway open for coal lorries and “scab” labour, but June 18 would see the climactic clash as the NUM organised a mass picket with the intention of making Orgreave another Saltley (the scene of a major NUM victory some years before against Ted Heath’s government) by blockading the plant and if possible closing it. The police drew up plans to stop them, probably influenced by information received from alleged “moles” within the union. This intelligence system was apparently so efficient during the strike that police units often received their instructions before the pickets did.
As 5-6000 pickets converged on Orgreave from all over the country, massive numbers of police from 10 counties were deployed in 181 PSU’s (Police Support Units) - at least 4200 men, although some accounts claim up to 8000. They were not however an integrated force used to working together but indeed in some respects resembled a medieval feudal army, each contingent fielding a different number of officers, differently equipped and with varying levels of riot training, from a small number of (recently) well-trained PSUs down to a mass of ordinary officers with no special training at all. 58 police dogs were deployed, along with between 42 and 50 mounted police, the latter destined to play a major role in both escalating and then ending the "battle". No WPCs were present on this day, nor were there more than one or two female pickets, perhaps because both sides felt the mass picket could turn into something rather more serious.
When small numbers of police and pickets initially eyed each other up at 6am, the mood was friendly enough with pickets playing football and banter between pickets and local police. The latter, aware that unlike “foreign” forces brought in to assist (such as the Metropolitan Police, although not deployed there that day), they had to live and work amongst the local community after the strike, so mostly did their best to remain on relatively good terms with the pickets. It was clearly going to be a beautiful day so it seemed to some that perhaps little would occur other than the usual token shouting and pushing…but the mood soon began to change with the arrival of more and more pickets, matched by deployment of police officers, at this stage from “ordinary” units with no riot gear.
But there was something else, perhaps not noticed at first by many. Unlike previous demonstrations, where pickets had been prevented from reaching their intended “target” through use of road blocks and diversions, this time the police actually escorted them to Orgreave and into a pre-determined holding area in a field in front of the “Topside” of the coke plant. Looking around, pickets could see a solid line of police to their front and mounted police with dog handlers loosely containing them to the left, right and right rear. About half a mile to their rear, the Sheffield to Worksop railway line ran at the bottom of a steep embankment, forming the fourth side of a rough rectangle, with only a narrow road bridge into Orgreave village offering a way out. Was this a prepared “battleground”? Most pickets and even one of the police recently interviewed believe that it was, and that the police were under instructions from the government to take a tough line with demonstrators - they would not tolerate another Saltley. What is certain is that although the ground sloped quite significantly up and away from the police line towards the pickets, had the police commander been seeking a straight military-style “victory”, he could be forgiven for being pleased with both the ground and his dispositions, the latter being thorough.
The police were commanded by Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Clement. Noticeably absent from the scene was South Yorkshire Chief Constable Peter Wright (who retired shortly afterwards). Many have since wondered why he delegated such an obviously sensitive and important operation to his ACC.
In addition to his many ordinary police officers, Clement could also deploy a defensive cordon protected by long see-through plastic shields - the Met Shield as it was known. These shields, which had been deployed at previous incidents at Orgreave and elsewhere, were supposed to also protect officers standing behind, although in reality it was easy to lob stones and other missiles over the top onto the heads of policemen further back.
Crucially, if Clement so wished, he was authorised to up the stakes by using new formations with crash helmets and short shields, and trained in the new arrest “snatch squad” or dispersal tactics. Particularly when combined with mounted police, they represented a potent tactical force easily capable of defeating rioters. However, they had never been used on mainland Britain and whether this would now be appropriate would depend on whether the police were faced with a real riot or just a noisy demonstration. Most important of all, their use would represent a major turning point in British police tactics, i.e. a deliberate change in emphasis from defensive to offensive tactics, something that until now had not been thought to be acceptable to the British public. Clearly the government felt that public opinion would now support such a radical move. But as the huge crowd of miners and some (not particularly welcome) politically motivated demonstrators gathered, very few could have even heard of short-shield PSUs or realised that this would be the day they would be used for the first time, against them.
Accurately recounting the Battle of Orgreave is almost as difficult as reconstructing other, much more ancient fights. Memories fade and “veterans” often have different perspectives on timings and the order in which things happened. Add to this political “spin” from both sides including police attempts to portray what happened as a fully-fledged riot (something later rejected by the courts) and the job becomes more difficult. Some video footage has been shown on TV, but little of the official police film record. However, a combination of official documentation including witness statements, other accounts, interviews and film have facilitated a reasonably stab at uncovering the facts (although of course this account is only a personal view which will remain open to reinterpretation should new evidence arise).
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In tactical terms, the Battle of Orgreave took place in three phases, the first consisting of the police response to thousands of protestors milling about in front of their line, shouting and occasionally throwing missiles. How many protestors were initially involved in the latter is difficult to establish, but during the subsequent trial of miners arrested for riot, ACC Clement’s references to a constant “barrage” of missiles was dismissed. However, from the start, some stones were definitely thrown - quite possibly not by miners - from the back of the crowd and both police and pickets in front hit. In response, Clement deployed a wide cordon of long shields in front of his non-shield officers, but if anything, this just invited more stones, some of which bounced off the shields and into the front lines of miners. Some flew over the top of the line and hit officers beyond, such as PC Akers, hit in the face by a brick and taken to hospital around 8am.
However (and unlike some of today’s quite sophisticated protestors), the vast majority of miners at Orgreave in 1984 had come “in peace”, being tooled up with nothing more threatening than a T-shirt and jeans. This left them woefully unprepared for what was to come. Meanwhile, mounted police were deployed to the rear of the police line, presumably as a show of force, but one which almost certainly increased the tension. Everybody knew that if they were used, things could become unpleasant. They did.
At 8am lorries began to arrive at the plant to pick up coke. To chants of “Here we go, here we go”, hundreds of miners surged towards the centre right of the police line in a big push. Although a few protesters threw themselves at the police in an occasionally successful attempt to break the line, this “ritual” push was pretty good-natured and with the blue line heavily reinforced with officers pushing & shoving those in front, and miners squashed up against the long shields, it lasted just 38 seconds.
In what may have been a move to relieve pressure on his line, Clement now ordered some of his mounted police forward. As the centre of the line opened inwards, the mounted officers cantered out - panic immediately gripped many miners, who fled in a mass towards the rear, probably because they had either seen or heard of charges made in earlier demonstrations. On this first occasion though, the horses were kept very well in hand, no batons were drawn and everybody got out of the way safely. The mounted police halted about 30 yards in front of their line and then withdrew. A space had been cleared, but at the price of escalating the tension so with hindsight, this appears a tactical mistake which altered the whole tone of the demonstration for the worse. The miners drifted back until Clement was faced by a mass of increasingly agitated pickets all along his line. More missiles were thrown, one caught in fine style by a non-shield PC to applause from nearby miners (probably themselves wary of “friendly fire”)! It was a stand off, but it wouldn’t last.
A second mounted advance was ordered with the same results as before - more fear and anger amongst miners, but this time the whole police line advanced 30 yards, driving back the demonstrators. The mounted police began to take hits from stones and the whole atmosphere was beginning to turn very ugly. ACC Clement now used his loudhailer to warn the miners that if they did not retreat 100 yards, he would deploy short shield squads (which had been marched up to behind the police line from their holding area) but either the miners did not hear or understand what this meant (they could not see through the police line), or they simply disregarded it. They didn’t move, so Clement repeated his warning. When nothing happened, he ordered a third mounted advance, this time with the short-shields following up - the die was cast. “Real” riot tactics were about to be used on mainland Britain for the first time.
Police footage of what happened next is very illuminating. A short-shield senior officer tells his men “You know what you are doing, no heads, bodies only” and then with two other PSUs (about 66 men in all) in column and with truncheons drawn, sally out through the a gap in the left centre of the police line, jogging on behind the mounted police (who had still not drawn batons) charging at a canter. The same occurs on the right of the police centre. Panic once again sweeps the miners standing in front, many of whom run en masse to the rear pursued by the mounted officers and loose “skirmish lines” of short shield units waving truncheons and making arrests. Some non-shield officers join in and one is caught on camera severely beating a protester (Russell Broomhead). He and his friend Wayne Lingard, who came to his aid, are arrested and along with others are moved to the rear of the police line. Already, some (albeit just a few) police are “losing it” - ignoring the "no heads" order - and the demonstration is clearly moving towards becoming a battle.
Having achieved their immediate objective of driving back the pickets, the police out in front withdrew to their line. But as the short shield units fell back facing the miners, the latter cautiously followed up. The demonstrators now knew that they were facing no ordinary police response, and things began to escalate further with neither side willing to give way.
More miners were throwing stones now. Dust hung in the air as thousands of demonstrators milled around on the dry scrubby grass or on the roadway, waiting for the next move. This occurred at 9.25, when the fully-laden coke lorries began to depart from the plant, heralding a second big push against the police line, rather less good-tempered than the first. Again both sides pushed and shoved, with some police liberally using their truncheons over the top of their long shields in the front rank. The police line held and again Clement use mounted units and short shields to drive the miners off with rather more than the “minimum force” enshrined in the police manual. But it worked, as the miners were prevented from blockading the coke plant.
At this point, Arthur Scargill appeared and perhaps in a attempt to bolster the morale of the miners, walked along the line of police, shaking is head from side to side and possibly berating them for their conduct. This generated cheers from the miners and no doubt rather less charitable comments from the police. Mr Scargill may also have hoped to be arrested directly in front of the press, just as he had on a previous day (for blocking a pavement with fellow pickets), but this time the police were more canny and after a while he returned to the ranks of the miners.
With the lorries gone, a lull settled over the scene by 10am, and although a second lorry run was due later in the day, four hours into the mass picket most miners now drifted off towards Orgreave village, where many coaches were parked and Asda provided a convenient source of drinks and snacks on a blazing hot day. Pictures show no more than a few hundred miners sunbathing, sitting or standing around in front of the 10-15 deep police line. The latter sweltered in their uniforms and were not at all happy. Logistics had broken down and few had been able to drink anything for hours, despite the heat. The only officer seen in shirtsleeves seems to be ACC Clement himself, enjoying a cup of tea and thus hardly leading by example, unless he took his jacket off so he could be more easily recognised by his men. He did, however, stand down officers including the long shields, who went to the rear for a break. Thus ended the first part of the battle. It could also have been the end of the demonstration, but it wasn’t.
As well as containing the mass picket Topside (i.e. at the front of the plant), more police were holding back another large group of miners Bottomside, on the other side of the plant. This was carried out with relative ease although there were police charges to disperse demonstrators and arrests made. At some time during the day however, it appears that a few enterprising miners managed to slip round the flanks of the police line and break into the plant, but with no instructions on what to do or any way of communicating with their leadership, they merely stood around for a while and then left. Another “what if” of history, perhaps! In many respects this illustrates the difference between the largely unorganised pickets (who although possessing a few walkie-talkies, could not hope to effectively co-ordinate en masse) and the highly organised police, even though the latter completely missed the small infiltration of the plant.
How and why the second phase of the battle began is still open to interpretation. Some miners claim that the police just attacked without warning or provocation. Others that a few militant miners started throwing stones. The police statement says that a lorry tyre was rolled to within 20 yards of their line (although this could hardly be interpreted as a serious threat) and that missiles began to be thrown at the now unprotected policemen on duty (those with shields having earlier been stood down). Another source suggests that a verbal altercation broke out between some miners and police, although there was apparently no physical confrontation. Whatever happened, it is clear that the remaining miners were by now hugely outnumbered by the police, who with the long-shields now hastily recalled to the front, were again ready for action.
In many respects, the pattern of stone-throwing and the police response were inevitable once “battle” had been joined. The pickets were lightly-dressed and most would come off worst in a person to person confrontation against policemen protected by a helmet & shield and armed with a truncheon. So pickets had to avoid physical contact if they could. The police on the other hand could only control the ground they stood on and had to either passively endure missile throwing against them (which is extremely frustrating, especially when hot and thirsty) or launch limited “defensive” charges to drive the stone-throwers away. But the latter could only offer a temporary respite. Either the “battle” had to be allowed to die down, or the police would have to clear the active protesters from the ground in front of their line. The former now looked unlikely whilst the latter could only be achieved by more charges as water cannon, tear gas or rubber bullets were not available, nor was the use of such measures considered appropriate or acceptable on the mainland. This left just one tactic - more charges. So the original objective of the police - to keep the road open for coke lorries - had now been superseded whether they wished it or not. Battle had been joined.
Heralded by the front rank police banging their truncheons on their shields “Zulu” style, a dramatic three-phase mass advance by the whole police line began, driving the protestors off the field and over the railway bridge into Orgreave village. In their panic to escape from pursuing police, many of the miners to the left of the bridge were unable to reach it and so slid or ran down the steep railway embankment to cross the line, scrambling up the other side - some fighting amongst themselves in their haste to get away. It was a rout. Fortunately, no train was due.
Some miners stood and fought, or tried to help friends being hurt or arrested. Many were injured as hundreds of police swept forward, the long-shield line and reserves following up the mounted, short and non-shield officers out in front. Miners, some with blood streaming from head wounds inflicted despite the “no heads” order, were arrested and taken to the rear. Most retreated the other way, including a young miner called David Bell. Already hurt, he limped as far as the electricity sub-station by the bridge but as he rested there was caught by five officers, one of whom allegedly stood on his injured leg and fractured it. None the less, he was forced to hop back to the police line under arrest. (This was just one of many photographed incidents that helped discredit the police case when pickets appeared in court, charged with riot).
The police now reached the railway bridge and using a cordon of long shields, took and held the far side. This ended the second phase of the battle and once again, could have been the end of it, but although they had completely cleared the field and were half a mile from the plant they were defending, the police now came under a heavy barrage of missiles - the retreating miners had discovered a ready supply of missiles in a scrap yard on the other side of the bridge and had become more belligerent than ever. A car was wheeled out of the scrap yard, placed on the road and set alight.
The bridge is narrow and at the range protesters were throwing missiles at, they could not miss. For several minutes the line of long shields holding on the roadway came under intense bombardment from stones, many ripped from an adjoining wall, and various items of scrap. Behind this line stood more shield-men, with unprotected officers further back out of range.
ACC Clement now had a difficult decision to make. Should he withdraw out of range and risk the angry miners following up? Not ideal bearing in mind he knew more lorries were due to call at the plant. Or should he advance into a residential area to chase off those miners (still numbered in hundreds) that continued to strongly resist? What was probably clear was that the hard-pressed long shields on the bridge could not simply be left impersonating an Aunt Sally stall. The position was untenable - something had to be done.
After a few minutes, the final phase of the battle began. In an attempt to chase off the stone throwers, Clement launched a limited short-shield charge, the men falling back after 50 yards or so. Two more such charges were launched, but each time the miners simply followed up the police withdrawal, still throwing missiles. During one of these attacks, Arthur Scargill was injured, either hit by a police shield, a brick from his own side, or just by slipping down the bank he was standing on, depending on which account one accepts - it may even have been a combination of these. Either way, he was just one of numerous protestors and police hurt in the ongoing melee, although definitely the best known.
Having failed to drive off the stone throwers, Clement now ordered a more general advance, driving the miners up Highfield Lane, past the first village houses. A new line was formed opposite No.31 but still the stones flew, forcing the police to shelter behind their shields, inclined upwards. The Assistant Chief Constable now unleashed his mounted police again, with around 20 charging at the canter with batons drawn down the road towards the village crossroads. This had the desired effect, with the mass of demonstrators running away as fast as they could, many deciding that enough was enough and dispersing. Bizarrely, a film of the incident records one protestor laughing as he runs away, apparently enjoying the excitement of it all.
Reaching the crossroads, some mounted police peeled off to the left to chase the miners into the Asda car park, whilst others halted and formed a cordon holding the crossroads, awaiting foot officers advancing up in support. The latter, at last released against tormenting stone-throwers and innocent protesters alike, came on extremely aggressively, many lashing out as the dispersal of remaining miners continued. Some of the latter fled through passageways into and behind the houses on Highfield Lane. Others were caught and beaten, in some cases severely, by short shield officers apparently suffering from “red mist”, unable or unwilling to restrain themselves. One miner, Kevin Marshall, was repeatedly hit across the bonnet of a car by a police inspector although offering no resistance, before being arrested and pulled along (on one foot) back towards the police lines.
In one of those surreal moments that few would believe until shown actual photographic evidence, an ice cream van (“Rock on Tommy”) continued to sell ices until completely enveloped by the police advance. At this point, the driver prudently drove away. Bearing in mind the hot weather, he probably had the most successful day of anyone present.
If some of Clement’s men were out of control, what was he doing about it? Clement himself is silent on this within his official statement, but from what can be gathered, it can be argued that he was no longer in effective tactical command where it mattered, probably being too far back down Highfield Lane (and due to the topography, perhaps out of direct line of sight) to see what was going on. He later said that he did not know if his men were out of control in the village, but this is no excuse - as commander it was his responsibility to ensure his men were following orders. He did however eventually issue an order to withdraw back to the bridge, which was carried out, although not before mounted police reacted to more stoning by charging across into Rotherham Lane. One took a swing with his long baton at Lesley Boulton, a photographer trying to help an injured miner. She was pulled out of the way just in time, the incident being photographed and thereafter coming to sum up how many people thought of the policing of day - heavy-handed, insufficiently under control, and somehow just not British.
Some miners followed up the police withdrawal and began stoning them again, but this time the police just held their position on the bridge and along the top of the embankment on the plant side. An inept attempt was made to produce one or two petrol bombs, but as only diesel was available out of a pump in the scrap yard, they promptly went out. In the meantime a pair of crude barricades was constructed out of more items of scrap, including some nasty looking forward-slanting stakes designed to impale horses, should the police decide to come back. If they had it is doubtful however that these improvised barricade would have seriously impeded them, but they didn’t and by mid-afternoon the stone throwing, and thus the battle, finally petered out.
According to official records, 93 arrests were made, with 72 policemen and 51 pickets injured. The total for the latter was undoubtedly much higher however since pickets knew that being treated inevitably meant being arrested. In many cases this allegedly involved primitive holding conditions and maltreatment.
So, who won? The police had won a clear tactical victory, although they may have had some anxious moments when they felt obliged to enter a residential area. For their part, the miners had failed to stop the coke lorries and had received a severe drubbing. Press coverage initially showed the police in the best possible light and the miners as hooligans, although it soon became clear that the running order of some footage had been edited by accident or design and was misleading.
Although only a tiny minority of police officers present that day “lost it”, they, the insensitive and sometimes brutal handling of prisoners and unsubstantiated charges of “riot” that followed were enough to tarnish the whole police operation. The sight of policemen applauding returning mounted police (judged by many to have been out of control) also angered many. Local opinion on the police went into free fall and has still to recover in some areas, a particularly bad result for those South Yorkshire police who had sought to keep the lid on the dispute and maintain reasonable relations with the local community. For some miners, worst of all was being forced to face an uncertain future whilst charged with riot and the possibility of spending the rest of their life in prison. They were however all acquitted and incompetent police evidence thrown out, but the scars (including some physical) remain.
The Battle of Orgreave did not stop any pit closures so perhaps the only winners were Margaret Thatcher and her government. Although the latter now belong to history, the results of their policies are seen by many as catastrophic in social terms. Whole mining communities were subsequently devastated as pits closed. Families were divided by the strike. Both left a sad legacy we still live with today and very few consider the economic and social cost justified.
As to the police, many lessons were learned. How to police a demonstration, and how not to. A number of veterans I have spoken to have said the same thing - “There were things I did that day I am proud of, and some things I am not”. In fairness it has to be reiterated that even if considered heavy handed, the tactics used on that day were relatively restrained whencompared with some other European and American police forces - with no tear gas, water cannon or rubber bullets (to this day unused on the mainland), but one thing is sure - after Orgreave, the image of Dixon of Dock Green was gone forever. All police are now routinely trained in basic “defensive tactics” whilst highly trained PSUs stand ready should they be needed. Early containment and minimum force is now standard doctrine and the Battle of Orgreave might never had happened if this policy had been followed in 1984, but of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
© Howard Giles 2002
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Updated 5 April 2008