'It remains the most intense 24 hours of my life': Former British Army officer recalls 1983 Beirut bombings

We speak to Tom Beese, who opens up for the first time about his harrowing experiences in Lebanon after an attack killed 241 US military personnel

The aftermath of the bombing of the US Marine barracks (1) credit to Pierre Sabbagh
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"My name is Tom Beese and I was the person who led the British team in helping the US marines recover their dead on the day of the suicide bombing at the airport," the UK military veteran, who served at the time of the 1983 attack on US troops in Beirut, wrote by email. "Mike Boissard forwarded me your emails in respect to this and it is possible that I would be open to talking about that day."

Boissard is the one-time commanding officer of “A Squadron” of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, who has since emigrated to New Zealand. On that deadly day, October 23, 1983, he wasn’t with his crew. When a lorry laden with explosives rammed the airport-based Battalion Landing Team headquarters of the US marine barracks in the Lebanese capital, killing 241 US personnel, Boissard was in Cyprus on leave. So it was his second-in-command, a captain by the name of Tom Beese, who led the British team after the bombing.

Incredibly, Boissard is still in touch with Beese and contacted him on The National's behalf when we expressed interest in uncovering Britain's role in the aftermath of the attack.

At that time, eight years of civil war had already left Lebanon in ruins as Beirut morphed from the "Paris of the East" into one of the most dangerous cities on Earth. As the country's various factions spilt blood on the streets, Israel laid siege to Palestinian forces, having invaded Lebanon in June 1982. In April 1983, the US embassy in the flattened capital was bombed, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. An Iran-backed group that was little-­known at the time and called itself Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the embassy bombing and attacks on the US and French barracks.

Beese was 25, an officer in the Queen's Dragoon Guards and a member of the British forces that formed part of the Multinational Force, also known as BritForLeb, in Beirut. He arrived in the city that year and was thrust into the aftermath of what was the deadliest attack on US marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.

British soldiers, together with Italian forces, joined the Americans and the French in trying to keep the peace as Lebanon's civil war raged. Some of those British forces helped to recover the dead in the aftermath of the attack on the US barracks, but, even though the tragedy made international headlines, there has been scant media coverage of Britain's role – until now, as Beese agreed to speak publicly about his experiences in Beirut for the first time.

epa00804468 A file photograph from October 1983 shows a US Marine as he walks in the rubble of the marines headquarters follwoing the October 23 suicide bombing attack on the building in Beirut. Both the US Marines and French soldiers, both part of the international peacekeeping force in Lebanon were bombed on October 23, 1983 in what is suspected to be attacks by the Hezbollah suicide bombers, killing 58 French soldiers and 241 American servicemen. As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan continues his tour of the Middle East on Tuesday, 29 August 2006 arriving in Israel, French peacekeepers have returned to Lebanon as part of the UNIFIL force to help enforce UN resolution 1701 calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah following their 34-day war.  EPA/JIM HOLLANDER (BLACK AND WHITE ONLY) *** Local Caption *** 00804468

“It wasn’t an exceptional evening [the night before the bombing], but then everything changed early the next morning,” Beese explains over the telephone, his voice steady and considered. “The two blasts at the American and French bases woke all of us up. Everybody rushed to their balconies to see these fireballs going up.”

After his offer of assistance was accepted by the US forces, he knew his men would be looking to him for leadership. "I went forward with one of our US marine liaison officers and looked at the bomb site," explains the Englishman, who was educated at British military academy Sandhurst and served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles before he was sent to Beirut. "But because of the scale of the bomb site and the amount going on, I went back and warned the guys what they were about to see and what they were about to do."

Tom Beese was in Beirut as part of BritForLeb. Courtesy Tom Beese

What they were about to do was recover the dead. And as Beese says, the dead were everywhere. "Coming to the first body that I helped with, the marine was almost uninjured but clearly dead," he recalls. "That was curious because … he seemed almost untouched."

Beese explains "the [BLT] building had obviously vanished and been replaced by this enormous tangle of concrete and steel and bodies". But as lead British officer, the welfare of his own men was also of critical concern.

We worked all of that day. Some of the team coped well with it and some naturally found it too much. If they found it too much I didn't push them at all – we just let them go to one side.

"We worked all of that day," he says. "Some of the team coped well with it and some naturally found it too much. If they found it too much I didn't push them at all – we just let them go to one side."

The British had a small contingent in Beirut and avoided any fatalities before they left Lebanon after the US president at the time, Ronald Reagan, began the withdrawal of American forces in February 1984. "The British took the same attitude as the Italians, which was that they should be impartial, seek to avoid confrontation and act as honest brokers," Geraint Hughes, a reader in diplomatic and military history at King's College London, explains. "BritForLeb was also limited in terms of its actions and its main role was to broker local ceasefires."

The relationship between the Reagan administration and Israel caused some Lebanese factions to view the US as backers of a Christian-led Lebanese government pursuing US-Israeli interests. After a US naval assault in the Chouf in September 1983, the barracks bombings, which also killed 58 French servicemen and six civilians, caused shock waves across the region.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Bill Foley/AP/Shutterstock (7323174a)
Rescuers prepare to lower a U.S. Marine on a stretcher down to safety below, in Beirut, Lebanon, following a car bomb attack on the Marines' headquarters near the Beirut airport
Beirut U.S. Marines Barracks Bombing, Beirut, Lebanon

The attacks, along with a series of events such as the September 1982 assassination of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel, who opponents claimed was installed by Israel, turned the tide of the conflict against the Israelis and its American and Lebanese allies, explains Dr Hicham Safieddine, a lecturer in the history of the modern Middle East at King's College London. "This military defeat, with its heavy death toll, signalled the eventual political failure of Reagan's aggressive pro-Israeli policy," he says. "In the long run, it effectively put an end to direct US military intervention in Lebanon."

For Beese, who is now 61 and works with early-stage technology and software businesses, the years have dulled little of his memories of that day. "It remains the most intense 24 hours of my life," he admits.

He says he is "sad, always sad" when he thinks about his experience. "As such, the images and thoughts and feelings of the day remain very vivid."

They are so vivid he has included aspects of his Beirut experiences in a series of novels, which he is currently trying to get published.

Tom Beese today, now 61.

He says the protests that have been held in Lebanon during the past few months have resonated with him deeply. "Lebanon has altered so little that its peoples have to protest against their own political structure, the power of the vested interests and the corruption and the poverty," he says.

Such was his disillusionment with politics after he left Beirut that he "found it impossible for many years to vote at all in my own elections". Beese says he was also critical of the often chequered history of western interventions in the Middle East and maintains the regional legacy from that day in 1983 is still all too apparent.

"After 36 years, the attacks seem to remain a starting point of so very much that has followed – and which has involved whole nations and whole peoples at such appalling cost."