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Remembering Major Richard Clifford - Marine officer who parachuted into the sea with the SBS

Updated: May 3, 2022

Major Richard Clifford of the Royal Marines, May 19 1946 - November 15 2015 (69), was a Special Boats Service officer who parachuted into the sea after a bomb-scare in Queen Elizabeth 2.

On the morning of May 18 1972 Clifford was the officer commanding 2nd Special Boat Section when he was told to prepare two men to parachute into the sea. No name or location was given and Clifford decided go himself taking Corporal Tom Jones as his number two. They flew by helicopter from Poole to Lyneham to meet the rest of their team, ammunition technical officer Captain Robert Williams and SAS Sergeant Cliff Oliver.

Williams had never jumped before and Clifford had brought spare equipment for him. By early afternoon they were airborne in a Hercules transport aircraft and 15 minutes into the flight their mission was revealed to them: to locate and defuse several bombs feared to be hidden and set to go off in a matter of hours aboard Queen Elizabeth 2, the world’s best-known trans-Atlantic liner.

As their aircraft was buffeted in turbulent weather, Williams, who was violently sick, was briefed by Clifford on what to do. Jones and Oliver would drop into the sea with the bulk of the equipment, while Clifford would jump with Williams and ensure that he did not drown when they hit the water. Once over QE2 they found every parameter for parachuting into the sea was out of limits. They could not see the ship at 1000 ft range, the cloud base was 300 to 400 ft, the wind was blowing at more than 20 knots, and there were 5 ft waves. The pilot agreed to fly the Hercules in low so he could sight QE2, then open the throttles and climb very steeply through the cloud to a dropping height. It would be difficult and dangerous, but the Special Forces men agreed to jump “blind” into the ocean.

They hit the water hard, but despite the heavy swell they were quickly picked up by one of QE2’s boats. Meanwhile, aboard QE2, her master, Captain William Law, had announced the bomb threat to the astonished passengers and told them a British bomb disposal team had arrived.

Williams now took charge, but before the team started work, Clifford presented Law with a copy of The Daily Telegraph which he had stuffed inside his drysuit. Three suspicious suitcases, which Law’s crew had found, were examined and one was blown open, but they contained only books and dirty laundry.

The FBI advised the full evacuation of QE2 during a stop at Cherbourg but the Cunard company and the ship’s master were so satisfied with the work of the Special Forces that it was decided to continue the voyage to Southampton. Later the threat was found to have been a hoax

All four men were awarded the Queen’s Commendation for their courage and determination in the face of unusual and hazardous conditions, and the incident inspired the film Juggernaut (1974), starring Richard Harris and Omar Sharif.

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