On Monday February 4, 1974, a 50lb bomb ripped through a coach carrying service personnel, their wives and families along the M62 at Birkenshaw, reducing the vehicle to a twisted heap of metal.

The atrocity left 12 people dead – nine soldiers and the wife and two young sons of one of them – and sent shock waves not only through the Spen Valley, but the whole country as one of the worst atrocities committed by the IRA on the British mainland.

Though no local people were injured in the explosion, the horrific incident had a profound effect on Spen Valley folk who were first on the scene and tended the injured and dying.

The coach had been on one of its weekly trips from Manchester to Catterick and RAF Leeming and at some stage – probably while luggage was being loaded – the terrorists managed to sneak the bomb on board. The passengers continued their journey unaware of the deadly package, until just after midnight as it passed Moor Lane bridge in Birkenshaw, when the bomb was detonated.

The blast ripped through the rear of the coach and driver Roland Handley struggled valiantly to keep it on the road and under control for 200 yards before it finally came to rest on the hard shoulder.

Two Birkenshaw men were first on the scene and at the time told reporters from the Spenborough Guardian of the scene of utter devastation and carnage which greeted them.

"I could hear someone screaming and a lot of voices shouting. I went back into the house, dialled 999 and told them there had been an explosion on the motorway," said Mr Fred Fletcher, who had rushed out of his house after hearing a terrific bang.

"The first thing we saw was the body of a woman on the road, then we saw a young girl and covered her with a travelling rug. We went to the back of the coach. It was a terrible sight.

"Someone shouted, 'give me a hand here', and we lifted part of the back of the coach which was hanging down and in danger of dropping on the injured.

"There was a man saying 'help me' but he died in a few minutes. It was dark at first but when they brought the lights we could see how bad it really was. We heard one of the soldiers shouting, 'the bastards, it's a bomb.'"

Mr Bernard Howgate recalled the eerie quietness of the bomb scene.

"The worst thing that struck me was the enormity of the situation and we were so small we couldn't do anything.

"There were dead and dying around. It was a bloody mess.

"Then the police, fire brigade and ambulances came along and took over. They were wonderful."

Rescuers from the emergency services were moved to tears by the scenes they saw.

Assistant Divisional Officer Arthur Farrar of the West Riding Fire Service at Cleckheaton said nothing had ever moved him more.

"My first contact was a fireman who was helping an ambulanceman. He said,'Watch out, there are bodies all over the place.' How right he was.

"It was all so dark and my first instruction from the County Fire Officer was to get more lights fixed up. As each light was switched on, more human debris was revealed, spread over an unbelievably wide area. Police, ambulance and firemen appeared to be slightly struck dumb. There was no excitement, just the morbid task of removing the dead and injured."

One of the first ambulancemen on the scene was Eric Holmes.

"There were bodies on the motorway banking and in the back of the coach. When we arrived on the scene everyone was shouting for our help and we didn't know where to start."

Rescue workers toiled through the night ferrying those slightly injured to nearby Hartshead Moor services where they were cared for by staff, while seriously injured passengers were rushed to Batley Hospital for treatment.

Four days after the explosion, an inquest was opened into the deaths of the victims during which coroner Mr B W Little condemned the "appalling viciousness" of those responsible and their "utter disregard for human life."

By Margaret Heward