The M62 coach bombing happened on 4 February 1974 on the M62 motorway in northern England, when a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb exploded in a coach carrying off-duty British Armed Forces personnel and their family members. Twelve people (nine soldiers, three civilians) were killed by the bomb, which consisted of 25 pounds (11 kg) of high explosive hidden in a luggage locker on the coach. Judith Ward was convicted of the crime later in 1974, but 18 years later the verdict was judged as wrongful and she was released from prison.
The coach had been specially commissioned to carry British Army and Royal Air Force personnel on leave with their families from and to the bases at Catterick and Darlington during a period of industrial strike action on the trains. The vehicle had departed Manchester some time before, and was making good progress on the M62 motorway. Shortly after midnight, when the bus was near Hartshead Moor Motorway service area, there was a large explosion on board. Most of those aboard were sleeping at the time. The blast, which could be heard several miles away, reduced the coach to a "tangle of twisted metal" and threw body parts up to 250 yards (230 m).
The explosion killed eleven people outright and wounded over fifty others, one of whom died four days later. Amongst the dead were nine soldiers - two from the Royal Artillery, three from the Royal Corps of Signals and four from the 2nd battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. One of the latter was Corporal Clifford Houghton, whose entire family, consisting of his wife Linda and his sons Lee (5) and Robert (2), also died. Numerous others suffered severe injuries, including a six-year-old boy, who was badly burned.
Suspicions immediately fell upon the IRA, which was in the midst of an armed campaign in Britain involving numerous operations, including the Guildford pub bombing and the Birmingham pub bombings.
Reactions in Britain were furious, with senior politicians from all parties calling for immediate action against the perpetrators and the IRA in general. The British media were equally condemnatory; according to The Guardian, it was "the worst IRA outrage on the British mainland" at that time, whilst the BBC has described it as "one of the IRA's worst mainland terror attacks". The Irish Sunday Business Post has described it as the "worst" of the "awful atrocities perpetrated by the IRA" during this period.
IRA Army Council member Dáithí Ó Conaill was challenged over the bombing and the death of civilians during an interview, and replied that the coach was bombed because IRA intelligence indicated that it was carrying military personnel only.
The attack's most lasting consequence was the adoption of much stricter anti-terrorism laws in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, allowing police to hold those suspected of terrorism for up to seven days without charge, and to deport those suspected of terrorism in Britain or the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland to face trial, where special courts judged with separate rules on terrorism suspects.
There was a memorial to those who were killed, situated in the entrance hall of the westbound section of the Hartshead Moor service area, which was used as a first aid station for those wounded in the blast. There is now a larger memorial, set away from the foyer of the Hartshead Moor service area, following a campaign by relatives of the dead. A memorial plaque engraved with the names of the casualties was also unveiled in Oldham in 2010.
Following the explosion, the British public and politicians from all three major parties called for swift justice. The ensuing police investigation led by Detective Chief Superintendent George Oldfield was rushed, careless and ultimately forged, resulting in the arrest of the mentally ill Judith Ward who claimed to have conducted a string of bombings in Britain in 1973 and 1974 and to have married and had a baby with two separate IRA members. Despite her retraction of these claims, the lack of any corroborating evidence against her, and serious gaps in her testimony - which was frequently rambling, incoherent and "improbable", - she was wrongfully convicted in November 1974. Following her conviction, the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau issued a statement:
Miss Ward was not a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann and was not used in any capacity by the organisation. She had nothing to do what-so-ever with the military coach bomb (on 4 February 1974), the bombing of Euston Station and the attack on Latimer Military College. Those acts were authorised operations carried out by units of the Irish Republican Army.
The case against her was almost completely based on inaccurate scientific evidence using the Griess test and deliberate manipulation of her confession by some members of the investigating team. The case was similar to those of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven which occurred at the same time and involved similar forged confessions and inaccurate scientific analysis. Judith Ward was finally released in 1992, when three appeal court judges held unanimously that her conviction was "a grave miscarriage of justice", and that it had been "secured by ambush".