British police feared five England fans would die from injuries sustained during « barbaric » clashes with Russian supporters in Marseille on the opening weekend of Euro 2016.
In exclusive interviews with Sky News, specialist officers deployed in France have given first-hand accounts of shocking clashes which left scores of supporters hurt and several with life-threatening injuries.
The police spotters compared the scenes to a « battlefield » and said the violence was the most extreme and brutal they had ever witnessed, with a Russian gang using military tactics to deliver savage beatings to England supporters.
The British police commander in Marseille was told there were 100 English « walking wounded »; 30 fans had been hospitalised and five were in danger of dying as a result of their injuries.
In the event they all survived, but two England supporters were left in a coma suffering life-changing injuries from which they are still recovering.
The police accounts also reveal:
:: The violence and injuries were so serious British police were forced to activate their terrorism contingency plan
:: One fan had his Achilles tendons cut by Russian hooligans to prevent him running away after being beaten
:: Police inside the Stade Velodrome feared « another Heysel » as England fans risked being crushed as they fled a Russian hooligan charge after the match
:: Eurostar trains returning to St Pancras resembled « hospital trains », with one fan disembarking with a broken bottle still embedded in his neck
:: Police are seeking banning orders against more than 100 England fans involved in disorder, with more than 40 already prosecuted
:: Police and government agencies have begun planning for the Russia 2018 World Cup and will only advise fans to travel if they believe it is safe
More than 40,000 England fans were in Marseille for their opening game of the tournament against Russia on Saturday, 10 June.
The game was considered high-risk because of both nations’ hooligan track-record, and England’s history in the city.
On the team’s previous visit, in the 1998 World Cup, there were violent clashes with local groups.
The return proved even worse as trouble flared over three days.
Chief Superintendent Steve Neill of Northumbria Police, the senior British police officer in Marseille, told Sky News: « We saw football hooliganism on a different level.
« The Russians came with serious intent to carry out barbaric violence. They were highly organised, very effective and we saw football hooliganism on a different level. »
On the day of the game, while French police were dealing with a large group of England supporters throwing bottles and chairs, a group of around 300 Russians, sober and well-organised, lured England fans into an attack in a piazza near the Old Port.
Chief Superintendent Neill said the scene resembled a « battlefield ».
« I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, » he said.
« It was like a herd of wildebeest rampaging through tables and chairs, fights going off, people being kicked on the ground by groups of five or six men.
« The severity and barbarity of it was quite shocking.
« There was CS smoke drifting everywhere, tables and chairs lying around, people with blood pouring out of their heads.
« It was like nothing we had seen before.
« On the Saturday we had over 100 walking wounded, 30 seriously who had been admitted to hospital, and five who the consultant told my officers were likely to prove fatal that evening.
« I stood in Marseille as the senior officer believing we were going to get five fatalities that night, we might have five murders on our hands.
« It was unprecedented, so we activated the counter-terrorism plan. »
Luckily, no-one was killed. However, two fans, Andrew Bache, from Portsmouth, and Stewart Gray, from Newcastle, suffered life-changing injuries.
The officers’ accounts raise questions about the safety of England fans should the team qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
They play their latest qualifying match in Slovenia this evening.
Police held their first planning meeting for the tournament with Foreign Office officials earlier this month and, despite the violence they witnessed in Marseille, they are confident the Russian authorities will control the groups that caused such chaos.
Assistant Chief Constable Mark Roberts, the National Lead for football policing, said they would seek banning orders against England fans identified as having engaged in disorder, and would only advise supporters to travel if they receive assurances from the Russian authorities that the tournament will be safe.
« What we saw in Marseille is that there are groups of Russian supporters who are where we were in the 1980s, or perhaps beyond that, so there is that threat, » he said.
« But I’ve got confidence in the Russian police to deal with this, they manage it in their domestic football, though there are some instances.
« We will not give advice to the fans that I am not happy to stand behind, so if we identify risks we will tell the supporters so they can make informed decisions.
« If we have a high degree of confidence that they can travel without issue, that will be the message. »