Those of us Commissioned on the 29th July 1965 had little idea that events in Northern Ireland (NI) would dominate our time with the Colours. In her Sovereign’s Day address Her Majesty the Queen had offered a general indication of what lay ahead when she said: “…an officer must be, above all else, a leader; a person whom men will follow into danger, discomfort and every ordeal which nature, climate or a human enemy can contrive.” (Yes back then her audience was all male!). However, one aspect of her address that caused some of us equal concern: “You will often inspect your men, I suspect when you are doing so, they will be just as keenly inspecting you”.
This burgeoning offering – that is to say ‘work in progress’ – focuses on four Operational Deployments undertaken in NI, three of which were Roulement Tours of up to 4.5 months and one two year tour allegedly in command of a battalion. As an indolent officer who never kept a diary there will doubtless be some errors of fact and this author is more than happy to correct them when so advised by any sharp-eyed historian.
Who’d Have Thought It?
In the sunshine on the Officers’ Mess lawn overlooking the Malacca Straits reading our air mail copies of the Daily Telegraph (the recognised offering of the day while the Guardian lay neatly ironed and untouched on a table in the Mess) note was made of rumblings in NI; a Cookstown girl – Bernadette Devlin – and others were seemingly concerned about the Human Rights of the Roman Catholics in particular. Whereas in Malaya (as was) the Sino-Malay race riots offered a contemporaneous issue of greater immediate concern. So, newspapers were folded up as the officers moved on to more important matters.
Back To The UK
Having fought hard to complete a full tour in Malaya, I found myself returned in short order to the UK in order to attend the inaugural course of the Junior Division of the Staff College (JDSC). The JDSC Course represented the first step in lowering the ‘earnesty’ threshold, as well as firing the ambition, of Young Officers (YO) by teaching them how to write in the Army’s desired style. For many months, YOs were removed from the learning process of being at the military coal-face – an absence that certain cap-badges lengthened by replicating the entire course prior to attending the course itself. Thus, even if the individual officer lacked ambition, he could rest assured that is Regiment more than made up for such an alleged deficiency. Some years later incidentally General told me that there was no need for an Officer to be able to read and write until studying for the adult Staff College.
Suffice to say the Gunners made no particular effort to prepare their officers for JDSC so it was little surprise to me that the JDSC’s Commandant wrote on my Report: “Under no circumstances should this officer ever hold a Grade 3 Staff Appointment”. On reading this Report in my presence my newly met Commanding Officer – Lieutenant Colonel Martin Farndale RHA – said: “This is not very good Mike, I want you to attend a Regimental Signals Officers (RSO) Course next week”.
The title of the RSOs Course proved to be a misnomer and, in truth, it should have been called a Methods of Instruction Course. Lacking any understanding of battery charging in particular and signals in general, the Directing Staff awarded me with a B Grading. Sad to say that the CO had been given a complete breakdown of the Course Grades and I was mortified to discover that the entire course had been awarded a B Grading (less one Officer with a genuine understanding of signals who received an A). This offered my first brush with grade inflation so beloved by ambitious regiments.
Belfast August 1969
While attending the RSOs’ Course 1 RHA had been warned for a deployment to NI which blotted out considerations of such trivial matters as Course Grades. As I recall, minimal training for that deployment took place other than some riot control exercises modelled on the Aden, and other ‘colonial’, procedures – forming hollow squares, nominating snatch squads, photographer(s), sniper(s) and banner men to deploy a sign that said “Disperse or we fire”. In the round, yet another example of fighting the next war on the basis of the preceding ones; in fairness, not much else could have been done and, in the context of operations, there is inevitably a requirement for OJT (On the Job Training).
The Regiment deployed to NI by sea from Heysham. My recall of the exact deployments on arrival is scant but in broad terms:
RHQ – Springfield Road RUC Barracks
Chestnut Troop – Anderson Town RUC Barracks
B Battery – Pirie Park
E Battery – One Troop in 219 Springfield Road (formerly a Doctor’s Surgery). As for the remainder I simply cannot remember – Whiterock perhaps
Battery Under Command – North Howard Street Mill
Other dispositions included elements in Musgrave Park Hospital and HMS Maidstone submarine depot ship that offered Rest & Recuperation facilities
Since this history is intended to be largely pictorial, dwelling on the written word would defeat the object of the exercise. So, rather than ponder on such savoury issues as the extremely attractive nurses in Musgrave Park Hospital or walking alone down the Grosvenor Road to see John Wayne in True Grit, some snippets of life in Springfield RUC Barracks are offered.
The Barracks had just been re-built and, incredibly, 1 RHA occupied it before the police did. An old RUC building stood behind the Barracks in which the Royal Signals Detachment deployed under the grip of Sergeant Hanlon Royal Signals who, blessed with knowledge and experience of communications matters to which I could never aspire, kept my professional head above the waves throughout the tour.
It so happened that the first crisis to hit was communications-related, namely a telephone bill for Thousands of £££s; as RSO the matter fell to me for resolution. My reaction was to return the bill to the GPO annotated with “Not known at this address”. In short order a GPO team arrived and escorted me to a broom cupboard in which lay a telephone with an outside line. It soon became clear, without advice from Mr Holmes, that the first fatigue man instructed to sweep the floors had found the phone, told his mates and those ‘in the know’ made international phone calls at will.
Such were the dangers of the Falls Road area in August 1969 that a telephone bill offered the only real crisis. In general, the Regiment had been welcomed by the population, cups of tea were on offer in the streets and we were viewed as saviours of a sort. Below this peaceful surface intelligence gathering took place; RHQ Duty Officers in the early hours of the morning were bombarded on the phone by ladies working for the CCDC (Catholic Citizens Defence Committee?) who, with manufactured sexiness, tried to elicit information from the unguarded. But the only potentially unpleasant event proved to be a mass gathering outside the Barracks protesting against the relief of 1 RHA by 1 Royal Scots who the locals perceived to be a Protestant Battalion; the CO’s response was to stand on a soap box outside the Barracks offering very unspecific reassurances to the protesters who soon dispersed.
How bleak Belfast looked in 1969:
From Detmold to County Down