42 Commando Royal Marines
This article does not attempt to address the political aspects of the campaign in Northern Ireland; it is merely one person's recollection of a first tour in that troubled province.
In 1970, following recruit training, I joined K Company, 42 Commando at Sembawang, Singapore. Kangaw Barracks formed part of a complex called Fleet Amphibious Forces Base Far East or FAFBFE for short. Following a defence review some years earlier the then government had decided to withdraw the majority of British troops from 'East of Suez'. Therefore 3rd Commando Brigade RM was to withdraw during 1971. 42 Cdo left in May, 40 Cdo left in November with Brigade HQ and associated units leaving between those dates, (41 Cdo & 45 Cdo were already in UK). The 'powers that be' did not know where to put us. Firstly they offered an old FAA camp near Yeovilton. I think the CO flew home to view it and refused to move his unit there. Eventually we were offered Bickliegh, (just north of Plymouth). This was only because 41 Cdo were going back to Malta as the Dom Mintoff regime was mucking the UK government about at the time. We couldn't move in until they, 41, had moved out and with all our stores at sea we were sent on leave.
When we eventually turned up at Bickliegh the builders were still finishing off the re-building, that was transforming a hutted camp into a modern barracks, and some of 41's rear party were still in occupation. Most of the unit still had their 'jungle heads' on, however the CO had prepared a vigorous agenda that saw us pounding the lanes of Bickliegh Vale, discovering the heights of the Dewerstone, yomping across the length and breadth of Dartmoor and coming to terms with a European role. After a few weeks hard training we travelled up to Otterburn, for a period of battle training, where we experienced the 'delights' of the Northumberland countryside and the Cheviot Hills. The accommodation was a bit crabby, so the first thing we did was spend some time bringing it up to 'Royals' standard. The unit that took over from us was lucky! During our stay the CO had to close the bar due to a bit of rowdyism, so we went ashore in whatever transport we could acquire and headed for Newcastle. Most of us returned in good order, but there were a few who needed the help of the Northumberland Constabulary!
Back at Bickliegh we thought we could handle anything. We were fit, we were switched on, and we were getting bored. Then we were told we were off to Northern Ireland. Great, action at last, well, of sorts anyway. We trained night and day in the then standard IS, (internal security), drills and the new ones that were coming out of the Province 'in the light of experience'. Plasterdown Camp, (near Horrobridge), was turned into an Ulster town and each rifle company took it in turns to be the civilian population. Some of the exercises were quite realistic with people role playing to the extreme. This meant quite a few casualties as M Company bombarded K with rocks and bottles. We didn't take too kindly to this so we dished out a bit of stick ourselves. The battle continued in the NAFFI back at Bickliegh, and got so bad the CO shut it down.
To the accompaniment of the unit Pipe Band, 42 Commando, Royal Marines left Plymouth by train on 27th October 1971. We journeyed to Liverpool via Bristol, our part of the train being 'dry'. However, at Bristol Temple Meads we stopped alongside another train, the opposite carriage of which happened to be the buffet car. After some negotiating with the buffet staff they sold us as much beer as they could pass across the gap in the time we were stopped. At Liverpool we passed from the train to the ferry terminal carrying our personal weapons, the Liverpool public gazing on in awe. Then someone in the crowd shouted, "Give em stick, Royal". This brought forth plenty of grins from the Marines, who up till then had tried to look hard. By the time we boarded the ferry it was dusk with a light drizzle in the air. The accommodation was a chair, if you were lucky. Those without seats sat on their large packs. The bar was open and about ten deep. Dozens of bottles of beer were passed back to eagerly waiting hands. I don't know who paid for mine, but I didn't. Then someone shouted, "Pongos!" Lower deck was cleared and what must have been most of the Commando started jeering at a battalion of soldiers as they marched past along the jetty below. Someone threw a beer bottle, and then the air rained Carlsberg, as dozens of empty beer bottles fell towards the soldiers below. They broke step and took cover in some dockside sheds. The CO was furious, and quite right to, as we were out of order, but we were young, hot headed and eager to get to it. The CO closed yet another bar!
On our arrival at Belfast we disembarked onto the York dock terminal. There we were detailed off for our respective transport and appropriate destinations. The majority of the unit were destined for Gough Barracks, Armagh City. M Company plus anti-tank and mortar troops and a section of AEs, (Assault Engineers), were sent to Dungannon. We boarded a double-decker bus, 'taken up from trade', a private from the 3LI being our escort. He had a magazine of ten rounds and we had none! As we travelled through the city centre past the City Hall towards the M1 motorway, I remember the buildings all seeming to be grey, like a nostalgic black and white photo of some English provincial town of the fifties. As we passed the edge of the poorer areas I noticed they looked like slums, the like of which had mostly been demolished on the mainland. I was quite surprised how grubby and run down the place was; most of us were uneducated about the Province's history or politics. I didn't know much about Scotland and Wales let alone Ireland!
Our journey to Armagh via Portadown passed without incident and as we turned through the main gate of Gough Barracks we saw 'Four-Two's carpenters removing the old unit sign 2nd Battalion, The Light Infantry and replacing it with ours. During the evening of our first full day, the IRA tried us out. They bombed a social club sited on the mall in the city centre. A wedding reception was taking place at the time and the bride lost a leg. The gathering crowd was very upset and when a Catholic lad started jeering they made to lynch him. This stupid lad was rescued from the mob; he just could not keep his mouth shut, he seemed possessed, and was unable to comprehend that we were actually trying to help him. Eventually he was given a dig in the side of the head, which shut him up. We dropped him off in the Druids Villas estate, where I suppose he told everyone that we had duffed him up for no reason. Welcome to Ulster!
'Four-Two's area of operations was mainly in the RUC's K Division, which covered part of the border with the Republic. Several areas were notorious for their Republican sympathy, although many of these people were intimidated into giving support. By contrast there were some, both Catholic and Protestant, who stood up to this intimidation. I can only say I have the utmost respect for these people who lived with this threat every day.
Unfortunately, many of those brave people have been murdered over the years. We carried out a variety of roles, not dissimilar to other units that have served in the Province over the years. One week we would be guarding Armagh City telephone exchange the next we would be patrolling the border south of Keady. Sometimes we would be out for several nights at a time, lying up at night in what the press were later to call 'bandit country'. But bandit country it was not at that time, as we kept patrols regular and vigorous, the idea being to dominate the ground and deny movement to the enemy. However, in this type of operation where the enemy is not apparent a simple solution is not always possible. I did not like the static guard duties, but much preferred being out in the field, although when guarding Armagh Gaol, a riot by the inmates helped suppress the boredom. Snap road blocks were another feature of the tour. Using helicopters, we could be down on the border in minutes, be dropped off, establish a VCP, (vehicle check point), then be picked up and moved on to set another. Occasionally support was given to M Coy at Dungannon, when they had to deal, with what seemed at the time, continuous disturbances at Coalisland.
The main Republican areas of Armagh City were Druids Villas and the Dramarge Estate. They always gave us a hot reception when we carried out patrols there, with our vehicles being constantly showered with bottles and bricks. We were not deterred though, as we carried out a series of cordon and searches of this area.
One evening in Armagh City a mobile patrol came under fire from a Bren gun, sited on the other side of the fly-over, that connected the Republican estates to the city centre. One Marine was hit in the knee, the round destroying his patella. The driver caught a round that had ricocheted off the chassis, passed up through the seat and ended up lodged in his bladder. A story going about at the time was that he later 'pissed' the spent round out through his urethra! This story about the round lodging in his bladder etc., is true, but is in fact from a different incident. This has recently been confirmed by the section commander at the time, who received a MID for his actions.
The border country of endless ditches, hedges and small roads is difficult to control. It is difficult to dominate because it has hundreds of crossing points, including roads and other tracks that just cannot be patrolled all the time, although we made great efforts in our particular 'patch'. The northern part of the Republic also offers a sanctuary from which the terrorists emerge to carry out their dastardly deeds, and then withdraw to.
In an attempt to reduce the options of terrorists in vehicles, the authorities hit on the idea of 'cratering' the minor roads that criss-crossed the border. This was augmented by the placing of concrete anti-tank barriers, (dragon's teeth), to prevent the by-passing of the craters. These roads were also used by local farmers, who took unkindly to this intrusion to their livelihood. So during the night the farmers would fill the craters in and knock the dragon's teeth down before the concrete had 'gone off'. So we were tasked to provide escorts for the Royal Engineers, who carried out this work, and then to lay up overnight to prevent the farmers ruining our daily work. A section that was assisting Sappers from Castledillon cratering such a road came under fire from terrorists shooting from the other side of the border. The Marines and a Saracen armoured car, manned by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, immediately returned fire. The Browning machine gun on the Saracen ripped the earth up and the impact of the rounds destroyed the terrorist's position. As they broke cover one of the terrorists was hit in the chest, staggered, and then fell while two others were seen to withdraw. We were, of course, not allowed to cross the border and pursue them, and in any case the Irish Army turned up to deal with the situation on their side of this unmarked and meandering border.
As Christmas approached there were invitations from local people to join their families for Christmas dinner. After they were vetted, our people were allocated a family at random, or at least that was what I was told. Most of those who went 'ashore' for Christmas nosh had a great time and came back very 'wet', however, most did not include me! Along with an oppo a young lady collected us in a car and drove us out to her parents' house on the outskirts of the city. Her father was a minister in the Presbyterian Free Church. They lived in a detached house and, what appeared to us, led a rather fugal life. The minister's wife met us and offered us a glass of sherry. I looked at Sharky and we raised our eyebrows as well as our glasses. There was no beer, no wine, and not even a top up from the sherry bottle. During the course of conversation our host asked us what religion we were. I answered with the standard C of E, but Sharky said something that brought a stony silence, as he was a Catholic! They seemed unable to comprehend that it didn't bother either Sharky or myself what our religious differences were, in fact I couldn't have cared less and there lies an indicator to what this whole sorry business was about, intolerance. God help us if we get like that on the mainland!
In the early hours, just after Christmas, we were patrolling in two vehicles between Armagh and Blackwatertown. We had just passed through the latter when we were ambushed. I was in the leading vehicle, a Land Rover, which also carried the C42 radio and signaller. I remember a loud bang and a flash, then what seemed slow motion, a series of sparks flying off the roof of the armoured 'Pig' following behind. It must have only been a split second but it seemed ages before I reacted. It was pitch black and we were driving along a country road that had a raised embankment on one side. The terrorists were lucky they caught us, as we had never been this route before. Anyway, I returned fire in the direction of the flashes that came from the top of the bank. At first the driver braked, as if to carry out an anti-ambush drill but we were in a sort of gully so he put his foot down, and with the other vehicle closing from behind, we drove out of it. I suppose they could have mined the road or set up a 'stop group', but we were in the 'killing ground' and had little option. Further on the road turned sharp left, at right angles to their position.
We de-bussed and took up all round defence. The section commander then let off a Very flare in the direction of the terrorists position and the GPMG was readied to 'get to work' but there were no targets of opportunity, and it would be irresponsible to just blast the area. Meanwhile, the radio operator had sent a Sit-Rep and we were ordered not to penetrate the field until a cordon had been established by other patrols in the area. A sweep of the area revealed the terrorists' position, where a combat jacket and some spent cartridge cases were found, but our birds had flown. Back at Gough Barracks seven bullet marks were found on the 'Pig', which wasn't much considering they were using at least one automatic weapon. It had been a close shave and, as with most people who have come under fire for the first time, it sort of changes you. You become of age so to speak, and one becomes a better soldier for the experience.
K Company was re-deployed to Bessbrook, which at that time was not established as a base. It had an RUC station but little else, so we were housed in a primary school and it took a lot of hard work to establish this as a base of operations. Sangers were built and the playing field was set up as a heli-pad, with positions to cover take-off and landings. A marquee tent and some pipe-work was erected as a shower room, complete with wooden pallets as duck boards. The most amusing part was the ablutions. Designed for infant school children it was now being used by hairy-arsed Bootnecks! One could have a conversation, face to face with an oppo when sitting on the 'throne', because the partitions between the traps were so low. During the time at Bessbrook patrols on the border continued, through Newtownhamilton and on as far as Forkhill.
42 Cdo completed its first of 14 tours to date, on Jan 18th 1972, being relieved by the Devon & Dorset Regiment, who sadly, within a few weeks, lost three of their people. On the plus side we did not lose anyone, although 5 Marines were wounded. On the down side was the thought that people with whom we had made friends were still there, facing intimidation, injury and sometimes death, whilst we were able to go home and forget it; well for a while at least, until the next time, which would not be long in coming.
During 1971 the situation in Northern Ireland was gradually deteriorating, with the number of incidents peaking in 1972. If one breaks down the statistics for those years the average figures for this 'tour' makes grim reading and gives some idea what was going on across the Province at that time.
British Forces 16