The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester, Dorset
Belfast 1963-1965 (Including British Guiana 1964)
The Belfast of the mid-1960s was a very different city from the one the British Army came to know so well during the following three decades. The population was welcoming, the atmosphere relaxed and beautiful countryside was on the doorstep to be explored at leisure. Nevertheless there were undercurrents of 'feeling' between Protestants and Catholics while the IRA, though temporarily dormant, was well organised and potentially troublesome. For these reasons, guard duties were more numerous than the 1st Battalion had been accustomed to in Plymouth.
On balance, however, Palace Barracks and its married quarters were a most welcome improvement on Plumer Barracks and Crownhill Fort. The quarters were close at hand and that proximity, coupled with the 'overseas' nature of Northern Ireland, led to a self-contained 1st Battalion developing a strong esprit de corps. The major disadvantage was separation from our recruiting area. Manning remained a challenge, exacerbated as it was by the relatively low priority nature of the role in the Province. To begin with, training took place locally but, later on, two rifle companies re-crossed the Irish Sea and took advantage of an invaluable period of field-firing on Warcop ranges. On their return from Warcop, there was a Beating Retreat at Palace Barracks on 13 September 1963. A new 'tradition' was established that day; the CO, Lieutenant Colonel Randle, had jumped at the offer of some old Devon and old Dorset uniforms from Ordnance and this was to be the first occasion on which the Band and Drums wore scarlet, as they were to do thereafter. The companies were able to spread their wings, to Magilligan for shooting and section and platoon exercises and to Lough Neagh and the River Bann for watermanship. This period culminated in a Brigade test exercise involving a rapid advance on foot and an assault river crossing. A Company won the Sarah Sands march-and-shoot, which took place just before Christmas. It was not all work, though: the rugby team had a very successful season while the cross-country team won the Command Championship.
In late January 1964 the 1st Battalion was brought to 7 days' notice to move as a number of trouble-spots threatened to flare up around the world. A month later, as the situation deteriorated, notice to move was reduced to seventy-two hours. These developments coincided with the annual Administrative Inspection carried out by the Chief of Staff since the Brigade Commander had already left for Aden. As the rest of HQ 39 Brigade prepared to join their commander in Aden, the 1st Battalion was brought to twenty-four hours' notice to move to British Guiana.
For eighteen weeks there had been serious political unrest in British Guiana. Tensions were rising rapidly between those citizens of African descent - enfranchised former slaves - and those citizens of Indian origin, who arrived in the country after the slave trade had come to an end. A state of emergency was declared on 22 May 1964 and C Company arrived at Atkinson Field, about twenty miles south of the capital Georgetown two days later. Temperatures were tropical and the humidity was extremely uncomfortable for the new arrivals. Fortunately an acclimatised working party of the Queen's Own Buffs helped to unload the aircraft, a much-appreciated gesture that set the seal on the close relationship which developed between the two battalions. C Company came under command of 1 Queen's Own Buffs and was immediately warned for deployment to Georgetown. Once again, events would intervene. Meanwhile the main body of the 1st Battalion was left champing at the bit on the other side of the Atlantic!
British Guiana's coastal belt has a high population density, focused on sugar estates and other agricultural industries. For some 200 or 300 miles inland there is just scrub and jungle, before one reaches the Rupununi savannah. Although the coastal belt was blessed with a metalled road and a railway line, further inland there were only a few dirt tracks, often impassable in the rains. At that time the only access to the interior was along the country's four major rivers: the Essequibo, the Demerara, the Berbice and the Courantyne. Apart from sugar, the major industry was open-cast bauxite mining at Mackenzie, which was Canadian-owned and lay some sixty miles south of Georgetown.
The workforce, which was eighty per cent African and twenty per cent Indian, lived mainly in the Christianburg, Wismar and Silvertown districts, west of the Demerara. The better-educated workers, including Europeans from the Demerara Bauxite Company (DEMBA), lived to the east, at Cara Cara and South Mackenzie. Until 25 May unrest had been confined to the coastal belt but that day it erupted at Mackenzie.
At dusk C Company's Support Platoon was flown in and gazed in awe from the air at the glow from numerous houses ablaze west of the river. Their task was to assist the police in restoring order. Patrols were despatched without delay, an immediate and visible presence on the streets being deemed essential. It was reassuring to see the effect that four men with fixed bayonets had on the local population! It was a classic internal security situation, with the 1st Battalion operating 'in aid of the civil power'. The rioters were not anti-British, in the main they were Africans seeking out Indians, burning their property and murdering and raping where opportunities presented themselves. Unfortunately a single platoon, assisted by about thirty African police, was vastly outnumbered by an extremely agitated population of over 10,000. That first night some 1,600 Indian men, women and children sought refuge at the DEMBA Trade School, the platoon's base. Many had received appalling machete wounds and all were traumatised. The headmaster of the Trade School and the platoon's medic, Lance-Corporal Reade RAMC, did a marvellous job in stabilising the situation and treating the wounded.
At 0400 on the 26 May, Major Goodbody reached Mackenzie with 7 Platoon, while 8 Platoon arrived that evening, both extremely welcome reinforcements. Several days of saturation patrols followed; together with a strictly-enforced curfew, they helped to stabilise the situation. During the next few weeks there was a slow return to relative normality. While C Company was engaged in Mackenzie, the rest of the 1st Battalion arrived in British Guiana on 27 and 28 May. A Company, commanded by Major Stone, deployed straight to the sugar estates of West Coast Demerara, while Battalion HQ was established in Georgetown and B Echelon remained at Atkinson Field.
On 6 July 1964 the riverboat Son Chapman was blown up several miles downstream from Mackenzie, with the loss of twenty-seven African lives. Unfortunately the news reached Mackenzie before the security forces arrived and elements of the African population went on the rampage on both sides of the river. It took several days of intensive patrolling and rigid curfews for order to be reimposed. Eventually the Indians who had remained in Mackenzie after the May riots were evacuated to the coastal belt where, on the sugar estates anyway, the population was predominantly Indian.
As a result of the Son Chapman incident, 43 (Lloyds Company) Battery RA, was sent out to reinforce the 1st Battalion in the infantry role since it was feared that the security situation might deteriorate still further. In the event things settled down and the CO was able to rotate the companies, thus giving soldiers the opportunity to go field-firing and adventure training. Places visited included the Rupununi savannah, the spectacular Kaieteur Falls and a battalion leave camp in a fine house on the Essequibo River.
During August and September considerable effort was expended on the recruitment and training of a home guard. The next two months were spent monitoring political meetings before elections on 6 December 1964. The home guard was intended to encourage local people to become involved in their own security. From an organisational point of view the leadership was rather limited, but that did not deter thousands from joining! In the event elections took place without disturbance, which was a tribute to the efforts that the 1st Battalion had put in on the ground.
The last rotation of companies took place in mid-November: A Company took over from C Company on West Coast Berbice and Courantyne, while C Company went to West Coast Demerara. 43 Battery's deployment included a troop at Mackenzie. Following the elections, the Governor, Sir Richard Luyt, asked Forbes Burnham to form a coalition government. The Battalion hosted a series of Christmas and farewell parties, including some for the local children. In a surprisingly short period of time calm was restored to British Guiana. The temperament of the West Country soldier had proved ideally suited to the challenging task. The 1st Battalion left British Guiana in January 1965, reassembling for duty at Palace Barracks in early February, after a spell of block leave. Before the departure from British Guiana the 1st Battalion was fortunate to recruit a dozen well-educated, young Guyanese from ten times that number of applicants.
Back to Belfast
The Battalion returned from a muggy British Guiana to a chilly British winter and a new set of challenges: yet another Administrative Inspection, a series of training cadres and planning for a new role as a mechanised battalion in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) at the end of the year. In the days of the Cold War this was a much higher priority role and the Battalion had to be brought up to strength and new skills acquired to operate as a mechanised battalion in AFV 432 armoured personnel carriers.
That spring Lieutenant Colonel John Archer took over command of the Battalion from Lieutenant Colonel Randle, who had been awarded the OBE for his leadership during the demanding British Guiana tour. Other awards included an MBE for Major Goodbody, a BEM for Corporal Colley of the Recce Platoon and a Queen's Commendation for Lance-Corporal Reade, who had done so well at Mackenzie. In June A Company went to the West Country on a KAPE (Keeping the Army in the Public Eye) tour while C Company was enemy for 5 Brigade's Ex Easter Lightning. The Battalion's farewell to Holywood was a Beating Retreat, this time by floodlight.