The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester, Dorset
Colchester 1980-1983 (including Armagh 1981 and Kenya 1982)
The 1st Battalion arrived at Roman Barracks, Colchester in April to join 7 Field Force, formerly 19 Infantry Brigade, and soon to be so designated once again. While in Germany the pattern of life was determined by the BAOR training cycle and the demands of higher formation exercises. Life in the air-portable role in Colchester would be rather less complex, with the additional benefit of re-establishing links with the two counties. On 12 June 1980 there was a visit from the Colonel-in-Chief, during which he presented Lance Corporal Sims with a GOC's Commendation and inaugurated the 'Duke of Kent's Platoon Competition'. At the end of the month the Battalion embarked on a two-week KAPE tour: A Company (Major Steptoe) was based in Dorset, B Company (Major Jefferies) in Plymouth, C Company (Major Pook) in Exeter and D Company (Major Shaw) in Barnstaple. There was a parade to exercise the Freedom of Exeter on 5 July and another one to receive the Freedom of Christchurch on 9 July.
Ex Crusader was the largest British Army deployment since the end of the Second World War. After extensive study of the operational concepts, there were a series of Battalion exercises including, Thirty-Nine Steps, Janners' Shield and Red Panther. Ex Crusader itself involved several phases: Spearpoint was the 1 (BR) Corps field exercise, Jog Trot and Canoe involved reinforcement from the UK while Square Leg was the mobilisation of T&AVR for home defence. The trip to Zeebrugge, on requisitioned Danish ferries, was memorable for the comment from a number of soldiers that 'the prawns were a bit crunchy'. Apparently no-one had explained that they tasted better if peeled before consumption! In mid-September the 1st Battalion took up its Goodwood position, south of Hanover. Spearpoint had four phases; aggressive delay, a defensive battle, withdrawal and, finally, a counter-attack. In many respects Ex Crusader was too large and complex, either to challenge, or even constructively to occupy, the more junior ranks - it was never to be repeated.
Before Christmas the annual Sarah Sands march-and-shoot competition took place and was won by 10 Platoon (Lieutenant Saunders). On 6 January 1981 Wagon Hill Day was celebrated in the traditional way with the Warrant Officers and Sergeants thrashing the Officers at rugby, followed by drinks for all in the Officers' Mess and the Warrant Officers staying for a Dinner Night. The next Northern Ireland tour was put back four months to July, enabling sport to return to the agenda with the Battalion Football Team reaching the final of the Infantry Cup. As a result of the Battalion's high manning levels, recruiting restrictions were imposed, leading the CO to carry out a revealing survey. It transpired that forty-two per cent of the Battalion had family connections; that seventy-nine per cent lived in, or on the boundaries of, either Devon or Dorset (of those three-quarters were from Devon and a quarter from Dorset) and seventy-one per cent had been educated at schools, colleges or universities within the two counties. Every officer satisfied one or more of these criteria while a quarter of all ranks had fathers, or close family members, who had served in the Regiment, or one of its predecessors. It was an impressive demonstration of what it means to belong to a family regiment.
The next Op Banner deployment, this time to Armagh, commenced on 26 July 1981. The 1st Battalion's operational area included over sixty miles of border, parts of two RUC Divisions (H and K) and 560 square miles of territory. With two companies attached from resident battalions, there were six companies permanently under command. Battalion HQ, HQ Company, A Company (Major Thornburn) and the Close Observation Platoon were based at Bessbrook; B Company (Major Jefferies) was at Crossmaglen; D Company (Major Shaw) was at Middletown and Keady while C Company (Major Collings) acted as patrol company, also based at Bessbrook. Helicopters or covert road movement took the foot patrols to their areas of operation in countryside that was still deceptive and threatening. On 31 July an RUC car was blown up and, five days later, there were a number of Province-wide bomb incidents, including cross-border 'Action Sunday', an IRA-inspired attempt to drum up support for Maze hunger strikers, which turned out to be something of a damp squib. On 1 September 1981 Lance-Corporal Dempsey and Private Hulley were blown off their feet, but not seriously hurt, by an explosion on the Castleblaney Road. On 26 September Corporal Gardiner engaged gunmen taking up position on a school roof in Ardross Estate but, despite his vigilance, hot pursuit failed to secure any arrests. On 7 November a tractor bomb exploded in Crossmaglen and eight civilians were injured. On 18 November Lance-Corporal Hutt and Private Bissett were wounded in an exchange of fire with gunmen whose van they had fortunately spotted manoeuvring suspiciously. Constant, professional suppressive patrols, both overt and covert, reduced the IRA's freedom of action and boosted confidence among the local people. The list of awards tells the story of a job well done in the highest traditions of the Regiment: an MBE for Major Collings, Mentions in Despatches for Lieutenant Colonel Wilsey, Major Jefferies, Captain Burrlock, WOII Thompson, and Corporal Hutt, and GOC's Commendations for Master Chef WO2 Connor, Corporal Parmenter, Corporal Dempsey and Lance-Corporal Taverner.
The Battalion returned to Colchester on 11 December 1981 and, after leave, it was straight into training cadres, both for Junior NCOs and also for Section Commanders' Tactics. Time was found for the annual Sarah Sands march-and-shoot, won this time by 6 Platoon (2nd Lieutenant Backhouse) while the General Purpose Machine-Gunners achieved third place in the newly-resurrected, Army-wide, Machine-Gun Cup at Warminster. On 22 May 1982 the Colonel-in-Chief presented new Colours to the 1st Battalion at Roman Barracks. It was a memorable parade that took place in front of thousands of invited guests and formed a fitting conclusion to Lieutenant Colonel Wilsey's period in command. On 4 June he handed over to Lieutenant Colonel Paddy King-Fretts.
Meanwhile, in the South Atlantic, both former and serving members of the Regiment were distinguishing themselves. On 28 May 1982 Lieutenant Colonel Jones, formerly OC B Company but now commanding 2 Para, was killed at the head of his men during the Battle for Goose Green, demonstrating gallantry for which he was subsequently awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. All three Regimental representatives who took part in that short, sharp conflict received gallantry awards: Major Delves, who would later become Colonel of the Regiment, was awarded the DSO for his leadership of D Squadron, 22 SAS, including the assault on Pebble Island, while Petty Officer John Leake, NAAFI Canteen Manager on HMS Ardent, who had served with the 1st Battalion in Northern Ireland and volunteered as a Petty Officer just six days earlier, brought his Army experience to bear and was awarded the DSM for damaging an Argentinean Skyhawk so badly with a machine-gun that it crashed on attempting to land at Port Stanley. On 16 October 1982 Exeter Cathedral was full when a moving service was held in memory of Lieutenant Colonel H Jones VC OBE.
That autumn the 1st Battalion was fortunate to return to Kenya on Ex Grand Prix. For six weeks the Battalion enjoyed live-firing at Mpala Farm, dry training at Dol Dol, jungle work at Gathiuru and indirect live-firing at Archer's Post, ending with a test exercise. There were opportunities for adventurous training in the Aberdares, at Meru, on Mount Kenya and in the Masai Mara, together with well-earned 'R and R' at Lake Naivasha, Mombasa and Lake Turkana. The only sadness was that eleven members of the Mortar Platoon were injured in a road accident and had to be evacuated to the UK. The Battalion returned from Kenya on 7 December and, after Christmas leave, the next three months were spent preparing for a period as a resident battalion in Northern Ireland, which would be very different from the now-familiar Op Banner tours.