The Keep Military MuseumWWII - Home Front

The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester, Dorset

Museum Web Site

You are here: Home > History > Gillingham 1971-1976

Printer Friendly Version

Gillingham 1971-1976 (including Armagh 1972, British Honduras 1972/73, West Belfast 1973/74, Kenya 1974, Cyprus 1975 and Belize 1975)

In late 1971 the 1st Battalion returned from Malta to Gordon Barracks at Gillingham in Kent, remaining in the air-portable role as part of 2 Infantry Brigade. Once again the barracks were in poor condition but, with the 1st Battalion about to embark on an extremely busy programme, that mattered less than it might have done. Training began almost immediately for an operational tour in South Armagh.

Armagh 1972

The 1st Battalion moved into so-called 'Bandit Country' in mid-January 1972: Battalion HQ, A and B Companies (Major Shortis and Major Reid) were based at Gough Barracks in Armagh; Support Company (Major Cobb) was split between Crossmaglen, Forkhill and Newtownhamilton with C Company (Major Jury) starting at Dungannon and Bessbrook, before moving to Newry. A Squadron, Queen's Own Hussars (Major Phipps) was under command at Armagh while Army Air Corps and RAF helicopters were in support.

Initially life revolved around vigorous patrolling, familiarisation with the area and local population, controlling cross-border movement and constant searches. The beautiful landscape had a much darker side. With a view to closing with the population and finding out what was going on, patrolling was usually on foot. Soldiers were most vulnerable when their patrols were inserted by either road or helicopter. On 21 January 1972, Private Stentiford was killed by a remotely detonated mine close to border crossing K18. Just three weeks later Sergeant Harris and Private Champ were killed, and Privates Lupton and Frost wounded, when their vehicle was blown up, also near the border. Effective use of helicopters, called Eagle Flights, permitted rapid reaction to incidents and the swift insertion of roadblocks. By such means the terrorists were forced to operate with caution, whether they were moving weapons or people, or setting up culvert bombs.

By mid-March, when Lieutenant Colonel Peter Burdick took over from Lieutenant Colonel Lovejoy, the Battalion had conducted over 1,000 patrols and had found 16lbs of gelignite, 58 feet of fuse, 10 Claymore (antipersonnel) boxes, 11 Claymore mines, 200lbs of explosives, 32 detonators, an electric pressure switch, three CS gas grenades, three flares, one carbine, two No. 4 rifles, three .22 rifles, four 12-bore shotguns, two .45 revolvers, one .32 revolver, two pistols, one Sten gun, one air rifle and 300 rounds of ammunition. During the following month a further 1,000 patrols were carried out. Such intense activity was essential if towns such as Newry were not, effectively, to be surrendered to the Provisional IRA.

On 20 April 1972 a remand prisoner at Armagh Jail seized a police constable's revolver and, with nine other prisoners, took him and two prison officers hostage in the Jail's Reception Centre. Captain Field, the Adjutant, and his team were responsible for the external security of the Jail but now he had to restore order within the Jail itself. Their swift response that day earned Captain Field a Military Cross and almost certainly prevented further unrest, both in Armagh Jail and also elsewhere in the Province. Other awards from this challenging tour included Mentions in Dispatches for 2nd Lieutenant Marden and Corporal Bridgeman.

Gillingham

Although life back at Gordon Barracks was a little more relaxed, the Recce Platoon's participation in a sleep deprivation trial seemed slightly surprising since that was what they thought that they had been doing for the previous four months! This was also the first opportunity for the 'Welcome to Gillingham' Beating Retreat and Regimental Cocktail Party, which finally took place on 22 June 1972. With the 1st Battalion lower down the manning priority than in BAOR, C Company (Captain Coate) and the Band and Drums was sent on a successful KAPE tour in the West Country. On their return C Company was then pitched into frantic preparations for an activity that could scarcely be more different from the exertions of South Armagh; a month of Public Duties. It was the first time that the Regiment had been so honoured.

British Honduras, 1972-73

The 150-mile border between British Honduras and Guatemala had been disputed by the Guatemalans for many years. It was the British Army's task to secure the border and, to that end, the 1st Battalion, less C and Support Companies, embarked on a six-month unaccompanied tour in British Honduras in August 1972. A combination of extensive jungle training, with just a chance of operational duties, put a spring in everybody's step. The mission was to 'deter and when the situation demands, defeat an enemy attack on the Colony, or infiltration into it; when so ordered, to provide assistance to the civil authorities in the maintenance of law, order and public morale, with particular reference to the remainder of the hurricane season, and to provide training assistance to the British Honduras Volunteer Guard'. The main base was at Airport Camp where HQ Company (Major Piers) and either A Company (Major Shortis, who was succeeded by Maj Dutton) or B Company (Major Reid) would be based. The second rifle company would be at Holdfast Camp, some 78 miles to the west near the Guatemalan border. Support Company (Major Cann) did not arrive until November, and C Company (Maj Thomas) replaced A Company in January.

The first phase involved extensive reconnaissance, TEWTs (Tactical Exercise Without Troops) and CPXs, and also rehearsals of emergency deployment plans. With initial preparations complete and the threat assessed as low, attention turned to training and other activities. From October it was possible to begin a leave scheme, platoon by platoon, to Merido in Mexico. There was also field-firing at Baldy Beacon: those who took part are unlikely to forget the magnificent view from those bare hills, of the seemingly limitless bowl of dense jungle below, covered by a layer of cloud, before the sun burnt it off.

In October HMS Plymouth arrived on station, leading to a series of popular reciprocal visits. Another visitor was an old friend, Donald Mildenhall of the Western Gazette and Pullman's Weekly, who provided many columns of favourable Regimental coverage in the West Country press over the years. Jungle training involved a great deal of river work, reminiscent of British Guiana: this led to tragedy when Lance-Corporal Phillips of A Company drowned in the Sibun River during jungle warfare training. Sergeant Fallon, also of A Company, received a Commander-in-Chief's Commendation for rescuing Private Bassett from his overturned and burning Land Rover.

As part of the British Army's aid to the civil community, each company had its projects: A Company built 'Janner Bridge' near Punta Gorda; assistance was provided by B Company at Corozal, Paraiso and San Pedro, by C Company at Orange Walk, by Support Company at Macaw Bank and by the Assault Pioneers at San Ignacio. No less than twenty-five major projects were completed, to the great appreciation of the local community, leading to high praise from the Governor. For these varied endeavours the 1st Battalion was awarded the Wilkinson Sword of Peace, which is worn by the Regimental Sergeant Major when on parade.

Gillingham

The bulk of the Battalion rejoined their long-suffering families in Gillingham in February 1973. A Company had come back a month earlier to begin rehearsing for Public Duties, which took place in March and early April. On 5 April the last Captain of the Guard was the Commanding Officer himself. The 1st Battalion was thus well prepared when, on 12 May, the Regiment was granted the Freedoms of the Boroughs of Torbay and Weymouth. The summer was relatively quiet but, back from August leave, it was straight into training for an Op Banner tour in West Belfast. Op Banner is the official title for military operations in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, now the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

West Belfast, 1973-1974

The 1st Battalion deployed into West Belfast on 30 October 1973: Battalion HQ and Support Company were at Fort Monagh; A Company (Major Dutton) and C Company (Major Thomas) were at Woodburn; B Company (Major Piers), with Support Company 1 Welsh Guards (Major Fordham), were based at Glassmullen and Echelon was at Musgrave Park. The areas of responsibility were: A Company - Suffolk, Twinbrook, Dunmurry and Ladybrook; B Company - West Andersonstown; C Company - Lenadoon; Support Company - Turf Lodge and Ballymurphy; Support Company 1WG - East Andersonstown. The whole area, previously a two battalion task, was hard Republican and, as a welcome, eighteen shots were fired at Fort Monagh the first evening. During the next four months, IRA-inspired incidents involving shooting, disturbances or other attempts to injure members of the security forces were continuous, but were effectively countered by the professionalism of the officers and men of the 1st Battalion. It seemed that there was an 'incident' most days, of which the following were the most noteworthy: Corporal Murphy of B Company was shot and slightly wounded on 5 November; 8 Platoon found four rifles, a shotgun and a revolver on 6 November; an A Company patrol dispersed an unruly mob on 17 November; on 27 November an alert Recce Platoon OP identified a wounded terrorist, who was duly arrested. Important arrests included those of Ivor Bell, IRA Belfast 'Brigade' Commander, John Daye and Seamus Guinness while, on 27 December, German industrialist Thomas Niedermayer, whose body was not discovered for over six years, was kidnapped from his home in West Belfast. On 2 January 1974 Lieutenant King was slightly wounded when a round grazed his face and, three days later, Lance-Corporal Ali of C Company was severely wounded in both legs. Fortunately he was evacuated to hospital within minutes. There were major arms finds by Support Company on 23 January and by C Company on 26 January while, on 11 February, Corporal Jellard discovered a booby-trapped garage door.

During the four-month tour, 443 hostile rounds were fired at the members of the 1st Battalion while nine grenades or blast bombs were thrown, or otherwise detonated. Finds included thirty-six firearms, thirty magazines, two telescopic sights, 5,377 rounds of ammunition, one mortar, nine timing devices, twenty-one detonators and 482lbs of explosives. During the tour there were eighteen armed robberies in the Battalion area while 1,225 arrests were made, leading to ninety-three criminal charges.

At the end of the tour the Colonel of the Regiment received a fulsome letter of praise from the Commander of 39 Brigade, 'to my mind, their most important achievement was to keep the level of violence down in their area, thus enabling some visible progress towards normality. Rest assured that should they come back to Ireland, I shall be truly delighted to have them back in 39 Brigade'. A few months later the following awards were announced: an OBE for Lieutenant Colonel Burdick, a QGM for Sergeant Riley, Mentions in Despatches for Lieutenant Hambrook and Lieutenant White and the Commander-in-Chief's Commendation for the Chaplain, the Reverend Clayton-Jones.

Gillingham

The Battalion returned to Gillingham on 28 February 1974 and immediately went on leave. The pressure on infantry battalions at this time was such that the 1st Battalion had already been warned for the next Northern Ireland tour by the time it went to Kenya on Ex MacMorris that July. Money was tight so B Company couldn't go. Battalion HQ was at Nanyuki, in the shadow of Mount Kenya while A, C and Support Companies rotated through Small's Farm, Dol Dol and Archer's Post. These areas, sparsely inhabited but with plenty of wildlife, offered tremendous scope for platoon and company work. The training culminated in an exhausting test exercise at Archer's Post, before everyone relaxed with a few days of adventurous training: climbing Mount Kenya or visiting Lakes Rudolph or Naivasha or the game reserves. B Company's 'treat' that year was a trip to Scotland!

In September 1974, Lieutenant Colonel Colin Shortis took over as CO from Lieutenant Colonel Burdick. It was a sign of the Army's overstretch that, no sooner had the command element returned from their reconnaissance trip to Armagh, the 1st Battalion was warned off for a six-month emergency tour in Cyprus. Time was somehow found for Ex Peer Gynt, an inter-platoon competition on Dartmoor, for A and C Companies to perform demonstration duties at RMA Sandhurst and for B and Support Companies to take their turn at Public Duties the following January.

Cyprus, 1975

Just a month later the Battalion flew out to Cyprus. Fearing for the safety of the Turkish Cypriot population - and forestalling a similar move by the Greek Army - Turkey had invaded Cyprus on 20 July 1974, occupying the northern part of the island. Meanwhile British troops were able to secure the Sovereign Base Areas (SBA) and UN Forces monitored the 'Green Line' that separated the Greek and Turkish communities. The 1st Battalion's task was to 'preserve the integrity of the Eastern SBA (at Dhekelia) against any force and prevent any internal security situation developing' - see map on page 16. The initial deployment was C Company (Major Jefferies) to Ayios Nikolaos, where it protected the important signal monitoring station with its 14-mile perimeter, later wired in by B Company as the 'Bravo Line' when they relieved C Company. B Company (Major Jones) initially manned observation posts, vehicle check points and the observation tower at Athna Village (Fort Bravo), which also protected the Athna Forest Refugee Camp. A Company (Major Coate) began with training and local commitments. The Battalion was based at Alexander Barracks and companies rotated through the various roles.

Once the Battalion had settled into a routine, the relatively calm security situation meant that it was possible to conduct normal training, thus taking advantage of what Cyprus had to offer. Nevertheless there were occasional flare-ups and, in a tragic example on 2 June 1975, Lance-Corporal Dumbleton was killed by a single shotgun blast while leading a patrol in Athna Forest. Lance-Corporal Gilley was awarded the Commander-in-Chief's Commendation for his courageous actions during a fire, also at Athna Forest. Lieutenant Hodgson and the Assault Pioneer Platoon accompanied a Royal Engineer Squadron to Nicosia to carry out repairs on the airport, which had been badly damaged during the invasion. They were made 'unofficial' members of the UN, complete with blue berets, but, since they were only engaged on this task for twenty-seven days, they were ineligible for a UN medal.

Belize Spearhead Emergency Deployment

In August 1975 the 1st Battalion returned to Gillingham, where it took its turn acting as Spearhead, which meant that it should be prepared to go anywhere and do anything, at very short notice. Although British Honduras had recently become independent as Belize, there were few signs of any shift in Guatemalan attitudes. On 4 November B Company (Major Jones) flew out, followed five days later by A Company (Major Coate), each taking their Support Platoon elements with them. While B Company secured the International Airport, A Company deployed to Belmopan. Along with Harriers and a modest Royal Navy presence, this impressively swift response was sufficiently purposeful to discourage the Guatemalans. Both companies were home in time for Christmas - just!

<<  Previous

Next  >>