The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester, Dorset
Hounslow 2000-2002 (including Armagh 2000/01 and Belize 2001)
In mid-March 2000 the 1st Battalion moved some ninety miles east, to Cavalry Barracks in Hounslow. Initially there were some long faces: Cavalry Barracks had been condemned, pigeons were nesting in the eaves of the Officers' Mess and there was even official recognition of the situation in that accommodation charges were, quite exceptionally, waived. Coincident with the move to Hounslow, there was a change of command, as Lieutenant Colonel Watson handed over to Lieutenant Colonel Richard Toomey. There was slight puzzlement concerning the Battalion's task - 'light role with jungle focus' - which sounded suspiciously Gilbert and Sullivan! Actually it was an elaborate smokescreen: the main task was Public Duties. The first few months at Hounslow were dominated by parades. On 15 April 2000 the Regiment received the Freedom of Shaftesbury. B Company had already started preparing for Public Duties and provided the Windsor Castle Guard for the whole of May. On 3 June the Battalion was central to the success of the Regimental Day, which took place that year at Exeter. Preparations for the forthcoming tour in Armagh then became the priority. After a briefing in early June, the Battalion went to the ranges at Hythe and Lydd and then on to Stanford, where the training concluded with the traditional Sarah Sands march-and-shoot. The commitment was for three large rifle companies and, with the 1st Battalion now ninety under strength, some restructuring became necessary: C Company and Fire Support Company were both temporarily disbanded and No 3 Company, Welsh Guards came under command.
After a spell of summer leave, the Battalion was established in Armagh by 15 September: Battalion HQ at Bessbrook; A Company (Major Bromham) at Crossmaglen, with elements of C Company under command at Newtonhamilton; B Company (Major Beattie) at Forkhill and No 3 Company, Welsh Guards (Major Lloyd), with a platoon from C Company and the Recce Platoon, at Bessbrook. While the dispositions were similar to those of the 1972 tour, the overall Ulster situation had recently been transformed by the 'Good Friday Agreement'. Although this six-month tour generated few memorable 'incidents', it nevertheless demanded the levels of professionalism and self-discipline that would convince the IRA that the Agreement really had to be made to work. Two other differences were that the Army was very much subsidiary to, and working in support of, the Police Service of Northern Ireland to counter the threat from Republican dissidents. Meanwhile 'foot and mouth' restrictions applied just as much in rural Northern Ireland as they did elsewhere in the UK, thus restricting patrolling activity to a minimum in early 2001. There was also a slight drama over Christmas when heavy snowfalls briefly threatened the morale-boosting 'R and R' changeover. Distinguished visitors included both the Colonel-in-Chief and the Colonel of the Regiment and also that stalwart Regimental supporter, Don Mildenhall, who had been supplying hard-hitting 'copy' to West Country newspapers for more than thirty years. At the end of the tour both Lieutenant Colonel Toomey and WO2 House received the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service.
The 1st Battalion returned to Hounslow on 18 March 2001 and, after a spell of well-earned leave, it was back to the pace-stick and the barrack square. The 'Major-General's Inspection' took place at the end of May, with the entire Battalion on parade in No. 1 Dress; the 1st Battalion was congratulated on its 'outstanding turnout'. Following the Regimental Day at Weymouth on 2 June, there was only a succession of guard duties to look forward to: the Queen's Guard at Buckingham Palace, the Windsor Guard and the State Opening of Parliament. Free weekends became something of a novelty. For the State Opening of Parliament both the Commanding Officer and the Ops Officer (Captain Gidlow- Jackson) were required to be mounted and therefore had to attend a 'crash course' with the Household Cavalry. The result of these experiences was that the 1st Battalion could not possibly have been better prepared for the parade at Wyvern Barracks, Exeter on 28 July 2001 at which the Colonel-in-Chief presented a new stand of Colours.
After summer leave, which had to be staggered since there was no break from Public Duties, the Battalion went to Belize on exercise. B and C Companies flew out on 11 September 2001, a date now forever branded on human consciousness: as a result of security alerts the advance party was stranded at Dulles for eight days while the main body was stuck at Gander for four days.
Meanwhile A Company took part in a moment of history as the American National Anthem was played at the Changing of the Guard outside Buckingham Palace and a two-minute silence was observed for the victims of the terrorist attacks on the United States. After their delayed start, the first two companies enjoyed a worthwhile spell of training, before they were replaced by A and D Companies. This time nature intervened in the form of Hurricane Iris and, for the first few days, humanitarian relief was the first priority. Those who didn't go to Belize, principally Battalion HQ and the Recce Platoon, flew to Brisbane in Australia and joined similar contingents from Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore on Ex Suman Warrior. By 1st December Public Duties were over and training had begun for the next posting, which was back to Ballykinler. There was, however, one last, poignant public duty to perform. HM The Queen Mother died on 30 March 2002. The Battalion's move to Ballykinler was delayed, men were recalled from leave, 'Blues' were unexpectedly drawn out once again from the stores, new drill moves were mastered and the Battalion was immensely proud to be on parade on 9 April 2002 for the State Funeral.