The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester, Dorset
Osnabrück 1976-1980 (including North Belfast 1977 and Central Belfast 1979)
In May 1976 the 1st Battalion took over Belfast Barracks in Osnabrück, less than seven years after leaving the city for Malta. The Battalion was now part of Task Force Delta, the re-named 12 Brigade, part of 2 Armoured Division. On 16 June the Battalion gave welcoming parties in all the messes, preceded by a Beating Retreat spectacularly set before a backdrop of Fort Marabout, which commemorated the unique battle honour earned by the 54th Foot in Egypt in 1801. Then it was straight into the mechanised role once again, with training on the local Achmer training area. This was followed by field-firing at Sennelager, and then deployment to Soltau for experience in all-arms work, the companies becoming combat teams and the Battalion the core of a battle group. This hurried introduction was put to the test on Ex Cool Gin that September when the 1st Battalion battle group participated in a US Airborne/British TAVR/20 Armoured Brigade exercise near Hildesheim. That autumn attention turned once again towards yet another Op Banner tour, to North Belfast this time. The six-week training 'package' started in November with briefings by NITAT, platoon and company-based training and specialist range work, culminating in two weeks at Sennelager facing rioting mobs in 'Tin City'. In mid-December the final preparations were witnessed by that determined and regular visitor, Brigadier Bredin.
North Belfast, 1977
On 20 January 1977 the 1st Battalion assumed responsibility for a number of strategically-positioned bases in North Belfast. The tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) included the Shankhill, Ardoyne, New Lodge, Unity Flats, Tiger Bay, Old Park-Cliftonville and Ligoniel and there was no shortage of representation from hardline elements on both sides of the sectarian divide. A Company (Major Field) and C Company (Major Reid) shared Flax Street Mill with HQ Company; B Company (Major Wilsey) was based at the rather more salubrious Girdwood Park while Support Company (Major Turrall) was at Dunmoor. There was no time to take stock of the situation. Within two hours of the handover A Company had to deal with a partially detonated bomb and a bomb under a prison officer's car - the Crumlin Road Jail was in their 'patch'. A later incident involved the successful interception of a hijacked bus, with terrorists and a 10lb bomb on board. In one of many shooting incidents during those early weeks Lance-Corporal Harvey was wounded. For the soldiers it was a seemingly never-ending stream of patient patrolling and observation tasks. This was where the West Country approach - a combination of firmness, fairness and common decency - slowly drove a wedge between those who lived for violence and those who dreamed of a return to normality. Great emphasis was placed on the continuity of observation in the overt OPs in New Lodge and Ardoyne and the use of covert OPs by all companies, which enabled the Battalion increasingly to dominate its TAOR and achieve some notable successes.
After eight years of conflict the terrorists had become increasingly sophisticated: sharp-eyed snipers with weapons that could be broken down and hidden in seconds; 'come-ons' designed to lure the Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) into a trap; and well-coordinated, multiple incidents calculated to cause maximum disruption. These had to be - and were - matched by the 1st Battalion's methods. On 19 February 1977, 8 Platoon exchanged fire with a number of gunmen and the rapid follow-up discovered both the firing point and also a secondary device that there had been insufficient time to prime. On 9 March two men ran from a suspect car in the Crumlin Road into the 'safety' of the Ardoyne. A Company immediately cordoned-off the area, although an RUC man was wounded in the process. C Company's Ops spotted three suspicious persons in Dunedin Park and guided foot patrols into the area, leading to a number of arrests and the discovery of two firing points, ammunition and explosives. From the Parlour OP activity by a 'known' group of people aroused suspicion: a foot patrol was directed to the area, arrests were made and a weapon recovered. On another occasion the discovery of a weapon in a garage, followed by a patient stake-out operation, led to an arrest as a man came to collect it. The tour ended in May and members of the 1st Battalion received the following awards: an OBE for Lieutenant Colonel Shortis, Mentions in Despatches for Major Reid and Major Wilsey and a GOC's Commendation for Sergeant McColl.
Back in Osnabrück, the 1st Battalion was at last able to focus on its BAOR role. There was a succession of training cadres, CPXs, border patrols and site guards, typically of nuclear installations. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Bullocke took over from Lieutenant Colonel Shortis in June 1977 and, shortly afterwards, it was announced that HRH The Duke of Kent had been appointed as our Colonel-in-Chief, a position that had been vacant since the death of his mother nine years earlier. The long-awaited refurbishment of Belfast Barracks commenced on the Battalion's return from leave, leaving many to wonder why it hadn't started when everyone was otherwise engaged in Ireland. Although there was considerable disruption to the soldiers' domestic arrangements, the end result was a move away from Victorian conditions (actually a pre-war German cavalry barracks) to something approaching late twentieth-century comfort. In September the Battalion spent ten days field-firing at Sennelager while the support platoons - Mortars and Anti-tanks - did the equivalent at Munsterlager. This was useful preparation for the annual Sarah Sands march-and-shoot, which took place on 4 October, after which C Company departed for Soltau and a gruelling work-up for Ex Medicine Man in Canada as part of 5 Inniskilling Dragoon Guards Battle Group. The 1st Battalion Battle Group also went to Soltau that autumn. It comprised A and B Companies, the Mortar and Anti-tank Platoons, the tanks of B Squadron, 5 Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, Forward Observation Parties from 7 Royal Horse Artillery, Armoured Engineers and Swingfire anti-tank and Blowpipe antiaircraft sections - in all some 700 men and 150 armoured vehicles. All-arms cooperation was the order of the day and the Battle Group was put to the test in Ex Keystone, which took place south of Münster.
In the new year the Battalion reorganised onto the '650' establishment. The support platoons went to HQ Company, leading to a company strength of no less than 370, while D Company came into being. There was also new technology as the Clansman series of radios were issued for the first time. D Company (Major Dutton) received its first test on exercise with the Dutch Air Force in early March. That winter almost 200 soldiers were able to take part in Ex Snow Queen, a popular introduction to downhill and langlauf skiing. On 19 April 1978 HRH The Duke of Kent paid his first visit as Colonel-in-Chief, accompanied by the new Colonel of the Regiment, General Sir John Archer. Battalion HQ and A Company immediately started training for Ex Medicine Man 4, for which they took two squadrons of 5 Inniskilling Dragoon Guards under command. Preparations at Soltau were followed by the unrivalled experience of fieldfiring and manoeuvre on the Canadian prairie while the exercise concluded with adventurous training and a few days of 'rest and recuperation' (R and R). The other companies were not left out completely: B Company (Major Stone) attended the French Commando School on Ex Bold Barracuda; C Company (Major Delves) carried out dismounted training in the Eiffel Mountains while D Company administered the 2 Armoured Division Mortar Concentration at Munsterlager, joined Battalion HQ at Soltau and, finally, went to La Courtine in France for dismounted work. The last mechanised training that year was Ex Certain Shield, a two-week reinforcement exercise for US forces in the Frankfurt area that also involved British Task Force Delta and German, Dutch, Belgian and Luxembourg units. The annual Sarah Sands march and shoot competition was won that year by 3 Platoon (Lieutenant Archer). From the end of September it was back into the now-familiar Northern Ireland, Op Banner, training routine.
Central Belfast, 1979
The 1st Battalion's Main Body arrived in Belfast on 13 January 1979. A and D Companies had merged into City Centre Company (Major Dutton) and was based, together with Battalion HQ, in the faded grandeur of the Grand Central Hotel; B Company (Major Cooper) spent three months at North Queen Street RUC Station before moving to Girdwood Park while C Company (Major Pook) found itself back in Flax Street Mill, after an interval of less than 18 months. Access to Belfast city centre was controlled by segment gates: everybody who passed through had their identities checked and there were frequent searches. The purpose of this manpower-intensive task was to convince a nervous population that it was possible to live and work normally in the centre of Belfast. Outside the gates, shootings and bombings persisted, but they were less frequent than on previous Northern Ireland tours. This tour saw the introduction of much more widespread surveillance, both overt and covert, over the whole Battalion area. The Close Observation Platoon (Major Delves) played an important role in these developments.
Incidents included C Company's cordon and subsequent checking on 23 January of a suspect car that had been used in two earlier murders; a shooting incident at one of the segment gates; a follow-up operation by C Company after the murder of Prison Officer Makin and his wife on 4 February; a search on 13 February that unearthed 500 rounds, weapon sights and silencers; the careful dispersion, on 1 March, of thirteen bombs round the city to 'mark' the ending of political status for IRA prisoners and the targeting of banks using incendiary devices on 22 March. There were a series of incendiary attacks in April, culminating in a devastating one on the Tax Office on the 26th. There was a view that almost anybody might wish to claim responsibility for that one!
Visitors to the 1st Battalion during the four-month period included the Bishop of Sherborne, the Chief of the General Staff and the Colonel of the Regiment, while the press descended in force on central Belfast for Margaret Thatcher's election victory on 3 May 1979. With the tour almost over, a 200lb bomb exploded on 11 May, shattering an estimated 4,000 windows. The following day a member of the RUC was shot and wounded, south of the City Hall: the getaway car was quickly found in the adjacent Markets area. While quieter than previous Op Banner tours, there could be no let-up in the need for constant vigilance. As a result of the tour, there was an OBE for Lieutenant Colonel Bullocke, Mentions in Despatches for Major Dutton and Major Delves and GOC's Commendations for WO2 Henderson, Sergeant Titley and Lance Corporal Smith.
On 13 May 1979 the Battalion returned to Osnabrück and, after leave, yet more training. Train hard, fight easy! Everyone went to Sennelager for field-firing and the Colonel of the Regiment paid another visit. The Anti-tank Platoon did extremely well to win the 1st British Corps Concentration at Putlos, something they had first achieved a dozen years earlier. After Sennelager the Devon and Dorset Battle Group (less D Company, which had gone to Canada with the 5 Inniskilling Dragoon Guards Battle Group), including the tanks of B Squadron, 5 Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, the armoured recce of B Squadron, 1 Royal Tank Regiment, 129 Battery of 40 Field Regiment RA, 21 Light Air Defence Battery and a Troop of 37 Engineer Squadron went to Soltau, where they were visited by the Chief of the Defence Staff. A two-week work-up preceded Ex Keystone, during which the Battle Group rehearsed all phases of war, including no less than three crossings of the River Weser. That autumn the Sarah Sands march-and-shoot competition was won by 7 Platoon (Lt Rundle). In December 1979 Lieutenant Colonel John Wilsey assumed command from Lieutenant Colonel Bullocke. The ability of the determined terrorist to strike almost at will was exemplified by the shooting by the IRA, on 10 March 1980, of Lance-Corporal Sims while he was running in local woods. Fortunately he survived, having managed to reach a nearby German military hospital before collapsing.