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Catterick 2004-2007 (including Iraq 2006)

This final chapter follows the fortunes of the 1st Battalion, as well as covering developments within the wider Regimental family, as the independent existence of The Devonshire and Dorset Regiment drew to a close after forty-eight years of distinguished service. The 1st Battalion moved into Alma Barracks, Catterick in April 2004, becoming part of 12 Brigade, within 2 Division. The immediate operational requirement was to retrain in the mechanised infantry role while, from a Regimental angle, it was important to strengthen county ties after two years in Northern Ireland. While remaining on call for a return to the Province should the security situation deteriorate, the focus was on technical conversion courses: driving, signalling and gunnery. The Mortar Platoon had the particular challenge of mastering a new fire control system.

In mid-year the Regiment was well represented in the West Country. The Rifle Volunteers once again provided support to the Ten Tors Challenge while many of our cadets were amongst the 2,400 participants. On 29 May 2004 the Regimental family gathered for a memorable Regimental Day at Sherborne with a service in the Abbey, a freedom march through the town, a dinner and reception at Sherborne School and a reunion in the Digby Hall. A week later there were major commemorative events to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Normandy landings: regular and TA soldiers and Old Comrades visited Normandy in strength as part of Ex Janners' Landing. Apart from the beaches themselves, there were also pilgrimages to Hill 112 and Arnhem, where 4 and 5 Dorset distinguished themselves. The 1st Battalion training cycle culminated in a fiercely-contested H Jones Competition, which took place in Kielder Forest and at Otterburn and was deservedly won by 8 Platoon.

In July 2004 the Government announced a spending review and an evaluation of the options that would lead to an appropriate Future Army Structure. At that stage few details were given, beyond the dispiriting news that four regular infantry battalions were to be amalgamated or disbanded. Understandable uncertainty over the Regiment's future could not be allowed to affect the focus on the job in hand as the British Army's commitments intensified. There were very few gaps in Lieutenant Colonel Toffer Beattie's diary when he took over command of the 1st Battalion from Lieutenant Colonel Storrie in August 2004. That same month Support Company ran cadres on Salisbury Plain, members of the Recce Platoon attended the Combined Arms Tactical Trainer and the Battalion team won the 2 Division Biathlon Competition. That autumn the 1st Battalion took part in Ex Janners' Launch on Salisbury Plain: having commenced with company-level phases, it culminated in the first full test of the Battalion's mechanised infantry skills since its arrival at Catterick. As if this were not enough, the Battalion remained on call for duty in Northern Ireland and A Company briefly returned to Magilligan for public order validation. Since the start of the new millennium, overstretch in the British Army had resulted in the recruitment of a number of high-quality soldiers from Fiji. Those who joined the 1st Battalion swiftly made their mark, both by their invaluable contribution to the rugby team and also by their traditional and colourful celebrations on 10 October, Fiji's National Day.

In late November 2004 the Colonel of the Regiment was able to announce more detail on the future of the Regiment. It would be joining the Light Division and, in the interim, would become The Devonshire and Dorset Light Infantry. At the same time there were thoughts that all the Regiments of The Light Division might ultimately combine to form a new, large Regiment. That winter there were changes amongst key Regimental personnel in the counties as Lieutenant Colonel Leonard handed over to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Cooper as Curator of the Keep Military Museum and Lieutenant Colonel Squires retired as Assistant Regimental Secretary, to be replaced by Major Don Jellard, formerly RSM and QM of the 1st Battalion.

Naturally, changes revolving around the Future Army Structure were not allowed to divert attention from soldiering. The new year began with field-firing at Otterburn, range work at Pirbright and adventurous training at Leek in Staffordshire and Penhale in Cornwall. Particular attention was paid to the requirements of specialist platoons as the Mortar Platoon worked closely with the Battalion's Close Support Light Battery during Ex Tartan Blizzard while the Anti-tank Platoon converted to Javelin, the 'fire-and forget' missile that replaced Milan. The 1st Battalion spent the early months of 2005 preparing for Ex Wessex Warrior, that summer's test exercise on Salisbury Plain. The work-up included FIBUA training at Whinney Hill, field-firing at Warcop and the H Jones Competition, which was held on Dartmoor in May, and was won by the Recce Platoon.

On Salamanca Day, 22 July 2005, the Devon and Dorsets became the Devon and Dorset Light Infantry (DDLI). On moving from the Prince of Wales's Division to the Light Division, members of the Regiment adopted the Light Infantry green beret. It was also confirmed that, on 1 February 2007, we would amalgamate with the Royal Gloucester, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry (RGBWLI), thereby achieving the reduction of an infantry battalion in the British Army's order of battle. On 24 November 2005 The Queen formally approved the formation of The Rifles and the Charter was signed by the Colonels of all the forming regiments of the Light Division the following day. Reflecting our historical seniority, the combined DDLI/RGBWLI would become the 1st Battalion, The Rifles (1 Rifles), the senior battalion in a new seven-battalion regiment that included the Royal Green Jackets and the Light Infantry. The inevitable sadness at the end of an era was tempered by the exciting professional news that 1 DDLI would deploy to Iraq in April 2006 on Op Telic 8. That autumn preparations began for the operational tour in Iraq. A wide range of specialist skills had to be learned and relevant courses included language, search and surveillance, photography and first aid. Ex Alexander Kamal, held that October, focused on . staff procedures while 1 DDLI also provided enemy forces for Ex Loyal Ledger, the 19 Brigade test exercise. Following a two-week range package at Lydd, the Recce Group flew to Iraq in late February. The following month Ex Desert Dragon, which tested staff procedures, took place in Paderborn with 20 Armoured Brigade, under whose command the 1st Battalion would come in Basra. After a confirmatory exercise at Stanford, conducted by the Operational Training Advisory Group, deployment commenced on 16 April.

1st Battalion in Iraq 2006

On arrival in Iraq the 1st Battalion had a few days of acclimatisation and theatre-specific training at the Shaiba Logistics Base (SLB), before taking over from the 9/12 Lancers as the Basra Rural South Battle Group on 28 April. The four companies were dispersed: A Company was co-located with BG HQ at the SLB, with responsibility for Az Zubayr; B Company was based at the Palace in Basra, with responsibility for the Al Faw peninsula; C Company was at Um Qasr, Iraq's only deep water port, working closely with US forces in the border town of Safwan while 1 DDLI also provided the Brigade Surveillance Company (BSC), under the command of 20 Armoured Brigade at Basra Air Station, which assumed responsibility for Op Resilient at Al Amarah.

In May Op Tyne was a Brigade 'surge', or show of force, into Basra to counter the increasingly adverse influence of rogue politicians and local militia, with the result that the Provincial Council re-engaged with British Forces for the first time since the previous September, when two British soldiers had had to be rescued from Jameat Police Station. Later the same month A Company was in the forefront of Op Merrivale, a search-and-arrest task that unearthed a cache of IED components. In July Op Test resulted in the arrest of Sajid Badr, a local militia leader, after several weeks of intelligence gathering. During the follow-up to this arrest Corporal John (George) Cosby, a team leader in the BSC, was killed in an aggressive fire fight. The same month the Maysan Battle Group was relocated as part of Op Oyster: three DDLI companies covered the move and Pte Attrill was extremely fortunate to escape serious injury when a bullet penetrated his helmet, passing round the inside, and leaving no more than a small scar. In September B and C Companies were relieved by the theatre reserve battalion from Cyprus, enabling them to form part of 20 Armoured Brigade's 'surge' operations, OpSalamanca and later Op Sinbad, which continued through to the end of the tour. As part of Op Brixham, A Company provoked the insurgents into an unwise redeployment of their armoury, leading to the recovery of six weapons.

A covert search by the BSC, Op Stingray, led to the discovery of around 70 artillery and mortar shells (potential IEDs), which were destroyed in situ the following morning. During Op Belstone 2 Platoon were searching houses in Az Zubayr when they captured a key target, Ahmed Juboori, together with a fully-equipped, three-man rocket team. By contrast with these military tasks, 1 DDLI hosted a much-appreciated, 'hearts and minds' Ramadan dinner at the SLB for local tribal leaders and politicians on 19 October. The 1st Battalion's final operational task was Op Citadel, which led to the capture of Sameer Sangu, one of Basra Province's five 'Most Wanted', on 24 October. The strike group main body arrived simultaneously from three directions, with low loaders simulating a routine British Forces convoy, thus neutralising Sangu's experienced look-outs. On 12 November 2006 1 DDLI handed over to 1 Yorks: 2,500 members of the Regimental Family attended the homecoming parade at Catterick six days later.

Within weeks of returning from Iraq, the 1st Battalion started to reorganise itself in preparation for 1 February 2007, when it would form the core of 1 Rifles. Some months earlier all the officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers had been asked to indicate which of the Rifles' regular battalions they wished to join. A key feature of the Future Army Structure was that those serving - and particularly their families - would be able to enjoy a more stable existence. To that end, as well as 1 Rifles' permanent station at Chepstow, conveniently close to the West Country, there were to be battalions of The Rifles stationed in Edinburgh, at Bulford, in Paderborn and at Ballykinler. The last three postings were already well known to many members of the 1st Battalion and that fact naturally influenced the decision that some took. In the event the 1st Battalion provided some 60% of the personnel for 1 Rifles, with most of the balance coming from 1 RGBWLI.

The final, emotional Regimental occasion took place on 27 January 2007, when the last stand of Colours of the 1st Battalion joined its two predecessors, and those of the 4th Battalion, in the Regimental Chapel in Exeter Cathedral. The entire Regimental Family was represented: there were guards from the 1st Battalion, from the Rifle Volunteers, and also from both Devon and Dorset Army Cadet Forces while the Old Comrades' Association mustered more than 1,000 members on parade. The Police said that they had never seen Exeter High Street so thronged with people as the Regiment marched past its Colonel-in-Chief 'with bayonets fixed, drums beating and Colours flying'. After the formal service in the Cathedral, there was a Civic Reception hosted by the Regiment for friends and supporters. There was also the traditional Regimental Association gathering in St. George's Hall, with specially-brewed bottles of Salamanca Ale available in abundance. That evening there was a splendid dinner in honour of the Regiment, hosted by the Lord Mayor of Exeter, in the City's Guildhall. Speaking from the pulpit in Exeter Cathedral, the Right Reverend John Kirkham, formerly Bishop of Sherborne and Bishop to the Forces, addressed the Regimental Family using these well-chosen words: "May you continue to be faithful; faithful in giving honour unto God; faithful in preserving the great traditions of the past, and taking them with you into the future; faithful in upholding Christian values; faithful in working for justice and peace. If you remain faithful to these things, what you have lived and fought for and many have suffered and died for will not have been in vain. The good tradition of this Regiment will live on and your future will be even greater than your past."