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Malta GC 1970-1971 (including Belfast 1970)

By January 1970 the 1st Battalion was settled on Malta, in a role far removed from that of their recent experiences in Germany. There was no higher formation, the Battalion had very little technical equipment to worry about and the infantrymen were back to their roots: fitness, skill-at-arms and dismounted, low-level tactics. The first 'real' task fell to the Assault Pioneers, who spent several weeks in Tunisia helping to build a barrier from 400 tons of rock to divert flood water, following serious problems with heavy rains the previous autumn. On 27 April 1970 there was a ceremonial opening of the barrier by the Tunisian Agriculture Minister. Another notable achievement was the success of both 1st Battalion teams in the Cyprus Walkabout. Teams had to race sixty miles from Episkopi to the Troodos Mountains, and then back again: the Battalion's teams came first and third, out of a total of fifty-five entries. The Battalion spent the first half of June in southern Sardinia, doing company-level training, after which the Battalion acted as 'enemy forces' as the US 6th Fleet and Marines practised assault landings. The sheer scale of the latter exercise, and the equipment on display, took the breath away. The role was as interesting as it was unorthodox, with soldiers acting as civilian refugees as well as providing armed resistance. On return to Malta everyone was looking forward to a spot of well-deserved relaxation - but it was not to be!

Belfast 1970

In 1969 the Civil Rights Movement had provoked an upsurge in sectarian violence in Ulster and the British Army garrison had been reinforced, to the initial delight of the Catholic community, which welcomed them as their 'protectors'. With the approach of the inflammatory Protestant marching season the following year, the CO was warned that the 1st Battalion should be prepared to reinforce the military presence in the Province in early July. The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Geoffrey Baker, called Colonel Lovejoy and spoke to him on his bedside telephone, just after the Battalion had been stood down for forty-eight hours. The CGS asked: 'Can your Battalion move tomorrow?' The only possible answer was yes and the British Forces Broadcasting Service put out a call for all Devon and Dorsets to return to barracks immediately. Only one man missed the call. He was in the middle of his wedding when the announcement was made but left the reception and was only two hours late for roll call! Leaving just a small rear party in Malta, 623 officers and men were on the ground in Belfast by 0500 hours on 30 June. It was a remarkable achievement. Commanders were briefed, internal security equipment issued and accommodation allocated in two- and three-tier bunks in the cavernous King's Hall.

On 3 July there was a large find of arms and ammunition in the Lower Falls, a staunchly Catholic area, leading to a well-orchestrated civilian response. Although the platoon from 1 Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment that had made the initial discovery was extracted, albeit with some difficulty, the incident was the catalyst for the so-called 'Battle of the Falls Road'. The 1st Battalion Tactical Headquarters (Tac HQ) and Support Company (Major Bullocke) were soon embroiled in a difficult crowd control situation at the junction of Falls Road with Grosvenor Road and Springfield Road. Support Company advanced into the Falls, linking up with a company of 1 Royal Scots: there were now several thousand troops in the Falls, which was no more than 400 metres square. At one stage Support Company came under sniper attack and returned fire. They had already used CS gas and baton rounds. Meanwhile B Company (Major Baxter) and C Company (Major Ives) were working with 45 Commando to set up barricades along the Crumlin Road.

When darkness fell, IRA snipers engaged soldiers conveniently illuminated by the street lighting, until harassed soldiers decided to shoot the lights out. Street-by-street the area was cordoned off and the Army, operating in unprecedented numbers, imposed a curfew. Detailed searches were conducted in the Falls during the next day: 4 Platoon alone found some 15,000 rounds of ammunition. Within forty-eight hours the Falls was subdued but the 1st Battalion stayed on for a further week, helping to restore order with 1 Green Howards. Later the Battalion was deployed north of the Shankill Road: Dunmore, Snugville and Dunlambert School, where the Colonel of the Regiment visited in August. The Falls operation was a watershed for both Ulster and the British Army and, following it, the security situation deteriorated and the 'Troubles' spread throughout the Province.

After a spell of post-Belfast leave, the Battalion was back at work on Malta by October; however, both B and C Companies managed to spend some time in Cyprus. With Malta still operating as an important naval base, there were opportunities to spend time with the Royal Navy. HMS Exmouth took a party to Rome while others had periods at sea aboard HMSGlamorgan, HMS Fife or HMS Ark Royal. The New Year ushered in a spell of intense military training with the rifle companies rotating through the Akamas Peninsula on Cyprus and the Support Platoons holding their concentrations on the island. On 8 April 1971 the 1st Battalion trooped the Colour before both the Colonel of the Regiment and the Governor of Malta, Sir Maurice Dorman. That spring the Battalion sent men to Oman on Ex Great Trek, a march and navigation competition, while others went on Ex Cold Nose, an attachment to the Italian Alpini. The local community was not neglected: A Company (Major Shortis) completed the refurbishment of St Joseph's Orphanage on Gozo, a project begun fifteen months before when platoons from the 1st Battalion had first visited the island.

On 30 June a plaque was unveiled in front of a group which included the CO, the Bishop, Major Shortis and Peggy McMaster WRVS, not forgetting the Sisters and a smiling group of children.