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Return to Ballykinler 2002-2004

Although the Battalion had returned to Ballykinler, no more than twenty of its members had experience of the tour that ended some seventeen years earlier. A great deal had changed: 'Snatch' and 'Tavern' vehicles had replaced the old Makralon-armoured Land Rovers, vehicle communications were now secure and even a Quartermaster naturally sparing in his praise was moved to describe Abercorn Barracks as 'fantastic'. The Battalion acted as 3 Brigade's reserve, with the result that two companies were routinely committed, a third was on guard at Ballykinler, the fourth on leave while the Close Observation Platoon (COP) was heavily committed in South Armagh. In May 2002 both HQ and B Companies were involved in the Junior Orange Lodge march at Portadown, while A and C Companies were temporarily deployed in the Short Strand area of Belfast. In addition to these public order activities, there was the unceasing requirement to support the Police Service in County Down and, right at the start of the tour, there were follow-ups to pipe bomb attacks on the stations at Ardnaglass and Downpatrick. In mid-year Lieutenant Colonel Sandy Storrie assumed command from Lieutenant Colonel Toomey and was soon faced with the challenge of the 14 July Protestant march at Drumcree, which had in recent years become something of a flashpoint. 3 Brigade decided that an overwhelming military presence was the answer and the 1st Battalion spent several days quietly preparing barriers and talking to local people on both sides of the sectarian divide, with the result that the march passed off very quietly.

One consequence of the never-ending round of Public Duties was that the Battalion came under severe manning pressures. Perhaps the most notable achievement during the two years spent at Ballykinler was the way in which this situation was tackled through a combination of retention and recruiting. In the early autumn of 2002 there were only 437 Devon and Dorset soldiers in the Battalion. Two years later the numbers had risen to 526, thus eliminating the under-manning against a light role establishment.

Another key focus was the training of junior NCOs, which had also suffered at Hounslow. At the start of the Ballykinler tour there were only five School of Infantry-trained junior NCOs in the Battalion, excluding those serving with the COP; when the 1st Battalion left Ballykinler there were seven or eight in each company. While undergoing refresher training at Kirkcudbright in Scotland, Lance-Corporal Read and Lance-Corporal Hughes were killed in a road traffic accident. An interesting sign of changed times was that the Battalion provided most of the members of the British Army's Gaelic football team that played in Dublin, a visit that would have been inconceivable just a few years earlier. In the autumn of 2003 the Battalion filled four of the top five placings in the 3 Brigade march-and-shoot competition.

The final months in Ballykinler were very busy. After a recruiting trip to the counties, A Company went on operations in South Armagh, B Company went on Ex Janners' Dart, followed by a particularly chilly visit to Galloway while C Company found two IEDs close to Ballykinler and, as a result, Corporal Borlace received a GOC's Commendation. Corporal Thomas received a Queen's Commendation for Bravery for his skill and dedication during a COP operation. In conclusion, despite the complications of drawdown and restructuring, the 1st Battalion provided reliable and professional support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, without in any way conflicting with the policy of 'police primacy'.