OLIVER'S ARMY

CHAPTER TEN

 

The Training Ground

The Costs & Profits of the Conflict

 

‘THOSE AT THE TOP SAY COMRADESHIP
Reigns in the army.
The truth of this is seen
In the cookhouse.
In their hearts should be
The selfsame courage. But
On their plates
Are two kinds of rations.

WHEN IT COMES TO MARCHING MANY DO NOT KNOW
That their enemy is marching at their head.
The voice which gives them their orders
Is their enemy’s voice and
The man who speaks of the enemy
Is the enemy himself.’

Bertolt Brecht - from a series of poems and satires about the German Army,
written just before the start of the 2nd World War.

 

In 1969 a new version of the British Army’s secret training manual, Land Operations, was produced. This Volume III, called Counter-Revolutionary Operations, drew on what the army had learned in its series of colonial wars from the end of the 2nd World War. By the end of 1969 troops were being deployed out onto the streets of Northern Ireland. A great deal of the counter-revolutionary strategy which lay behind the British Army’s actions in places like Derry and Belfast had first been used in all of Ireland in the past. It was then adapted for use in far off parts of Empire, like Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, and latterly came full circle to be used once again in the north of Ireland.

After Ulsterisation, most of the casualties among the security forces increasingly came from the RUC and UDR. As the flow-back of body bags of British soldiers from the conflict slowed down, the level of domestic opposition to the war dipped, enabling Westminster to proceed with a war now tailored to their ‘acceptable levels’. Successive British governments also tried to show that progress was being made in Northern Ireland, with the ‘normalisation’ strategy another component of Ulsterisation. Cocooned in a web of compliant media coverage, Westminster then claimed that Northern Ireland was a normal society with only a few problem areas caused by ‘criminal elements’ - which were now under control and being dealt with by the security forces. Republicans, or anyone expressing dissenting views, were censored.

At the start of the conflict, the British Army commanders were adamant that the IRA could, and would, be defeated. By the mid to late seventies this conviction of victory was beginning to fade. In 1977, an officer serving in the British Army in Ireland wrote down his feelings for an Irish paper:

The longer the whole wretched business goes on in the North, the more ostrich-like becomes the attitude of the military commanders. Senior officers in particular take an even more conscious pride nowadays in parading statistics of weapons found and terrorists arrested than ever before. They seem deliberately to ignore the fact that their success rate is relative.

As the Americans found out in Vietnam, the ‘big stick’ approach does not work. In 1972, at the recognised height of the IRA campaign, there were 336 civilian murders; at the end of 1976, 244 had been killed in the course of that year. The body count has decreased, but contrasted with the force levels we have had to maintain, let alone the experience we have gained since the campaign began, it is a very chilly reassurance of our real effectiveness. The danger is that we are rapidly developing a Vietnam mentality to the realities of the Northern Irish war.

... As in years gone by, ‘Taffy was a Welshman ... Taffy was a thief’ could have been a possible cri de coeur for the army of Edward I, so, today ‘Paddy or Mick or Bogwog’ has become synonymous with things which are loathsome, evil, stupid or more simply, ‘typical’. We have resurrected our oldest scapegoat and like some battered golliwog we have dragged him out of the cupboard, to vilify him all over again.

There is a cartoon strip entitled ‘Seamus’ in the Army magazine ‘Visor’ - a weekly publication for troops serving in the North. ‘Seamus’ is an IRA-man and, as you’d expect, a pretty stupid one at that. He is continually blowing himself up on his own bombs, or else being shot or arrested by soldiers. In many ways, he is an exact crib from the ‘Bill and Ben - the IRA men’ comic feature of a well-known UDA broadsheet. He’s a figure of fun. And yet, despite all his weekly disasters, he still reappears with monotonous insistence. Beneath the superficial humour lies the reality of our current situation... [1]

1: Irish Press,
24th, 25th Jan. 1977,
by a British officer serving in Northern Ireland.

 

 

The Army’s Secret View

One year later, in 1978, a secret military intelligence report on the IRA, called Northern Ireland : Future Terrorist Trends, was produced. The New Statesman magazine obtained a copy and Duncan Campbell wrote a summary: ‘The campaign of violence is likely to continue while the British remain in Northern Ireland’. There is ‘no prospect in the next five years of any political change’ which will remove the raison d’étre of the Provisional IRA. With these conclusions the secret military intelligence appreciation of Northern Ireland, Future Terrorist Trends wraps up and buries a thousand speeches of politicians who have promised that the army will wipe out the gunmen.’ Campbell continued:

... Prepared by the most senior army officer on the Defence Intelligence Staff, Brigadier J. M. Glover, the report was written last November, and subsequently fell into the hands of the IRA. Since then the report has received some publicity in Irish Republican circles but has been ignored by the British media. It was circulated to army commands in December after clearance and approval at the highest level. Glover himself, now promoted to Major General, recently became Commander of Land Forces in Northern Ireland - a clear indication that his report must broadly represent the view of Northern Ireland held inside the Ministry of Defence.

... The report admits that the Provisionals are essentially a working class organisation, based in the ghetto areas of the city and in the poorer rural areas ... The terrorists’ abilities, their professionalism, and their expertise are all on the increase, the army believe. Indeed, substitute ‘soldier’ for ‘terrorist’ in the study and the report might almost be a careful appreciative analysis of an allied army:

‘...The Provisional IRA (PIRA) has the dedication and the sinews of war to raise violence intermittently to at least the level of early 1978, certainly for the foreseeable future ... Our evidence of the rank and file terrorists does not support the view that they are merely mindless hooligans drawn from the unemployed and unemployable. PIRA now trains and uses its members with some care. The Active Service Units (ASUs) are for the most part manned by terrorists tempered by up to ten years of operational experience...

Conclusions - The Provisionals’ campaign of violence is likely to continue while the British remain in Northern Ireland...

The leaking of this document may have left the army dismayed and the IRA delighted. But its real significance for the future of the province lies with the wider public from whom it was intended that such honest thinking should be kept away. The military head of the Defence Intelligence Staff says here that the present war in Ireland cannot be won. The IRA will continue, for the foreseeable future, to wage continuous attrition against the British presence. ... Politicians may speak of ‘overcoming the gunmen and terrorists’, but the army knows it cannot be done .[2]

The report was stating officially the conclusions that many soldiers had come to privately - that while the IRA could be contained by high concentrations of soldiers and police, they could not be defeated.

2: New Statesman,
13th July 1979.

 

 

‘The Professionals’

While later soldiers’ deaths were relegated to a few lines on an inside page, the first soldier fatalities in Northern Ireland had featured prominently on the front pages of British papers. At the end of 1972 the magazine New Society did a survey of the 100 British soldiers killed in the north of Ireland between January and November of that year:

77 were privates, of whom 47 were twenty-two years or under when killed. Only six came from the seven largest cities of Britain, whilst most were from market towns in the West country, the Fens, or small industrial centres in Lancashire, Tyneside, Scotland or Wales. On average it was the less educated boy who has to leave home to have a hope of employment who joins the British Army.[3]

In the recruitment ads these soldiers were called ‘The Professionals’. From the end of the 2nd World War National Service had filled army units with young recruits, but many had not wanted to be there. The military command were also unhappy with conscription - to them it had often meant ‘indiscipline’, ‘a lack of commitment’ and ‘educated agitators stirring things up’. National Service was phased out by 1963, and the army was returned to a non-conscript, elite ‘professional force’. Recruiting from deprived areas - what could be called a de facto economic conscription - now enabled army commanders to target their choice of potential soldiers like Frank Gilchrist:

He was born in Pilton, Edinburgh, and grew up on a working-class housing estate that was ‘a bit like the Gaza Strip’. School held few attractions for him and after several bouts of truancy the 14-year-old Gilchrist was sent to a ‘special school’ that was ‘one step away from borstal’. Frank’s career prospects were not exactly bright. He left without taking ‘O’ levels and opted for the job of trainee milkman, aged 16. ‘Then I saw an advert on television - join the army and see the world. It seemed great’[4]

Anxious to recruit school-leavers with little or no experience of civilian life, the modern recruiting sergeant hooked the potential soldier with themes like ‘Adventure’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Travel’. Chris Byrne, a ex-Royal Marine, said: ‘I joined up because I had no education or qualifications, and where I lived in Essex there wasn’t much work available. I knew others who had joined up, so I decided to follow them. I joined up as a Junior Marine when I was sixteen. I wanted a bit of excitement, a bit of travel, to be tough, to be something - rather than just be nothing outside.’ [5]

Youths from a low educational background were targeted for recruitment, because they were easier to mould into the type of soldiers the officers required. They were unlikely to question their training or orders, and those who did become disaffected had difficulty articulating their grievances or organising protests. Many recruits had racist and sexist prejudices current in society, which were often encouraged in subtle - and sometimes not so subtle - ways, during training. Some were attracted to the army by the macho image that many regiments like to portray: ‘The image of the services, “disciplined”, “tough and professional”, was very attractive. ... It’s a very masculine atmosphere ... you get a lot of crap about how they are going to separate the men from the boys ... The pressure is on you to stick it out and get through the training because you want to prove yourself to your mates.’ [6]

Once recruited, ordinary soldiers were tied to binding contracts, which were often many years in length. Basic training, as experienced NCOs hammer the recruits into line, has altered little over the years:

The shock of the first couple of days was intentionally brutal. The new recruits would usually be met at the station, given food reasonably soon after arrival at the camp, and provided with the means to write and say they had arrived safely. But these were virtually the last kindly acts for eight to twelve weeks in a system of basic training designed to suppress individuality, restrict freedom in every possible way, install instinctive obedience without question of any kind, increase physical fitness, and generally so depress the conscript into a common mould that he would instantly serve the force’s purposes in anything that it asked him to do: to the point of killing fellow human beings, or of offering himself to be killed. The forces had learnt how to train men quickly and intensively in the Second World War; the absolute necessity of training them to this zombie-like state had been taught in the trenches of the First, when an order over the top to almost certain death had to be obeyed instinctively or it would not have been obeyed at all.[7]

3: New Society,
Dec. 1972.

4: Morning Star,
14th Feb. 1989.

5: British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland,
Information on Ireland 1978,
by ex-Royal Marine Commando Chris Byrne.

6: Ibid - British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland,
Information on Ireland 1978,
by ex-Royal Marine Commando Chris Byrne.

7: All Bull: The National Servicemen,
from the introduction by B S Johnson,
Quartet Books 1973.

 

 

The Officer Class

While most of the ‘doing and dying’ in Northern Ireland was done by rank and file soldiers, all of the ‘reasoning why’ was done by the officers. In 1990, Gumboots and Pearls, a guide to coping with being an Army officer’s wife, was published. Written by two wives of serving officers the publication, though light-hearted, did give some insights into officers’ lives. A review of the book in the Independent said: ‘The 120-page book warns prospective recruits - brides marrying into the army - that their husbands are likely to find their wedding night a time of great discovery. Army officers, it says, have ‘on the whole lived from the age of six solely in the company of boys, men and dogs’. Indeed, dogs form an enduring part of life in the army.’ [8] The review continued:

There are more dangers after the men-only parties in the officers’ mess. ‘They all get absolutely ratted and come back waking you up at three o’clock in the morning offering a present like a Mars Bar. Don’t ignore them but help them into bed. Otherwise, they’ll get in with their spurs on and the bedroom will look like a scene of a Bernard Matthews massacre in the morning’.

When women are invited to functions, they should avoid ‘bingo’ dresses, those which invite ‘eyes down, look in’ because they raise senior officers’ blood pressure. Politics, religion and sex are taboo subjects at these functions, which means ‘the men talk about the fourth most interesting subject, themselves’. Politics are best avoided anyway because ‘they all support the Tories and their only concern is that the Tories are getting too soft and left-wing’. ‘Don’t even watch a Liberal Party political broadcast, or you’ll be branded a communist forever’[9]

Barracks, where troops often live in cramped and spartan blocks, keep the squaddies isolated from the outside population. The distinction between the officers and men is strictly kept. Army officers, who live in much better and separate accommodation, still came predominantly from public school (private education) backgrounds and from the upper and middle classes:

Although only 5% of school-age children attend public schools, half the army’s officer corps still come from the private education sector. Fewer than 6% of officers are working-class men and women who have worked their way up through the ranks. This class division is reinforced by the existence of separate messes and barracks and sometimes even separate entrances to buildings - the lower ranks being required to use the ‘tradesmen’s’ entrance at the rear.[10]

Often, the officers who received an ordinary education at state schools quickly emulated the elitist attitudes of their mentors - the senior officers from public school backgrounds. As an officer serving in Northern Ireland in 1977 stated: ‘More State-educated boys than ever before are being commissioned - though still not into the smartest of regiments, of course. What is so disturbing however, is the way in which all this new blood is so quickly tainted with the social mores and opinions of the past ... most of the new entry take to the rigid distinctions that are left like a duck to water.’ [11] The few who did not conform were often given a hard time by their fellow officers. Sometimes, this included physical violence:

Beer glasses were thrown as officers watched the general election on television after a regimental dinner in the mess at Bulford army camp, Wiltshire. The party continued after midnight, fuelled by beer and apple-brandy schnapps. When one result for the Labour Party was declared, Lt X broke a window with his hand.

Mess steward Private Richard Downs, aged 19, complained about the damage and Lt X allegedly told him: “You are here to serve officers and not to tell us what we can’t do”.
He pushed Pte Downs off his chair and punched him as he lay on the floor. Later, with Lt Y, he burst into the room of sleeping Second Lieutenant Richard Breary and asked him to toast the Tory success. He refused, and the pair grabbed him in a headlock and punched him in the face and on the back. He suffered a black eye, blurred vision, a suspected broken nose and a cut lip...[12]

8: Independent,
20th Sept. 1990.

9: Ibid - Independent,
20th Sept. 1990.

10: Tribune,
17th July 1987,
by Peter Tatchell.

11: Irish Press,
24th and 25th Jan. 1977,
by a British officer serving in Northern Ireland.

12: Guardian,
18th Sept. 1992.

 

 

Inferiors and Superiors

Soldiers, who cost the taxpayer a lot of money to recruit and train, were used as servants and often were treated in a feudal-type way by their officers. Frank Gilchrist, who had joined the Scots Guards, said: ‘I enjoyed the barrack-room camaraderie but couldn’t stomach the officers with their public school accents and their elitist mentality.’ Gilchrist, who had left the army after fighting in the Falklands, continued:

After a couple of punishment duties, serving in the officers’ mess, I really saw how the other half lives. They have waiters, and each officer has his own batman, who is an ordinary soldier that has to look after him like a valet. If an officer, at inspection, has dirty boots or his bearskin hat is not quite right, he doesn’t get punished, his batman does. In the Guards, an officer can’t really be punished.[13]

Simon Raven wrote Perish by the Sword, about his time as a young officer in the Army. In the 1950s he was at the School of Infantry at Warminster and met a fellow officer, Captain C: ‘C was always very concerned with his men’s welfare, to which he gave genuine consideration (on the face of it, just the kind of competent, thoughtful and public-spirited young officer which a Labour Government would wish to perpetuate in “a democratic Army”).’ Raven continued:

But C’s was scarcely a democratic nature. ‘They are rather like pet animals’, he said to me of his men one day. ‘One must keep them clean and properly fed, so they do not get diseased and are in good working order. One must teach them to react swiftly and without thought to certain external stimuli or signals. Just as you whistle for a dog, so there must be certain simple and easily recognisable forms of words for the men. They must be given a certain amount of genuine affection, so that they feel loved and secure. They must expect, and on the whole receive, justice - a lump of sugar when they have done well, a whipping when they have been disobedient. But they must also realise that there are too many of them for justice always to work dead correctly in individual cases, and that occasional lumps of sugar will go to the idle and mischievous, occasional whippings to the industrious and innocent ... And they should be made to recognise the signs one sometimes gives when one simply does not want to be bothered with them... ’ [14]

Another ex-officer stated: ‘You simply can’t afford, not if you’re career-minded, to be in the slightest way non-conformist or even be suspected of being that way. You have to accept all their values without exception.’ He continued:

In the mess there’s a fresh supply of newspapers every day: but it’s the unusual or exceptional mess which will take even such a paper as the Guardian. That’s considered radical and left wing. Similarly with magazines, I’ve never seen a mess in which you’d find the New Statesman. The point I’m making is that officers are mostly the kind of unthinking Tories who consider themselves non-political. That means they’re fundamentally extreme right-wing Conservative ... The Army perpetuates the British class system, and it couldn’t exist in its present form without that class system. It has to have the acceptance, without thinking or questioning let alone challenging it, by some men that they’re only fit to be inferiors: with the corollary, the assumption by others that they’re in some way chosen by God as superiors...[15]

Officers, from the days of flogging, have imposed harsh discipline on their men - but they ensured that punishments were inflicted by other ranks on other ranks. By never doing their own dirty work officers preserved their superior status, power and domination. For today’s troops, while flogging and the firing squad are no longer tenable instruments for officers to maintain their control, the modern British Army retains a harsh and undemocratic punishment system. From squad to company to regiment, fines and other penalties can be dished out by officers presiding as judges. The court-martial is the pinnacle, backed up with brutal army jails.

13: Morning Star,
14th Feb. 1989.

14: Perish by the Sword,
by Simon Raven.

15: Soldier, Soldier,
ex-officer Malcolm Grant interviewed by Tony Parker,
William Heinemann Ltd 1985.

 

 

Indoctrination

With corporal punishment no longer an option for keeping soldiers in line, officers ensured that increasing emphasis was given to the indoctrination of recruits. Training is designed to mould squaddies into the Army’s way of thinking and sense of purpose and to ensure they bond with their fellow soldiers. Surgeon Commander Morgan O’Connell, then a Navy psychiatrist just back from the Falklands War, explained the process to journalist Polly Toynbee: ‘Yes we indoctrinate them in the forces. Otherwise they wouldn’t fight. That’s why we cut their hair the same, make them wear the same uniform, make the same salute, and march together. We indoctrinate them in order to enhance group cohesiveness. That’s how you get people to fight.’ [16]

A feature of this training is the crude verbal taunts, usually sexual in nature, directed at the newcomers. At first, recruits are intimidated and shocked by the physical training and the bawling out by the NCOs, but later will start to use such terms themselves and giggle when this treatment is dished out to others. Not all recruits take easily to this type of military life, and the first casualties of these methods often occurred inside the training units:

A bullying corporal made life hell for army recruits, it was claimed yesterday ... At barracks where three young soldiers have died in the last three months ... The incidents are alleged to have taken place at Shorncliffe Barracks, Kent, last summer. At the barracks in December, 17-year-old soldier Nicholas Burnup apparently shot dead a corporal and turned the gun on himself. A month later another 17-year-old, Jeffrey Singh, was found hanging dead.[17]

The inquest into the death of private Jeffrey Singh heard allegations of bullying and that he had been called a ‘black bastard’ .[18] Recently, the deaths of four recruits at Deepcut Barracks in Surrey has started a campaign by the families calling for a public inquiry into all deaths like these in the army. The Labour MP, Kevin McNamara, asked questions about Deepcut and also wanted to know the extent of such events in the army? He was told that across the army there were more than 100 deaths a year being caused by non-combatant and natural causes.

Those recruits that passed and survived training were then posted to their regiment. The regimental system binds soldiers to their particular unit and promotes competition within the army structure. It is also used to promote values that encourage ‘loyalty’:

Individual soldiers identify with this unit of 500 or 650 men [armoured regiment or infantry battalion] as their tribe or clan (tribe, clan and family are all words frequently used by the Army to describe its regiments) ... units generally have an affiliation with a specific part of the United Kingdom (especially for recruitment purposes).

... There is a corpus of sacred history, a hoard of sacred possessions (e.g. the paintings and silver of the officers’ mess), a special dress code (e.g. the scarlet tunics and bearskins of the Guards), a totem (usually called the colours), and a rigid hierarchy within which an individual’s place is clearly known to himself and others.

... The individual, commissioned or not, enters the regiment after the rite of passage of training and must then undergo a period of semi-official apprenticeship or probation ... the origins of hierarchy are often perceived as feudal, with all members being categorised as officers, non-commissioned officers or other ranks (similar classification being applied to their dependents as well), and with the social organisation and practice of the regiment generally mirroring that of ‘Old England’ (or Scotland or Ireland), an attractive mythical land to which a living link is maintained through the person of the sovereign.[19]

Once in their regiment, recruits were at risk from their fellow soldiers during unofficial initiation ceremonies, called ‘beastings’, to which the officers turned a blind eye:

A young soldier told yesterday of his ordeal during a ‘beasting’. A nightmare initiation ceremony for recruits to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers ... The 20-year-old recruit told the court (martial) that after an evening’s drinking in a pub in Colchester, where the First Battalion was based until March, he had gone back to his room to sleep.

He was wakened by [soldiers A and B], who put a motorcycle helmet on his head and told him to mark time naked beside his bed. ‘I didn’t do it fast enough, so I was hit on the head’, said Private Guthrie. He was marched naked to another room where, before a group of privates who included the accused, the initiation began.

Guthrie said [soldier C] tied a string round his private parts, and attached it to his right ankle.

Then he was forced to mark time, despite intense pain, until the string snapped. Next, said Guthrie, he was indecently assaulted with a broom handle as he bent over a table. And then, he claimed, he was burned three times on the private parts by [C] using a hand-made flamethrower - an aerosol can and a cigarette lighter.

Next, Guthrie told the court, he was forced to perform a sex act while colour photographs were taken. And finally he was put into a mattress cover, punched and kicked, and dropped through a window about 20 feet to the ground, where he was forced to crawl through the snow.[20]

Beastings are often condoned because these practices are thought to be character forming and helpful in creating bonds between the men. Officers were also known to have indulged in similar activity within their own ranks. Military experts claim that soldiers will fight: 1) For themselves - combative instincts / manly pride / survival; 2) For their mates – bonding / fear of letting the side down; 3) For the regiment - tribal loyalty; 4) For national reasons - Queen and country. Training, as well as building recruits physically and developing combat skills, is also used to strengthen the soldiers’ reasons and will to fight. This is then expanded within the regiment, as the officers try to ensure their soldiers have lost their last vestiges of individuality - and have become cogs in the army machine.

16: Guardian,
1st Nov. 1982.

17: Daily Record,
5th March 1987.

18: Independent,
12th Oct. 1987.

19: A New Model Army,
by Michael Yardley and Dennis Sewell,
WH Allen and Co 1989.

20: Daily Record,
28th Oct. 1987.

 

 

Racist Abuse

Anyone considered an outsider could often experience hostility in the regimental system, which glorifies past colonial battles and is steeped in the traditions of Britain’s imperial legacy. Often this included racist feelings towards foreigners, or anyone considered inferior. Even modern regiments exude these attitudes. The history of 45 Commando Royal Marines, which was formed in 1943, stated that at the end of the 2nd World War one of its ‘favourite’ marching songs was ‘Sambo was a Lazy Coon’ .[21]

Black soldiers often suffered high levels of racism and abuse while serving in the British Army. In 1981, the journalist Ian Jack visited an army regiment while writing a series of articles on British youth: ‘The dozen boys I spoke to were all white, from working-class homes in London, the Midlands and the West Country. The Green Jackets, however, do recruit a fair number of black youths. Slowly the conversation drifted through patriotism (“We’re English, aren’t we? I mean, we’re God’s gift”) and the riots of this summer (“daft - just to get yourself noticed”) towards the thorny and ever-present subject of race.’ Jack continued:

“Yeah we got coloured geezers, sambos and that,” said one of the louder boys, “but we take the piss. I mean last month we pretended to be the Ku Klux Klan. We put pillow cases over our heads and went around the barracks at night moaning and wailing and telling them that Maggie Thatcher was going to kick ’em all out. But everybody gets the piss taken out of them, they know it’s only a joke like. There’s this Paki, we call him Abdul. We say, ‘Give us a fag, Abdul, you nig-nog’ and he says, “Aw piss off or I’ll get my tribe down to have a go at you”, ‘I mean it’s a joke for him as well. We all do it. The corporals take the piss just as bad’.

They do. The next day Donald McCullin was photographing a black recruit behind the parade ground. A corporal passed them. ‘Oi’, he shouted, ‘remember to show ’im your lips’. I asked a young officer if this kind of behaviour presented problems. He said: ‘Well occasionally we do get blacks ganging up together in a black power kind of thing - we call them coon clans - but fortunately we’ve got some excellent black NCOs and they sort things out pretty quickly’.

In fact the Green Jackets tend to be regarded as a sloppy, pinko outfit by other units in the British Army; by, for example, the Household Regiments who appear to such stunning effect in royal pageants. The Household Regiments do not accept black recruits. ‘It’s not official policy, you understand’, said a cavalry officer, ‘it’s just that we won’t have them’.[22]

Stephen Anderson was a black soldier subjected to abuse and discrimination while serving with the Devon and Dorset Regiment in Berlin and Wiltshire. He was beaten up for refusing to go drinking with white soldiers, and his life was threatened:

He had to lock himself in a bathroom to sleep at night, and was called ‘nigger’ or ‘coon’ by NCOs. He is serving 112 days at the Army’s correction centre in Colchester after being court martialled in December for absence without leave. His mother, Mrs. Joyce Anderson, said yesterday that he had absconded because officers had refused to listen to his complaints.[23]

After his discharge, Anderson fought for justice with the help of the Commission for Racial Equality. After a four year battle he was awarded just £500 compensation and the black paper, The Voice, reported his ordeal: ‘Stephen Anderson phoned a local radio station while he was wandering about Birmingham city centre last week in a distressed state. Thousands of listeners to BBC Radio WM heard him say: “I can’t cope, I’ve had enough.” He told of the injustices he suffered at the hands of fellow soldiers in the Devon and Dorset Regiment.’ The Voice report continued:

Anderson had just been awarded £500 by the Army for the verbal and physical abuse he suffered while serving in Germany. He had been called a ‘black bastard’, ‘nigger’, ‘coon’, and ‘Rastus’ by some of his colleagues, a corporal and a sergeant. He also claimed the corporal held a knife at his throat.

In September 1987 Anderson had brought 13 complaints of serious racial abuse to the notice of his commanding officer, but in 1989 a military hearing dismissed his claims. In November 1990 a High Court judicial hearing, held in response to pressure from the Commission for Racial Equality, quashed the Army’s decision. Five of the complaints were proved, but only one of the incidents took place while Anderson was on duty.[24]

21: FourFive - The Story of 45 Commando Royal Marines 1943-1971,
by David Young,
Leo Cooper Ltd 1972.

22: The Sunday Times Magazine,
1st Nov. 1981,
report on British youth by Ian Jack.

23: Guardian,
5th Feb. 1988.

24: The Voice,
22nd Oct. 1991.

 

 

Black Soldiers

Many army regiments had a history of not wanting black soldiers. But some units, serving tours of duty in Northern Ireland in the early to mid-70s, found soldiers were leaving the army in unprecedented numbers. Desperate to replenish the ranks, a special effort was then made to gain recruits from the ‘ethnic minorities’. Once in the Army, most black soldiers were subject to racism within the ranks. Some, like Lloyd Hayes, became disturbed by the situation in the north of Ireland:

Black soldiers were being used for night foot patrols while the whites would do the cushy vehicle patrols. Some soldiers committed suicide because they were sick and tired of being in Ireland. Most of the soldiers had the following attitude to killing Irish people: ‘Ours is not to reason why, ours is to do or die.’ And many did die! On several occasions myself and a few others would try to get an explanation as to why the IRA were always ‘terrorists’ and the Protestant Paramilitary groups were never mentioned. Why the Protestants were always implied to be on the side of law and order? We were always ignored.

One of the most vivid things I remember about Northern Ireland was a chat I had with a couple of other black soldiers who had just returned from a house search. They had felt so ashamed and disgusted with the whole thing in Ireland that they had felt like leaving their rifles in the house they had just smashed up. They had gone to this house, bust down the front door, waking up the mother and the father and the five kids living there (including a one-year-old baby). They had ripped up all the mattresses on the beds, they had ripped up the floor boards, and smashed the cistern in the toilet, flooding the bathroom. After all this - all they found was a kid’s catapult and a rubber bullet that was fired through the front window by a soldier.

The thing that really got to me was the hatred with which the Catholics looked upon us - the blacks in the British Army. It was only those of us into Black Power who understood that although we were on the other side of the wire, both blacks and Catholics faced the same enemy. We, an exploited and oppressed minority like themselves, were helping our own oppressors to oppress them.[25]

Given the indifference of the officers to the abuse suffered by black recruits at the hands of white fellow soldiers and NCOs, it was hardly surprising that there was a fall-off of recruits from the black communities. In 1989 a secret report into ‘why black and coloured people shun the Armed Forces’ was ‘sending shock waves through the Ministry of Defence. It is said to contain “unpalatable facts” about racial discrimination in all three branches of the Services. Armed Forces Minister Archie Hamilton admitted last night that a massive marketing campaign was needed in ethnic communities to counter the “alienation” felt by black and Asian groups.’ [26]

A week after the secret report was presented, journalist Kate Muir visited the Guards as they rehearsed for Trooping the Colour. A guardsman was telling her about a recent posting: ‘He is interrupted by another soldier who has clearly not been invited to speak by the press officer. “We didn’t really like Belize ’cos of all the coloured people”. The others laugh. “Notice that I say coloured, not Pakis and wogs. That’s because the army isn’t racist any more”.’ [27] As racist abuse continued, a succession of stories appeared in papers highlighting the way black soldiers were being mistreated. Like Winston Clay in the Royal Artillery:

A black soldier who went AWOL after racist bullying said yesterday: “Being in jail was better than my regiment”. Scot Winston Clay put up with the abuse for several years - but eventually he couldn’t take any more. He went on the run for six months before being captured ... And the 23-year-old squaddie was banged up in the glasshouse for 56 days.

He said: “It was better in prison because people knew they couldn’t get away with racism”. ... Winston, whose dad comes from Sierra Leone, joined the regular Army in 1992 after a spell as a boy soldier. But racist bully-boys made his life hell and picked on him because he was black - and Scottish. He was told he couldn’t march because of the colour of his skin and fellow soldiers’ sick taunts included the name “Porridge Wog”.

He said: “I wanted to do my bit for my country but now I feel let down: There needs to be a system of taking care of racism - teaching people the do’s and don'ts - but that is the last thing the Army worries about”.[28]

25: Flame,
6th May 1977,
by Lloyd Hayes.

26: Daily Mail,
12th June 1989,
full page report by Paul Maurice.

27: Independent,
19th June 1989.

28: Daily Record,
13th Jan. 1997.

 

 

Real Men

Most recruits who stayed the course and qualified as ‘professionals’ become distanced from their old life and society outside. Prevalent military culture encourages the soldiers to see themselves as ‘real’ men. This macho ideology often leads squaddies into increasingly sexist views, which become a part of their army life:

Walk into any British military barracks and often there exists a culture of sexism fuelled by an under-ground market of hard-core pornography. Porn may not have the approval of senior officers but in trouble spots like Bosnia and Ulster, where virile young soldiers are often confined to barracks because of the hostility of locals, it is regarded as acceptable entertainment.

... The seeds of female debasement are sown at an early stage in a serviceman’s career. Recruits undergoing training are sometimes encouraged, if not ordered, to produce salacious pictures of girlfriends for inclusion on so-called grot boards. A grot is military-speak for a woman, and the grot boards are hung in the barrack room. The recruit who produces a picture of his girlfriend indulging in the most lurid sexual act wins a prize...[29]

After a night’s drinking in Aldershot off-duty paras would perform the ‘Dance of the Flaming Arseholes’. A soldier would clamber onto a table and strip off while his mates sang ‘The Zulu Warrior’. When naked, a rolled-up piece of newspaper was thrust into his anus and then lit. A man showed his bottle by allowing the flames to get right up to his anus before removing what was left of the paper. Paras also held ‘grot contests’ that consisted of seeing which soldier could pick up the ‘most nauseatingly ugly girl’. The women would be brought back to a certain pub at a certain time and the ‘grot’ of the evening would be judged: ‘The crowning act of utter obscenity was to obtain a woman’s hand-bag under some pretext and defecate into it.’ [30] Marilyn French, in her book The War Against Women, describes how males are conditioned and their subsequent behaviour:

From boyhood, males are bombarded with the message that ‘real’ men dominate women, which means they control women’s behaviour and may abuse them verbally and physically. ... To justify abusive treatment of women in their own minds (after all, most men love some women), men must view them as a separate species, like pigs or dogs or cows (terms often applied to women).[31]

Lance Corporal Vincent Bramley wrote a book called Excursion To Hell about his experiences with the Third Battalion of the Parachute Regiment in the Falklands War. Aboard the SS Canberra sailing to the islands he tells about the letters of support the soldiers received: ‘At home, the massive support had produced in hundreds of females a sudden liking for both the Army and Navy and they all wanted penfriends. This amused us very much. The daily sackfuls of letters were dumped in our rooms and we picked out the ones we fancied.’ Bramley continued:

The whole platoon would gather in one room, grab armfuls of letters and retreat to our cabins. There we would first feel an envelope to see if there was a photo in it, then gather around the growing pile of snaps and pick the best lookers. Some of the lads, even myself, found some right beauties, though writing back to hundreds of women was out of the question.

... Naturally, not all the photos were of beauties, and the platoons took to keeping personal ‘grot boards’. You could visit another platoon to view their board for the ‘Ugly Pig Contest’. Some of the pictures that found their way on to the boards made you wonder if England had anything worthy of Miss World. You would hear a scream of delight when someone found a ‘grot’ photo, and this would bring the rest of the platoon crashing into the cabin to look, making comments like, ‘Fuck me, who’d love that beast?’ or, ‘Pig in knickers! ’ [32]

There is probably no stronger ‘real’ men's club in Britain than that of a regiment in the British Army. Marilyn French points out the characteristics of such organisations: ‘Men seem unable to feel equal to women: they must be superior or they are inferior. They seek a centre in other men, in male solidarity through male cults (in simple societies), priesthoods, military or paramilitary groups, academies, professions, teams, religious brotherhoods, or the new male cults.’ French continued:

All of these exalt not men-as-a-caste but group members, posited as superior to most other men and all women. All such priesthoods teach xenophobia - hatred of strangers - and bigotry; all exalt some form of self-denial - austerity in living, denial of feeling or need - and all worship aggression and violence because all worship domination. Only the ability to dominate others makes them superior to women. And superiority to women is the very foundation of this kind of male identity . [33]

29: Express, 11th Oct. 1997,
article by Sean Rayment.

30: Shoot to Kill - A Soldier ’ s Journey Through Violence,
by Michael Asher,
Penguin Books 1991.

31: The War Against Women,
by Marilyn French,
Penguin Books 1993.

32: Excursion To Hell - The Battle for Mount Longdon,
by Vincent Bramley,
Pan Books 1992.

33: The War Against Women,
by Marilyn French,
Penguin Books 1993.

 

 

A Soldier’s Death in Ireland

In April 1977 the official Army magazine, Soldier, showed on its front cover a picture of a paratrooper in full combat kit being kissed by a bikini-clad model. The Dublin review Hibernia, that same month, carried a report about a soldier from the Queen’s Regiment who was charged with assaulting a Derry youth :

The DPP (NI) dropped the charge when he heard the squaddie would, when he finished his tour of duty, be starting a five year jail stretch, courtesy of the Old Bailey, for raping and assaulting a fifteen-year-old girl in England. Derry City Council marked the news of the dropping of the assault charge by passing a resolution deploring the presence on the streets of soldiers remanded on bail for serious offences . [34]

Two months later, the leniency shown in that case was matched by the Appeal Court in London. In June 1977 it revoked the jail sentence of a Guardsman who had viciously raped an 18-year-old woman. During his two and a half years in the army the Guardsman had spent six months in Northern Ireland and was said by one of his officers to have ‘an excellent record’. Earlier, in January of the same year, private Roger Surch of the King’s Regiment had admitted raping a woman while on patrol in Strabane the previous summer. He was given a two-year suspended sentence and allowed to return to his regiment, along with two other privates who admitted indecently assaulting the same woman and who received 9-month suspended sentences.

Any squaddies thought effeminate are often subjected to abuse and ill-treatment by their fellow soldiers. In September 1990, Guardsman Alex Ireland was on a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. A bit of a loner, he had difficulty fitting in with the enclosed, macho world of a professional army regiment. Admitting to being a virgin, he was teased unmercifully by his fellow soldiers, who regaled him with graphic details of their own exploits. Even on patrol in the Tyrone countryside, Alex was the victim of abuse. His NCOs were worst. He was ‘useless’, said his sergeant. ‘He’s not cut out for the Guards’ and ‘He walks like a fruit’.

After a ten-hour patrol, through which Alex was incessantly goaded, the soldiers were flown back to barracks by helicopter and settled down to sleep. The next morning the riot gun, which Alex had been responsible for, could not be found. He knew he had brought it back and thought someone had hidden it as a prank. He was summoned before some of his NCOs and told he would be sent to the military prison at Colchester if he did not find it. This was the last straw. Shortly afterwards Alex went to his room and shot himself below the heart with his SA 80 rifle.

Alex Ireland had found the combination of constant abuse from fellow soldiers and a tour of duty in Ireland too much to bear. He left a note, with a special message for his mother: ‘Tell mother I love her, tell mother I need her, tell mother not to cry, my love for her will never die. I could not hack it any longer. Your loving son, Alex.’ [35]

34: Hibernia,
1st April 1977.

35: Mail on Sunday,
14th July 1991.

 

 

Gay Soldiers

Any soldier discovered to be gay could expect an even harder time. Homosexuality was thought by many hard-line militarists to be incompatible with the macho ideology that they think the armed forces should imbue. Subsequent anti-gay prejudice often resulted in savage persecution and even suicides:

A gay private in the Drum Corps, James Darkin, was driven to take his own life in 1980 after months of bullying which the coroner at the inquest into his death described as a ‘living hell’. The inquest heard how Darkin had been thrown into a duck pond, kicked, forcibly bathed, urinated over, and scrubbed down with scouring powder. Despite repeated complaints to senior officers, they took no action and told him he should ‘stand up and be like a man’.[36]

Until 2000, soldiers who had been convicted for being gay were often sentenced to periods in army prisons. They were then dismissed from the service: ‘A 21-year-old private in the King’s Regiment was convicted and jailed for life after strangling a friend who had threatened to tell the Army about their homosexual affair. Sentences of nine months imprisonment for having a homosexual affair are not unknown. Such conduct would not be punishable under the general law.’ [37]

While homosexuality was still illegal in the armed forces any service personnel found to be gay were thrown out. An ex-officer who disagreed with this policy said: ‘Another example to me of the outmoded ideas in the Army was the subject of homosexuality. Whisper it quietly, but more than one famous Army figure of the past has been, as we’re now slowly learning from time to time, homosexual. But the official line within the Army in present day terms is that it doesn’t exist.’ The ex-officer continued:

At the first suggestion of homosexual behaviour between any of the men, they’re thrown out. The Army not only doesn’t condone homosexuality ... it closes its eyes and goes blue in the face and swears it doesn’t exist. I’ve known more than a few soldiers who’ve been turfed out for homosexual behaviour. I think most people nowadays would agree that a man’s sexual inclinations have nothing to do with his qualities as a soldier. This is something I think the Army certainly needs to bring itself into the twentieth century about.[38]

In 1980, Irish journalist Fionnuala O’Connor attended an Army court-martial in Belfast. Two Royal Military Police corporals were charged with gross indecency (i.e. having a gay relationship): ‘On the first day of the case the prosecution discovered that their defence of the indecency charges was that they had fabricated a homosexual relationship to get out of the army in a hurry; because they had become ‘disillusioned’ with service life in Northern Ireland and thought they would be deferred endlessly if they tried to buy themselves out.’ O’Connor continued:

Defence counsel placed considerable emphasis on the nature of the charges and the fact ‘Parliament in its wisdom’ had decided such behaviour should no longer be a matter for the criminal law ... He appealed to the military members of the court to put aside any prejudice they might have, ‘even on an unconscious level, against these two men. You have been put in the place of their peers and to you is entrusted fair play between the prosecution and these two soldiers - you have to look at service life through the eyes of two men disillusioned with life in Her Majesty’s forces, not as officers with distinguished careers behind you’ .[39]

The corporals were found guilty and sentenced to be reduced to the ranks, placed in detention for 56 days, and then dismissed from service.

36: Tribune,
17th July 1987,
by Peter Tatchell.

37: NCCL Report.

38: Soldier, Soldier,
ex-officer Malcolm Grant interviewed by Tony Parker,
William Heinemann Ltd 1985.

39: The Irish Times,
14th May 1980.

 

 

Getting Out

Getting out proved to be a problem for many soldiers as the army did not readily want to lose experienced men. Obtaining a discharge, especially on conscientious grounds, was a long and hard process. Even for an officer, as ex-captain Mike Biggs discovered: ‘There is a means whereby you can get out of the army on grounds of conscience, but the army doesn’t go parading that around. They never told me I could get out on grounds of conscience, even though I was asking to go out because of Northern Ireland and because of my values.’ Biggs continued:

It was only by going to an external source that I found out that the army had a means whereby conscientious objectors could go out. I was charged for refusing to do my work on grounds of conscience. They delayed a decision on my case. They employed all the normal psychological things that they do employ when someone tries to go out on grounds of conscience. Obviously it’s not very good publicity for a soldier or officer to go out on grounds of conscience. Far better if he buys himself out, or he goes out because he goes AWOL, or deserts.[40]

Ordinary soldiers could expect an even harder time, many just gritted their teeth and soldiered on. There was often a large increase in charges for petty offences before and after a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. Royal Marine Chris Byrne, who was sent to an army prison for being absent without leave, said:

After Northern Ireland I was beginning to develop pacifist and anti-military views and my tour in Cyprus when I saw that we were not there to protect human lives but only British military interests and NATO missiles trained on Russia strengthened this. I finally decided I had to get out. I went home to London without leave to think things out and when I was picked up and charged with being AWOL I was slung in jail and court-martialled for desertion.

I spent three and a half months in Colchester prison and it was an interesting experience looking back on it. The type of people I met in Colchester were, much to my surprise, mostly people who were not in fact criminals. The reasons why they were in Colchester were things that in civilian terms were not criminal offences; absences, refusing to obey certain orders and things like that. One of the surprising things was the amount of people actually in Colchester for desertions and absences and the way the prison population had increased over the period that the British Army had been in Northern Ireland. I concluded from that that sending soldiers continually back to Northern Ireland has obviously some effect on this and I think that a lot of dissatisfaction with service in Northern Ireland is manifested by drunkenness, petty offences, absences and desertions and things like that and I think this is one of the reasons the prison population went up.[41]

The soldiers who did get out were usually those who had questioned the actions they were asked to carry out. This tended to leave a more hard-core element - the ‘real’ men - who had few qualms about dishing out the aggro. In his book, Shoot To Kill, Michael Asher outlines his experiences in the Parachute Regiment. In graphic detail Asher tells about his training and his tours of duty in Northern Ireland. He describes the tension and the fights that break out between soldiers in this situation. He then describes the extremes that training, conditioning and alienation can bring out in some soldiers:

One group of soldiers would hold so-called ‘gunge’ contests. They sat round in a circle and tried to outdo each other in acts of gross obscenity, like eating shit and drinking urine. During house searches they vented their anger on their victims, smashing down doors and breaking up furniture, kicking and rifle-butting anyone who resisted, making lewd suggestions to the women of the house and threatening the children.

... The circumstances of our training, coupled with the peculiar nature of our existence in Northern Ireland - a blend of boredom, frustration and occasional terror - turned us into savages. We begged and prayed for a chance to fight, to smash, to kill, to destroy: we were fire-eating berserkers, a hurricane of human brutality ready to burst forth on anyone or anything that stood in our way. We were unreligious, apolitical and remorseless, a caste of warrior-janizaries who worshipped at the high-altar of violence and wanted nothing more.[42]

With British troops currently deployed in Iraq, we should remember that at the time Asher described Westminster politicians were always talking about the ‘peacekeeping role’ of the army - and the British media were saying ‘what a jolly good job our boys are doing’ in Northern Ireland.

40: BRM Radio, Birmingham.
The interview was broadcast on 9th Aug. 1979 -
the tenth anniversary of the conflict.

41: British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland,
Information on Ireland 1978,
by ex-Royal Marine Commando Chris Byrne.

42: Shoot to Kill - A soldier ’ s journey through violence,
by Michael Asher,
Penguin Books 1991.

 

 

Preparing for a Tour of Duty

When it became clear that the British Army was going to be in Northern Ireland for a considerable time, the generals began preparing their troops for a prolonged conflict. Special training areas were built in England and other serving areas like Germany: ‘My Tour with the British Army in Northern Ireland began three months before the RAF transport aircraft touched down on the glistening tarmac at Aldergrove Airport outside Belfast. For those months, the unit had been in Germany on a mock-up council estate. There was a pub full of faceless people, soldiers dressed up in Civ. Pop. (Civilian Population) clothing, a corner of County Down and a riot torn street.’ [43] A similar ‘mock-up’ training area was even constructed inside the rock on Gibraltar.

Many soldiers have vivid memories of this training: ‘It was reminiscent of childhood scenarios in which we were the hunter or the hunted. I enjoyed being the hunted, outwitting and outmanoeuvring, and eventually triumphing over the forces of authority. But I instinctively felt those games were abstractions that bore little relation to what Ireland would really be like.’ [44] In elite units, like the Royal Marine Commandos, the training could be extreme:

The prospect of going to Northern Ireland is very much in soldiers’ heads, all the time. Before you go you do 3 months non-stop training for it. ... This training is quite different from the usual NATO training. It’s a whole new ball game. It’s urban warfare for a start. Most of my ‘Internal Security’ training was done in the barracks. Each Company (there were four) took it in turns to be ‘rioters’ and ‘terrorists’ one day and the security forces the next. About a month before the actual tour of Northern Ireland we had to spend two weeks at a barracks in Lydd in Kent. It is here that the ‘IS’ training becomes more realistic.

Within the barracks there is a mock town consisting of several streets, alleyways and generally resembling any ordinary working class district. Practical training is given in riot control, house searching, interrogation techniques, sniper positioning and setting up secret observation posts etc., etc. The training is so realistic that every day people were injured. I used to wonder that if this is what happened during training God only knows what will happen when we get there.

Training also covers intelligence and interrogation. In one exercise, on Dartmoor, you are captured and interrogated. It’s very tough and realistic. You are beaten up, sometimes quite badly and they give you the roughest treatment they can actually give you short of putting you in hospital - though that has been known. They believe that you’ve got to know exactly what you’ve got to dish out and the best way to know is by receiving it yourself. You learn how to do these things by being a victim.[45]

This type of training had two objects, first to train the soldiers physically for urban warfare on the streets, secondly to condition them mentally for such conflict. An ‘us versus them’ mentality was created, differing little from training for conventional war, except for the terrain and circumstances over which it would be fought:

At this very moment [1977], there are British regiments training in England and in Western Germany: exercising in elaborate ‘mock-ups’ of Irish ghettos, complete with custom built houses, pubs and shops. A local population culled from the ranks of the unit being tested is assumed to be totally hostile, and is instructed to behave accordingly. Even the feminine touch is not forgotten. Members of the Women’s Royal Army Corps are specially imported to hurl abuse at the soldiers, presumably to condition them for life in the raw, Creggan or Turf Lodge fashion. There is no doubt that from a military standpoint, the training is effective. It does instil alertness and aggression. It also takes little account of the finer points of dealing with the bulk of a terrified population who actually have to live in the ghettos - for real.[46]

43: Guardian,
26th Oct. 1988,
in Young Guardian section,
by ex-soldier Simon Warsap.

44: Ibid - Guardian,
26th Oct. 1988,
in Young Guardian section,
by ex-soldier Simon Warsap.

45: British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland,
ex-Royal Marine Commando Chris Byrne,
Information on Ireland 1978.

46: Irish Press,
24th and 25th Jan. 1977.

 

 

The Conditioning of Soldiers

Another ex-soldier, Brian Ashton, described how his ‘riot-drill’ was combined with indoctrination, just before a tour of duty: ‘The training I experienced created an impression that the Catholic minority were in fact the violent section in Northern Ireland. I’ll quote one instance. We were told to become a funeral march, a Protestant funeral march, and the rest of the troops were told to be Catholics and attack us, and steal the coffin, and we were led to believe this was common practice...’ [47]

Soldiers were also given verbal briefings before a tour of duty. These were often a mixture of counter-insurgency and cold war rhetoric: ‘We were also given lectures on the situation out there at the time. Even though we were going to be deployed in a part of Belfast that consists mostly of Protestants - with one small Catholic area - the enemy was firmly defined as being the IRA, and their sympathisers (which meant all Catholics). The republican political arguments were dismissed as being communist, and we were given a lecture on the “Russian threat”.’ [48]

The Army became reluctant to divulge the information it gave to its young soldiers. In 1989, journalist Dennis Campbell visited the Queen’s Regiment at Bassingbourn Barracks in Hertfordshire and talked to a recruit: ‘During our conversation about Northern Ireland, which he started, Simon referred several times to “fighting the enemy” and “beating the terrorists”. But when I asked who he meant, and what recruits are taught to prepare them about the situation, one of his two officer “minders” stopped him replying and asked me not to discuss matters of “operational secrecy”.’ [49]

Army captain Mike Biggs experienced the training for Northern Ireland, and the effect it had on the soldiers once they were on a tour of duty:

They have these model villages where they simulate what it’s going to be like in Northern Ireland. The soldiers go out there, basically geared up to expect these unruly crowds to start throwing things at them. Everyone is under suspicion until they have proved otherwise. And, no two ways about it, there’s the delineation between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and that’s very much borne out in Northern Ireland: as a soldier you are led to believe you can trust Protestants more than Catholics...

Then there are talks by intelligence officers which point out what kind of area you’re going to. We went to what they call the ‘cowboy country’ on the border. They stressed it was a difficult place because it was predominantly Roman Catholic and that would mean trouble...

When soldiers get out there they find some of the community not as hostile, and there isn’t as much danger, as they were led to believe. I think there is this kind of compensation factor - you get soldiers going out looking for trouble. I remember being out twice trying to smooth over a situation where some of our patrols had antagonised members of the community by using threatening language and behaviour. Another patrol had driven up on the pavement: it had intimidated people just walking on the pavement. There was this idea that ‘we are occupying’ - it was very much like occupying troops: ‘Don’t you dare start complaining, otherwise - up against the wall.’[50]

47: BRM Radio, 12th Aug. 1979,
full text in Voices For Withdrawal,
Information On Ireland 1980.

48: British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland,
ex-Royal Marine Commando Chris Byrne,
Information on Ireland 1978.

49: Guardian,
1st Nov. 1989.

50: Northern Ireland - Looking Through the Violence,
article by ex-captain Mike Biggs,
Peace Pledge Union 1993.

 

 

Intimidation and Crime

The training and indoctrination, coupled with the hostile environment, turned some soldiers into unfeeling, aggressive warriors who wanted to engage in ‘aggro’ with the locals. Army units, continually sent into the midst of hostile areas, wanted to show who was boss over a population the soldiers were taught to regard as enemies of the state:

The British Army is investigating reports that soldiers have been distributing cards in South Armagh announcing “the boys are back in town”, the House of Commons was told ... One of the cards was displayed by the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon, who told MPs they were put on the cars of “selected constituents” in Newry and Armagh by 40 Commando Royal Marines. During a debate on the renewal of the Emergency Provisions Act, Mr Mallon said the cards represented a “veiled threat” from security forces entitled to use “excessive, repressive” powers in the EPA.[51]

On house raids, soldiers were often asked to bring back photos of ‘players’ - suspect members of the raided family. That, in effect, meant stealing the picture. Soldiers often took this as carte blanche to take other items that caught their eye. In 1990, the Troops Out Movement organised a meeting of ex-soldiers in London and the next day the Irish Times reported what the veterans had said about their tours of duty:

A group of former British soldiers gave graphic descriptions of the time they spent serving in Northern Ireland ... They spoke of theft and stress, intimidation and fear and of the high numbers of Northern Ireland ‘veterans’ now serving time in prison for crimes ranging from petty theft to armed robbery, rape and murder ...

David Roche did three tours of duty in Northern Ireland with the First Battalion of the Duke of Wellington Regiment between 1977 and 1982. He served in the Creggan, Belfast and Crossmaglen and never questioned his role there until after he had left the army. ‘I never had any problem at all while I was there’, he said. ‘We all just thought they were terrorists, they needed shooting. When the hunger strikers died we were dancing and rejoicing. It was one less mouth to feed - I'm sorry, but that is what we said. One less terrorist being kept by the taxpayers money’.

His attitude has changed dramatically since the time he spent doing house raids in the early hours. ‘We used to nick stuff all the time, I got me dad a silver cigarette case when I was in Derry’, he said.[52]

Other soldiers in Derry had sought out opportunities to steal goods from houses during their tours of duty: ‘Five soldiers from the 1st. Batt. Queens Regiment all pleaded guilty in a Derry court recently to a total of 12 charges of theft, burglary and receiving, involving items like tape-recorders, cassettes, perfume and tools which were taken from houses in the city last year...’[53]

It became a regular thing for soldiers to take goods from bombed-out buildings they were sent to guard. Some took this a step further and broke into buildings when on patrol:

Instead of guarding Belfast city centre eight British soldiers were burgling it, a judge said at Belfast City Commission yesterday. The eight accused had admitted stealing or handling goods worth £2,570 in five separate burglaries of city centre stores. All five men were members of the 25th Field Regiment Royal Artillery ... The goods were taken to the regiment’s headquarters in the Grand Central Hotel in Royal Avenue, in an Army Land Rover. Sergeant Myers, known in the regiment as “the Dealer”, did not take part in the burglaries but bought the goods and sold them to other soldiers...[54]

51: Irish News,
2nd March 1988.

52: Irish Times,
9th July 1990.

53: Hibernia,
1st April 1977.

54: Irish Times,
4th Feb. 1978.

 

 

Óglaigh na hHowards

Ironically, the young soldiers inside the army forts and the people in the nationalist areas outside had much in common. Often they watched the same TV programmes, listened to the same pop songs and cheered on the same football teams. The soldiers came from urban or country areas back in Britain, not unlike the territory they now patrolled and tried to dominate.

During and after the H-block prison hunger strike in 1981, republican wall paintings appeared all over nationalist areas - often painted by local youths with the support and encouragement of the community. In Britain people often live in areas where large advertisements sell various products. Sometimes, someone sneaks out at night and alters the message because they find it offensive. In Northern Ireland soldiers and policemen on night patrol often carried paint or acid ‘bombs’ or other devices to try to destroy the republican murals under the cover of darkness. This gives a clue to the true balance of forces in these areas. While the sheer concentration of soldiers and police could physically dominate any area, the security forces were non-starters in the battle for ‘hearts and minds’.

As public manifestations of cultural resistance, the wall paintings obviously had an effect on soldiers. In 1988, men from the Green Howards were serving in the Creggan area of Derry. First raised to support King William in 1688, the Green Howards then travelled with him to Ulster and fought for him at the battle of the Boyne. In 1988, 300 years later, units from this regiment were still doing tours of duty in the north of Ireland and some of these soldiers painted their own mural inside the gates of their fort. Republican wall paintings are often dedicated to Óglaigh na hÉireann - which means Army of Ireland or the IRA in English. The Green Howards’ mural was captioned: ‘Óglaigh na hHowards’.

In nationalist areas over the past thirty years, young men and women had grown up knowing nothing else but armed soldiers and police on their streets, ‘wriggly-tin’ military forts close by, army lookout posts on every high building and helicopters constantly in the sky. The harassment and repression they suffered did not defeat them, and in the end only fuelled their resistance. Some soldiers, on the other hand, found that the contradictions inherent in their situation – and the claustrophobic atmosphere inside their forts – were too much to bear.

On 25th February 1979, Trooper Edward Maggs was shot dead in West Belfast. At the time, his death was front page news, different from the usual couple of sentences, ‘... last night another soldier ...’, printed at the bottom of page five. According to military sources Maggs had been drinking inside the Woodburn Army base when he had suddenly started firing at other soldiers, killing Corporal John Tucker and seriously injuring Lance Corporal David Mellor, before he himself was shot dead by fellow soldiers. His father, retired bank official Douglas Maggs, said:

We don't know what went wrong yet. All we’ve been told is that Eddie cracked up, ran amok with a rifle and was shot dead by another soldier to prevent further bloodshed. This wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been sent to Northern Ireland for a second time. He was a victim of Northern Ireland just as surely as if he’d been shot in the back by a sniper’s bullet. My son loved the Army, but four months out there last year finished him. He was terrified of going back. He planned to get out before his 21st birthday this September, and he’d applied for a job as a fireman in London. He was a good soldier, and I only hope that some good will come out of this tragedy.[55]

His mother, Pamela Maggs, added: ‘We adopted Eddie when he was six. Before he came to us his life had been rotten. We gave him all the love we could. He was always crazy about being a soldier, but he was desperately scared of returning to Northern Ireland’ .[56]

55: Daily Mirror - front page,
26th February 1979.

56: Daily Mirror,
26th February 1979.

 

 

Problems in Civvy Street

The early years of the conflict in Northern Ireland coincided with the latter years of the Vietnam War. One legacy of the USA’s involvement in Vietnam was the psychological problems that afflicted many of the GIs after they returned home. In 1990, fifteen years after the ending of the Vietnam War, a study in the USA found that over fifteen per cent of Vietnam veterans were still suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many with this condition were unemployed and liable to abuse alcohol or drugs. Seventy per cent had failed marriages and almost half had served terms in prison. Since 1969 many thousands of young soldiers from Britain have served tours of duty in Northern Ireland, faced varying degrees of hostility and taken part in violent confrontations. While the scale of the conflict was undoubtedly greater in Vietnam, there is increasing evidence that a significant number of ex-soldiers who served in Northern Ireland have experienced rehabilitation difficulties, which parallel those of the Vietnam veterans.

In the US, in 1991, a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless stated that ‘One- third of single men who are homeless are ex-service veterans’ and that ‘One-half of veterans who are homeless have drug/alcohol problems.’ Three years later, in 1994, a study by CRISIS into homeless people in London found that ‘Around one-quarter of all single homeless people have served in the forces.’ Twenty-nine per cent of the ex-service people interviewed said they were suffering from nerves, depression and stress. Forty-one per cent of them had spent time in prison. Some veterans have committed violent acts against family members or strangers, subsequently creating more victims of the conflict. Like the Vietnam veterans, for British ex-soldiers the aftermath of strife has often meant -Suicide / Alcoholism / Divorce / Homelessness / Prison - and this is happening on a much larger scale than is generally known.

In my book Hidden Wounds I showed how the MoD and successive British governments have turned a blind eye to the plight of their Northern Ireland veterans and offered little help to those ex-soldiers who had difficulty settling back into Civvy Street. [57] Over the past three decades thousands of Northern Ireland veterans have served time in British jails and there are many hundreds still in the prison system, a much higher percentage than the average for any other profession. Dr Morgan O’Connell is an ex-armed forces consultant psychiatrist who treated the psychological wounded during the Falklands conflict. In a subsequent interview in the Belfast Telegraph Dr O’Connell said that ‘a separate prison should be established to deal with the needs of increasing numbers of former servicemen now behind bars.’ The article continued:

Dr O’Connell, who was attached to the Royal Navy and was with the Forces in the Falklands war, claims there are a disproportionate number of ex-servicemen in the prison system suffering from mental disorders like PTSD. He recently set up a PTSD management programme at Holy Cross Hospital in Haslemere, Surrey, and was struck by the number of ex-servicemen attending fresh from prison.

Dr O’Connell says there needs to be a special therapeutic community established to deal with the problems of the ex-servicemen. ‘I’m not trying to say that they should not be in prison but that their misbehaviour reflects a traumatic experience they endured while serving their country and that condition needs to be examined.’

PTSD is a syndrome arising out of an unusual experience - the experience that created the condition is trapped in the victim’s memory and can be triggered at any time. When the event involves extreme violence, failure to treat the condition means that the victim is in effect ‘a walking time-bomb’ waiting to go off at any time.[58]

As a consequence of not receiving any help for their rehabilitation back into Civvy Street, or treatment for conditions like PTSD, many ex-soldiers have found themselves without a job, homeless and often drinking to excess and/or taking drugs. A course that frequently leads to trouble - often violence against family members or strangers - and jail. Intensively trained to use brute force to impose a military solution on the streets of Belfast and Derry, some Northern Ireland veterans have brought their violence home. Since 1969, probably more deaths and injuries have been inflicted on the civilian population in Britain by returning soldiers than by IRA bombings.

57: Hidden Wounds - the problems of Northern Ireland veterans in Civvy Street,
by Aly Renwick,
Barbed Wire 1999. 

58: Belfast Telegraph,
16th March 1998.

 

 

The ‘Harmless’ Killers

After the series of counter-revolutionary operations in the early 70s, the army top brass could see that the more direct methods used in far off places were proving counter-productive in the north of Ireland - a message reinforced by the spate of world wide protests after Bloody Sunday in Derry. The army quickly realised that it required a technology for limited war in a European industrialised environment, coupled with a strategy for application.

In 1969, British soldiers on the streets only had a few items of ‘riot-control’ equipment, but by the mid-70s a whole apparatus of repressive items were in stock. When first used in the north of Ireland, it was claimed that many of these new weapons were ‘humane’ because they did not inflict physical damage or death. In fact, agents like CS gas brought ill health to many who suffered its use. In 1970, rubber bullets were introduced in north of Ireland:

The history starts in another British colony, Hong Kong. Hong Kong has gross inequalities of wealth; wages, working conditions and housing are appalling. The system of government is undemocratic. There have been periodic uprisings, and ‘law and order’ is maintained by a large police force backed up by units of the British army.

In the 1960s the Hong Kong police developed a dramatically new form of truncheon to control riots. Called a ‘baton round’, it was a combination of a truncheon and a bullet. It was a teakwood cylinder, just over an inch long, which could be fired into crowds. The police were now able to strike demonstrators from a distance, with less risk to themselves. A heftier version, seven-and-a-half inches long and one-and-a-half inches in diameter and weighted with a metal core, was also developed.

In 1966-67 there were widespread anti-colonial riots. Baton rounds were used. Despite the fact that they killed a girl, and that they caused serious injuries both from impact and from splintering, the authorities considered them a great success. The wooden bullet was considered for use in the North of Ireland, but was rejected as being too dangerous (though clearly thought ‘safe’ enough for Asians). After a nine-month crash research programme at Porton, a new version, made of rubber, was produced.

... Simon Winchester, a Guardian reporter, has described how in July 1970, the ‘charming press officer’ of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers ‘showed the soft and squidgy things to reporters’. Winchester quotes an Observer reporter as saying, ‘Soon they’ll be lobbing grenades full of confetti ... You can’t take this sort of thing seriously at all.’ Clearly the reporters were not invited to handle rubber bullets themselves. For the missiles are anything but ‘soft and squidgy’. They are harder than car tyres. They are cylinders, five-and-three-quarter inches long, one-and-a-half inches in diameter, weighing a third of a pound. They leave the gun at 160 miles per hour.

The army deliberately substituted the term ‘rubber bullet’ for the official term ‘baton round’. Major Clayton, Military Programmes Manager for the manufacturers, Schermuly, wrote in the Defence Attaches’ Quarterly that the aim was to get a ‘slightly humorous’ image, and commented, ‘looking back it does seem as if that aim was achieved’.[59]

The people of Hong Kong, who had suffered the use of the original weapon, were not laughing. Neither were the people in nationalist areas, who now had to face soldiers armed with rubber bullets. Soon this weapon with the ‘slightly humorous’ image was to claim one of its first victims:

At 9am on 4th November 1971, paratroopers put every resident of Tullymore Gardens in Andersonstown, West Belfast, under house arrest. This angered Mrs Emma Groves, whose house had been raided earlier that morning. She told her daughter to play an Irish rebel song as a protest. Her daughter put on Four Green Fields, a song which tells how one of the four Irish provinces is held in bondage by Britain.

Within minutes a soldier fired a rubber bullet through her open window, at about eight yards range, striking Mrs Groves in the face. In hospital, she had both her eyes removed. Years later she received £35,000 compensation - a de facto admission of guilt by the army - but the soldier concerned was never charged.[60]

Local residents, who had tuned in their radios to the Army wavelength, heard a soldier say on his walkie-talkie ‘I hope we killed the cunt.’ Rubber and then plastic bullets, fired by soldiers or policemen, went on to kill seventeen people, eight of whom were children. Many more people, like Emma Groves, were maimed. The true use of ‘riot control’ equipment was as weapons of intimidation, used to clear local people from their own streets, in circumstances where the use of real bullets would have been counter-productive:

Most commonly the objective is to maximise repression, subject to a constraint that any political backlash must be kept to manageable proportions. Backlash depends not on how harmless the technologies are, but on how harmless they seem. ‘Humanitarianism’, then, is not an objective, but a propaganda claim. When CS gas was first used, for example, official sources argued that, if the Army were not using gas, they would have to use guns. In fact, the Army has used gas alone only in situations where gunfire would have been politically unacceptable - against unarmed crowds. It has not been gas or guns but gas and guns. This combination enabled the Army to exercise maximum repression.[61]

59: They Shoot Children - The Use of Rubber and Plastic Bullets
in the North of Ireland,
by Liz Curtis,
Information On Ireland 1982.

60: Ibid - They Shoot Children - The Use of Rubber and Plastic Bullets
in the North of Ireland,
by Liz Curtis,
Information On Ireland 1982.

61: The Technology of Political Control,
by Carol Ackroyd, Karen Margolis, Jonathan Rosenhead and Tim Shallice,
Pluto Press 1980.

 

 

Weapons of Social Control

Northern Ireland became a testing ground for the production of systems and weapons for social control. In 1978, the Irish Times reported on the profits to be made from these developments: ‘Earlier this year (April 5th) over £200 millions worth of defence communications equipment was sold by British firms to Saudi Arabia. The systems will be mainly for use in internal security and the installation will be monitored by the British Ministry of Defence. The system absorbs refinements developed “on the ground” in Northern Ireland.’ The report continued:

During May of last year the British Ministry of Defence sold equipment and services to the Shah of Iran to the value of £200 million. And a proportion of that sum was for anti-terrorist and counter-terrorist expertise and equipment. The personnel of half-a-dozen anti-terrorist agencies have been on liaison or ‘secondment’ tours of duty in the North, as have the boffins and the product-testers of a wide range of espionage equipment. When we read of Britain’s Special Air Service involvement in the rescue of hostages at Mogadishu, that is but an accidental spin-off which Britain’s anti-terrorist industry has been quietly garnishing for years.

What, specifically, have been the military advantages to Britain of the Northern situation? Primarily, an actual role for an Army which at 172,000 (land forces of 1970) was being drastically run down until the IRA revived it during the 1970s. Subsidiary benefits included an accelerated development of materials and equipment during the ’70s, geared specifically to urban disturbances, street surveillance, limited local response in riot control - the hardware and software of reaction, from night sights to miniature, unmanned helicopters for street and area surveillance. Add computer storage of intelligence input and you are naming the kind of industrial expertise most countries of the world now have a use for.[62]

Much of this equipment was related to the task of intelligence gathering. Soldiers manning the concrete towers, built along the border in the late 80s, have a vast array of devices to protect them and enable them to provide information:

The range of technical back-up available to even the ordinary squaddie is impressive. His function, in such as the South Armagh outposts, is to provide a continuous stream of raw intelligence which he does by keying in car numbers and ‘sightings’ of persons on his computer terminal. In this way a pattern of normality is quickly established against which the unusual will stand out. He has a directional, ‘shotgun’ mike, with which he can eavesdrop on conversations up to 300 yards away; camera equipment for logging strange faces; and, for whiling away those long nights, the Multi-Role Thermal Imager, capable of detecting and displaying the infra-red ‘signature’ from an object even in total darkness. In rural areas he is protected by systems like TOBIAS (Terrestrial Oscillation Battlefield Intruder Alarm Systems) which makes use of up to 20 passive geophones - some of which may be several miles away - to detect the movement of men or vehicles.[63]

Even during the peace process soldiers were still being issued with new equipment for testing on their tours of duty. In 1996, during the first IRA ceasefire, it was reported that: ‘Soldiers from the Prince of Wales’s Own Yorkshire Regiment are testing a new night vision system on the streets of Northern Ireland ... They patrol wearing a high-tech goggle strapped over one eye, which relays views of the surrounding area via a sophisticated electronic array mounted on their rifles. “This is a new generation of night-vision equipment”, said an army spokesman, saying that the trials were proving to be very successful.’ [64]

In 2001 a new plastic bullet was issued to soldiers and policemen in Northern Ireland. The bullet, the L21A1, was described as being ‘lighter, faster, aerodynamically shaped and manufactured from a stiffer material’. An MoD report admitted that ‘The severity of injuries to the brain is likely to be greater with the L21A1, due to higher pressures on the brain, and the greater penetration of the projectile.’ [65]

62: Irish Times,
27th April 1978.

63: The Phoenix,
6th Oct. 1989.

64: Morning Star,
24th Sept. 1996.

65: Guardian,
7th April 2001.

 

 

Profits and Costs

Every year the British Government’s Defence Export Services Organisation holds a week-long Royal Navy and British Army Equipment Exhibition. While scores of British companies display their wares, the exhibition is closed to the British public. It is open, however, to a long, but secret, list of prospective buyers from overseas governments - including many who have an abysmal human rights record. The ‘Arms Trade’ is one of the few world markets where Britain can claim to be a leading seller. In 1993, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement Jonathan Aitken told the House of Commons: ‘Britain’s defence exports for 1992 were £4.5 billion, representing 20% of the world market. Those were record figures. In the month of January 1993, British companies won orders in the middle and far east with a value approaching that of our world-wide defence exports for the whole of 1992, so we now expect that 1993 will be another record-breaking year. We regard this as a satisfactory contribution to the economy.’ [66] These levels of arms sales have continued under New Labour.

While firms and individuals made huge profits from the new technology of repression, it was British taxpayers who paid for the on-going conflict. In 1992-93, the subvention to Northern Ireland was £3.3 billion (this was the figure for public spending in NI over and above what NI raised itself in taxes). This figure included the costs of the police and prisons, but did not include the costs of the Army. The cost of the Northern Ireland commitment for the British Army was estimated for 1993 to be £405.6 million. In 1992 and 1993 two IRA bombs in the City of London caused damage estimated to be approaching £1.8 billion. In 1993, Tony Benn MP issued this statement: ‘I asked the House of Commons research department to calculate the total cost of the emergency and, at current prices, the cost of the war has been £14.5 billion.’ [67]

After its secret report, Northern Ireland - Future Terrorist Trends, most Army commanders agreed that the IRA could not be defeated. The Army top brass, however, were not slow to realise that soldiers continually involved in a real, if limited, war would become some of the ‘best trained’ in the world. Cynically, many senior officers began to look upon Northern Ireland as a training ground:

When soldiers moved on to the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969, Lt-Gen Sir Ian Freeland, General Officer Commanding in the province, gloomily predicted they would be there for 10 years. He thought he was erring on the side of pessimism. But he also foresaw hidden benefits for the new model army, recreated after the end of National Service, in that respect he displayed more prescience ... Northern Ireland has given several generations of officers and NCOs the experience of commanding troops in action. Lieutenant-colonels, in their late thirties, responsible for the safety of 500 men in, say, West Belfast or the dangerous border country round Bessbrook Mill, have matured as battalion commanders in the province.

The details might be specific to Northern Ireland. But the lessons have a wider application - which found full expression seven years ago in the Falklands. The proficiency of those who landed at San Carlos owed much to their experience in Ulster. The battles for Port Stanley and Goose Green were partly won in Belfast and Londonderry ... The hiss of an incoming bullet in the Falls probably trains a soldier more quickly and efficiently than two weeks in a classroom at the School of Infantry, as senior officers privately acknowledge.

... A new generation of young men have grown up with no memory of life before 1969. To them the Army has always been in Ulster. The Army has thus become not only one of the world’s most experienced in countering terrorism but one whose fighting edge has been finely honed.[68]

Similar claims are now being made for the British troops deployed in Iraq.

66: Hansard,
9th Feb. 1993.

67: Statewatch,
Nov.-Dec. 1993.

68: The Times,
8th Aug. 1989,
by Henry Stanhope.

 

 

The Continuing Tragedy

Since 1969, under the control of extreme right-wing officers, armed British soldiers were continually sent out onto the streets and countryside in the north of Ireland. Westminster politicians knew that among the British people there was widespread disillusionment with the ongoing conflict. Ireland, therefore, had to become a forgotten war. The prominent details of soldiers’ deaths in papers would have contradicted this, so subsequent reports moved gradually from a prominent position to a few lines on an inside page. Refusing to allow the names of soldiers killed in Northern Ireland to be added to war memorials was another issue that caused distress to soldiers and their relatives. As Soldier magazine reported:

It is saddening that unseemly wrangling over the commemoration of soldiers killed in Northern Ireland has followed in the wake of the Warrenpoint Massacre in which nearly a score of soldiers were slaughtered. Press reports have told of the powers-that-be in towns and villages where some of the dead came from, refusing to allow the soldiers ’ names to be added to the local war memorials ... All manner of shuffle-footed justification have been offered as excuses for not placing the names of Northern Ireland victims on memorials. And one can only speculate on the real reasons, be they a fear of reprisals from terrorists or a belief that the conflict in Ireland is not really a war (as one eminent contemporary politician was reported as saying of the Suez campaign in 1956: “ This is not war, it is armed conflict ” - then as now, it did not make the bullets less lethal or the dead come back to life).[69]

Over decades the army had became firmly entrenched in Northern Ireland, with the troops facing a continuous cycle of tours of duty. In a typical army unit’s ‘patch’ soldiers could find themselves guarding RUC posts and protecting police on patrol, raiding nationalist homes in the early morning and sometimes engaging in gun battles with ‘terrorists’. The squaddie’s main tasks usually consisted of manning the extensive ‘security network’ of bases and observation posts, and patrolling hostile territory:

Within two hours of arriving at Belfast, I was already on patrol, crouched on a street corner, trying to merge with the brickwork. The unit we were replacing passed by in a coach to catch the plane we arrived in. Soon we would be occupying their beds, mess halls and sangers - the look-out posts. For nearly four months I moved between two prisons. One was a modern halogen-lit city of concrete, steel and wire, the other a cold, stone, Victorian fortress. One’s attachment to ‘green baggy skin’, the flak-jacket, was total.

The only time an ordinary soldier in Northern Ireland has time to collect his thoughts is during long stints in the sangers. I was almost thankful, especially at night, when the duty corporal locked me into the sanger. This signalled three hours of solitude and peace, apart from the background mush of the radio and the occasional squawk of the intercom. Sangers are paradoxical. In a chilly sanger one fought the cold, the boredom, the longing for a cigarette or a pen and paper. But when it was hot there was another kind of danger. The heat can be seductive, the mind can wander, but you’re not allowed to open the window. If you lost the fight against sleep it cost you 28 days’ detention and loss of pay.

Our unit was hopelessly undermanned. The sanger routine was one of many tasks. In between these tasks - even when you were supposed to be asleep - you could be summoned to clean windows or scrub floors in preparation for some high-ranking visit. There was no time off. I remember being attacked by a corporal for daring to question him for waking me just two hours into a dead sleep. He too was under pressure, lacking sleep, missing his family. For a split second I could happily have shot him.

Everybody was stretched to the limits of their ragged tethers. But as is the English way, emotion rarely surfaced; it was suppressed. But the jocular army ‘mateyness’ often went sour. Accommodation was a joke. The kitchen was shared with rats. The distribution of work was archaic, doubtless unchanged since Aden, Suez or Korea. Few of us, including me, had any understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland. The crushing routine insulates the soldiers even more from evaluating this situation in which they themselves are so significant. If I had been encouraged to ask questions and had been better informed, I’d never have joined up. But when you ask a question in the Army, you’re told you’re not paid to think, you’re paid to do.[70]

Unfortunately, the tragedy continued for both the soldiers and the Irish people - as exemplified by a few days in May 1981. This was a very tense time on the Twinbrook estate in West Belfast. A former resident, 27-year-old Bobby Sands, republican prisoner and MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, had died after sixty-six days on hunger strike. Huge crowds had followed his funeral cortege from Twinbrook to Milltown cemetery.

Ten days later a patrol of four army landrovers were moving around the estate, just after reports had been received that five other soldiers had just been killed in an IRA ambush in South Armagh. They had been travelling in a six-wheeled Saracen armoured car when a 1,000 lb culvert bomb had exploded beneath them. The massive explosion had ripped the ten-ton Saracen apart, leaving an 8-metre-wide crater in the road. The five soldiers killed were 19-year-olds Andrew Gavin and Paul Bulman, John King, 20, Michael Bagshaw, 25, and Grenville Winstone, 27. The explosion occurred less than a mile from the home of Raymond McCreesh, 24, who himself was to die two days later, after 61 days on hunger-strike.

The soldiers on the landrovers travelling around Twinbrook looked tense, and were clearly agitated. Some shouted abuse at the locals, suggesting they wanted revenge ‘for our five mates’. Twelve-year-old Carol Ann Kelly was returning home after buying a carton of milk at the local shop. Outside her next door neighbour’s house, she was shot in the head by a plastic bullet, fired by a soldier in a passing landrover. The five ounces of hard plastic left the soldier’s riot gun at 180 mph. Carol Ann cried out for help, then slowly collapsed. She died two days later in hospital. Carol Ann was the fifth child to be killed by plastic bullets - most died from shots fired to the head at close range.

That series of incidents contains within it many of the contradictions inherent in Britain’s military involvement in Ireland:

  • A jailed IRA ‘terrorist’, who received over 30,000 votes to become a MP while on hunger strike, and whose funeral was attended by over 100,000 people.
  • The killing, by the IRA, of five soldiers in an armoured vehicle, in an operation that required local knowledge and co-operation.
  • Then the killing of an Irish child, within yards of her home, by a British soldier with a ‘harmless’ riot control weapon.

Partition had created an unjust, sectarian and unstable Northern Ireland - which was always liable to implode. Westminster, by turning a blind eye to its abnormalities, only increased the underlying tensions. During the conflict even the Army top brass, with their 1978 secret report Northern Ireland, Future Terrorist Trends, were admitting that they could not win. It was clear that a stalemate existed, which only a political solution could unlock - but it would be almost two more decades before Westminster politicians would consider implementing a process of conflict resolution. Meanwhile, as the Army perfected its techniques and polished its expertise in Northern Ireland, manufacturers made huge profits from security equipment tested in this training ground. Compliant media coverage ensured that few critical voices were raised, while British taxpayers footed the massive bill for the decades of conflict - and British soldiers and Irish people paid with their lives.

69: Soldier Magazine,
Feb. 1980.

70: Guardian,
26th Oct. 1988,
by ex-soldier Simon Warsap.

 

 

......................© 2004 Aly Renwick / TOM....................

 

Now read chapter eleven of Oliver’s Army
The Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove

Shoot-to-kill & collusion