“The Army” series, came about through my Niece, Penny, requesting some information on my Army days. She was doing some sort of project that required a “behind the scenes” view of military life, so I started to jot things down.
I got a little carried away!
After my initial burst, as documented in the previous few “The Army” posts, I was asked about my time in Northern Ireland.
This is the result. It was written in 2011.
For more like this click on the Tag “My Life”.
A bit about our time in Northern Ireland – Omagh, County Tyrone
[This is our particular experience. Procedures were constantly changing depending on the risk at the time, hostile activity, whether families accompanied or not and the length of tour.]
Prior to going we had to register our car with NI plates. This is done via DVLA who have special arrangements to ensure that there is not a “block” of numbers that are all forces!
We were told which ferry to use and numbers of military personnel, per ferry, were restricted.
Military personnel did not acknowledge each other on the ferry, even if they were well known to each other.
We were given a choice of 2 routes to use within NI and were not allowed to deviate. This ensured that the routes could be swept by military personnel at all times. (Panel vans were often used with one way vision rear windows). We had a specific time in which to complete the journey.
If we encountered any military check point, at any time, I had to show my ID card below the window line such that it could be seen by the soldier but not by anyone else.
On entering the barracks, all cars proceeded through a chicane of blast walls so that any risk was minimised. (Omagh barracks had a car bomb driven in and detonated shortly before we arrived!) We were checked by a single soldier close by with a second soldier covering him from a distance.
Once into Lisanelly Barracks we were given the keys to our house and, later that day, our belongings and furniture arrived.
Some houses, on one particular side of the camp, were left empty, because they had been damaged by fire bombs thrown over the perimeter wall. These were probably incidents performed by youngsters. Nice thought!
I had to regularly go into town to the bank, often carrying large sums of money. I wore civilian clothes and always tried to be discrete and to talk as little as possible. That’s fine until one of the cashiers says, at the top of her voice, “Are you from the Barracks then?”
When parking the car, I tried to ensure that I could view it from a distance with as few obstructions as possible. This helped when it came to returning to it. I could check for anything suspicious whilst approaching and I became very adept at tying my shoelaces and doing press-ups very quickly without too many people noticing. It became routine to do this and to check under the seats before getting in. I still check round my car but now for tyres and bumps!
One year Claire was due to fly in, from school, on 12th July. Because this is the day for Orange Marches, to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne, we had to get special permission to leave the barracks to collect her from the airport. On the way we found that the motorway was closed because of a security alert and we were diverted onto side roads. Unfortunately, we ended up in the middle of an Orangemen convoy of cars with no way of avoiding them. We were stuck in the middle for some considerable time. Very unsettling! If you have ever heard of the saying “sixpence, half a crown” this was definitely such a time. (Ask a friend!)
We were able to travel within specific areas. Other areas were a definite no go. Armagh for example was, and is, a hot bed IRA area. Our main operational area (I was with 2nd Battalion Royal Green Jackets) was the Strabane/Castelderg area on the border with Eire.
We sometimes went to Gortin glen, a really lovely area close to Omagh, and we felt almost normal at such times and were able to almost forget the circumstances of our restricted life. We also enjoyed going to the North coast and blew away the cobwebs at the Devils Causeway.
Always, at the back of our minds, were the unspoken thoughts and concerns that lots of people, who looked and behaved exactly as everyone else, would quite like to kill us or anyone else who did not fit in to their ways.
We were warned on arrival that opposite the entrance to the barracks was an office block which was constantly manned with people who were taking photographs and notes of all arrivals and departures. I suppose that intelligence gathering is a vital part of any war!
Erica “signed on” in NI and was given a fictitious address to use. However, she found it very difficult to cope with friendly ladies asking what she had been doing, where she lived, what she wanted to do. She met a young man on several visits and he appeared to realise she was a soldiers wife, she believed he was an ex policeman but neither could be open and honest.
During our time there Erica had to go to hospital in Belfast. Belfast was not a nice place to visit. She was driven by a young lady driver, was a little disturbed by the pistol on the seat beside her, and not entirely happy with all of the road blocks and paramilitary types between her and the hospital. Belfast had bunkers on the tops of blocks of flats. Most were IRA bunkers!
Our House was alongside the Helipad – a very large area where the helicopters were stored, serviced, took off and landed, apart from the Chinooks. They landed on the sports fields. Consequently, we were always aware if something big was happening. We saw the bomb disposal teams coming and going, the stores being loaded and unloaded. One night, a particularly low flying heli lifted our garden shed and deposited it 3 gardens down!
As a Warrant Officer I had to take turns to man the Operations room during the night. This involved handling communications by radio, telephone and teleprinter and acting as the link between the barracks and all patrols. It was stressful at times, especially if there was “contact” with any hostiles. You could detect the edginess, the fear and the adrenaline over the radio but felt almost helpless in that you were unable to see or hear what was happening because the radio procedure on contact was “Contact. Wait out”………………………… What the hell was happening, they were too occupied to let you know!
A lot of the equipment that is used by soldiers is dangerous. Guns, explosives, helicopters, large vehicles, bayonets, heavy objects.
In my tour of Northern Ireland more soldiers were killed and injured by accidents than by hostile action. This is probably true of all deaths in NI but don’t quote me on that.
We had a major helicopter crash where, miraculously, only one soldier was killed. One poor young lad was very seriously injured and burned. He crawled away from the crash site and was not found immediately. Amongst other horrific injuries he lost his sight and has been a resident of St Dunstans ever since.
One young Corporal was married to an absolutely stunningly pretty and highly intelligent girl. They were a lovely couple. He became insecure and could not understand why she had chosen to marry him. He attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He survived and appeared to recover fully. However, the second time round he made sure and shot himself through the roof of his mouth. What a tragic waste.
Despite all this, life went on. People got married, children were born, relatives died, gardens were created and thrived, church, shopping, parties, all of life carried on.
Whilst writing this I am brought to tears! What a tragic waste of life but how privileged I am to have experienced what the majority cannot even contemplate and how fortunate I am to have had Erica beside me.
Pause for thought
What is the difference between a bunch of lads, noisy, brash, slightly offensive, standing on a street corner and a troop of lads patrolling the streets in NI or Afghanistan?
There is an almost even split between the number of British troops killed in combat situations and the number killed in non-combat situations – that is, in accidents, friendly fire incidents or from natural causes.
The IRA killed almost twice the number of British soldiers in one year (1972) as Iraqi insurgents have killed over more than three years.