04 – March 1991

We had a routine in Bessbrook and I think it went something like this. You’d spend 9 days up in a Romeo Tower observing and stagging on.   Then, you’d be on Guard Duty which was 1 hour in the carpet sangar, the Roof top, Back gate, Front Gate, and the Heli Sangar – I can’t for the life of me remember if there were any other rancid, stale spunk smelling sangars left. The guard duty would be 8 hours, then you’d do QRF which might mean a local patrol and then there was 8 hours off. I’m sure we were doing these in the irregular periods of 9 days, possibly to give the impression of chaos. We would then have Permanent Check Point duty – 12 hours on / 12 hours off. We had Alpha, Bravo and Charlie covering all access to the base and into Bessbrook. Then we had patrols and that was probably the most exciting as we got free helicopter rides all over south Armagh.

A typical brick ready for patrol. Note the VJ (for those who know).

A typical brick ready for patrol. Note the VJ (for those who know).

+++++Today, was my 8 hours QRF and we were queue-ing to zero our sites. There was a range built in to the base. It was basically a corrugated tunnel with a Figure-12 target at the other end. It was my turn. I got down in the prone position while Rossy shouted the order to load.
+++++“With a magazine of 5 rounds. Load!”
+++++Open up the chest webbing pouch. Remove the magazine. Turn over and check the top round is seated securely in the housing. Safety catch to ‘S’.
+++++“What the fuck you doing?”
+++++I looked up.
+++++“Do the drills correctly.”
+++++Place the magazine into the magazine housing. Check it’s secure. Rest the weapon.
+++++Rossy continued and gave me the order to make ready.
+++++Check safety catch set to S.
+++++“Do the drills correctly, or I’ll fucking kick you in the head.”
+++++Check sights – set to 100. Change lever to ‘R’. Tilt weapon to the left. Pull back the cocking lever and release. (We weren’t told to forward assist at this early stage in the life of the SA80). Put the butt in to the shoulder and look through the rear end of the SUSAT (the 4 x Optical Sight).
+++++“To the target in front, 5 rounds, carry on.”
+++++I switched the selector to ‘F’ and put the Tritium pointer over the centre of Paddy the IRA bomber and squeezed the trigger. The sharp crack assaulted my ears like a whiplash, despite having the bulging green ear defenders on.
+++++I managed to get 5 rounds in to a 40mm grouping. Hardly difficult giving that we were only 20m from the target, however they were not in the chest where I put my pointer. They were in the shoulder.
+++++“Turn that 3 clicks left and 1 down,” Rossy told me pointing to the range selector on my SUSAT. There were screws that adjusted sights so that they were ‘zeroed’ to you. “Think of your drills, yeah?” I nod. “Practice a bit more and get them right. Cos when the time comes and all you’re doing is looking for the safety catch, it’ll be too late. Got it?” I nod. I was told about him and his temper. I was trying, but I don’t know what I was doing wrong. Russ Lewis, the BSM, was to sum it up later on in the tour, saying that I was a youngun’. In some respects I was like a 1 week old Labrador, running wild in a busy city centre. But, some of the other lads who were my age, weren’t like this.

We got called back in and later in the day after a patrol the whole team relaxed in our tiny cubby hole of a room. Two bunkbeds and two wardrobes, a small window for light. Weapon parts were sprawled all over the place. Dinga sat on the lower part of his bunk, Cuz was already finished and Rossy and me were near a small table.
+++++Rossy picked up my SUSAT, peered at it. Something in my chest sank – it’s like I’d been kicked. Fuck. I hadn’t changed the sites and you can tell if nothing has moved, because they are numbered. He looked at me, SUSAT sight in hand, “Did you change the sights like I told you after the zeroing?”
+++++Options were rattling through my mind, but I was already too late, a millisecond and I’d have been too late. Rossy could smell a lie and a blag – he must have blagged a thousand times, and you know what they say, ‘you can’t bullshit a bullshitter’. Shit. “No. I forgot.” The muscles in my face sort of dropped like I’d somehow resigned myself to the consequences. He had two options…  and he took the less expensive option.

This was no playground. It was life or death.

“…We’re not fucking around here.  This is life and death…”

+++++My head snapped back from the force of the punch. I couldn’t feel anything at the moment. I don’t think it was intended to be a hard punch or I’d be picking up teeth. Blood trickled down my chin. Dinga looked away and carried on cleaning the gas regulator.
+++++I touched my lip. It was cut.
+++++“Clean your mouth up,” he said. I got up and walked out of the room and to the toilets. Coming out I passed a Lieutenant.
+++++“You alright? What happened to you?” He asked.
+++++“I hit a door, sir.” He looked at me and nodded.
+++++Later, Rossy pulled me to the side and had a quiet word with me. “If we were in contact while out on patrol. You’d have missed the target.” I nodded. “Sorry about that,” he indicated to my lip, “but this is serious. We’re not fucking around here. This is life and death. I need you to be switched on and you’re fucking up.”