The fields of south Armagh are dense, green and shrouded under low cloud for the best part of the year; or so it seemed. The initial weeks of my Operational Tour had the shadow of death and sectarian violence, this feeling bled into the tour from my pre-Tour training.
Training for Northern Ireland began in September 1990, just after Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait. It became apparent we weren’t going to the Gulf to fight a real conventional war, which disappointed me slightly. One of the biggest training areas in Germany was Sennelager and I met up with other Artillery Regiments who were training for the Gulf. These other Regiments were using the outdated SLR (Self Loaded Rifle) while we had the new SA80 (Small Arm of the 80s) fitted with SUSATs (Telescopic sight), though I had an LSW (Light Support Weapon). Not sure where the logic was with this, maybe the other units would be fitted out soon enough or maybe it was a Logistical thing.
There’s a place near Normandy Barracks in the woods. It was called ‘Tin City’, due to the amount of corrugated steel used to build the houses there. It’s a mock Northern Irish village and it is painted and daubed in sectarian colours depicting Martyrs, Saints, Freedom Fighters and flags – there was even a picture of ‘Good King Billy’. We spent a week in the village and to counter us were the civpop. The Civpop were made up of soldiers from other Regiments. Sometimes Regiments didn’t get along with each other and there would be fervent violence as they re-enacted riot scenes and scenes of aggro. Lumps of coal (Union was stamped on these) were shored up and used as ammunition on the exercising troops.
I was an exercising soldier and we would counter the riots with our shields and batons. Now and again we’d open the shields fire a Baton (blank) round off into the ground and a snatch squad would go out to grab the target. It was all a bit of fun for them, they’d be spurred on by alcohol from the night before and we’d be cringing as every piece of coal smashed into the shield. The week long exercise culminates into a full blown riot and a ‘pig’ is used to smash burning barricades. A pig was a heavily armoured Land Rover that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mad Max movie. It was an impressive feat of organisation and realism. Little would I know, but I would be exacting revenge on the civpop a year later as they would be patrolling the street and I would pose as an angry anti-British civilian.
The Beginning – Incarceration
Northern Ireland had a peculiar charm for me when I landed at Bessbrook Mill on icy January morning in 1991. We set off from the twin bladed Chinook who’s blades thundered above our heads as we ran across the field to the open metal gate. Waves of heat pounded our backs, most of which were carrying our patrol gear in large bergans (rucksacks). Our rifles were slung from slings around our necks, unloaded, empty of ammunition and pristine due to their newness. We’d only just received these new weapons 5 months earlier and began to train on them. I’d spent a few days of guard at the front gate in Osnabrueck with the SLR relic, the 7.62 calibre Self Loading Rifle that could take an elephant down with a well placed shot. The SA80, the rifle we now carried, seemed toy-like and lightweight, somewhat plastic and cheap – it’s only advantage was that you fire this weapon on automatic.
The SLR could be fired on automatic, but you had to do something to the working parts that involved a matchstick. Not sure on how this was done. During the Falklands war it was rumoured that the Argentinean FN rifles were swapped in favour of the SLR.
Whilst I and about thirty of my 88 (Arracan) Battery colleagues ran through the ice to the corrugated, iron gate, there were patrols who were keeping watch on the highpoints around Bessbrook. The three check points (Alpha, Bravo and Charlie) that were on the main routes in to the village served as extra security. Satellite patrols were something the support troops would perform.
Support troops were the likes of the Artillery, we’d help the infantry by suppressing the enemy with effective, and often, deadly Artillery fire. Then there were the front line troops who were the Royal Marines and these guys were the dudes who supposedly ‘went over the top’. They went further afield to the likes of Crossmaglen, Forkill and other places on the border. This area was commonly known as ‘Bandit Country’, and for good reason as it was where a lot of the action was. The rural areas were places of long range sniper shoots and pressure plate booby traps. There were techniques and ways of making the Republican Paramilitary’s job of killing you much harder.
We entered the concrete, tarmacced surface of Europe’s most busy Heliport. The mill, grey and ancient looking was in the background, whilst in the foreground Lynx helicopters and a Wessex were being looked after by ground crew and mechanics. This was to be my home for 6 months, in reality it was to be my prison.
Work in progress…
For patrols we had to carry certain equipment. We had equipment to counter Radio Controlled Bombs, we had our supplies and ammunition. The heaviest equipment was called the ‘Antler’ and if you got this with a GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun), then you’ve dipped out. We would go out of Bessbrook Mill with our camouflage cream on and come back in 8 hours later with it off – the sweat had taken all the cream off. You would be exhausted and a lot lighter once your Bergen (rucksack) was shrugged off at the unloading bay. Like Belfast 3 years later we debrief and give out any information that could be turned into Intelligence later.
Many of the patrols we would be saturated from the inclement weather. We had waterproof clothing, but to wear that on a long patrol could mean heat exhaustion. So, we welcome the rain and lift our helmet slightly to get some air under to cool our sweat matted hair.
The walk out from Bessbrook was uninterrupted and nonchalant. We were regarded with caution and ignored for the best part. They simply wanted to get on with their lives and these green, black men in their weapons patrolling through their streets must have been an eyesore for the old. For the younger generation this was normal and would carry on indefinitely. We passed the Presbyterian Church by the RUC station. A Permanent Vehicle Check Point was here: Check Point Alpha. Trading insults with our colleagues in the GPMG sangar as we pass by.
The rolling hills are listless and peaceful. We are herds of the government led by orders and the growing tide of peace. Bovine like and slovenly we move on, we know there are many kilometres ahead of us and the mountain we must climb is above Camlough. Sieve Gullion, its partner separated by a Cam Lough. The grass is long and we are soaked from the waist down. Mud cakes onto our gaiters and one person slips. We laugh and he curses.
The forward team halts a car and checks the identity of the driver. This is done so we can catch up and get in formation. A car boot is checked and the team commander is speaking into his microphone. The details of the car will be checked and if he gets a PAXREP then all the passengers must get out and details taken. The car is let go and they carry on.
The rear guarding soldier flicks a cigarette away and gets up. He looks tired already. Only 19, is he ready to use that gun. I look at mine and I realise with disdain that I am only 18. Sweat drops onto the telescopic sight. My back and shoulders hurt and I can feel the growing dampness in my body as the sweat permeates the Norwegian shirt I’m wearing. It was cold this morning, but I’m starting to suffer. We, thankfully, rest up and I fall to the grassy bank. It is beautiful here and to the south Slieve Gullion rises like a tidal wave of grass and forest.
We make it to the top of the mountain and stay at Romeo 13 for 2 hours. Romeo 13 was one of the three Romeo towers that overlooked the roads leading to Crossmaglen and Cullyhanna. Here the guys were flown in and would stay for 9 days.
I’d stayed here in the February months and it was like the end of the world in Norway. The wooden walkways to the GPMG rear sanger was covered in chicken wire. Without this we’d be slipping all over the place. Now in April the air here was beginning to chill slightly as darkness set in. It set in insidiously, it sort of grew and replaced the light. We grab our things, finish our brews, put cigarettes out and negotiated the concertina wire and trip flares. Once off the hill, we fan out and assume formation. The Patrol will take us nearer the border towards Forkill.
Soon the roads prove to be invaluable and we have guys with GPMGs on their shoulders to make the carry easier. Being the rear team is a lot easier than a flanking one. The flankers need to be quick and ensure they are in the best position to offer mutual support. It’s 1am and the pick-up point is up ahead. We see two pairs of headlights in the distance on the rise of a hill. They’re heading our way so we move into the brush. The plan is to grab the first vehicle. It’s stopped and the rear pair of headlights has stopped and the car is making a hasty reverse. The driver of the first vehicle is out of the car and I can hear someone shouting for me.
Before the tour I did a search team course and it would be my job to search the vehicle for anything. I run the 200 metres to the centre team where they are holding a lone man by the bonnet. I can see he looks pretty scared and I smell the sweat on him. I recognise his face. He’s not like the mug shot in the Int Cell, but I know it’s him. He looks more bigger than I imagined him to be. He’s a farmer and a member of the Provisional IRA. They lads are pleased and someone says they’ve struck gold. I think to myself that the real gold would have been in the rear car and that this guy was a lead vehicle just for this purpose. Maybe the rear vehicle had a hostage in it? There are jokes and what piques my interest was one soldier asking a question to the Multiple Commander: “Why don’t we just shoot him?” We can’t just shoot him? How the hell are we going to explain that?
Thankfully it didn’t happen. I pull the car to pieces from the inside and find nothing of any use. No guns, no IEDs, nothing. Struck gold? We’ll have to let him go at this rate. He is let go and we carry on to the HLS (Helicopter Landing Site).
3am and we are sat on the edge of a grassy field, just off the Tullymacreeve Road. There are power lines near and I wonder who picked this for a Helicopter Landing Site. It’s starting to rain and I don’t care anymore, just so long as we get picked up. It’s a long way back to walk.
I can hear something. It’s a rhythmic, faint beat. A night noise travels much better than in daylight. It may be my imagination or the hissing of the Antler in my ear. There’s a lone figure and he holds up something in his hand. Surely that’s not a lighter? Then it flashes and pulses light. It’s a Firefly beacon. During the day, we’d have dayglow orange markers on our notepads and we’d signal to pilots in order for them to locate us easier. There’s a light in the sky and a roar of noise. A hulk of metal and hot downdraft blast the field. The power lines are precariously close and the pilot I see has Night Vision Goggles on. We are ushered by hand signal to the aircraft and there is a sense of urgency as we rush to the vibrating beast. It’s a Puma helicopter and we feel the floor lift soon. We’re pushed into the belly of the aircraft as it banks away.
The flight to Bessbrook Mill is in darkness apart from the light from the Pilot’s Night Vision Goggles. We are strapped into the aircrafts inner seats. The door gunner swivels the General Purpose Machine Gun inwards and closes the door. We sit with our rifles pointed down the floor. Any ND (Negligent Discharge) would exit harmlessly through the floor of the Puma. The helicopter banks right and makes the approach to the Mill which was affectionately known as the Battlestar Galactica. The pilots must have thought themselves as Space Fighter Pilots. The aircraft we normally flew in were the Lynx and the Wessex (not used now).
The Lynx was very agile and could pull a few stunts the other aircraft couldn’t do. Cutting the engines once put into a climb would give your stomach, roller coaster conditions. Negative and positive G would have many of the hapless soldiers vomiting on each other. Some pilots would fly at the nap of the earth skimming telegraph wires and trees. I’d be on next to the door gunner, my LSW (Light Support Weapon) pointing out and I’d be like a dog; it’s tongue lolling out on the ride. When the aircraft banks, you’re presented with Sky, then Earth then gyroscopic view would have you in turmoil.
The Mill itself had been the subject of mortar attacks by PIRA (Provisional Irish Republican Army) and shootings no doubt. We lived in cramp conditions and the single man rooms were converted to 4 man rooms where teams would cohabit.
Hygiene was paramount and if one person lacked it, then they’d know about it. Discipline was usually a punch to the face and I received a burst lip for not changing the setting of my telescopic sights. This and a lot of other things added up and the outburst from my team commander can only be understandable. Clean up your mouth, he told me and I did. A Lieutenant asked what happened to my lip a few hours later and I replied I’d walked into a door. Classic excuse for a bit of domestic violence. Dare I say people knew what happened, but it was kept in house and it helped clear the air in the room I lived in. This was in house justice and suited me fine.
For an 18 year old barely a year from College in Peterlee, County Durham, this new world would take a while to shape me. Shape me it did and it helped me face the lurking problems in the future. This is a large topic, so I’ll hold it there. Thanks for reading.
Some of the men had SAS bergens. I found these very small, mounted what appeared to be on metal frames. Very uncomfortable, but as I was later to find out, very friendly to your back in the long term. I decided to go for the larger option from the NAAFI (Navy, Army, Air Force Institution – a shop for British Forces). It was a 120 litre with zipped compartment at the bottom and flap at the top. There were two side pouches to stow the dreaded sandwiches the kitchen prepared for us. Inside this I had to put spare sets of clothes and the ECM – the ECM was large and bulky, and heavy, with an antenna to transmit its signal and block any potential Radio Controlled IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). If I was unlucky my team would be the primary team, with the Multiple Commander and the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) guy (If we got one). If we went primary, then we’d have to carry the ‘antler’ and the GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) with extra ammunition. The antler had this earpiece which most guys didn’t wear, they just hung the ear piece from their helmet . When you’re sweating and panting up the hills and clambering over barbed wire fences, the last thing you need is that fucking intermittent white noise every five seconds in your ear.
This morning at 6 we were up and I sat on the edge of the bunkbed dangling my legs over the end. Outside the helipads were beginning to go a dark indigo and blue colour, the reflection of the sky on the wet tarmac from the early morning sun. The birds were thrashing it out in the trees towards checkpoint Bravo, you could hear them above the low hum of a generator.
I jumped onto the floor and felt the cold go up my legs. My bag under the bed and I was off out into the corridor, to the toilets. The Mill was a flax mill back in the hayday of Northern Ireland’s industrial height of the 1930s. It’s empty, cold, hard corridors reminded me of the school I used to go to in Murton. This place should have a ghost. Perhaps it had several. If there were any here now, I paid them no interest.
Breakfast was served, or rather we took our prison trays and dumped the food onto it. Bacon, sausages, beans, toast, eggs – no thanks!! I don’t do eggs. We all ate in the same hall and wore our khaki combat gear. Combat jacket, trousers and boots on. Our webbing, helmets, weapons were back in the mill. The kitchen was a small building near the mill, just 10 metres from it on the way to the carpet sanger.
The sangers were lonely outposts on the edges of the mill. To get to the carpet sanger you had to walk through a deserted part of the mill. Part of the roof had collapsed, rumoured to be the result of an IRA mortar attack. The ladders run up 15 metres to a box on the roof of the barn. Corrugated wriggly tin walls line the eastern edge of the base, beyond it was the carpet company’s yard and warehouse. There were regular traffic coming into the yard and this would prompt a VRN (Vehicle Registration Number) check, if anything to keep the bored, tired sentry awake. We’d get up there and the off duty sentry would slip away down the ladders and you’d be left to your 2 hour stag at this location, before moving off to the heli sanger. The sangers would have old newspapers wedged into the crevasses and wank mags were located, if you were lucky. Practical jokers would chuck their muck over the heater and turn it on prior to shift change over – the smell was unbearable and the bullet proof window visors would have to be prised open to let in the air. The log book would have to be signed ‘At the time and date stated I assumed the duty of Carpet Sanger Sentry, all equipment present and the sanger is in a good condition’ – or something similar and you have to sign it. Details of shots, noises, vehicles may be detailed in the log – depending on who was on shift. Some people didn’t bother and you could hardly read their writing. In the margins you might get doodles and bored scrawlings of cocks shooting spunk at caricatures of the Battery. The worst shift time was 3 in the morning. Boy! That was a bloody hard stint to do, especially if the heating was on and all you had was the darkness of the horizon to watch as it began to lighten up; minute by minute…. you counted every minute! So you’d end up doing an old crossword that some dumbass had filled in with the wrong answers. The frame of the sanger is all steel to withhold the impact of an RPG warhead or an improvised rocket; a PRIG (Projectile Recoilless Improvised Grenade) or a PRIAAG or whatever the Army Ordnance Corps wanted to call the IRA’s new ‘wonder weapons’. We had no GPMG at this sanger, but the Heli sanger had one. You had to count all the fucking rounds when you took over – we didn’t, but you had to, or so the procedures stated. Unrealistic procedures to cover one’s arse in the event a ball 7.62mm round goes missing. Some of the sangers on the checkpoints had a 66mm Rocket Launcher – FUCK YEAH!! One guy was charged with an ND (Negligent Discharge) after opening up the device. It’s telecopic and you pull it open to arm it. Well this guy armed it and it was classed as if he’d fired the thing off. A month’s wages for an ND.
Back to the Heli Sanger. This sanger offered you a beautiful view of some farmers’ fields to the north where the cows grazed amongst the sheep. Behind this sanger was the busiest Heliport in Europe. There were Lynx helicopters refueling, Wessex helicopters loading up with troops, Gazelle helicopters and on the rare occasion, a chinook. Sadly the Wessex left the service of the RAF some time in the mid nineties and I quite liked riding shotgun, at the doorway with the door gunner. I digress, there was an instant at 4 in the morning where a young chap tried to prise the trapdoor to the sanger open, but had problems opening it. It was jammed shut; it was more or less the same as the Carpet sanger – a ladder leading up to the sanger, but not as high. It turned out that someone was asleep on the trapdoor – school boy error! The perpetrator of this heinous crime was sent to prison for 28 days detention – released after 21 days on good behaviour.
I think I remember the rotation shifts we did. For sanger duty we would do 2 hour sanger shifts, one after the other. I’ll see if I can name them: Rooftop, Carpet, East Gate, West Gate, Heli and I’m sure there must have been two others covering the other arcs – the southwest and west. I think there was two or three sangers on the roof. There was definitely one looking over to an estate to the east. That estate was predominantly catholic and deemed a high risk area, or so we thought. To be honest, now I look at it, it was just as harmless and inactive as any housing estate.
MORE TO FOLLOW – If you have any recollections, please post them here.