01 – April 1994

The streets of Belfast were a regular haunt of mine during 1994, they were regular though not through my own volition, but by the Ministry of Defence’s. I thought it unthinkable that I’d be helping to sort out an insurgency that was always here. It had matured to an age and began to lose impetus in the 90s. I think both sides of the Irish Sea got tired of the conflict, the old guard from either side decided to call it a day and strike up a compromise. The release of men such as the man who slaughtered 8 people and injured 13 in a bar in Greysteel in 1993. The gunmen responsible for those murders were released after 7 years. A land of possibilities.
+++++I would be patrolling the streets of the Ardoyne district and be subjected to verbal abuse. These would come in many forms such as abuse at my family to try and provoke a reaction from me. This I thought was a little silly and I kept my cool. I remember the snow that fell in the February of 94. We were ridiculed and had snow slung at us.
+++++We were often outnumbered, but I remember exacting revenge on the odd school kid by throwing their bags onto the roof of a derelict building. A street that runs down the back of the houses was called the pipe range as it was generally here that soldiers were shot up. Then there was the Brompton Gap which had 16 British Soldiers killed since the rise of the troubles in the early 70s. We patrolled through it, while one would crouch by the wall and look through the susat x4 scope for possible snipers.
+++++The rain would pour over the grey streets and it would look just like home. Bins and food spilling out into the alleyways. Dogs and children would play around in the refuse and dirty nappies would create a stench that would make you vomit. The violence on these streets were second nature to most of these children and to some it was a test of their manhood to try their mettle on the likes of us. For a lot of us, the confrontation with angry civilians was worse than a confrontation with a conventional enemy on the battlefield. It was an ugly confrontation with people we thought we were trying to help.
+++++I remember a tactic we employed was to confuse anyone ‘dicking’ the patrol. Dicking a patrol meant that someone was watching and making notes of our routines and how alert we were. If we were slack then that meant we were likely to get attacked or a bombing. We normally patrol in a multiple of four bricks (team). Terminology for this is a bit different from other armies. A multiple consisted of four teams of 4 men.
+++++We would have three satellite teams giving mutual support to the primary team which would normally have an RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) policeman and the Multiple Commander (normally a commissioned officer or a Sergeant). The new strategy was the phantom team which would be lightly kitted out without webbing. All ammunition would be carried in our jackets. We would run through the patrol route and hopefully confuse any ‘dickers’ out there. We were trying to be unpredictable in a number of streets that were patrolled four or five times a day. It was a difficult thing to do.
+++++We would be picked up at the ‘pick-up-point’ by Saxon. A Saxon was a four wheeled armoured personnel carrier and we’d bend our ECM antennas down before clambering into the back of these big vehicles. There were times during the weekend that you could hear clanging on the outside and you knew that the top cover who’s legs were right in front of you was target practice for the kids on the Cliftonville estate or the Old Park estate.
+++++We’d trundle back into Girdwood Barracks and climb out the back of the vehicles and line up by the unloading bay. The team commander would get his torch out and order us to unload then check our rifles were empty by shining a light into the breech with the working parts held back.
+++++“Clear. Ease springs,” he’d say and we’d press the release catch and let the working parts slam forward. Take the safety catch off, fire off the action and put the safety catch back on, then close the dust cover. It was all done by rote and muscle memory. I could probably do it all again now without a shadow of a doubt. Then we’d wander down the briefing room to get debriefed. What did we see? How did it go? Where did we really go? Change the honesty trace that detailed our pre-planned route which invariably altered as the patrol went ahead. At half eleven at night we shrug off our ECM, turn it off, dismantle the antenna and sit down for a bit. We lived in mortar proof prefabricated buildings that were self contained. A shower would take me to half 12 in the morning and I’m ready for some shut eye. In the 8 man room, there are 4 bunk beds and we have to be quiet as the other team are asleep – one of them is snoring loudly and we climb into our beds. Above my upper bed in the ceiling I have made a make shift book case and I take down a book to read. The red lights of the room are snapped off and I’m told to turn my head torch off. It’s turned off and I lay on my back in the hope I drift off. We’re out again at 0615hrs this morning. That gives me 4 hours sleep. That would be the first of four patrols in that day. We were to rendezvous at Old Park RUC station. The station that was reputed to be the most attacked police station in Europe. Only last week a coffee jar bomb was thrown into the perimeter fence of the tennis court size station. High above the RUC station a tower housed five soldiers who observed the Ardoyne and noted any ‘players’. ‘Players’ were the names we’d give to people who were associated to terrorist organisations.belfast-01
+++++I had my first experience of an explosive contact in Belfast. I remember it well and I may have been considered a virgin beforehand. It was the 11thApril 1994 and the sky was a chrome gun metal colour during the day. I completed two patrols during the day near the Ardoyne estate, deployed to the area in a Saxon and then on foot. We’d run across streets, while our team buddies would cover us from their knelt firing positions – away from the corners and any discernable markers in the street. Most of the people we p-checked were co-operative, they gave you the answers you needed and nothing more. Anything more and they were asking for trouble. If you were lucky enough to corner a main player (very rare) you would try and get a good photograph of the person to put on the recognition boards that detailed either Loyalist or Republican Paramilitaries.
+++++A grinning soldier with his arms over the OC (Officer Commanding) of the Ardoyne section of the Provisional IRA would have been worth its weight in gold. Often the mug shots we did have were either blurred or out of date. Down in the south many of the players were farmers and seldom washed. The players in the cities were a nasty bunch involved in torture and close quarter executions.
+++++That last daytime patrol I had cocked my rifle, so there was a bullet in the breech. I remember the feeling in my stomach, I couldn’t get to sleep before our patrol briefing began at 2000hrs. My stomach ached. We dismounted the Saxons at 2144hrs and began a route to the top of the Ardoyne Shops after getting there by the Crumlin Road. Our team were to go on the right flank on Brompton Park; it was 1013hrs. The only problem we had with this street was that all the street lights had been turned off. In fact they’d been turned off all week, but we were the first patrol to go down it.
+++++“We’re going to white line this one,” Doddy says. Doddy is the team commander and off we go. Nick Collins was in the front and would be the first to get it if we were to be shot at. I was the last member of the team in the order of march. The other teams were spread out over the other long streets to our left.
+++++A dog barks and I shine a torch at it. The dog yelps and runs off. A group of kids start giving us abuse, not sure what the abuse was but I think we gave as good as we got. Nick’s laughing at a kid and telling him to fuck off. That was the norm and I think that’s what the kids thrived on here: the verbal abuse.
+++++Arnie Clayton moves off to take a piss by a garden. Because it was so dark, he had the luxury of taking a leak anywhere, so he decides to piss against the nearest car. A car that is parked by an unoccupied building. This in itself should have raised alarms; a house unoccupied on a street that had its lights disabled. It was about 2234hrs when I saw my shadow on the ground. I looked up and saw the orange, red of an explosion of light and colour and sound. I’ve dropped my torch and all I can think of is.. ‘I’ve dropped my torch’ – that simple sentence hangs in the vacuum of my mind as I pick up the six-cell MagLite torch. Rock and debris rain down around me. Time does a little trick here, it doesn’t do a back flip: it simply takes its time. Every microsecond is sharpened and edged, every detail is focussed and set in the forefront of your senses. It’s like my engine has a keen edge to it, finely tuned and ready to spin. Then the windows of all the houses begin to crash inwards as the pressure blows them in. This forces a reflex I thought I’d forgotten; it’s a reflex locked in my memory and comes bounding out with my left hand as it pulls back the cocking lever of my rifle and it is brought to bear. I’m pointing a loaded and cocked rifle down a housing estate in the United Kingdom and the absurdity of this doesn’t register until 18 years later. I see smoke and shadows and distant orange lights of the lower streets.
+++++“Dougy! Y’alright!?”
+++++“Yeah, just dropped my torch..?” I peer over the Susat scope to where I think the sound is coming from because I’ve got to concentrate and filter out the high pitched ringing in my ears. The black shape of a Land Rover looms out of the darkness and there are soldiers and RUC taping off the street. A helicopter circles overhead.
+++++Later the other three are laughing about it and asking me where I got to. We join the cordon and very soon I’m escorting a man to the door of his house. His house is the only house in the street who’s windows haven’t been damaged in the blast. They had left all windows and doors open before the bomb went off. I later find out the man in question is a player for the Provisional Irish Republican Army and piece together the fact that he looked like he’d just had a bath. It was common after an incident to wash your clothes and yourself. Sometimes the clothes were caught in mid spin during a follow up by the RUC or Army and the washing machine would be confiscated with the water still in the machine for forensics.
+++++For some reason the press were here a lot quicker than expected which makes me think they knew about this.
+++++Arnie’s just swiped the barrel of his SA80 at a juvenile who taunting us.
+++++“Ah bet you shit yourselves. Ha ha!” The kid’s on the other side of the orange tape and he brings the flash eliminator of the barrel over the kid’s face and a Sergeant pushes the kid back.
+++++We are later sent behind the row of houses to provide in depth support for the clearance operation. We are still high off the experience. Soon we’re back in Girdwood Barracks and our hearing is tested by the doctor who says mine has improved. I am given a sleeping tablet and told to take a warm shower. Instead I lean against the blast walls outside of our accommodation and smoke a Cafe Crème. It’s 0114hrs and I’m up again in five hours to go on patrol in the same area. The next afternoon after my second patrol of the day I phone the Fiancé up and tell her about the ordeal. She berates me for calling her while the character Sammy drowns on Neighbours. I’m naturally angry and leave the conversation to head to the NAAFI – I’ve got another hour before the briefing for my third patrol.