Belfast 1994 was a treat for the senses. It tested your moral courage and the need to quell that rising fear. Fighting a conventional enemy in a desert is a lot easier than walking a street in the United Kingdom and being subjected to verbal abuse from people who hated you. To be honest, I think it was the uniform they hated and what it stood for. We’d gone to the province with good intentions and it soon turned sour; the British Army as a whole, in its latest endeavour here. Nineteen Sixty-Nine to whenever it was in the noughties.
I was in 94 (NZ) HQ Battery, but 52 (Niagara) Battery needed reinforcements and nobody was ever up to full strength. I joined these guys for the next 10 months. Drank with them, fought with them, and nearly got killed a few times with them.
I’d done the training in camp, in Sennelager, in Tin City and the rest of the places. Had the briefings on IEDs and suspects, the players and how to search people. It was about three months prior to deployment the training took. Like my time on the 1991 tour, I soon met friction with a Bombardier who was in charge of a team. While on a patrol in Tin City, he lost his cool with me when I told him not to ‘flap’ and that I’d got a situation under control. He went finger pointing at me and I was expecting a fist in the chops, but it didn’t come.
There’d been a few complaints made about him by a few gunners and I was dubbed the latest ‘problem child’ for him. It wasn’t long before I was moved into another team and this relationship lasted the entire tour. Not sure what happened there, maybe it’s me.
To get to the Barracks in Northern Ireland you had to fly in there first. So we landed at the civilian side of RAF Aldergrove. We filed through the corridors of this airport segregated from the civilians like sheep. We boarded buses and drove through town escorted by Saxons and an overhead Gazelle.
It’s pretty funny because there’s a special place in the Airport where squaddies go. There’s this sign near a kiosk, and it says ‘SMITHS AIRWAYS’. Now there’s not fucking airline that I know of that’s called ‘SMITHS AIRWAYS’. You opened the door to the office, because it was always closed, and behind it were a couple of bored looking RAF Movement Controllers. This was about as covert as it got and I’m sure every fucking civvy who went through the airport knew that the other civvies, in desert boots, Norwegian shirts and daysacks were really squaddies returning from R&R. FFS.
The urban scene that rolled by seemed to take a more sub-urb feel to it. Less, high rises, more estates as we headed up the Crumlin Road and then into Girdwood Barracks. The Barracks were backed on to a Prison and a School. A housing estate lined one other edge of the camp too and we had two main access points.
The camp was set on a slight incline and we had a bank to run up if we were to do a Basic Fitness Test. We did one fitness test while it rained and hailed. The rain and ice clung to our t-shirts as we ran through the February darkness of morning.
Our team was designated Whiskey Two-Five and our Troop Sergeant was Cossy or Cosgrove. I’m not sure who the Troop Commander was. It might have been a Staff Sergeant.
Our first duty was QRF and we had to stay in the QRF room (surprise, surprise), which was a unit with a TV, a load of beds, a Fridge and a table that had the dreaded NAAFI sandwiches on them. There’d be 12 of us sat in there, for about 8 hours waiting for a crash out call. We could be used for standing on cordons or other shite they wanted to do around the camp, like picking up litter.
It was 2am and the rubber green mattress sank in to the bed springs beneath me. It felt like I was going to fall through it and onto Keenan, he was from another brick in the same troop. We had a number of characters here and we sort of got along. It was early days and the first week of the tour. We’d expect something from the local paramilitaries to see how we’d react. And this did happen. It was something they called a suspect device.
“Heads up gents,” Cossy said as he marched in to the room, “Come on then!!! We’ve got a fucking situation!”
I was up and out of the bed with a thump on the floor below. I narrowly missed Keenan’s foot which he was negotiating into a boot. I drove my head through the body armour and stepped into my Hi-Tech canvas lined boots.
These boots were great, but we were warned off about the canvas and that Petrol Bombs would eat away at the fabric.
I slipped on my chest webbing, the four loaded magazines clanging with their 120 x 5.56mm ammunition on my chest. We assembled outside and then filed in to the briefing room. It was 0214hrs.
A suspect package was seen on the Antrim Road. Where the fuck was that? I didn’t have a clue. We were to secure the area, make sure everybody left their houses and man the cordon. After loading up our rifles we ventured out in to the city for the first time. I sat at the back and had to pull the doors shut with a clang, there was this bit of sling attached you had to pull. Sometimes the doors came open on some of the Saxons as they were hurtling through the streets to your drop off point. I fucking loved it. There was a dim red light in the back that illuminated the other 6 guys, we had the guys who were stood up at the cupolas with their rifles pointing out. We only ever got to see the bottom half of them. The ECM was in the centre and we sat on the seats on the inner wall. The ECM antennae were taken off as they would whip and bend as we debussed.
“Okay LADS. We’re debussing in 20 seconds!” I hear the call and grab the straps of the ECM and hold on to the antenna. Urban tours are great because you didn’t need to take a bergen with you. The Saxon makes a turn and then we all lurch to the front. I kick the door open and jump out.
FUCK ME! IT’S FREEZING!!!! I got out and landed with a clatter. My torch fell out of the plastic cuff retainer. It still worked though. Hard as nails, those torches. I immediately went to the side by a Vets and knelt in the doorway and had numerous thoughts cascading through my mind like ticker tape. Can I take a position here? Where’s the street light? Where are the others? Where’s the suspect device? Is it real? There was Doddy, my Team Commander and he was looking around. He clocked me.
“Over here, Dougy,” he said and pointed across the street. I moved off. Antrim Road was quiet, as you’d expect on a Tuesday morning at 3 o’clock.
I could hear ‘Chubby’ talking to someone across the street. That was Gunner Brown who got his name from the comedian. I could hear his Yorkshire accent clearly. “’scuze me, sir. You’ve got to leave the premises. We’ve got a suspect device.”
He was at the door to a Chinese and there were lights going on upstairs and this oriental looking bloke’s stood there looking right at ‘Chubby’. Like he was going to chop him up or do some Kung Fu on him.
“Suspect? What’s fucking suspect abaaaht it?” The Chinese bloke says in an Belfastian accent, which completely throws me. He points down the road. “We get suspect bags ev’ry facking night.”
I can hear Arnie talking to someone from a house further down the street coaxing them to leave, but they were having none of it either. Nick Collins is talking to Doddy and I think they’re gonna need some extra help here, or it could turn violent. Especially with Arnie.
The RUC are called in and this guy in a dark grey uniform emerges from his Dark Land Rover like some storm trooper, a foreign looking rifle, MP5 I think, strung to his chest. He taps Chubby on the shoulder. Chubby duly steps back and lets the RUC guy do his stuff. A few harsh words are exchanged and before long we had a small crowd gathering by the next junction out of sight of the ‘White Plastic Bag’ which was the source of the trouble.
An armoured looking truck turned up and out the back came this four wheeled robot. They called this Robot, ‘Zig’. It’s partner, the second, back-up robot was called, ‘Zag’. They must have looked at this fellah when designing the Mars Rover. It rolled out and down the street. John Hamlin was barely visible by the back of the vehicle. He was force protection for the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Device) guys.
By about 0510hrs, it was confirmed that this was all a big hoax and the bag was full of crap. The robot did some prodding, and with its camera looked into the contents; nappies, used toilet rolls and soiled clothes.
We got back in to Girdwood at 0530hrs and stripped off our gear. It was nearly breakfast time. The lights were on in the room. Cossy walked in and gave us a pep talk. “That was Niagaras first incident,” he says referring to the Battery as Niagara, “Well done lads. That was quick, though next time, spread out a bit more. They were testing us out. The next one is likely to be a real one, and remember. Think about secondaries.”
Secondary devices. Fuck! Never thought about that. There’d be a suspect device, and that’s all it ever would be, and only to have you put your cordon troops over the bomb anyway.
Most of the devices that functioned in the city were Command Wire, meaning that the ‘Terrorist’ needed to have line of sight (in most cases) to the target. That was a taster of what was to come in the coming months leading up to the Peace Agreement, but until that time, we were to have some run ins with the West Belfast PIRA.