Brigadier MRN Bray
On 6th May 1977 my first day in command coincided with the arrival of the BAOR Northern Ireland Training Team who came to prepare us for the Battalion’s sixth tour since the campaign had begun some seven years earlier. A couple of months later we deployed to Londonderry.
The level of violence in the Province had dropped to the point where the challenge for the Army was how to wear down the IRA, which was still a significant threat, particularly to the RUC who were still a long way from being able to operate without us, without creating a counter-productive effect on the community. The Battalion was responsible for the City of Londonderry west of the River Foyle. RHQ was in the Strand Road Police station, Alma (Major Peter Andrews) in the old City responsible for the Bogside, Burma (Major Johnny Walker) in the Creggan, Corunna (Major Chris Fitzgerald) in the Brandywell and all companies shared the onerous task of protecting the City. Our weekly bill for static guards was 12,000 man-hours and we were able to make only modest reductions in this, despite strenuous efforts, during our tour.
Since members of the public could not safely give evidence in court, bringing terrorists to justice was dependent on catching them red-handed or on collecting forensic evidence. The latter was a technical matter largely outside our responsibility. The former required good intelligence and in this we could play our part; we established strong intelligence sections at both Battalion and company level. For some years I had pondered the role of the RSM whose modern role did not seem to match in status his historic role as the principal tactical trainer of the Battalion, when tactics were learnt on the drill square. So I put Mick Carter, a typical modern intelligent RSM, in the intelligence section, to give him an important operational role, together with Keith Best as the IO and our EME, John Sanderson. Following this logic, our very bright CSMs ran the company intelligence sects.
Others in the command team were Charles Cumberlege 2IC, Richard Ward Adjutant, Peter Mellor Community Relations, David Harrap Ops officer, Laurie Linskey QM and Tim Sinclair as PRO. Bob Tighe Tech QM, the robust Education Officer, Ewan Simmonds, and John Dixon the RMO who saw not one soldier sick or injured in our first eight weeks ( greatly to the credit of our men) were active patrollers from a forward admin base beside the Guildhall.
We had made an interesting discovery during recognition training before deployment. Some people, very few, have an incredible ability to memorize names and faces. We held a competition and put the best four, headed by Pte Barraclough of the Drums, into a special spotting patrol. This proved so effective that the Bishop of Derry subsequently remarked that the young men in the Creggan could not understand how the Dukes always greeted them by name whenever they entered the Old City.
We just missed the large parade in BAOR for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee but she came to Ulster while we were there and this created a bit of a stir. The Republicans of ‘Derry saw it as an opportunity to stage a riot and the head of Special Branch warned us that the IRA was hoping to create another Bloody Sunday type event. So with all the self control shown at Waterloo, we stayed in our squares and let our enemies entertain themselves. Perhaps the prologue and the epilogue were the most amusing memories. The first saw a helicopter lift the CO’s secret op order for the visit to a high of 200feet above Brigade HQ and left his escort pursuing the airborne pages around the Waterside; successfully thank goodness. And the latter saw councilors from the City Council tricked into watching a video of the riots and being asked to give their views on how the Army, which was there to support the civil power, was supposed to deal with such events, much to their consternation.
Shortly after we arrived, the Regiment at Fort George, running the northern part of the area west of the Foyle was withdrawn and the Dukes became responsible for the whole of the area west of the Foyle, with an RTR squadron and a company of COLDM GDS under our command. This had not occurred since the Troubles began and had to be regarded as progress. Nevertheless, it is interesting to record that the chief superintendent for whom we worked could only deploy 12 men at any one time, compared with our 400. Nor had he ever been into the Creggan or the Bogside until we took him. Police primacy, a suitable aspiration, was in reality distinctly short of muscle.
One of the more interesting operations involved a tip off about a weapons hide, followed by the installation by specialists of a bug in a rifle which we were able to track when it was moved. This early example of new technology in use led to a search of a large number of houses, to conceal our precise knowledge, and to us collecting the weapon, plus one we had not expected to find in a nearby club, and the arrest of the householder. Food for thought: the householder was a well educated family man with a good job, and not known to the security forces. The rifle was under a child’s cot. Why was such a man involved? The legacy of Irish history was still potent.
Life had its lighter moments. For example, 2/Lt Peter Harvey, detailed to patrol in the Bogside very early in the morning of his 21st birthday, found himself drinking champagne with the CO in front of the infamous Free Derry graffiti wall. And the following grace from our incomparable Padre, Peter Bayley, indicates that there were some social moments:
O Lord, accept our grateful prayer,
For gifts provided through thy care.
May those who scheme to bomb and fight,
Not disrupt our dinner night.
And grant us, Lord, in this location,
Patience with the Irish Nation!
We had our successes, perhaps most fundamentally, holding the ring with great patience, humour and endurance, during part of the long process of getting the legacy of history out of the Republican bloodstream. Our men were marvelous and all came home in tact, except sadly for Private Michael John who was severely injured by a bullet to the head at close range at a City check point.
In Minden under the enthusiastic care of the families’ officer, Vernon Davies, and our stalwart wives, life had flourished, and on the Battalion’s return, we really enjoyed our Christmas, which included re-establishing ourselves as the leading ski-ing battalion in the Army. We also suffered one of those infuriating Defence reorganisations, designed to look good on paper but make us less effective if we had to go to war. Somme Company HQ, the Recce platoon, and the Assault Pioneer platoon were disbanded to form Dettingen as a fourth rifle coy, with many of Hook Company double-hatted in it and the Drums moving from Battalion HQ defence to be a double-hatted rifle platoon in Dettingen. RSM Dave Hughes, an outstanding man, took over as RSM in the Battalion and also became our master coach to focus on all aspects of small arms training.
We had an extremely cold two weeks at Soltau in February, getting back up to speed in the mechanized role. Memorable was the Adjutant going to the seedier part of Hamburg in the CO’s car to arrange some entertainment to warm the cockles at Soltau, and taking over 24 hours to reappear! And the CO got into trouble with the BAOR rugger management for refusing to release 12 members of the Battalion, mostly officers, to play in one of their fixtures. We got our priorities right and beat 1RRW in a very exciting Army Cup final, 13-12, in March. We also went to Berlin and beat 2 PARA in a very close inter-unit boxing championship final, in the Olympic stadium; an evening never to be forgotten, as we were considered the underdogs and won on the last bout.
The summer of 1978 was dominated by training on the Army’s mechanized training area on the Canadian Prairie at Suffield. Sadly our rifle companies were divided between different battle groups but everyone got there. Our own battle group was based on Corunna company, a company of the Royal Canadian Regiment, tank squadrons from the Blues and Royals and the QDG and many other detachments, 14 cap badges in total. Determined to fill all the aircraft seats we were allotted, we even had Gurkhas and university students; and to most people’s surprise a large white ensign flying on the aerial of an APC denoted the presence of a RN officer. This was the best available mechanized training, much of it live firing, and we all profited. Four days leave to explore made a popular finish.
In the autumn we took part in some higher formation exercises, which included the interesting and motivating experience of deploying in our real war positions north of the Hartz Mountains, very close to the Inner German border with its watch towers and minefields. By the end of the year, we had the doubtful privilege of being selected as the busiest unit in the Corps and therefore the subject of the Pay Review, which involved a lot more work!
The impact of Northern Ireland tours, major exercises and sundry other commitments imposed from above, meant that in a four year tour in BAOR it was rare that a battalion had a period of decent length when it could chose what it wanted to do. However the first eight months of 1979 gave us this opportunity; the only time in our four years. I had always had a bee in my bonnet about giving platoon commanders the opportunity to really focus on platoon training and the development of leadership, skill and initiative at that level, so this is what we chose to do for the first half of the year.
We had a very tough two sided and competitive inter platoon patrol exercise conducted in snow and very cold weather in a large forest and then an excellent two week skill at arms camp at Sennelager. This was followed by two weeks at Vogelsang where the climax was a 36 hour inter-platoon competition which General Richard Vickers, our Divisional commander allowed us to organise as his annual inspection of the Battalion. Each platoon had to deal with 13 demanding stands, without respite. Lt Simon Dixon’s Platoon came out the winners, with Lt Jonathan Wood’s being the overall winner of the four month competition. An extract from the GOC’s formal report read:
“On top of the thoroughly sound practical performance in foul conditions on a very demanding, unseen and varied competition, the outstanding impression of the visit was the dogged determination, the quietly humorous enthusiasm, the unwavering persistence, and the outstanding physical toughness of every competitor. This was robustness in its true sense. I fought with them with complete confidence on the Hook and I would be proud to do so again. ”Each platoon then went off on two weeks adventure training chosen by the platoon commander.
This was the centenary year of rugby in the Dukes. We won the Army Cup again, under Tim Sinclair’s able captaincy, beating the RRW by 12-7, and followed this with a great week-end’s celebration of the centenary. The highlight was a game against a team raised by General Bill Scotter, the C-in-C and President of the ARU. His team included three All Blacks, Ken Kennedy of Ireland and the British Lions, top players from Germany and Holland, BAOR team members ( there were not many who were not Dukes!) and some Dukes who were not serving in the Battalion. Many visitors came from England, including a strong party of our famous League players from National Service days and Major (QM)Cyril Kenchington, Mayor of Kirklees who came in the Corporation’s Rolls Royce, “to show the locals of Minden how a real mayor operates.”
It was an outstanding sporting year. We were again the best ski-ing battalion, retained the boxing championship and won the BAOR cricket.
The Duke and Duchess spent two happy days with us, with the last word on their visit, belonging to a small child in our school who had obviously heard of the Iron Lady as well as the Iron Duke, the Election being the week before. As the Duchess and Anne Bray were leaving a classroom, a small voice was heard to say, “which one is Mrs Thatcher?”
The final major event of my time in command was a two week period of mechanized training at Soltau, culminating with an exercise which allowed us to demonstrate two widely different methods of attack. One was a set piece attack, with all the varied fire support elements carefully coordinated and the procedure conducted according to the School teaching. This is a slow affair and probably suitable for a well prepared enemy. However, if we are advancing, there is a good chance that the enemy is withdrawing and in this case it may be that a good old style cavalry charge, with the maximum of momentum and minimum of delay, may reap major dividends.
Charge we did, and it was a grand sight and a grand finale. After a debrief on the objective to see that all ranks had appreciated the point of the exercise, the order was “carry on sergeant” and all officers were led to a secret RV with the Mess staff, white table clothes and silver laid, and the ACC ready to give us a magnificent lunch….life should always be fun and memorably so, a lesson I had learnt early from that great Dukes officer, Tony Firth.