December 1973 …….
It was in the Shantallow housing estate, in a follow-up to a particularly frustrating time when my soldiers’ patrols were targeted by bottles and bricks, that I recognised one particularly active participant, as he always wore the same striped sweater. We managed to pick him up and the RUC took him away for questioning. We learned later he was 11 years old! He’d be 57 now – I wonder what he became?
A Shantallow patrol. No way of knowing whether Bombardier Elrick and Gunner Foster were coming or going! Patrols always had the last soldier occasionally looking backwards! A still from a cine film
Apart from patrolling the Shantallow Estate we manned a permanent Vehicle Check Point (VCP) just short of the border and the Southern Ireland village of Muff. The road was not heavily trafficked and it was a tedious and repetitive task, checking documents and the contents of car boots. However on the weekends the youth of Londonderry made their way over the border to a popular disco; they returned before midnight, boisterous and with a confidence boosted by alcohol. One of the prime tasks of the VCP was to look for those wanted for questioning; these buses coming over the border provided a near perfect cover for trouble-makers to move into the city. Around 2330 on the top deck of a very full bus, I was looking at faces. Satisfied I couldn’t see anyone of interest, I turned on my heels to exit the bus; someone kicked me hard on the back of my leg. I looked around to see who it was, couldn’t identify the individual, so just took the nearest and marched him down between the seats to the stairs. My sergeant, a loveable competent soldier called Williams, gave me a wry grin, suggesting it wasn’t my most sensible decision. I looked behind me; everyone was up and coming off the bus!
Today if I smell cheap diesel I am immediately taken back to Londonderry, particularly to the road north out of the city to the Muff VCP.
We often drove up to Muff in a 1 ton armoured vehicle, known colloquially as a pig, with the back doors open and, as it laboured up the hill, the exhaust fumes were sucked into the back and up our noses. Yuk!
The ‘Pig’ in the background; the wit might say the foreground?
One of the most poignant memories of this tour was a particular visit by the padre; every regiment going to Northern Island had a padre attached to it for the four months. Desmond was a Baptist minister and an extremely likeable man. One evening just before Christmas he asked to visit some of my troop, and I took him up to the Muff VCP just after midnight. Around the static VCP were some sentry towers and we visited each one. It was an extremely cold night and a severe frost covered the fields. As he chatted about this and that to Gunner Batchelor, probably aged 19 or so, I could see Batchelor’s face; he couldn’t believe that someone was taking time to show him love and interest, especially at this Christmas time.
I mentioned that we had three days ‘Rest & Recuperation’(R&R) sometime after the first two months. Married soldiers flew back to Germany, single ones to somewhere in the UK; I flew to London. After landing at Heathrow I met some friends in a pub in Putney. When you are on duty or on call every day and night, your senses and emotions are sharpened, always ‘street aware’, conscious of your surroundings. It was extremely strange to sit in a pub and look at ‘normal life’ happening around me, unable immediately to relax.
Like all good soldiers we read both the more intellectual newspapers as well as the ‘red-tops’, as the Mirror and The Sun were known. One morning the PR officer, an effervescent character called Zack Freeth (Note 1), noticed that in the overnight Miss World Competition Miss UK had not been crowned. He contacted the Mecca Organisation and after some discussion, Miss UK was persuaded to come out and bring a smile to the troops. This visit was such a success that Julia Morley, the owner of the competition, did two things. Firstly, every soldier in the regiment was given a Christmas stocking, full of sweets, chocolate, cigarettes and even a Lad’s Magazine. Secondly, in January 1974, she brought the woman who had been crowned Miss World, Marjorie Wallace, (Note 2) to see the soldiers.
WO(2) Paddy Surgenor, Sergeant Williams and 19 year old Marjorie Wallace – and me!
As I write this it sounds fairly unemotional. Believe me, when you haven’t been near a woman for weeks (Note 3) this was a major morale boost. Another time Harry Secombe, a British comedian who was always supportive of Armed Forces charities, came and shared his humour with the soldiers.
Returning to Fort George after a patrol it was essential all weapons were cleared of live ammunition.
Daily routines often create a numbness and boredom can be dangerous; we were always attempting to do things better, be cleverer at identifying and defeating the terrorists.
Towards the end of the tour, in February 1974, the regimental rugby team started training in a makeshift circuit room, as we faced a crucial match soon after our return to Sennelager. Work hard play hard I guess!!
To be continued ……..
Richard 24th September 2020
Note 1 One of Zack’s sons, Ben, farmed in Zimbabwe and is in and out of the news, trying to get justice for the thousands of white farmers who had their livelihoods taken from them.
Note 2 Marjorie Wallace’s reign lasted 103 days. She had become engaged to an American Formula 1 driver Peter Revson (Ed. Good surname for a racing driver!) but was photographed kissing the Welsh singer Tom Jones on a beach in Barbados. “Tut! Tut!” said the Miss World organisation; “This violates your contract!”
Note 3 No women served in our regiment, as this was long before gender equality and opportunity were addressed.