PC 198 Tales from Northern Ireland (3)

I went back to Northern Ireland in October 1975. This time 39 Medium Regiment’s area of responsibility was centred on Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) The Maze (aka Long Kesh). The prison housed members of the various paramilitary groups, IRA, Provos, UVF, etc. The UK Government had introduced a policy of ‘internment’ where those out to cause trouble were imprisoned, without the benefit of a proper trial by jury. As I write this over forty years later I wonder how it had become a politically-acceptable policy.

Our primary responsibility was the prison’s external security; others included an area of North Armagh and a permanent VCP at Aughnacloy, just before the border with The Republic.

Aughnacloy is due west of Portadown and south west of Belfast

This was an intellectually challenging tour as I was the regimental Public Relations (PR) Officer dealing with the press from our recruiting area of Birmingham, interfacing with the PR offices at HQ Northern Ireland in Lisburn and keeping the soldiers’ families aware of what their loved ones were doing.

I decided to produce a fortnightly magazine and called it TNT, for Three Nine (39) Times, although the pun was very obvious in the context in which we operated. The four Regimental batteries were cajoled, encouraged and hounded to produce some news and stories about their particular operations!

In my office. I wore civilian clothes most of the time and grew my hair!

My TNT magazines were printed by a company in Portadown, a town some 20 miles from The Maze. For travelling around I had a hard-topped Land Rover that, in an effort to disguise its military ownership, was painted grey and cream; except that is for parts of the inside….. which were Army green!! Portadown was a reasonably peaceful place and Gerry was a small bundle of Protestant energy. We got on famously and during the tour produced some 300 copies each of the 8 issues.

Visiting a recently blown-up farmhouse. The bodies were inside.

For the battery guarding HMP The Maze’s perimeter, this was an extremely tedious, repetitive and boring task, although the possible reaction to a unprofessional job was obvious. There was the added frustration that the sentries in the watch towers could see into the prison, could see a regime and culture that had many critics and maybe secretly wished the roles were reversed! HMP The Maze was run by the Prison Service of Northern Ireland. One example of allowed prisoner behaviour was the blanket protest when the inmates wore only a blanket and smeared their own excrement over the cell walls. Our soldiers took a dim view of this behaviour.

My role during the tour put me on the duty officer rota, manning the operations room on a shift basis. I was due to take over from Major John Harman, the Regimental second-in-command, one morning at 0800, he having completed the graveyard shift (midnight to 0800). He greeted me with a big smirk on his face and said:

I was just completing the handover notes and thought I might be late for breakfast in the Officers’ Mess. So I picked up a telephone handset (ed. from one of the bank of three) and dialled the Mess number. Just at that instant one of the other phones in the operations room rang. I reached across and said: “Ops Room 39! Just a minute, I am on the other line.” …… only to hear my own voice in the earpiece. I had phoned myself!”

Piggy-backing on the relationship that Zack Freeth (PC 197) had established with Julia Morley and the Miss World Organisation, I persuaded Julia to bring the then current Miss World, 18 year old Wilnelia Merced to Northern Ireland (Note 1). We visited a children’s home …. and entertained the new Miss World for three days, flying down to the VCP at Aughnacloy and around North Armagh.

As part of the visit the Sergeants’ Mess invited her and Julia to dinner. In my capacity as escort (!) at an appropriate time I knocked on Wilnelia’s bedroom door to take her across to the mess. She looked like someone off the set of West Side Story, leather bomber jacket and extreme short skirt. At another time and in another place completely gorgeous but she would have been eaten alive by the randy chaps in the mess!! I persuaded her with some difficulty to change into something less, how should I say it, sexy!

On the last day of her visit the officers’ mess laid on a curry lunch (Note 2), where Wilnelia was the guest of honour. The word got out and it was possibly the best attended curry lunch I have ever been to!! After lunch I borrowed the CO’s staff car and driver and took Wilnelia and Julia to Aldergrove Airport. There we were met by the VIP conducting officer and taken to a private room. Black Bushmills whiskey, one of the best things to come out of Ireland, was produced. After thirty minutes we were warned the flight gate was closing. Another twenty minutes and a member of the cabin crew came and escorted the VIPs to the foot of the aircraft steps.

A few weeks later another four months ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’ ended.

Little did I know then that in 1986 I would join the Belfast-based global aerospace company Short Brothers. As part of the sales team I travelled internationally a great deal from the London office – but occasionally had to visit Belfast. On my one-week company induction I was booked in to the La Mon Hotel. Someone had a sense of humour; in February1978 the hotel had been bombed by the IRA in one of the worst atrocities of the troubles which had killed 12 people and wounded another 30.

Richard 1st October 2020

Note 1 In 1983 the Puerto Rican married the British entertainer Bruce Forsyth and became Lady Forsyth-Johnson.

Note 2 A ‘Curry Lunch’ was an established monthly Sunday event in most officers’ messes throughout the world.

2 thoughts on “PC 198 Tales from Northern Ireland (3)

  1. HiIts really amazing that you were meeting JM on all these occasions and I’d see her occasionally and have a little chat in Dulwich.  Her son was was my best mate during prep school and EM took me to the Arsenal matches.  I can still remember zooming upto N London in his Jensen Interceptor! Eddie 

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    1. At the time I think the Miss World organisation was great – but now I look back and think ‘mmmm’. But we benefited enormously from their generosity not to mention being with a beautiful girl like Miss World!!

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