This book gives us an inside view of what it was like to be part of a British Army unit in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. The unit in question was an unlikely choice to be posted to a difficult urban environment – 9 (Plassey) Battery, Royal Artillery, but its men performed impressively during their time in Northern Ireland. The book is a follow-up to the author’s own published diaries, and focuses on one part of his experiences – a tour of duty in Andersonstown in the winter and spring of 1971-72. The author provides the narrative framework, and twenty of his fellow soldiers contribute their memories of events. Although the battery was present in one of the most difficult areas during one of the worst periods of the troubles, the mood isn’t entirely dark, but we do get a vivid picture of the sort of constant pressure they were under.
This book covers the period of the Bloody Sunday shoots, so we get to see how the troops reacted to the initial news and then to the developing story, as well as the impact on the streets of Andersonstown. The initial reaction was to assume that the incident had been just another of the apparently endless sequence of gun battles between the Army and the IRA, but that turned to horror when it became clear that the victims had been unarmed civilians. When the Paras appear elsewhere in the story there is an underlying feel that they were a bit of a law to themselves. The aftermath demonstrates very clearly why any military force involved in peacekeeping operations has to be incredibly careful to avoid similar disasters, as it triggered a massive rise in the level of violence and unrest in Andersonstown, aimed at the Army, the Police, and perhaps inevitably against the community itself, with shops burnt out and property damaged in the prolonged riots.
One particularly valuable aspect of this book is that each day we get a list of those people who died as a result of the troubles, with a brief explanation of who they were, how they died and who killed them. The infamous McGurk’s Pub Bombing, where loyalist terrorists murdered fifteen civilians came almost at the very start of their tour, but it took some time for it to become clear who had actually carried out that particular atrocity. A rough count taken from these snippets gives an idea both of the intensity and of the widespread and indiscriminate nature of the killing. The two branches of the IRA and other Republican groups were the most deadly, killing sixty people, just over half of them members of the security forces and just under half civilians (killed in a mix of bombings, deliberate shootings and during attacks on the security forces). Most remarkably, the IRA was responsible for the largest number of deaths amongst their own members, with around 19 killed either in accident shoots or when their own bombs blew up. The various loyalist terror grounds killed twenty civilians. The Army killed eighteen civilians, mainly on Bloody Sunday. Finally the Army killed seven IRA members during this period. This isn’t entirely typical of the troubles as a whole, although the Republicans were always the biggest killers, and killed twice as many civilians as the total number of deaths attributed to the Security Forces, and the loyalist groups almost entirely concentrated on killing civilians. This gives us a feel for the sort of environment within which the men of 9 Battery were operating – one in which violent death was constantly present, with themselves as the main targets.
The author has made a great deal of effort to provide a balanced account of this period. He and most of his fellow soldiers were angered and disgusted by the callous, violent attitude of the terrorists on both sides, but were inevitably angrier with the Republicans with whom they came into regular contact. However the book includes newspaper clippings from both sides and extracts from the IRA’s own newssheet, The Volunteer, so we do get some idea of how the other side saw the same events.
The impression one gets is of a well led unit, whose commanders were aware of the pressures on their men, and took steps to make sure they didn’t boil over. This includes at least one occasion when the men were kept in their barracks in the aftermath of an incident to give them time to cool down. Several of the individuals involved demonstrate the sort of attitude needed to operate in this sort of environment – don’t fire unless you are absolutely sure you have a valid target, don’t go out of your way to alienate the local community. This book will be of use to anyone who is about to carry out a similar duty, and also serves as an important reminder of the value of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
1 - Shock news and ceremonial duties
2 - Training to 'keep the peace' and playing for real
3 - November: Deployment in Andersonstown
4 - December: More injuries and the first successes
5 - January: An escalation in the attacks
6 - February: All-out war
7 - March: The capture of two top Provos
Author: Steve Corbett