On 14 August 1969 British troops were called in to give ‘Military Aid to the Civil power’ in Northern Ireland. Their initial task was to protect Catholics in Londonderry, and on 15th August they deployed to the Catholic housing estates. Meanwhile the IRA – whose members had acted as stewards during the civil rights marches – considered how it should respond to the British army presence. The British troops might be protecting Catholic lives and homes, but they were still representatives of the government that had helped to prevent a united Ireland. In December 1969 the organisation split, a group of young hard-liners setting up a Provisional IRA (PIRA) with a political wing called Sinn Fein.
In 1970 the army had to contend with trouble from both Protestant and Catholic communities and the situation began to steadily deteriorate.
When 1 Royal Anglian deployed to Londonderry the first time it was the beginning of a strong link with Londonderry. The Bn moved into the former naval base HMS Sea Eagle which was to be it’s home for the next two years. The Vikings quickly stamped their authority on the situation, by cancelling the disco arranged by the outgoing unit. The Vikings then eagerly awaited their first deployment in anger!
Considerable effort had been involved in the training for Northern Ireland and all done in the best faith. Riot drills based on the ‘Box formation’ which had served the British Army so well in Cyprus and India many moons ago. Familiarisation with the streets of Londonderry to assist us in a prompt arrival at the site of the problem, carried out in Catterick using street maps, did not reveal that the Craigavon Bridge actually had two tiers and one was closed the majority of the time.
Special equipment was issued to ensure that we could conduct ourselves in a safe manner, and as always the soldiers invented and implemented much improved versions. A large baked beans tin from the cookhouse, flattened with both ends removed, protected with foam and covered with the usual liberal quantity of ‘black masking tape’ provided an excellent leg protector when thrust down your trouser leg. Rubber bullet guns were issued and I remember the initial use within our platoon in the early hours of the morning, was deemed to be on level par with Hiroshima. However, as the dawn came we were disappointed to see the majority of the rubber bullets were immediately in front of our position as a result of the ammunition being dried out in storage.
The Battalion were stationed in Ebrington Barracks from 1970 to 1972 and again in 1984 to 1986, whilst the troubles had escalated into a totally different type of counter insurgency operation to the 70’s, much of the area was the same as the old days. People had progressed from the Viking Club to the various messes and it was far more restricted than it had been in the past. However, where there’s a will there’s a way and most Vikings found something to enjoy.
The riots in the early days progressed very quickly, if not instantly from the ‘box formation’ which we had trained for so diligently in Catterick into a cross between rugby and a very violent form of ‘kiss chase’.
The map of the City side of Londonderry should hopefully trigger many memories. Considerable time was spent in the City in the early days on normal duties. Who remembers the sanger that was constructed over the Public Conveniences in Strand Road? Who remembers the OP’s in the shirt factory, the shoe shop and the pet shop? Who remembers the living accommodation in the Mex, the Car Park and the Prison? I look forward to your tales.
Along with the hate and the violence, I well remember the hospitality and kindness shown to the troops by a great percentage of the population, sometimes to their cost. Tea stops, patrol stops, and soup delivered nightly to the Craigavon Bridge all stick in my mind. I also remember being amazed that a lot of the houses in Fountain Street still had gas lighting in the early 70’s.