Authors: A. F. N. Clarke
Tags: #Europe, #Soldiers - Great Britain - Biography, #Northern Ireland - History - 1969-1994, #Northern Ireland, #General, #Clarke; A. F. N, #Great Britain, #Ireland, #Soldiers, #Biography & Autobiography, #Military, #History
"Come on! Get up! Move your ass." I'm yelling at a mud-and-rain-soaked recruit, trying to haul himself off the ground.
"Get that fucking rifle barrel out of the mud, you stupid shit." All this above the crack of S.L.R.s and the shouts of my N.C. O.s at the rest of the section. The ground is uneven clods of thick grass, hidden holes and pools of water. Ahead a
fifteen-foot-wide stream. There's a gasp as the crow in front of me hits the ice-cold water and wallows around up to his chest, weighted down by thirty pounds of equipment.
"Come on you fairy this isn't a swimming pool! Get across!" It's the second time I've been across the stream, so I'm already soaked through and freezing cold. There's a certain delight in watching somebody else do it. To the right an ashen faced crow lying on the ground, his rifle moving in a lazy arc.
"Smith, you bastard, you're supposed to be covering. Get that rifle firing." He looks at me and for a brief second thinks of unloading the entire magazine of live rounds into my chest. The N.C.O. behind hits him with a large lump of wood and amid screams of abuse, Smith hauls himself off the ground and wades through the water.
Despite an the abuse the lads are working well, moving carefully but quickly and, apart from the occasional desire to give UP, getting ng on with the job in hand. The "job" is to capture a sniper position up on the hill in front of us, the position being "held" by wooden targets. The back brace on one target is shot through and starts to topple. Before it hits the ground a burst from the machine gun, over on the right
flank, smashes it to tiny pieces. Jones, the crow in front of me, zigzags forward while Smith covers him. Smith is approaching exhaustion and starting to
give up. He fires and the round smacks into the ground inches away from Jones' left boot, whines away over the hill.
"Smith you little shit, what the fuck are you trying to do?" He looks a little shaken. "Bill, sort that cunt out," I shout to Cpl. Conway. Just one more incident to talk about once the exercise is over.
The rain is coming down harder now, the icy drops lancing into my ,face, stinging; sodden beret clamped to head, smock twice its weight with water. This is the most dangerous part of the exercise. Tired crows nearing the end, bunching together, firing at the targets now only twenty-five metres ahead.
"Apply safety catches and skirmish through the objective." I try and counter the noise. The N.C.O catch the ca
and the firing ceases. Euphoria that they have reached the objective takes over and the crows skirmish through, screaming and cursing. I hand over to Cpl. Conway, who carries on with
the reorganisation and consoli
dation of the position, and walk over to a small outcrop of rock at the top of the hill. Looking back across the valley to a small wood about two hundred metres away, three figures emerge and start running with the awkward gait of men laden down with heavy equipment. Every so often one of them trips and stumbles over the rough ground, but they keep on coming. As they
get closer I can hear the rasping pants as they struggle for air, their kit clunking and squelching, bruising their hips.
L. Cpl. Hedges brings the
gun crew in on my signal and positions them. I feel good.
The sound of singing and splashing carries up through the valley and figures appear at the door of the hut to watch the procession. Standing out in the pouring rain, cold and wet with huge smiles on their faces, shouting obscenities together with derisive gestures. Four months ago, they were just a bunch of out-of-work unfit youths who fancied themselves as paratroopers. Out of the seventy that originally _formed the platoon, there are thirty here on the range. And they are a
fit, healthy and happy. Sometimes.
Time to stop the daydream and get the last section through. So it's trot down the hill, wade through the stream and nonchalantly stroll up to where the section is waiting. Fully kitted out. Laden down with ammunition and other equipment. Now slightly nervous as the moment of truth has finally arrived.
"O.K. lads. Listen in. Safety procedures I run through the briefing, give them the scenario and off wego again. My platoon Sgt. just grins and disappears back inside the hut, muttering something about having to get on with the admin. His words echo strangely in the doorway.
"The Ardoyne was…"
Someone in the background talking. Waking
The word is emotive enough in Army circles. That such a small area could cause so much suffering and hardship is barely credible. Before we arrived in the place, no police had been into the area, no taxes had been paid, rates, electricity bills, nothing. How big? It was split into two. The old Ardoyne and the new. The old is about three hundred yards long by the same width, crowded with terraced housing. The new is slightly bigger with a more modern standard of terraced housing. Surrounded by O.P.s, five in a
, with nearly two hundred and fifty men patrolling it by day and night. Still the shootings occurred. Ambushes, bombs thrown. Delightful little spot to spend four or five months of your life.
Awake again. Mouth like the inside of a fisherman's boot. Numb joints, numb mind. Toms standing in the dull glow of the light bulb. Rifles in hand, slings attached to wrists. Blackened badges on battered b
erets. Listless shuffling, mind
less banter. I file the planned route in the Ops.
oom and then we go out into the clammy cold midnight air. It's stopped raining. Score one against Sod's Law. Cover across the Crumlin Road. Slippery street and few cars. Up by Fort Knox and slip quietly and unobtrusively into the Ardoyne.
The street is deserted, flanked by black shadows. Rooftops in relief against the night sky. The quiet crackle of static in my earphone, whispered reply, distant acknowledgement. Eyes and ears wide open, trying to penetrate inky darkness, decipher sounds, interpret shapes.
We stop at a crossroads. Rifle down at side, peer carefully round the corner. Same on the other side. Signal across. Two-hundred-pound soldier skips quickly and quietly across the street and disappears into a shadow. Next across, and the next. All now safe in new street. The other section appears as planned on other corner. We vanish down a parallel street keeping in touch.
Whitewashed walls and then sudden light. Duck, and crouch in a doorway. Scan the upper windows. Approaching the Brompton Gap. It's dangerous here but not tonight. Slip into the Brompton Alley. Paul's patrol is still parallel with us. Send two men down to the end. Cover them down. O.K., move. Slowly down the alley. Nameless doors on faceless houses. A child crying in the night. Ignored. There's a noise at the bottom of the street, two drunks weaving unsteadily in the direction of the stagger. We quietly appear from nowhere and watch the fright in their eyes. The quickest way to sober up. P. Check. Nothing.
There's a crackle in the earphone from O.P. on the top of the Flax Street Mill. Apparently, there's a fight two streets across. Looks like someone trying to cleave another's head open. When we arrive, cautiously, moving slowly, not trusting the situation, we find two brothers in the process of hammering hell out of each other. Two wives are screaming. We separate them and give each a crack over the head with a truncheon. P. Check. Nothing. They an go off to their own houses massaging sore heads. We resume our patrol and wander round the area in seeming abandon, carefully planned with no pattern. Our rubber-soled boots make no noise, just the occasional cough or suppressed sneeze. Clink of metal against brick. Quiet night. Thank God.
There have been two ambushes in this street alone during the past week. No casualties. Just one tom with a hole through his notebook and a slight graze on the inside of his thigh where the bullet had passed, but one of our night patrols had spotted a sniper coming out of his house with an Armalite. He was hit once in the head and was dead before reaching the ground. Paras 1, I.R.A. 0.
A dull thud, again from the city centre. It has been a day for car bombs. Three already. Now we take no notice. It becomes part of our lives.
"What happened yesterday?"
"Nothing much. House searches, suspected bomb, Winchester Str
eet cowboy at it again. Snap V.C.P.s
and more bombs in the city centre. How about you?"
"Oh, dead boring really. Helped B. Coy out with a search. Bit of aggro., nothing much. Fou
nd a few rounds and a pistol. O.
ll out of his Landrover again."
0900 hrs. May 1973.
Timeless action through sightless slit.
HOOKEY'S IN FORT Cross. I'm in Fort Knox. How come he's got the best one twice in a row? The platoon is now on
. The two this company has to look after are both on the Crumlin Road, both looking into the Ardoyne. In each Fort, there are two positions to man, connected to the control desk via the intercom system with a radio back-up. Each position had a pair of binoculars, panoramic photograph of the area with reference points marked on, and the all-powerful image intensifying sight. In Fort Cross, there is also an intruder alarm system based on infra-red and connected to the control desk. It has also been the cause of many a heart-stopping moment.
Fort Cross is an old house at the end of a derelict row of bombed-out and fire-gutted houses, right on the so-called peace line. That line of corrugated tin separating two communities. The Holy Cross church looms over the Fort, and constant clearance patrols are required to check out the graveyard for sniper positions, caches, booby traps and whatever else our Irish friends have devised to entertain us. Inside it is falling apart, and the stairs up to the attic are dangerous, but the attic must be checked every day because there is a mouse-hole that runs the entire length of the block of terracing, all of which are derelict. Although it is blocked with barbed wire there is nothing to prevent a determined bomber slipping through one night
and catching us. We put our own
little nasty surprises up in the attic of the next-door house. A booby trap of our own made out of "acquired" P.E. and dismantled by us after each tour of duty and before handing over to the next platoon.
Fort Knox is based upon what used to be the toilets of a pub that was destroyed during the sectarian violence of a few years ago. Stuck in the middle of a piece of waste ground, it is the most vulnerable to attack. The object of the two Forts is to cover patrols moving around in the area and to keep a constant eye on the population. A log is kept of every movement, every radio message, any suspicion, anything.
Clive cheerfully hands over. I've never seen him look anything but happy. With a crazy sense of humour and a complete disregard for danger, he provided a constant stream of anecdotes, jokes and warmth. The toms still talk about his drunken escapade on top of the roof of a four-ton truck in Cyprus, careering down a mountainside at breakneck speed.
"You will be pleased to know that they are going to do some maintenance on the main sewerage drain that runs under the floor. Stag on!"
And with that, disappears off to Leopold Street and two weeks of patrols. The sentries are briefed and up in the O.P.s, the rest sacked out. The two Corporals are arguing about who is going to do the cooking. Within five minutes of taking over, normal routine is established.
The argument settled, Jimmy flops onto his bed, Paul gets a brew on and I sit and stare at the wall map listening to the radio traffic of P. Checks, car checks, coded messages of patrol locations and the occasional whispered message from a covert
This tiny desk mounted on duck-boards and surrounded by sandbags will be my entire world between eighteen and twenty hours a day for the next week. It's the only way the N.C. O.s are able to recharge their depleted energy store and stay sane. Belfast is an N. C. s war, and there are only three per platoon excluding the platoon sergeant. Paul is cursing in the excuse for a kitchen. It used to be the men's urinal
, and still
has the same look to it.
"No fucking butter. No fuck
ing meat. Just enough tea for a
few brews but no fresh milk. When's the resup. due, boss?" "This afternoon. The cook's coming across in the Pig." "Do you want a bacon sarney, boss? There's a bit of bread. "Yeah. Cheers. "
Eat. Read. Listen to the radio. Check the O.P.s are still awake.
"O.P. 1. Everything O.K.?"
P. 2. Everything O.K.?"
Later on I'll take a walk up to the positions. Break the routine, see if they are awake and concentrating. Day stretches on interminably, broken by the changing of stags, tea and food. Dirty magazines by the dozen are stacked on the floor. Most left there after the first glance. A pile of sad fantasies gathering dust, most of the best pages have been ripped out and now adorn the walls, and go un-noticed except by newcomers. Sightless eyes stare at oversize nipples, spread thighs, beckoning tongue, dreaming of the girl at home. Home, a long way off. When was I there last? A two-month-old baby that I have only seen for a brief few minutes before departing for the boat. Last impression of my wife still doped after childbirth unable to comprehend my farewell. Harry, one of the toms, talking quietly in my ear. Me not listening.
"Sorry, mate, what was that? I was away with the fairies."
"Just want to have a word with you about a private matter. You're a married man so you understand these things. It's my wife. You see, she doesn't seem to be able to have an orgasm when we make love, and I don't know what to do about it."
At first I thought he was having me on. Good God, since when have I been an authority on the female orgasm? Women are just as much a mystery to me as the moon.
"That's nothing unusual," says 1, "lots of women have difficulty with orgasms."
Sound knowledgeable. You can't
have an N.C.O. with less than 100% of his mind on the job at hand. "Just needs a bit of experimentation, that's all." We sat talking for an hour or so, with me treading as though through a minefield. He went away happier and fell asleep on his bunk. The radio crackles.
"Hello 33, this is 3 Alpha. Open door, over."
"33 Wilco out."
"There's a Pig on its way, keep a look out. It's going to be outside for some time unloading goodies."
The rations have arrived. Joy and jubilation.
"O.K. let's have a couple of you guys out here for the rations." Groans. Creaking of springs. Tousled heads. Red-rimmed eyes. Cam-cream covered faces. Why did you join the Army, son?
Geordies, Welsh, Brummies, Scots and others all go to make up the Company casserole, dished up to each platoon to be garnished with a collective identity yet preserving their individual flavour. Nine platoon. My platoon. Dear God, let us all get back in one piece.
Time now in the Fort to sit and reflect upon the characters as if seeing them for the first time. Patrol leaves no time to see each person as they are beneath the false bravado. The affected crudeness. In some the violence is real and vicious, in others it has been acquired as part of a survival kit. The weak are protected from others outside the platoon, and yet are mercilessly hounded from within. The oldest soldier is twenty and at twenty-five I'm considered an old man.
With the rations comes the work party to fix the sewerage drain under the floor. Complete with pneumatic drills, picks and other assorted tools. Jesus, what the hell are they going to do here? It didn't take long to find out. They moved the bunks out of the way and started drilling a channel across from one corner of the sleeping area to the other, exposing an off-shoot of the main drain.
The stench of shit drifted up and hung in the Fort like a cloud, only to get worse the further the workmen drilled. It was difficult to believe it was real, but it was just accepted like everything else in this whole goddam mess. Freaky images of toms fast asleep whilst a turd floats past. Others eating greasy meals in the fug of an unventilated room.
Eighteen hours is a long time, and my head is doing strange things on my shoulders. Eyeballs feeling like sand-covered marbles. My throat is dry from cigarettes. Nicotine-stained fingers drawing matchstick men on bits of paper. I hang a radio round my neck and check the O.P.s.
. 1 looks out into the Ardoyne down two streets, with a further view rearwards towards the Crumlin. The platoon mascot, with a stutter and a permanent stoop, is on duty.
" N-N -N-No thing, s-s-sir."
"O.K., just keep your eyes open." Where do we get these guys? How do they appear to outsiders? Hard? Cruel? Experienced? Or do others see them as I do? Kids. Just young kids.
O.P. 2 takes a bit of getting to. It is separated from the rest of the Fort by an alley of corrugated tin about fifteen yards long. The idea is to sprint to the ladder leading up to the position, leap up to it and hope the guy in the O.P. has unlocked the door by the time you get there. The incidence of low-velocity rounds being fired at slow-moving sentries is enough to keep you on your toes. Once inside you're safe enough, even from a rocket attack, but there is nowhere to go. On stag in this one is a cockney with an accent as big as Tower Bridge:
"Cor, fuckin' 'ell, sir, when's me fuckin' stag finish?" "Watch your arcs, Renwick, I'll tell you when."
"Make sure fuckin' S
ffy's not late, will you, sir?" "Keep your voice down."
The grumbling continues in a lower tone. We try and keep the
looking like silent, menacing sentinels, so noise must be kept to a minimum.
Through the slit I can see a Support Coy patrol moving from doorway to doorway, street to street. Rear two men now totally used to walking backwards. Seeming to know exactly when to go and when to stop. The link established with the other patrol members through long hours of practice, and many miles of Irish tarmac.
Flax Street Mill looms away to the right with their O.P.s right on top, hidden from the view of anyone on the street. Below the real O.P. is the false one with mechanical sentries moving around inside. The idea being to lure a gunman with the dummy and then zap him with the real one. So far it has worked twice, with one kill. The first time our sniper missed the gunman, but made sure the second time around with the perfect shot in the centre of the target. Everyone cheered, of course. It's not until a long time afterwards that the full impact of death comes home to you, but at the time it's a thing of enjoyment and morale soars. Paras 2, I.R.A. 0.
Renwick jars me back from my musings. Some little kids are following the Support Coy patrol, the youngest barely four years old. As they walk, they pick up stones and throw them at the patrol, hurling abuse at the same time. The "yellow card" doesn't tell you what to do with little kids, although they have been used time and again as cover for gunmen. The patrol moves slowly on its way, ignoring them. At first it was difficult to believe that small children could have that hate; now, anything is possible and the values we came over with are lying broken with the bottles and shattered brickwork. Women come out of doorways to yell and scream as the men are lined up and searched.
Impassive faces scan the skyline. . . Impervious eyes watch.
Back in the Fort, at the control desk, I'm trying to write a letter home. It's not easy. To survive you have to suppress all emotion, so writing home becomes a catalogue of platitudes, anything you think they might like to hear.
Jimmy's woken up and brings another brew, then sits reading a Forum magazine; bored, he tosses it down to join the pile gathering dust and takes out a Western book. Next month he's off to do a platoon sergeant's course at Brecon, which is a pity, I really need him on the streets; he's the best section commander I've got.
There's an enormous explosion. We are shaken off our seats. The O.P. Jimmy's the first to his feet and I follow him through the dust and stink of explosive to the O.P. The door is still locked.
"Tully, you O.K?"
A mumble from inside. The door opens and a dazed-looking Tully peers out. Jimmy scans the street. Empty except for a cloud of smoke and dust going down the street. Tully had seen a car coming slowly along the street and as it turned the corner the rear door opened and a long canister was rolled under the O.P.; luckily it bounced off the tin at the bottom and exploded harmlessly in the street. Tully had ducked when he saw what it was, which was just as well because the inside roof of the O.P. was dotted with little shrapnel holes.
The radio is going crazy. Everyone wants a piece of the action. Coy H.Q. are demanding a detailed report before we even know the full account, and the O.C. is round with the C.S.M. poking around and generally getting in the way. We've already checked the O.P. supports for any sign of damage and found none, so there's no need for a lengthy post-mortem. Tully gets torn off a strip or two for not getting the number of the car, but if he had got it he would not be around to tell us what happened anyway. You can't have it all ways.
Life returns to the level of normality we have grown accustomed to with Paul explaining to Harvey, the six-foot white rabbit, that there was nothing to be afraid of and the O.C. looks a little worried. Tully's stutter has got a little worse, and so he's in for a whole pile more leg-pulling.
It's patrol time again. From t
his location we are required to
carry out clearance patrols of the immediate area and up to the other O.P. at Fort Cross.