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
A. F. N. Clarke
cker & Warburg London
First published in England 1983 by
Martin Seeker & Warburg Limited
54 Poland Street, London W1V 3DF
Copyright © A. F. N. Clarke 1983
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Clarke, A. F. N.
1. Great Britain Army
2. Northern Ireland
—Politics and government
3. Northern Ireland—History—1969-
941.60824 DA990. U46
Filmset by Deltatype, Ellesmere Port
Printed in Great Britain by Nene Litho
Bound by Woolnough Bookbinding,
For my Mother
"If peace cannot be maintained with honour it is no longer peace."
Lord John Russell, Sept. 1853
"Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants, it is the creed of slaves
William Pitt, Nov. 1783
THIS BOOK is written in anger. Anger at previous attempts to portray the British soldier. Anger at the violence and the hatred that became part of a way of life. Anger at the misrepresentation of the facts.
Books about Northern Ireland seem inevitably to turn into political analyses or into novels that stretch credibility to the limit. Contact is unashamedly about myself. It is about my own emotions, thoughts and reactions during two tours with the British Army in Northern Ireland. Both tours were with a Regiment both famous and infamous, praised and hated but never ignored: The Parachute Regiment. My Battalion, 3 Para, has had many tours in the province. This book is about two of those tours; one in Belfast in 1973, and the second in Crossmaglen in 1976.
The events described in the book are real. Everything recorded here actually occurr
ed. In order to bring the narra
tive to life, I have in some cases put words into the mouths of individuals when they were in fac
t spoken by others. How
ever, the atmosphere, tension, and utter frustration were felt by all. For obvious reasons, certain names have been changed.
If people are offended by this account, that is unfortunate but a necessity. This is about my personal feelings and thoughts, written down in an effort to be brutally honest about the events. Northern Ireland is a catalogue of religious mistakes, political mistakes and military mistakes. It has affected and changed the lives of a large proportion of our society. The running tally of the dead continues to grow. Much has been written about the plight of the Irish people in the battle areas, but a true picture of what goes on behind the eyes that peer through the sights of Army rifles has never emerged. Here are the thoughts and feelings of one soldier, during some of the times of sheer boredom and during the course of incidents that reached the headlines.
A book that tries to be honest is of course open to misinterpretation and to the use of passages out of context to enhance a political argument. This is a risk that must be faced to get at the reality. I abhor, as does any rational being, the use of violence as a political tool, irrespective of who uses it. Nobody realises the waste and sheer stupidity of war more than
the British soldier. For it is h
e who has for centuries had to bear the ordeal of battle, sometimes in opposition to his own feelings. During my seven years in the Parachute Regiment, I met and made friends with many men from widely different backgrounds. I grew to respect them, and to trust most of them with my life.
For the use of strong language I make no apology. These are men talking, soldiers talking. Human beings who are tense and a little afraid for long periods. Few people know of the conditions and the sheer physical hard work; perhaps now they will and on reading of another attack on an Army patrol will think of the following pages, instead of dismissing the incident as yet another episode in a continuing and irrelevant story.
A. F. N. Clarke
General-Purpose Machine Gun
Individual Weapon Sight
Officer Commanding (Company Commander)
Plastic Explosive – Armoured Personnel Carrier
Unmarked civilian vehicle used by Army
Royal Corps of Transport
Hand-Held Anti-Tank Rocket (Russian made)
Armoured Personnel Carrier
Special Investigation Branch
Standard Operating Procedures
Sight Unit Individual Telescopic
Slang for Crossmaglen
0400 hrs. April 1973.
Rows of terraced houses like calloused fingers stretching out
Through the city.
Silent shadows moving slowly from doorway to doorway.
"In position now."
Nameless doors, faceless windows.
THIRTY DOORS IN the Old Park district of Belfast splintered and burst open under the onslaught of Army fury and boots. Over a hundred people turfed out of bed. Screams, yells, thuds, all shatter the morning stillness. The elderly, the infirm, the young, the tired and the lonely.
"Fucking English pigs!"
"Para bastards, youse animals!"
"I've got a heart condition, she's got epilepsy."
"Youse broke my door, youse fuckers!"
The abuse is never-ending, the quality never-changing. Now it just rolls off my back and I concentrate on the job.
A week ago, one of our section commanders was hit in the stomach by a sniper's bullet, just thirty yards from this house. He was lucky; he managed to get to hospital and the operating theatre. The locals cheered at the time.
The reason for this search was an anon
ymous telephone call to TAC. H.
Q., possibly placed by one of our own soldiers out for revenge, informing them that there were arms and ammunition hidden somewhere in one of the houses.
The dwellings, one could hardly call them houses, were typical of the ghettos of Belfast, with two rooms upstairs, two down, an outside toilet and an alleyway backing onto the next row which faced another street. An assortment of sweating humanity lived in sordid conditions of filth, sinks full of greasy plates, cookers black with dirt and spilled decaying food. Bedrooms with a stench of unwashed bodies and bedclothes, full pots under the beds with the contents liberally sloshed onto the floor. P
eeling wallpaper and damp every
where. Next door, a tidy house. An elderly couple, well used to early morning searches, are quietly resigned. Aggressive soldiers are suddenly calmed; one uses the old man's tools to patch up the broken door. The screams of abuse don't enter here. The old lady makes tea in the scullery while the old man talks of the old days. As the search team leaves, a gentle touch on the arm: "Be careful, son, there's
some bad people in this street.
"Tell us who, Dad."
The face closes and the brief contact is broken.
Further down the street a middle-aged woman is throwing a fit in the middle of her front room. Nightdress up over her hips. Pale fat legs flailing around, breasts flopping out of the nightie's flimsy material. Th
e soldiers standing around hoot
ing with laughter.
"Come on you old cow, show us what you've got." "Hey, S
ffy, how'd you like to get up that?"
K. lads, just watch your stations. Let her get on with it. If you get a hard-on over that Jones, there's something wrong with you." There's a series of catcalls and laughter. Without an audience the woman picks herself up and sits down on the settee. An impression nags in my mind of a shadow flitting down an alley. Just a feeling. The search teams move from house to house, slowly, methodically opening every door, pulling out every drawer and spreading the contents of human existence over the floor. Private lives pried into, private weaknesses revealed, private wounds exposed, all laid open to the eager eyes and ears of a degraded society.
The soldiers on the street shift position constantly. Eyes scanning rooftops and windows, not letting a single person out of the cordon and not letting a single person in.
"Over here, boss."
The call for a P. Check.
"O.K. Paddy, hands against the wall. Feet spread.
Name .. . address . . . age . . ."
The list is endless and repeated hundreds of times a day. Experience has taught me to have my own "heavy" with me during on-the-street questioning, any negative replies warrant a thump, threatening behaviour anl immediate arrest and trip to TAC. H.Q. before release or further treatment at Castlereagh.
The hate is in the eyes but the banners are gone and nobody on their own airs their feelings any more.
The search has been on for four hours now, and it's raining, which doesn't bother us, of course, we're Paras. Rain, snow, sunshine, it's all the same; or so they say. Rain dripping from the ends of noses, running down gun barrels. Feet sore from standing. In the distance, a plume of smoke rises in the city centre, followed an instant later by the dull boom of an explosion. Faces lift up for a brief moment.
"Car bomb," grunts my Sergeant, more for something to say than to divulge valuable information. The toms move around restlessly.
Inside one of the houses the search team has encountered a bit of aggro. The commotion stirs the pot once more. Bottles appear from over the rooftops and splinter over the road. One tom slips on the wet surface diving for cover and sprawls with a clatter on the ground.
"You two with me. John, take another couple round the other way."
We sprint round the corner, dodging the hail of bottles and rocks.
"Get that dick gun up here." Pause. "Right, zap that little cunt. "
A loud report and the rubber bullet thwacks into a teenage boy, catching him between the legs. A Corporal and his patrol appear from a door and, more by luck than planning, fall onto the unfortunate boy and drag him back to a waiting Pig. It's over before it's started. The remainder of the mob fragmented and dispersed amongst the houses.
Anxious faces peer more keenly at rooftops and windows, street corners and doorways. The tactics have always been to precede a sniper attack with a riot of some description. On a few rifles, safety catches are thumbed off, the butt pulled more firmly into the shoulder and our eyes try to see into every nook and cranny.
"Hookey, take a patrol round the perimeter.
My platoon sergeant selects his men, and quietly moves away in the rain, the last men in the patrol walking backwards. As they move further away they take on the appearance of American footballers. Flak jackets underneath smocks give the impression that a small weedy person is suddenly gifted with a Tarzan-like physique. The bulk is purposeful. Intimidate by appearance.
The morning drifts on. Six hours into the search and nothing found. just one more to add to the growing list of nothing. The earphone crackles, and the welcome signal to move passes down to the section commanders. The high whine of the Saracens splits the air as they grind slowly off up the street. Rifle barrels pointing out through open rear doors. Expressionless faces peering all round. We steadily patrol back to our own area, having been drafted in for this search. Rain-covered streets and alleys, soaked soldiers. All com¬munication by sign language, a unique way of talking. A complete compendium of phrases in nods and winks, arm waves and rifle movements, Home is a disused police station. Home is hot food and a hot drink. Home is to get your head down because we're out in two hours for an area foot patrol.
Sandbagged entrance with helmeted sentry. Clear all weapons. The procedure has become second nature now. Patrol report. Debrief the patrol. Anyone see anything? Usual negative reply.
"O.K., get into your maggots and crash. Tom, yours is the next patrol. In two days we start
. " Sighs of relief. The only time the section commanders have to get some rest. Patrol report filed in the Ops room. Usual banter with the duty officer, flop into a chair and flake out.
The O.C. is doing his trick, falling asleep in the middle of writing out the following week's patrol programme. The C.S.M. is playing with the new company toy—a videotape machine. The radio operator is answering the routine calls on the set as well as listening to the other traffic and concentrating on the unusual antics of a couple in one of Denmark's best porno magazines. Well, life is normal after all.
The crick in my neck wakes me up. The
C. is asleep again or at least in the process of. The C.S.M. has set up the video camera and is carefull
y placing a pencil under the O.
C.'s chin. Gentle snores, slowly descending chin and—voila! The perfect balancing act. The only sound for the next few minutes is the quiet whirring of the video.
Last week, it was my section commander, putting more pressure on the already fractured brain of the Battalion Commanding Officer, by doing his Harvey, the invisible six-foot white rabbit routine. The C.O. was actually trying to shake hands with this myth. A few days later, he was posted. The C.O., that is. Paul and Harvey were still alive and well and freaking the locals. No way to get any peace here.
I wander through the dim interior of Leopold Street police station. Dark interiors of rooms. Pale faces staring out unseeing, rifles at the ready, fully clothed. Confused minds still half asleep. Somewhere in the background a tinny tape machine whines out the thin beat of a bad song.
Into the bright neon-lit canteen, Mohammed, our pet Paki, lurks behind his counter waiting to relieve the toms of their money in return for cigarettes, Pepsi, hot dogs, etc. Never once in the entire five months of the tour did I see him poke his head out of his hole. With all the money he made I should think he is now set up in a nice business driving a Rolls around. One half-can of beer. Seal the cracks in your brain with that.
The T.V. sits accusingly behind its wire cage. The toms flopped around in chairs too tired to talk. Desultory con¬versation drifts around the lower part of the anatomy. Fantasies of mounds of naked female flesh. Worldly-wise at eighteen. Cram it all in, some of you don't have too much time.
Somehow I found my way upstairs and into the Sgts. and Officers Mess. Well, one room where we can sit and be disloyal, traitorous, hatch mutinies without anyone being any the wiser. Then carry on with the job. Job? What job? It becomes a way of life. A way to continue existing from one day to the next.
"Lt. Clarke, are you up there?" A bellow from the intercom.
C. wants you."
What now? Another patrol. Search. O.P. Weary feet dragging downstairs. Tired brain shaking awake. Apparently there is a suspected bomb in a house a couple of streets away and I have to investigate. Great! Just what I need to blow the cobwebs away. Shit, these things scare the fuck out of me.
"O.K. fellas, we're just going to stroll over and have a look at a house just around the corner. Some guy says there's a bomb in it." Cheers from the section, happiness written all over their scowling faces.
"I notice you haven't volunteered, Hookey!"
My platoon sergeant just shakes his head with a wry smile: "My name's Hunt not Cunt."
Casually walking down the street, chewing gum, trying to look hard and unconcerned, heart pounding like a steam hammer gone mad, palms sweaty, and a huge claw tearing away in the pit of my stomach.
It's just another scare ... They are trying to set us up ... It's a booby trap ... There's a hidden sniper. It's for real this time ... All the possibilities ping round my brain. Holy fuck, why not call in the bomb blokes?
The street looks just as always. Drab terraced housing sloshed with rain. Half a dozen in a derelict condition, the others empty, a few at either end inhabited. Stall for time.
"Hello 3, this is 33 Alpha, say again number of house, over.
"3 wait out." Pause.
"Hello 33 Alpha, this is 3. Number is 21, over." "33 Alpha, Roger out."
Come on, Clarke, get your finger out, if you're going to go, and there is not an awful lot you can do about it. Twenty-one is just across the street. Position a tom on each corner and take one with me. Well, why die alone.
In through the upstairs window, I think. Climb on a willing back. I collapse through the window and sit there shaking like a leaf. The whole room is littered with old clothes, news¬papers, shit, and God knows what else. Just look for any pressure pads, trip-wires or pull switches. Top floor search over. Nothing. Move to the top of the stairs. There could be a pressure pad on any one of those steps. We look around for something heavy. A piece of wardrobe, that will do. It clatters down the stairs and lies at the bottom looking at me.
"You O.K., boss?"
"Yeah." I join it at the bottom of the stairs.
Twenty minutes later I'm standing on the street, enjoying the cool rain splashing on my face.
"Right, guys, just another rubber dick. Let's go." One day one of these tips is going to be real. I just don't want to be around when it is. Right now, I'm just very relieved.
Back to Leopold Street and up the stairs. I must have some sleep if only for an hour or two. The average for the past week has been two hours in twenty-four. The mileage per day does not bear thinking about. Flop onto the bed. I've only been between the sheets three times in the month the tour has been going. Some time a change of clothes would be very welcome.
It's daylight outside, but in here with the light off it's dark. A pale grey light struggling through the black-painted window. All the windows in the place are painted out and the Ops. Room is encased in two-foot-thick concrete with a further layer of sandbags on the outside.
Clive, one of my fellow platoon commanders, shares this room with me but I haven't seen him for a week as he has been on one of the O.P.s. Next week my platoon will be on the
so after a brief handover, we won't see each other for a
further week. Are we in the same Army?