Riots – Northern Ireland style

Last week’s G20 protests in London, and the recent revival of trouble in Northern Ireland, reminded me that trouble on the streets used to be a fairly common occurence in parts of the UK in the not-so-distant past.  Here is one man’s story about being caught up in dealing with it….

I joined the 10th Battalion the Parachute Regiment (V) in 1970.  I had enjoyed my time in the reserves. I found the training and the Parachuting a challenge, and when the regular battalions were short of soldiers to fill their rifle sections, I along with 50 other reservists volunteered to complete a gruelling selection process to become members of one of the three regular battalions. I survived the selection and got posted with some of the other survivors to the 1st Battalion serving in Northern Ireland. This was the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland and the nearest we had come to all out war with the IRA. 1 Para had a reputation as hard bastards, a reputation they deserved and lived up to. Many of their older soldiers had fought in Aden and Cyprus before they were sent to Northern Ireland and had a wealth of combat experience. When they had come up against IRA supporters in riots they had come out on top every time, almost enjoying the chance to mix it and get into a punch up. Their type of soldier was needed in Northern Ireland at this time.


It was a very violent period in Ulster’s history and violence had to be met with violence. Tit-for-tat murders were commonplace in Ulster at this time. If a Protestant was killed today then a Catholic would be killed tomorrow. The Protestant UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and UDA (Ulster Defence Association) were threatening to escalate the situation in response to IRA attacks. The British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary were doing their best to police the troubled areas but with little success to date.


Operating out of Palace Barracks in Hollywood my battalion was on a two year tour of the province. On this particular day my patrol was tasked with visiting Tennent Street Police Station. The Battalion had a small Platoon presents there to back up the local constabulary should they need it. The police patrolled the streets on foot and in Land rover mobiles and our boys would go along and protect them.


 We arrived at the Police Station at about 1500 hrs and were directed through the large double gates by the coppers on gate guard duties. They had a small incident an hour before we had arrived but as we were to find out this is Ulster. A small incident can, in a matter of minutes become a full scale war. One of the local prominent UDA figures had appeared outside the main gate drunk as a lord and waving a 9 mm pistol around. He could hardly stand and was staggering all over the place. He was in a bad mood and determined to take it out on someone. Now unfortunately for him 1 Para was not the most understanding of units to piss about and they were in their rights under the rules of engagement to shoot him dead on the spot. He was armed and aggressive and a threat to the soldier, police and innocent passers-by. However showing great restraint the Platoon commander ordered a snatch squad to arrest and restrain him which they did. The UDA bloke had a few bruises and would be going to court for having an illegal weapon but he would be alive.


 Unfortunately his local supporters didn’t see it that way and a small group of protesters had gathered outside in the car park along with the usual yobbos who were determined to have a fight with someone and this was as good an excuse as any. There was a bit of stone throwing and lots of abuse and it seemed as if his family, friends neighbours and the local padre had got involved as well as the local ‘rent-a-mob’. Eventually they were persuaded to go away only to come back a short while later mob handed. The group were now about 50 strong and it was starting to get ugly. The guys in the Police Station could handle this situation easily enough and we prepared to continue our mobile patrol. The gates were opened and our two soft skinned Land Rovers accelerated out into the front car park and straight into a hail of stones and bottles. The Perspex riot shields attached to the side of our open Land Rovers protected us from the worst of the missiles. Our Rover skidded slightly and fishtailed onto the main road and we drove away from the crowd.


Our drive back from Belfast down the Siddenham bypass was routine and we turned right through the main gate of Palace Barracks trading friendly insults with members of our platoon who had unfortunately pulled guard duty. Driving into C Company lines we were met with a different picture. The vehicles lines were a hive of activity with Paratroopers carrying riot gear and throwing into the back of our 4 ton Bedford RL trucks that had their rear canvases stripped for anti-ambush. These were used for anti riot as they looked less aggressive than our 1 Ton Humber Pigs. Our Land Rovers were parked up and we hastily joined the rest of 8 Platoon as they got our trucks ready. We were about to be sent back out to Tennent Street. In the short time it had taken for us to return to camp the minor situation had grown into a full scale riot with the real danger of the crowd gaining access to the Police Station to free the UDA member.


Each truck contained two four man teams, one GPMG gunner and the driver. Everyone was kitted out in flak vests and P type helmets complete with anti riot visors. Two men in each team carried riot shields and batons with their rifles slung behind their backs – they would act as the snatch squad. The third man in each squad carried the Baton gun. This was a converted one and a half inch flare gun with a wooden stock added and a rough sight. It fired a very hard rubber bullet which in most cases would drop a rioter without killing him. There had been one or two freak accidents and they were only good for close up fighting but in the right hands they did the job. The forth man in the team carried his SLR (Self Loading Rifle).This would be used as a last resort if in his opinion the lives of any of the snatch squad were in danger.


We all arrived at a holding point a few streets away ready to be deployed at a moments notice. It was hard to believe we were in the immediate vicinity of a murderous riot. No sooner had we stopped and put out vehicle sentries than the locals came out with cakes, biscuits and cups of tea. Kids ran around us scrounging sweets. Two of the lads had just fixed a date with a couple of local girls and had convinced them to come to the camp disco and I was on my second cup of tea when Geordie, our platoon Sergeant, returned from an O group and told us to prepare to move. Just as I was getting used to the good life… Instantly the area was a hive of activity.


“Right lads.” Geordie said. “It’s now a crowd of 200 and they are trying to get into the Police Station. The coppers have a few minor injuries, nothing serious but it’s only a matter of time before the bastards get in. We are to go in fast and hard and diffuse the situation before it gets any worst and they get anymore reinforcements.” Our reserve baton guns were distributed amongst the blokes and fresh rubber bullets were broken out of their crates. Virtually every second man in the platoon had one, including myself. We paired up. My number two was a mate of mine, Phil. He carried all the spare rubber bullets for my gun and I had several spares shoved down the front of my Dennison smock for a quick reload. I must admit my blood was pumping with the excitement of the coming punch up. Its one of the things we trained hard for and we were good at it.


“OK! We’re moving.” Someone up the front of the truck shouted and with a lurch our vehicle moved forward. I positioned myself with the other baton gunners on the left hand side of the truck ready to give a broadside into the rioters as we got level with them. It would be a case of fire, break the weapon open, and eject the empty case. Phil would then load a second shell into the breach for me and I would then snap the gun shut trying not to catch his fingers in there and I would be ready to fire again. It would be a quick ‘Shock and awe ‘ tactics. If we could hit them fast and hard it should break the resolve of the normal pissed off locals and just leave us with the hard core yobs to arrest. That’s the plan anyway. Who was it said that the best laid plans never survive the first contact with the enemy? He had obviously served in Ulster.


Bottles and bricks can kill as easily as a bullet so we had to get this over with as quick as possible. We could hear the crowd about one street away as our vehicles moved slowly closer to the Police Station. I could hear the screams of abuse, the thud of bricks impacting the stations walls and the smashing of bottles. “It doesn’t take the average human long to revert back to caveman” I thought to myself as I snapped my visor down and prepared to take aim. My mouth felt dry and the adrenalin was pumping. To think my Mum used to complain about me standing on street corners looking for trouble and now here I was in the Army getting paid to get into trouble.


“OK! Go!” Shouted our Lieutenant and our driver gunned the engine letting the clutch out a little too quickly. Everyone in the back was caught unawares and was thrown back onto the vehicle floor in a heap of legs, arms and weapons. The air was blue with the swearing as each Paratrooper struggled to get back onto their feet and brace for the assault. I mentally swore I would save a baton round for the driver but I think there would be a queue. We swung around the corner into Tennent Street. The trucks were one behind the other like a fleet of old Galleons at the battle of Trafalgar. The yobs at the rear or the crowd spotted us immediately and started to stone the leading vehicle. Several rocks crashed home on the front of the RL but the mesh welded across the windscreen save the driver from injury. “Fire!” came the shouted command over the noise of the crowd. I took aim at the nearest youth as he swung his arm back to throw a brick. I squeezed the trigger and had the satisfaction of watching him double over in pain as my baton round caught him low in the body. There was a huge cloud of smoke as all guns fired at almost the same time. To the rioters it must have looked like a broadside from a ship. Private Oliver shouted “Reload!” in my ear and I snapped the gun open and ejected a smoking empty case. As he went to place the second round into the breech our vehicle driver swerved onto the pavement causing Phil to drop the shell onto the floor and others to hang onto the side of the truck to stop from falling. It went over on two wheels but just as suddenly righted itself and continued to bounce down the street. Phil got down on his hands and knees trying to recover the rubber bullet as it rolled around beneath our feet. I pulled a spare round from the front of my smock and reloaded just as we came to a halt and received the order to “De-bus!” Our lieutenant had decided to disperse the crowd on foot.


Jumping down from the truck our DMS boots made a resounding thud as they hit the pavement one after the other and we formed up in our prearranged squads. Geordie gave us the once over. “OK lads!” “Stand by to make arrests.” Rocks and bottles started to come in our direction. We were using the trucks as cover for the moment as we readied ourselves. As we moved out I sheltered behind someone’s riot shield as I looked for my first target. A group of about ten youths wearing scarves across their faces and waving iron bars and fence poles tried to storm the centre of our squad. Our salvo of rubber bullets left many of them staggering around dazed and an easy arrest for the follow up snatch squads. We were now able to move in on the part of the crowd intent on breaking though the Police Station gates. They were so busy with what they were doing that they failed to notice what was going on behind them. Swinging their batons our snatch squad broke up the main group but a few ‘Hard men’ decided they were not giving up so easily and turned to fight us. One big bloke grabbed one of my mates shield and tried to wrestle it from his grasped. I moved in to give him assistance but in my rush I didn’t see another bloke swinging an iron bar in my direction.


For a split second I caught a glimpse of a grinning face as my attacker realised he had caught me unawares. He shouted in triumph as he smashed the iron bar into my face. There was a blinding flash and my mouth hurt like hell. I could taste blood and unfortunately I knew it was mine. I was knocked backwards into the Paratroopers behind me still clutching my baton gun. The rest of the squad just stepped over me and continued to hammer the rioters. They were too busy taking care of business to worry about me. Someone started to put the boot in as I got to my knees. Next thing I was aware of was being dragged to my feet by a big RUC copper. “You all right there lad?” He said in a gruff Ulster accent. “Yes mate.” “Thanks!” I said as I regained my feet and my pride. My visor was cracked but it had saved my face from serious injury. I hate to think what damage the iron bar would have made of my face had it not been protected.


The crowd had now given up all thoughts of attacking the Police Station and were now running home. Several youths were being marched inside the station by Paratroopers and Policemen. They were under arrest. They wanted to get inside and so they had got their wish.  The Company medic was busy patching up some of the blokes minor wounds as well as a few of the rioters who were now of course ‘innocent people who had been caught in the crossfire.’ He gave me a brief inspection and said casually “you’ll live.” and clutching two aspirin I was sent on my way. I think would have got the same reaction and treatment for a gunshot wound.


That night an uneasy peace settled on the area, but we all knew it wouldn’t last…


– Words and Photos by Simon Chambers


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