Keeping the Peace – Northern Ireland

In 1970 the Gloucestershire Regiment had narrowly survived a planned amalgamation with the Royal Hampshire Regiment. There was a last minute reprieve, won as a result of the Conservative Party victory in the General Election of that year, and the Royal Regiment of Gloucestershire and Hampshire turned out to be the “Regiment that never was.” And, on 1st November 1971 it was announced that the Wyvern cap badge of the Wessex Brigade was to be discarded and a return made to the old Sphinx cap badge that had been part of the Regiment’s heritage since 1881.

It was in December 1971 that the Gloucestershire Regiment began its second operational tour of Northern Ireland since the beginning of “The Troubles” in 1968. They had first been deployed there in December 1969, where in Londonderry the “honeymoon” period between the Roman Catholic community and the first British troops that had been patrolling the streets since August had already come to an end. In all, between 1969 and 1990 the Gloucestershire Regiment was to be posted to Northern Ireland on no less than seven occasions. What had begun in 1968 as a peaceful Civil Rights movement, aimed at improving the lot of the Catholics, had turned into open confrontation between Republicans and Unionists, with the British Army intended to keep the peace. “The Troubles” of the next thirty years were murky waters indeed, characterized by political twists and turns, much violence and terrorist activity both in the Province and elsewhere, and an often strained relationship between the Army and the civilian communities.

The Gloucesters took up positions in the centre of Belfast around the Lower Falls district and on the Peace Line on 8th December 1971, taking over from the Queen’s Regiment. They arrived four months after the introduction of Internment, and four days after the massacre at McGurk’s Bar in the centre of Belfast. A torrid time was to be expected. Official sources were swift to attribute the explosion at McGurk’s Bar to a premature detonation of a Provisional Irish Republican Army bomb, and an almost ceaseless daily campaign of bombings and shootings ensued throughout Belfast, as Republican terrorist activity escalated. In fact, the McGurk’s Bar atrocity was later proven to have been the work of the Ulster Volunteer Force, and there have been allegations that there was some sort of collusion between the UVF and certain branches of the British security services.

This, then, was the situation in which the men of the Gloucesters found themselves as their operations got underway: the detection and arrest of suspects; the seizure of hidden caches of arms and explosives; reaction to and dealing with shootings, armed robberies, explosions, and false alarms. The IRA bombing of the Balmoral Furnishing Company in Belfast on 10th December resulted in nineteen injured and four deaths, including two babies. One Gloucestershire Regiment soldier described the aftermath:-

“It was just like the blitz all over again. It was absolutely horrifying, but the people were marvelous – they got rescue operations under way as quickly as they could.”

In the early hours of 16th December Private Anthony Aspinwall was shot by a sniper when his patrol was ambushed near the junction of Ross Street and Frere Street. He died in hospital the following day, the Gloucestershire Regiment’s first fatal casualty of the conflict.

Operations continued during the run up to Christmas, and on Christmas Day the Battalion Diary noted:-

“It appears that the IRA intend to keep a two day truce. In the early hours there were a number of unconfirmed reports of shots being heard. Due to the inaccuracy of these shots and the difficulty in pinning down exactly where they are fired from, we are beginning to draw the conclusion that it is night firing practice.”

Some of the children of Belfast appeared to have been given toy guns as Christmas presents, much to the dismay of the soldiers. On Boxing Day, 26th December, the Battalion Diary reported:-

“It is apparent that we have been near to a tragedy, with soldiers faced with the split second decision on whether to open fire or not on children with toy weapons. In the dark in a built-up area it is extremely difficult to differentiate.”

A leaflet campaign was immediately mounted, and backed up by coverage in the media. The Gloucesters posted hundreds of leaflets into peoples’ homes:-

“No soldier wishes to shoot a child – that would be tragic for all of us. Nevertheless, the chances of that happening are very real. Therefore, please do not allow your children to play with weapons out of doors.”

The battalion redeployed to the Clonard district of Belfast on 28th December, with its Headquarters now in Hastings Street, and Company patrols and checkpoints around the Divis Flats, Clonard Monastery, Leeson Street and St Congall’s school. Eighteen year old Private Keith Bryan was the second Gloucester to be killed when, on 5th January 1972, he was shot immediately prior to an operation which resulted in the seizure of substantial quantities of arms and ammunition at the Glengeen Bar. For Private Bryan’s family, his death was to give great cause to question the conflict and the presence of such a young soldier in so dangerous a situation.

11th January saw the funeral of Private Bryan in Bristol, as well as the funeral in Belfast of a seventeen year old IRA gunman who had been fatally wounded when a Gloucesters patrol had returned fire during an incident on 4th January, the day before Keith Bryan was killed.

The tempo of violence dramatically increased for a few days after the events of “Bloody Sunday” in Londonderry on 30th January. In Belfast, the Gloucesters quickly found themselves under attacks from snipers during the course of the evening, the Battalion Diary entry for that day grimly concluding “It appears as though Monday may be busy.” It was indeed. Vehicle check points and sentry points (or sangars) were stoned, bottled and shot at, and patrols were subject to the same treatment as they raced from one hot spot to another. As the Gloucesters struggled to keep the situation under control, the day ended with at least 24 vehicles in the Clonard having been set alight by rioters, and the prospects for the following day looked likely to be just as bad.

Lance Corporal Ian Bramley was the third soldier of the Gloucestershire Regiment to be killed when he was shot at the sangar outside Hastings Street police station. In 2007 the recently created Historical Enquiry Team produced its report on Lance Corporal Bramley’s death:-

“. . . Approximately 4.30 pm Lance Corporal Bramley left the sentry post to open a chain security barrier to allow an Army vehicle access into the station. Every time a vehicle entered or exited the building the barrier had to be physically lowered. It was at this time that Lance Corporal Bramley was struck in the back by one of two high velocity bullets and he fell to the ground. The second shot struck the sangar. Private Clare called out to him and Lance Corporal Bramley responded telling him that he had been shot so Private Clare contacted the Operations Room and informed them of what had just happened.

“Private Clare then went to Lance Corporal Bramley’s assistance while the soldiers in the Army vehicle entering the police station provided cover. Within moments Major Harries, a medical officer arrived at the scene in a military ambulance and saw that Lance Corporal Bramley had sustained a wound to the right side of his chest, he was alive but unconscious and in shock. Major Harries, realizing the seriousness of the injury to the soldier immediately conveyed Lance Corporal Bramley to the Royal Victoria Hospital arriving there at about 4.35 pm.”

Lance Corporal Ian Bramley died without regaining consciousness at a quarter past five that evening. Aged twenty-five, he left a widow and two young children – a son aged three years and a daughter of eleven months. Like Anthony Aspinwall and Keith Bryan before him, Ian Bramley had also died leaving a brother in service with the Gloucestershire Regiment. The Deputy Coroner commented at the inquest that the death of Lance Corporal Bramley was “another one of these brutal murders planned by people who did not mind who they murdered as long as they murdered somebody. . . . Lance Corporal Bramley was just another young man brought to our country to do his job and was murdered.”

The city began to quieten down after 3rd February 1972, as the Gloucesters returned to the more routine daily grind of peace-keeping, search and arrests of suspects. Suspects were “lifted” and sent on for questioning at the police headquarters at Castlereagh. One chase on 5th February ended in the early evening when a patrol entered a house in Raglan Street. The Battalion Diary recorded:

“. . . The occupants were a little nervous, but could not be ‘fingered’ for anything. The patrol commander on leaving the house decided to lift the hat of a dear little old lady sipping tea. A wig came off in his hand and the coat parted revealing a pair of hairy male legs with trousers rolled up. Three men were arrested and taken away!”

The Gloucesters second tour of Belfast came to an end on 12th April 1972, two weeks after the imposition of Direct Rule in Northern Ireland from Westminster. During that time they had arrested and detained 107 suspects, captured 57 weapons and 6,000 rounds of ammunition and 125 pounds of explosive. The Regimental Journal noted that “. . .there is positive evidence that the local IRA are disturbed at the good relations between the people and the Glosters. We have gained a measure of confidence and a good deal of respect.”

There was a long road ahead.
Picture: Glosters at a road incident, Northern Ireland, c.1972.