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Chapter 12– The Garvagh Detachment

 

In 1972 the company had a recruiting drive in Garvagh and Kilrea. At Kilrea only four people attended the first recruiting night and the recruiters left without any volunteers.

   The first foray into Garvagh took the recruiters to the Presbyterian Hall. The B Specials had a strong detachment in the Garvagh district so this made Garvagh a good recruiting prospect. Many good men were there and joined the UDR.

   The Garvagh detachment was an immediate and complete success. It had the usual mixture of males and females from the Garvagh and surrounding villages. There were many good soldiers but some however had their own concept of army discipline.

 

“When I became the PSI in E Company one of my duties was to do the administration at the Detachment Headquarters in Garvagh. The Garvagh detachment was located in the RUC station and my office was the old USC office located at the back of the station. At times there was an uneasy relationship between the RUC and the UDR. It is not as though there was any hostility there. By this time we had got new boots with rubber soles. These left black marks all over the station floor much to the consternation of the local caretaker and cleaner who refused to clean them off. The police got very annoyed.

   The detachment at Garvagh was very successful. It was one of two experiments carried out in the province.  The same set up was tried out at Rathfriland in Co Down and it had been a failure. At the peak of its strength there were sixty officers and men, enough to establish a separate Company” S4.

 

The Platoon Commander’s Story

 

“I joined the E Company 5 UDR on 16 January 1972 when the company was based at Macosquin. After the company moved to Coleraine there was a large influx of recruits from the Garvagh area. This led to the setting up of a detached platoon in Garvagh, which became known as 24 Platoon, Garvagh Detachment E Company 5 UDR.

   I was posted to Garvagh platoon as a section commander and for the next twelve years I carried out all my part-time duties with the Garvagh part-timers. I was eventually promoted to the rank of Colour Sergeant and became the Platoon Commander of 24 Platoon.

    During those first twelve years at Garvagh there were many serious incidents to cope with. The first one was the death of my fellow section commander who was killed in a car bomb explosion in Garvagh in July 1974. Unfortunately that was only the start of a series of tragedies the people of Garvagh had to face. But this first one steeled my resolve to remain in service as I felt it would have been a betrayal to his memory if I were to leave the UDR.

   I have many happy memories, such as the birth of my two daughters. I must record the vast support that I had from my wife over those troubled years. Holding down a civilian job and being out on duty most nights meant that our social and home life was very limited.” S34.

 

 

The John Conley Story

 

John Conley was born on 16 April 1931. He was the fourth child of Samuel James Conley from Cullyvenny and Annie Matilda (nee Woods) from Killeague. Sammy had served in the Ulster Home Guard during WWII and was employed as a farm labourer and then as a process operator in Aghadowey Creamery.

   John was educated at Collins Elementary School in Aghadowey and at the age of 14 years he entered full time employment in Aghadowey Creamery. He remained there for 29 years. In 1955 when John was 24 years old he joined the Englishtown B Specials Platoon based at Macosquin. Then on 9 January 1958 John married Hilda Archibald. John remained with the Englishtown Platoon until the B Specials were disbanded in 1970.

 Photo 32 John and Hilda

 

 

   During his time at Aghadowey Creamery, John was promoted until he became a sales person and lorry driver.  His skill as a sales person was probably secondary to his friendly disposition and eagerness to pass the ‘time of day’ with all his customers. In fact, the lorry helpers would have an argument every morning concerning who would be Johns’ unlucky helper. He spent so much time talking to all the customers and drinking tea that the helpers usually walked home rather than spend an extra couple of hours out on his round.

   John then joined the UDR in 1971 and was soon promoted to the rank of Corporal and placed in command of a section of the Garvagh Detachment.

 

   “When you went out on patrol with John Conley it did not matter who was on the patrol, officers or senior NCOs, there was only one man that mattered to the people of Garvagh and that was John Conley. There was always one lady in the village that would produce her best tea set and tea tray with a tray cloth and she would say, “Mr Conley would you like a cup of tea”? The first time I witnessed that I realised what the local people thought of John Conley” (George Lapsley, 2007).

 

   On Tuesday night 23 July 1974 Republican terrorists planted car bombs in Garvagh, Portrush and Feeny. The Garvagh car bomb attack involved stealing a dark green Mini car in Swatragh village. This vehicle was used as a scout car and then as an escape vehicle by the bombers. At the same time a Ford Cortina Mk 1 was stolen in Toome village and was used to transport the bomb. The bomb was placed in the boot and it was so large the boot lid had to be tied down.

   At approximately 3.20am the Mini escorted the bombers into Garvagh village from the direction of the Swatragh Road. They parked the car bomb at the junction between Bridge Street and Main Street. The bombers then escaped in the Mini towards Kilrea. Garvagh volunteers who were out ‘on watch’ for such an event observed all this. They reported the matter to Garvagh RUC and the Garvagh detachment who were on duty at the time were tasked by the RUC to mount a clearance of all the civilians from the immediate area.

 

   “There was an old man in Bridge Street called Jimmy Wade. Young people attending dances in the Imperial Hotel had continually tormented him. Every weekend they would consistently knock Jimmy’s door. He got fed up with having to answer the door. When the UDR patrol tried to get Jimmy out of bed they failed miserably. He would not respond to all the hammering and knocking.

   John Conley became very concerned for Jimmy. Half way down the street he decided to return and give the door another knock.  Of course the bomb exploded. Two pieces of shrapnel struck John on the leg and another piece of shrapnel entered at the side laces of Johns’ flak jacket and caused a fatal wound. Jimmy Wade who refused to get out of bed despite all the effort employed was pulled out of the ruins of his house totally uninjured but suffering from severe shock.

   John Conley was lying on a stretcher on Main Street and two members of the UDR lifted him off and laid him on the street. Jimmy Wade was placed on the stretcher in order to get him some medical attention. Jimmy lived for many years afterwards and John died in Coleraine Hospital that morning at 6.45am. That was one of the saddest stories. John Conley died because he wanted to save Jimmy Wade” S4.

 

His three children and his wife Hilda, who died twelve years later on 17 January 1986, survived John.

  

 

The Section Commander’s Story

 

“When I was sixteen years old in 1954 I joined the Boveedy Platoon of the B Specials. They operated between Garvagh and Kilrea. I was given a rifle but I was not allowed to carry ammunition for one year until I had been fully trained. I progressed until I was promoted to Sergeant and was in command of seven men. My service with the Bs lasted sixteen years until March 1970 when we had to return all our uniforms and hand in our rifles and ammunition.

 

Joining the UDR

 

I was disgusted by the way the B Specials had been treated so I did not join the UDR immediately. I then discovered that many of the local men were in the Ballymoney Company of the UDR. There was a group who travelled to Ballymoney base by private car nearly every night of the week. I applied to join the UDR in 1972.

John Kerr and E Company

 

I went to Dr Wilson in Garvagh for my medical before being accepted into the UDR. At that time you did not need an appointment to see the doctor, you just attended in the morning during surgery hours. As I went in the door big John Kerr was coming out the door. He had been my Sergeant instructor in the Bs and was now the Company Sergeant Major in E Company. He asked me, ‘Young fella, when are you coming to join?’ I said that I was just on my way to do the medical for the Ballymoney Company. He said, ‘No you’re not! I’m telling you now, put your application in for Coleraine and I will fix it up for you to get in’. And so he did. My acceptance came through and I was asked to report to E Company in Coleraine. I then discovered that nearly all the Garvagh men I knew were at the Coleraine base. They were all being prepared to go to Annual Camp and complete their military training.

 

Basic Training

 

Like many others from my area I could not spare the time off the farm to go to camp. We were trained over a series of weekends until we were fit for operational duties.

   That was an experience in itself. On the final weekend we all ended up on the range at Magilligan. The Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) was in charge of us for the first part of the day. We were a mess to look at. All our kit and webbing was wrapped up in a ground sheet and tucked below our arms. We had no idea how to dress ourselves or fit the webbing.

   The RSM called us for everything under the sun except soldiers. Eventually we made ourselves more presentable and were marched off to the range. We started to shoot and the RSM found out that in contrast to our appearance, most of us could shoot. We did not need any tuition from him. There were a couple of range practices where we had to run down the range 100 yards to the next firing point. The RSM always made sure he started off in front but there were plenty of us fit to pass him.

 

Garvagh Operations

 

It was just before July 1972 that I was on the first UDR patrol out of Garvagh RUC station. I remained in the Garvagh Platoon for twelve years and eleven days until the Garvagh base was closed down twelve years later in 1984.

   Garvagh was never credited for the success they had over the Republican terrorists in the Garvagh area. It was the Garvagh Platoon that became what the terrorists feared most. We were the eyes and ears of the Garvagh area and many people of all persuasions would confide in us and keep us up to date about the activities of the local terrorists” S37.

 

The Lurk Patrol

 

“One of the first Lurk Patrols conducted by 24 Platoon went out with the Commanding Officer as part of the patrol. When I reported into the Garvagh base for duty one evening I was told to report to the platoon commander in his office. When I went into the office the platoon commander did not have his beret on so I knew I was not ‘in any trouble’. He said to me. ‘Corporal would you mind taking out a Lurk Patrol tonight?’ ‘No’, I replied, ‘Who are we targeting?’ He told me that the Battalion Intelligence Cell needed to update their information on a local terrorist. This character lived in an isolated farmhouse and had a dog tied up in the farmyard.

   He told me to pick my men for the task so I selected two other good soldiers I could trust. There was no requirement for greater numbers because no one knew we would be doing the Lurk and it was better to have fewer men. I then tasked one as the radio operator. He was good at reading the situation on the ground and I knew he would stay in position when I posted him.

   I carried the night sight that allowed me to see up to 100 meters away in the dark. The rifleman had very little extra kit because he would have to get close to the targeted building if necessary.

Basically we were to be dropped off near the target, walk in and then observe the target for two hours, record all observations and then walk out.

   At the end of the observation period we still had one bit of information to find. There was a car parked in the farmyard and we were unable to see the number plates from any angle. We took a chance; the rifleman walked into the yard, straight past the dog and checked out the number plates of the car without the dog barking once.

   The rifleman rejoined us and we made our way back across the fields to the pick up point.  As the Landrovers approached without their lights on, I signalled the leading Landrover and it slowed down to allow the three of us to get in.

   As the Landrover returned to Garvagh the Commanding Officer turned around in the front passengers seat and said to the platoon commander, ‘Are you not stopping to pick up your Lurk patrol?’ He was suitably impressed when he saw us all sitting in the back of his Landrover” S37.

 

The Brigadier and the White Lady

 

“The Commanding Officer was so pleased with our performance on the Lurk patrol he asked the Brigadier to go to Garvagh and see how we operated. Another Lurk patrol was set up for the occasion. During the patrol briefing the platoon commander covered all the subjects and then mentioned a local legend from the area we were going to patrol. It concerned the White House in the Glenullin area. There was a White Lady reputed to cross the road at midnight.

   The patrol went into ‘The Glen’ on foot with a Landrover backup in the area. When the patrol reached the White House a big ewe jumped up from the side of the road and scuttled along the side of the ditch. The Brigadier nearly jumped out of his skin he was that startled. The patrol commander was behind him and made the situation worse by saying, “Are you all right, sir?” The patrol got him settled down, carried on to meet up with the Landrovers and returned to Garvagh.

   The Brigadier was supposed to stay with us until 3am but he went home early saying, ‘I have a long hard day tomorrow’. We thought different” S37.

 

Renowned Characters

 

James ‘Scrapper’ O’Neill

 

The Guard Sergeant in Garvagh detachment was ‘Scrapper’ O’Neill who had been a boxer. He was also a dab hand on the drums and had a wee band. He was an accountant by trade and kept the detachment records well up to date. Not only that, he would look after the tax returns of many soldiers who found it difficult to run the accounts of their civilian job and part-time service in the UDR. Scrapper was really a man of many parts. The reason why he ended up in Garvagh detachment was because he was always arguing with someone. If he took a dislike to you he would always look for an argument.

 Photo 33 James ‘Scrapper’ O’Neill

 

 

Fangs

 

“One notable character in the Garvagh Detachment was a soldier with two very prominent teeth at the front and everybody called him ‘Fangs’.

He was the untidiest soldier in the British army without a doubt. One day ‘Fangs’ decided to re-stock a shotgun in Garvagh Barracks. This was an old shotgun that had been damaged and the stock was cracked. I saw the shotgun in the kitchen of Garvagh RUC station and made enquiries and found the owner was ‘Fangs’.

   I had no idea what he intended to do with it. I came back from Coleraine on one occasion and was met by the Guard Sergeant Jimmy “Scrapper” O’Neill. He was standing just inside the kitchen door. When I looked into the kitchen I could not believe my eyes. It was ankle deep in shavings. Sitting on the draining board of the sink was a newly stocked shotgun. ‘Fangs’ had spent most of the day making the new stock.” S4.

 

IRA House Raids

 

“At the beginning of 1974 there was a series of house raids conducted by the IRA in the Garvagh area. They were looking for weapons. Among those targeted by the IRA was a private soldier in the Garvagh detachment.

   The IRA broke into his house late one night held his family at gunpoint and demanded his rifle, which was an SLR. At that time he was keeping his weapon at home. The soldier had no alternative but to hand over the weapon otherwise his family would have been shot and killed.

   He promptly found himself on a charge for having lost his rifle. He appeared before Lt Col John Lys who was then Commanding 5 UDR. The soldier was fined £40 for the negligent loss of his rifle.

    The Garvagh detachment immediately laid down their weapons and refused to serve because this was one of the most unjust punishments inflicted on a British soldier. The matter was resolved when the fine was paid by someone unknown but there remained great deal of unease in the Garvagh detachment because of this incident.

   The revolt was finally resolved at a meeting held at the Grove when the detachment members met in order to decide if they would make their protest permanent and resign en block. When I heard of the meeting being convened I asked Jim Watt to attend. Jim was a private soldier in the Garvagh detachment but he had a great way of getting himself involved in local community affairs. He later became a local councillor for the Garvagh area. Jim managed to get himself elected as chairperson of this ad hoc committee at the Grove. From this position he managed to sway the opinion. He suggested that it was not a good move to resign and that was how the crisis was resolved.

   When John Lys was leaving to go back to England he commented to a friend, ‘I made two command decisions during my time as Commanding Officer of 5 UDR. One of them was wrong.’ I think he was referring to the stolen rifle incident” S4.

 

Two More Murders

 

Winston Churchill McCaughey

 

Winston McCaughey lived in Boveedy about three miles to the east of Garvagh. He died on 11 November 1976 after being shot by Republican terrorists in front of his family. His eight-year-old son went out and stopped passing motorists and asked them to help his father.

   When they got around to sinking his grave in the grounds of Boveedy Presbyterian Church they came up against solid rock. They had to bring in a Detachment of Royal Engineers to blow up the rocky ground with explosives in order to create a grave. On 13 Nov Winston was buried. Winston was the third 5 UDR soldier to be murdered in four days” S4.

   It was a very wet day with non-stop rain from morning to night. All the soldiers taking part in the funeral got absolutely soaked. Funerals are always sad occasions but this one was especially sad and difficult because of the terrible threat at that time. (Hamill, 2007)

   George Lapsley recalled, “WC McCaughey was a typical big red faced Ulsterman. He was building his own house and a man across the road from his house shot him in front of his family. That is the difference between the IRA skulking killers and Winston McCaughey and John Conley who were trying their best to protect their community”.

 

Bertie Gilmore

 

There were nine children in the Gilmore family and Bertie, the youngest boy, was born in 1940. His father was a farm labourer. Their family home was located in Ergamagh, Kilrea. Later the family moved about half a mile along the road to an area called Drumane.

   All the Gilmore children were educated in Boveedy PS, Garvagh. Their secondary education took place in Garvagh.

   He was an excavator driver by trade. At one stage he spent a period in the Army and then returned to excavator driving. Bertie married Annie Johnstone from Killygullib and they lived in Beechview Gardens on the Garvagh road outside Kilrea. They later bought a house at New Row, Kilrea.

   Bertie was in the UDR from the inception of the Garvagh Platoon in 1973 until he left in 1985.

Five years after he left Bertie sold his house in New Row and bought a plot of land a quarter of a mile outside Kilrea, just opposite Eddie McIntyre’s on the Drumagarner Road. Bertie and Annie intended building their new home there.

   On Saturday, 1 December 1990, at 5:10pm Bertie’s brother Fergy returned home to be informed by his brother-in-law that Bertie and Annie had been shot.

Bertie had been working all day at the site and Annie had arrived to take him home. While they were sitting in the car both of them were shot at from a passing car. Bertie was killed instantly.

   The killers then drove into Kilrea, did a U-turn at the Marion Hall and came back for a second pass at the murder scene. By this time an off duty nurse had stopped and was giving first aid to Annie who had been severely wounded. The killers rammed her car, fired again and then sped off. Bertie’s body remained at the scene for four hours until the Scenes of Crime Officer and the Forensics team had completed their work. It was not until the following afternoon at 3pm that the family were permitted to go to the morgue and identify Bertie’s body.

   A few days later a known Provisional was stopped at a VCP. ‘I hear we got one of yours on Saturday,’ he taunted the patrol commander.

 

‘I hope the old bitch dies as well. We’ll get more of you before Christmas is out.’ J Potter (2001) A Testimony To Courage, Page 344.

 

Closing Down Garvagh Base

“There were rumors that Garvagh base was going to close down. I went to my local MP and asked for his support in keeping the base open. But Garvagh was closed on 20 January 1984 and the argument then became, ‘What were they going to do with the Garvagh men?’

   The main idea floated was that the Garvagh men were going to be posted to Magherafelt. We would kit up in Garvagh but then travel down to Magherafelt to be detailed to our patrol tasks. The Limavady men were expected to come down to carry out patrols in the Garvagh area. We did not think that was a very reasonable course of action.

   The Garvagh NCOs held a meeting in Garvagh one evening in order to decide our best course of action. There were no officers present at the meeting. The first item on the agenda was ‘Should we all go to Coleraine?’ There was no one prepared to go to Coleraine so we eventually decided that if we were going to remain in the UDR we would all volunteer to go to the Ballymoney base. Our immediate officers turned down that idea, so we all packed up.

   There was one last attempt by the OC E Company to stop us from resigning. He invited us into his office one at a time to discuss our individual views. We stayed on in the UDR for a further year without doing any duties because there were many court cases coming up involving successful operations we had been on. After all the court cases were over we all left the UDR” S37.

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