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Chapter 13 – The Permanent Cadre

 

 

The Permanent Cadre (PC) Platoon Commander’s Story

 

Overview

I served in the UDR (PC) from 1978 until 2000. The bases I served in included: Coleraine, Ballymoney, Magherafelt and Ballykelly.

After an initial two years in the PC Operational Platoon at Coleraine I was posted to Ballymoney Platoon as a Corporal carrying out the duties of Section Commander. I remained there for two years before I was posted to the Battalion Training Wing in Ballykelly. Sergeant Major Chris Bobby was in charge of the Training Wing at that time. I spent two years there before being posted to Magherafelt as a Platoon Sergeant in F Company.

    While at Magherafelt I attended many career advancement courses and was given the role of Platoon Commander. Following that I was promoted to the rank of Colour Sergeant and given the job of Chief Quartermaster Sergeant (CQMS). Before I retired my final rank was Sergeant Major (WOII).

   My final role was Watch keeper at Battalion Headquarters in the Operations Room. The terrorist situation had eased slightly in 1999 and 2000 so I was able to spend some time in vocational training for my future civilian employment.

 

Family History

My grandfather was a Gunner in 6 LAA Battery RA (Supplementary Reserve) from 1939 to 1946. He saw action in Scotland, Suez Canal, the Western Desert, France, Holland, Belgium and Germany. He died of TB a few years after he left the army.

   I was born in 1959 in Plymouth, as at that time my father was in the Royal Navy (RN). When my father left the RN the family came to live in Coleraine. He then joined the UDR and was a Platoon Sergeant in the Portstewart Platoon.

   My secondary education was at Coleraine Academical Institution where I studied for my O Levels. During these early years I spent some time in the Army cadets as a Bombardier. We were based in the Territorial camp at Calf Lane where my grandfather had started his military career. After I left school I joined the Royal Navy (RN) for two years and then came back to Coleraine.

 

Joining the UDR 

When I returned home I decided to join the UDR. My father’s service lifestyle may have influenced me in both these early career choices. Many young men from around my area had also joined at this time and I knew them well. Compared to my RN wages, the army pay was very good. Instead of the £60 per month from the RN, I was now earning £196 per month. That was a very good wage at that time.

 

Basic Training

Because of my previous experience in the Army cadets and the RN I did not feel that there was a major transition from civilian life to army life. I was used to attending annual camps, weapon handling and being shouted at. I really enjoyed my initial training. That started at E Company, Coleraine with the two Permanent Staff Instructors. After a week of basic training we travelled on a daily basis up to Battalion HQ in Ballykelly to complete our training. After we had completed our recruit training I was posted to the PC Operational Platoon based in E Company Coleraine.

 

Operational Tasking

When I started in 1978 the PC Platoon tasks were limited to Mobile Patrols from E Company. This was done in two shifts. The first shift patrolled from 4am until 1pm. The second shift patrolled from 1pm until 8pm, then the Part-Time Platoons covered from 8pm until 4am, Coleraine town had operational cover for twenty-four hours daily. This routine had been established in 1977 when people were being recruited in order to establish PC Platoons. At that time there was also a PC Guard section covering E Company base guard duties from 4am until 8pm with the PT Platoons covering from 8pm until 4am.

   We patrolled the triangle area of Coleraine, Portstewart and Portrush as well as Castlerock and as far south as Garvagh. Kilrea RUC station was home to a regular army unit who were responsible for patrolling the Kilrea area. This area was eventually taken over by the UDR as the company strength increased.

 

Op Grenada

Once we were trained and qualified in search operations a search team could be tasked to Op Grenada. This was based at Moscow camp in the Belfast docks. A Royal Naval ship would take the search team out to patrol the Irish Channel for two weeks. The tasking was selected through Intelligence and involved us boarding all types of ships to search for terrorists and their munitions. After one particular two-week duty we were preparing to move back to E Company base when we were told to carry on with the next two-week patrol. Due to the increased tasking at Coleraine, a relief search team could not be spared. 

 

Other Units

I spent over a month in Denmark. I was in a group of six UDR soldiers who trained alongside the Fusiliers on a NATO exercise.

   Because of my many contacts with other British army units, I have a greater respect for the British soldier. This is particularly true for those who fought on the front line in the Falklands, the Gulf and Iraq. TV documentaries only skim the surface of what the ordinary soldier has to cope with.

   When I went to Denmark with the Fusiliers I gained a great insight into this subject. We were there to train in the NATO role. This involved carrying so much kit it was impossible to either sit down or stand up without someone else’s help. The best way you could rest was to bend over and rest on your rifle to take the weight off your back. On that same exercise we had to dig a trench and learn to live in the trench for four days.

 

The Clady Car Bomb

I remember one terrorist attack very clearly. This happened at Clady Permanent Vehicle Check Point (PVCP) on the Co. Tyrone/Donegal border.  

That was a weird day. For example, the security specialists came in that day to check out the CCTV system and ensure that all the cameras and monitors were in working order. I was in command of the PVCP for that period. My job was to rotate the soldiers around the various posts and operate the PVCP from the central console.

   I was checking through the vehicles and as normal the RMPs and an RUC officer were standing out on the road checking the traffic. The RUC officer shouted in, ‘There’s a guy out here saying that there is a bomb out here’. I immediately checked the CCTV monitors and the car was not visible. It had been parked on the only blind spot in the whole PVCP. I shouted out, ‘Is that guy drunk or joking?’ and the RUC replied, ‘I think he is serious.’ So I hit the alarm and verified the situation was for real by physically checking the car and checking the registration.

 

At the Clady PVCP

   By that time the men had all paraded with all their kit for a ‘Bug Out’. But this was for real and they were deployed to their cordon points on the perimeter of the base. We had to stop anyone or any vehicle from coming into the PVCP as well as securing our own safety. The Garda secured the opposite side of the bridge.

   No sooner had we evacuated the PVCP than the bomb went off. It was only at that time we discovered that the cordon points were too close to the bomb. Every cordon point was showered with shrapnel and bricks from the explosion.

   After the explosion we returned to the PVCP. It was a total mess. We were hungry because the bomb had been parked just as we were organizing the evening meal. Every time we tried to use the cooker the rings would overheat and explode. That was not something we wanted, more explosions. We ended up eating cereals whilst the rings continued to explode, not a very relaxing situation.

   We spent the rest of the night at the location controlling the traffic, without any washing facilities, food or back up to relieve us. The following morning the normal changeover with another platoon took place and we walked to the pick up point to be airlifted back to Ballykelly by helicopter.

   We were in the air for ten minutes when the loadmaster looked back at us and shouted, ‘We’re ditching, a bird has hit the rotor blade!’ The pilot managed to get the chopper into Omagh base. We then had to wait there until a new rotor blade was fitted to the helicopter before we were able to finish our journey.

   At Ballykelly the patrol had to be debriefed on the bombing incident before we could make our way back home. The bomb went off at approximately 6pm and over eighteen hours passed before we eventually reached our homes.  

 

At Omagh Waiting For a Plane

 

 

Clady Rebuild

 

The MBE Award

When I was a PC platoon commander in Magherafelt I was awarded the MBE for both my leadership and the operational successes my platoon had at that time. I was a qualified Unit Search Adviser and on one memorable occasion I personally found a sniper rifle while I was deploying my platoon on a search operation. This was a joint RUC and UDR operation, a follow up to a shooting incident the night before. Both search units stopped for a break at midday then the RUC left the area and we decided to continue with the search in the area already covered by the police. We had already found many items, which led me to believe there was something more to be found in the area. The finds included sets of rubber gloves and balaclavas that had been discarded by the terrorists in their haste to escape from their ambush position.

   As I jumped over a fence to continue the search I saw a shiny object in the undergrowth. On closer inspection it turned out to be the scope still attached to the sniper rifle.

   On another occasion I organized a follow up search after a patrol had found two rifles in the Maghera area. This uncovered a holdall. On first inspection it was seen to contain sets of rubber gloves so I called forward the SOCO (Scenes of Crime Officer) and he started to collect the evidence for forensic examination. As he emptied the bag he suddenly froze. The bag also contained half a block of Semtex with a detonator, battery and a clock attached. We had to clear the area and task in the ATO (Ammunition Technical Officer) to deal with the device.

 

The Presentation

I went to Buckingham Palace to receive my MBE from The Queen. The whole event was well organized. My family were provided with travel warrants, hotel accommodation and transport to and from the event. The Military Awards ceremony took place after all the civilian MBEs were presented.

 

Stress

The stress in the UDR changed continually. As your job and rank changed, so did the stress factors. As a Corporal I was always in command of at least eight soldiers. That was the normal patrol strength. When I was promoted to Sergeant I expected to have more administration based tasks with the Corporals carrying out the patrols. I was to be proved incorrect because, as the UDR developed their expertise, the operational tactics changed. Multiple patrols and the principle of Framework Operations came into force. The whole platoon with eight vehicles was deployed into a particular area and that required the controlling hand of the Platoon Commander or Sergeant.

   One of the most stressful aspects of being a Platoon Commander or Sergeant was parading the platoon for their Operational Tasking. All platoons were expected to meet their taskings so you had to maintain a strict rota for soldiers on courses, leave and sick. On some occasions a soldier could have a family crisis or fall ill, this created a manpower problem. You were always expected to turn up on an operation with a set number of soldiers.

 

There were other occasions when the stress was created for each soldier and their immediate family. For example, there was a one-year period when we operated out of Magherafelt for three weeks at a time and then back to Ballykelly for another three weeks. The Ballykelly part of the cycle was easy because we could go home when we were off duty. The Magherafelt duty kept us on duty for the full three weeks.

   Another source of stress was the high number of courses you were expected to attend before you were considered for promotion. The combination of courses and the days spent on patrol, meant your family life was limited and constantly under strain. 

 

End of Career

My final two years in the Regiment were spent in the Battalion Headquarters Operations Room as a watchkeeper. I was responsible for supervising the signallers and keeping all the senior officers briefed on the current situation as it unfolded.

At the same time I was also preparing myself for life as a civilian. That included attending courses in England and studying at home. I attended enough courses to gain a City and Guilds certificate in Computer Engineering and a BTec certificate in Computer Application.

It proved very difficult to gain employment in a job with a decent wage. My first job lasted a year. I left and then settled down in my new employment where I remain until the present day.

   I did make some close friends when I was in the UDR, but they were not steady friends. That was because of the continual two-year postings and promotions. Both these factors only allowed me to develop short-term friendships with many people but very few close relationships.

   I did not join any veterans associations after I left the UDR. Most of these organizations have a higher number of former Part -Time soldiers rather than Permanent Cadre soldiers so they have no attractions for me personally.

 

The Dog Handler

 

I joined the UDR because a friend talked me into joining it. My uncle was in the UDR at that time and had previously served in the B Specials. I enrolled in the Garvagh detachment of the UDR in 1980 at the age of eighteen. I felt a bit out of place, just like a duck out of water. Nearly everyone else in the company at that time was much older. I felt like a young schoolboy amongst these older hands. My initial enrolment was for part-time duties but within a couple of months I started full-time duties. The pay in the early days was not worth talking about.

   There were no changes in the attitude of my friends or neighbours when I joined up. Most of the people in the Aghadowey area had a tradition of joining the RUC, the B Specials or other security forces.

 

Basic Training

The initial training in those days was very limited. It was not until I joined full-time that my serious training started. This included pre training in the Battalion and then down to Ballykinlar Training Depot for a six-week course. But basic part-time recruit training was limited to a couple of weekends and Thursday nights. This started off in Garvagh and then the final weekend was spent at Magilligan Camp. There we trained on the ranges and were taught anti-ambush drills. I found the training easy. Prior to my military training I had been an accomplished clay pigeon shooter so I was familiar with firearms and their safe handling.

 

Operational Duties

I do not believe that my initial training prepared me for the operational patrols. We all learned as we went along. My first operational duties were conducted in the Glenullen, Garvagh and Kilrea areas. There were many men in our area who were under constant threat from Republican death squads and our patrolling was an essential deterrent.

   After I joined the full-time platoon in Garvagh we were merged with the Magherafelt Companies (F & G Companies). We then spent a lot of time patrolling the mid Ulster area and doing guard duties at Magherafelt UDR base and Coolkeragh power station.

 

Dog Handling

I started my dog-handling role in 1982.  I was always interested in working with dogs. I would like to have joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps after I left school but there were no vacancies at that time. It was in 1982 that a position of dog handler became vacant in the Co Londonderry area. I applied for the post and was successful.

   I spent a lot of time in Londonderry city as I was attached to the resident battalion in the city and accompanied the patrols carrying out many searches.

   At one stage of my career I was presented with a MID for a job well done. This happened after a terrorist incident where soldiers and terrorists were shot dead.  The local terrorists had a panic attack and started ditching their weapons in the local area. Some weapons were recovered from inside a hollow gate pillar. The top had not been replaced properly and the dog indicated it.

   In 1996 I was also attached to a special British army team in Hong Kong. This was before Hong Kong was handed over to the Chinese. It was our job to search all the military bases in Hong Kong for munitions and ensure a clean hand over took place. This task took six months to complete. At that stage I was a single man and it was a great experience.

 

Memorable Experiences

The Garvagh detachment saw action against terrorists on many occasions. I was part of a multiple patrol in a Shorland armoured car approaching Swatragh village one night from Garvagh. The other part of our patrol reacted so fast to a ‘shoot and scoot attack’ that we managed to catch one of the gunmen hiding behind the Rafters Bar in Swatragh within minutes of the attack.

   Some of the experiences were memorable for the horror of the situation. Later on in my military career I became a search dog handler. I will always remember the search I had to conduct in Swatragh village. That was after a Landrover patrol had been ambushed from the children’s playground on the Swatragh Bridge. The Republican terrorists had used an RPG rocket and it had hit one of the patrol vehicles. I spent the day picking up body parts that the dog had indicated before we recovered the patrol weapons. The smell of the man’s body was very strong.

 

End of Service

Two years before I finished my twenty-two year service career I was given the opportunity to retrain for a civilian trade.

 

 

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