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Chapter 5 - Military Tradition and the New Militias


The Tradition of Military Service


After 1850 many Coleraine volunteers continued to serve the Crown during Britain’s conflicts. That included the Crimean War in 1855. After the Crimean War a Russian cannon was presented to the town in 1859 to mark the contribution made by the Coleraine volunteers. Coleraine volunteers were also well represented during the Zulu War in 1879, the Egypt War in 1882, the first Boer War 1881 and the second Boer War in 1899-1902.

   One of the local veterans, William McSheffery, called the Boer Wars the first and second African wars. He served in both and was invalided out of the Inniskilling Fusiliers at the start of WWI before going on to dig the trenches in France. He often recalled how he had to cut his spade through the bodies of men and horses so that the trench followed the plans they were working to.

   Robert Gamble also fought in South Africa and his South Africa 1902 medal has the clasps for the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. He also served during WWI in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He was too old for military service when WWII started but two of his sons, Tom and Willie, joined 6 LAA Battery as gunners while Robert joined 1st Airborne Division as a paratrooper and Jim joined the pathfinders of the 1st Airborne Division, the 21st Independent Parachute Company. 


Photo 7 Robert Gamble  and Photo 8 William Gamble



The Ulster Volunteer Force


Just before WWI an illegal citizens’ militia was raised in 1911. It was used to preserve the Protestant tradition and population in Ulster.  That militia was called the Ulster Volunteer Force and 300 volunteers were raised in Coleraine to oppose the implementation of the Home Rule Bill. This Bill was introduced in 1886, 1893 and then again in 1912. Its aim was to give Ireland a devolved assembly with limited powers. Protestants opposed the Bill because they would become a minority in the whole of a Catholic Ireland.

   Bonar Law, the son of a Portrush minister, became the leader of the Conservative Government in 1911 and championed the Ulster Protestant cause at that time. By 23 September 1911 there were thousands of Orangemen parading in Craig’s grounds in Co Tyrone. This was followed province wide by the Orange Order providing the halls and facilities to train more volunteers who were in opposition to the Home Rule Bill. 

   At that time a law was unearthed that stated two Justices of the Peace could authorize military exercises in their jurisdictions in order to provide an efficient citizens’ army (Stewart, 1966, p69). Licences were duly issued and by January 1913 the Ulster Volunteer Force was 90,000 strong. The south responded by raising a Catholic army of 190,000 Irish Volunteers.

   The Coleraine UVF contingent was under the command of Major JAWO Torrens. The drill instructors were Willie McGrotty from Killowen and James Thompson (Mullin, 1979 p26). But with WWI starting, the implementation of the Home Rule Bill was delayed. The loyal volunteers joined the 36th (Ulster) Division and went off to war. Drill Instructor Willie McGrotty from Killowen was too old for WWI but his sixteen-year-old son, also called William, forged his age and joined up.

The Irish Volunteers enrolled in the 10th (Irish) and the 16th (Irish) Divisions.




The final Home Rule Bill had been introduced in December 1920 and in December 1921 Ireland was partitioned into the six counties of Ulster and the twenty-six counties of the Irish Free State, each with their own parliaments. Not only did the Irish lose six counties, the British Army lost six Irish Regiments when they were disbanded. On 12 June 1922 in St Georges Hall at Windsor Castle King George V received the twenty Colours of the five infantry Regiments and the Regimental Engraving of the South Irish Horse. He said,


‘I pledge my word that, within these ancient and historic walls, your colours will be treasured, honoured and protected as hallowed memorials of glorious deeds of brave and loyal Regiments’.


Institutionalised Discrimination


Institutionalised discrimination throughout Ireland reached new heights after this grossly unjust partition. The political structures in both new states had an inherent sectarian bias. A Protestant Parliment for a Protestant people and a Catholic Nation for De Valera were the mutual calls.

The border became an impassable barrier to the respective governments wishing to alleviate the suffering of their isolated minorities. The Irish government tried boycotting goods manufactured in Belfast to coerce the Northern Ireland government to protect the northern Catholics who were subject to discrimination and murderous attacks, particularly in the Belfast area. The boycott was of little value.


The Southern Protestant Decline


Between 1922 and the mid 60s the downward spiral of the Protestant population in the Republic of Ireland accelerated. From the census in 1911 to the present the overall decline has been 68 per cent (Hussey, p379).

   There have been many reasons suggested for this decline including an ageing minority, a prolific majority, anxiety, assassination, mass departure and institutionalised discrimination. The Central Statistics Office (2000, p55) states that the Protestant decline can be attributed to the older generation of the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterians as well as the high birth rate and low mortality rates of the Roman Catholics relative to the Protestant minority.

   Kenny (2000, p92-93) has discussed how Protestants in the Republic of Ireland were faced with an uncertain future in those early years and that may account for them having the lowest rate of fertility in Europe at that time. The Protestant clergy went as far as to send a delegation to Michael Collins who reassured them that the Protestants were welcome in the south. That reassurance had little value because soon after that Collins paid the price for signing the documents that divided Ireland with his own life.

   But the problem was initially compounded through institutionalised discrimination, such as the protocol to be followed after a mixed marriage. In the old Irish Catholic tradition all female children were raised in their mother’s religion and all the male children were raised in the father’s religion. The Papal decree of Ne Temere was then used from 1908 until 1966. It ensured that when a Protestant married a Roman Catholic, the Protestant signed a document stating that all their children would be raised as Roman Catholics.

   The Protestant decline in the Republic of Ireland was also accelerated through exodus. In 1922 the big houses of the Protestant landowners were being burnt and the working class Protestants were being shot. For example, in April 1922 twelve Protestants in Dunmanway, West Cork were picked out and shot in a single day.


The Ulster Special Constabulary


The citizens’ militia had to be raised again in 1920 to counter the murderous incursions of the IRA from the Republic of Ireland and the equally murderous activities of the IRA in Northern Ireland. The government called this citizens’ militia the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) and armed them with the 1914 consignment of Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) weapons. The Ulster Special Constabulary was formed as part of the Royal Irish Constabulary and pre-dated the creation of the state of Northern Ireland. (Doherty, 2007) As in 1913 when the UVF were training the local Orange halls throughout the Province were used as training halls by the USC.

   There were three grades of special constable, the A Specials who were full-time reserve police, the B Specials who were part part-time police and expected to parade on one or two nights each week for a four-hour duty. (Howard Gribbon was the first commander of the B Specials in Coleraine)

The C Special’s were available for emergency call-out and each man had to provide his own personal weapon. The A and C Specials were disbanded in 1926.


WWII and The Coleraine Garrison


Coleraine town did not have an army unit garrisoned from 1850 until the British army raised 6 Light Anti Aircraft Battery, 9th Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery (Supplementary Reserve) on 1 April 1939. The Battery was raised to counter the threat offered by the German air force, the Luftwaffe. One of the earliest volunteers was Jim Murray from Maghera who joined in March 1939. The following month he attended a Bofors gun Anti Aircraft course at Biggin Hill near London along with Robin Martin from Coleraine and Stanley McQuigg from Macfin.

   When 6 LAA Battery left Coleraine on 28 November 1939 to take their part in WWII the Calf Lane Camp and the surrounding towns were used to garrison many of the troops passing through Coleraine on their way to the European battlefields.

   On 26 March 1942, the Coleraine Battery was deployed for Anti Aircraft defence of the Halfa Railhead in the Western Desert. They used 20mm Breda guns captured from the Italian Army for this task. The guns were mounted on three-ton trucks. These were then loaded on the railway wagons of the train they were protecting. On 2 April that year, Sergeant Jim Murray was wounded twice on the left arm by ricocheting bullets as his gun crew shot down a German Bf109 (Gamble, p73). Jim Murray was wounded again in 1958 as he defended Swatragh RUC station from an IRA attack.


Photo 9 Railway Anti-Aircraft Protection In the Western Desert 1942  



Ulster Home Guard


Although the English regular militias were raised again in Great Britain on 27 May 1940 as the Local Defence Volunteers (LDVs), the 13,000 strong B Specials were expected to carry out the same role as the LDVs as well as their normal duties in Northern Ireland. But on 29 May a new category of B Specials was created, the Local Defence category. By 21 June the Local Defence category strength was 18,742. The final title change took place on 24 August when they became known as the Ulster Home Guard section of the Ulster Special Constabulary.

  The dress code also went through three phases. Initially they wore civilian dress with an armband. Next it was black denim battle dress and finally they were dressed in khaki battle dress (Hezlet, p141).


“I joined the Boveedy detachment of the Local Defence Volunteers in 1942. At the start of the war both the Ulster Home Guard and the B Specials were dressed identically except for the shoulder flashes or patches. Instead of having a shoulder flash with the Ulster Home Guard on it the B Specials had a patch on the upper arm with a B on it.

   Many people were in both the Ulster Home Guard and the Bs. If they were not required for one unit they paraded for the other unit. There were also A Specials who volunteered from Garvagh and they were posted out to guard RUC stations in Belfast and other locations.

   The Ulster Home Guard spent most of their time training for land warfare. We did not become involved in roadblocks; the Bs did that all the time.

   The Ulster Home Guard was eventually stood down in 1944. The photograph shows the Garvagh Ulster Home Guard Band outside the Presbyterian Hall in Garvagh. They borrowed the pipes and drums from Garvagh Pipe Band and marched at the head of the Coleraine parade for the stand down of the Ulster Home Guard” S7 & 8.


Photo 10 Garvagh Detachment of the Ulster Home Guard 1944



Operation Harvest


Between the years 1956 and 1962 the IRA mounted a terrorist campaign called Operation Harvest. That campaign failed for many reasons. The main reason was the fact that the Republic of Ireland did not support the IRA. The Irish Government introduced internment and used no jury military tribunals to deal with IRA prisoners. Without political control and direction the military campaign was undermined and the IRA was unable to galvanise support from the nationalists community in Northern Ireland.

  Many of the IRA s military operations were undermined by a combination of information supplied to the RUC by a small MI5 unit, co-operation with the Gardi and with the B Specials out on the ground every night restricting IRA activity. Davy Watton of Coleraine had served in the Western Desert as a dispatch rider in the Royal Engineers joined the B Specials on his return to Coleraine. He was instrumental in the capture of two IRA men who were preparing a set of plans and sketches of Coleraine Bann Bridge.


Photo 11 S/Constable Davy Watton


The B Specials


“I first joined the Knockloughrim Platoon of B Specials in 1953.  The platoon consisted of three sections. Each section had a Sergeant in charge and six constables. The Sergeant was normally promoted to the post because they had prior service in the armed forces. Our wages were 50p a month or £6 a year.” S9.




“On a drill night all you had to do was put your rifle over your shoulder, get on your bicycle and ride into the local drill hall. You were relatively safe from attack by Republican gunmen because while you were on a training night your area was well covered by other B Special patrols” S7 & 8.


“My section drilled in Knockloughrim Orange Hall. Frank Pancott and John Kerr were our Sergeant Instructors. Their job was to travel around north Derry and train the B Specials on their drill nights.

On some training nights we had live firing practice in the hall. We used the .303 Lee Enfield rifle fitted with a Morris Tube. That was a sleeve barrel that allowed the rifle to take a .22 round.

  On drill nights we always had two men posted outside the hall with loaded weapons for our security. One man was posted to each end of the hall. One night Davy Gamble was posted outside on guard duty. He always carried a Sten Sub Machine gun. After his stint of guard duty Davy came back into the hall and forgot to unload the Sten. He dropped the Sten and we all jumped up onto chairs as the gun started spinning on the ground and firing away until the magazine was empty. Luckily there were no injuries.

   There were shooting competitions nearly every Saturday. This involved the entire local B Special Platoons. That included Tobermore, Knockloughrim, Aughagaskin, Bellaghy and Garvagh. The competitions were held at The Grange, Moneydig or Magherafelt” S9.




“The B Specials patrol operated for a four-hour shift. The first shift was from 8pm to midnight and the second shift ran from midnight until 4am. The third shift from 4am to 8am was rarely called for. This four hour evening duty did not have an adverse effect on your ability to do your normal civilian job the next day.

   In the Garvagh area the Bs patrol consisted of a section of one Sergeant and six men. At the roadblocks there were two sentries at each end and the Sergeant with his two cover men in the centre.  It was the Sergeants task to interview anyone stopped by the patrol.

   Usually the patrols were transported to each roadblock by a truck driven by a RUC officer. On other occasions the patrols were delivered by a couple of the patrol using their own private vehicles. The vehicles would be concealed and the patrol conducted in a circular route to bring you back to the vehicles again. 

   There were so many Specials out on patrol, it did not matter where you tried to go, and inevitably you would run into another Specials patrol. This would happen not once but many times in the one journey. This was at a time when there were fewer vehicles on the road, but believe me, you did not travel far at night without meeting a Specials’ patrol.

   The only thing that kept us from stopping traffic was the fog or icy conditions. That was for safety reasons. The traffic would be moving slowly in these conditions anyway so we could identify the vehicle and driver easily” S7 & 8.


Local Knowledge


“In the Bs you relied on our local knowledge and prided ourselves on our grasp of the local knowledge. If you were to take a B Special to an area outside his local area, he lost that edge.

In the Garvagh detachment we had a man in our patrol who was lost if you took him to the end of his own road. One night we totally befuddled him while we were out on patrol. Sitting in the back of a covered lorry to be moved around our patrol area could be very disorientating.  When the patrol was over we had convinced this man that we were totally lost. We stopped the lorry and told him to get out and inquire at the nearest house as to where we were. He knocked on the door and his sister opened it. We had taken him back to his own home” S7 & 8.




“We were issued with poor quality torches. In the early 1950s these items were difficult to work with.

All the time I was involved in the B Specials I did not see any action personally. There may have been a bit of hassle on the roadblocks at times but it never amounted to anything serious” S 9.


The Swatragh Attack


On 14 January 1958 at 10pm Swatragh RUC station came under attack from a 70 strong IRA murder gang. These individuals had chopped down trees to block the eleven approach roads into Swatragh (Hezlet, p184).

   That night the regular RUC in Swatragh had the added protection of six B Specials from Upperlands. One team of the B men were posted to the sandbagged position in front of the station and the remainder were posted to a similar position close to the Garvagh Road. On hearing distant explosions the road party moved towards the RUC station and that was when the IRA started their attack.

  S/Constable Jim Murray was the first casualty with an eye and a leg wound to add to the arm wound he received in the Western Desert in 1942 (Gamble, 2006). Jim fired his Sten gun until it jammed and the blood from the eye wound stopped him from clearing the jam. At that stage S/Sergeant Thomas McCaughey cleared the gun and with covering fire from the RUC Bren gun in the upper floor of the station the terrorists were routed (Clark, p108).

   The sound of the gunfight alerted B Specials from the neighbouring areas who closed in on Swatragh in their private cars. They detained a well-known IRA suspect at one roadblock. He had a bullet wound to his chin.

  S/Sergeant Thomas McCaughey and S/Constable Jim Murray were awarded the British Empire Medal for their bravery that evening.

   The photo shows Private Thomas McCaughey, E Company 5 UDR on the right during a tea break on the Magilligan ranges in 1970. The soldier in the back of the van is the late Bobby Boyd from the Quartermaster’s Department based in Battalion Headquarters. On 18 November 1985 Republican gunmen murdered Bobby at his front door as he returned home from work. One of his neighbours was convicted for supplying the information that led to his murder.


Photo 12  Bobby Boyd and Thomas McCaughey BEM  



The Ulster Defence Regiment vs. The B Specials


“When you compare the achievements of the B Specials and the UDR I believe the Bs were a more effective force in dealing with the IRA. Because we operated in our own hometown, we knew everyone we met and recognised his or her vehicle before it reached our patrol. With the same token it was easy to identify strangers.

   The UDR patrols were better equipped to deal with the terrorist threat. For example, they had great radio communications and night viewing aids.

   Because the UDR units were more centralised there was more time lost in preparing for patrols. The amount of time lost in many operations was 25 per cent of the time available. For example, the soldier had to report to a base depot in order to draw his weapon, be briefed and then transported to the task area. Then there was time lost on the return journey to stand down.

     In the Bs you were on fifteen minutes notice to grab your rifle and make it to the designated point for the patrol. Everything you needed for the patrol was in your own home.

The general public had a better regard for the B Specials. Many people regarded the B Specials as ruthless. The fact was that the B Specials either stopped or deterred many terrorist actions. We also stopped a lot of other criminal activity around the province by being on the ground all the time.

   At one time we had permission to shoot at any vehicle that went through our roadblock without stopping. The threat was always there and the general public did not take a chance on running from a B Special patrol.

   The UDR were issued with superior weapon systems but by the time legislation had introduced Green, Yellow and Blue cards you might as well have left your weapons in the armoury for all the use or threat they presented to the terrorist” S 9.


The B Special Criticism Answered


The B Specials were neither equipped nor trained to deal with the modern terrorist and the sophisticated equipment they used. By 1976 all the criticisms directed at the UDR by some B Specials became history. The UDR were now on the ground every hour of the day conducting large-scale patrol operations with the equipment and training necessary to cope with the modern terrorist.


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