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Saturday, September 25, 2004

25 Years on, a tribute 

The story begins in the early 1960s with a young man, Neil, trying to find his niche in life. Working in a bakery didn't suit - too dull - and although big and strong, warehouse work was also too mundane. Apprenticeships of every sort left him unfulfilled and seeking more from life. For this intelligent, strong and kind young man, life in a rural small town offered little prospect of what he and millions of other romantic young men craved - adventure. His greatest hero was his elder brother who had managed to escape to far-flung seas by joining the merchant navy. He could have done that - he could have done anything had he applied himself - but he felt that sailing oil tankers and freighters across the globe offered little, if anything, of a serious challenge.

In the end, he did what adventurous young men with romantic notions do: he resolved to join the army. Even then, matters were hardly simple. When he learned that the army would accept candidates who scored slightly less than fifty percent in physical and academic testing, he knew that it wouldn't be challenging enough and abandoned his plan to joined the armed forces. Some time later, when he learned that the Royal Marines accepted only those with seventy percent scores and above, did he see a glimmer of hope for his dreams of getting out and seeing the world. Having trained for several months he applied to the RM and passed ever physical test and academic exam with scores of ninety percent or above and was accepted for basic infantry training. The year was 1962. The next three years saw the man growing from the boy; no longer was he only interested in putting in a few years with the prospect of travel to distant lands and the possibility of learning a trade. This would be his life, his future. Recognising his innate talent for the appreciation of infantry soldiering, his superiors ensured he was given the opportunity to attend classes and training schools. 1965 saw him promoted to lance corporal and given command of a four man "brick" [squad] and such was his marksmanship he was sent to attend the RM sniping school. By the time other young Englishmen of his age were celebrating their victory in the World Cup, he had been sent to Borneo - then still part of the nascent British Empire - and was living among indigenous tribespeople, caring for their sick, delivering their babies and protecting them from Indonesian government forces and their guerilla proxies in short sharp actions on claustrophobic jungle trails and along riverbanks. When one of "their" villages were raided and tribespeople carried off as hostages and slaves he and his men accompanied the villagers who were setting out to rescue the captives; to do otherwise would have lost face with the locals and sacrificed months of hard work and effort. The enemy encampment located, they discovered that the captives were being held in deep pits in the ground. Matters were somewhat simplified, however, by the fact that the guerrillas were drunk on fermented tree sap in celebration of their earlier success. It had been agreed that the villagers would be the ones to rescue their people while the marine patrol would secure their escape route through the jungle to prevent any Indonesian interference. As the marines were assuming positions in the jungle on the outskirts of the guerilla encampment, they blundered into a patrol of regular Indonesian forces - almost face to face in the dark night. Knowing that any gunfire so close to the camp would alert even the most inebriated of guerilla fighters to the rescue mission, they did the only thing they could: they fell on the Indonesians, knives drawn. In seconds it was over and Neil had broken the ultimate human taboo and taken a life.

On his return to the UK Neil spent a great deal of his time seeking out new challenges to best and skills to acquire. He became a skilled tactician - had he had the education or the opportunities at his enlistment he would have made a fine officer candidate - and earned the respect of his juniors, fellow NCOs and officers alike for his tactical sense, loyalty and compassion. With a promotion to corporal and an assignment to a training depot in 1968, he was far from the stereotypical image of an instructor; rarely, if ever, did he raise his voice in anger and led by example, inspiring many of the recruits in his care. 1971 saw him married and his unit posted to Northern Ireland, trying to keep Protestants from killing Catholics, Catholics from killing Protestants and everyone from killing the soldiers and police on the streets of the Province. Called in to support the RUC facing a riot, his brick found themselves trapped in a narrow street by men well-equipped with bricks and petrol bombs. Although pelted by rocks and incendiaries, he forbade his men from opening fire and led them up a narrow ladder onto the roof of a nearby warehouse. From this vantage point he could see how well the RUC's line had been outflanked by the rioters, now heading straight for the combined RUC and marine command post. Again forbidding his men from firing, he led them across the rooftops until they were directly above the command post and they climbed down a vertical sign on the side of the building. The waded into the fray and soon reached the CP where they found their company commander on the ground beset by half a dozen men kicking and clubbing him. One of the marines fired into the air, scattering the crowd and Neil bent to give first aid to his wounded captain. One of the rioters, little more than a boy, lunged through the cordon of marines and plunged a knife into the back of his left shoulder. Neil grabbed his rifle off the ground and swung it butt-first at the rioter, smashing his jaw and knocking him unconscious. Although no one at the time realised, this was to be a pivotal moment in Neil's life, one of those "what if" moments where, if events had played out slightly differently, later events may not have even occurred.

Having dragged their CO and senior RUC men clear of the rioters, they formed a perimeter until reinforcements arrived to break up the disturbance and give aid to the wounded. Lying on a stretcher awaiting the ambulance, Neil was surprised to see the battalion's young chaplain coming towards him. It transpired that the padre had been incorrectly informed that several people had been killed or badly wounded and he had come too to offer what support he could. From that meeting on the pavement, Neil and the vicar became firm friends. Although hardly qualifying as a near-death experience, Neil began attending the padre's services and spent the rest of his tour of duty having frequent discussions with the chaplain. A week before the battalion was due to return home, Neil's brick was on patrol in a Catholic area of Belfast doing their best to counter Republican propaganda that the soldiers were there to oppress the local Catholic population. Although they couldn't live among the community, those with Borneo experience found that talking to the locals in a respectful way, and learning names and family details went a long way to breaking down many of the barriers between the soldiers and the citizenry. It had the added bonus of allowing them to gain intelligence on who they should be watching, of course, but mainly it was simply a way to allow them to interact in a non-threatening way with the city's people especially as the government's internment policy caused yet more resentment. The marines especially preferred to patrol on foot as, although they were certainly more vulnerable, they could often respond faster and more subtly in the narrow streets and alleys than a jeep or armoured car. Some locals were far from hostile, and indeed were grateful at the way the soldiers kept Protestant gangs away from them and they were often ready to stop and chat in the street. One of these locals was a teenage mother named Mary who, despite the fact that her father and elder brother had been swept up in a mass arrest sweep and were interred in prison, was grateful for the protection that her postman boyfriend was afforded by the army as he delivered mail across the city. Spying Mary leaving her parents' home pushing her infant daughter's pram the patrol stopped to greet her; they felt secure, they had patrolled this district many times before and the locals tolerated their presence, perhaps they weren't paying as much attention as they should have been, perhaps it wouldn't have mattered.

Gunfire erupted from across the street, scything into the patrol. Reacting instantly, one of the marines flung himself at Mary and the pram desperately trying to shield them from the gunfire. Two more marines went down with various wounds before they even knew where the gunfire was coming from. There!: a man at the street corner with a rifle. One of the wounded marines returned fire and the man disappeared around the corner and Neil gave chase. They ran for what seemed like miles through the warren of alleyways and streets and terraced houses until Neil knew where the gunman was going - a well-known pickup point for those fleeing the law. Rather than run the risk of heading straight into an ambush, he jumped a fence and, with more than a passing element of farce, knocked on a back door to be greeted a minute later by an old woman who wordlessly let him through her house, past her dumbstruck grandchildren and out through the front door. And there, at the end of the street, Neil could see the gunman weapon pointing to where he expected Neil to emerge into the line of fire. Neil issued the challenge "Royal Marines, halt or I fire" but the gunman pivoted towards him, raising his rifle. Neil didn't hesitate and shot him dead. It was only later that he found out that although the actions of the young marine had saved the life of Mary's daughter, she herself had been killed. The marines of the patrol had not suffered life-threatening injuries so all the dead gunman had managed to achieve was the murder of an innocent young girl. The loss of such innocent life right in front of his eyes, and the feeling that somehow he was responsible greatly troubled Neil and hardened his heart towards the members of the IRA. He knew that Catholics were being marginalised and oppressed by the ruling Protestants, but he was determined that murderers of the innocent would be be brought to account. When he returned home just a week later at the end of his tour he thought long and hard about what he was going to do. For quite some time he had been debating with himself whether or not to leave his battalion and seek acceptance with the Special Boat Squadron and the events on that fateful patrol made his mind up: he would either enter a unit that would likely bring him up against hardcore IRA men on a regular basis or, by leaving the battalion, he would be unlikely to be rotated back to the province. Like his initial entry to the marines, he passed into the SBS with high marks and he learned may new skills such as diving, parachuting and demolitions. His marksmanship also improved, becoming as expert a pistol shot as that with a rifle and he drew much respect for his general abilities, strength and fitness. In his spare time he devoted himself to reading all the available intelligence material on the IRA and meeting with the unit's intelligence officers until he became a true expert on the urban guerilla fighter. His contact with the intelligence corps brought him to the notice of the CO of an undercover unit forming for work in Northern Ireland. The unit's tasking was to infiltrate into the communities harbouring Republican and Loyalist terrorists and gain enough intelligence information to get convictions as well as locating safe houses and arms caches. Before deployment to Ulster he was sent on on intensive language courses - to give him an authentic accent - and unarmed combat training as teams would be deployed with the barest minimum of weapons and support. 1975 saw his first child born and first deployment to Londonderry, a town virtually a no-go area for the RUC and army since Bloody Sunday three years previously, and had secured the arrests of several key IRA personnel in the Province and the Irish Republic by the end of his tour. He had also cemented his reputation as a cool and clear-thinking operator, capable of tackling the most sensitive of assignments. By the end of 1975 he was home with his family and had returned to the SBS, where he spent the next several years training new recruits and screening prospective candidates. Despite this relative calm and stability he was still traumatised by the death of Mary, so he turned to his old friend the chaplain and through him, to God. His faith gave him the strength to cope with what he had witnessed and he became rather devout although he kept it from his colleagues. Newfound faith did not change him too much as he was still kind and considerate in his actions, rarely giving a glimpse of the highly trained and skilled soldier that he was. By 1979 he was a sergeant and had a second child, a daughter.

When the IRA killed eighteen men of 2 Para and the commanding officer of the Highlanders at Warrenpoint, Neil was reassigned to the undercover unit and inserted into Belfast. He and his fellow soldier-spies were instructed to gather intelligence with the aim of capturing and prosecuting those responsible; if, however, it was necessary to shoot an identified participant in the plot, it was made clear to them that that would be an acceptable outcome. Although this was a thinly veiled cover for ordering assassination, Neil resolved to do the job in the manner he always had - opening fire would be an absolutely last resort. Three weeks after the bombing he had established himself in Belfast, working on a building site by day with Catholics with connections to the Provisionals and by night he was hanging around in bars trying to gather information and attempting to get inside the IRA's Belfast Brigade. Things were progressing well and he had established a likely "in" to the IRA when disaster struck. Drinking in a pub with a local "player" in the IRA, he was shocked when a man with a deformed jaw entered the pub and sat down at their table. The newcomer was the cousin of the IRA member, but he was also the boy who had knifed him at the riot eight years ago. The newcomer gave no sign of recognition, however, and Neil thought the immediate danger had passed and sat out the rest of the meeting to preserve his still-intact cover. He was confident that if he could get through the evening without being recognised then he would be safe enough until he could leave the operation of his own accord. Despite precautions, however, he must have been followed home for in the morning he was clubbed unconscious by four men and dragged into a van. He had obviously been recognised and identified as a soldier after all. When he failed to make contact at the appointed hour, his Control knew that there was something wrong and when word filtered up from the RUC that a kidnapping had been witnessed their worst fears were confirmed. There was little, if anything, that they could do; they would have to wait for his body to turn up. When word of this decision filtered back to the SBS they were understandably outraged and deployed a dozen men, working individually and in pairs to find him. Despite this, they knew it was largely hopeless unless they got extremely lucky. All previously kidnapped soldiers and informants turned up 72-96 hours later, tortured, mutilated and shot through the back of the head - if they turned up at all; some had never ever been found. Despite this exceedingly bleak outlook the SBS commandos cajoled and threatened every informer and suspected IRA man in the vicinity of Neil's disappearance to try and get any leads they could.

Neil awoke with his head yanked back and water being poured over his face. It poured on and on as if from a hose or tap until he was retching. Although scared he wasn't panicking; Marine and SBS training featured similar training to help recruits cope with the possibility of drowning. Sufficiently rigorous training allows better control over the body's natural reactions to such events and he was able to wait it out. Although he was firmly tied up, his captors had failed to blindfold him and the ability to see one's surroundings gives you much information about your confinement and the possibility of turning things to your advantage. He recognised his surroundings as most likely being the interior of one of the many semi-derelict flats that covered the area he had been working in. Good, he was still in the city, which would simplify the task of any would be rescue attempt. He realised then that on his way home from his meeting the previous evening he had seen evidence that the army were posting vehicle checkpoints in the area - and there was no way that an IRA active service unit would risk taking an unconscious and armed man through a VCP. He was probably in the immediate vicinity of where he was taken. Searching such a vast number of flats and houses would still be a mammoth undertaking for the police and army, but he felt much better realising that the situation was not utterly hopeless. Although they planned to kill him, the men of the ASU realised that they had prime chance to extract information about the current tactics employed by the RUC and military forces in the battle against them. So they set about getting this information: a few near-drownings, some burns and beating Neil with whatever came to hand. He stood up to it well, though, because he had been trained for this too. He was not without hope for he knew help could not be too far away and he had discovered that he had a major advantage unknown to his captors. He was still wearing is watch. Although they had stripped him mostly naked, they had passed up the opportunity for casual thievery either out of some twisted sense of honour or, more likely, because if they were ever found with it in their possession it could link them to the murder they were clearly preparing for. Concealed within the watch was a slender shaft of metal with a sharp point and razor edges. The nylon rope securing him to the chair was incredibly strong, unbreakable almost, but it could be cut to the point of fraying whereupon it would lose all its strength. Ever so slowly Neil triggered the blade from the side of the watch and all through the hours of torture and pain he slowly sawed away at the nylon. He realised that he must be in one of the derelict and condemned blocks because his screams drew no attention, but still he sawed on milimetre by milimetre all the while praying for the strength to die or the strength to escape.

One of the SBS men deployed to Belfast to search for Neil was a young corporal of 22 who had joined the RM at the age of 16 as a boy soldier. Named Andy, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Norman Bates so he was naturally christened Psycho by his fellow marines. He was a small man in a world populated by big guys and he always felt that he had something to prove because of his diminutive size. He was also the new man in the unit so he felt that he had it all to prove and he was working alone, having split from his partner to allow them to cover more ground. Some of the men on the rescue team had been with the SBS for years and knew Neil like a brother; Andy only vaguely knew the missing sergeant but he knew that it had been he who had cut him a break on one of the tests which would have otherwise seen him fail to get into the unit. If he could, he would do all he could to repay that favour. He had just come from the nearby home of an RUC Special Branch informant and had been none too subtle. A man with an English accent and wearing all denim hammering on a door would not go unnoticed in this area of Belfast. He'd probably compromised the informant; if so his life would be in danger. He was more angry, however, at the delay that had been caused by the necessity of beating him to get the information he needed - and it wasn't until he'd drawn his service pistol and racked a round into the breech and aimed it at his head that he confessed to knowing the location of a nearby safehouse in a derelict block of multistorey flats. The SBS had a lead at last. Andy radioed it in and was ordered to perform a reconnaissance before reinforcements were brought into the area. Above all, the SBS command unit wanted to avoid alarming the ASU until they had the situation under control; after all they were still in possession of the primary target of the operation and they could still "win" by killing the SBS Sergeant. Proceeding carefully, Andy cut through back gardens and jumped fences to stay out of the line of sight of the highrises with their commanding view of the area. Safely against the wall of the first block, Andy studied the towerblocks looking for any signs of illicit habitation. As he was searching his surroundings, gunfire sounded above his head.

The last nylon strand frayed and then parted completely. After what seemed like days he was free and he felt the pain of his circulation returning to his hands. They were taunting him, trying to break him before shooting him, Neil knew; sometimes they recorded the cries and pleas of their victims before they ended their lives and sent the recordings to the press. Eventually they grew tired of goading him and the leader of the group, the man he had so recently been drinking with in the pub, drew Neil's own pistol from his jacket and put it against Neil's temple. As he pulled the slide to put a round into the chamber Neil made his move, striking with the speed of a cobra. let whatever's going to happen happen, he prayed. His left hand wrapped around the barrel of the pistol and clamped down hard preventing the action from working. The leader of the ASU pulled the trigger futilely as the flat of Neil's right hand caught him with massive force under the nose sending a spike of bone into his brain. As he died Neil stepped off the chair and aimed the gun still in the ASU leader's hand at the other occupant of the room and released his iron grip on the barrel. The ASU leader's finger locked in a death grip around the trigger fired the pistol and the bullet caught the other man in the chest. Taking the pistol from the dead hand, he fired another round into the prone figure and then he grabbed the chair and threw it at the boarded up window the room, knocking the board and some glass fragments out of the frame. Running to the window, and pausing only to check the height, he leapt through it.

Radioing in the gunfire, Andy was surprised to see a board and a chair flying through the air towards him. He rolled clear, drawing his own weapon from its holster and sighted on the window. Before his eyes a naked man dived through the air and executed a near-perfect parachute landing, legs together with knees slightly bent, and come up with a gun pointed directly at his own face. "Sergeant!" he called and a flicker of recognition passed between the two men. Neil stood, stumbled and fell; his ankle was either badly sprained or broken. Andy dragged him to his feet and slung him onto his shoulder. They could hear the echoing steps of someone sprinting down the stairs of the block and Andy ran to the doorway, caught a glimpse of a white face in the darkness and fired his pistol. He heard a scream and took off as fast as he could with the sergeant balanced on his shoulder. They ran on and on, passing curious and enraged bystanders, warning any that came too close by gesturing with their pistols, running towards the sounds of approaching sirens. Running until they saw the armoured cars and the ambulances.

Running until they were safe.

Monday, September 20, 2004

From Waho Muhammad to Warrenpoint 

The sixtieth anniversary of the battle of Arnhem is being commemorated in the Netherlands and the acts of the veterans of the First Airborne division, their heroism and tenacity, are being rightly celebrated by old and young alike. The Arnhem battle of operation Market Garden was the apogee of the reputation of the UK's airborne forces who had fought with bravery and distinction across Africa and Europe with their distinctive battlecry. From then on, through the events of Suez in 1956 and the conflict in Northern Ireland, followed a largely downward trajectory with the nadir being Bloody Sunday when men of the Parachute Regiment butchered unarmed civilians and thereby set the tone for another twenty years of conflict. This eternal stain on the reputation of the UK's armed forces is gradually being resolved by the Saville Enquiry sitting in Derry's Guildhall, but in the manner of the Chaos Butterfly that flaps its tiny wings in Amazonia and causes a hurricane thousands of miles away, the actions of a few men of 3 Para that Sunday afternoon in 1972 reached out almost a decade later to deal yet another heinous blow to the cause of peace and justice in the Province.

Bloody Sunday sparked resentment of soldiers on the streets who, lest we forget, were ostensibly there to protect civilians into outright hatred and, perhaps understandably, created a thirst for revenge. Revenge taken on any British regiment would not be enough: the Paras would have to suffer equally for what they had wrought in Londonderry. In the end, it took PIRA seven and a half years to extract what they undoubtedly saw - and, evidence suggests, still do see - as a suitable vengeance. And, as is the way with such quasi-genocidal conflicts, it would not be those that pulled the triggers on Bloody Sunday that would suffer, but new soldiers, boys mostly, whose only crime was to wear their country's uniform and the maroon beret. If the events of Bloody Sunday were "the best recruiting sergeant will ever have," then the IRA's retribution undoubtedly harmed the Republican's cause in equal measure and set the tone for a decade of counter terrorism operations.

The Warrenpoint bombings, if viewed in a strictly tactical sense, was a great victory for the PIRA: they had used a blend of technology and a keen appreciation of British Army tactics to kill eighteen soldiers and wound dozens more without absorbing any losses themselves. Few military commanders would be displeased with such a result. Viewed from both the strategic perspective and with the benefit of hindsight, it is all too easy to see how the bombing was worse than a failure for in one afternoon, the PIRA had created an implaccable enemy in the shape of Margaret Thatcher and locked our armed forces, armed republican groups and the citizens of Northern Ireland into a cycle of strike and counterstrike that was to only end when Margaret Thatcher resigned her premiership over a decade later. Sources, including her biography, show that she felt Warrenpoint very keenly on a personal level. As one of Thatcher's children, I find it hard to believe that she had a heart at all and harder still to think that she would feel pain over the deaths of soldiers who knew the dangers that they faced when they signed up. But care she did and when Bobby Sands and the rest of his fellow hunger strikers began starving themselves in prison, she viewed their casue as being that of those who had carried out the Warrenpoint bombings and the assassination of Lord Moutbatten and did not yield to their demands. When they died and the PIRA started up its campaign again, Thatcher had no qualms about being as harsh as she and her cabinet thought they had to be. Realising that they would get nowhere with Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister, the Provisionals attempted to assassinate her twenty years ago at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. But they failed and, perhaps understandably, Thatcher was none too pleased and went after the PIRA with a newfound determination. The Dirty War ramped up to new levels and woe betide anyone or anything that got caught up between Thatcher on one hand and the forces of armed Irish nationalism on the other.

As outlined above, the Warrenpoint bombings would have unforseen consequences, affecting a vast number of people that still have an impact even today. The subject of my next post will be how the bombing touched my own family.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Hey Folks,

Now I've read that one shouldn't feel guilty for not blogging or any pressure to deliver good content, blogging being one of those activities that's entirely personal and not dependent on the needs of others, but I still feel somewhat guilty for the paucity of updates and my level of input is really not justifying the amount of hits that my blog's received lately. Oh yeah, and Kilgore Trout has dropped me from his links list. That hurts. Take me back, Kilgore! Lack of output, it seems, has steep consquences.

So a quick roundup of recent events: My Dad has stared a college course, I am learning conversational Russian - and written, too, but not so very well - which had the unfortunate consequence of allowing me to understand that little bit more fully the full horror of the events in Beslan. Admittedly, my interest was sparked by a history of the seige of Lenningrand and I wished to read some of the listed sources so it was hardly for cheery just-ordered-a-Russian-internet-bride purposes that I wanted to learn the language of Pushkin, Prokofiev and Eisenstien, but still that was then and Beslan was very much now. And...

Last but not least...

I'm finishing my degree.

I've scored a placement at a local high school which will allow me to do my final few months of teaching practise and, after far too long, get a real job. I'd like to say that I made my decision to return on my own and that Mum's nagging didn't convince me or that Dad's return to college didn't inject an element of friendly competition, but I'd be lying if I did.

So to the subject that's really brought me out of the woodwork: a TV programme on the BBC called Manhunt.

It's one of these true crime numbers like Murder Detectives et al that I do honestly enjoy, but I got a fair shock last night reading the TV listings as this Thursday's edition features my friend's murder and the events surrounding the capture of his killer. It appears that these programmes are nowhere near as interesting - or...dare I say...fun - when you're intimately connected with the subject manner. While I know for a fact that, forensically at least, it's a fascinating case, and the issues surrounding international extradition and fair trial, perception and the media's role in reporting such cases, I can't help but feel that the programme will be based very much on the sensationalist nature of the crime. It seems that one man's riveting telly is another's sordid viewing. I also know, that having spent the last five years trying to understand it all, that 30 minutes running time won't really be enough to give the case the coverage it needs to be anything other than Law and Order-lite. He lived a few doors up the road from me and I pass his house on walks most days. It is probably just me, but it seems that you can still feel his presence here. How will they convey this in a TV documentary? I feel that it's just too recent an event for it to become, once again, TV fayre. We're not talking Ed Gein or Charles Manson, Berkowitz or even Richard Ramierez, we're talking Here, Now and on my own doorstep, police searching our garden and garage when he was "just" a missing person and not a post-nihilo celebrity.

And I really, really hate the phrase "limbs in the loch." Oh so very bloody much. Victim and killer both have names, have families, friends that defy and deny such gruesome tabloid labelling but it seems that either journalists believe that we can't remember any details without such a graphic trigger, or they take a delight in such a perverse case and what it symolises in terms of career opportunities and sales potential.

I mostly think that I'm over the effects of the circumstances of his death, but I woke at 5am totally and utterly unable to breathe with a vague feeling of what can only be termed "existential dread." When I get that feeling the usual cure is to call everybody I know and confirm their healthy status. It mut be a sign of some progress, then, that I've not called anyone at all and, if they are in the shit, then it's an indication of the trust that I have in them that I'm not tearing places and people apart to help them.

Or something.

Not wishing to infect you with my level of paranoia, readers, but do me a favour and watch your backs. Take care.