Northern Ireland – Op Banner

 

In 1969, following a period of civil unrest and sectarian violence, the British Army was deployed to Northern Ireland. The main protagonists on the republican side were the Provisional Wing of the IRA (PIRA) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). The largest loyalist organisation was the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and arguably the most dangerous was the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The loyalists rarely attacked the security forces. This was the beginning of Op Banner, the Army’s longest continuous campaign.

 

The Royal Corps of Signals in Northern Ireland

 

At its peak in 1972, the Army’s strength in Northern Ireland was 28,000. The Corps was the second largest element in the security force, after the infantry.

As Army troop levels in Northern Ireland increased after 1969, so did those of the Corps. For most of the conflict 39th Infantry Brigade HQ and Signal Squadron (213) provided signals support for its brigade in the east,  8th Infantry Brigade HQ and Signal Squadron (218) did the same in the west and 3rd Infantry Brigade HQ and Signal Squadron (203) in the south (although this squadron was disbanded for most of the 1980s). 233 Signal Squadron (Northern Ireland) provided theatre-wide specialist communications and support activities and spawned 225 Signal Squadron in 1986. In 1990, 225 and 233 Signal Squadrons became part of the re-formed 15th Signal Regiment.

As the number of military bases grew in Northern Ireland there was a need to expand the telephone network. In Lisburn, in 233 Signal Squadron, the WRAC Signal Troop was expanded to operate the additional private automatic branch exchange (PABX) switchboard positions and handle the increased message traffic in the Commcen. After 1981 the WRAC also provided an increasing number of Technicians.

The Corps provided communications for commanders and staff at brigade and theatre level, as well as the infrastructure to enable patrols on the ground to communicate with each other and with higher and lower commands. They also provided Rear Link Detachments (RLD) and support to specialist units such as bomb disposal teams, guards at the Magilligan and Maze prisons and squadrons in the infantry role. In addition, the Corps also supported SF with bespoke communications.

 

Lives lost

During the 38-year operation, 722 members of the Armed Forces were killed as a result of terrorist action, 719 died in other circumstances and 6,100 were wounded.

The Corps lost 16 soldiers to terrorist action and a further 20 soldiers to other causes. Among those who died were Sig Paul Genge killed while off duty in Lurgan in 1971, Cpl John Aikman while on foot patrol outside Newtonhamilton Court House in 1973 and Col Oliver Eaton, 40th Signal Regiment (Volunteers), outside his civilian workplace in Belfast in 1974. Sig Paul Reece died in 1979 while part of a bomb disposal team, only 9 days after he arrived in the Province. He and Gunner Richard Furminger were killed by the blast from a 400lb bomb in a culvert.

In August 1987, Cpl Jim Alger was posted for 2 years to 8th Infantry Brigade HQ and Signal Squadron. It was to be a challenging tour. On 19 March 1988 Cpl Derek Wood and Cpl David Howes were dragged from their car in Belfast and killed. This incident was shown on television around the world. On 15 June, 5 squadron members Sgt Taff Winkler, Cpl Billy Paterson, LCpl Pat Lambie, LCpl Mark Clavey and LCpl Derek Green (Royal Army Ordnance Corps) were killed by a bomb, along with Cpl Ian Metcalf (Green Howards), after taking part in the Lisburn half-marathon charity run. LCpl Jock Duncan (RCT), was shot and killed on 22 February 1989 while driving a minibus to collect military children from primary school. 

Terrorist attacks on servicemen were not confined to Northern Ireland; In 1974 a PIRA bomb blew up a coach on the M62. The coach was carrying servicemen and their families back from Manchester to their bases during a train strike. Nine soldiers were killed as well as a soldier’s wife and two children. Sigs Paul Reid, Michael Waugh and Leslie Walsh were among the dead. In 1992 Sgt Michael Newman was shot and killed by an INLA gunman as he returned home in civilian clothes from his work in the Army Careers office in Derby.

Northern Ireland Op Banner vehicle checkpoint

The end of the conflict – Good Friday Agreement

The operation scaled down after the Belfast Agreement known as the Good Friday Agreement was signed on the 10th April 1988. This agreement between the British and Irish governments, and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland stated how Northern Ireland should be governed including establishing a devolved government – The Northern Ireland Assembly. The Assembly did not have complete control over the province but made some decisions previously made by the UK government.

In 2002, the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended but in 2007 power was given back to the Assembly. The British Army officially ended its operations in Northern Ireland at midnight on 31 July 2007.

The reasons for the reduction in the conflict were complicated. They included large injections of EU regional development funding, a boosted economy and the removal of some of the original causes of protest. Closer integration with the EU reduced the scope for terrorists to raise funds through cross-border smuggling and the Al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001, largely removed US sympathy for terrorism and, with it, significant funding for PIRA. Another very significant factor was the success of Army intelligence gathering and overt and covert operations, resulting in the death or capture of large numbers of terrorists, that undermined the belief of PIRA that terrorism would lead to victory. Members of the Corps played a significant part in these operations.

Roger So Far

The Corps Centenary book ‘Roger So Far” celebrates many of the Corps’ achievements during its first 100 years.

This hardback, illustrated coffee table book is packed full of stories about people, units and events in the context of campaigns, technologies and equipment. RRP £30 with discounts for Regular, Reserve and Retired Corps members.

Buy now from the Royal Signals Museum Shop

A significant part of this article is reproduced with permission from the Corps centenary book ‘Roger So Far’. Available for members and supporters of the Corps, veterans and their families at the heavily discounted price of £9.99+p&p from the Museum shop (RRP £30).

Operational honours

Members of the Corps were awarded one Gallantry Medal (GM), one Miliary Medal (MM), nine Queen’s Gallantry Medals (QGMs) including one Bar, six
OBEs, 51 MBEs, 31 BEMs including one Bar, 111 Mentions in Despatches, 5 Queen’s Commendations for Bravery and 39 Queen’s Commendations for Valuable Service. Many of the lessons learned proved invaluable in later operations.

Museum Northern Ireland display

Radio Communications – mess tin technology

Initially soldiers deployed with Larkspur radios. Larkspur provided secure fixed links between HQs but was ineffective for patrolling in the urban areas where many operations took place.

In the early 1970s the urban, and some rural and maritime, tactical radio systems were replaced by commercial 2-frequency simplex systems using smaller and lighter radios, primarily built by Pye and Storno. The Pye PF70 weighed less than 2lb. Unlike combat-net radio that sent and received on the same frequency, these transmitted and received on different frequencies. Operators communicated indirectly through ‘talk-through’ sites, installed on buildings and high ground, much like rebro stations. One of the talk-throughs was located in Scotland. The talk-throughs received on the patrols’ transmit frequency and then retransmitted on their receive frequency. In some areas, military radio nets were still the best means of communications.

Royal Signals Technicians did a superb job designing and building electro-mechanical relays to enable the military nets to be linked seamlessly to the commercial nets. This was known as ‘mess-tin’ technology because the relays were deployed in aluminium boxes.

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