As a young junior soldier I was very aware of the Troubles across the water from mainland Britain as many of our adult instructors had served tours of duty in the province since 1969 and had shared first-hand graphic images of their experiences with us. The sounds and pictures now beaming from our NAFFI TV were those of the civil rights march and disorder forming the never-to-be forgotten Bloody Sunday. Thirteen unarmed civilians were killed and many others seriously wounded as a result of the action taken by 1 Para.
As a young 15-year-old these images would bring the soldier’s experience out in the province right into our hearts, minds and psyche forever. I can remember seeing marchers running everywhere trying to get away from the gunfire of the Paras and using anything that seemed solid enough to take cover behind to protect themselves. I can vividly remember hearing the CO of the Paras instructing his men to cease firing and to control their shots, or words to that effect; the sounds and images shown on television were awful and depicted mayhem, disorder and sheer panic amongst civilians as well as the soldiers. For me it was the most disturbing reality of the anger and lawlessness that existed at the time which had built up over centuries but created by the modern troubles and tensions from 1969 onwards. I can remember talking to a number of lads from different regiments who were watching the TV and we all realised that in a little over eighteen months or so many of us would be posted to Northern Ireland to face similar circumstances, not a welcome thought.
It was difficult to gauge who was right and who was wrong in dealing with the situation, as there we were, in our barracks at Park Hall Camp in Oswestry, hearing and seeing these surreal images of which we could hear the screams, the gunshots and the officer’s commands; we could see bodies lying still, lifeless, and soldiers opening fire with the mayhem happening all around them. Our first reaction was to say ‘what were the Paras doing; they are out of control.’ We couldn’t believe that the British Army, one of the best trained and most highly disciplined military forces in the world, was acting so irrationally. I do recall one soldier saying, ‘Typical bloody Paras!’ I said, ‘It’s easy for us sitting here making judgement, when our lads are in a very violent situation and having to make snap on-the-spot decisions to protect themselves and the community.’ This created a hot debate amongst the fifteen or so junior soldiers watching the news reel at the time. I said, ‘that may, or may not be us guys in eighteen months, two years time.’ The room went silent and a colleague said something like, ‘You’re bloody right Pete; we are in no position to criticise or otherwise. God forbid it could be us or worse to come in the not too distant future.’
My heart went out to both the civilians and the SF that day as the circumstances were so violent and changing that the reality of what was happening must have been so difficult to gauge.
By Pete Whittall, Infantry Junior Leaders Battalion, Later Staffords, as told to Ken Wharton in The Bloodiest Year 1972