Londonderry, Christmas 1978
Between 1978 and 1980, I served with the Royal Military Police in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. My unit was stationed at the old U.S. Navy base at Clooney in the Waterside, but we were responsible for patrolling within the City walls on the opposite bank of the river Foyle.
The City side of Londonderry was the responsibility of the roulemont infantry battalion whose companies were dispersed amongst Security Force bases at Strand Road, Masonic, Creggan and Fort George.
We were all engaged in internal security duties and the relationship between ourselves and the infantry was far different to other theatres, but even so, it remained a bit cool.
Then, around October, 1978 the 1st Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers took over and the picture altered. They quickly won our respect and we rated them very highly. They had just the right qualities for winning the hearts and minds of the locals – as far as that was possible – but they were really professional troops, too.
It was about that time that we noticed “Dingo”. He was a mongrel dog who looked a bit like an Australian dingo, hence his name, I suppose. He lived in the base at Fort George and would accompany the RWF on patrol, switching from one patrol to another as the fancy took him. The story went that he had been knocked down by a “Pig” (a Humber one ton armoured troop carrier) and taken for veterinary treatment by the patrol responsible. He recovered and lived thereafter at the base, requiring a second period of recovery after he got caught up in a riot and had his fur burnt in places, by the effects of a petrol bomb.
He was a scabby looking dog, but the Taffs of C Company at Fort George looked after him well and just as a dog can bring strangers to talk in other situations, he got us and the Fusiliers chatting and waving to each other. He even started including our patrols in his companionship duties and woe betides the fool who tried to hurt him just to spite us or the soldiers! It used to make me smile to see him leave a foot patrol to chase after a Landrover borne mobile patrol. You’d hear the guys in the back telling the driver to slow down to let Dingo aboard and he would then leap up and sit quite happily looking out of the back, until he got fed up and leapt out, having spotted another foot patrol.
My memory of those months is of a particularly good rapport with C Company 1RWF – largely thanks to Dingo. It was a great privilege to work alongside such a fine regiment.
On Valentine’s Day, 1979, one of their young officers (Lieutenant Steven Kirby, age 22) was murdered by a sniper whilst leading a patrol in the vicinity of the Foyle Bridge. It was only a couple of weeks before the end of their tour. The identity of the gunman was quickly ascertained, but by then he had fled across the boarder to Letterkenny. One afternoon however, he was thought to have resurfaced in the Creggan and the Brigade radio net burst into life with a multitude of RWF call signs co-ordinating a search for him – every one of them speaking in Welsh! The Brigade Watch Keeper who monitored the net and activities in his patch was going mad with frustration, but we knew what was going on. Our own Officer Commanding (who would one day become the Provost Marshal) was keen for us to help if we could, but sadly the sniper wasn’t found – which was very lucky for him.
Just a few days before C Company departed, we showed a side of the RMP that soldiers rarely saw. With the full blessing of our OC, we sent a snatch squad across to Fort George and kidnapped their OC (whose name was Major Cheney-Williams I think) from his own room. Although initially somewhat alarmed – as you might expect – he was a good sport and came quietly. With the hostage safely back across the river, a ransom demand was made to C Company Operations Room. It went something like this.
“Morning, Boyo. It’s the RMP at Clooney, here. Don’t worry if you can’t find your OC, we thought we’d give him a break from you ‘orrible lot, so we’ve kidnapped him and fetched him back with us. If you want him returned safely, it will cost you your company pennant, to be delivered by whoever comes to collect him.”
“Oh … You’ve got the OC, is it? Ah well, we never did like him much anyway. You keep him.” Click. Buzzzzzzz.
We thought that was a bit unfair, but the devious Welsh devils had only just begun to play with us. The previous evening, one of their patrols had dropped off a member of our Women’s Royal Army Corps searchers – and she’d been blabbing about things that she’s heard were afoot.
Consequently, as the patrol stopped to load their rifles on their way out, one of their number slipped away unseen to the big American flag pole at the entrance of our base and stole our Corps flag from it. The flag was never ordinarily raised or lowered, since to form any such pattern of activity was to invite a bullet. Thus, none of us had even noticed its disappearance – until C Company Ops room rang us back.
“Hullo, Monkeys. Taffy here. We’ve had a chat and we’ve decided that it wouldn’t be Christian to leave the OC with a bunch of heathens like you, so you bring him back and we’ll return your Corps flag to you. It makes a lousy tablecloth, anyway.”
We were sorry to see them leave Londonderry and before much longer, our role changed to taking control of the border crossing points in the Londonderry enclave, so we never saw Dingo again and I don’t know what happened to him. He was a good dog though and I shall always associate him with that fine body of men who wore a white hackle in their berets.