Any right thinking person had to be sympathetic to the young men who were sent over here, whether they wanted to come or not, to become potential targets for hidden snipers. That was not all, their living conditions were apparently appalling and they were not permitted to mix with the Town’s people, for obvious reason – I had the impression it was as close to being in jail as one could get without committing a crime. The result was that they lived as we had in the warships, something which we accepted because times were harder in those days. The rest of the army in Britain, with the availability of more money, pressure groups, reducing recruitment, and the greater choices open to young people, made the living standards of the armed forces in general, unrecognisable to old sweats like me.
When I tried to persuade Gwen, my aunt, to come over here to Belfast for a holiday, the fuss her friends made was unbelievable and the way they described what might happen to her if she agreed brought home to me, not only the ignorance, yet again, of the English in Irish affairs, but how the parents of the soldiers must have felt and still feel. With the pressure from the job, the pressure from home and the tedium of confined living and no relief, it was surprising the men retained their humour, but they did, if perhaps in a cynical sense. I remember several instances of this, two in particular.
A mature woman, living in a corner house in one of the Republican areas in or near the Falls district, had been annoying a group of soldiers who were supposed to patrol the area by rushing out, as soon as they appeared, and banging the pavement with her bin lid, a general warning signal used to great effect in the area, in the 70’s. In the end the sergeant decided to put a stop to it.
‘Everyone bring their mug’, he said and that was all. The men duly climbed into the Land Rover armed with all their equipment plus their mugs. They arrived at the woman’s house so quickly she had no time to get the bin lid and immediately on arrival the Sergeant and Corporal went to her door and knocked. While he was waiting he told the Corporal to bring all the men who were not on guard to the garden path with their mugs. When the woman opened the door he started to talk to her, but shielded her from view in the street, he then told his Corporal to collect the mugs and pass them to him. A few moments later he passed the mugs back, one at a time and instructed the men to appear to drink. Finally he ordered the men back into the Landrover and with a salute and a loud ‘Thank you for the tea!’, they left.
Apparently, they were hardly round the corner when the woman had one of her windows broken by a neighbour. That story was going the rounds, but another along the same lines was witnessed by our Senior Tracer and can be vouched for. She was going to catch the bus to go to work when she saw a sight, which totally mystified her. She waited to see what it was all about.
A lorry full of soldiers had stopped, the men had dismounted, and some had dustbin lids in their hands, they all tiptoed down a long road in the Springfield Road district. They spread out along the centre of the road and waited. On a signal, the ones with the lids bashed the road, giving the well known signal and within seconds a number of doors burst open and men, putting on clothes, ran into the street, into the arms of those without lids but with repeating rifles pointing at where the men’s breakfast should be. A cynical sense of humour? Maybe! Devious? Definitely! Effective? Certainly!