‘Counter-Insurgency Against Kith and Kin’: British Army Combat and Cohesion in Northern Ireland


Dr Burke is Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Nottingham. ‘An Army of Tribes: British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland’ is published in paperback by Liverpool University Press, and is available here.

Today’s officers in the British Army who served in Northern Ireland during Operation Banner (1969-2007) did so at the end of the campaign, when a capable, well-resourced Royal Ulster Constabulary / Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Security Service (MI5) took the lead in steadily eroding the capability of the Provisional IRA (IRA) and dissident Republican terrorist groups. Sustained fire-fights or contacts with IRA Active Service Units were almost unheard of. Many soldiers’ tours were dull and uneventful.  This was a world away from the much more violent early period of the conflict when the British Army suffered more operational fatalities in one year – 134 in 1972 – than in any year during the recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

During my research for a book on small unit cohesion in Northern Ireland – comparing operational watchkeepers’ log-books, other unit reports and interviewing soldiers who served in Northern Ireland during the exceptionally violent years of 1971-1973 – I observed that the Army would often use hundreds, and occasionally thousands, of rounds of ammunition, in exchanges of fire with IRA units along the border. In Belfast and Londonderry engagements with the IRA tended to be ‘short and sharp’ affairs. Substantial British reinforcements usually arrived within seconds in urban areas and the IRA felt outmatched and at risk of encirclement in such circumstances. However, in rural Tyrone or Armagh the IRA was more confident of holding their own against isolated units of British soldiers. Most attacks still took the form of ‘shoot and scoot’ but in 1971 and 1972 a number of prolonged fire fights also took place. In such an operational context it is possible to come to some revealing conclusions on the experiences of soldiers in combat ‘at home’ in the UK.

Contact: Automatism and Leadership under Fire

A relatively typical border engagement for a newly arrived unit in South Armagh in 1972 was as follows: Patrolling near the village of Cullaville in South Armagh on 8 August 1972, soldiers serving in 2 Section, 6 Platoon, 1stBattalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, were approached by a local woman. She told Sergeant Jimmy Kilcullen that there was a burning butter lorry blocking the road. The IRA knew that the Argylls were new to the area; they also rightly suspected that the preceding unit, drawn from the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, had not briefed their successors on patterns of attacks (The poor exchange of intelligence between rotating units was typical of this period, particularly for those serving in 3rdInfantry Brigade along the border. The IRA dusted off plans every four months, launching the same type of operation – frequently in the same location – they had used against the previous unit).

The Argylls had stumbled upon a ‘classic’ South Armagh ambush, except the IRA, expecting the burning lorry to be reported to B Company HQ in Crossmaglen, had not anticipated a patrol coming from the other direction. The IRA volunteers waiting in a concealed fire point now hurriedly improvised upon seeing Kilcullen’s section arrive at the burning car. Private Jimmy Chestnut later recalled that a local man asked them to look at something in the ditch near the burning car,

We were all crowded around this oil drum when someone shouted that it was a bomb. We scattered, maybe getting sixty feet from it, when there was an almighty explosion. Everything stood still; we were on the deck watching this cloud of dirt and rubble slowly rising. It was quite a sight. A falling rock snapped the pistol grip of one rifle and one man was knocked unconscious – we thought he was dead. We got up and stood around shocked and confused. Then the ground started kicking up around us and the Sergeant shouted that we were under fire.

Despite the days of pre-deployment simulated explosions and ambushes on ranges in south-east England, some of the soldiers of 6 Platoon became disorientated. One soldier recalled watching a telegraph pole shoot into the air like a javelin by the force of the explosion; he couldn’t believe his eyes.

Two key individuals helped the Section snap them out of their potentially fatal torpor. Sergeant Jimmy Kilcullen shouted at the soldiers, literally telling them that they were under fire, so that they remembered their training drills, took cover and returned fire. Kilcullen was also the first to return fire. Meanwhile, Corporal Alec Henderson, another Aden and Borneo veteran, shouted at Chestnut to follow him and proceeded to ‘advance towards fire’, using the infantry’s fire and manoeuvre drill, moving along a wall, returning fire and covering each other, until they reached a farm building where they believed the firing was coming from. 6 Platoon reported that they returned 20 rounds to the 150 rounds fired at them by the IRA unit and the shooting stopped.

The Argylls made a mistake in approaching the ambush site with such a lack of caution and by crowding around the suspected device. Some soldiers were also struck by a sense of stunned disbelief when they came under fire from a ‘real enemy’ for the first time. However, they were quickly snapped out of their stunned disbelief by their NCOs. By moving towards the firing-position, they forced the IRA unit to retreat and got their unit out of the ‘kill zone’. One soldier recalled Sergeant Jimmy Kilcullen constantly hammering home the fundamental message of why his sections needed to ‘fire and manoeuvre’: ‘If we come under fire, you locate the fire. Advance towards the fire and clear it. If you sit down, you die.’ Others reported that the intense familiarity with this infantry drill was critically important – responses learned in training kicked in: ‘All you think about is the next ten metres.’ An Argyll officer later noted that,

People can function when they are kicked into it. Heat of the moment stuff is never a problem for soldiers … The big problem is that they will do too much, they will loose off all their ammo at the general area. It’s a common reaction. The instinct for the first time soldier in an ambush is that, ‘I’m frightened, I’m going to frighten him more.’ Well-trained soldiers, who’ve done it before – they’re the ones who ‘get down, crawl, observe, sights, fire.’ It can happen in a flash. Good NCOs get others to do that. Not blaze away.

The importance of NCO leadership is repeatedly apparent in accounts of other fire fights experienced along the border during 1971 and 1972. However, occasionally the tactical desire to ‘locate the fire’ could have negative political repercussions, such as when soldiers pursued an IRA sniper half a mile across the Irish border on 14 September 1972.

The Problem with ‘Cold Kills’

Too much familiarity or affinity could be a threat to military performance; too little could lead to atrocity. It was a difficult balance. The sociologist Erella Grassiani, in her work on Israeli military operations in the Occupied Territories, had noted that it is particularly difficult for soldiers to take life when they are operating among a civilian population in a low intensity operation: ‘Seeing these people as “individuals” can make it harder for the soldier to carry out work …’

A separation of identity became a professional necessity. According to one officer involved in sniper training in Northern Ireland,

I found the problem was to get guys to shake off the view – ‘Am I really right to be doing this between WH Smith and a Marks and Spencers’. And, meanwhile, seeing granny pushing grandchild down the road in a pram. This makes a big difference. All the other places, wherever we had been had been peasant countries where you are in a different country, where natives are natives. Here they are not natives, they are your kith and kin. The topography is exactly as you recognise it at home. Yet you have a rifle in your hands. You are faced with a situation and your first instinct is, ‘This can’t be happening.’ And that takes training and time; it made Ireland such a unique operation.

In such circumstances, the separation of the Irish from ‘us’ becomes more than about casual dislike; moral distancing is also a professional necessity. Even so, the same officer reported his consistent disappointment that, after days of planning and execution, snipers in concealed positions would not be able to shoot IRA volunteers, even though it was legitimate to do so under the Army’s rules of engagement. Embarrassed, soldiers would often claim a hit, perhaps even convincing themselves that their shooting had been more accurate, and it would be assumed that the IRA had ‘spirited’ their wounded across the border.

British Army small unit combat leadership and training worked. Under fire soldiers generally responded well, using drills to repress fire, move out of the ‘kill zone’ and work as teams to advance towards firing points.Nevertheless, when it came to initiating contact, shooting a suspected IRA volunteer, some soldiers hesitated. The cultural similarities between Britain and Northern Ireland meant that a deliberate process of emotional distancing became a practical, informal, but also potentially dangerous, response to the need to take life.

Image: A sentry at a British Army border checkpoint watches the activities of passengers while vehicles are stopped and searched by 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers at the Camel’s Hump, Strabane in October 1973, via the Imperial War Museum.



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