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NORTHERN IRELAND: Tragedy, Grief and Humour, by Hadyn Davies

NORTHERN IRELAND: Tragedy, Grief and Humour, by Hadyn Davies

During a glittering 26 year career Haydn Davies served a staggering seven years in Northern Ireland at the very height of The Troubles. He completed nine operational tours, including multi-year posts in a ‘residential battalion’ and on attachment to the UDR, and served urban and rural tours of Belfast, Londonderry, Fermanagh, South Armagh and pretty much everywhere in between. Along the way he rose from Private soldier to an RSM of The Royal Regiment of Wales, serving in the Prince of Wales Division. He lost 18 close friends and comrades to The Troubles and I can think of few men more qualified to write of the experience, from a ‘boots on the ground’, infantry perspective.

I stumbled across his memoir quite by accident and am writing this review out of one primary motivation: respect.

The book opens with an interesting take on ‘60s battalion life when the ranks were stuffed with grizzled veterans of Aden, Malaya and Borneo, and there was still a sprinkling of WW2 veterans in the senior ranks. During the strangely quiet period after these operations ended we’re given a fascinating insight into a regiment that prided itself on its jungle skills, with many of the men secretly harbouring a desire to get involved in Vietnam, blissfully unaware of the altogether different, intensely gruelling ‘war at home’ they were about to get involved with instead. Haydn himself completed tours in both Aden and Malaya and describes with appropriate respect and reverence the super-efficient SNCOs and senior officers’ of that era, who enjoyed unparalleled wartime experience and really made it show on the ground. After this brief but enjoyable interlude we’re plunged headlong into the slowly unfolding nightmare that became The Troubles and the door slams shut on what seemed a more innocent, almost romantic era of foreign soldiering.

The author was on the first emergency deployment to Northern Ireland in what was hoped to be a relatively calm six week sojourn. It’s quaint to read how the men carried that innocence and naïve hopefulness with them, cheerfully determined that the British sense of fair-play will prevail in winning over the locals and ‘putting a lid on things’. The CSM insisted on marching the platoon in open streets through the town to trouble-spots, with no helmets on and in a softly-softly style, to show good will and that only friendship was intended. That swiftly ended under an avalanche of rocks that left the CSM himself half-concussed on wobbly legs, imperilled by a baying, hate-filled mob.

In subsequent chapters we get a fascinating lesson in the evolution of tactics and how they came about, from a man whom served in every rank during the conflict from JNCO to RSM. His logic and strategising is utterly convincing and it’s easy to see how and why he achieved the rank he did, in an era that was literally overflowing with ‘bloody good soldiers’. The text is reinforced with well-chosen pictures that convincingly illustrate his points, in which he points out details, clues and ‘combat indicators’ – often staring you in the face – that even trained eyes can miss. He describes the incredible intensity of riots and the different pressures of trying to quell them in the first instance as a young, hard-charging infanteer, taking the lumps and bumps, and then the responsibility and worry of being a SNCO, wanting to see the riot firmly defeated but not wanting to see your men taking too many hits, unnecessarily endangered and smashed up repeatedly. It was a very difficult tightrope to walk and he describes the relentless pressure of it perfectly.

There is an extremely vivid description of what can happen ‘when intel goes wrong’ that illustrates how during the Troubles even the most innocuous, seemingly easy, ‘everyday-op’ could end badly. Haydn’s platoon was given a task to lift a female ‘person of interest’ from a staunchly pro-IRA area. The Intel officer assured the team that at a certain time both the house and street would be virtually empty, and so like good soldiers the snatch-squad thoroughly rehearsed the drill. On the day of the raid it was quite a surprise to be confronted by several burly brothers and female relatives who fought like wildcats to prevent her arrest, chucking scalding hot tea over the soldiers and attacking them with whatever kitchen utensils came to hand, before enlisting the help of the whole, enraged street once outside. The scene is at once grimly comic but also deadly serious, with a Pig full of dazed, bloodied and confused squaddies being driven back to camp, mission accomplished and captive safely in hand, but speechless in shock at how badly the arrest-job went and shaking with relief that the local IRA didn’t pull a gun and force them into a firefight.

In another strangely unsettling scene Haydn describes what he considers to be his most frightening, unpleasant and disturbing encounter of his long NI career. He was forced by a senior officer to go into a fish and chip shop on a busy Saturday night and to routinely ‘P check’ a known IRA player, against his own better judgement. The man was extremely drunk and known to be highly belligerent when challenged, however diplomatically. He was making his way home after a mammoth drinking session and Haydn quite rightly judged the P check a pointless provocation given the man’s drunken state. He suggested doing it next day when the man was sober but was overruled. Within seconds of requesting the check the IRA man strode behind the counter, barged the owner aside, picked up a pan of boiling fat, stood yards from Haydn’s face and threatened to chuck it at him in the enclosed space. Haydn had no choice but to cock his rifle and point it at the man’s face; only the trembling pleas of the owner convinced the man to drop the pan and go home before a tragedy occurred.

The book is a small one but it is nonetheless replete with powerful tales of when things go both good and bad, and the lessons learned along the way. He describes the everyday hardships and frustrations of soldiering that will be familiar to anyone who served during those times; freezing to the point of near-hyperthermia on a lying-up-point whilst observing the enemy for hours on end; resisting the temptation to throw a stone back at a rioter who has just viscously felled your friend with an avalanche, because you know you’ll be disciplined for throwing one back, even if it’s deserved.

I greatly enjoyed reading Haydn’s story and consider him in many ways to be the ideal SNCO – especially for the Northern Ireland period. He comes across as a very compassionate, firm but fair soldier of great wit and determination. I was left with the impression of a man who always did his best for his men and led them in a dignified, ‘common-sense’ kind of way. As an RSM professionalism was his stock in trade but it is his humility that impresses me the most.

 
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Good review

Makes me want to read the book
 
You've done the author proud there young Steve. Thanks.
 

ugly

LE
Moderator
I worked with the RRW twice and the RWF for almost a year, both on Banner and was pleased to have done so.
A happy and professional bunch of lads always quick with a joke
 
You've done the author proud there young Steve. Thanks.
My pleasure Alec - he deserves it after 9 NI tours and loads of other 'bits and bobs' all over the place, it's the least I could do. Alas, not so young now - 48 and just begining to fall apart, despite my best efforts at holding back the tide, but thanks for the warm sentiments all the same!
 
I worked with the RRW twice and the RWF for almost a year, both on Banner and was pleased to have done so.
A happy and professional bunch of lads always quick with a joke
I couldn't agree more Ugly - the pride and professionalism really comes across and I learned a lot about tactics from what this old-school RSM had to say. He gives it to you from both angles: the Private soldier following orders and the Warrant Officer deciding - and occasionally agonising - on them.
 
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Also reviewed on ARRSEL https://www.arrse.co.uk/community/reviews/northern-ireland.80/

I hope that this further review by S McL helps boost sales.
A cracking review from ancienturion there, Auld-Yin, that sums it up nicely.

I think it's important that books like this get a decent bit of attention because in future years when we're all dead and gone these are the ones that will be of great value to historians. We have a constant glut - and quite rightly too - of excellent books written about all the 'sexy stuff' going on in Special Forces and military high-command, but often too little from the less well-covered end. There is a danger that highly significant and educational reads like Hadyn's can get overlooked because he doesn't have a big publishing machine behind him and he has written about his experiences very late in life - hence I'm always happy to give such works a boost if I can.
 
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