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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland

The Early Days of The Grousebeaters

24 February 2015

By Colonel Owen Lyttle MBE TD

On the 28th February 2015 “The Grousebeaters” will be holding a reunion in Lowfield Camp for those Territorials or Army Reservists who have been associated with the Ballymena detachment over the last 68 years.

The Territorial Army (TA) infantry, now referred to as the Army Reserve, was not organised in Northern Ireland until 1947, having been formed in Great Britain in 1908. Ballymena has been associated with TA since 1947. On the 1st March 1947 the 6th Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles (TA), 6 RUR, was formed with C Company being based in Ballymena, alongside R Battery of 248 (Ulster) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery (TA) and a detachment of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (TA) (which became E Company 328th Battalion Women’s Royal Army Corps (TA) in 1949). Over the next seven decades the fortunes of the Ballymena volunteer reserve soldier would ebb and flow closely aligned with global politics and national defence reviews.

However the Grousebeaters nickname does not go back as far as 1947. It was coined in 1978 by the then attached Regular Army Permanent Staff Instructor, Sergeant Isaac Hall, who recounts how the name came about, “I arrived in Lowfield Camp in 1977-8 and the place was in a sorry state needing a lot of improvement. So I arranged for the Territorial Army and Volunteer Association, TAVRA, to provide some resources to improve the centre. All the troops mucked in and soon we had this new bar. However there was much debate about what to call the bar. There was an advert on TV at that time for a famous beer about the Ballymore Grousebeaters. I kept the guys going that they were the Ballymena Grousebeaters as a joke. Soon the name “The Grousebeaters” was on the bar door and the name has stuck ever since. At the same time “John Andrew” became fixed as the company song.”

From 1947 to 1967 the role of the TA was Home Defence. In the 1960s the TA training concentrated on support of civil defence in the eventuality of a nuclear attack on the UK. These years were referred to as the “Golden Years” where the TA in Northern Ireland grew and prospered. 

Photo:  C Company 6 RUR (Ballymena) in the 1960s. Sergeant Nixon and 2nd Lieutenant McBurney are at the front of the picture. The photograph would have been taken after 1962 as 6 RUR swapped their .303 inch No.24 Rifles for 7.62mm Self Loading Rifles in 1963.

The 1965 Defence Review resulted in a major reorganization of the TA with the formation of the North Irish Militia in 1967 as a new Type II NATO roled battalion to support the British Army on the Rhine. (It would become the 4th (Volunteer) Battalion The Royal Irish Rangers (North Irish Militia) in 1978). 6 RUR was disbanded with 6th (Territorial) Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles forming as a Type III civil defence unit with B Company in Ballymena. In 1969 this battalion was disbanded after only two years. In 1973 a platoon of B (Royal Ulster Rifles) Company, The North Irish Militia was established in Ballymena.

Former Sergeant Harry Steele experienced the highs and lows throughout this period. Enlisting with the Royal Artillery TA in Ballymena in 1952, he transferred to the Ulster Rifles in 1961 with the disbandment of the Royal Artillery troop of “Q” Battery 245 (Ulster) Light Air Defence Regiment in Ballymena (who had changed their designation on reorganization in 1955). During the period 1969 to 1973 he then served with the Royal Engineers detachment (of 114 Field Squadron 74 (Antrim Artillery) Engineer Regiment Royal Engineers) in Ballymena before transferring to the newly formed Militia platoon in 1973, and finally completed his service in 1983 in Ballymena with the newly formed C Company 4th Battalion The Royal Irish Rangers (North Irish Militia). He still has fond memories of his time in uniform, “I joined for the comradeship – it was the best bit over my 30 years of service. We all joined as mates – the Battery Commander of the Royal Artillery battery was Major McConnell and he recruited his guys from the old Braid Mill. Major Morton was the Officer Commanding the RUR company and he recruited his guys from the Morton Mill.”

Explaining training he said, “Training and annual camp were confined to Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We used to do a lot of competitions. I remember one time my F Troop at the Royal Artillery annual camp won the shooting, running, football… the lot – they weren’t going to let us back to another camp!”

Photo: From left to right: WO2 McElderry, Sergeant Harry Steele and Sergeant Alec Tennant at Magilligan in 1961 after transferring across from the Royal Artillery to 6 RUR.

One of the highlights of his service came in 1974 after transferring to the NATO-roled North Irish Militia, with a composite company from the battalion deploying at short notice to Gibraltar, “In January 1974 names were sought in the depths of an Ulster winter for a company to go to Gibraltar in order to relieve a company of the 3rd Battalion The Queen’s Regiment. The Spanish had closed the border so we had to man the border outposts and guard the crossing with Spain. We had to note the boats coming across into our waters. We typically did 24 hours on guard, 24 hours off to relax, and the third day was training.”

In 1981 the Ballymena platoon of B (RUR) Company became a full company, C Company, with a detachment in Limavady, as the TA Infantry in Northern Ireland expanded to meet the Cold War threat with a detachment in Limavady. Within months the Grousebeaters were able to deploy a 92% turnout at annual camp in Rheindahlen, Germany! Within the next year they were crowned Champion Company, receiving the Morton Trophy – a trophy aptly presented by the Honorary Colonel, Colonel Robin Morton, a former 6 RUR company commander in Ballymena. Within three years they had won their first Northern Ireland and UK TA Challenge Football Cups. The Grousebeaters were very quickly a force to be reckoned with across all competitions. As well as Harry Steele, another soldier who was to make his mark on the Ballymena detachment in the 1970s and 1980s was Captain (Retired) Cecil Wright. Cecil enlisted as a Ranger in 1973, initially to play sport, “I joined the Ballymena TA as a ringer for the company football team. Just before annual camp a letter arrived with a company stamp on it. It directed me to go to annual camp or be arrested – signed by the company commander.”

Cecil added, “I also joined for the comradeship. I had no brothers and by joining the TA I suddenly had 600! I didn’t want to go to that first camp in Warcop, but I did. Afterwards I missed the craic and so decided to stay on – a great move considering the experiences I have had. I also found out the company commander had been bluffing – he had no such powers of arrest!”

Some of Cecil’s highlights of his service were building the Grousebeaters up to company strength, “In 1975 there were 22 soldiers in the platoon – no Sergeants, no Sergeant Major and only one junior officer. However, the lure of deploying to Germany every three years assisted recruiting – Vogelsang Germany in 1976, then Hameln Germany in 1979, and so by the time we went on our first C Company annual camp in Rheindahlen in 1981 are strength was over 100.”

Photo: Colour Sergeant Cecil Wright of C Company Ballymena with a young officer from the German Territorial Army in England in 1982. The German Territorial Army was divided into regional commands, and their main task was to provide rear area defence during time of war. This officer was from the defence sub-regional command of the VKK (Verteidigungskreisekommando).

The 1984 and 1989 were to see the last two major Germany exercises for the company. Cecil remembers Exercise Lionheart well. This exercise in Germany in 1984 was the largest conducted by the British Army since the Second World War. Cecil has vivid memories of the scale of the exercise, “We drove to Hull to a large transport depot before getting the ferry to Europe. In Europe it was a complete cluster initially with the sheer volume of military traffic. Looking ahead and behind on the autobahn there was nothing but green vehicles as far as you could see across all the three lanes. We were always on the move. On this exercise we were part of the enemy force attached to 5 (British) Airborne Brigade.”  


Photo: Lieutenant Perry, a platoon commander with the Grousebeaters in Ballymena, on Exercise LIONHEART near Rheindahlen in Germany in 1984 guarding the Willich logistics base. He is carrying the Sterling Sub-Machine Gun and is wearing the 58 pattern webbing and a “noddy” suit, which was the protective suit for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) environments. The soldiers lived in these suits for the first week of Exercise LIONHEART.

Cecil was to become C Company’s Company Sergeant Major in 1986 and he would proudly parade with the Grousebeaters at the Trooping of the Colours in Edinburgh in 1988. He would go on to serve with distinction as a Regimental Sergeant Major of the Northern Ireland Specialist Training Team before being commissioned into 253 (North Irish) Field Ambulance, and finally retired in 2003.

In 1989 C Company deployed on their last NATO and Germany exercise - Ex Plain Sailing. 1989 saw the rise of anti-Communist parties in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall – by 1991 the Soviet Union had collapsed. The Cold War had been won. However the 1990 Defence Review, called “Options for Change”, would see drastic cuts to the TA. The Grousebeaters in Ballymena were saved, but there was a cut in their numbers and the loss of their Limavady detachment in 1992. Presidents Bush and Gorbachev’s vision of a New World Order was not to materialise as envisioned, with racial and sectarian tensions rising to the surface in the Balkans after being suppressed during the Cold War. In the 1990s the TA and the Grousebeaters had to find a new role – it would not be long in coming!

Part 2 will look at the service of the Ballymena TA in the 1990s, which would see the first operational deployments of TA soldiers since the Second World War, but with the decade ending in further Defence Review cuts and disappointment. The successes of the Grousebeaters football team will also be reviewed.

Other Photographs:

Above: C Company 6 RUR at Victoria Barracks in 1967 before the formation of the North Irish Militia and 6th (Territorial) Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles.

Above: The Reconnaissance Platoon from Limavady at Tregantle Fort in Cornwall in September 1987 commanded by a then young Lieutenant Davy Lyttle (centre back row) who would go on to command the Grousebeaters in the 1990s. Limavady detachment became part of the Grousebeaters when C Company was formed in Ballymena in 1981.

Above: The winning team from the Grousebeaters at the Battalion Patrol Competition in Galloway Forest Scotland in June 1989. The Grousebeaters were renowned for their competitive spirit and were frequent Battalion and Northern Ireland winners at a range of events, especially football, shooting and patrol competitions. Front left to right – Owen Lyttle, Nigel Gallagher, Mark Jordan, Jason McClay; Back row left to right: Mark Randall, Dinger Bell, Jim McElroy, Trevor Ross, Sean Carberry, Jimmy Young and Lieutenant Gary Hutton.