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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland


03 March 2015

On the 28th February 2015 “The Grousebeaters” held 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 Grousebeaters is the nickname for the Ballymena infantry reservists, first coined in 1978.

The second part of the history of the Grousebeaters looks at how the Ballymena reservists dealt with the post-Cold War era from 1991 to the start of the new Millennium. With the end of the Cold War the UK conducted a defence review called “Options for Change”. There was pressure for the government to deliver a peace dividend and so the British Armed Forces were duly reduced in strength. The Territorial Army (TA) saw large cuts, being reduced from 89,000 down to 56,000. Within Northern Ireland the two NATO-roled Royal Irish Rangers TA battalions were amalgamated to form the 4th/5th Battalion The Royal Irish Rangers (or 4/5 RANGERS) on 1 April 1993, and were reduced to three rifle companies. Fortunately the Grousebeaters were to survive this cut and remained as C Company in Ballymena. Even though The Royal Irish Rangers amalgamated with the Ulster Defence Regiment in 1992 to form The Royal Irish Regiment, the TA battalion maintained the Royal Irish Rangers title in order to distinguish them from the internal security role of the Home Service Royal Irish Regiment battalions. In 1992 the battalion replaced their L1A1 Self-Loading Rifles, also known as the SLR, with the SA80 (Small Arms for the 1980s), or L85A1. 

Photo: Training in Magilligan in 1992 with the newly issued SA80s.

After 26 years of training and facing off against the Soviet threat in West Germany, the TA was about to be utilised in an operational role. The decade after the Cold War was to see the start of the operational deployments of the Territorial infantry. In 1994 the first operational deployment of TA infantry since the Second World War took place when a platoon from 4/5 RANGERS deployed with the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment to the Falkland Islands as part of the Falkland Islands Roulement Infantry Company (FIRIC). The post-Cold War period witnessed ethnic and sectarian tensions flair in Yugoslavia that caused the country to disintegrate into its constituent parts over the next decade. In 1996 the battalion deployed a platoon to Bosnia for peace support operations on Operation RESOLUTE. In both the Falkland Islands and Bosnia deployments, Ballymena troops were to the fore. 

Meanwhile the remainder of the company was being kept busy. The football team continued to go from strength to strength winning numerous Northern Ireland and UK titles. On the training front the three yearly annual camps in Germany to support the British Army on the Rhine had stopped. In the 1990s the Grousebeaters would deploy to annual camps on Exercise LION SUN in Cyprus in 1993 and 1996, providing a chance to adjust to sunnier and hotter climates; a forewarning of what was to come in the future! Captain Jimmy Young, who enlisted as Ranger in 1978, was well placed to notice the differences, “In Germany it was all about defence – digging trenches and defending key points with a focus on Nuclear, Biological and Chemical training. After 1991 when we started to go to Cyprus it was all about offensive agile light infantry tactics. There was more diversity to the activities. There was also some novelty, such as the use of rigid raiders and landing craft for beach landings. It was also the first time we had trained for extended periods in a sunny and hot climate which required a different approach to administration in the field.” 

Photo: C Company soldiers receiving patrol orders from the platoon commander on Exercise LION SUN in Cyprus in June 1993.

Jimmy continued, “But there were some light hearted and surreal moments. In 1993 a Cypriot ice cream van drove cross-country up to the side of the C Company patrol harbour. I was told to go and tell him to move off. Of course I took the opportunity to have a refreshing ice cream before sending him on his way!” Jimmy had originally joined for the football in the TA. He soon became a key member of the company, participating three times in the world renowned Cambrian Patrol competition in the Brecon Beacons. His time acclimatising to the sun in Cyprus was not wasted as within a decade he would be mobilised and deployed in Iraq under slightly more hostile circumstances. 

In 1997 the battalion was presented new Colours at St. Patrick’s Barracks Ballymena. C Company provided a guard as the Colours were presented to the battalion by His Royal Highness The Duke of York, the Regiment’s Colonel in Chief.

Photo above: The C Company guard marches past during the Presentation of the Colours at St. Patrick’s Barracks Ballymena in August 1997.

Photo above:  C Company soldiers taking a break during the battle at annual camp in Thetford in 1998. 
By the end of the decade another Defence Review was looming – the Strategic Defence Review of 1998. It would see an enhancement and modernisation of the TA to make it more readily deployable and usable, but with a further reduction of the TA from 56,000 to 42,000 personnel. C Company and the Grousebeaters were not to be so lucky this time. In 1999, 30 years after the 6 RUR Company had been disbanded in Ballymena, C Company 4/5 RANGERS was now disbanded and replaced by B Squadron 204 (North Irish) Field Hospital at Lowfield Camp. However the spirit of the Grousebeaters still existed with a number of soldiers transferring to B (RUR) Company The Royal Irish Rangers (the new title for the battalion) in Abbotscroft, Newtownabbey. The defence review had placed more emphasis on combat service support units (medics and logistics), and the TA infantry was considered irrelevant in an age of increasing technology. As future wars would prove this was a slightly premature assumption. In 1999 the battalion had been given a lead role for the Civil Contingency Reaction Force, and had become established in the former Soviet bloc with training team deployments to Lithuania. As the century came to an end the battalion became the first British Army unit to train in the Ukraine. Grousebeaters were now training former Warsaw Pact soldiers that only a decade before during their last German annual camp they had been preparing to fight across the German border. But the next decade was going to see changes that dwarfed what had come before.

At 8.46 am on a clear New York morning on 9th September 2011 American Airlines Flight 11 was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre by hijackers from the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda. The aftermath of 9/11 would lead to a US declared Global War on Terrorism that would draw in the UK - and the Grousebeaters. In the next decade the Grousebeaters would mobilise and deploy on high intensity operations to Iraq and Afghanistan, writing a new chapter in The Royal Irish Regiment’s 300 year plus history. Their commitment, courage and professionalism would set the scene for a return of the TA infantry to Ballymena.  

The First Grousebeaters in The Falklands

After the Falklands War in 1982, a British Forces Garrison remained in the Islands to help guarantee the Islands’ safety. The garrison makes up the British Forces South Atlantic Islands (BFSAI) and is based at Mount Pleasant Complex, some 35 miles from the capital, Stanley. In 1994 the Territorials of the 4th/5th Battalion The Royal Irish Rangers were offered the opportunity to volunteer and deploy as part of the Falklands Islands Roulement Infantry Company that was being provided by the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment. 40 volunteers were duly selected to form a platoon that included volunteers from the Grousebeaters in C Company at Lowfield Camp. Prior to commencing pre-deployment training the volunteers had to resign from the TA and then re-enlist on a short service Regular Army contract. The tour took place between June and November 1994, during the Falklands winter, preceded by three months of pre-deployment training at Magilligan and Ballykinler Training Centres. Adrian Brown, a Grousebeater, described the training, “There was a lot of fitness, weapon handling drills and map reading. It was really just basic training on steroids. It was a big blur of pain, running around and fitness!”

The flight out to the Falklands stopped off at Cyprus, Ghana and the Ascension Islands before touching down in the Falkland Islands. Anthony Carlin, a fellow Grousebeater, had joined the TA in 1992. His first impressions were, “We came in during winter and there was 12 to 14 foot of snow. I had never seen as much snow in my life. Large chunks were cut out for parking bays. When we arrived it was the coldest winter since the war in 1982.” Adrian Brown had similar first impressions, “It was desolation – there wasn’t a tree in sight, just snow everywhere.” The platoon moved into their accommodation at Mount Pleasant Airfield. Adrian continued, “We had two man bunks which were warm. There were tunnels between buildings so you could move around all day and never be outside.”

Adrian Brown had joined the Ballymena TA in 1991, having previously had some Regular Army service in the 1980s. He was well-placed to observe the dynamics between Regular soldiers and this first deployment of TA, “At first there was some animosity between us STABs [slang for TA] and the ARABs [slang for Regulars]; however this quickly thawed and we soon got on with each other. Each unit had its own bar and they used to lay on different events so you soon got to build up friendships across the base.”

Photo: Adrian Brown and Anthony Carlin in the Falklands during their tour of 1994.

The routine for the platoon typically followed a five week cycle including security patrols in camp, Quick Reaction Force duties at Mare Harbour, patrols across the Islands, training on Onion Range and R & R. Anthony explained some of the typical activities, “On QRF we would train or sit guard in a foxhole, but the patrols week allowed you to visit the Islands when we would take out fresh food and papers to the Islanders. Our first patrol took us to Weddell Island which is west of West Falkland island. One of our responsibilities was to shoot Patagonian foxes which had escaped from fur farms in the past and needed controlling in order to protect the wildlife and sheep.”

During one of these patrols the platoon came across a payphone in a house – it only took £1 or 50p coins, Anthony takes up the story, “I was the only one with a coin so I rang my mum’s house and got her to ring back. What then followed was a chain event of getting others to pass their family phone number to the person on the phone so the next family could ring back. All went well until someone hung-up without providing the next number and that was that!”
Onion Range, so-called because the journey up to it alone is enough to make your eyes water, was the largest live firing range in the British Army. Anthony had vivid memories of some of his experiences at Onion Range, “Onion Range was even more desolate, and with the severe cold my webbing used to freeze shut. It was minus 24oC with the wind chill taking the temperature down to minus 40oC. Even with four layers of clothing on, three pairs of socks and pigskin boots, we were all still shivering – even our weapons froze solid and wouldn’t fire.”

The platoon returned to Northern Ireland in November 1994, but both soldiers still have fond memories of their tour. Adrian enjoyed the tour, “I felt good as we had done something no other TA had done before. I would definitely love to go back to the Falklands as a holiday. It is unique and beautiful.” Anthony also agrees, “The Falklands are pristine – there is no pollution – no smog - and vibrant colours everywhere. On the mountain there are these “rock runs” which are like rivers of rock flowing down the mountainside like veins. But these are not pebbles, they are massive boulders, and they would take you ages to cross.”

The deployment by the Grousebeaters and their TA comrades was the first operational deployment of the TA infantry since the Second World War. The lessons learned from their experiences and administration of the deployment would inform future TA deployments and shape legislation, especially the Reserve Forces Act 1996 – the legislative mainstay of mobilizations for Iraq and Afghanistan a decade later.  

Photo:  On patrol in the Falkland’s in 1994. The Grousebeaters in the photograph are: rear left – Anthony Carlin; second in from rear right – Adrian Brown.

The Grousebeaters peacekeeping in Bosnia

The Bosnian War took place between 1992 and 1995 and involved Bosnians, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats. It witnessed bitter fighting, indiscriminate shelling of cities and ethnic cleansing. The war was brought to an end in December 1995 after peace talks. Operation Resolute was the UK element in support of the NATO IFOR (Implementation Force) operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina to underpin the peace from December 1995. 

In early 1996 the 4th/5th Battalion The Royal Irish Rangers was directed to provide a platoon for a peacekeeping deployment on Operation Resolute to Bosnia. One of the soldiers who stepped forward to volunteer was former Sergeant Richard McCandless, a Ballymena Grousebeater, “We deployed on new contracts called Full Time Reserve Service (FTRS) which meant we had to travel to Catterick at the end of April 1996 to do a medical and be sworn onto the new contract. After a few days we moved to Salisbury Plain to conduct pre-deployment training. The approach for this operation was to be softly, softly. Training focused on mines which were the big issue, and we also had to learn to work with interpreters. By 14th May 1996 we were flying out from Brize Norton to Split Croatia.”

Photo:  Richard McCandless in Bosnia in 1996 as part of the TA contribution to Operation Resolute
Richard was an experienced TA soldier having enlisted 12 years previously at Ballymena. He had deployed on the big NATO exercises in Germany in the 1990s, such as Exercises Lionheart and Plain Sailing, and had been on Exercise Lion Sun in Cyprus. On arriving in theatre he was posted to the Regimental Police (RP) at Divulje Barracks, or commonly known as “DJ”, in Split. This barracks had been a former Croatian Army barracks and during the Second World War had been an Italian base. He was made up to RP Sergeant and was attached to the Support Squadron Multi-National Division (South-West). He was quite effective at his new role, as Richard explains,” In the first eleven days I arrested eleven soldiers for disorderly behavior or breaking curfew; needless to say, it wasn’t long before no more arrests were needed!” To offset some of the boredom during the first half of the tour he got into fitness, “The camp was fitness mad with Tuesday and Thursday runs before breakfast. I became part of a fitness team. My Adjutant got me a job up in Jajce so that I was able to compete in the first Bosnian Half-Marathon – I still have the medal.” 

Richard remembered well some of the scenes of destruction, “I once had to go to Sarajevo for a discipline case. We drove over the mountains to get to Sarajevo. There was damage and destroyed buildings everywhere. The sewer smell was everywhere because of the damaged infrastructure.”

After two weeks leave at home in August, he returned to Bosnia to find the platoon being moved north to Banja Luka to be attached to 2 Squadron RAF Regiment. Richard remembers the location well, “We were based in an old metal works factory. Serbian Army troops were in the vicinity, armed with tanks and other mechanized vehicles. The old metal works was surrounded by hills – and we were in the bottom of the valley. It felt like a Dien Bien Phu situation of Vietnam infamy. After heavy rain the place flooded, and you would be wading up to your knees. At the weekends they would take pot shots in the general direction of our position. I assumed it was because they might have been drunk.” In Banja Luka, Richard had different duties, “I was on a three day roster rotation – 24 hours as watch keeper, a day on standby and a day on Quick Reaction Force (QRF) duties.”

As part of the QRF he was deployed on two memorable operations. “The QRF consisted of three soft skinned landrovers with 24 hours of rations, “On one occasion I had to investigate and search a nearby paper factory. This had been formerly a large communist factory. Nothing was found but after the search we were taken down by the management to the factory’s leisure club which looked like an old fashioned Butlins.” The second operation was more serious as a Croatian priest had been kidnapped, “I had to take seven Royal Irish troops out to act as a cut-offs while the RAF Regiment did a sweep of the area. Each cut-off group had an International Police Force policeman – for this operation we were assigned a Garda and a Swedish cop. Sadly the priest was never found.” 

“What strikes me now looking back is the very basic equipment that we had compared to the soldiers deploying in Afghanistan today. The approach was to be softly, softly so we didn’t have helmets or much other protective kit. We only wore our caubeens and were only issued with 20 rounds for our SA80.”

Photo:  Richard McCandless winning “hearts and minds” with some of the locals at their homemade slivovitz still during an operation near Banja Luka, Bosnia in 1996. Slivovitz is a distilled beverage made from Damson plums in Central and Eastern Europe.
On returning from Bosnia, Richard McCandless would serve on in the TA until C Company was disbanded in Ballymena in 1999. In 1998 he deployed to Camp Blanding in Florida with the US Army Reserve National Guard on a UK/US exchange programme, and finished his service on exercise in the Ukraine in 1999. 

Part 3 will look at the service of the Grousebeaters in the 2000s. It would see the first mobilisations of TA infantry since the Second World War as the Grousebeaters took on Saddam Hussein’s regime in the Iraq War, and countered the Taliban insurgency in the oppressive heat of Helmand in Afghanistan.