Northern Ireland – The Long War

At 08:00hrs on 27 April 1969, 16 Field Squadron’s B Flight Grouping, commanded by Flying Officer JC Murphy entered the city limits of Londonderry, initiating the longest deployment in the Corps history.

Contemporary Regiment Gunner in front of WW2-era Typhoons

Northern Ireland 1962-2003

The Corps had been involved previously in the Province from 1956 to 1959. During that period at least two squadrons had been deployed in the province to protect RAF assets. Because of worsening situations in other parts of the world with British interests, the “Border Campaign” posed enormous stresses on the manpower of the Corps during the transition from conscription to all-professional force. The “Border Campaign” had not been particularly successful for the IRA, the goal of unseating the existing government and the establishment of an all Ireland Socialist Republic was not achieved. Despite this, the leadership of the IRA continued to try and influence the nascent civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, mirroring the tactics used in the campaign for civil rights in the United States.

A protest movement sprang up in Northern Ireland in 1967, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). It was dedicated to eradicating the inequalities that existed within the province. The movement quickly gained significant support and formed an action group called Peoples Democracy (PD). PD proposed, copying the example of Martin Luther King Jr’s Selma to Montgomery march in the United States, to march from Belfast to Londonderry in protest of the crackdown on NICRA marches in Belfast. The March commenced on 1 January 1968 and was attacked continually during the four days that it took to get to Londonderry mainly by supporters of the Reverend Ian Paisley and other loyalists. On the last day of the March, escorted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the 500 marchers were ambushed at Buntollet Bridge, stoned, beaten with iron bars and sticks, and some thrown into the river, watched by the escorting Police, who failed to intervene. Media coverage and television pictures of the event caused widespread civil disobedience and rioting in Londonderry and Belfast that continued for months. By April, the police were exhausted, and the safety of the public could not be guaranteed any longer without significant help from Westminster. As a consequence, the UK Strategic Reserve Spearhead, consisting of one RAF Regiment Field Squadron and an Infantry Battalion were deployed to the province with the RAF Regiment moving first on 26 April. The squadrons secured four major installations, RAF Aldergrove, RAF Ballykelly, RAF Bishops Court and HMS Sea Eagle in Londonderry. This first deployment initiated the longest single campaign in the Corp’s history, from 1969 to 2003. Units on short deployments from the United Kingdom covered the first 20 years. These deployments were generally three or four months at a stretch. After the reinforcement of Royal Air Force Germany in 1970, and deployment of RAF Regiment assets to secure Salalah in Dhofar, the task fell to the resident Catterick squadrons with occasional reinforcement from Germany, whilst the squadrons from Wittering covered the Dhofar roulement. The ending of Dhofar saw the Belize commitment commence and the switch of the Northern Ireland task to the Field Squadrons again with the Low-Level Air Defence (LLAD) units picking up Belize and later the South Atlantic tasking. In response to the obvious overstretch and the continuity benefits that had often been denied to the roulement squadrons, 3 Squadron was reformed and posted as a permanent entity to the Province in the winter of 1988.

The squadron served in the Province until 2003 when it returned to Wittering. The RAF Regiment was the longest-serving “teeth” arm unit to serve in the “Troubles”. 3 Squadron embellished the reputation that the roulement squadrons had earned previously and were regarded as one of the elite units in the Province, operating over a much bigger area than their predecessors. The story of the RAF Regiment does not simply revolve around the defence of the obvious RAF Assets in the Province; the Regiment have often been deployed to support the Army in a number of different locations and tasks.