One also needs to mention the notorious Divis Street and, of course, the flats which dominated it, a continuation of the Falls Road. It is a mixed area of post war Council multi-storey flats and areas like Leeson Street and Hastings Street which were, certainly back in the 70s, mirror images of the back-to-back terraced houses found on the Lower Falls. As one former squaddie said to the author, on seeing the flats for the first time: ‘Jesus Christ ! I didn’t know that you could stack shit that high !’
Leeson Street was the scene of one of the RGJ’s most epic battles, when their ‘R’ company fought a fierce gun battle with the IRA, killing two terrorists and where one of their Lance Corporals, Thompson, won the DCM. The major fire fight in Leeson Street on September 13, 1971, saw several hundred rounds expounded and was one of the first major exchanges between the Army and the IRA. It was also the scene of an IRA own goal, a year earlier in which four people, including three IRA members were killed. At about the same time, an IRA RPG attack on a Gloster PIG could have caused carnage but for the thin gossamer thread of fate.
Over the course of a 15 year period, beginning in February, 1972 and March, 1987, seven soldiers lost their lives in or around the Divis Street flats. That figure should be certainly increased by one, even if only unofficially; this was the site of Trooper Hugh McCabe’s death on August 13, 1969 which I shall deal with shortly.
The Glosters, as we shall see, fared badly in and around this part of Belfast. In addition, many times that number were injured in rioting and other forms of violence and, as one former Royal Regiment of Wales soldier said to me ‘I’ve never seen so many soldiers crying before; there were in agony at being hit by objects thrown from the upper floors.’ Squaddies joked that the insurance companies must have been left scratching their heads at the number of claims from the residents for televisions and fridges which had ‘fallen’ from their balconies.
The 16 storey flats were eventually put to good use by the Army and the large flat roof which was the residents drying area, was sealed off and used as an OP. The roof door to the steps and lifts were welded shut, and a sandbagged, armoured sangar was installed with listening and viewing equipment. Access for the soldiers was by helicopter only. The roof top OP was only removed in 2005 as the Army began to dismantle on a Province-wide basis.
Unofficially, it was the scene of the death of the first British soldier in the troubles. Trooper Hugh McCabe 20) of the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars was home on leave from his unit in Germany, when he was killed. On August 15, 1969, the day after Harold Wilson sent troops into the Province, he was watching a riot from a balcony of the Divis Street flats. He was hit once by a large calibre round, probably fired by either the RUC or the out-of-control ‘B’ Specials. It must be stressed that Trooper McCabe was not taking part in the riots, merely watching. He received a full military funeral with all associated honours.
On February 1, 1972, Corporal Ian Bramley (25) of the Glosters, was opening a security gate in Hastings Street, near Divis Street when he was shot and died soon afterwards. This was during a period of heightened tension and frequent rioting, in the wake of ‘Bloody Sunday’ which had happened just 48 hours earlier.
Almost a year later, UDR soldier Corporal David Bingham (22) was abducted and murdered by the IRA in Institution Place, close to the Divis. His car was hijacked and he was shot by a gunman. In the Summer of that year, two more Glosters were killed, this time, actually inside the Divis Street flats. Privates Geoffery Breakwell (20) and his 21 year old companion, Christopher Brady triggered an IRA booby trapped device placed by the IRA on the fifth floor. Another soldier was partly blinded and several residents of the flats were injured. It gave a further lie to the IRA’s pious claim that they would avoid injuring civilians.
This incident, which took place on July 17, 1973, was a wake up call for the Army whose training techniques on booby trap devices had been somewhat amateur at the time. Nearly 250 soldiers had now died in Northern Ireland in just under four years, and now the toll had passed that of the Aden emergency in the 60s.
On September 16, 1982, over nine years and 300 military deaths later, the INLA placed a bomb on one of the landings of the Divis Street flats and detonated it as Lance Bombardier Kevin Waller (20) of the Royal Artillery walked past. The young soldier was terribly injured and died of his wounds on September 20.
On March 27, 1985, Lance Corporal Anthony Dacre (25) an Essex boy was killed in an explosion at the flats. The King’s Own Border Regiment soldier was patrolling in an area which was normally thronged with school children. On that day, the Head Master of a nearby school kept all the children inside, ostensibly because of the cold. A senior soldier told me that it was a widely held view among military personnel, that the IRA had warned the school of the impending attack. No intelligence was fed back to the Army, and Anthony Dacre was murdered, once the IRA were handed a free run.
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