Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

Mercier Press
ISBN 9781781177983

Reviewed by Ian S. Wood

Ian S. Wood is co-author (with Andrew Sanders) of Times of Troubles: Britain’s war in Northern Ireland (2012) and Crimes of loyalty: a history of the UDA (2006).

David Burke, on the opening page of his new book on British operations in the early years of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, tells us that 1,500 soldiers were killed during the conflict. Were this true, it would point to a greater capacity than the IRA ever came close to. His figure is in fact more than the total death-roll of the RUC, British Army and Ulster Defence Regiment. The latter was, of course, a force integrated within the army, and its members, many of them part-timers, were targets of the IRA, often while off duty, at work or at home with their families.

The author’s figure is uncomfortably close to the total number of lives taken by the IRA. These victims, however, are not Daniel Burke’s concern. The remit he has set himself is to document and explain the blunders, miscalculations and sometimes deliberate decisions that culminated in the awful events of Bloody Sunday in Derry on 30 January 1972.

He sees the key figure here as being Brigadier Frank Kitson, although Kitson’s brigade command was limited to the Belfast area. Kitson has proven an elusive figure for other writers. He proved to be this, too, when called before the Saville Tribunal into Bloody Sunday. Despite having brought out some well-researched military history prior to this, his memory failed him at crucial points when under questioning about events 30 years before.

Kitson’s concern was to talk down his own role in the decisions that led to the Parachute Regiment’s First Battalion Support Company being deployed in a heavily armed combat operation into the Bogside on Bloody Sunday rather than the much more limited arrest and ‘scoop-up’ operations which the local brigade in the area had planned for. One officer in this battalion, which was part of Kitson’s brigade, later wrote of him in his memoirs as ‘an incisive thinker and military theorist’ and claimed that ‘he was the sun around which the planets revolved … and very much set the tone for the operational style in Belfast’.

This operational style had become increasingly tough during 1971 and the source of these comments was Michael Jackson, a captain in 1 Para in late 1971 and early 1972, and later a general and chief of the army’s general staff. David Burke, it must be said, has worked diligently to show that Kitson, a man hardened by ruthless counter-insurgency actions in Kenya and elsewhere, was a powerful influence on what happened on Bloody Sunday, even if he gave no orders on the day and remained in Belfast.

Burke draws on some new sources, like former paratroopers who overheard talk in 1 Para’s officers’ mess in Holyrood, outside Belfast, of the case for ‘getting some kills’ on 30 January, the day scheduled for the civil rights march in Derry. One of them, Byron Lewis, became a whistle-blower when he left the army. He had been shocked by what he saw on Bloody Sunday and put his life at risk by talking about it to the Irish press.

His testimony seems to confirm the view of the Widgery Report on these events, widely regarded now as a whitewash, that the firing in the Bogside by 1 Para ‘bordered on the reckless’. Some of it was more than that, with the still unnamed ‘Soldier F’, now a hero to some hard-line Ulster loyalists, ignoring an officer’s order to cease firing, according to Lewis’s account quoted here. Soldiers are trained to return aimed fire—something, indeed, that they have the right to do. This, as the Saville Report makes chillingly clear, is the opposite of what some of 1 Para’s Support Company did on Bloody Sunday.

Whether Support Company acted from simple blood-lust or whether in response to secret orders from their commanding officer, or from higher up, to go into the Bogside to draw the IRA into a firefight in which they would suffer heavy losses is a question that will probably never now be answered. Captain Mike Jackson, as he was in 1972, has recalled Brigadier Kitson arriving at his battalion’s base soon after Bloody Sunday and asking its CO, Lt. Col. Derek Wilford, why ‘having got that far in, you didn’t go on and sort the whole bloody mess out’.

The dramatis personae who cross this author’s pages are numerous. There are low-level spies haunting Derry before 30 January and earning their keep by feeding to British intelligence concocted information about the local IRA’s intentions. Then there are the ordinary soldiers, like those already referred to here. Above all there is Kitson himself, whose presence is central to the whole book, and there is Derek Wilford, a man of charm and culture who finished his working life teaching art history in Belgium. Perhaps he was an incongruous figure to hold a command in a regiment with the brutally macho and ferocious ethos of the Paras. On his watch new recruits were taught to think of the rest of the army as no more than effete ‘crap hats’. Maybe they still are.

Wilford’s performances in front of both Widgery and Saville were evasive, and David Burke has a point when he says that Wilford has, over the years, lacked the courage to do more than drop a few hints about orders from above and then recoil from them. He could never admit, it seems, even to himself, that his battalion had been party to an atrocity that would lead to far worse ones committed by the IRA and the Loyalists.


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