This year marks the 75th anniversary of the RAF Regiment and in this guest blog, Bill Espie tells us about his experience in Northern Ireland and the impact that being part of the RAF Regiment has had on his life.
The RAF Regiment were the first reinforcement troops into Northern Ireland in 1969, much earlier than the subsequent Operation Banner which lasted from 1969 until 2007.
It was the longest unbroken deployment in British Armed Forces history and saw more than 6,100 British service personnel injured and 1,431 casualties.
I joined the RAF in the 60s in the era of withdrawal from our huge empire. I had originally intended to be aircrew but failed to recognise that a "come back in six months" was not a rejection letter. I took the harder option of the RAF Regiment. Consequently, my first operational tours were in Saudi Arabia, The Gulf and in Malaya. I learned my trade in Malaya and the self-sufficiency to survive in uncomfortable and challenging environments in the jungle.
However, in April 1969, I deployed to Northern Ireland, a place and a state of mind that was to dominate my perspectives for the next 27 years. I loved the country and the people but was to see the hardening of attitudes and deepening of the religious and political schism over the next few years. It broadened and educated me in intangibles that I needed but could only be learned through experience. I learned how to be patient, well as much as any Celt can, and also to think through my, and others' actions.
It taught me to trust the guys in your team – you cannot be aware of everything all the time and it taught me the power of humour and comradeship that exists only in professions that regularly have an exposure to death or serious injury on a day-to-day basis.
The sheer tedium of patrolling every day was mind numbing and geared you to switch off and get sloppy. Every day there were reminders of what happened if you did, perhaps not from our patch but from one close by.
I served with a number of Squadrons in the Province, in all six counties including Fermanagh, Derry and Belfast as well. The RAF beret was respected wherever we went as a mark of professionalism. I was privileged to soldier there at every rank before commissioning and "walk the walk" with comrades who were my friends and still are 46 years later.
We all got the opportunity of supporting the RAF Benevolent Fund and, to be frank, as a 19-year-old lad, it was just another bit of paper you signed. At that age it was never going to happen to you. Over the years has come the recognition and valuing of what is after all, our Benevolent Fund.
If you served in the RAF Regiment, or are currently serving, and need support, please get in touch with us today.
The RAF Regiment Heritage Centre is based at RAF Honington and is open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. To visit, you must pre-register first on the website.