When I was young I was wild, that’s why I went in the army to calm myself down. But when I came out I went even wilder. Maybe it’s rebelliousness, after being told what to do for nine years. I swore when I came out the army I would never, ever wear a uniform again. I was offered a job in the police, in the prison services, the kind of jobs they offer ex-servicemen, security, things like that. No, I don’t want them, I swore I will never wear a uniform again and I’ve never worn a uniform since.Danny Collins, 2018
You are yourself, but the army changes you to someone else. Then you try to go back to who you were. You become your own conflict.
18 years old and straight onto the Falls Road during the riots. Lost a good friend in the first fortnight. Booby-trap front door. Seen someone blown to pieces it sticks to your mind. I spoke to lads and they’re not angry with the enemy. Left the army, steel plate in leg. Bitter. Served this country, and they are angry with it, not bitter with the enemy. Bitter with the people who we fought for.
Came back home, after my first tour in Northern Ireland, having a few beers me and our kid. 18 scared shitless. He was older and he doesn’t active service before. Talking about Belfast. He said, “The first thing that struck me was everything was in English. It was like walking around streets at home.”
On my second tour I realised what he meant, how poignant it was. I still know that area from Belfast, know it better than where I live now. In my mind I can go along the Falls, Cooper Street, Ringfield, and back to the barracks.
I didn’t join until ‘72 and my first actual tour of Northern Ireland was ‘73.
We were still there in ‘73, my family.
Lower Falls… I remember it so well. I know the area better probably than I know where I’m living now. Go along the Falls Road, up Springfield Road, go by where the big church was. Round the Clonnard, back down the Falls, Springfield Road, back along Cambridge onto the Shankhill, which is where the riots was. Straight up the Shankhill, Percy Street, back up the Falls and back into the base.
My first tour, ‘73, I never forget. I finished me army training, but they couldn’t send me to me regiment because they were actually in Northern Ireland and I hadn’t turned 18. So I was posted to a transit camp and on me 18th birthday, I was going out with two of the lads, who were drinking, celebrating, and I got called into the guardroom, said they wanted me in the main office. They said “Happy birthday”, and gave me a ticket for Northern Ireland. Two hours later I was on the plane going to Northern Ireland. I literally been 18 for about 10 hours.
Did you want to be there? Were you excited?
I was, but I’ll admit I was very scared. I hadn’t done any Northern Ireland training. They used to be six-month tours then, they had about four months left on the tour. Basically I done guard duty, I wasn’t allowed out on the streets. As it went on more men were needed on the streets and you were literally trained on the ground. It was a very spooky time.
Why was it spooky?
I was a very young, 18. I’ve never been away from home until I joined the army. Get off the plane and you see armoured cars and you think: this is the real thing. You know, this isn’t playing soldiers, this is being soldiers. I think it was just a different world, and not knowing. And I hadn’t met half the lads, apart from some of the lads I’d been in training with. The majority of the guys I was with never met before in my life. A totally new outfit.
I think in the early days most of the regiments who were out there permanently were put into barracks. Then as it went on they took over the likes of the old mills. Ours wasn’t just an old mill, it was a working paper mill, we had the two top floors of it. Still working. You’d just done a 4 hour patrol, go back to that. Not very posh facilities. It was the same when you were doing night patrol. When you’re back off patrol, the next guys would go out on patrol and we’d get in their beds. Have to wake em up.
Some of the Fusiliers slept in a car inspection pit, they were going into really crappy accommodation. They just put them anywhere.
They took over the gas yards, below the Falls. Do you know the song Dirty Old Town? It says in there, “I kissed my love by the gas yard wall…” That was written by an ex-soldier.
In them days the Irish people weren’t against us. We’d go out on patrol and they’d say, “Round the back.” They couldn’t be seen fraternising. They’d be out the front shouting “Scum!” — and this that and the other, and you’d go round the back and they’d give you tea and biscuits. If the IRA, or the local bullies saw, they’d be retaliated against. And that was on both sides of the fence, Catholic and Protestant. It wasn’t until ‘73 or ‘74 when it started to kick off properly with the riots, when you were getting it from both sides. Initially we went out there to protect the Catholic side, but with their frustration the IRA gained more momentum in taking over. They started petrol bombing us as well, so we were piggy in the middle.
Supposed to be peacekeeping. Put the barriers up between the two sectors and they were lobbing bombs at us while we were in the middle. Getting it from both. They were cutting off roads and putting up their own barriers.
There was a lot of tension around. But you were a young guy so you were quite resilient I imagine?
Had to be on the ball all the time, whether you were patrolling, guarding, going out doing Sanger duty… so many days patrolling, then so many days security and then we’d do so many days Sanger duty. Basically you’d have a steel Sanger stuck up at the ends of roads. We were on the Falls, which was called Sniper Alley, that was its nickname. They were quite good, in fact they were very good. They could throw a nail bomb across a house. They could be on one side and you’d be walking down the other and they could throw a nail bomb right across and time it for when you were going past.They weren’t amateurs, by no means.
The thing I was really surprised at, when I was looking at some of these bomb reports, was that they were very sophisticated very early on. Setting fake trip wires, dummy bombs and secondary explosions.
They were sophisticated alright! The Americans give em a lot of aid within weapons and stuff. But they were also trained by Libya. Terrorists even now have training camps in Libya and Syria. The IRA sent men out to be trained by professional terrorists who were funded by Colonel Gaddafi.
How’s it feel, thinking back to it?
There are certain areas I don’t want to go into. I lost very good friends out there. Generally, it’s just… We didn’t want to be there and they didn’t want us there. We had a mutual feeling about that.
How long did you do there?
You’d be there for six months, then we’d come back. We were stationed at Minden in Germany. We would go there and the Third Allied would go out for six months. Then the Green Jackets would go out for six months, then we’d go back. It was a rotation thing, you’d have six months on, then a year off. Saying that, if there was any major problems, an uprising or anything like that, then you’d be called back. You’d do an emergency tour.
Were you there from ‘73 till the early ‘80s?
I left Germany in ‘75, we went to Kirby near Blackpool. And then we did – I transferred to the PTI. Did 12 months in Belize, come back from Belize, back to the depot a couple of months and then went to Canada. When I came back from Canada I was sent to Ballykelly, to begin an 18 month tour. That was what they call an accompanied tour, where the regiment I was with would take the families and whatever with em. The six months tours were just infantry.
Did you take your family?
Some didn’t some did. I personally didn’t want to take my family. Yeah that was my last time there. The street fighting had calmed down and it was more on the border. Part of the job at Ballykelly was a lot of airborne work, helicopters patrolling the border. It was very easy, like crossing the road, to get from Southern Ireland to Northern Ireland around Armagh. And we’d do a lot of covert work.
It was a structured day, but it didn’t seem structured in the sense of it was nine till five. It was literally a 24-hour day, you could be working on the streets — if there was something going off — you could spend 18, 20 hours actually out on the streets. It was structured in the way of what you are doing, just not 9-to-5.
So you wouldn’t have a typical day?
You’d do so many days street patrolling, so many days security on the buildings and suchlike and then so many days on the Sangers and the outposts. We had a big outpost on the bottom of Percy Street which was the end of the Shankhill, coming back onto the Falls. That had to be boarded off, it was a no go area. We had a big massive Sanger that we manned 24 hour, 7 days a week.
The biggest mistake I ever made was during a riot. In them days we only had crash helmets with a visor. The riot squad came out with the shields and everything covering us. I had a heavy tin hat on and I actually took me tin hat off to wipe me brow. A brick came over the top and hit me right on the head, split me head from there to there. Never take your hat off in a public riot!
What was it like to do a stint in the Sanger?
It was very eerie, because you’re on your own. A Sanger is basically a sentry box, like you see in the Viet war films, a sentry box covered in sandbags. These ones were steel plated and you got slipped in it and you were there 4 hours, on your own. You’re in radio contact completely all the time and you’ve got to report in every 20 minutes that everything’s OK. If you’ve just spotted a vehicle, you reported straightaway, get the registration number if possible, the amount of people that’s in it, what you think they’re up to or whatever. You can be alert, but maybe two or 3 o’clock in the morning, when everything’s dead quiet, it’s eerie. You hear a cat miaowing, crying, or any bang, car backfiring or whatever — you take cover!
And we’ve got a bizarre sense of humour. Another incident in Northern Ireland, on North Howard Street. They were sniping at one of our posts and they hit a guy on a bike going to work in the morning. We sent the response down, the Pigs and whatever, we had to wait then. The police wouldn’t go in anywhere without back up at that time.
We have to wait for the police and ambulance to turn up and remove the body. This guy is lying on the floor, dead as a door. We had this Corporal, Jock Milne his name was. Big burly lad, played rugby for the regiment. And he picked the fella’s sandwiches up and started eating em! We got a crowd round and they went, “You animal, you animal!” And he went, “Well he’s not gonna need em, is he?” It was just that bizarre humour, it was like — yeah, that’s gonna bring the bin lids out.
What d’you think of when you think of bangs? There are certain bombs I can still remember.
Bonfire night even now, I never go out on bonfire night. And bangs, they do affect me quite a lot. I’ve been out, just talking, walking along the road, and the same type of thing – a backfire – and I’ve jumped, leapt out of me skin. Say it’s just part of me Post Traumatic Stress, it’s just there all the time. It was different from the Falklands where you could hear the whistle of them coming in. It was so quiet, there was no warning, you don’t get any sound out of a petrol bomb until it explodes. You don’t get any sound out of a nail bomb until it explodes.
We had this thing, it was called crack and thump. What it is, you can tell the distance of a rifle when it is being fired. It’s like with thunder and lightning, you hear the crack and you count 123 and it’s 300 metres away. Crack and thump. You’ll be under fire and get on the radio, “Am under fire, believe 300 metres north east of my position.” Give them something to pinpoint, you won’t get it exactly right because sound travels and echoes. If you heard that crack and thump, you could work out where it was coming from. A lot of the lads when they came in of a Saturday night when we were back in Germany, or were in Blackpool or wherever, one of the lads walks in and we’d be like, “Having a bit of a crack and thump in Blackpool were you?” Different terms, used for humour.
I remember us driving through Belfast on fire.
Destruction I suppose. You’d worry about if there’s anyone in there. Is there anyone in there who is injured? And you’d think, they’ve lit that fire in that position, so they can snipe us from over there. There’s 100 different things going through your head at the same time. Never really analysed it before. Same as the bangs, they’ve set that off over there so we go rushing over here, especially around Divis Flats. That was Sniper Alley.
I knew two lads who was patrolling there. They got sniped at and they run to a door and it had a mattress over the door. One was a new guy, a young recruit… The other older one who was with him… He’d shouted to him, “No don’t touch it!“ But the young guy pulled the mattress away from the door and it exploded. It was a booby-trap. The older one was blinded. As the rest rushed in to get the two lads who were blown up, the IRA just started opening fire on them from about four different directions. We sent for a Saracen with a Browning on and that literally sprayed the building. To keep their heads down. If you’re getting hit by a 50 mil Browning you know you’re getting hit. Them things will go through a brick wall, I think it was the first time we ever fired one in Northern Ireland, the Browning.
So many things going through your head at different times. That experience, I’m not saying you get used to it… When I first went out and I was still young and inexperienced, every little sound, even if you were in the compound, would be — “What was that, what was that?”
Because people were dying, it made me much more aware of death as part of life. I wonder if it changed your attitude to life, how it changed you?
There is an old saying: you go out as a boy but you come back as a man. I had changed, me family and everyone who knew me could see I changed. Different, I wouldn’t say it was more arrogant, but I didn’t give a shit. That comes in as well when you know you’re going back. When you go in and you get dropped off at the airport, and get brought in — in the three tonners or the Saracens, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Nobody is talking, they’re all just sat there, thinking about where they’re going and what they’re doing. Six months later when they’re coming back, they’re hanging out the back of the wagon going fuck you.
It did change me quite a lot. I lost me mum not long after I came back from Ballykelly. I lost me mum. I come back and me sisters are crying and me family is crying. We went and had a drink afterwards and I’m laughing and joking with some of the lads. Me sister said to me, “You’re so callous. Even when it was mum’s funeral you never cried or showed emotion.” And I went, “It’s the way I am.”
A couple of days later when I was on me own, I cried me eyes out. But I couldn’t show it, the army teaches you not to show your emotions. You’re trained not to show them and even long after your army training, things are still there.
When I was young I was wild, that’s why I went in the army to calm myself down. But when I came out I went even wilder. Maybe it’s rebelliousness, after being told what to do for nine years. I swore when I came out the army I would never, ever wear a uniform again. I was offered a job in the police, in the prison services, the kind of jobs they offer ex-servicemen, security, things like that. No, I don’t want them, I swore I will never wear a uniform again and I’ve never worn a uniform since.
Ireland, we didn’t want to be there, they didn’t want us there, but we didn’t blame the people. I know there are stories of people getting beat up by the army and retaliations on both sides, yes I know there was. But we never hated the Irish. Still don’t. Me father was from Southern Ireland and when I said I was going in the army! I was going to go in the army at 15 as a boy soldier – that’s how strongly I wanted to go and me dad wouldn’t sign the papers.
Was he a Republican?
Yeah he was in the old IRA, the 1920-odd uprising, the Easter Uprising and that. He was a Limerick man, where a lot of the IRA started from. He did tell us little bits but he didn’t really say a lot about it. It was something that his family and he went through, as little kids and later. He was an old Irish builder, you’d hear him coming up the road on the Saturday night drunk as a Lord singing old Irish rebel songs. Half the neighbours would be going ‘Davey Collins is home’. Someone once said to me, “Your dad would turn in his grave if he knew you joined up after he died.” I said, “Well he would’ve turned in his grave if I’d gone 3 years in the nick.”
Danny Collins, interviewed by Philip Davenport and Amy Hinks
Booth Centre, Manchester 2018