1st Royal Hampshire under the command of Lt Colonel Mike Martin began its 5th Roulement Tour of Northern Ireland since 1969, assuming command of Southeast Fermanagh from 1st Royal Anglian on 4th January 1982. Bobby Sands, an active member of the IRA, had been elected as the local Member of Parliament not long before his death in the Maze Prison Maze during the Hunger Strikes of 1981, where he had been a number of years. Fermanagh, like so much of the Province, was a very divided community.
Battalion HQ, B, Z and HQ Companies were located in the old airfield of St Angelo near to Enniskillen. A and Y Companies were at the RUC Station in Lisnaskea, which also housed an UDR Company.
The role of 1st Hampshire was to support the RUC in maintaining law and order. The main opposition was an experienced IRA Active Service Unit operating from the Republic of Ireland which was supported by local IRA members. The threat from the IRA was the usual mixture of shootings, proxy-bombs and landmines on roads. The latter was a real threat and patrols were told not to walk on roads especially near to the border. In the 18 months preceding the Battalion’s tour, the IRA had engaged in almost an ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign along the border, killing and attempting to murder Protestants, many either UDR soldiers or police officers, who lived in often isolated farms. The aim was to drive Protestants from the border areas. The Security Forces had responded by mounting a number of operations and creating a number of permanent vehicle check points (PVCPs) on border roads. Initially the soldiers were living in trenches at these PCVPs but by the time 1st Royal Hampshire took over some were much more solid structures akin to Beau Geste forts.
A Company was responsible for patrolling the area southwest of Lisnaskea. They manned a number of PVCPS such as at Wattle Bridge. The only attack was a proxy bomb in Newtownbutler on 10th February which was successfully cleared.
B Company was responsible the Mullan Bridge VCP where the Company had its only contact when on 22nd February the IRA fired on the VCP with fire being returned. The commander was mentioned in despatches for this action.
Y Company was responsible for patrolling Lisnaskea and the area to the Southeast. The Company manned a number PVCPs such as at Annaghmartin and Derryard, with the Anti-Tank Platoon under command based in the RUC station in Rosslea, which was a strong republican village close to the border.
Z Company was responsible for the border area to the west and it was here that the Company sustained the Battalion’s only fatality when on 30th April Drummer Colin Clifford, a Jerseyman, was killed in an explosion on a border road near Belleek. He was to be the last Royal Hampshire Soldier to be killed on operations.
On 17th May 1st Parachute Regiment took over command. There had been a certain reluctance on the part of their advance party to engage in the handover presuming that they should be joining their 2nd and 3rd Battalions then on their way to the Falkland Islands which had been recently occupied by Argentina. Their disappointment was obvious when told that they were not going to the South Atlantic and to get on with the job in hand.
The Tour had been successful in that the level of IRA activity was low. The soldiers at the VCPS were friendly towards the civilian population though maintaining their professionalism. As always in Northern Ireland, good relations with the Special Branch and the CID depended on the chemistry of personal relationships. Again, even in hardcore Republican areas, the soldiers engaged in conversation, even banter, with IRA members and supporters. But there were no illusions on the part of the soldiers that this approach could influence onlookers to have a favourable view of the Army, but it was worth a try.