The aim of the operational trial was to re supply a RN Patrol Craft, used for intercepting gun running and other activities, whilst at sea in Carlingford Lough and carried out by means of aerial delivery, to minimize the risk to individuals at Bessbrook Mill who had the task of re supplying the Patrol craft by road. There was only one access road to the area and the same route had to be used for the return journey which did present a considerable risk to army personnel, owing to the enormous ambush potential by the IRA. The use of the Scout in this instance was instigated by Richard Nicholson when he was working in HQ Northern Ireland and the problem of supplying this ship was presented to us.
Around mid October 1974 I was flown to Carlingford Lough from Lisburn where I met a small group of SBS members. I was then taken out to the Patrol craft and introduced to the ship's Captain to discuss various ways of re-supplying them by air with fresh rations, fuel etc. After surveying the forward deck area it was proposed that the forward mast could be removed leaving a suitable space to land a netted load, this would provide a reasonably straight forward solution to this situation.
The following day this method was tested, unfortunately it almost ended in total disaster. Whilst we were hovering over the forward section of the ship and trying to position the load I noticed that some of the crew were frantically waving and shouting, but with the noise of the a/c engine it was like seeing a silent movie. They were trying desperately to draw our attention to the fact that our tail rotor had swung 180 deg and was now positioned within the ships rigging. The load was immediately cut and I now had the task of guiding the pilot out this situation whilst trying to stay as calm as possible, hanging out of the door facing towards the rear of the a/c. Some guardian angels must have been looking down on us that day because apart from slicing through a flimsy aerial with the tail rotor (which the Capt proudly presented to us the next day back at the Mill) we did eventually manage to break free. this method was not tried again.
On the 24th October 1974 four containers were despatched from a Scout helicopter at a height of 10 ft ASL and at an air speed of 10 knots. Containers were despatched in side by side pairs and linked by 10 ft of rope to aid the recovery process .It was reported that two eggs had broken out of 10 dozen on this sortie, this was not caused by impact, but was in fact due to packing. All stores were retrieved by an SBS crew using a rigid raider craft and the result was regarded as a complete success. Twelve jerrycans were also free dropped on 24th October and two methods were tested. first, three jerrycans were banded together and despatched in block. then three cans were linked together by approx 5 ft of rope between each. The banding and dropping of three in a block proved to be the better method and were easier to handle in the aircraft. Jerry cans float upside down therefore rope handles were attached to each pack to help retrieve them from the water. Four more sorties were flown on the 26th October and three more on the 29th October 1974. Re-supply by this method was postponed on the 30th October until the 7th November owing to the hand over from 45 Cdo RM to the first Battalion The Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment.
It was suggested that a small contingency of AD personnel could perhaps be retained at Bessbrook on a short tour basis, but this was dismissed at the time without any further consideration, It was then suggested that perhaps the resident company at Bessbrook Mill could be trained in the methods of aerial re-supply and carry on the task without any Air Despatch involvement. On the 6th November 1974 three members of 1 DERR began training in the preparation and packing of the “bins interlocking”, and the rigging of the jerrycan packs, this lasted for most of the day. It had been possible for three men to pack and fully prepare one complete re-supply of fresh rations and fuel within a period of three hours, whilst this was initially very time consuming it could have been improved on as crews gained more experience.
Two more sorties were flown on the 7th November, the second despatch was carried out by S/Sgt Mortimer (1 DERR) under my supervision. The drop was successful and no damage was reported to any stores or to the aircraft. Members of 1 DERR continued packing and dropping stores under my supervision, but with no assistance for a further four sorties. All drops were competed without any snags.
The recovery of the bins was carried out by using the Scout helicopter and hooking up an under slung net which had been pre-positioned at various designated RV points by members of the SBS. The prominence of the helicopter at low level soon drew unwanted attention by a few local residents which put the helicopter and crew at considerable risk. On one occasion due to extremely low fuel levels I had to be left on the beach at one RV in order to reduce weight and wait for the helicopter to return. It was now dusk and the helicopter did not arrive back until after dark.
I did manage to hide myself under cover of some rocks and I had the usual 9mm issue pistol for protection, which was cocked, safety catch applied, At the time I thought if the worst did come to pass anyone approaching me that evening was probably about to get seriously hurt and I may not be around after that to tell the tale. Even so I still spent around an hour waiting for the helicopter to return, every minute seemed like hours, all sorts of thing go through your mind in these situations. but the worst was still to come when I was actually being picked up, several attempts were made to locate me even though I kept trying to position myself in the beam of the aircraft lights, but for whatever reason the pilot kept passing over me.
The noise of the helicopter, and lights, lighting up the beach left me exposed and extremely vulnerable. Throughout this operation several low velocity rounds were fired at our aircraft but no substantial damage was sustained as they only managed to make contact with the airframe and engine cowling as I recall.
After this I arranged for most of the drops to be conducted in the widest part of the Lough in order to try and protect the helicopter from high velocity projectiles, as far as I know no other attacks were encountered.
Re-supply by this method was undoubtedly successful and it therefore was recommended as an alternative means of re-supplying patrol craft. It was recommended that training should be carried out at regular intervals if proficiency in both packing and dropping were to be maintained. It was further recommended that the co-pilot’s seat be removed for all of these missions to provide more room for stores and freedom of movement throughout the drop.
The return of the boxes would be made in the same manner as described earlier along with used jerrycans by under slung net from a Scout helicopter and collected from pre- arranged RV’s, chosen at short notice for security reasons.
Because of the general shortage of manpower amongst the regiments visiting (NI) at the time, most were already over committed therefore the thought of having to carrying out an additional task of aerial re-supply in this way was considered to have some practical implications.
Even though, it did considerably reduce the risk of an ambush to personnel who had to make regular journeys by road. Having a Air Despatch crew based at Bessbrook on a monthly turnaround was rejected, wrongly in my opinion because their presents would have been justified and to most regiments very welcome, it would have been the most practicable cost effective option.
Unfortunately these operations were abandoned after I left theatre, because there was a general feeling amongst AAC Pilots that the mission was high risk and there was no real appetite to continue.
In conclusion, it is worth a mention, that had this method of re supply been continued and become SOP adhering to the recommendations which I had made, it is just possible that the Warrenpoint massacre which took place in 1979 taking the lives of 18 soldiers may have been prevented. Warren Point was of course one of the RVs I used during these trials.