Unless you served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, you cannot imagine the pressure that British troops faced there. We had to keep our cool in the flames of hell.
Within days of my arrival on my second tour of duty in 1972, I saw an 18-year-old paratrooper, Private Francis Bell, shot dead by a sniper on the Ballymurphy estate.
Within minutes, as news spread, there were crowds on the streets, shouting and celebrating because a teenage boy was lying there lifeless.
It was sickening. But we were not there to retaliate. With my comrades in the Parachute Regiment, I was there as part of a peacekeeping force, to quell the violence. We followed the strictest rules of engagement and we obeyed them, even with our lives in peril every hour of every day.
I am intensely proud of how the British Army conducted itself in Northern Ireland during my seven tours there in the Seventies and Eighties with the Paras, and my subsequent duties with the SAS.
The news yesterday that Army veteran Dennis Hutchings (pictured arriving at the Supreme Court in London in 2019) had died on Monday aged 80, still fighting to clear his name over an incident from almost 50 years ago, fills me with bitter resentment
How many coffins I carried, and how many of my friends were killed, some in front of my eyes, I have lost count.
That’s why the news yesterday that Army veteran Dennis Hutchings had died on Monday aged 80, still fighting to clear his name over an incident from almost 50 years ago, fills me with bitter resentment.
Mr Hutchings, a former soldier with the Life Guards, was charged with the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in County Tyrone in 1974. Mr Cunningham was shot during a chase by an Army patrol, after he was seen acting suspiciously. Mr Hutchings has always insisted he did not fire the fatal shot, but fired three warnings.
Terminally ill with kidney disease and heart problems, he could have asked for his trial to be postponed indefinitely due to his health. His hospital consultant advised him against travelling from his home in Cornwall to Belfast for the hearing.
Instead, determined to prove his innocence and remove the stain on his character, he elected with true bravery to face the court.
Harry McCallion is pictured in Quatan in 1984
It was only when he contracted Covid during the proceedings this month that the hearing was suspended. On Monday he was taken to hospital, where he died.
Dennis Hutchings was betrayed by the country he served. The sight of this undaunted man, wearing his medals in court but refused permission to appear in uniform, is a national disgrace.
When I meet fellow veterans, betrayals such as this one are the foremost topic of conversation. A couple of weeks ago, I was at a memorial service to give the eulogy for an officer who went through SAS selection with me. Many veterans of Northern Ireland were there.
The phrase I heard most often was: ‘This is a witch-hunt.’ That’s what it feels like — false charges, drummed up to feed a collective hysteria, with no connection to reality.
None of us could have imagined, when we signed up to serve, that this is how we would be repaid.
Men like Dennis Hutchings are being systematically stripped of the respect they have earned through their bravery. They should be celebrated as the quietly decent, unflinching heroes they have proved themselves to be on numerous occasions.
Instead, they are too often forgotten or, worse still, have their names traduced. That is hard to bear. But we’ve been taking it for a very long time.
In 1971, Sergeant Michael Willetts of 3 Para sacrificed his life to save civilians, by putting his body in front of a suitcase bomb in the Springfield Road RUC station. The bomb exploded and he was killed instantly.
His extraordinary courage saved the lives of two children, two adults and several police officers whom he shielded from the blast. His wife June was pregnant at the time.
The following day, a mural appeared on a wall opposite the bombed-out station. It depicted a pregnant woman. Underneath were daubed the words: ‘Mrs Willetts ha-ha-ha.’
I dread to think what reprisals might have been meted out by the military units of some other countries, less disciplined than the British Army.
We held our nerve, even in the face of daily taunts from known IRA killers who would saunter past us in the street, grinning and sneering. We were certain that these men had the blood of our comrades on their hands, but we kept our anger in check.
We often felt like moving targets. It is inevitable — and the governments of the day knew this full well — that when highly-trained assault infantry are sent into an urban environment and they come under fire, they will defend themselves. That happened to me, for instance, on the Ballymurphy estate in Belfast in the summer of 1971, during Operation Demetrius. Ten civilians were killed, caught in the crossfire.
We held our nerve, even in the face of daily taunts from known IRA killers who would saunter past us in the street, grinning and sneering. We were certain that these men had the blood of our comrades on their hands, but we kept our anger in check. Pictured, Dennis Hutchings
The ultimate findings of the inquest, that those killed were innocent, was in my opinion inevitable. Although why any civilian would be out of doors during a gun battle baffles me. Casualties were tragically inevitable, but they were certainly not intentional.
I was outraged at a Channel 4 documentary in 2018, Massacre At Ballymurphy, that depicted paratroopers as savage, unthinking murderers and every civilian as an innocent.
Subsequently, I was subpoenaed to attend an inquiry, one that wasted millions of pounds of public money. I must make clear that I would not favour any move to put servicemen above the law. But this was not justice — it was a farce.
During seven hours in the witness box, I was denounced as a liar. My public and private life were held up to question and even ridicule.
Still, I am grateful for one moment, when a barrister asked me disdainfully whether I was proud to have served with the Parachute Regiment.
‘This is a regiment,’ I replied, ‘that won four Victoria Crosses in World War II, two more in the Falklands and another two in Afghanistan — as well as the George Cross awarded to Sergeant Willetts. Who would not be proud?’
Though I am lucky enough to be in good health, that hearing was an ordeal. To drag a dying man, as Mr Hutchings was, through such a debacle is utterly wrong.
These relentless attacks on British soldiers, hounding them to the edge of the grave, must stop. There is no justification. Only the lawyers, who make fat fees from the public purse in every case, see any advantage in them.
To achieve peace in Northern Ireland, veterans have accepted the pardoning of hundreds of IRA terrorists, as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Many of those who walked free, assured that their characters were unblemished, are unrepentant killers. Some still brag of murdering British soldiers.
It defies logic that former soldiers should be dragged into court to face nonsensical charges backed by the most dubious evidence. It serves no purpose. It prolongs the agony of the Troubles and it makes scapegoats of men who served with the greatest honour.
For God’s sake, Dennis Hutchings has to be the last to suffer and die like this.
- Harry McCallion is a barrister. His latest book, Undercover War, was published last year by Bonnier.