"We are at war and I am the war photographer. All of a sudden it doesn’t feel like a game anymore."
“Any ideas where I could find Lieutenant Martin Crumlish?”
I am at Dunree Fort just north of Buncrana to take photographs of the 27th Infantry Battalion, 45th 2 Star Platoon who are here for a training exercise. They arrived last Monday and have come from Monaghan (It took them 6 hours to travel up - they had to avoid the North).
“He’s out to get some provisions,” said a young lad in full camouflage gear walking out of the hospital building. It has been converted into the mess for the week. “Well, he’s popped down to the chip shop, he’ll be back in a bit. Try the information building. Sgt. Cannon will fill you in on what’s happening today.” I dutifully oblige…. It must be the uniform.
Sgt Vaughan Cannon gets up from his camping bed, one of about twenty that have been put in the conference room to accommodate some of the group. His face is covered in camo cream and it looks as though I have disturbed his much needed rest. I apologise.
“Nice bed.” I say looking at the green fabric stretched between two metal poles.” “This is luxury compared to where the Privates have to sleep.” He tells me happily. “They are in one of the old buildings with no floors, tin sheeting over the windows and gaping holes in the roof. That’s luxury to them though as they have been used to sleeping under tarpaulin sheeting in woodland and living for 72 hours in dig in’s (holes in the ground, more commonly known as trenches). They are not complaining” he smiles. “What can I do for you?”
“Who are the 45th 2 Star Privates?” I ask, getting down to business.
“Well, there are 54 of us, all based in Monaghan,” he begins. “There are young recruits from the ages of 18-25 and we are all part of the 6,500 people in the Irish army. The team here is split into; 6 people on security, 27 lads, 1 girl, (the recruits), 26 support staff and 8 people who are here as ‘The Enemy’. The group are in training; they do 5 months in Dundalk, 10 weeks in Monaghan and also do on site training here and another base down in Cork. They finish their training on the 16th of October so this exercise here is the result of a lot of hard work.”
I am intrigued by his earlier comment. “What do you mean by ‘The Enemy?’” I ask.
“We are House Clearing this evening.” Sgt Cannon explains. “It’s all about combat fighting in built up areas. We are starting at the entrance to Dunree and will systematically work our way through all of the buildings, searching for The Enemy. The Enemy make the exercise more effective as they put up resistance.”
“Shall I just take some posed photo’s of the soldiers before they start?” I ask feeling a bit nervous that I too will go under the banner of “The Enemy.”
The Sergeant thinks for a minute. “It might be a better idea if you do.” He suggests, “The group can get pretty psyched up when they are on a mission, see what Lt. Crumlish has to say. He’s just turned up.”
“Thanks,” I say taking my leave. Lt Martin Crumlish is carrying a delicious smelling brown paper bag full of provisions.
“Hi Martin,” I say informally. “I’m here to take some photos for the Inishowen Independent.” I am mumbling, not knowing if its appropriate to salute. “That’s great, you’ll need these.” Martin passes me a pair of khaki muffler earphones. “It gets a bit noisy when the guns and grenades go off.”
Guns and grenades? “I was thinking of taking a few posed shots before you start.” I said, getting a bit worried. “Not at all.” Says Marin casually, “You’ll get better shots if it’s a real situation.”
Now the only shots I am comfortable with are photos and I am starting to feel a little nervous.
Lt. Martin Crumlish is from Moville and knows the area well. “We’ll be up at the gates at 1800 hours, see you there.”
It feels like the calm before the storm. But it does give me a chance to take in the atmosphere. The fort is no stranger to the military having accomadated both the British and the Irish armies in the past. Dunree, or Dun Fhraoigh in Irish means, “Fort of the Heather,” has been an important defensive site throughout history.
The area surrounding me along the Swilly has also been of immense historical significance. The Norsemen and later the Anglo-Normans and the mercenary soldiers, the Gallowglasses, used the Swilly when coming to Ireland. Wolfe Tone was taken under naval arrest into Buncrana in 1798 and in recent times during World War I, it stood guard whilst Admiral Lord Jellicoe’s fleet anchored in Lough Swilly prior to engaging the German Navy at the Battle of Jutland. During World War II Irish forces were stationed here to prevent the warring nations violating the country’s neutrality. I am always fascinated by the fact that although it is a military camp there are signs of quieter times with careful tender planting of aromatic daffodils and seaside shrubs, obviously planted with care by the soldiers who wanted to make the place a bit more like home.
My daydreaming in the sun is interrupted. “We’re starting” Martin calls out, “Follow me.” I do. Without question. It’s the uniform.
“Just before we go to war” I begin, “are you using live ammunition?” It’s probably the most ridiculous question I have ever come out with, but it needs to be asked.
“F*** no!” came the reply which made me feel a little better. Worryingly enough though it made me realise that I was still going ahead with the photos even if the ammunition was real….I’d like to think it was anything for a photo, but it is probably that I am used to doing what I’m told.
Like the 45th 2 Star Privates, I have no time to ponder. We are at war and I am the war photographer. All of a sudden it doesn’t feel like a game anymore.
The squad are wearing all of the gear, heavy packpacks, helmets, painted faces, hand grenades, smoke bombs, battering rams and machine guns. With military precision they are hiding in the hedgerows and undergrowth, making their way to the first building. Two smoke bombs are thrown. I am standing down wind so there’s not much chance of a picture, so I run up the hill. “Go, Go, Go!” A voices shouts as three soldiers break the door down under the cover of white smoke.
“Grenade!” Another shout. Followed by a massive bang in the building. That’s why Martin gave me the earphones… I put them on.
“What do you see?” shouts a voice to the three inside the building “Door to the left, three to the right!”
My adrenalin is pumping now and I decide to get closer. I carefully go inside the tumbledown building with the rotting floorboards and I can immediately feel the tension. As I walk past the doorways through the clearing mist from the grenades, I see the wide eyes of the team look at me through the darkness, all the more striking with the war paint. Some turn quickly and raise their guns…. I could be the enemy after all. It feels like I am in an American film where the cops have to identify innocent members of the public from the bad guys in a split second - and I am not pushing a pram.
The silence is broken “Grenade!” Another blast, this time the mufflers were on. “Clear. One enemy dead!” shouts a Private. The team assemble outside and make their way to the next building.
“There are a lot of buildings around the fort and every one of them has to be cleared,” Martin is telling me as the lads push ahead. “This will be going on until midnight.” The light is going fast and this type of work will be even scarier in the dark. “When we have finished here, the recruits will be heading to the top of the hill, where the guns are, for some night time surveillance with night vision cameras.” The Lieutenant is explaining. “The enemy will be flushed out again. You can join us if you like. We will ne starting at 0300 hours” I stammer out some excuse about finding it difficult to take photos in the dark and we move on.
The Irish army are the 6th highest contributing force in the U.N. and in a real situation I would have probably been shot in the first minute of combat. I am standing between the soldiers and the Enemy far too often. The recruits are getting into ‘the zone’ and I realise now what Sgt. Cannon meant by the privates getting psyched up in combat.
As buildings continue to be cleared, more grenades are thrown and shots are fired, the atmosphere becomes more and more charged. It’s getting really serious now… it has to. They are being trained in the event of real combat situations. And if that time comes I am sure they don’t want a civilian with a camera standing between them and the Enemy.