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35 years since first British soldier shot dead in Troubles

(Eamon Phoenix, Irish News)

Yesterday (Monday) marked the 35th anniversary of the death of the first British soldier killed in the Troubles and the first killed on Irish soil since the Black and Tan War of 1919-21.

Gunner Robert Curtis, a 20-year-old trainee surveyor with the Royal Artillery was on patrol in the New Lodge district of north Belfast on the night of February 6 1971 when he was struck by a bullet from a Thompson sub-machine gun.

The shooting occurred during a fierce gun-battle between troops and members of the emergent Provisional IRA.

The incident followed several days of intense rioting in the Ballymurphy and Crumlin Road areas. According to military accounts, Gunner Curtis was killed by a bullet which was almost spent and which entered his shoulder at the edge of his flak jacket and pierced his heart. His comrades did not realise he was dead until a lighted cigarette placed in his mouth failed to light.

A colleague told the inquest that his unit was being attacked by around 100 rioters when he heard a burst of automatic fire and saw two soldiers fall to the ground.

It seemed that the fatal shot was fired from the direction of Templar House, one of a number of high-rise flats overlooking the New Lodge Road. Four other soldiers were wounded, one of whom died a week later.

The television gameshow presenter and former Irish journalist, Henry Kelly was on the ground in the New Lodge when Curtis lost his life. At the time he had no doubt that the shots marked a serious escalation in the campaign of violence of the Provisional IRA.

One British officer told him: "They have given us a bloody nose but we will not let them away with this."

The IRA actually lost a member at almost the same time as Gunner Curtis was hit. James Saunders, the 22-year-old Officer Commanding of the Bone district, shot dead by a military sniper in the Old Park district.

On the same evening, a Catholic civilian, Barney Watt was killed by a British army marksman in Ardoyne.

Security force claims that the victim was carrying a blast bomb were rejected by eyewitnesses.

The death of Gunner Curtis is often seen as signalling all-out war between the British army and the IRA. On the following day, the Unionist Prime Minister, Major James Chichester-Clark declared on television that "Northern Ire-land was at war with the Irish Republican Army Provision-als". A week later, following clashes at an IRA funeral in north Belfast, the Stormont government – which was still responsible for security – banned the wearing of military-style uniforms by 'subversive organisations'.

Gunner Curtis left a pregnant young widow who gave birth to the soldier's daughter six months later.

Expressing her shock at her husband's violent end, she told the press: "It seems so stupid, so pointless, such a waste of life. I never thought of him as a soldier. And when he went to Ireland they all told me that there was no real danger of a soldier getting killed there."

The identity of Curtis's killer was soon public knowledge. According to Lost Lives, the definitive work on the victims of the Troubles, the IRA sniper responsible was a local man, Billy Reid who was shortly to pass into republican folklore. Three months later, in May 1971, Reid too was shot dead in an exchange of gunfire with British troops close to Belfast city centre. Ironically, he was killed in Curtis Street near the College of Art.

February 16, 2006

This article appeared first in the February 7, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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