DEFENCE Secretary Ben Wallace has described how he helped foil an IRA bomb plot as he paid a Remembrance Day tribute to the fallen.
He hailed the armed forces as “the backbone and safety net” of Britain – and recounted his own narrow escape when his unit captured a terrorist gang.
Mr Wallace, who completed two operational tours in Northern Ireland with the Scots Guards, said: “Our forces are often about defending people who can’t defend themselves.
“Britain doesn’t like bullies. It stands up to them. But sometimes that comes at a cost and I often think about my lost colleagues, particularly at this time of year.”
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In an exclusive interview with HOAR on Sunday, Mr Wallace told how as a 21-year-old, he found himself staring at a bomb in a glass sweetie jar primed to blow up British troops.
He said: “One day, my patrol was coming up West Belfast back to our base when one of the soldiers spotted someone moving suspiciously.
“They had a white back which they had shoved under a piece of wood so I went over to investigate and opened it up. I remember looking down and seeing one of those big glass jars that you found in old-fashioned sweet shops.
“It was filled up with Semtex plastic explosives and ball bearings, with wires coming out of it. The brown label on the jar said ‘Milk chocolate raisins” – but the contents inside were primed and ready to kill. The policeman beside me yelled ‘It’s effing real’ and the gang scarpered.”
‘I’M NOT DEAD’
He added: “I just remember thinking “Well, it hasn’t gone off and I’m not dead, so…”
Cops sealed off the area while the soldiers chased after the fleeing IRA active service unit.
Mr Wallace, a second lieutenant at the time, added: “We caught the guy who was carrying the bomb pretty quickly but there were four or five others who ran for it.
“We gave chase. There was a bit of a pursuit, which involved jumping over fences and things like that, but we caught all of them in the end. It was a successful outcome. We caught an IRA unit and they didn’t get to detonate their bomb.”
Mr Wallace, who describes himself as “quite a wild spirit” at the time, was mentioned in dispatches for his role in the 1992 incident. But he insists: “It was the platoon which averted an atrocity. We all did it together. They didn’t get to throw the bomb or use it and they got caught.
Today he will be at the Cenotaph to pay his respects but has also bought a number of wreaths to lay in his Wyre and Preston North constituency.
He said: “Like many soldiers, I have a night and day memory to my days in the armed forces. It is a tremendous experience. It is exciting, it’s operations, it’s the camaraderie and it is a unique experience that will bond you together for life.
“But then the dark side is that it often comes at a cost and so you reflet often, in those quiet moments or in silence, on both. It’s a sort of sweet and sour. We had some losses through injury and suicide and we had a soldier murdered by the IRA. But I wouldn’t have missed my experience for the world. It was just brilliant.
“I remember lying in bed one night and they machine-gunned the base. So I just heard the de-de-de-de-de. I also remember a lovely dog we had called Stinger. He’d come to the camp and come on patrol with us and one day they killed Stinger, just because they were w***ers, basically.
“So all these memories come flooding back at this time of year. It’s what bonds us together, whether you are serving now, in the past or in the far distant past.”
Mr Wallace recalls giving a Legion d’Honneur to a Normandy veteran in his constituency – but as he prepared for the meeting he couldn’t find the old soldier’s unit. It was only when he met him, he learned that was because it had been wiped out.
He said: “It started as a battalion and was one of the first units to break out of the beachhead and it was massacred. One of the companies was wiped out and the other company took a 70 per cent casualty rate.
“By time it got to the Rhine it was down a platoon and then it was decimated crossing the water. The soldier I met told me he had lost his arm to a Tiger tank but had never told his wife – then he just started crying. I think many like him have painful memories but just want to move on with their lives.
“You also take a view that you’re all in it together. You’ve all done amazing things but no one is better than anyone else and yes, there are medals but we all know the reality and there’s always someone to put you down if you get too cocky.”
Mr Wallace is the first regular ex-serviceman to become Defence Secretary since Harold Macmillan, who held the post from 1954 to 1955. Two of his ministers – James Heappey and Johnny Mercers – are also former regulars who have seen active service.
They believe this makes them better equipped to carry out the real reform they believe Britain’s defences need. Mr Wallace believes that quality of people and equipment is paramount. He’s keen to buy British but only if it means our troops have the best.
He said: “I often hear debates about how big something should be, how many tanks or aircraft we have. But all that is slightly pointless if the equipment we’re giving them is not as good as it could be or if the uniform your soldiers are wearing is uncomfortable or doesn’t keep them dry or warm.
“I’ve been with equipment that didn’t work when needed. I’ve been uncomfortable on the back end of some mountain in Germany or North Wales, soaking wet or doing many miles of marches in boots. So quality of life and quality of equipment is as important as quantity.
“We can have lots of parades and bands but that isn’t all the army’s about any more than the RAF is about flypasts. You don’t get the icing on the cake unless you first invest in the cake. We should stop killing ourselves with icing, if you know what I mean.”