Northern Ireland news

New details about death of first British soldier killed by PIRA revealed by former commanding officer

Retired Lieutenant colonel David Hughes pictured while stationed in Belfast in 1971
Connla Young

NEW details about the death of the first British soldier killed by the Provisional IRA during the Troubles have been revealed by his former commanding officer.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel David Hughes (73) was standing alongside Gunner Robert Curtis when he was shot dead at Lepper Street in north Belfast in February 1971.

Breaking his silence after five decades, he reveals the inside story of how the 20-year-old lost his life as the Troubles slid into serious violence 50 years ago.

The day after Mr Curtis was shot, Stormont Prime Minister James Chichester Clark announced that "Northern Ireland is at war with the Irish Republican Army Provisionals".

Mr Hughes, who was in the Royal Artillery Regiment at the time, and now lives in the Cotswolds district in England, has vivid recollections of the night his young colleague died.

The former soldier served a four-month tour of the north between January and May 1971 and was stationed in Bessbrook, Co Armagh, before being transferred to Belfast, where he was based in the Falls Road area.

Gunner Curtis was the first officially recognised military fatality of the Troubles, although a Belfast-born soldier home on leave, Hugh McCabe, had been shot dead by the RUC in August 1969.

The shots which killed Gunner Curtis were said to have been fired by north Belfast man Billy Reid, who himself died after a gun battle with British soldiers in May 1971.

Mr Hughes has clear memories of Gunner Curtis, who was originally from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.

Gunner Robert Curtis

"He was just a young lad and I had him with me, he was trustworthy and he was my runner," he said.

"He was a nice gentle guy, unassuming, he was not a roughty, toughty squaddie."

The former officer said on the night Gunner Curtis was killed his unit had been ordered to assist colleagues in the Queen's Regiment, which was nearby.

The unit was brought in after widespread rioting in the area.

Mr Hughes said the job of his men was to flush the rioters out.

"The idea was to push these boys up the road so they could be snatched," he said.

"We didn't see anybody and we came back down the road and there was a bonfire burning and people were out and throwing stones and that's when the shots were fired."

He said the volley of shots that claimed the life of Gunner Curtis was the second burst of gunfire aimed at his unit, which suffered several casualties that night.

He dismissed any suggestion that soldiers were in disarray after the shooting and said the wounded squaddie was taken into a side street with the help of some local people and treated for his injuries before being taken from the area by Land Rover.

Mr Hughes later identified the remains of Gunner Curtis and gave statements to British army investigators.

He said the only injury visible on Gunner Curtis was a small entry wound on the right arm and he later gave evidence at the soldier's inquest.

Retired Lieutenant colonel David Hughes

He added that contrary to some suggestions, on the night of the shooting several members of his unit were armed with rifles and that he was personally carrying a pistol.

"I think about it often and I discuss it with friends and family and whether there was something else I could have done," he said.

"I feel personal guilt, I was his officer and you try to protect your guys."

The former soldier revealed that he has returned to Belfast and visited the spot where Gunner Curtis died with his son Michael on the 25th anniversary.

He added that had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic he would have made the trip to mark the 50th anniversary.

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