The 1st Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles, initially known as the 83rd Regiment of Foot, was formed in Dublin in 1793. The 1st Battalion of this Regiment was initially employed on colonial postings in Jamaica and South Africa, but with the Napoleonic threat of that era, a 2nd Battalion was raised and saw extensive service during the Peninsular War, against the French in Portugal and Spain, from 1809 to 1814. Thereafter, the 83rd Regiment of Foot was employed in a series of home and colonial postings, their next great test coming with the Indian Mutiny in 1857. In 1881, the Regiment was renamed the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Rifles, becoming the Royal Ulster Rifles in 1921 after the division of the country.
The Second World War
The 1st Royal Ulster Rifles had been stationed in India at the outbreak of hostilities, but returned in time to help defend Dunkirk and evacuate the British Expeditionary Force. The Battalion soon became a part of the 31st Independent Infantry Brigade and was billeted in Wales, where they assumed a coastal defence role. Over the coming months the Brigade was moved to various locations in the East Anglia, London, and Kent areas, before returning to Wales in February 1941 for a more long-term posting in the Black Mountains. It was here, until the end of the year, that the Brigade trained extensively in mountain warfare, travelling light and fast with pack-transport; hundreds of horses and mules. Such specialist activities had considerable repercussions for the future of the Brigade.
At this stage in the war, the British Airborne Forces consisted of just the 1st Parachute Brigade, however in September 1941, the War Office decided that a Brigade of glider infantry should be raised to compliment them. The 31st Infantry Brigade was selected for this task and accordingly, on the 10th October of that year, it was renamed the 1st Airlanding Brigade. In addition to the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, this experimental formation consisted of a further three battalions; the 1st Border, 2nd Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and 2nd South Staffordshires. Gliders were seen as a necessary method of supporting airborne operations, as they were able to carry additional infantry to reinforce the parachute brigades, and also heavy equipment, such as Jeeps and anti-tank guns. It was this factor, and the subsequent formation of the 1st Airborne Division, that made it possible for the role of the British Airborne Forces to advance beyond the small-scale and infrequent commando raids that had been previously envisaged.
Nevertheless, twenty months of training passed before the Brigade was earmarked for an action. The 1st Parachute Brigade had been detached since late 1942 and had been involved in heavy fighting in North Africa, and with hostilities in that continent at an end, the 1st Airlanding Brigade was called to join them in May 1943 to prepare for an invasion of Sicily. The 1st Royal Ulster Rifles and 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, however, did not accompany the Brigade, but were instead detached to form the experienced nucleus of the 6th Airlanding Brigade. As a part of the newly raised 6th Airborne Division, their task was now to prepare themselves for the invasion of France.
It had originally been planned that the 6th Airlanding Brigade would land with the first wave of Airborne troops to secure the Ranville and Bénouville Bridges, however the discovery of considerable anti-glider defences on their intended Landing Zone resulted in their arrival being delayed until the evening of D-Day. When the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles landed at LZ-N, near Ranville, they were greeted by German mortaring and a degree of small-arms fire. These, however, did very little to hinder the forming up of the Battalion and only one casualty was sustained.
Because it was unclear as to what the situation would be in Normandy when the Second Lift arrived, the Ulstermen did not receive definite orders of their objectives until an hour after landing. Their task was to help enlarge the southern sector of the bridgehead by capturing the villages of Longueval and Sainte Honorine. The first of these was taken without incident, however the attempt to move on the second was dogged by communications difficulties and determined German resistance. The Battalion was forced to retire to Longueval, having suffered in excess of one hundred casualties, the overwhelming majority of which were either wounded or missing. The Ulstermen remained in this area for the following week and endured a great deal of shelling and numerous harassing attacks throughout, although no truly serious attempt was made to dislodge them. On the 13th June, with the 51st (Highland) Division arriving to assume responsibility for the southern flank, the Brigade was moved northwards and the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles were ordered to relieve the beleaguered 12th Parachute Battalion in Bréville, in anticipation of a violent counter-attack which, in the event, did not come.
Until mid-August, the 6th Airborne Division was concerned only with a static defence and a vigorous programme of patrols and sniping to prevent their opponents to the east from becoming settled. This routine came to an end on the 17th August, when the Division began to follow up the German withdrawal in their area. The 6th Airlanding Brigade, with the Princess Irene and 1st Belgian Brigades under command, took the northern coastal route while the main force focused on securing a crossing over the River Dives further south. The 1st Royal Ulster Rifles led the advance on Cabourg, but in the face of difficult terrain and strong resistance were unable to make any headway. After several days of unprofitable struggle here, the 6th Airlanding Brigade was ordered to follow the Division along the southern route, and then proceed along the roads in between the Division's main thrust and the 1st Belgian Brigade's advance on the coastal road.
The Battalion was faced with a struggle similar to that of Cabourg whilst trying to gain a foothold over the River Touques. The Ulsters made several attempts to cross near Deauville, but enemy interference denied them passage. The 2nd Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry, however, had succeeded further to the south, and on the 24th August the Battalion followed their lead. On the following day, news was received that the coastal town of Berville-sur-Mer, at the mouth of the River Risle, had been abandoned by the enemy, and the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles and Belgian Brigade raced each other to take it; the Ulstermen won. With the 6th Airborne Division's role in the advance now at an end, the Battalion came to a rest at La Judee. In early September, the Division returned to England to prepare themselves for future operations.
The Ardennes and Holland
The Division was unexpectedly called back to Europe on the 20th December 1944, to help contain the German offensive in the Ardennes forest region. For the most part, the Battalion's actions here were confined to patrols and minor skirmishes. Several months of similar activity followed in various parts of Belgium, and later Holland, before the Division was withdrawn to England to prepare for the final assault on Germany.
The Rhine Crossing
The role of the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles during Operation Varsity, 24th March 1945, was to land on LZ-U to the south of Hamminkeln, capture a bridge crossing the River Issel, secure the Ringenberg Railway Station, and then take up positions in the surrounding area. Anti-aircraft fire was particularly heavy, and the Royal Ulster Rifles received more than most when their gliders came in to land. "D" Company, landing very close to the bridge in a coup-de-main capacity, rapidly gained their objective, despite numerous casualties and the absence of two of their four platoons. As they were attacking towards the Bridge, the Company was faced with the daunting prospect of five self-propelled guns approaching their position, however once one of these had been knocked out at very close range with a PIAT, the rest dispersed.
"A" Company had been charged with the capture of the railway station, but as with "D" Company, only two of their platoons had landed on target. Nevertheless this force reached the station, encountering unexpectedly little resistance on the way, and discovered a platoon of the 12th Devonshires waiting nearby with a collection of fifty German prisoners who had been eager to surrender. This platoon was taken under command and the Company braced themselves for an anticipated counter-attack. This did not materialise, though three self-propelled guns did put in an appearance, but a wounding shot from a PIAT encouraged these vehicles in their clear intention of withdrawing without reply.
"B" and "C" Companies were to secure the surrounding terrain, but fierce resistance in their sector of the landing zone resulted in high casualties. However, once the Ulstermen had located and begun to attack these positions, they found the will of the enemy to fight crumbled remarkably quickly and a considerable number of prisoners were taken. By the afternoon, the Battalion was in complete control of their area, but the day had been extremely costly with two hundred and fifty-nine casualties sustained.
On the 26th March, the 6th Airlanding Brigade led the Division's advance into Germany, and later in the day the Battalion participated in an attack on the high ground near Brunen. Stiff opposition was encountered, but the Ulsters gained the position with the assistance of RAF Typhoons. On the 30th March, the Battalion was ordered to attack a determined S.S. force on another area of high ground near Coesfeld. With the support of the tanks of No.2 Squadron The 4th Battalion The Grenadier Guards, the objective was taken after overcoming resistance that was supported by five 88mm guns and several 20mm quick-firing anti-aircraft guns. The Battalion's next major action was fought at Lengerich on the 2nd April. Following a softening up bombardment, "C" Company led the way into the town and encountered a good deal of resistance in the process. As they pushed in deeper and neared the railway station, German infantry put in a determined counterattack and a particularly fierce exchange of fire ensued, but by midday the Battalion had gained the upper hand and were in control of the area.
The 6th Airborne Division returned to England in late May 1945, but was ordered to Palestine later in the year to help police the deteriorating political situation. By early 1946, however, airlift and parachute technology had advanced to such a degree that gliders were no longer a required element of the Airborne Forces, and so the 6th Airlanding Brigade was disbanded.
In 1948, when the 1st and 2nd Battalions The Royal Ulster Rifles had both returned from Palestine, they were amalgamated as part of the restructuring of the Army. In November 1950, the Battalion fought in the Korean War and, amongst other engagements, participated in the Battle of the Imjin River. After Korea, the Battalion spent two years taking part in anti-terrorist operations in Cyprus, and was later posted to Borneo, and then to Germany as part of the British Army of the Rhine. In 1968, the Regiment was amalgamated with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers to become the Royal Irish Rangers, the Ulsters forming its 2nd Battalion. In 1992, this Regiment was amalgamated with the Ulster Defence Regiment to become the Royal Irish Regiment.
Commanders of the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles
Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Carson
Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Rickcord