Colonel Peter Reece, infantry commander who remained cool under fire at the height of the Troubles – obituary

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Peter Reece
Peter Reece

Colonel Peter Reece, who has died aged 85, commanded an infantry battalion in Northern Ireland during some of the worst sectarian violence and terrorist activity seen in the Province in the 30 years preceding the Good Friday Agreement.

In March 1980, Reece assumed command of 1st Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers (1 RWF) in Lemgo, West Germany. A year later, he took the battalion to West Belfast. His mission was to target terrorist operations by surveillance and intelligence-gathering, leading to their interception, disruption and defeat.

On March 1, St David’s Day, the second hunger strike by Irish republican prisoners began. There was widespread escalation of violence with rioting, shootings and bombing attacks. On May 5, Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional IRA, died while imprisoned at the Maze prison. He had refused food for 66 days.

The announcement was followed by whistles being blown, dustbin lids being banged and sirens being sounded throughout the nationalist areas. The streets were filled with rioters and demonstrators, often backed up by snipers, attacking policemen, soldiers and property.

Cars were hijacked, set alight and used to barricade roads. Shops were set on fire and gangs roamed the area, attacking patrols with acid and petrol bombs. Rioters armed themselves with crossbows or catapults and steel ball-bearings. Beer kegs filled with petrol were rolled under Army vehicles. In an already tense situation, press coverage fanned the flames. There was panic-buying of food and medical supplies and vigilante patrols began to appear on the streets.

IRA activity switched to carefully planned ambushes; gunmen developed a technique of taking over houses and sniping from upstairs windows. Another tactic was to booby-trap cars with radio-controlled explosive devices and leave them at choke-points in the streets.

Peter Archer's painting commemorating the 1981 Ulster tour of duty of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers: Reece can be seen immediately to the right of the search dog, clutching a bundle of papers - Peter Welsh/Trustees of The Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum
Peter Archer's painting commemorating the 1981 Ulster tour of duty of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers: Reece can be seen immediately to the right of the search dog, clutching a bundle of papers - Peter Welsh/Trustees of The Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum

During one period of five weeks in West Belfast, the security forces saw more than 120 riots, received in excess of 2,000 petrol bombs, 82 acid bombs, six hand grenades and eight booby-trapped vehicles, and were shot at 64 times.

Reece made daily morale-boosting visits to the deployed companies to understand the problems they faced and to ensure that they had all the support they needed. Despite the provocation, he stressed the importance of the soldiers’ attitude towards the population, the role of the press and the co-operation at all levels between the police and the army.

By late June, the level of violence had slackened. The battalion handed over to 45 Commando RM and moved to the Maze as Province Reserve. Reece proved to be an outstanding commanding officer. Despite the pressure, he was always calm and his sense of humour helped to instil confidence in all those who served with him.

The total of awards that appeared in the Operational Honours and Awards List probably made 1 RWF the most decorated battalion for a single tour in the history of the campaign in Northern Ireland. Reece’s courage and outstanding leadership were recognised by the award of the Distinguished Service Order.

Peter Henry Reece was born in Hammersmith, London, on June 1 1937 and gained a scholarship to Latymer Upper School before going to Central Saint Martin’s, London, to study Art. In 1957, he enlisted in the Middlesex Regiment as a National Serviceman.

After training at Eaton Hall, he joined 1 RWF as a platoon commander in Cyprus during the EOKA campaign. Despite suffering casualties, 1 RWF gradually got the upper hand in its struggle with the terrorists. A large part of its success was due to its expertise in gathering valuable intelligence, following this up quickly and infiltrating towns and villages at all hours of the day and night without being detected.

Reece was Mentioned in Despatches at the end of his tour of Ulster
Reece was Mentioned in Despatches at the end of his tour of Ulster

Having completed his National Service, Reece worked for an industrial company for a year before rejoining 1 RWF in 1961. In 1965, he moved to Middle Wallop, Wiltshire, for pilot training and was seconded to the Army Air Corps in the rank of captain.

Postings to the Far East included service in Mauritius, Australia, Malaya and Singapore. Street rioting broke out in Mauritius in 1968, a few weeks before the country’s declaration of independence. A company of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry was flown in by the RAF. On board the aircraft were three helicopters, and Reece organised helicopter patrols until order had been restored.

The following year, he commanded 654 Aviation Squadron in Germany before attending Army Staff College course at Camberley. 1 RWF moved from Hong Kong to Londonderry in February 1972 as a resident battalion.

The situation was tense. Internment had begun the previous summer and the so-called “Bloody Sunday” had taken place a few weeks earlier. The battalion was at full stretch from the start with continuous patrolling and roadblocks.

In a basic week of 84 hours, soldiers had three hours on and three hours off with overtime whenever the shooting started. Three hours on a street exposed to a shot from a hidden gunman could seem like an eternity.

Reece commanded a company, and he and a brother officer were the first Royal Welchmen to be shot at on the tour. They were on patrol in the border village of Clady when the IRA opened fire from across the border. While the fusiliers took immediate cover, Reece and his companion got in each other’s way as they scrambled for refuge in the inadequate protection of a small scout car. The mix-up, which could have cost them their lives, became a standing joke between them for years.

Reece and comrades in 1981
Reece and comrades in 1981

On one occasion, the IRA had put a bomb in a dry-cleaners. John Hume, the Irish nationalist politician, arrived and demanded to know what Reece was going to do about it. Reece replied that as Hume’s people had put it there, they could take it away. Hume was on the BBC news right away protesting but Reece, who could be blunt and to the point when necessary, would not have minded. At the end of an exacting tour, he was Mentioned in Despatches.

For two years, he was a staff officer at HQ Wales where he was responsible for operations and security. In 1976, he re-joined 1 RWF in Belfast. During a dinner, there was a large explosion next to the wall of the Mess which sent silver, glasses and plates flying: the IRA had launched a mortar attack. The brigade commander, in taking cover under the table, scuffed up the carpet, blocking the door, their only escape route. Reece, who was also under the table, was desperately trying to pull back the carpet before another mortar round landed.

Back in camp at Tidworth, the officers had a favourite pub on the edge of Salisbury Plain. After a drink or two, and with Wiltshire police out on patrol, Reece used to return by another route through the training area.

One night, he had a full car and was driving without lights when he drove straight into an ambush. The Royal Anglians, who were on a night training exercise, opened up with machine guns, fortunately with blank ammunition. Reece calmly kept on driving, albeit a little faster.

In September 1981 he handed over command of 1 RWF and became an instructor, first at the Staff College, Camberley, and subsequently on the Canadian Forces Command and Staff Course in Toronto. His final appointment was at the Ministry of Defence, where he worked for the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Foreign Office as the military adviser for defence and security matters.

With the Queen in 1980
With the Queen in 1980

After retiring from the Army in the rank of colonel in 1987, he moved to Spain for three years, where he was involved in property development. Back in England, he had an interest in property conversions and renovation in Wiltshire, Norfolk and Dorset.

He played a leading part in reviving the RWF regimental reunions in the Salisbury area and served as a Retired Officer before finally retiring in 2003. During his retirement, he made a major contribution to a book covering the latter stages of the Cold War in Germany.

Shortly before he was to be invested with the DSO, he broke an ankle while running for a train. Unwilling to attend the award ceremony in a plaster cast and on crutches, he wore a heavy, nuclear-warfare protective boot. The Queen showed the keenest interest in his unusual footwear but if she was hoping to be regaled with an exciting account of an injury incurred on active service, she gallantly concealed her disappointment on learning the less dramatic explanation.

Reece was an inspirational leader. He demanded high standards but led by example and never asked anyone to do something that he was not prepared to do himself. He understood people and how to get the best out of them. But, above all, he was great fun to be with. He had a fund of amusing stories and was the best of company.

Peter Reece married, in 1963, Julie Cook, who survives him with their daughter and two sons.

Colonel Peter Reece, born June 1 1937, died January 20 2023