Frank ‘Loopy’ Woolf hadn’t gained his nickname because of any similarity to the cartoon wolf character ‘Loopy De Loop’. In fact the comparison would never have been further from the mind of anyone who met him. No, he was nicknamed ‘Loopy’ because he was perceived to be a bit of a nut case. He was one of those people who could be really unpredictable, reacting to quite normal situations with anything from tears to extreme violence.
There was a story bandied about, originally told by a colleague to whom Loopy had offered a lift home. The incident had occurred not long after Loopy had arrived in Germany. What happened on their short journey through town was that another car, a big Mercedes saloon driven by a middle aged German businessman had carelessly pulled out from a junction in front of Loopy’s car as he sped down the busy main road. Loopy had only just swerved in time to avoid a collision. Pulling up in front of the German’s Mercedes so that it couldn’t drive off, Loopy had nonchalantly climbed out of his own car and walked over to the offending vehicle. He’d leaned in to the open window as if to speak to the driver but before the unlucky guy had had time to offer an apology, Loopy had taken a cheap replica Zippo lighter from his pocket. Flipping it open he’d swiped the lighter on the guys forehead to light it and then tossed it onto the back seat where a pile of newspapers and magazines had accumulated. They had immediately burst into flames. Loopy had then calmly walked back to his own car and driven off, leaving the panic stricken driver of the other vehicle furiously dragging out blazing newspapers from the rear door of his car and performing a maniacal dance on the pavement in an attempt to stamp out the flames. That was the thing. You never knew what you were going to get with Loopy and he was therefore treated with respect and caution by everyone whose lives he touched.
Frank Woolf had experienced a harrowing start in life, never knowing the identity of his father and spending his formative years in the care of an alcoholic and abusive mother who probably had no idea who had sired her son either. Whenever he asked her, his mother told him that his father had been a soldier, in fact a bit of a war hero. There had been medals and everything, she would say with pride. But after the war, jobs had been difficult to find what with all the soldiers coming home at once. His dad had struggled to settle down and eventually, while Frank was just a babe in arms had gone down south to look for work. He never returned and she never heard from him again. Whatever amount of truth there was in this story Frank didn’t know but it was as close as he was ever going to get.
The young Frank and his mother had lived in a run down district of Greater Manchester. As a small boy he was forever being left to fend for himself day after day, night after night while she went off with one of her latest conquests, only returning when either she got dumped or the money ran out. Other times she would get drunk and remain drunk for days on end, leaving little Frank filthy and hungry until she sobered up. Finally, after suffering years of neglect and maltreatment Frank found himself uprooted from the only life he’d known and deposited by social services into a local children’s home. Frank had screamed the place down, not wanting to stay there, pleading to be allowed home. Several times he ran away, only to be apprehended soon afterards and carted back, struggling and swearing like a trooper at his captors. Beatings would follow along with rigorously enforced confinement. It wasn’t a pleasant existence being brought up in care during the 1950s and 60s. Young and frightened he might have been but little Frank was nobody’s fool and eventually he gave up trying to escape, doing his time and looking forward to the day when he would be old enough to be set free. Within a year of Frank first being taken into care his mother wound up in prison and at that point she disappeared from Frank’s life for good. Frank shed no more tears, not for a long time.
There followed a series of foster carers, most of whom sent young Frank back to where they’d found him fairly sharpish due to his behavioural issues. He was an angry little boy and evolved into an uncontrollable and disaffected youth who got in trouble with the police time and again. It was usually for stealing cars or motorcycles and joy riding or occasionally for unprovoked, grievous violence. Along the way his interest in anything that had an engine in it became a passion bordering on obsession and Frank was fortunate not to be sent into borstal. Maybe having endured such a horrendous childhood his circumstances were taken into consideration. For whatever reason he escaped that fate and in the nick of time yet another charitable couple took pity on him. Frank had developed enough sense to realise that he’d pushed his luck as far as it was going to go and resolved to make at least some effort in what proved to be his final foster home.
This last family, despite the serious amount of baggage that Frank brought with him, tried harder than the others. They lived in Heywood, just outside Bury in Lancashire and managed to get a grip on him for about three years until he reached the age of seventeen in 1967. At that age and despite his previous reluctance to respond to any form of authority, to everybody’s surprise Frank applied to join the British army. He’d come across a recruiting pamphlet from somewhere which displayed a photograph depicting a young, uniformed man smiling to camera as he worked on a gloriously massive engine. Frank was instantly seduced. He sent in an application and not long afterwards, having proven his affinity with all things mechanical despite having little in the way of formal qualifications, was accepted into the REME. Coincidentally it was at the same age that I had joined up, albeit it two years earlier than I had signed my name on the dotted line.
It was a sure bet that nobody was particularly sorry to see young Frank move away from his home town. Soon after his enrolment in the army, car crime in Heywood and the surrounding area diminished by a healthy percentage. His foster parents, the closest thing to family that he’d ever had, welcomed the release from their responsibilities and took the opportunity to emigrate to Canada. Frank never saw them again. The fast maturing teenager had nowhere he could really call home and nobody he could relate to as family and so the army became his entire life. No longer a loose canon he grabbed the opportunity he’d stumbled upon with both hands and never for an instant looked back.
The age at which we had each joined the army wasn’t the only coincidence regarding Loopy and myself. For one thing, Heywood was the same little northern cotton mill town in which my own father, Sam Williams had been brought up until as a young man he’d gone off to war in 1939. Sam was sent into some of the fiercest battlefields of the entire war, serving with distinction in Italy, North Africa and Egypt. He’d been taken prisoner by the Germans at the first battle of El Alamein and had escaped in time to be hurled back into the fray at the second but somehow he’d survived it all relatively unscathed. Upon his return to Lancashire six years after joining up ‘for the duration’, finding it difficult to settle back into civilian life and struggling to find anything that interested him in the vicinity of his birthplace, he’d moved south to London in search of work. Time passed and he found a job North of London in Hertfordshire, moving into digs in a new town called Welwyn Garden City. There he met my mother who had been widowed during the war. They were married and had four sons. I was number three.
So Loopy spoke with the exact same Lancashire dialect that my father did, one that I had come to know so well as I grew up. Another thing Frank ‘Loopy’ Woolf and I had in common was our physical appearance. He bore a striking resemblance to me in several ways. One of my more noticeable features is that I have unusually coloured eyes. Mine are bright, almost emerald green but flecked with minute yellow, hazel and reddish brown shards, giving the illusion of changing colour slightly depending on the direction from which the ambient light strikes them. I had never seen anyone with similar eye colouring to mine, not even any of my three brothers until I met Loopy whose eyes were identical to mine. He also had a crop of thick curly hair the same shade of dark brown as my unruly mop. What with us being of a similar height and build although he was a little more heavily muscled and of course a couple of years older, we were often mistaken for each other especially when in uniform.
Loopy was fit, strong and as hard as nails. He was also surprisingly bright once given the chance to direct his passion for cars from nicking them to fixing them. After training as a vehicle mechanic, he had taken to soldiering quite naturally and soon gained his first stripe before being promoted to full corporal. While attached to the First Battalion Parachute Regiment (1 Para) he’d served two tours of Northern Ireland before his posting to Bielefeld. Both times he’d acquitted himself well and somehow during the second tour, while everyone else had been concentrating on coming back in one piece, he’d managed to get himself involved with the most stunningly attractive Irish girl named Kathleen. She had followed him back to the mainland soon after the tour ended and not long after that they became husband and wife.
People said that Ulster was full of young, attractive women hoping to bag themselves a British soldier who would take them away from the troubles and rough estates in which they were forced to exist. In pursuit of a more comfortable, peaceful and safer life they were said to be willing to do anything it took to get away. I’d not found that to be true in my experience and I couldn’t imagine how any sort of serious relationship could have been formed under the circumstances. The nearest I had come to being hooked during my tour was a bit of embarrassing fumbling about, up against a sandbag wall with a tubby girl in the rifle unloading bay at our camp entrance one night while on guard duty. That had come to nothing thankfully.
However he had done it, Loopy had certainly found himself an absolute cracker. Kathleen Woolf was nothing short of stunning, possessing a pale complexion typical of Irish girls with good cheekbones and glorious blue eyes. Her beautiful face was framed with luxuriously thick dark reddish brown hair tumbling over her shoulders and cascading down beyond her full breasts almost to her waist. She was tall and athletic looking, the sort of girl who would have looked good wearing a dustbin liner if she’d ever wished to. She always dressed immaculately though, in silky tops and short skirts just bordering on the sexy side of tasteful.
It was the turning of the new year of 1972 when corporal Frank Woolf arrived in Northern Ireland for the second time to join his REME colleagues and a horde of blood thirsty paratroopers who had been serving a residential tour there since the winter of 1970. IRA activity had increased dramatically with thirty British soldiers having been killed in the previous few months alone since internment had been introduced in the August. There were no-go areas all over Londonderry, many impassable even to the army’s armoured vehicles. Rioting was a daily occurrence and the paras were chomping at the bit, waiting impatiently to be ordered in to do what they did best.
As tension continued to increase, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) organised a huge march to take place on the 30th of January with the intention of protesting against internment. Unable to ban the march entirely the authorities had decided to allow it to take place in Catholic areas of the city but to prevent it from reaching Guildhall Square as planned in the hope of avoiding the inevitable riots that were bound to be provoked. It was because of this and other planned activity that British Army deployment had been hugely increased at that time and Frank was part of the reinforcements flown in from the mainland.
When the day of the march came on a dull and lifeless Sunday, army troops were active from first light. Engineers and infantry worked side by side erecting barricades in an attempt to reroute the procession. 1 Para, including Frank Woolf, was ordered into Derry to help control the threat of possible violence during the march. They didn’t need telling twice. Wearing full riot gear and taking up positions at known trouble spots along the planned route they waited in anticipation. Frank was assigned to drive a Saracen armoured car to back up the troops as they penetrated the worst of the predicted rioting, extracting and arresting the suspected ring leaders and most obvious trouble makers. Nobody among the paras expected a violence free day, nobody wanted one. It had been a long time coming and they considered this to be their time. What followed on that infamous Sunday has gone down as one of the bloodiest and lowest points in the Para’s history.
Estimations of the numbers of protesters who turned out on that day vary enormously from five to thirty thousand. Suffice to say it was a big turnout, more than likely fifteen thousand souls at least. Things began to go wrong almost immediately when due to the army barricades the route of the march was redirected by the organisers into much more dangerous areas and conflict erupted from the word go. The hated paratroops were kept out of sight initially as groups of angry teenagers hurled rocks and anything else they could lay their hands on at the infantry soldiers managing the assigned route. As the situation worsened, water canon were deployed, baton rounds fired and tear gas grenades hurled indiscriminately into the crowds.
The paratroops prepared themselves to be ordered to the front line. Corporal Woolf remained in the cab of his Saracen as cool as a cucumber with the motor running, listening to the engine ticking over, satisfied with the way it sounded. In the co-driver’s seat sat the platoon commander, constantly on the radio, keeping updated with the situation on the streets nearby. In the back of the APC sat a maximum payload of nine paratroopers wearing full riot gear and armed to the teeth, carrying live ammunition and itching to get stuck in. They didn’t have to wait too long as the violence steadily escalated. An infantryman reported that he’d heard gunfire close by. Others panicked and cocked their weapons, safety catches were released. Then all hell broke loose. Two teenagers were shot while running away but both survived. They were two of the luckier ones.
Later in the afternoon reports of a sniper operating in the area came in and it was at that point that 1 Para were unleashed. They were ordered into the Bogside with permission to use lethal force at their discretion. They reacted immediately with deadly efficiency and the first fatality of the day occurred shortly afterwards. From then on it was pandemonium. The crowds were so large it was difficult to tell if people were running away or regrouping. Visibility was terrible as the tear gas and acrid smoke swirled so thickly over rioters and soldiers alike. Shots could be heard from all directions, impossible in the chaos to tell if they were from baton rounds, gas canisters, snipers or just the crash of dustbin lids against riot shields as running battles continued nonstop.
The paratroops were merciless and many were soon out of control, firing into the crowds of protesters indiscriminately. Frank’s Saracen disgorged its platoon into the fray and he acted as he was ordered by the platoon commander. Unblinking, stone faced, hatches of the APC battened down Frank peered through the inadequate narrow slits in the armoured visors covering the windows. As snatch squads charged relentlessly into the melee and disappeared beneath the writhing palls of toxic smoke and gas, Frank sent his vehicle piling in behind them. He recovered blood soaked and battered men, civilian prisoners and their wild eyed military captors alike. Over and again he ferried them out and then gunned his engine and hurtled back into the mayhem, ignoring the never ending and terrifying roars of the rioters all around. A maelstrom of missiles bombarded the vehicle, pulverising the metal grills and armoured hull. Inside, Frank was deafened by the percussion and blinded by flashes of exploding petrol bombs but doggedly continued to smash his massive Saracen into barricades and rioters alike.
That day thirteen civilians were killed, two of them run down by armoured personnel carriers, the rest were shot down like rabid dogs. Hundreds of live rounds had been fired but no firearms were ever recovered from the rioters. The resulting enquiries were a shambles with everyone covering their arses, disputing the facts and bending the truth, passing the buck as if it were a blood soaked hot potato. Frank didn’t comment much about his role in the battle, satisfied that he’d done his duty and fairly confident that he’d accounted for at least one of the fatalities, maybe more. In the aftermath 1 Para was pulled out of Derry and spent the rest of their tour in and around Belfast but wherever they went the hatred and vitriol directed towards them from the locals was relentless.
In late February that same year a man driving an old Ford Cortina pulled into the car park in front of the 16th Parachute Brigade Headquarters in Aldershot, finding a space right outside the officers mess and nonchalantly parking up. It was an ‘open’ camp so was chosen for its lack of serious security. The driver of the Cortina didn’t enter the building but walked briskly away towards the town, not looking back. In the car was stowed 280 pounds of explosives and a crude timing device. At lunchtime the bomb exploded, entirely destroying the officers mess and demolishing some of the nearby buildings too.
Fortunately for the Paras and unbelievable that it was unknown to the terrorists, the regiment was stationed abroad at the time so none of the intended targets were present. Those staff officers who remained in the Brigade HQ were all beavering away in their offices to the rear of the garrison and all escaped unharmed. Unfortunately the civilian staff were not so lucky and five ladies that worked in the kitchens and who were just leaving work were blown to pieces. The same went for an elderly gardener whose limbs and internal organs became intermingled with those of a Roman Catholic army chaplain he happened to be chatting with right next to the Cortina at the time of the explosion. It was beyond any doubt that parts of each man were in attendance at the other’s funeral service a few days later.
The Official Irish Republican Army proudly issued a statement claiming that it had carried out the attack against the paras in revenge for what had now become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. However in the following weeks as the details of the bombing were leaked out the OIRA received harsh and widespread criticism for the senseless and hopelessly planned attack. This in itself was only to be expected but they found themselves being slated mercilessly from both sides of the Irish sea as well as abroad. Fearing they might lose too much support from foreign sympathisers, soon afterwards they issued a second statement to say future attacks would only be carried out in self defence. Despite this, the larger and more militant Provisional IRA were not prepared to compromise at all, continuing their campaign of ruthless murders and bombings in Northern Ireland as well as stepping up attacks on military and commercial targets on the British Mainland. It wasn’t long afterwards that a drastic reorganisation of Britain’s parachute regiments took place, some being disbanded, others merging with each other and leaving Aldershot for good.
So it turned out that unwittingly Frank Woolf, with the part he and his comrades had played on Bloody Sunday became instrumental in altering the course of the terrorist campaign in Ireland, not necessarily for the better. To a certain extent they had also changed the way that the British army went about dealing with it. On a personal level, he was never to fully realise how these incidents changed the course of his own life and ultimately mine.