For most people living in the United Kingdom in the 1970s it was something that happened somewhere else, somewhere across the water, but growing up in Belfast in those now increasingly far off days there was no getting away from the reality of The Troubles. Since Belfast is a port with hills to the north and south, the bomb explosions in the city centre would echo around the whole city. Everyone knew when something large had gone off with its associated destruction and possible deaths.
The attempts at stopping those bombs affected day to day life. The task of city centre shopping, so mundane in London, Cardiff or Edinburgh, in Belfast involved walking through permanent check points with body searchs on each street entrance to the central shopping area, coupled with additional bag searches on entering every big store. Boots, BHS, Marks and Spencer, all the familiar high street names searched each bag you carried as you entered their stores. That was normality for us. What wasn’t normal was white police cars with flashing lights on the roof and policemen with tall helmets. That was the stuff of television since our police travelled around in armoured grey landrovers and had carbine rifles and flak-jackets.
Then there was the Army, on the streets, every day. They had similarly armoured landrovers, only theirs were painted dark green, and they carried SLR rifles and Sterling sub-machine guns which made the police carbines look a little pathetic in comparison. In addition to their landrovers, they also drove heavier armoured vehicles around the city streets. The six wheeled Saracen, designed to fight through the fields and rivers of West German against a Soviet onslaught, and the similar looking but four wheeled Humber 1 Ton Armoured, universally known as The Pig. In the skies, Lynx helicopters with cameras and searchlights and Beaver spotter planes were more common than airliners or private light aircraft.
With these as everyday sights, why read comics about the fantasy of Superman or Spiderman when you could read Warlord, Battle or Commando and learn from their factual features something about the equipment that you saw day in day out? Today these old features tend to get ignored but they made Battle and Warlord much more interesting to me than Valiant or Hotspur. As for the few American comics that made it the whole way over the ocean to the local news stands, well they may as well have come from Krypton with their odd dotty colours and irrelevant and incessant adverts.
I have read complaints that the British war comics never covered the modern reality of warfare or that a title like Commando still does not feature the modern Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts, complaints that forget that these are titles that were, and in Commando’s case still are, produced for children. Children who may have parents or close relatives fighting in those war zones. The weekly war comics did not cover the then contemporary Troubles in Northern Ireland in the same way that Commando does not cover the current conflicts today. No editor is going to produce a war story for children that may show how members of the child’s own family could die on a contemporary battlefield. Showing such things happen in the historical context of the Great War, World War 2 or Korea divorces the story from a modern reality and as the once present conflicts fade into the past they do get covered. Commando has set stories during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s as well as the Gulf War of the early 1990s. Battle told a fictional tale of the Falklands War some five years after that conflict itself had ended.
Back in Belfast in those childish days the politics and sectarianism of the adults mainly passed us by. The rumble of the Saracens passing the school playground was impressive, the speed of the Lynx helicopters flying over the back gardens was breath-taking, while the soldiers patrolling with their sub-machine guns past the local newsagents as you bought your comics were slightly scary. That said, the impression was that if they weren’t there then the echoes of those explosions would have happened more often and that was something that you didn’t want to happen.
763 members of the British armed services died during The Troubles in Northern Ireland – Army, Navy and Air Force. They continue to die in Iraq and Afghanistan today. The least you could do to remember their sacrifice is to buy a poppy this Remembrance Day.
Battle Modern Master Plan from Battle Picture Weekly © Egmont UK Ltd
Army Today from Warlord © DC Thomson and Co Ltd