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Monday, 25 May 2015

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Fusiliers are back in Hexham

RESONATING with the derring-do spirit at Tobruk for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross, his name will grace Hexham’s newly-reinstituted army barracks like a badge of honour.

Standing aloft his armoured car, seemingly oblivious to the bullets and shells whistling past his ears, encouraging his men onwards, Capt. James Joseph Bernard Jackman was the very epitome of bravery that day on November 25, 1941.

Commanding a machine-gun company of the 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, he and his troops took the flak for an Allied tank division on El Duda ridge during the siege of Tobruk.

He died in battle the very next day, aged just 25, but both the VC, awarded posthumously, and an oil painting hanging in the Fusiliers Museum of Northumberland, within Alnwick Castle, have preserved his name for posterity.

Hexham’s new Jackman Barracks, the former TA centre on Hencotes currently undergoing a major refurbishment, will give a fresh lease of life to his name – and to the building as an army reserve centre.

Around 20 members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers 5th Battalion will ultimately be based there, a platoon of machine gunners trained to take their place alongside regular soldiers in the amphitheatre of war.

Officer in command Capt. Chris Hall is under no illusion about the demands that will be placed on them should they be called up.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think there will be much difference between us and the regulars,” he said.

“We are a trained, fighting force the Government can deploy at any point.”

As Capt. Jackman so ably demonstrated 70 years before him, machine gunners could change the course of battle.

The L7A2 heavy machine guns they use today could take out a target, using a sight, at 2,500 metres.

“We are a very very useful platoon,” he said, “because we can be at a distance and yet work out, down to the nearest centimetre, where our bullets are going to land.

“So you can have two other platoons moving in from the sides as we fire down the middle, softening up the target.

“In a more modern situation, we can pass a message to terrorists ‘release the hostages now’ and then give them a demonstration of what we can do.

“That might mean picking an outhouse, destroying it and then telling them ‘you’ve seen what we can do, come out or we open fire for real’.

“It’s a massive strength for the army to have.”

The money being spent beefing up the centre in Hexham reflects the picture nationwide: a general strengthening of the reserve forces to compensate for the 20,000 regular soldiers being axed under the swingeing 20 per cent cuts to all Government departments.

The reserve forces could be called upon at any time to fight alongside the 80,000 or so remaining.

Capt. Hall said: “People will say ‘how can a guy who trains three days a week do the same as a guy who does seven days a week?’

“But the answer is, we’ve been around a lot longer and don’t need to learn the basics.

“I spent 22 years in the regular army and did tours of Iraq, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan.

“Colour Sergeant Gannon, who is my second in commnd here, is an ex-regular and an expert machine gunner.

“Lance Corporal Pill has done two tours of Afghanistan and Lance Corporal Hanley, an ex-Scots Guardsman, has as well.

“So, between us, we have a lot of experience – we bring an awful lot to the party.”

That includes supporting the development of the fusilier and RAF cadets that have long been based in the centre on Hencotes.

While he stresses the two units run themselves – “We won’t be training with children!” – the expert knowledge now on offer would be to their benefit.

In the past, for example, the army cadets have travelled to Catterick to learn how guns work. But that can now be done in-house.

There is already a rifle range in the roof of the Hexham building and with a bit of spit and polish, it will be fit for its new, souped-up purpose.

“We’re going to be training with .22 rifles up here, which the cadets already use,” he says, showing me round.

“It’s a low velocity rifle which, although you wouldn’t want to be hit by one, is good for general training.

“This space has all the same obstacles you would come across if you were fighting in a building for real.”

He also hopes the presence of members of the reserve army will provide something of a natural progression for the cadets when they turn 18. “They could join us and get paid for what they do!” he said.

Reserve soldiers are paid the same basic rates, pro-rata, as the regulars.

“As a captain in the fusiliers, I receive the same money as a captain operating in Afghanistan, Cyprus or anywhere else, without the overseas allowance, of course.”

The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers was raised in 1674, originally called the 5th Regiment of Foot. During one round of army reorganisations, the infantrymen were renamed fusiliers, derived from the 17th century French word fusil, a type of flintlock musket.

In 1968, it was amalgamated with three other fusilier regiments to form the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.

During the centuries in between, fusiliers took part in the Irish campaign of 1690-1691 (including the Battle of the Boyne), the War of the Spanish Succession, Europe’s Seven Years’ War and the American War of Independence.

Hexham’s war memorial and, indeed, the Triumphal Arch – at the entrance to the Abbey Grounds opposite the Queen’s Hall – stand testimony to the fusiliers’ proud history and their long association with Hexham.

A significant number of the names on the memorial are those of fusiliers who died during both the First and Second World Wars.

And the two plaques on the arch pay tribute to the members of the 4th Northumberland Fusiliers who were killed in France and Belgium between 1915 and 1918.

The men were from Hexham, Bellingham, Haydon Bridge, Corbridge, Haltwhistle, Newburn and Prudhoe, the plaques record. They died at Ypres, Arras and the Somme.

“There were fusiliers based in Hexham for 150 years before we left 12 years ago, when the army was reorganised,” said Capt. Hall.

“But we’re back and we’re not leaving again!”