2nd Battalion The Royal Irish Rangers, Belize

Event
Saturday, 1 September, 1979 - Wednesday, 30 April, 1980
Belize Map
Map of Belize and Guatemalan border.

In 1964, the colony of British Honduras was granted full internal self-government and the official name of the territory was changed to Belize in June 1973. However, Guatemala claimed that Belize was a legacy of the Spanish Empire’s Guatemalan territories and alleged that as a result of the failure by the British to fulfil previous (1859) treaty obligations, including the building of a road to the coast, Belize must ‘revert’ to Guatemalan sovereignty. In 1972 Guatemala broke off negotiations and mobilized its troops along the border. By 1975, the increased tension was such that the British government included a Royal Air Force Harrier group in the overall increased deployment.

There were two infantry battle groups deployed in support of the Belize Defence Force (BDF). Battle Group South was in September 1979 provided by the 1st/2nd Battalion of King Edward VII’s Own Gurkha Rifles, whilst 2 R IRISH provided Battle Group North. The Battalion, under their recently arrived Commanding Officer, Lt Col R N Wheeler, deployed into various locations in northern Belize, with the main effort being positions astride or close to the main route from Guatemala into Belize.

Airport Camp (APC) near Belize City was located adjacent to the International Airport. This was the location for the Headquarters British Forces Belize, commanded by a Brigadier, the RAF detachments (Harrier jets, Puma support helicopter and Rapier air defence) and an RAF Regiment Squadron for the ground defence of the airport. Initially 2 R IRISH Battalion HQ was located in APC, together with one company, which had one platoon on short notice to move.

Holdfast Camp was near the Cayo district capital of San Ignacio. This was a R IRISH Combat Team (CT) location which included the Royal Armoured Corp’s armoured Scimitar/ Scorpion light tracked reconnaissance vehicles and Royal Artillery Regiment 105mm Artillery guns. 2 R IRISH infantry tasks included forward jungle patrolling and manning Observation Posts (OP) such as the Cayo OP watching the cross-border approaches from the Guatemalan border town of Ciudad Melchor de Mencos.

Plassey Camp, also located near San Ignacio in the Cayo District, was smaller than Holdfast. This was the location for the 2 R IRISH Reconnaissance Platoon and other Support Company elements including the Mortar and Anti-Tank Platoons. This group was under the command of the Holdfast CT Headquarters and it shared the infantry tasks for Holdfast.

Halfway through the eight month tour by 2 R IRISH, there was a reduction in British Forces in Belize and the second infantry battlegroup, 1st/2nd Battalion of King Edward VII’s Own Gurkha Rifles was not replaced at the end of their tour. 2 R IRISH became Battle Group Belize. Battalion HQ redeployed with one company from Airport Camp to the south. Battalion HQ moved into Rideau Camp, which was 5 kilometres from Punta Gorda and the largest camp in the southern district. Also located there were elements of Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery. The Rifle Company moved into Salamanca Camp in Toledo District, which was the equivalent of Holdfast Camp in the north. Its tasks included forward jungle patrolling near Pueblo Viejo and manning the Cadenas OP located some 185 meters above and watching approaches from the Guatemalan town of Puerto Modesto Mendez on the Sarstoon River. However, their main task was patrolling some of the remotest rainforest areas in the southern Toledo district. These foot patrols were often deployed or collected by riverboat and helicopter.

One of these patrols found Guatemalan military engineers building a road just inside the border with Belize. A permanent presence was then established there by one platoon from 2 R IRISH to prevent this incursion by the Guatemalans going any deeper into Belize, which became known as Treetops OP. Gradually, the Platoon and the Guatemalans became friendly in the isolated jungle clearing, playing volleyball with the net placed along the border between the two countries! The Guatemalans were particularly impressed with the logistic support provided to the 2 R IRISH platoon, especially the ice cream in this hot, humid temperature that was flown in by RAF Puma helicopter, together with the other supplies of food, water and mail. Eventually, the Guatemalans invited the Platoon back to their camp inside Guatemala for a barbeque and beers – a good time was had by all!

Cattle Landing Camp was located several kilometres north on the coast from Punta Gorda in Toledo District. This watched over sea approaches and the Oerlikon guns were guarded by a 2 R IRISH detachment of the Anti-Tank Platoon from Support Company.

Fears over border security and the threat of invasion by Guatemala delayed independence until 21 September 1981. Britain’s declaration that it would defend Belize’s territory and sovereignty post-independence satisfied the government of Belize and fulfilled the United Nations resolution in 1981 demanding secure independence for Belize by 1982. The presence of the troops represented an exception to the long-standing British policy of not making military commitments to former colonies. British forces were also to deter Guatemalan guerrillas from using Belize as a safe haven for launching attacks against Guatemala. It was not until 1992 that Guatemala eventually recognized Belize as a sovereign and independent state notwithstanding unresolved territorial disputes. The British government announced in 1993 that it would begin the withdrawal of its operational military forces and offered military training assistance to the BDF.