Last night, the British Army finally left Northern Ireland. It's what you could call a victory for Britain and democracy

Since WWII, 1968 is probably the ONLY year in which a British soldiers hasn't been killed on operation anywhere in the world....

N Ireland SAS hero looks back

The Falls Road then ... In the summer of 1969, a young British soldier warily patrols the troubled area of Belfast - the start of the Army's 38-year operation

August 01, 2007
The Sun

SAS hero Andy McNab learnt his Army trade on the streets of Northern Ireland.

During the 1970s it was one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Today British troops officially pull out of Northern Ireland after 38 years.

Operation Banner was the longest-running continuous campaign in Army history, with 300,000 soldiers serving and 763 killed by paramilitary terrorists.

Here, as the last British troops withdraw, our security adviser reflects on his time in the war zone.

FROM a soldier’s point of view Northern Ireland has been a successful campaign. I served on various tours there between I977 and 1993.

The first time I flew in on my 18th birthday. It was Christmas 1977 — I was still a boy soldier.

It was in Northern Ireland where I went through experiences which stay with a squaddie for life.

It was there I first had to deal with losing a mate in combat and it was there that I got my first kill.

The Falls Road now ... parading peacefully, it's fun in the sun with cheering crowds out to watch the men on stilts, a giant fish, a band and banners

It makes me very happy to see peace finally achieved in the region — the withdrawal of our lads from combat operations there is a great moment in British history.

But, unfortunately, as the war on one front ends, there is a new battle to fight.

At the height of the war in Northern Ireland Britain was in the grip of fear from terrorist attacks carried out by the IRA.

We are still primed for terror attacks, but from a new enemy. Terrorism today is entirely different to that inflicted by groups such as the IRA, sickening as it was.

Radical Islamics — like the ones who attacked the London Underground system — are far more lethal in that they are prepared to die in the name of inflicting carnage.

Bash street ... youths attack a British Army armoured car with sticks

Crucially, the war in Northern Ireland was over land and who controlled it. The IRA wanted independence from Britain and this meant there was always an objective battle to fight, with gains and losses on both sides.

The IRA bombed their way to the negotiating table — but the Islamics just want the bomb. This is why we never saw suicide bombers in Northern Ireland.

It also meant there was a chance for negotiation and peace — which has been realised today.

Unfortunately, radical religious groups are fighting for an ideology — making it impossible to have a negotiation. I fear that the defeat of terrorism on the Northern Ireland front was a lot more straightforward than our new battle with the religious fanatics.

Leaving the political issues aside, our long-term involvement in Northern Ireland has been a huge factor in Britain becoming the elite military force it is today.

Peek-a-boo ... British soldier peers round a wall watched by a little boy whom he gives the thumbs-up to

We now take it for granted that surveillance and covert operations by the SAS are part of warfare.

Our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan rely on special forces gathering information which we can use to fight the enemy better. But these skills were discovered and honed on the streets of places like South Armagh and Belfast.

The thing about Northern Ireland, especially in the early days, is that we were fighting an enemy which was reading the same newspapers, talking the same language, watching the same news.

It wasn’t a case of the two sides just blitzing each other from behind their own lines. We were walking the same streets as the guys who wanted to kill us, except we couldn’t identify them because they weren’t wearing a uniform.

For the first time there was a real need for surveillance and intelligence gathering.

Hate ... soldiers calmly ignore a youth screaming abuse at them

I spent two years as part of 14th Intelligence, where my job was to keep a watch on the enemy.

We would spend days on end hidden, just observing a target and monitoring their every move.

That was how the lads on the ground would know who was hostile.

Now these same skills are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When it was really hot in Northern Ireland — during the late Seventies and Eighties especially — the troops had to live in reinforced bunkers.

They had 3ft thick concrete walls because the enemy would send in mortars at all times of the day and night.

We weren’t allowed to drive in Land Rovers because of the risk of roadside bombs. Everything had to be helicoptered in, nothing could be transported by road.

Amazingly, there has only been one year since the end of the Second World War where the British Army hasn’t been committed to some sort of conflict.

Continuous operations like that are actually extremely good training for an army.

Rather than learning in fake training exercises, our troops have always had first-hand warfare to get on with. When you are thrust into a situation where it’s either shoot or be shot, you’ll get very good at shooting.

Skills such as marksmanship in the British Army are outstanding.

And that is down to the fact we have always had to use our skills as soldiers — right from the word go.

It’s great to see all our troops pulled out of Northern Ireland.

The tragedy is that the lads are desperately needed to keep fighting elsewhere.