Robert George Curtis, officially the first military fatality during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is killed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) on February 6, 1971, becoming the first British soldier to die in the line of duty in Ireland since 1921. The gunman responsible is believed to be Provisional IRA member Billy Reid, who is killed later that year in a gunfight. A total of 705 British soldiers are killed during the Troubles.
156 (Inkerman) Battery, 94 Locating Regiment, Royal Artillery is deployed to Northern Ireland on January 5, 1971 under the command of the 32nd Regiment Royal Artillery. During the first week of February 1971, there is major violence in many Irish republican areas of Belfast when the British Army launches a series of searches for IRA arms. Rioting in the republican area of the New Lodge escalates and reinforcements are summoned. 156 Battery is ordered into the area. Because mobs of rioters are threatening the bordering unionist Tiger’s Bay area, the Battery is deployed along the interface to block them.
A large crowd gathers at the junction of New Lodge Road and Lepper Street. A troop of soldiers from 156 Battery, including Gunner Rob Curtis, are deployed to disperse the crowd. As the troops move to the junction they are attacked with a barrage of stones and bottles by the mob and deploy in “riot-formation” with shields as protection. Subsequently, a nail bomb is thrown at the troops. In the aftermath of the blast the crowd splits allowing a gunman to fire a long burst of automatic fire from a Sterling submachine gun, probably from the base of Templar House. The crowd then reforms, allowing the gunman to escape. Gunner Curtis is hit by a ricochet which passes through the shoulder opening of his flak jacket, penetrating his heart. He dies almost instantly. Four other troop members are wounded, one seriously.
Curtis is, at the time of his death, 20 years old and married for just over a year. His wife is expecting their first child and had just informed him in a letter that he was to become a father. He is laid to rest in West Road Cemetery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. He is the first officially recognised fatality that the army suffers as a direct result of IRA actions. Unofficially 21 other military personnel died or were killed before his death. On the morning after his death Sir James Chichester-Clark, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, announces that “Northern Ireland is at war with the Irish Republican Army Provisionals.”
Some sources claim the shots were fired from a Thompson submachine gun, but some eyewitnesses are sure that it was a Sterling submachine gun that was fired. Curtis’s wife is later compensated to the sum of £6500 together with £1500 for her daughter. His daughter is married wearing her father’s wedding ring and later names her son Robert in honour of his grandfather.