The regiment's operations in Northern Ireland were only officially acknowledged after the IRA murders of 10 Protestant civilians at Kingsmill in January 1976. But in his new book, Disrupt and Deny, historian Rory Cormac reveals that its covert role in training undercover Army units had, in fact, been concealed for years at the highest level of government - including the Conservative Prime Minister.
Propaganda formed the backbone of the Government's broader deniable activities. In Belfast, Hugh Mooney, the Information Research Department's (IRD) man on the ground, considered himself involved in "all SPA" (Special Political Action) projects. In London, Prime Minister Edward Heath had demanded more than just propaganda action and complained to Burke Trend, the Cabinet secretary, about the timidity of the intelligence services.
In turn, Trend, perhaps simply to appease Heath's desire for action, instructed the secretary of the Joint Action Committee (JAC), then seconded Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officer Brian Stewart, to come up with a list of possible responses. Much like Stewart Menzies' menu to counter communism over two decades earlier, it included the entire gamut of covert operations.
Stewart, who described himself as the last of SIS's "robber barons" in a time when special operations had gone out of fashion, particularly advocated black propaganda in the form of forged letters to incriminate and undermine terrorist leaders.
In summer 1971, the Joint Action Committee invited IRD representatives to participate in its top-secret discussions on Northern Ireland. Stewart also recommended sabotaging IRA weapons and ammunitions.
He suggested keeping booby-trapped weapons inside poorly guarded British depots from where the IRA could steal them.The JAC likely sanctioned this operation, while another former JAC representative remembers more "hairy" schemes, which will never see the light of day.
JAC-sponsored activity on the streets of the UK alarmed officials in the Home Office. Philip Woodfield, heading its Northern Ireland department, was particularly concerned and accused Denis Greenhill, the senior official at the Foreign Office and himself a former chair of the JAC, of driving covert activity.
Woodfield reassured his own permanent under-secretary, Philip Allen, that he would personally attend any JAC meetings on Ireland to keep emphasising the political risks involved.
The military, as was so often the case, proved the most vocal proponents of such operations, although, as one person involved recalls, "nobody wanted to touch Ireland, so everyone passed the buck. Northern Ireland was the graveyard of reputations".
Formal JAC involvement was relatively short-lived and took a back seat after the creation of the Northern Ireland Office in 1972 - perhaps unsurprising given the earlier Home Office caution.
In fact, the NIO knew nothing about the JAC at all. In the meantime, assassination also featured on Brian Stewart's list. Dick White, now Whitehall intelligence co-ordinator and the most experienced secret servant in the land, had little enthusiasm for special operations in Ireland.
His face went ashen grey when he saw the reference to assassination, but he passed the whole paper up to Heath regardless. The Prime Minister's reaction is not known.
When Alec Douglas-Home, the Foreign Secretary, saw Stewart's proposals, he shook his head and wisely said that, after hundreds of years of the Irish problem, Britain did not need more blood on its hands now.
Nonetheless, the alleged use of extra-judicial killings in Northern Ireland has sparked particular controversy, with much criticism focusing on the Military Reaction Force (MRF), a top secret unit operating in 1972.
Britain had long used subterranean teams to fight terrorists and insurgents across the Empire.
These units operated under cover, disguised as the local, or insurgent, population in order to gather intelligence and engage in more proactive measures to eliminate the enemy, including ambushes, armed assaults and “false flag” operations intended to provoke discord within an insurgent movement. Some of these groups, known as “counter-gangs”, also comprised former insurgents who had switched sides to work with the security forces.
Britain had turned to counter-gangs when fighting Zionist guerrillas in Palestine after the Second World War. Posing as terrorists, teams drove around in battered civilian cars, modified to hide weapons and ammunition. Their task was to provoke contact, but without firing first. Similar tactics, sometimes known as “Q” patrols, were then used in Malaya, Kenya, and Cyprus in the 1950s to uncover and eliminate enemy fighters.
The following decade in Aden, SAS teams masqueraded as locals, wearing Arab dress, but carrying concealed weapons, in order to snatch, arrest or kill terrorists. They even used soldiers as bait to draw out terrorists before launching into action from the shadows. The purpose, according to one military historian, “was to meet terrorism with terrorism”.
An equally risky game played out on the streets of Northern Ireland. Around Easter 1971, the Army had formed plain clothed units, run jointly with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, known as Bomb Squads. When, owing to problems of intelligence-sharing, these proved unsuccessful, MRFs took over later in the year.
In October, Michael Carver, the chief of the general staff, called for “more aggressive tactics against gunmen, such as the formation of Q squads in special areas, to mystify, mislead and destroy the terrorists”. By this time, however, MRFs had already quietly begun their activity and each of the three brigades in Northern Ireland had an MRF under its command.
In Belfast, 39 Brigade, initially under Frank Kitson, who had pioneered counter-gangs in the colonies, ran the most active MRF. It consisted of three sections, each containing three non-commissioned officers and nine men. At any one time, three teams were on duty in Belfast and a further three remained on standby.
The Belfast MRF operated out of a corrugated iron compound, which looked like a builders’ yard, deep inside Palace Barracks in Holywood on the outskirts of the city. Despite sharing the base with regular troops, the MRF compound was off-limits to everyone else.
Engaged in sensitive and deniable work, MRF men fully expected the Government to deny all knowledge of their existence if caught by paramilitary groups. Their disguises included masquerading as road sweepers — hiding machine-guns inside dustcarts — and as meth addicts lying on the pavement with a pistol strapped to each leg. They knew that, if caught, they would probably be killed.
Like colonial counter-gangs before them, MRF “covert operations”, according to the Ministry of Defence, “included surveillance, protection, counter-hijacking and arrests”. Like those in Palestine and Aden, this extended to generating arrests.
The offensive and surveillance roles often merged. MRFs’ main duty was to react to intelligence, but in doing so, their operations often gained further information themselves.
Offensive operations involved spoiling, disrupting and compromising terrorist attacks. Echoing SAS tactics in Indonesia, they involved as brief a contact with the enemy as possible, known as a “shoot and scoot” approach. It was, as one former member stated, a “hard-hitting anti-terrorist” role.
MRFs did not operate as a traditional Army unit. Instead, they acted “like a terror group” and played by “their own rules” — although they deny shooting innocent civilians. Another former MRF man remembers, “we had to overwhelm them right from the start” before targets could fire back, or detonate a bomb.
MRF teams drove around Belfast in adapted Hillmans and Ford Cortinas, some of which had been stolen or confiscated from the IRA, and carried a range of weapons. These included pistols and sub-machine-guns, some with silencers, as well as at least one Thompson sub-machine-gun — a favourite of the IRA.
Although the MRF officer commanding, Hamish McGregor, has said that it was policy that Tommy guns were only for training purposes, an MRF team used one in action at least once. For them, it was simply part of the disguise.
MRF teams drove around the city responding to intelligence and looking for terrorist suspects. In the words of one member, they felt that they had been “sanctioned to go out and specifically hunt down the IRA”.
Although senior soldiers stressed to Lord Carrington, the Defence Secretary, that MRFs could only use lethal force as a last resort, the nature of their work meant last resorts occurred regularly.
By the deputy chief of the general staff ’s own admission, MRFs often sought to instigate a situation that would result in an arrest or terrorist shooting. Teams looked to provoke action and, as the SAS had done in Aden, apparently even used uniformed military colleagues as bait to draw terrorists out of the shadows.
Over 10,000 shootings took place on the lawless streets of Belfast in 1972. Many killings therefore attracted relatively little attention; others were more controversial. In May, an MRF team fired a sub-machine-gun from an unmarked car and killed a man at an unauthorised checkpoint manned by the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association. The coroner heard that the dead man had not fired his weapon.
The following month, another MRF team in another unmarked car shot and wounded three black cab drivers standing at a bus stop. The Army covered up MRF shootings, blaming loyalist paramilitaries for the violence. Nevertheless, one MRF man, Clive ‘Taff’ Williams, was charged with three counts of attempted murder after attacking a group of men with a Tommy gun. As his trial began, officials back in the Ministry of Defence frantically sought to hide the existence of the MRF. Williams was acquitted and later promoted.
In 2014, police in Northern Ireland began investigations into 18 shootings in Belfast between April and September 1972, in which the MRF might have been involved. One, on May 7, involved the shooting of a 15-year-old boy outside a school disco.
MRF operations apparently included snatches too, where, as had happened in Aden, suspects were bundled into unmarked cars. Bystanders assumed the MRF was just another terrorist kidnap squad operating in the city.
Turned IRA members, known as ‘Freds’, helped to identify some of the targets. Although Freds and MRFs were separate, plain clothed units lacking proper co-ordination, MRF teams occasionally used a Fred as a spotter hidden inside an unmarked car to identify potential suspects.
MRF-style operations drew plaudits in Whitehall. Heath knew they existed, while William Whitelaw, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, stressed the need to “do everything we can to disrupt” terrorist activities. “This means taking off the streets those men who lead and direct their activities, together with some of the more vicious bombers and snipers.”
Similarly, senior soldiers believed MRFs showed “real value in both offensive and defensive operations”. Even when they failed to draw terrorists into the open, “the mere knowledge itself of covert forces acting in an area has a deterrent effect”.
Carver explained to Heath that “the importance of this type of work will increase as force levels are reduced”. As so often in the British experience, covert action filled a capability, or manpower, gap.
Unsurprisingly, the MRFs proved deeply controversial. When ministers in the new Northern Ireland Office found out about such activity in May 1972, they were unenthusiastic, to say the least. Amateurism increased the risk of controversy further still.
As early as February 1972, soldiers on the ground had called for greater continuity within MRFs, while, in November, Carver informed Heath that MRFs lacked the expertise, experience and security consciousness necessary for such sensitive operations. At the same time, the MRFs as a whole lacked a unified command and control structure. This, Carver warned Heath, meant that there was a relatively high risk of mistakes and exposure.
Predictably, Frank Kitson swiftly became a hate figure among republicans. Fuelled by IRA propaganda, MRF excesses and his very real experiences of running colonial counter-gangs, nationalist communities accused Kitson of leading, or at least establishing, covert death squads. It should be noted, however, that Kitson refuted the idea of ‘death squads’ and understood MRF tactics more in terms of gathering intelligence than using lethal force. He felt that successful counter-insurgency had to take place within the confines of the law.
Although McGregor, the officer commanding, has since accused critics of sensationalising routine operations, the MRFs did need professionalising. In practice, this meant bringing in SAS assistance.
Carver and Carrington agreed that replacing the MRF with a new undercover unit of “volunteers with SAS training” would greatly reduce the chances of mistakes. It would ensure a higher standard of training and move away from the trigger-happy excesses of 1972 towards a more disciplined defensive and surveillance unit.
Bringing in the SAS, with its robust reputation, however, presented a problem. Heath, rightly predicted uproar if the nationalists realised that SAS personnel operated in elite undercover units on the streets of the UK. Accordingly, Carver assured him that he would do all he could to hide SAS involvement.
Formed with Heath’s agreement in early-1973, the new unit was originally going to be called the Special Reconnaissance Squadron (SRS). However, officials deemed this too similar in name to the SAS and feared it would raise suspicions Instead, they named it the SRU (Special Reconnaissance Unit).
Heath insisted that “every attempt would be made to conceal SAS involvement” and so, while allowing SAS men to train the new recruits, he placed a three-year embargo before SAS troops could sign up to serve with them. However, a lack of suitable men forced Carrington to reduce the embargo to two years, before Harold Wilson abolished it altogether.
Despite the changes, the Ministry of Defence stuck to the line, technically true, that “no SAS unit” was serving in Northern Ireland. After the excesses of the MRFs, those in Whitehall were pleased with the Special Reconnaissance Unit. Within a year, they thought it had “proved extremely effective, achieving successes out of all proportion to its size”.
It had also provided greater co-ordination and control over undercover military operations, taking overall command of the Fred units that had hitherto existed separately. As operations gradually became more about surveillance than offensive action, SRU morphed into 14th Intelligence Company from late-1973. It engaged in surveillance — planting bugs and tracking devices — but patrols were still armed with sub-machine-guns and silencers.
One former Special Boat Service man serving in 14th Intelligence Company remembers it as being “one of the biggest steps you can take on the SF (special forces) ladder”. It was “the ultimate challenge”. 14th Intelligence Company operatives formed detachments to the British Army’s brigades and so the unit most commonly became known as ‘the Det’. The constant name changes were a deliberate attempt to confuse the enemy.
Despite taking the blame for many nationalists’ deaths on the streets of Northern Ireland, SAS involvement in Northern Ireland was limited in the early 1970s.
Instead, former members — alongside former members of the Special Boat Service — operated in the Military Reaction Forces and the Special Reconnaissance Unit, allowing Heath to truthfully deny SAS presence. Besides, the SAS was tied down in Oman while SBS activity was limited to its traditional strengths of tracking and intercepting terrorist gun-runners off Ireland’s West Coast.
This changed in early 1976. On January 5, IRA gunmen stopped a minibus driving textile workers home from a factory near Kingsmill in Co Armagh. They ordered 11 Protestant passengers to line up on the roadside and unleashed over 100 cartridges at point-blank range. Only one man survived.
Shortly afterwards, Harold Wilson publicly despatched the SAS to Northern Ireland in a patrol and surveillance role. It was a reactionary political, rather than strategic, decision and sent the Government’s public relations team into a spin: they now had to be as open as possible about SAS activity, but also needed to disguise its movements and involvement when necessary. Communications teams admitted that the SAS operated in plain clothes, but dismissed any talk of assassination squads as nonsense.
SAS activity was initially amateurish, poorly directed, and convinced many military leaders that they had been saddled with a “gang of amateur cowboys”. However, the SAS gradually became more sophisticated as its local experience grew.
Roy Mason, the outgoing Defence Secretary, praised the impact of what he called “SAS-type operations”, especially after the 1976 public announcement, and lobbied his successor, Fred Mulley, to intensify them.
By 1977, SAS activity had expanded beyond its initial remit of south Armagh and into Derry and Belfast. Although the Government hoped to “use them offensively whenever there was a possibility of confrontation”, the SAS continuously operated under severe political restraints.
Comparing Belfast to Aden, one former SAS soldier lamented how “there were to be no exploding portraits of Irish revolutionary heroes in this conflict”. Turf wars between the various arms of the British security state, including the Army, Royal Ulster Constabulary, MI5, and SIS marginalised and constrained SAS operations further still.
Meanwhile, a series of SAS killings in 1978, including that of a 16-year-old boy, John Boyle, near a terrorist arms cache in a cemetery at Dunloy in Co Antrim, provided a propaganda coup for the IRA and led to a moratorium on offensive ambushing. Instead, RUC Special Branch took the lead in the subterranean conflict.
By the end of 1980, 14th Intelligence Company and the SAS had been combined under one commanding officer and throughout the early-1980s continued to engage predominantly in surveillance activities.
This lasted until around 1983 when, under Margaret Thatcher, SAS ambushes increased dramatically, with nearly 30 terrorists dying at the hands of the regiment over the next decade.
As police surveillance units took on a greater role, the SAS were freed up for more dynamic operations, including ambushes and other attempts to disrupt terrorist activity. Moreover, visibly heavy-handed police operations, leading to accusations of their own shoot-to-kill policy in the early-1980s, also allowed the pendulum to swing back towards the SAS.
Special forces worked closely with 14th Intelligence Company and military close observation platoons to launch undercover operations known as “counter-ambushes” which sought to eliminate IRA active service units. Although consistently denied by the Government, these select forces had authority to aggressively pursue suspected terrorists and, guided by detailed intelligence, ultimately engage in targeted killings.
In 1987, the SAS launched one such counter-ambush against an IRA active service unit in the process of bombing a police station in Loughgall, killing an innocent bystander in the process. The following year, another SAS team killed unarmed IRA targets in Gibraltar in another counter-ambush operation. Both cases proved controversial and reopened allegations of an SAS shoot-to-kill policy, handing the IRA yet another propaganda victory.
Political restraints fluctuated throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but it does appear that undercover units, starting with the MRFs, had authority to lure and then lethally engage terrorists. This would certainly have been in line with earlier covert action experiences.
Extracted from Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy by Rory Cormac, published by Oxford University Press. To order a copy for £20, go to https://global.oup.com/academic and search ‘Disrupt and Deny’