Undercover in Northern Ireland
The post you are about to read was submitted by a former soldier whom served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Here he gives an intriguing insight into a covert operation , tracking IRA players and units as they moved large quantities of homemade explosive (HME) throughout Belfast and Northern Ireland.
I shudder to think what misery and damage this could have inflicted on the innocent that always seem to pay the highest price as the paramilitaries waged indiscriminate war , that at times seemed never ending and brought us all to the edge of an abyss that hunted and threatened our daily lives.
By its very nature the work of undercover operatives is shrouded in secrecy and during the Troubles the UK security forces and intelligence agencies were experts in the “dark arts” and covert operations designed to take down , monitor and infiltrate the IRA & other N.I paramilitary groups was common practice. Not surprisingly some of these operations became public knowledge, but the vast majority remained cloaked in the fog of war and I suppose we’ll never know the full truth of what happened during “The Dirty War” and the madness of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
Thank god those days are behind us.
For reasons of security, all names have been changed.
— Disclaimer –
The views and opinions expressed in these posts/documentaries are solely intended to educate and provide background information to those interested in the Troubles of Northern Ireland. They in no way reflect my own opinions and I take no responsibility for any inaccuracies or factual errors.
Under cover in Northern Ireland
For nearly three years I’d been doing covert surveillance for a unit in Belfast, a lot of the tasks were generally routine and monotonous designed to keep track of the known players from both sides in their daily activities, but every now and then the tasking from Castlereagh turned up the odd higher importance task.
The Op’s room received a phone call over the secure line to prepare for Ops and deploy from the two ‘Dave’s’. One was Dave from ‘H’, a grizzled long term veteran who had spent ages down the road and a long time in the province, the other, Dave from five, a much more clean cut methodical man. These two men were our handlers, they decided what we would do and when we would do it, as a unit we had built up a good reputation with them for being reliable & capable.
The pagers we constantly carried when on standby beeped into life, here we go again, grab your kit and get over the compound within fifteen minutes. Majority of the time when we got a fastball it was for when good old ‘Paula’ would be bringing in another Mk15 mortar from over the border. Once a month, regular as clockwork she’d pop down and bring one up unaware that we had been watching her for the last two years. The regular street plodding troops would be kept out of the area by an ‘out of bounds’ notice completely unaware of her courier activities. She’d be given a free route from collection to drop off, she was small fry, just a small cog in the process, we knew her part well, it was where it was going up the chain that was of higher priority.
So, fastball across to the briefing room to see what we’ve been given this time. The briefing room was in our own self-contained compound within a secure camp, no one could just walk in, the Ops room walls were covered with maps of the city marking current Ops, out of bounds areas and other places of interest. Secrecy was paramount.
DJ , the unit 2ic and WO2 was taking the briefing as normal. DJ was a veteran from Hereford, a serious man with a fiery temper and he knew his stuff, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He wouldn’t even allow us to have a unit logo as he said our job didn’t officially exist. The less people knew about what we did the better.
The briefing started with all present and we discovered that a large amount of homemade explosive (HME) was coming into the city and we needed eyes on it.
It was being tracked along its route and is due to arrive at the dairy farm complex where it would be stored by one of the known players at a building known as the coal bunker.
We weren’t talking about an insignificant amount, this was the annual resupply to Belfast, we later discovered it was approx. five tonnes. That quantity could cause chaos in the city, taking it off the IRA was now the main priority for all the agencies involved.
All other surveillance jobs were put on hold. The whole unit was deploying on this one, all leave suspended, thirty blokes on one Op.
My tasking was given by the boss, a four-man covert surveillance OP up the mountain above Whiterock. It was a place I was familiar with; it gave great ‘eyes on’ for large parts of the city. It afforded enough cover to see and not be seen. When we linked in with the other locations we regularly used, Whiterock, Divis, MPH & Broadway to name but a few we could surveil almost everywhere. This, in conjunction with the other agencies we had the capability to cover everywhere if needed. We could watch from near, and from afar.
Our mountain kit was always packed for deploying 24/7, two teams of four on constant standby with the capability of deploying either rural or in the city. On rare occasions we even deployed to other parts of the province such as South Armagh to assist on jobs for fellow units, certain jobs require certain skills and we happened to be one of those units.
Short straw meant I was up the mountain, a cold wet windy place but with the right equipment a home from home. Luckily it was a place I knew like the back of my hand after 3 years working in Belfast, where to deploy for the best visibility to the tgt without being seen. Another few days ahead of ‘hard routine’ watching the bad guys, eating cold food and remaining hidden. All part of the fun in the world of surveillance. Unbeknown to me then, a few days would turn into two weeks.
The routes were cleared for safety and clear passage with Lisburn as always, gone were the days of driving where you wanted when you wanted. Getting from A to B blending in with the normal traffic was important, the head shed didn’t want another incident similar to the two signallers. We had our own fleet of civilian vehicles, cars and vans, all at our disposal. All were unmarked, had regular number plate changes and maintained perfectly.
I was deploying with Scouse, JD & Gaz, three good blokes who you could trust with your life, I’d known them all a long time and they were reliable as hell and good in the field. Good operatives, we’d all done many ops in our time together.
We collected rations from Jimmy in the stores and fresh batteries for the various radios we operated when deployed from the sigs store. As we worked with multiple agencies, we had to be able to speak to all of them, deploying with three different radio sets was common practice.
Deployment would be at night under the cover of darkness, eyes on by first light. Drop off in the early hours, get established in the Op and up and running before the milkman starts his round.
All precautions were taken, two of the blokes in civvies would be driving and dropping us off in one of the unmarked vans, the fact that we were able to grow our hair long added to the air of non-military that we required when driving through the city. For night drop off the vehicles were even fitted with a brake cut off switch, touch the brake, no lights, no one could see you stopping. They were armed with Heckler & Koch HK53’s and 9mm pistols, a great bit of kit especially when in the vehicles, the SA80 was too long to secrete under your legs.
23: 00hrs, ready to roll. Weapons collected, kit loaded into the back of the van and off we went. Depending on the job depended on the weapons we took, apart from the normal issue SA80’s we also had access to other weapon systems. Pistols, HK53’s, L96’s, M203’s and Remington Wingmaster shotguns, always nice to have a choice.
We weave our way across the city from the Sydenham bypass, through the city centre eventually onto the Cliftonville Road, Oldpark Road, left onto the Ballysillan and then onto the Ligoniel Road heading towards the drop off point in the dead of night. The vehicle commander gave a running commentary on the journey so we’re always aware of where we are in case the shit hits the fan, no point having to leap out of a vehicle wondering where the fuck you are in an emergency. Sat in the back of the van was always a cautious experience, remaining silent, listening to the noise outside, everyone completely unaware of you being there. Just a pair of scruffy workmen commuting in a tatty van.
Occasionally you’d be stopped in a RUC checkpoint, the driver would give a quick covert flash of an ID card and you’d be ushered safely through. On the odd instance when it was quiet they’d ask to have a little nosey in the back of the van to satisfy their curiosity. A little wry smile from the blokes inside and a quick nod from the plod in appreciation often sufficed at the sight of four blokes in full cam cream tooled up ready to deploy.
“Standby guys, two minutes out, all quiet on the roads, drop off inbound” came the shout from mark in the front of the tatty inconspicuous HiAce van. Brake cut off switch flicked, 50m, 20m, 10m…. stop. Here we go, senses alert, always vulnerable at the drop off. Driver gets out to pretend to take a leak, side door of the van slides open, out into the bushes swiftly, door slid shut, driver back in and off they go. Deployed without a hitch all in less than a minute.
Moving from the drop off we made our way silently to the OP position, navigation was easy as we had the Divis KP as a reference point and the night-time glow of the city to guide us. We knew where we were roughly going to site the OP as we had vis studies from the mountain, we already knew where we would have to be for the best eyes on the target. By dawn we would be in place.
And so the routine started, two hours on, two hours off, observing, reporting and logging. One doing the surveillance of the coal bunker and the other providing the protection whilst the other two rested or did admin. We had five tonnes of HME under observation from day one. Now it was time to watch what the IRA intended to do with it, who was going to collect it and distribute it. We knew they wouldn’t want that quantity in one location for too long, it would be too risky. Let’s see how the IRA Quartermasters intended to move it.
The first breakdown of the supply came after a few days, a large part of the HME was moved by vehicle to a vehicle breakers yard on the Old Suffolk Road. The problem with this was we couldn’t get eyes on to observe it from our location and as it was in a staunch Catholic area, other ways to keep track of it would have to be used. Luckily one of the units that were involved in the multi agency operation went in and secreted covert cameras, so far so good. We couldn’t afford to lose track of any of the HME. The choice of the coal bunker was a clever place to store it, it had regular comings and goings, no one would question large coal bags being placed in vehicles.
By now we’d been in the covert OP for a week and were well established, weather conditions were pretty dire, cold and wet and the lack of movement took its toll on circulation although morale was still good. Gaz had been struggling with his feet and frost nip was setting in due to lack of movement and reduced circulation, as we were due for a battery and food resupply it was a sensible decision to replace him with another operative. It was decided that ‘H’ would be a straight swap, H was good, didn’t say a lot but was easy to get on with and a professional soldier. Myself and Gaz would RV with the resupply van, H and myself would return to the OP.
The bonus was it would allow us to get rid of any ‘waste’ that we had accumulated over the week. It’s amazing what you amass with four blokes sat in a bush eating cold food.
The next breakdown of the HME came within a few days, part of the consignment was taken to a house near the Musgrave Park Hospital, this was a smaller amount and what we believed to be part of the finer distribution network the IRA organized. By now we were being stretched as a Unit, I’d been in place for ten days plus on hard routine. We got to the stage where the command decision was taken that we needed additional support from fellow Units trained as we were. We were bolstered by the blokes from South Armagh doing the job similar to us, it was nice that they were able to return the favour. They were pleased they were able to operate in the city for once, a nice break from being stuck at the Mill in Bessbrook. With our unit, the other military units involved and the RUC contingents we must have been around a hundred blokes involved as of the 24th March 1993.
We had military units on standby at various location along with specialist units from the RUC, it wasn’t a case of if, it was just a case of when we struck.
Day fourteen of the Op started like all the others, explosives being spread all over the city, watching, logging all the activity going on at the coal bunker and keeping in regular comms with call sign Zero back in Belfast. Unbeknown to us it would take a different turn.
In the early evening we triggered a red Astra pulling into the Dairy Farm complex and stopped near the coal bunker. “Standyby standby, red Astra with 2 up outside the tgt building”. Two masked gunmen got out of the car and one ran towards and entered the coal bunker whilst the other provided cover, shots were fired but due to the distance we were observing from we were unable to take any offensive action. “ Zero, Delta, two gunmen, standby” We did observe one gunman having problems with his pistol, which resulted in him returning to the vehicle for another weapon. In a very short space of time, no more than a couple of minutes the gunmen were back in the Astra and heading out of the Dairy Farm complex, the vehicle was later found burnt out. Some of the locals even threw stones at the gunmen.
All the time this was going on we were live time reporting to all agencies involved in the operation. As the coal bunker had been subject to terrorist activity the higher authorities gave the order for all three location to be simultaneously searched resulting in the seizure of all of the explosives, a massive dent in the Provisionals activities within the Belfast Brigade.
Within the hour we were given the order to extract from the OP. We headed up to Divis KP where we awaited extraction back to camp for the debrief, then a shower & a beer.
Soldiers Stories Northern Ireland
See: Military Reconnaissance Force
See: Forkhill Armagh – IRA “Bandit Country”
See: IRA Nutting Squad