Special Reconnaissance Unit

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Group.png Special Reconnaissance Unit
Formation 1972
Type • military
• secret

The Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) was an undercover British Army unit which operated in Northern Ireland from 1972.[1] It is better known even within the Army, by a variety of cover names, most commonly 14 Intelligence Company.[2] It seems likely that it was incorporated into the Special Reconnaissance Regiment on its creation in 2005.

Formation

According to a top Secret briefing prepared for Prime Minister Harold Wilson in April 1974, the Special Reconnaissance Unit replaced the Military Reaction Force units created in 1971:

In 1972 the operations of the MRF were brought under more centralised control and a higher standard of training achieved by establishing a Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) of 130 all ranks under direct command of HQNI.[3]

Secrecy and cover names

The April 1974 briefing states:

The term "Special Reconnaissance Unit" and the details of its organisation and mode of operations have been kept secret. The SRU operates in Northern Ireland at present under the cover name "Northern Ireland Training and Advisory Teams (Northern Ireland)" - NITAT(NI) - ostensibly the equivalent of genuine NITAT teams in UKLF and BAOR.[4]

The secrecy about the unit's name appears to have been maintained until this briefing was released to the National Archives three decades later. One apparent reference comes in Martin Dillon's 1990 book The Dirty War, which reports that according to Special Branch inspector Jimmy Blair, Special Branch Sergeant Charlie McCormick and informer Anthony O'Doherty both "worked for a special unit of the Army. His use of the words 'special unit' is 'in itself' significant."[5]

Most accounts refer to what is clearly the same unit by a variety of cover names. The clearest account of these is perhaps in Mark Urban's Big Boys' Rules. According to Urban, the NITAT name was replaced in 1978 or 1979 by Intelligence and Security Group (NI) or Int and Sy Group. As with NITAT, there were genuine Int and Sy Groups in England and Germany. In the early 1980s, this name was replaced in turn by 14 Intelligence and Security Company:

The name, usually contracted in speech to 14 Intelligence Company, 14 Company of simply 14 Int, became widely used within the Army. Indeed most people who have worked with the Army in Northern Ireland know it as such and that is why I will use this name, even to describe activities in the mid 1970s before the Army adopted it. This cover name suggested an analogy with 12 Intelligence and Security Company, a unit of report writers, index keepers and computer programmers rather than an organized force of undercover surveillance specialists.[6]

Urban also states that 4 Field Survey Troop was a cover name for the 3 Brigade detachment of the unit during 1974.[7]

Minister Roger Freeman confirmed the presence of 4 Field Survey Troop at Castledillon during this period in response to a question from Ken Livingstone in March 1988. He added:

Detailed information on this unit, which is not now deployed in the Province, is no longer available. The role of a Royal Engineer field survey is to provide or process aerial photographs, ground surveys and mapping for the Army as required. The strength of such a unit at that time varied between about 30 and 40, depending upon its specific task, and usually included two officers.[8]

In response to a second question from Livingstone on the role of NITAT's in Northern Ireland since 1973, Freeman stated:

Detailed organisational information on this is no longer available. There is no Northern Ireland training and advisory team (NITAT) currently in Northern Ireland. The role and composition of the NITATs are as described in my reply to the hon. Member on 29 February at column 422.[9]

In an unpublished letter to the Guardian which appeared in Lobster magazine, former military intelligence officer Fred Holroyd commented:

4 Field Survey Troop, Royal Engineers does not appear on the official list of Sapper units in Ulster for the three years mentioned. This is not surprising as the title was the first layer of cover which hid the fact that it was an SAS Troop. It's two Officers Commanding in my time were both infantry officers currently serving in 22 SAS Regiment, the second of these was Captain Julian (Tony) Ball, KOSB. His 2i/c was Captain Robert Nairac. The CSM, NCO's and operational members were either former, serving or recently trained SAS personnel. As it was co-located at Castledillon with an Engineer regiment, a second layer of cover was provided to satisfy soldiers of this regiment. They were told that the unit was a Northern Ireland Training and Tactics Team (NITATT).[10]

Following the publication of the 1974 memo in 2006, Lobster editor Robin Ramsay concluded that "Holroyd's account has now been confirmed."[11]

SAS involvement

The SRU has had a close relationship with the SAS which has been the subject of some confusion. The first evidence came to light on 19 March 1974 when Robert Fisk reported in The Times that SAS members had been sent secretly to Northern Ireland "to serve as military undercover intelligence agents in Belfast and Londonderry:

Between 40 and 50 SAS men are serving in Northern Ireland. Attached to various regular army battalions on the province, they are operating mostly in plain clothes,carrying out patrols in civilian cars, keeping watch on the homes of suspected IRA men and Protestant extremists and, on some occasions, assuming false identities in order to gather information in republican and loyalist districts.[12]

The April 1974 briefing states:

Men who have served with the SAS are serving in the SRU but no SAS units are operating in Northern Ireland. One officer and 30 soldiers serving with the SRU since early January are due to resume service with 22 SAS by 7 April. Their presence with the SRU went undetected until the Robert Fisk article in "The Times" on 19 March.[13]

Attached to the briefing was a statement, which had been passed to the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. It stated: “The facts are as follows. No SAS unit has been or is stationed in Northern Ireland.” The statement added that the policy had been not to use former SAS personnel on plain-clothes duties until two or three years after their service with the regiment had ended, but that in the past three months “use has been made of a number of volunteers, whose experience has been acquired only just beforehand.” There was mention of the fact that the soldiers involved would also be returning to the SAS immediately after serving in Northern Ireland.[14]

Former senior SAS NCO Ken Connor has described the regiment's role in creating the unit he referred to as 14 Int:

The SAS developed a selection procedure, ran the induction course and training and staffed the upper echelons of the company with SAS officers.
That gave the Regiment a means of maintaining its influence over an area that should technically have been controlled by the Intelligence Corps. The SAS could have its cake and eat it too, maintaining an involvement in Northern Ireland without using manpower that was needed in the Middle East.[15]

The deliberate ambiguity about the SAS role contributed to some obfuscation in the 1980s following Fred Holroyd's allegations about the unit at Castledillon, which he described as "an SAS troop" manned by "former, serving or recently trained SAS personnel", and perhaps most pointedly as "SAS by any other name".[16]

Role

The April 1974 briefing described the SRU's role as follows:

The prime task of the SRU is to conduct covert surveillance of terrorists as a preliminary to an arrest carried out by security forces in uniform. The SRU may also be used to contact and handle agents or informers and for the surveillance and for the surveillance and protection of persons or property under terrorist threat. The SRU works to a great extent on Special Branch information and the Special Branch have a high regard for it.[17]

Structure

According to Ken Connor, 14 Int was organised into 3 detachments, each about the size of an SAS troop, corresponding to three IRA brigade areas.[18] Urban also states that there were three detachments, but links them to the British Army's own brigade areas,[19] which he states were "39 Brigade in the Belfast area, 8 Brigade in Londonderry and 3 Brigade in Portadown covering the border.[20]

According to Urban each detachment consisted of about 20 soldiers, commanded by a captain, assisted when available by a lieutenant as liason or operations officer.[21]

39 Brigade Area

The SRU's precursor, the Military Reaction Force was based in a compound at Palace Barracks, Holywood.[22] According to Brendan Hughes, Vincent Heatherington told his IRA interrogators in Crumlin Road prison in 1974 that he worked for a British intelligence unit based at Palace Barracks.[23] It is possible that this may have been a detachment of the SRU.

3 Brigade area

According to Urban, the 3 Brigade detachment was commanded by Captain Julian Ball, with then Lieutenant Robert Nairac as his liason officer, and operated under the cover name 4 Field Survey Troop.[24]

8 Brigade area

A number of accounts link the 4 Field Survey Troop unit at Castledillon to a similar unit in the Derry area.

Fred Holroyd states:

Around late 1972, MRF was wound up in Belfast and and another, more professional unit consisting of more reliable recruiting material, was formed at Ballykelly, disguised as a Signals Troop, a common cover for SAS. Soon after, a third undercover troop was set up as 4 Field Survey Troop Royal Engineers.[25]

Holroyd linked this unit with the activities of RUC officer Charlie McCormick.[26]

Martin Dillon also links a Derry unit related to the one at Castledillon with McCormick and his IRA informant Anthony O'Doherty but gives a slightly different location:

[RUC officer Jimmy] Blair confirmed that both McCormick and O'Doherty worked for a special unit of the Army. His use of the words 'special unit' is in itself, significant. Is it possible that O'Doherty was trained in Castledillon? He was trained by the Army, but the Castledillon unit, according to my source, was one of several in Northern Ireland, which were responsible to London and not Army authorities in Northern Ireland. These units communicated with each other and there was one in South Derry which probably trained O'Doherty and liased with McCormick.[27]

The significance of the term 'special unit' would seem to lie in the name of the Special Reconnaissance Unit, still secret at the time Dillon's account was published in 1990.

People

See Also

 

Related Document

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
File:Countergangs1971-76.pdfbookNovember 2012Margaret Urwin


References

  1. Defensive Brief D Meeting between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach 5 April 1974 Army Plain Clothes Patrols in Northern Ireland, National Archives PREM 16/154.
  2. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.39.
  3. Defensive Brief D Meeting between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach 5 April 1974 Army Plain Clothes Patrols in Northern Ireland, National Archives PREM 16/154.
  4. Defensive Brief D Meeting between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach 5 April 1974 Army Plain Clothes Patrols in Northern Ireland, National Archives PREM 16/154.
  5. Martin Dillon, The Dirty War, Arrow, 1991, p.356.
  6. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.39.
  7. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.40.
  8. Royal Engineers Survey Troop, Castledillon, House of Commons, Written Answers, 28 March 1988.
  9. Northern Ireland Training and Advisory Team House of Commons, Written Answers, 28 March 1988.
  10. Fred Holroyd, Letter from Fred Holroyd to The Guardian, Lobster, June 1988.
  11. Robin Ramsay, Fred Holroyd vindicated, Lobster 52, Winter 2006/7.
  12. Robert Fisk, SAS men serve in Ulster as undercover agents, The Times, 19 March 1974.
  13. File:PREM16slash154.pdf National Archives PREM 16/154 Defensive Brief D Meeting between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach 5 April 1974 Army Plain Clothes Patrols in Northern Ireland.
  14. Defensive Brief D Meeting between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach 5 April 1974 Army Plain Clothes Patrols in Northern Ireland, National Archives PREM 16/154.
  15. Ken Connor, Ghost Force: The Secret History of the SAS, Cassell, 1998, p.269.
  16. Fred Holroyd, Letter from Fred Holroyd to The Guardian, Lobster, June 1988.
  17. File:PREM16slash154.pdf National Archives PREM 16/154 Defensive Brief D Meeting between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach 5 April 1974 Army Plain Clothes Patrols in Northern Ireland.
  18. Ken Connor, Ghost Force, Cassell, 1998, p.269.
  19. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.38.
  20. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.16.
  21. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.38.
  22. Martin Dillon, The Dirty War, Arrow, 1991, pp.75-85.
  23. Ed Moloney, Voices from the Grave: Two Men's War in Ireland, Faber and Faber, 2010, p.179.
  24. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.40.
  25. Fred Holroyd and Nick Burbridge, War Without Honour, Medium, 1989, p.86.
  26. Fred Holroyd and Nick Burbridge, War Without Honour, Medium, 1989, p.85.
  27. Martin Dillon, The Dirty War, Arrow, 1991, p.356.
  28. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.40.
  29. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.40.
  30. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.41.
  31. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.42.
  32. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.43.
  33. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.44.
  34. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules, Faber and Faber, 1993, p.253.