By Ed Moloney & Bob Mitchell
It was one of the most compelling and gripping episodes to feature in the series of interviews that Brendan Hughes gave to Boston College about his life in the IRA. The story of the frenzied attempt to kill him in his native lower Falls area by plainclothes British soldiers in the early 1970’s illustrated several defining aspects of Hughes’ life as an IRA activist and later as one of its leaders.
One was the danger he faced constantly, the possibility that each day might end with his violent death; the other was the closeness and depth of his friendship with Gerry Adams who arranged for the treatment of his injuries suffered that day. The intensity and ardor of their relationship helps explain his subsequent anger when, as the peace process unfolded, Adams disowned his involvement – and their shared life – in the IRA.
Here is the core of the story as he told it to interviewer Anthony McIntyre:
One day, I was standing on the corner of Varna Gap, two or three other people were with me – we hadn’t arranged a call house that day – and a van drove down Leeson Street. As the van passed I noticed there was something wrong with the driver – he was nervous. He drove past me and down McDonnell Street onto the Grosvenor Road. I crossed over to the other corner and saw the van going up the Grosvenor Road away from me. Five minutes later it came back down. At that time I always carried a weapon, a .45 automatic, but I’d given it to another Volunteer that morning to go and steal a car we needed, so I sent one of the runners to get a weapon.
As the van approached, my eyes were on the driver the whole time, and the guy was really shitting himself. He drove about 20 yards past me, past Varna Gap, and the back doors flew open. Three guys with rifles jumped out and they immediately started firing at me. One had two .45s in his hands. They were wearing baseball boots and tracksuits……The bullets went whizzing off the wall, all over the place and there was nothing I could do only run, along Varna Gap and they came after me firing. I turned round at Varna Gap into Cyprus Street and then I took a shortcut into Sultan Street which was where the call house and our weapons were. I ran the whole length of that street, and they were running and firing after me.
Later I worked it out that they knew who I was. There was a derelict house directly facing Varna Gap that the Brits had been using as an observation post and they had obviously identified me, whether it was a photograph or description I don’t know, but they identified me obviously because they were trying to kill me. There was a baker’s van delivering bread – it was early morning time – to Willie Dark’s shop at the corner of Sultan Street and the van was shot to pieces. I almost ran past the call house I was going so fast so I grabbed the door as I was running and the momentum carried me right through the living room window.
But the weapons were there, and I grabbed an Armalite and I came out fucking firing, The next thing Saracens came from all over the place and the soldiers in the observation post, in the derelict house, were picked up; it pulled up outside and the two Brits jumped out onto the roof of the Saracen and into the back of it and the other ones who had been chasing me were picked up in another Saracen. They had been there all night. Why the Brits in the derelict house didn’t fire I do not know. I was a sitting target for them; they didn’t have to send the van down, I mean, they could have shot me from that window. The operation was aimed at assassinating me and whoever else I was with.
I didn’t realise I was bleeding until afterwards and then I thought I had been hit but I had been badly cut in the arm by the glass when I crashed through the living room window. I was taken to a house, my cousin’s house, just a couple of hundred yards down the street. And the next thing Gerry (Adams) came into the district. The artery had been severed.
But it was ‘the Big Effort’, Gerry, who organised the doctor, brought him into the area, fair play to him. I have to give that to him. It was Jack McClenaghan, the heart surgeon. But he had no equipment with him so my cousin got a needle and thread and Jack sewed me up. There’s a wee lump still there where he inserted tweezers, pulled the artery down tied it in a knot to stop the bleeding, and then he got a needle and thread and sewed it up. I didn’t realise how much blood I had lost but it was an awful lot.
Gerry may well have saved my life by bringing the surgeon in because the blood was pumping out. The Brits were still driving round, and I remember the doctor sewing it up while the Saracen was passing the door. You know, Gerry did that but he didn’t have to. We were close at that time and I think there was a genuine thing there. He didn’t have to come into the area, he could have sent someone else in, but he did come in. I didn’t want to leave town, – you know, ‘the true soldier – I didn’t want to leave Belfast but Gerry insisted, he ordered me out. And I went to Dundalk and booked into a Bed & Breakfast for a week but I just couldn’t wait to get back.”
You can watch below a dramatic and skilfully re-created depiction of this event in the prize-winning RTE television documentary based on the book ‘Voices From The Grave’. Brendan Hughes’ encounter with the undercover soldiers starts at around five-and-a-half-minutes into the segment. Enjoy:
There were however important details missing from Brendan Hughes’ account. He could not, for instance put a date on the incident, except in the most general and inferred way, nor could or would he suggest who in the British Army might have been wanted him dead, perhaps because in the league table of silly questions it would pretty much rank as the silliest of all since the list of candidates, by 1972, was a pretty long one.
But for reasons explained below we can now put a precise date on the effort to kill him. As to who was behind the attack, it is now also possible to identify with certainty the British regiment that organised the operation that very nearly caused his death. More than that, however, we have uncovered documentary evidence that suggests the Military Reaction Force (MRF) may have played a part in the operation and if so, that they were almost certainly the gunmen who chased him through the lower Falls.
Just to remind our younger readers about the MRF, it was an early forerunner of the special military intelligence outfit, the Force Research Unit (FRU) which was so deeply involved in the assassination of Pat Finucane. It was created in or around 1970/1971 by Brigadier Frank Kitson who was the British Army’s first commander in Belfast when the Troubles started. The MRF consisted partly of regular soldiers drawn from a variety of regiments and partly members of the Official and Provisional IRA’s who had been turned by intelligence recruiters. Known as ‘Freds’, these double agents both provided intelligence on their organisations and were available for undercover operations.
Kitson, who is still alive and in his 80’s, got the idea for the MRF from his time in Kenya where he led part of the British effort to suppress the Mau Mau uprising. Kitson developed the idea of Counter Gangs to fight the Mau Mau whose members were drawn partly from the ranks of loyal African soldiers and partly from renegade Mau Mau fighters. He seems just to have transferred exactly the same concept to the streets of Belfast.
The MRF became publicly known about when its members were involved in a number of drive by shootings in Belfast. One such incident happened on September 26th 1972 when 18 year old Daniel Rooney was shot dead and 18-year old Brendan Brennan wounded when they were fired upon by what a document obtained by researchers from thebrokenelbow.com at the British National Archives at Kew, Surrey suggests was an MRF unit.
The document, an after incident report apparently shown to then Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, claims that Rooney was a member of Brendan Hughes’ ‘D’ Company and was armed with a rifle when shot. Brennan was alleged to be carrying a pistol and both men, the report claimed, had fired on the troops. At the time the allegation of IRA association was strongly denied by his family and community while the IRA has never acknowledged him as a member which it normally would have had he been one. Forensic tests failed to prove that either man had been handling a weapon.
The introduction to the report describes the unit that killed Rooney and it appears to match almost exactly the MRF photo-fit:
A special British Army force consisting of soldier volunteers from regular battalions serving in Northern Ireland is currently operating in civilian clothes and cars on surveillance duties in Belfast. Their activities are co-ordinated by Brigade Headquarters but they liaise and operate in support of IS (Internal Security) battalions in the city. Patrols normally consist of three men. They are armed but only for their own defence.
In October 1972, Brendan Hughes helped the IRA deliver a damaging blow to the MRF. One of his volunteers in ‘D’ Coy had been recruited to the undercover unit but his behaviour raised suspicion amongst colleagues. Under interrogation he admitted his secret role and further investigation not only led to one other MRF member but to an ambitious British intelligence gathering operation in West Belfast operating under the guise of a door-to-door laundry business known as The Four Square Laundry. The IRA ambushed the business’ van in Twinbrook in West Belfast killing at least one undercover soldier.
Possible clues to the identity of the British Army unit that targeted Brendan Hughes for death a month or so before the Four Square Laundry operation is contained in one of a series of so-called ‘War Diaries’ compiled by British Army battalions which served in Belfast during the Troubles and now available for review at the National Archives. Not all regimental ‘War Diaries’ have been published but the one dealing with the ambush on Brendan Hughes has been and researchers from thebrokenelbow.com have acquired a copy. A ‘War Diary’ is literally that, a day-by-day account of military operations and other significant events during the tour of duty.
The regiment that led the operation was the 2nd Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment (known by the wits of Belfast at the time as the Royal Anglican regiment!) which was based in the lower Falls between August 2nd, 1972 and December 5th of the same year.
On September 2nd, 1972 the Royal Anglians set in motion the operation to deal with Brendan Hughes. The operation had a code name, TOM TIME; the use of the word TOM is significant as will become clear shortly. This is what the Royal Anglians’ ‘War Diary’ had to say about Operation TOM TIME:
OP TOM TIME.
Clandestine Op in 1 GIBSON St. Reported BRENDAN HUGHES (OC Lower Falls Coy, 2nd Bn, PROV IRA) in VARNA/LEESON junction at 1159. Snatch attempt failed, but 2 hits claimed in follow up. OP compromised and withdrawn.
(NOTE: “Clandestine Op” should probably have been written as “Clandestine OP”, referring to an undercover observation post of the sort that Brendan Hughes described in his Boston College interviews. The fact that ‘Op” referred to an observation post rather than an operation is made clear later in the Diary entry.)
Now Brendan Hughes would undoubtedly quarrel with the description of what happened as being a “snatch attempt” since the undercover soldiers opened fire on him, according to his account, as soon as they jumped out of their van but in every other aspect his version of events and the British Army’s coincide.
It is important to note that the ‘War Diary’ says that the OP, the covert observation post from which Hughes was spotted, was compromised and closed down. But five days later, on September 7th, a new covert OP was set up not far away from the first. This time the operation was code-named Operation TOM FORCE. There’s that word TOM again. This is how the ‘War Diary’ describes events (Recce Pl means Reconnaissance Platoon):
OP TOM TIME.
Recce Pl covert OP inserted into 51 FALLS RD. Reported James BRYSON in LEESON ST. A hot pursuit by A Coy proved negative. OP remained in position.
And then, two days later on September 9th, the ‘War Diary’ records:
Tom force OP relieved by sect of recce. 2 MRF cars under comd.
In other words the Royal Anglians had under their command two car loads of MRF undercover soldiers to call upon. Remember what that note to Whitelaw about the Rooney killing had to say: “Their (the MRF) activities are co-ordinated by Brigade Headquarters but they liaise and operate in support of IS (Internal Security) battalions in the city”. Battalions like the Royal Anglian Regiment, for instance.
What would happen in the circumstances described in the ‘War Diary’ is that if the soldiers in the OP spotted someone of interest, say Brendan Hughes or Jim Bryson, they would alert their commanders based at Hastings Street RUC station who would in turn mobilise the MRF cars and they would move into action, assuming they were in a position to.
The circumstances of the two clandestine operations suggest that TOM FORCE was a continuation of TOM TIME, brought about only because the covert OP that spotted Brendan Hughes had been compromised, was withdrawn and apparently replaced by a new covert OP for TOM FORCE. And only seven days separated the so-called ‘snatch attempt’ on Brendan Hughes and this admission that the Royal Anglians had two MRF cars under their command for such ‘clandestine’ operations.
It is of course possible that the MRF was present for TOM FORCE but not for TOM TIME. But how likely was that? Brendan Hughes’ ‘D’ Coy area in the lower Falls was the most active IRA area in the city at the time and common sense suggests that the British Army would have deployed the available panoply of overt and covert forces against it on a full-time basis. And that would include the MRF.
Given all this it is difficult not to believe or at least strongly suspect that the undercover soldiers who pursued Brendan Hughes may well have been members of General Frank Kitson’s elite Military Reaction Force.
Now ain’t history interesting?
Here are the first two pages of the 2nd Batt Royal Anglian Regiment’s War Diary for the period Aug 2nd 1972 through December 5th 1972. They show the entries for Operations TOM TIME & TOM FORCE:
Here is the relevant portion of the British Army document on the killing of Daniel Rooney; the document sets out what appears to be the role and function of the MRF in the first paragraph. Note the handwritten entry “S of S to see” which presumably is a reference to the then Northern Secretary William Whitelaw. (All documents courtesy of the National Archive, Kew, Surrey, England)
History can indeed be interesting but not everyone thinks that way or indeed that its records should be shared or made available to the public. As this article shows British Army regiments and battalions keep so-called ‘War Diaries’, invaluable historical records usually available for release within a reasonable time period. The Royal Anglian diaries for 1972 were released for public scrutiny earlier this year, forty years after the event. That’s ten years longer than the 30-year rule which applies to many other government records but still reasonable given their potentially sensitive contents.
Outfits like the Royal Anglians are not the only military bodies to keep diaries. Brigades (Bde’s) do as well and there were three of them in Northern Ireland during the Troubles (still are by the way): 39 Bde, which was Belfast; 3 Bde based in Portadown and 8 Bde based in Derry. Their staff also compiled ‘War Diaries’ and since key military decisions were either made or implemented at Brigade level during the Troubles it is here that the really interesting history is to be read.
Except dear reader, we will both be long dead before that opportunity arises. Whereas other British Army Brigades, such as the BAOR, or British Army On the Rhine, have already released their ‘War Diaries’ for a good portion of the 1970’s, the Northern Ireland units are committed to long-term secrecy. None of the ‘War Diaries’ for 1972, the most violent year of the Troubles, will be released until January 2057; that is an embargo of 84 years.
But some apparently ultra sensitive periods affecting British Army operations in Belfast, that is 39 Bde, will be closed for even longer. The months of June and August 1972 and the month of June 1973 are embargoed for 100 years, that is a full century. Now June and August 1972 were intriguing months. June 1972 saw the arrangements for the IRA ceasefire and Cheney Walk talks being put in place but it was also a period of intense MRF activity, including a controversial drive-by shooting on the Glen Road in West Belfast. August 1972 was the month of Operation Motorman (it was launched on July 31st) but it was also when the notorious UDA killer, Albert ‘Ginger’ Baker and his gang began a rampage of savage sectarian killings in Belfast. Many years later Baker would claim that the MRF had inspired his violence.
Now, Baker’s allegations are far-reaching to say the least and it is not difficult to see why many people do not take them seriously. At the very least such a claim requires independent evidence to support it before that can even begin to happen and so far it has not been found. The evidence may or may not lie in the 39 Bde ‘War Diary’ for August 1972. But we won’t know until January 2073.
One can only presume that the decision to add sixteen years to the embargo of that and the other months’ ‘War Diaries’ was taken in consultation with, if not on the advice, of the Brigade’s senior officers of that day. These were likely to include the top man, Brigadier Frank Kitson. Although some records suggest he had left Belfast by the Spring of 1972, much of what happened in 39 Bde during the rest of 1972 was a consequence of his policies and decisions. So it would be surprising if he didn’t have an input to the decision. We don’t know why the embargo extension was approved but it’s a fair bet that Kitson and others on his staff had a very interesting reason to keep their ‘War Diary’ a little bit more secret.