By James Kinchin-White and Ed Moloney
Aside from the widely-held belief that the MRF was the brainchild of Brigadier Frank Kitson – the commander of the British Army in Belfast between September 1970 and April 1972 – and that it was largely modeled on the pseudo-gangs that he created to counter the Mau-Mau during the Kenyan uprising of the 1950’s, precious little is known about the genesis of the unit which was the precursor of undercover British military activity during the Troubles.
However a close study of documents now available from the British government’s archive at Kew in Surrey, makes it possible to put some flesh on the otherwise bare bones, enough perhaps to construct a working theory to explain the origins of the MRF.
THE BOMB SQUAD
In the spring and summer of 1971 the IRA started to intensify its commercial bombing campaign in Belfast, partly in the hope of forcing the British to introduce internment before intelligence on the nascent Provisionals had improved, but also in the knowledge that this would destabilise Unionist politics.
In one spectacular and provocative act that July the IRA orchestrated a series of explosions along the route of the annual Twelfth Orange parade in Belfast.
The bombs exploded during the night and the next day thousands of angry Orangemen were obliged to march past devastated streets and wrecked shops and businesses, helpless witnesses to the gravest threat to the NI state since its foundation.
As the summer lengthened and the bombings escalated, Unionist anger intensified, fueling demands for a crackdown on the IRA and strengthening political extremists like Ian Paisley and their working class Loyalist counterparts in the paramilitary groups. The pressure on the British Army to respond grew accordingly.
One of the first responses to this growing crisis was the creation of a mobile unit of plainclothes soldiers, in radio contact with British bases around Belfast, who patrolled the city in civilian cars in the hope of intercepting bombing teams either en route to targets or on their way home after delivering their deadly loads.
This unit was known as the Bomb Squad and a flavour of its modus operandi and membership can be gleaned from log sheet entries from the evening of May 16th and 17th, 1971. They were radioed in by soldiers from the Ist Bn Light Infantry.
The first reads:
Some one in the Bomb Squad slowed a patrol down using a pistol – more details to follow but a very dangerous practice.
Man got out of a white Vauxhall waved down a mobile. As the commander got out of the veh, man had his hand on a pistol in his belt – very luck (sic) not to get shot.
The log entry added:
Man had dark hair with a scots accent, grey suit white shirt
The second, the following night reads:
Ref Bomb Squad incident.
1. Man said he was Special Forces.
2. Carrying Mil ID Card.
Got into Red Vauxhall Cresta, new car – didn’t take Regd No.
Here are the relevant log sheets:
Log sheets from 39 Brigade – Kitson’s Brigade – are available for May 1971 through to July but not for the autumn months following the introduction of internment that August.
The available logs show a regular pattern of activity by the Bomb Squad in Belfast; sometimes the unit is at the scene of an explosion or violent incident arresting suspects, more often the regular military is radioing it with intelligence about suspicious cars or people.
It is important to understand what the Bomb Squad was not. It was not involved in defusing explosive devices; that task was left to the Army Technical Officer (ATO) who operated separately. The Bomb Squad’s job was to catch IRA bombers, or if that was not possible to make the IRA’s journey to targets more difficult and dangerous.
Here is an example of one of the Bomb Squad’s more pro-active operations which took place in Divis Flats on July 7th, 1971:
1 RGJ – Ref the 2 men arrested. Sniffer was clear but Bomb Squad are dealing as there is fairly good evidence against them. But since have arrested man with nail bomb in pocket in DIVIS on a balcony at WHITEHALL BLOCK. This is where the bombs (all nail) have been coming from. Total of 12 to date.
More typically, the Bomb Squad would respond to radio messages from units on the ground. Here, for example, the Bomb Squad is alerted, on an unknown date in July, after traces of explosives were detected on the hands of three or four men at the scene of a bombing, referred to just as ‘Gilbbey’s explosion’.
The traces were detected using something called a ‘sniffa’ device, the suspects were arrested and taken to the nearest RUC station, followed closely by the Bomb Squad which presumably were present during the suspects’ interrogation:
1 RGJ (1st Btn Royal Green Jackets) – Four men detained at scene of Gilbbey’s explosion. Of these 3 have positive sniffa traces on their hand. They are being sent to Musgrave St – (ACTION) Bomb squad info.
On July 9th, 1971 – Log serials 58 to 60 – another routine operation takes place when the Bomb Squad is alerted about the location of an explosion at the RUC station at New Barnsley in Ballymurphy, suggesting, perhaps, that one of its patrols was in the area at the time and could give pursuit:
2 Para – Explosion. (ACTION) HQNI
1 LI – RUC Stn, New Barnsley, no cas. (ACTION) Bomb Squad infor.
2 Para – Blue 1100 responsible – the bomb was tossed into the compound. (ACTION) Clamp less AB.
‘Clamp less A & B’ was a standing order which instructed mobile patrols in the area to set up a roadblock.
The following morning, at 7:45 am on July 10th, an item from 1st Btn Light Infantry in the log sheet (serial 50) shows that the Bomb Squad was also involved in intelligence work:
1LI At 0001 Havana St Plastic St Night Watchman Francesco Antonio was not there. Bomb squad are interested in him. He may have been connected with the bomb attack.
Which bomb attack aroused suspicion about Mr Antonio is not clear but a 50lb IRA bomb was detonated in a manhole in nearby Flax Street the night before and this may have focussed the Bomb Squad on the whereabouts of the the night watchman. Here is the log sheet:
On July 13th, 1971 the IRA planted a bomb at the British Homes Stores in central Belfast and the Bomb Squad was able to arrest two people on the scene who were from the New Lodge Road area (Serial 13).
Separately, the ATO reported in to describe the damage (Serial 16), thus confirming that the Bomb Squad and bomb disposal were organisationally unconnected.
First the Bomb Squad:
Bomb Squad – 2 People arrested British Home Stores John C Quigley 9c ALAMEIN House, Margaret O’Connor 19 ARLINGTON St wife of James O’Connor – (ACTION) HQNI informed
Then the ATO:
ATO – British Home Stores: 10-20 lbs – too much debris to tell means of initiation. Seat of explosive outside CASTLE INN. Extensive damage to windows. Moderate structural damage. Other stores affected. (ACTION) HQNI informed.
There are two more references to the Bomb Squad in the available 39 Brigade log sheets for 1971.
One, dated 23:15 pm, July 14th, from Ist Battalion, Light Infantry, reads:
1 LI – Explosion. North west of my location, Plastic Factory, North Havana St. Clamp less A & B – (ACTION) Bomb Squad info. CCI
The second, on the same date, but five minutes later, reads:
1 LI Co-op – Alliance Ave. Old Park Rd. Car suspect Whie VW CIA 702 one head light, last seen heading NS along Westland Rd, a red mini 9994 UZ seen in Dunkeld Gdns moving fast, by RUC – (ACTION) Bomb squad info. ATO tasked, HQNI info.
The last reference to the Bomb Squad in the available log sheets comes on July 19th, 1971, serial 79 at 23:45 pm, which reads:
To: 1 LI, From 2 PARA – 1300A Reg No 1370 UZ, 2 passengers, 1 male, 1 female, no rear window, seen moving from our area to yours. Seen near Paisley Pk – colour white – (ACTION) Info RUC, bomb squad
Ten months later, the available 39 Brigade log sheets make no mention at all of the Bomb Squad. Instead the MRF makes its first appearance, at least in the documents that are available from Kew for inspection.
From this we can say with a high level of confidence that in 1971 the British Army mobile unit tasked to catch IRA activists, especially bombers, was the Bomb Squad; a year later it was the MRF, although we know it did more than than chase suspected IRA bombing teams through the streets of Belfast. More of that later.
The MRF first appears on available 39 Brigade log sheets on May 31st 1972, although it is more than likely that the unit was operational some time before that.
The occasion was an elaborate surveillance operation on the Royal Avenue Hotel on May 31st, 1972 which at various stages embraced not just the MRF but also the new Brigadier of 39 Brigade (Kitson had left at the end of April) and the GOC, General Harry Tuzo.
(Click here for archive footage of the Royal Avenue Hotel before and during the Troubles: https://digitalfilmarchive.net/media/super-8-stories-the-royal-avenue-570 )
The British Army had intelligence that the IRA was planning to hold a press conference in the hotel and the MRF was tasked to keep an eye on a Triumph Toleda car in the hotel car park which contained a man the military believed would attend the press conference.
The Army planned to cordon off the hotel and screen all those in attendance. Army PR people would arrive to identify bona fide journalists. The Europa hotel was also under surveillance in case there was a change of venue.
At one point the MRF tailed a suspicious car, thinking that perhaps the venue for the press conference had been changed to Casement Park or Ardoyne. They followed the car which took a circuitous route towards Lisburn and then was lost. The military suspected it might have been a decoy.
It is not entirely clear how the operation ended except there is no record in the logs of soldiers or RUC entering the Royal Avenue Hotel. At one point the GOC, General Tuzo intervened:
Here are the log sheets for the Royal Avenue Hotel operation:
We know that some time after the summer of 1971 the Bomb Squad no longer appeared in 39 Brigade log sheets and we know that sometime thereafter the MRF makes its first appearance. It was certainly active by May of 1972.
But is that enough evidence from this material to support the view that the MRF evolved out of the Bomb Squad? By itself the answer must be no.
But there is other evidence linking the two units and it comes in the shape of one Captain Arthur Herbert Watchus, known to his friends as ‘Sassy’.
Captain Watchus is one of those rare soldiers who manages to rise from the other ranks’ canteen, to the sergeants mess and then to the officers mess – an ordinary squaddie who climbs the greasy pole to join the officer class, in his case an officer in the Parachute regiment, army number: 22995768.
In March 1967, Sgt Major Watchus was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and his elevation was duly noted in the London Gazette:
By the time Arthur Watchus was posted to Northern Ireland he had earned another promotion, to Captain and it was as Captain Watchus that he makes his first appearance in the 39 Brigade log sheets.
At half-past midnight on July 13th, 1971, the day after the Twelfth and two nights after IRA bombs had blasted the route of that year’s Orange parade, Capt Watchus contacted HQNI – British Army headquarters at Thiepval barracks in Lisburn – to say that he had caught “two of the bombers” who were tackled by members of the bomb squad as they were laying the explosive charges.
“Will be cast iron case’, he announced:
So in the summer of 1971 Captain Watchus is a member of the Bomb Squad, possibly a senior member.
A year later Captain Watchus is still serving in Northern Ireland but now he enters the 39 Brigade log sheets under the label MRF.
The first entry, dated may 11th, 1972 suggests not only that he is a member of the MRF but a senior member, with sufficient authority to propose operations to Thiepval barracks. He may well be the MRF’s field commander:
Here is the full log:
Here are more log sheets detailing Captain Watchus’ interaction with the MRF. This one shows that he participated in the surveillance of the Royal Avenue Hotel:
Here is Captain Watchus monitoring an operation called JUMPING BEAN from the MRF operations room. JUMPING BEAN may well be a reference to the arrest of Louis Hammond, a British Army deserter who joined the Provisional IRA. He was arrested in May 1972 by the military and agreed to work as a double agent. Around a year later he was found shot and badly wounded, apparently by the IRA. Whatever the truth, Watchus’ role suggests he was a senior MRF figure.
So Captain Arthur Watchus provides real evidence of a link between the Bomb Squad and the MRF, and a strong pointer to the MRF’s origins.
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