Monthly Archives: September 2018

The MRF File – Part Three: The Beginnings, The Bomb Squad And The Mysterious Capt Watchus

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.


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: )

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.

‘No Stone Unturned’ – The Lawyers Speak Out To Irish-America, Blame PSNI For Arrests


This is an edited version of a statement issued to Irish-American activists by Niall Murphy, solicitor for film-makers Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey who were arrested at the weekend and questioned about the alleged theft of documents from the Police Ombudsman’s office in Belfast during the production of  ‘No Stone Unturned’, the expose of the 1994 Loughinsland killings.

The journalists were arrested and questioned by officers from the Durham police but lawyers for the two men insist the operation was really a PSNI affair.

Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney – their arrests was entirely a PSNI operation claims their lawyer

“….my view is that this was a wholehearted PSNI agenda. No doubts about that. Durham Police and the PSNI were keen to point to Durham’s independence. What should also be noted is that only three Durham Police officers were apparent on Friday, the Senior Investigating Officer Darren Ellis and two detectives asking pre-prepared questions in interview, reading from scripts.

“In addition to these 3 Durham officers the arrest and detention strategy involved well over 100 PSNI officers. There was at least 25-30 officers in attendance at each search location, the two homes and the business address and each Durham detective was attended by a PSNI detective in interview also.

“The senior co-ordinating sergeant supervising the interviews was a PSNI officer as was the custody sergeant who imposed restrictions on the liberty of the two journalists when granting bail. This same custody sergeant also refused to release tape recordings of the interviews in abject departure from ordinary practice.

“In my respectful opinion, this arrest and interview strategy was overwhelmingly directed and executed by officers of the PSNI.

“The arrests occurred on Friday 31 August and as Saturday 1st turned to Sunday 2nd September, Drew Harris assumed his powers as Garda Commissioner in the south. One train of thought might say that this was his parting gift.

The victims of the Loughinisland killings

“The irony is that the producers of the film, Trevor Birney and Alex Gibney had actually proactively sought out the senior command of the PSNI to TELL THEM that the film would be naming the names of the suspects. ACC Stephen Martin was the senior officer who reposed no concerns other than if the film intending EXPLICITLY revealing that any of the suspects were in fact informers, as that would impact the ability of the PSNI to recruit and maintain informers.

“It is obvious that the interests of the families of those murdered are of little or no concern.

“The Truth Cannot Be Arrested.  The film, as you know, premiered in New York on 30 September, (2017). A link was provided to the Police Ombudsman simultaneously with the British premiere in London a week later on 7 October (2017). As such, the Ombudsman had a full week to seek an injunction as did the killers and the police, as the details were widely circulated on social media. No such injunction was taken, nobody has issued libel proceedings (although the 12 month limit to issue proceedings doesn’t expire until 7 October) and press complaints lodged against newspapers were all dismissed.

“This arrest strategy is an utter farce solely directed at intimidating those who seek to expose state involvement in murder. Journalists today, NGO’s, lawyers and families tomorrow…

“‘A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny’.

“Ironically this is a quote from Winston Churchill…”

Ludlow Family Defect To KRW Law Breakaway

In the first high profile client defection from KRW Law to the new law firm established by former KRW employees, the family of slain Co Louth forestry worker Seamus Ludlow have announced that they are hiring the new company to represent the family’s interests.

Ludlow family spokesman, Michael Donegan made the announcement on Facebook, saying that the new firm’s representative Gavin Booth would henceforth be the family solicitor:

As there have been no different views regarding our future legal representation, and since the general consensus within the Ludlow family has been that we should stay with Gavin Booth (seen here some time ago with Thomas Fox), it is now my duty to confirm that Gavin Booth will be our solicitor from this day forward.

It is understood that Mr Booth now works for the KRW rival.

Seamus Ludlow (47) was found shot to death in a country lane not far from his home near Dundalk, Co Louth in May 1976, sparking decades of speculation about who was responsible.

Suspects ranged from members of the British SAS to the IRA but in 1998 this reporter was able to disclose in The Sunday Tribune that his killers were a group of UDR soldiers and Red Hand Commandos (RHC), a particularly violent Loyalist group, who had wandered across the Border after a day’s drinking in search of an IRA leader to kill.

Unable to find him they came across Seamus Ludlow making his way home from a local bar, offered him a lift and then took him to the laneway where he was shot dead. His body was then thrown over a hedge. The killer, nicknamed ‘Mambo’ was a notorious RHC gunman.

The source for this account was a Comber, Co. Down man, Paul Hosking who had gone on the trip that day not realising how it would end. He told this reporter that in 1987 he had given a full account of that night’s tragedy to the RUC who had done nothing about it.

Equally, the family have accused the Irish police, an Garda Siochana of a smear campaign by erroneously blaming the local IRA for killing Ludlow, alleging he had been an informer.

The family are not alone in suspecting that the two police forces were trying to deflect attention away from the Red Hand Commando gunman because he was an agent of a branch of British intelligence.

The family say they were given promises of a commission of inquiry in the Garda investigation of the Ludlow murder but in November last year the Dublin High Court ruled against their bid to force the government to establish the inquiry.

Their legal efforts are continuing, now led not by KRW but by their new rivals.

The MRF File – Part Two: More Evidence On MRF’s Name, Some Conflicting

By James Kinchin-White and Ed Moloney

There are three references in the following official British Army reports and correspondence to the MRF’s name being the ‘Mobile Reaction Force’, and one which seemingly prefers the title, ‘Military Reaction Force’.

A separate Log Sheet of incidents compiled by the Royal Anglian Regiment on May 12th, 1972 also refers to the ‘Mobile Reaction Force’. The Anglians were based in Belfast, the MRF’s main operational area.

The first reference to ‘Mobile’ comes in a letter written by the Director of Army Staff Duties, Brigadier W G H Beach on February 17th, 1972 to Brigadier M E Tickell, the Chief of Staff at British Army HQ at Thiepval Barracks, Lisburn.

The correspondence came in the wake of a visit by Beach to British Army units, including the MRF, earlier that month.

The letter is a formal version of the ‘loose minute’, or draft which figured in the first post in this series on the MRF’s name and can be regarded as a confirmation of the term, Mobile Reaction Force, used in the ‘loose minute’.

The reference to ‘Military Reaction Force’, comes in a document outlining the composition and duties of regiments and units in the 39 Brigade (Belfast) area in August 1972. It appears this document was widely circulated in the Brigade area. It is reproduced in full towards the end of this post.

Our preference is to suggest that ‘Mobile’ is the correct term since it is the one used by the British Army’s top brass in confidential correspondence between themselves; the term ‘Military’ comes in a document that would have had a wide circulation in the 39 Brigade area and could well have been seen by elements not entirely trusted by the military’s higher echelons. Amongst these would have been Belfast-based UDR regiments.

The first reference in this batch of documents to ‘Mobile’ comes at the end of the second page of the correspondence between Tickell and Beach, in which it is also revealed that the MRF recruited former SAS personnel to its ranks:

The second reference to ‘Mobile Reaction Force’ comes at the tail end of a six-page summary of the visit to British Army units by Maj-Gen Beach, the Director of Army Staff Duties on 8th and 9th February, 1972.

This document also has an intriguing reference to ‘Operation Four Square’, although it seems from the size of the operation – ’20 to 22′ infantry units –  that this is not the same as the ill-fated attempt of the same name by military intelligence to discern IRA activists through the forensic examination of dirty laundry which was interdicted by the Provos’ Belfast Brigade in November that year.

The reference to the MRF suggests that the unit’s headquarters were at Palace barracks, Hollywood and that the OC at the time was somewhat dissatisfied at the level of continuity in his commanders, i.e. they were being constantly changed.

Here is the six-page document:

Then there is this document which discusses the use of second hand cars by the ‘Mobile Reaction Force’:

These log sheets below, which catalogue events in the Royal Anglian Regiment’s operational area in Belfast, describe an incident in which the CO of the Anglians requested the assistance of the ‘mobile reaction force’ in the arrest of the Adjutant of the Official IRA’s 1st Battalion, one Peter McIlroy.

The idea was that the MRF soldiers, in plain clothes, would accompany two RUC Special Branch officers into the Orchid Bar in King Street where they would arrest McIlroy and send him off to Long Kesh.

Note the signature in right hand margin of the MRF’s commander approving the Royal Anglians’ request.

In the event the Special Branch men appear to have got cold feet. One stayed in his car and the other would not enter the bar, leaving the two MRF soldiers to search the club by themselves in vain for the Official IRA officer.

Here are the relevant extracts from the log sheets followed by the full logs themselves:

On page 7 of the following document, which is a summary of units and their duties in the 39 Brigade area (Belfast) dated August 1972, the MRF is referred to at the ‘Military Reaction Force’ and the following interesting detail is given about its role, relationship to RUC Special Branch and modus operandi:

The document also has this interesting detail on the British Army’s arrest policy in the summer of 1972. Loyalist activists could not be arrested or interned, even though sectarian murders were soaring, but republicans of various sorts were fair game:

Here is the full report: