By James Kinchin-White and Ed Moloney
As Commander of 39 Brigade, Frank Kitson created the MRF but he left Belfast just days before his unit first fired shots in anger
On April 30th, 1972, the British Army officer widely credited with creating the Mobile Reaction Force (MRF), Brigadier Frank Kitson left his post as commander of the British Army’s 39th Brigade – centred in Belfast – and took up a new job in charge of the British Army’s School of Infantry, whose Facebook site describes its place in military lore thus:
The School of Infantry is the birthplace of the British Infantryman. It provides basic and initial trade training at the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick and subsequent career courses at the Infantry Battle School in Brecon, such as the world-renowned Section Commanders and Platoon Sergeants Battle Courses. It is also the home of the Specialist Weapons School in Warminster.
The School of Infantry is the spiritual home of the Infantry. Everyone who serves in the British Army as an Infantryman must pass through one of, if not all of, the schools mentioned above.
It was an important posting for Kitson, and doubtless a fitting recognition, from his vantage point, of the difficult job he had performed in Belfast. His new position would help propel him up the grand staircase reserved for select members of the British establishment: to a knighthood, promotion to General, to the post of Commander of UK Land Forces until eventually he would rub shoulders with royalty, as Aide-de-Camp General to Queen Elizabeth II.
Back in Belfast, Kitson’s MRF was ready for action. Formed in large part out of the military’s Bomb Squad (see here) which was active in Belfast in 1970 and 1971, and consisting in part of former SAS soldiers, the Mobile Reaction Force had completed its training and, driving around the streets of Belfast in second hand cars and dressed in plainclothes, Kitson’s creation was ready for action against the IRA.
It soon became clear that the role envisaged for the MRF went way beyond covert surveillance and intelligence gathering. The crews in the MRF vehicles were armed with Browning pistols and Sterling sub-machine guns and as the month of May 1972 would reveal, carried these weapons on the understanding that if the opportunity arose, they would use them.
We do not know whether Frank Kitson’s departure from Belfast acted in some way as a trigger for the violence that marked the MRF’s entree to the battlefield that May, or whether it was just a coincidence. But his exit also saw a geographical expansion of the MRF’s activity.
Documents released from the Kew archive in Surrey indicate that shortly after Kitson joined the School of Infantry, the MRF was no longer to be confined to the Belfast region.
The following document, a ‘confidential’ authorisation request for circuit boards for the covert radio systems used by MRF patrols, shows that there were plans in June 1972 to create a four-car MRF unit in the 3rd Brigade area, which would take in south and north Armagh, Newry and other parts of the Border, increasingly violent IRA areas in 1972.
The MRF was becoming the British Army’s spear point in two of the most dangerous and active IRA zones in Northern Ireland.
Whatever the timing of Kitson’s departure signified, whether he deliberately delayed sending the MRF into battle until he was well away from Belfast or that the confluence of subsequent events was entirely serendipitous, we do not know.
But the fact remains that when the MRF’s activities plunged the unit into bloody controversy, Brigadier Frank Kitson was many miles away.
THE MRF SWINGS INTO ACTION, FIRST SHOTS FIRED
Six days after Frank Kitson flew back to England, at just after ten past nine on the evening of May 6th, the MRF fired the first shots in anger at three alleged gunmen, one armed with a rifle and two with pistols. The MRF were patrolling the Glen Road near Oliver Plunkett primary school when they came across the gunmen.
Four bursts of six shots were fired by the MRF, and two shots were returned. The MRF claimed ‘1 definite hit’, while the gunmen missed with the shots they fired. (See Serial 87 below in the HQNI log of 6 May 1972)
The log above was compiled by HQNI, i.e. by the operations room at Thiepval barracks. But a log put together by 39 Brigade in Belfast, adds important detail, notably the name of the soldier in charge of the MRF patrol. His name was ‘Sgt WILLIAMS’ and his name will re-occur in other controversial and bloody incidents involving the MRF, not least this one.
Look at Serial 120 below:
MRF SOLDIER SHOOTS SELF AND INNOCENT TEENAGER
A day later and another controversial shooting involving the MRF in the same part of west Belfast, the Glen Road in upper Andersonstown. This time a member of the MRF unit suffered what the 39 Brigade log described as a ‘slight injury’ and the soldier involved was dispatched to the military wing of Mugrave Park Hospital for treatment. But the story turned out to be more complicated.
According to the 39 Brigade log, the MRF patrol was fired on by gunmen in two cars – a report from the 2nd Field Regiment said that 15 sub-machine gun shots had been fired at the junction of the Glen and Shaws Roads at just after 11:30 pm. The MRF claimed two hits, one definite, one possible, when one of their number fired a sub machine gun from the back seat. The log puts the time of this incident at 23:35, i.e. just after half-eleven at night.
Further entries radioed in by the MRF patrol claimed that two vehicles had been involved in the attack; a gunman opened up with a shotgun. The two, presumably IRA cars were parked 50 yards from the junction of the Glen and Shaws Roads. At 11:30 after a Verey flare was fired across their front, the gunmen opened fired from ‘MOYARDS Hse’ and the MRF returned fire, claiming one definite hit and one possible hit.
See serials 104, 108, 01 and 02:
The log above was compiled by 39 Brigade but logs put together by HQNI on May 7th and 8th add detail that puts an entirely different complexion on the alleged shooting incident.
The HQNI log for May 7th, serial 81, reports the incident much as 39 Brigade claims it happened:
‘233o hrs. Shots fired at MRF mobile ptl Shaws/Glen. 1 mil cas – in MPH – not serious. Fire returned at gunmen. 1 poss hit – 1 definite hit’.
So, it appears as if the IRA shot one of the MRF soldiers in the incident. Except a log entry in the HQNI account at 0103 on May 8th, seems to suggest that the MRF casualty was wounded by a ricocheted bullet fired by either himself or a colleague inside the MRF vehicle.
Serial 2, May 8th reads:
‘Re MRF incident. 3 x HV shot at two cars. 2 hits on door of first car. Hit on SMG and ricocheted into leg. 1 x Verey cart at second car. On Glen Rd East of OP – school. Two gunmen involved.’
The significant detail here is that it seems that the soldier wounded in this incident was shot by his own side, the bullet hitting a sub-machine gun and ricocheting into his leg. So was there any exchange of gunfire with the IRA?
But then, at 0315 hrs, the HQNI log, at serial 8, records this message from 39 Brigade:
235o hrs. Graham Higgins (15) (NT) 70 Corrib Ave admitted Mater Hosp GSW arms, leg and stomach. In Theatre. Not in danger. He states he was walking in Glen Rd at 2330 hrs when shot at from car’.
By the way (NT) means ‘no trace’, i.e. no trace of subversive links.
2330 hrs, half-past eleven at night in most people’s language, was the exact time that the MRF patrol claimed to be engaged in a firefight with IRA gunmen in two cars, also on the Glen Road. How does that square with, how could that square with the experience of the young Higgins boy? How was he shot and who shot him?
Was the MRF patrol responsible, bored perhaps and looking for a little action to lighten up the evening, and ready to take their exasperation out on an unfortunate local who stumbled into their path?
Or was the fifteen-year-old caught by accident in the middle of a firefight? If so, he made no mention of that in hospital to his military interrogator. And how was the MRF soldier wounded? Who exactly was he firing at when his bullet ricocheted into his leg? Was he aiming at Graham Higgins when the accident happened? If not, at whom?
See serial 81:
See serial 8:
See serial 11 – Graham Higgins was shot from a Blue Avenger according to a Mr Monaghan, possibly someone who came to his aid afterwards. What sort of car was the MRF team driving; what colour was it? Will that information be in the files somewhere:
See serial 2 for explanation of how MRF soldier shot himself accidentally:
SGT THOMPSON CHASES AN IRA CAR, SHOOTS BUT MISSES AND THEN STALLS HIS VEHICLE
The blood and broken glass on the Glen Road had hardly been cleared away when, less than twelve hours later, the MRF was on the warpath again, this time in the Clonard district off the Falls Road in pursuit of a hijacked Morris 1100 car, firing shots at what they presumed was an IRA unit.
See serials 45 and 46:
See serials 49, 51 and 52:
See serial 54:
MRF MAKES ITS FIRST KILL, WOUNDS SEVEN MEN – NONE IRA
It was only a matter of time before MRF bullets took a life and on the night of May 13th, 1972, less than a fortnight after Frank Kitson had bidden Belfast farewell, the MRF claimed its first kill.
The MRF carried out two shootings that night, within minutes of each other and when the guns had fallen silent one man lay dead and seven were wounded. None were IRA members.
The indiscriminate nature of the shootings raised a fundamental question about the MRF’s raison d’etre. Was its role to hunt down and kill, if necessary, active IRA gunmen and bombers, or was it to generate fear and terror in the community from which the IRA sprang?
THE NON-EXISTENT ROADBLOCK AT SLIEVEGALLION DRIVE
The first shooting happened at ten minutes past midnight on May 13th, 1972 and the MRF record in the 39 Brigade log sheet raised as many questions as it provided answers.
The entry in the log sheet is dated at 1:25 a.m., some 75 minutes after the shooting happened. It claims that one high velocity (HV) shot was fired at the MRF car from a road block of some twenty men north of the junction of Slievegallion Drive and Andersonstown Road.
The MRF patrol returned fire, without claiming any hits, and this is where the story becomes curious. Two weapons were fired by the MRF; one was the standard issue Sterling sub machine gun (SMG) and the other was a Walther .32 pistol. Eights rounds were fired from the SMG and five from the Walther.
The Walther .32 (7.65mm) is a smaller pistol than the MRF’s standard issue Browning 9 mm and is regarded as a weapon suitable in size and weight for a woman to use. So was the ‘offr 8 Bde att’ accompanying the MRF patrol that night, a woman and if so, who was she?
The MRF report to 39 Brigade that early morning claimed no hits but that was not true.
Entries in both the 39 Brigade and HQNI log sheets suggest that far from failing to hit anyone in the alleged roadblock, the MRF had wounded two men.
One was Eugene Devlin who was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital by a passing motorist at twenty minutes past midnight, about ten minutes after the shooting. Another man, Aidan McAloon – misnamed as McGibboy in the 39 Brigade log sheet – was also picked up by a passer by and taken to hospital.
Both men said they had been shot by a taxi driver at Sievegullion Drive, mistaking the MRF vehicle for a cab.
See serial 21 (cont’d to next log sheet):
See serial 13:
ONE DEAD, FIVE WOUNDED AT CESA ROADBLOCK
The summer of 1972 was a period of escalating sectarian tension in Belfast. In January 14 civilians were shot dead by Paratroopers in Derry, on a day that would be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’; IRA recruitment and activity intensified, especially in Belfast where increasing numbers of civilians were being caught up in IRA bombs.
Tensions rose, especially in Loyalist areas, when Stormont was suspended by Westminster in March. That was followed by the mobilisation of Loyalist groups like the UDA which took to the streets of Belfast in large, organised marches.
Sectarian killings of Catholics grew in number and savagery while in both Loyalist and Nationalist areas vigilantees took to the streets at night to protect their streets and neighbours from attack.
On the Nationalist side, one such group – now long faded into history – was called the Catholic ex-Servicemen’s Association (CESA), composed of former British soldiers drawn from Nationalist areas of the North, especially in Belfast. CESA claimed many thousands in membership, probably more than was accurate but it did organise to protect Nationalist areas from attack by setting up barricades, roadblocks and night-time patrols.
The British Army was hostile to CESA. The British GOC, General Harry Tuzo refused to meet their leaders but had no qualms about their Loyalist equivalent, the Ulster Special Constabulary Association (USCA) whose leaders he did meet. Documents from Kew show that the military regarded CESA as being close to the IRA, although in practice they were often rivals for the affection of the Catholic community.
On the same night that Eugene Devlin and Aidan McAloon were shot by the MRF, the same motorised patrol came across a road check, not far away, manned by CESA members at the junction of Finaghy Road North and Riverdale Park South.
The location was a sensitive part of Belfast’s sectarian topography; a couple of hundred yard east of the roadblock, on the other side of the main Belfast to Dublin rail track, lay the Upper Lisburn Road, a strongly Loyalist part of the city. The route was a favourite passageway into republican west Belfast for Loyalist assassins.
The account put together by the MRF and reproduced on the HQNI log for May 13th 1972, shows that the two shootings at Slievegallion Drive and Finaghy Road North were separated by just 8 minutes; the first occurring at 10 minutes past midnight, the second at 18 minutes past midnight.
The distance between Slievegallion Drive and the junction of Riverdale Park South and Finaghy Road North is a short one; one can imagine the MRF patrol, after the shooting at Slievegallion, driving past the CESA road check, perhaps en route to Hollywood barracks and home, and deciding to turn around on the other side of the railway bridge to check it out.
What happened next, as described in the HQNI log, was not supported by any eyewitness testimony. According to the log the soldiers in the MRF car took on no less than seven gunmen, firing three bursts of four shots from their sub machine gun and six shots from a Browning pistol. One civilian was killed and five were wounded. The dead man was later identified as 60-year old Patrick McVeigh, who lived locally.
The British Army provided conflicting accounts of the shooting in public – according to Lost Lives, one referred to a gun battle, another to a rioting crowd and a third combined these two versions.
It is not clear whether the log sheets shown below were made available to the inquest although the hearing was told that forensic evidence supported the view that none of those shot had fired a weapon. The widow of Patrick McVeigh, whom the army misnamed as Joseph at one point, was awarded £20,000 in compensation. The case was re-opened in 1993 and MRF soldiers interviewed but with no result.
See serial 4:
See serial 8 for more details of those shot and serial 9 for HQNI version of Slievegullion Drive shooting:
Reviewing these last two shootings it is impossible not to come to one of two conclusions: either the personnel in the MRF team were out of control psychopaths and outrageous liars or the real function of the MRF was twofold, shoot IRA men if you can, otherwise terrorise the civilian population in the areas where the IRA had roots.
Perhaps in such a way, the MRF hoped to entice the IRA into the open where British superiority in firepower might deliver a decisive blow against the Provisionals. Until the files are opened – and many of 39 Brigade documents are embargoed for a century – we will not know.
THE KILLING OF JEAN SMITH – MRF MAY HAVE BEEN WRONGLY BLAMED
Were it not for the Slievegallion Drive and Finaghy Road shootings it might be possible to view the killing of Jean Smith just over three weeks later in a more charitable light. But given the evident fabrications from the MRF that draped those earlier incidents, the first inclination is to treat alternative explanations of her death with deep skepticism and suspect another MRF cover up.
Closer examination of the British Army’s log sheets however suggest that the MRF may have been wrongly blamed for her killing and that she died in one of those freak accidents that may be more commonplace in war than is always admitted, felled by a single bullet meant for someone else that was fired by a soldier who had no links to the obvious suspects.
Members of her family continue to insist that there is a more sinister explanation for her death; in particular they point to the absence of ballistic evidence to support the single shot theory and to the testimony of her companion that he heard a burst of machine gun fire before she was killed, not a single shot. Automatic fire would be consistent with MRF involvement, as described in log entries by the unit itself, albeit an hour later.
To establish MRF responsibility for her killing it would be necessary to prove that at least two entries in the HQNI log sheets were forged – as well as documentary evidence produced by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). So far that has not been done.
Jean Smith was a married woman but separated from her husband. On the evening of June 8th, she and a male companion, John Carlin, were returning after a date to her home at Tardree Park, off the Glen Road, when, just before midnight, her life was suddenly and violently ended.
As her companion turned his car at the Glen Road bus terminus, not far from the Oliver Plunkett Catholic primary school, he heard a sound like a tire bursting. He syopped and exited the car to investigate and someone, he later said, opened fire with a machine-gun. One bullet hit Jean Smith in the head and she died shortly afterwards. That was the account he gave and stuck to.
A passing taxi stopped and took her body to Andersonstown RUC station, more than a mile away. Officially her death was a mystery. Lost Lives does not ascribe responsibility but sixteen months after her death, the Belfast Telegraph speculated that the IRA had killed Jean Smith, mistaking her and her companion for Army personnel.
The release of log sheets by the Kew archive has thrown some light on the episode but also raises more questions. None of them raise the possibility that the IRA killed Jean Smith.
An entry in the HQNI log, timed at 0030 hrs on June 9th reads (note: NORRIEN PARADE was probably NORGLEN PARADE):
Re girls body. At 2340 hrs approx a taxi driver JAMES BROWN 125 NORRIEN PARADE was driving along GLEN RD with a paz. They were stopped outside OLIVER PLUNKETT school by 3 men who took a woman from a car and pushed her into the taxi next to pas Driver told to drive to nearest hospital. Instead he went to RUC A TOWN arriving at 2347 hrs the woman is Miss J SMITH 4 TARDREE PARK
And later from the same log:
MRS JEAN SMITH was passenger in car travelling through A Town and was at roundabout when it was machine gunned. No front licence plate back one reads 6214 KZ Therefore it appears that neither of the men were involved with SF (Security Forces)
See serials 5 and 8:
If the MRF was involved in the killing of Jean Smith, then the following entry to the HQNI log sheet for June 9, 1972 must have been forged. It reads:
0140 hrs MRF travelling W along GLEN RD 300 meter short of OLIVER PLUNKETT School E and they saw 2 gunmen hiding behind a hedge. Patrol fired 10 x 9mm rounds and claimed 1 hit 1 gunman had a rifle
Jean Smith was shot dead at 1240 but this incident happened at 0140, an hour later. So either the entry has been forged or it is a separate incident.
That latter possibility is implicit in an entry in the HQNI log sheet clocked at 0241 on June 9th which refers to another security force shooting in the same area at roughly the same time – 2322 hrs – that Jean Smith was shot dead. This entry, clocked at 0241 on June 9th, 1972, reads:
at 2322 2 x HV at KP 19 Sanger from waste ground to the south. 3 x 7.62 returned and 1 hit claimed, Another gunman was seen in the garden of 43 GLENVEIGH PK he fired 1 x HV at KP 1 x 7.62 ret. No hit
Translated from military jargon this entry says that at twenty-two minutes past eleven pm, two high velocity shots were fired at an Army Sanger in the Glenveigh/Glen Road area from waste ground. The soldier in the Sanger fired three shots back from a British Army issue SLR, calibre 7.62 mm, and the soldier responsible claimed he had hit someone.
Another gunman was spotted in a garden of a house in Glenveigh Park and he fired one high velocity shot at the observation post. A shot was fired by the soldier but no hit was claimed.
Earlier log entries have civilians putting Jean Smith’s body in a taxi at 1140 pm, fifteen or twenty minutes after the shots fired by the soldier in KP19. The timing of these events seem to link them.
See serials 11 and 13:
The same log sheet has a slightly more detailed account of Jean Smith’s death which comes from the RUC. It continues on the next log sheets and reads:
MRS JEAN SMITH (24) 4 TARDREE PK (separated from her husband) JOHN CARLIN 75 LADYBROOK took her to GLENOWEN for a few drinks. They met William Campbell. At 2230 hrs they drove to LENADOON AVE wher(sic) they dropped him off. They drove to Glen Road. He turned the car and he heard a bang. He thought he had a puncture. He got out and there was a burst of fire which hit the car. He stopped the taxi asked for the girl to be taken to HOSP or SF whilst he went off to tell girls father. Taxi went to RUC CARLIN went to hospital and to RUC.
See serial 16 (contd):
The MRF shooting in the same area took place, according to the HQNI log sheet, almost exactly an hour later than the killing of Jean Smyth. So either that entry was fabricated or there were two shootings on the Glen Road, separated by an hour or so.
Serial 87, below, reads in part:
From BM – Police are dealing with the dead girl found in the taxi. It is known that the SF (Security Forces) claimed a hit in the KP19 shooting.
See Serial 87:
The available evidence from these log sheets suggests that in this case MRF personnel were probably not responsible for Jean Smyth’s untimely death, and that rather, she was an unfortunate but accidental casualty of the war raging in West Belfast in 1972, a war which, undeniably, the MRF had helped to escalate.
There is no doubt, from the available evidence, that the MRF lied about much of its activity in Belfast during the Spring and Summer of 1972. The killing of Jean Smith, however, may not be one of those occasions.
THE GLEN ROAD SHOOTING, A TRIAL AND ACQUITTAL
In mid-June 1972, speculation about an IRA ceasefire intensified. Amid strong opposition from the Belfast IRA, Chief of Staff, Sean MacStiofain prevailed and negotiations began with the British, via the SDLP, to agree the terms of a cessation.
A deal was done, facilitated by John Hume, to grant special category status to IRA (and Loyalist) prisoners and Gerry Adams was released from the Long Kesh internment camp to travel with the IRA delegation to London for a face-to-face meeting with NI Secretary William Whitelaw. He was picked up at the jail by Dolours Price who took the puzzled Adams to a briefing from Belfast commander Seamus Twomey.
On June 22nd, the IRA made the ceasefire official, saying that it would begin at midnight on June 26th. On June 24th, the IRA killed three soldiers in a landmine attack in Co Derry and two days later, on June 26th – the day the ceasefire would begin – two more soldiers were killed.
The IRA would probably have carried out those attacks anyway but the urge to fight on to the very moment the ceasefire officially began could only have been strengthened by an MRF operation, once again on the Glen Road, deliberately aimed, it seemed, to kill civilians.
This time the operation went badly for the MRF. Three Catholic men were shot and wounded near the bus terminal at the top of the Glen Road and the RUC stopped the MRF car, a Ford Cortina, arrested its crew and eventually charged the leader of the team, 26-year-old Sgt Clive Williams with the attempted murder of the three civilians.
The police also found a Thompson machine gun in the MRF car. Williams’ explanation was that he was ferrying new MRF members to their base from the airport and brought along the Thompson to show them what sort of weaponry was favoured by the IRA.
He also, he claimed, decided to take the recruits on a tour of that part of west Belfast and in the course of the journey spotted three men, Hugh Kenny, Joseph Smith and James Murray. Two of them were armed with a carbine and a revolver; they fired shots at him, shattering the rear window of the Cortina. He fired back, hitting two of the men and another local man, wounded by a stray bullet in his home.
But the evidence failed to support his account. There were no traces of explosives residue on any of the victims and no ballistic evidence to support his claim that he had been fired on or that the Cortina had been hit. Nor were any weapons found at the scene.
Despite this preponderance of evidence against him, Sgt Williams was found not guilty by the jury in an 11 to 1 verdict, compelling testimony that not just alleged terrorists could benefit from being judged by twelve of their peers in the Belfast of 1972.
Williams gave evidence from the witness box during the hearing and told the court that the MRF – which he called the Military Reaction Force – was a surveillance unit composed of forty members, who drove around in civilian cars, two or four at a time, and carried their own weaponry. He was in charge, he said, of a unit of 15 men.
Scanning the HQNI log sheets for June 22nd, the researcher would be hard pressed to know that any of this had happened. There are only two references to the Glen Road shooting, and to say they were short on information would not be an overstatement. This is the first, which fails to acknowledge MRF involvement at all.
See serial 28:
Here is the second. The significant aspect of this entry is that it shows that the British Army took nearly three hours to inform their opposite numbers in the RUC press office about the shooting, sufficient time, the cynic might say, to concoct a cover story.
See serial 46:
The following Ministry of Defence correspondence concerning the imminent trial of Sgt Williams is interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is the official concern not to make public the MRF’s role in running double agents. Three are mentioned: Seamus Wright, Kevin McKee and Louis Hammond (about whom, more later).
The second is to continue to confuse the press and public about the real meaning of the initials MRF. At Williams trial, MRF was said to mean Military Reaction Force whereas other documentation obtained by this blog shows that it was really called Mobile Reaction Force.
MoD official, FMK Tuck writes:
As far as the general policy of making official comment on intelligence gathering and plain clothes operations is concerned, there seems to be considerable advantage in maintaining as much confusion as possible. There can be no useful purpose served for instance in defining the correct expansion of the initials MRF.
In October 1972, the MRF suffered a grievous blow when the IRA attacked its Four Square laundry intelligence operation in Twinbrook, killing one soldier and demonstrating to the British that it had uncovered and turned at least one if not more renegade IRA members who had agreed to work for the MRF. Read here for the IRA’s version of that incident.
As FMK Tuck indicated in the letter reproduced above, by mid 1973 the MRF was no more. It had been disbanded and replaced by a new intelligence unit (more to come).
So what can be concluded about this phase of the MRF’s activity, the motorised patrols which toured Belfast in the summer of 1972 in search of IRA units and members to engage and destroy?
According to the log sheets and the accounts compiled from them, the score sheet makes dismal reading for fans of General Frank Kitson.
During the months of May and June 1972, the MRF patrols killed one 60-year old civilian and wounded eleven others, including a fifteen-year-old boy. One MRF soldier shot himself and one opportunity to wipe out an IRA team was missed when the MRF car stalled during a chase in the lower Falls area.
Not one IRA member was killed by the MRF during this time but one MRF squad leader was trailed into court, charged with the attempted murder of innocent civilians.
By any standard this was a dismal performance. But it failed to dull the shine on Frank Kitson’s reputation. By the time the MRF was sent into action Kitson was safely ensconced at the School of Infantry and so the blame for failure would fall on the shoulders of his unfortunate successor.
The luster that his service in Kenya and Malaya had brought was not diminished a bit by his failure in Belfast and his reputation as a counter insurgency architect sans pareil lived on, sustained not least by those in the IRA and on the conspiratorial British left who elevated him to almost demonic levels.
But the reality was that Frank Kitson’s Mobile Reaction Force was a failure, not quite a fiasco but certainly a huge disappointment, not to say embarrassment.
If the goal of the Kitson strategy was to lure the IRA out into the open to be shot down by MRF gunmen, or so rattle the civilian population that they would embrace the British as their protectors, then it failed. All the shooting of civilians accomplished was to intensify hostility toward British soldiers to a level which previously had not existed in that area.
One or two intriguing questions remain unanswered about that summer. Why, for instance, were so many of the MRF’s operations located in the Upper Andersonstown area, around the Glen Road and in particular the Oliver Plunkett primary school?
British Army politics may provide part of the answer. The regiments sent to the very tough IRA areas, like the lower Falls, Ardoyne and Ballymurphy were the crack units, the Royal Marines, the Royal Green Jackets, the Paratroopers, the Royal Anglians and so on.
They would not have tolerated the MRF in their areas under circumstances that were any distance short of ‘under command’. The MRF would have to take orders from these regiments, not from their own operations room at Hollywood barracks. The MRF would lose its independence.
Here is an example of the MRF operating in the lower Falls under the command of the Royal Anglian regiment. This is an extract from the Royal Anglian’s War Diary:
In the summer of 1972, the resident British regiment in upper Andersonstown was 2 Field Regiment Royal Artillery, a non infantry unit which never patrolled the Glen Road on foot as it was too dangerous. Their normal job was to fire the British Army’s big guns, not to send out duck patrols to skulk and scurry around the darkened and dangerous streets on the edge of the regiment’s area of responsibility.
A humble Artillery outfit would hardly insist on giving the MRF orders – quite the reverse – while its low profile meant there was next to no risk of one of its foot patrols coming across a motorised MRF squad, mistaking it for an IRA unit and creating a ‘blue on blue’ confrontation, in which British units fired mistakenly on each other.
In the Upper Andersonstown area, thanks to the extremely low profile of the Royal Artillery regiment, the MRF could do what it wished.
That suggests the decision to send the Artillery regiment into Andersonstown in the summer of 1972 was made to facilitate the MRF and was cleared at the command level of the British Army in Northern Ireland, by the GOC, General Tuzo and his bosses in Whitehall.
Ultimately then, blame for the MRF’s failure in 1972 – and for the innocent civilian casualties caused – must rest not just with Frank Kitson but those higher up the food chain in the British Army and the Ministry of Defence.
For decades the MRF was for many Irish people a potent symbol of the ingenuity and deviousness of British military intelligence. No-one could even agree what the initials stood for and that served to strengthen the myth surrounding the unit.
But the truth, as revealed by the British Army’s own records, is that the MRF was just that: a myth.