If Robert Nairac was involved in the Miami Showband massacre, the man who would have known more than most about his role was Julian ‘Tony’ Ball, a legendary former commander of a secret SAS unit based in Co. Armagh in the mid-1970’s, a squad that Nairac liaised with. JAMES KINCHIN-WHITE profiles the British soldier who was honoured by the Queen for shooting two civilians in Belfast while allegedly chasing Ballymurphy IRA leader Jim Bryson.
Julian Antony Ball, the SAS man who worked with Robert Nairac. He preferred to be called ‘Tony’
Tony Ball enlisted in the British Army on 27th February 1961 as 23854005 Private Julian Antony Ball, the Parachute Regiment; he preferred to be called ‘Tony’. He began his military life as a squaddie, at the bottom of the military food chain, but ended as a highly decorated, but disillusioned officer who had cut his teeth fighting the IRA in West Belfast and Co Armagh but was never able to overcome the British Army’s deeply embedded class prejudices.
Later he served with ‘D’ Squadron, 22 Special Air Service regiment (SAS). His campaign medals indicate that during his first three years he served in Cyprus with the United Nations peace keeping force – most likely with 1 Para. Later he was awarded the General Service Medal (GSM) with clasps for campaign service in Borneo, South Arabia and Northern Ireland (NI). D Squadron were the only SAS unit deployed to NI in 1969 and the regiment were earlier deployed to Borneo and South Arabia. These deployments would account for the inscription ‘Trooper JA Ball – SAS’ on his GSM.
In August 1970, nine years after he joined the British Army as a private, the London Gazette announced that following his graduation from Mons Officer Cadet School, Julian Ball would hold the rank of Lieutenant, with effect 25 July 1970, and be assigned to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers regiment (KOSB). It is believed that Ball joined his regiment around 10 Sep 70 when it returned to Redford Barracks, Edinburgh, having completed its first emergency tour from May-September in NI.
On that occasion the KOSB battalion established its Tactical Headquarters (TAC HQ) at Girdwood Park in North Belfast where it came under command of 24 Infantry Brigade (replaced by 5 Airportable Brigade in July 1970). Although KOSB had briefly deployed to NI for five days during the marching season in July 1971, Tony Ball’s first full NI tour with the battalion was a four-month emergency tour from 28 Dec 1971 to 26 Apr 72. This time the battalion TAC HQ was located within Springfield Road joint Army/RUC barracks and its sub-units were deployed to locations within the West Belfast Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR).
Lt Ball commanded the Reconnaissance Platoon (Recce), regarded as an elite formation in Infantry battalions and traditionally part of Support Company. Around half the platoon travelled to NI with an advance party that arrived four weeks before the main body. Recce, in its conventional role, patrols ahead of rifle company combat units to locate and report on enemy positions. Its soldiers are therefore highly trained, both in surveillance, patrolling and in close quarter combat should they be discovered and attacked.
IN BALLYMURPHY, HUNTING BRYSON
In 1972 however, it was common for Recce to be split into smaller sections that were detached to each of the rifle companies and tasked with gathering or acting on intelligence to locate people, explosives and firearms. Tony (as he preferred to be addressed) commanded the section assigned to ‘C’ Company 1 KOSB based at the Henry Taggart Memorial Hall in Ballymurphy (see below).
Henry Taggart Memorial Hall (centre-left foreground) – the British Army’s base in Ballymurphy as seen in an RAF photograph
His section, nicknamed ‘the squirrels’, was a temporary addition to the sub-unit and required a unique radio Call Sign (c/s). The solution was to use the existing Coy prefix, ‘C’ for Charlie, with the number ‘7’ which was not used by any of the other platoons. Thus, c/s 37 became the unique identifier for the Recce detachment at Henry Taggart. For clarity and speed of communication the army used codewords as part of radio voice procedure. An officer or NCO in charge of any formation is known as ‘Sunray’ and thus, Tony Ball became ‘Sunray c/s 37’.
It is significant that it was Sunray c/s37 who arrested James Bryson, OC ‘B’ Company, 2nd Battalion, Provisional IRA, on the first full day of the KOSB tour. James Emerson Bryson has been described as ‘…a notorious and fearsome gunman’ who had joined the IRA following the introduction of internment in August 1971.
He was thought to have been involved in numerous shooting incidents including the killing of Lance Corporal Peter Sime (KOSB) on 7 April 72. LCpl Sime had been on duty in a sandbagged emplacement at the entrance to the Henry Taggart Hall but had left the post to speak to a bus driver who was reporting an attack on his vehicle. The driver said he heard a shot as he was speaking to the soldier who took a few steps before collapsing to the ground.
Ballymurphy IRA leader Jim Bryson, arrested by Ball, escaped from the Maidstone, returned to Ballymurphy and then was allegedly spotted by Ball who chased him but shot two civilians in the process
When Jim Bryson was first arrested by Tony Ball in Dec 71 he was subsequently incarcerated in the prison ship HMS Maidstone – a former submarine supply vessel moored in Belfast Lough. But he attained fabled status within the Republican movement when he and six other inmates – the ‘magnificent seven’ in IRA folklore – escaped on 17 Jan 1972.
In a scene reminiscent of a Second World War POW movie, the men camouflaged themselves with boot polish and covered themselves in butter to insulate themselves from the cold waters of Belfast harbour. Cutting through a steel bar in a porthole, they clambered down the ship’s steel cable and swam to safety, becoming an IRA legend – the so-called ‘magnificent seven’.
Nevertheless, Bryson’s escape proved more consequential than mere folklore might imply. At 0730 on the morning of 15 Apr 72 , just three months after the Maidstone escape, an RUC police officer driving to work contacted the Operations Room at the Henry Taggart hall to say he thought he had spotted Jim Bryson standing near the flats in Norglen Parade.
Despite having been on a search operation at 0145 that morning Tony Ball, not uncommonly restless, was up early. Perhaps the potential to apprehend a ‘notorious gunman’ suspected of killing a KOSB soldier was reason enough for him to follow up on this report. Taking his platoon sergeant and a private soldier as driver, the three men, all in civilian clothes, proceeded to the Turf Lodge area in an unmarked administration vehicle to search for the wanted man.
The patrol informed the Ops Room that they found nothing in Norglen Parade nor in nearby Ballymurphy – but on exiting the estate onto the Whiterock Road they said Bryson was seen in the company of another man. Ball, his sergeant and the driver jumped from their car, the NCO and driver giving chase to one of the men while Tony Ball went after ‘Bryson’.
THE CONWAY BROTHERS
The report noted that the man chased by the NCO was called ‘Gerard Conway’, that he had been hit by two 9mm rounds fired by the driver and then taken to hospital by c/s2 (c/s2 is the Fixed Infantry Call-sign for ‘B’ Company). It would seem therefore, that after the ‘contact’ had taken place c/s 37 requested or the Ops Room had sent a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) which would appear to have been provided by an element attached to ‘B’ Company (the ‘B’ Coy ‘Squirrels’, c/s 27 are recorded as also having been in the area).
Meanwhile, Lt Ball was reported to have been shot at by ‘Bryson’ who fired ‘3-4 shots’ at him before tripping and dropping “…a 9mm Star pistol Reg No. 1034212” as well as two magazines each containing three rounds of ammunition. Bryson, the report continues, ‘was very fast…..and escaped’.
By 0813 the Royal Military Police (RMP) at the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) have established that the man shot by the driver had been hit in both legs. A further RMP report at around 0825 confirms that a second man, suffering a gun-shot wound (GSW) to his hip, has also been admitted to hospital. After some initial confusion, he is identified as ‘John Conway’, the brother of the man admitted earlier.
The KOSB Watchkeeper’s Diary records the alleged chase of Jim Bryson and the shooting of the Conway brothers
At 1050 on the morning of the shooting, 39 Brigade Ops Room reported to Headquarters Northern Ireland (HQNI) that John Conway was admitted to hospital and that “He may in fact be the chap they thought was Bryson”. (Authors emphasis) Around lunchtime the Ops Room at Henry Taggart received a telephone call from the KOSB Commanding Officer (CO) based at Springfield Road RUC Station who had information that Bryson, apparently in rude health, was reported ‘to be driving around in a Greyish Morris Marina’.
It was subsequently discovered that on the day of the shooting, John and Gerard Conway were, as they usually were on a Saturday morning, walking to catch a bus to the city centre where they had a fruit and vegetable stall. They ran off because they believed that the armed men in civilian clothes who jumped from a fast approaching car were loyalists’ intent on doing them harm. A media report quoted a witness who heard cries for help from one of the brothers. She said she saw three men in civilian clothes with guns who had a ‘friendly chat’ with unformed soldiers who arrived on the scene. She also said that another officer arrived and told one of the gunmen that “…he had shot the wrong bloody man.”
It is clear that within 3-4 hours of the shootings, both Brigade and HQNI recognized that the Conway brothers were victims of mistaken identity. The initial report sent by the plain-clothes patrol specifically states that they identified and approached only two men – a fact repeated in the 39 Brigade report to HQNI. Neither of the men was ‘James Bryson’, yet both were shot and neither of them was ever charged with an offence arising from the incident.
Yet, such was the ‘closed’ nature of the military reporting system that a contemporary understanding of the situation may well have been blurred during a period when one historian has argued that “HQNI could mistake overly aggressive groups of soldiers for high-functioning units”. However, misconceptions about the shooting of the Conway brothers were also caused by obfuscation by the authorities.
MUDDLED WITH THE MRF
For many years, including as recently as 2013, it had been assumed or claimed that the shooting had been the work of the Military Reaction Force (MRF) – a covert organization which operated in plain clothes and civilian type cars between 1971-1973.
Faligot (1984), Dillon (2003) and Cursey (2013), each contend, incorrectly, that the MRF were responsible for the shooting. The cause of this confusion was misdirection at the highest level of the NI government and was designed to maintain the secrecy surrounding the existence and identity of the undercover unit that was, in fact, targeting civilians in Nationalist areas of Belfast. [see MRF series in the Broken Elbow]
When the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (SSNI), Willie Whitelaw, expressed his concern in August 1972, about the high number of ‘mystery’ shootings that began in Belfast in the Spring of that year, he was assured by the Chief Constable of the RUC that all such events were ‘thoroughly investigated’.
Witnesses to several incidents in West Belfast alleged that soldiers in plain clothes were involved and led to claims that Army assassination squads were operating in parts of the city. In a reference to covert army operations in Northern Ireland, Geoffrey Johnson-Smith, then Under Secretary of State for the Army, confirmed the existence of the unit by stating that the soldiers involved were subject to ‘normal military discipline’ and to the rules of engagement (RoE).
Earlier, the minutes of a meeting, copied to the Prime Minister’s office, contained a record of the operation that resulted in the shooting of the two brothers by a three-man plain-clothes military patrol in the Whiterock Road area of Belfast. Here the details are marked as ‘approved for disclosure’ by Lord Windlesham, Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in order to ‘…dispel rumours that Army “Assassination squads” are operating.’
Neither Lord Windlesham nor any other government, military or police official saw fit to state precisely who did shoot the Conway brothers. If they had, it would have done much to reassure all concerned that the event had nothing to do with the operations of the specialist plain-clothes unit referred to by Geoffrey Johnston-Smith.
Whatever the degree of diligence during initial inquiries into mystery shootings, concern continued to be expressed about the actions of a plain clothes army unit identified as the ‘Military Reaction Force’. [The correct title is now known to be the ‘Mobile Reaction Force’ – see Broken Elbow ‘What’s In A Name?’].
But the timing and wording of the information approved for disclosure by Lord Windlesham convinced many observers that the incident was one of the first shootings by the MRF. It was precisely because the incident was known not to involve the MRF that disinformation was used to enhance the fog of war rather than inform the PM, parliament or the media. Indeed, a general staff officer assigned to department MO4 of the Ministry of Defence had this to say:
‘Although the term MRF has been used in the Press, only 2 papers have actually got the name right and the correctness of these newspapers reports has never been confirmed one way or the other by the Army.’
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’. (MO 4 was the department responsible for Military Operations in NI).
In sum, the MRF had nothing to do with the shooting of the Conway brothers and at this point in his career, Lt Julian Antony Ball had nothing to do with the MRF – though as we shall see that was to change.
Nevertheless, during the 71-72 KOSB tour which lasted 119 days, ‘Sunray c/s37’ was personally involved in four shooting incidents while his ‘Squirrels’ were involved in a further three. Moreover, Tony Ball’s name appears in the company Watchkeeper Diary on no less than 179 separate incidents ranging from explosives and weapons finds, arrests, searches and shooting incidents. He was shot at on several occasions, the target of a bomb on another and his platoon sergeant was slightly wounded by a nail bomb in the latter part of the tour.
THE MILITARY CROSS FOR SHOOTING THE CONWAY BROS
It is no surprise that Tony Ball was recommended for the award of the Military Cross for his performance and leadership during the tour – his performance taking a theatrical turn when a local householder described Ball and his Sergeant as ‘John Wayne’ and ‘Comanche’.
What is surprising was that the incident involving the shooting of the Conway brothers takes central place in the MC Citation with apparent disregard that two innocent men had been shot by the plain clothes patrol.
British Army citation for the award of a Military Cross to Ball. The incident dated April 15th, describes Ball’s alleged chase and confrontation of Jim Bryson but which was probably a case of mistaken identity in whichthentwo Conway brothers, innocent men on their way to work were shot
Curiously, the man who recommended Tony Ball for the award, the KOSB CO, noted in his Tour report that ‘no great advantage had been obtained’ through the use of plain clothes operations. Still, Lt Ball would soon be promoted and his military career become immersed in more secretive and controversial work. But what of the real James Bryson?
He was recaptured in September 1972 after a gun battle with soldiers in the Leeson Street area of the Lower Falls, Belfast. On this occasion he was remanded to Crumlin Road prison and though never convicted of any offence, he was being held on charges of attempted murder and possession of .45 revolver.
In February 1973 he was being taken to court through an underground passage between the prison and the courthouse when he and another inmate overpowered their guards forcing them to hand over their clothing. Bryson made his second successful escape by simply walking out of the rear of the court dressed in a Prison Officer’s uniform and climbing over a wall. His co-accused, similarly attired, attempted to flee by the front door and was recaptured.
Despite, or perhaps because of his fame in Republican folklore and his notoriety within the security forces, Bryson’s subsequent life was to prove very short. About one year after his capture by the Royal Anglians’, 25-year-old Jim Bryson was mortally wounded by a soldier firing from a covert Army Observation Post in disputed circumstances in the Ballymurphy estate. He was shot on 31 Aug and died in hospital on 22 Sept 1973.
To date, no one has been convicted of the killing of Lance Corporal Peter Sime.
After returning to Redford Barracks, Edinburgh, at the end of the tour, Lt Tony Ball MC was promoted to Captain on 25 July 1972. In May of the following year the battalion was posted to West Berlin and took up residence at Brooke Barracks where Tony Ball was the Motor Transport Officer (MTO).
Although he was popular with his men, his appointment was largely an administrative role usually assigned to officers with a ‘Quarter Master’ (QM) commission. It was therefore, a role that he may have considered to be something of an anti-climax given his background and his recent experiences in NI. He was variously described by men under his command as ‘one of the most honest men’, ‘the best officer I ever came across’, ‘a great leader and a fine man with a great sense of humour’.
Among his peers on the other hand, opinion was split. One contemporary described Ball as a “…slim, thin faced individual who had an excess of nervous energy [who] was not afraid of authority and would frequently bend the rules if he thought it necessary… nevertheless he was a good man to work with and could always be relied upon in a tight situation. A man to go to war with!””
Tony Ball, (far right with long sideburns) and fellow KOSB soldiers in the Henry Taggart Hall, Ballymurphy, apparently inspecting a captured arms cache
And back to ‘war’ he went. But, to understand when and where Tony Ball went it is necessary to appreciate the background and evolution of the Army’s special and covert forces. As we have seen, ‘confusion’ was considered to be beneficial to the maintenance of secrecy about such units and their operations and to this day many official files remain closed – embargoed for up to 100 years.
Nevertheless, as more information becomes available about the structures, processes and personalities involved in NI’s hidden war, a combination of a look back in time together with emerging facts and logical deduction allow for some sense of the thing to become apparent.
BRITAIN”S COLONIAL WARS SPAWN COVERT UNITS
During Britain’s decolonization process the Army made widespread use of covert forces, agents and informers. In pre-war Palestine, Orde Wingate had organized ‘Special Night Squads’ composed of British soldiers and members of the Jewish military organization – Haganah. These units were designed as mobile combat units to fight against Arab insurgents and a future Israeli Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, was one of the first to join. Both Dayan and Wingate are remembered for their contribution to the evolution of the Israeli Defence Forces.
In post-war Palestine, one of Wingate’s ‘Chindit’ commanders from WWII, Brigadier Bernard Fergusson, was appointed to command the paramilitary wing of the Palestinian Police Force. He developed, with the support of General Bernard Montgomery, then the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, two covert ‘Special Squad’s’ to combat attacks by Jewish insurgents – and ‘give them a bloody nose’.
The allies, on this occasion, were Arab volunteers from the Palestinian Police and some British soldiers. Both ‘squads’ were commanded by specially selected officers, Major Roy Farran and Major Alistair McGregor, both of whom had led SAS squadrons during WWII.
(It is worth noting that the second commander of the MRF in 1972 was Alistair McGregor’s son Captain James Hamish McGregor, an officer in the Parachute Regiment)
At the end of Britain’s mandate in Palestine in 1948, Britain still had to contend with colonial emergencies in Malaya (1948-60), Kenya (1952-60), Cyprus (1955-59) and Aden (1963-67). Covert forces and pseudo-gangs were central to the counter-insurgency effort in each of these campaigns.
In Malaya the security forces were up against the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) – a communist inspired insurgency that had begun under a different name against the Japanese during WWII. In the early phases it was the police Special Branch that took the lead in forming pseudo-teams comprised of officers, troops and captured insurgents. These teams conducted psychological operations including false-flag bombing raids on guerilla groups.
In 1958 Major Frank Kitson, who would later serve as 39 Bde Commander in Belfast, was awarded a bar to his MC for his ‘…exceptional skill and leadership’ while serving as a Company Commander with the Rifle Brigade in Malaya where, during jungle operations, ‘…he attained the virtual elimination of two communist party branches’.
Earlier, in Kenya during the Mau-Mau uprising, Frank Kitson was awarded an MC where he had served as a District Intelligence officer. One of his contemporaries recalled that ‘Frank was a very conventional soldier, but his real forte lay in the gathering of intelligence.’ Kitson was tasked with setting up a military intelligence unit for ‘…identifying the terrorist organization and obtaining contact information’. His MC citation reads:
His greatest success has been in developing methods for the procurement of contact information. His methods have set the pattern for the rest of the Colony. They involve small parties in the guise of Mau-Mau mingling by night with Kikuyu [the largest ethnic group on Kenya] in areas where the presence of terrorists is suspected. On numerous occasions the precise location of a gang has been established.
The Pseudo-gang concept was central to Kitson’s methods. Captured insurgents would be trained to join a team of European and Kenyan soldiers. The group would pose as insurgents and infiltrate terrorist camps to gain information that could be developed into ‘contact intelligence’ – thereby enabling combat units to close with the enemy.
In what would prove to be a most accurate description of the subsequent development of the MRF in Belfast, Kitson describes how the Mau-Mau were reliant on the civil population and that countering the gangs demanded large volumes of information from ‘low-grade’ agents that would help to reveal enemy behaviour. In developing agents Kitson argued that “…speed is of the essence, even at the expense of quality…the screening and sorting out can come later.”
The Cyprus emergency has long been associated with the setting up of Internment camps and the incarceration of suspects without trial. However here too there is evidence of the use of covert operations involving turned terrorists. As in Kenya, these were facilitated by the actions of a District Intelligence Officer (DIO).
The DIO was Captain Lionel Savery of the Parachute Regiment who was also awarded a Military Cross for his endeavors. In his MC citation dated February 1957, an account is given of how he had built up an intelligence organization into a ‘most valuable’ unit of former EOKA sympathizers who now worked for the security forces.
On the other hand, Britain had announced its intention to withdraw completely from Aden and the security forces became a target of attacks from competing organizations intent on gaining post-colonial power. Consequently, natural allies, agents and informers, were thin on the ground. During the emergency, attacks by the National Liberation Front (NLF) and bombing and grenade attacks by FLOSY (Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen) were common. To combat these a covert plain-clothes unit was formed under the leadership of Sgt Robert ‘Bobby’ Bogan of the Somerset and Cornwall Light Infantry (SCLI).
Bobby Bogen, like Tony Ball after him, led his battalion’s Reconnaissance Platoon from which he created a twelve-man specialist team who lived, dressed and acted like locals as they sought to blend in to the sewers and dark alleys. The unit, known as the ‘Special Branch Squad’, dressed in Arabic clothing with their skin darkened with boot polish. Armed with the Sterling sub-machine gun and Browning semi-automatic pistol, they infiltrated insurgent areas at night and ‘snatched or neutralized’ the bombers. For a full account see Edwards, (2015). ‘Q Cars’ were used for transport – battered old cars that also blended with the local environment.
In 1967, Sergeant Bogan and his men were the subject of a cartoon by JAK in the London Evening Standard:
They also featured in the DC Thomson comic ‘The Hornet’ which depicted the story of attempts to assassinate Bogan and his men. It is clear then, that the development of covert plain clothes units in NI was nothing new. It was an evolutionary concept adapted from many years of colonial experience by those responsible for its design. Nor was it the first plain clothes covert unit to be deployed in Belfast by the commander of 39 Infantry Brigade.
The less well known ‘Bomb Squad’ was a precursor to the MRF. It has semantic and structural similarities with Bogan’s earlier team in Aden and its purpose was to “Collect, collate, develop and act upon intelligence related to terrorist bombing activities.”
The unit would wear plain clothes, operate from civilian vehicles and have a formal relationship with RUC Special Branch (SB). A transcript of the source document states that the ‘Bomb Squad’ was a unique unit established in July 1971. But its first mention appears in Brigade Logs dated May-June when two incidents illustrate the level of secrecy surrounding the unit.
A uniformed patrol of the Light Infantry (LI) is confronted by a man dressed in civilian clothes, holding a pistol. The patrol commander reports that the man is lucky he was not shot. He then identifies himself as a soldier, stating that he is ‘special forces’ and produces a military ID card. A similar ‘blue-on-blue’ confrontation occurs on the night of 17 June when another LI patrol confronts a man walking along the Oldpark Road just before midnight. He also identifies himself as a soldier, produces an ID card and states he is a member of the SAS.
The source material provides an outline structure of the Bomb Squad (see below). It was commanded by Captain Arthur Watchus – a member of the Parachute regiment who had also served with the SAS. His second in command (2IC) is listed in the logs as a Lieutenant.
The Warrant Officer (WO2) is stated to be an Ammunition Technical Officer (ATO) whose function is to train members of the squad in techniques for gathering information about bombs. The ‘Q’ cars are said to be ‘new’ so as to avoid using ‘pool’ vehicles from HQNI which have become easily recognized over time.
The purpose and focus of Bomb Squad activity is evident from the Brigade log entries for the summer of 1971. The period had seen the commencement of a sustained PIRA bombing campaign – particularly in the commercial centre of Belfast – and Bomb Squad operations had secured the capture and conviction of a number of bombers.
The first mention of the MRF contained in 39 Bde Log Sheets occurs in October 1972 after which there is no further mention of the Bomb Squad. But, the relationship between the MRF and the ‘Bomb Squad’ is established in a later document in which Captain Watchus is identified as the OC MRF. Recruits for the MRF are sought from regular battalions on emergency tours with commanding officers instructed to select intelligent men of good disposition and good pistol shots. But in all other respects, they did not require any special pre-deployment training.
A second ‘Bomb Squad’ is also known to have existed and attached to 5 Airportable Brigade in 1971-72 when it was responsible for the Mid-Ulster and part of South Fermanagh Areas of Responsibility. The Commander of 5 Bde was not overly impressed with his ‘Bomb Squad’ which consisted of one officer and eight other ranks. It was tasked gaining information of ‘enemy intentions’ while working closely with the RUC and to conduct ‘limited anti-terrorist operations…in particular to intercept bombing attacks.’ The Brigade Commander had a poor view of information derived from RUC sources and cited this as his reason for disbanding his ‘Bomb Squad’ on 20 November 1971.
In the Belfast area the Brigade Logs pertaining to the Bomb Squad and MRF up to 29/30 April 1972 indicate that these units were performing surveillance duties checking on suspect vehicles, wanted men, addresses of interest and potential targets for bombers. But that changed on 29/30 April 1972. In fact, two things changed.
First, the MRF were contacted by an RUC officer in ‘A’ Division who provided information from SB that an armed robbery was planned for the following Monday morning at Robbs Department store in Castle Place, Belfast. The police requested that the MRF put soldiers inside the target building – possibly because the SB officers could be easily recognized.
The MRF response was to volunteer to conduct the operation subject to permission from 39 Brigade. They envisaged that ‘shooting’ might break out and asked Brigade to inform the regular army that should this occur, they should not open fire into the building unless they had been contacted by the MRF. Almost at a stroke, surveillance and reconnaissance had been transformed into ‘reaction’. Permission was granted by the Brigade Major (BM) though the outcome is not recorded.
The second thing that changed was that Brigadier Frank Kitson, the commander of 39 Infantry Brigade, came to the end of his tenure and returned to England to take up a new appointment as Commandant of the School of Infantry.
From this point forwards the Logs paint a very different picture of some of the activities of the Belfast based MRF – more reaction than surveillance and clearly embroiled in shooting incidents that resulted in fatalities and serious injuries to civilians. [see Broken Elbow MRF series starting here]
Controversial incidents involving the MRF are well documented and in 1972 these cumulated in a major set-back for the unit when the existence of a covert laundry operation, Four Square, was revealed to the Provisional IRA following their interrogation of two MRF agents whom they discovered, had been recruited from the PIRA ranks earlier in the year. The laundry van was attacked in the Twinbrook estate, Andersonstown, and the driver, Royal Engineer Sapper Ted Stuart, a native of NI, was shot and killed.
A rare photo of the Four Square laundry van used by the MRF to collect intelligence in west Belfast. It was ambushed by the IRA and its driver killed in an operation which blew the MRF’s cover and enhanced then IRA Belfast Commander Gerry Adams’ reputation as a master of counter-intelligence
A second MRF unit was introduced into 3 Infantry Brigade (Armagh) in the summer of 1972. And another was established in 8 Brigade (Derry). However, despite this expansion, the effect of the set-back and acrimony about previous shootings in Belfast, a decision was made to develop a more professional covert organization to supersede the MRF. As with its predecessors, the name of the new unit was kept secret and was changed several times during the four years of its existence.
Knowledge about the Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) first emerged 30 years after the creation of a Top-Secret briefing document prepared for a meeting between the British Prime Minister and the Irish Toaiseach held in April 1974. The document confirms that the first Plain Clothes army patrols in NI, now known to have been the ‘Bomb Squad’, commenced at Easter 1971. These were ‘reformed and expanded’ into Military Reaction Forces and later brought under the central command of HQNI ‘without RUC participation’. A ‘higher standard of training’ was developed to underpin the creation of the SRU which, in order to maintain secrecy, was referred to as NITAT(NI) – creating confusion with the genuine Northern Ireland Training and Advisory Teams established at the Close Quarter Battle range at Lydd in England and at a similar establishment in Sennelager, Germany.
In other documents discovered by ‘Justice for the Forgotten’ and the ‘Pat Finucane Centre’ the primary task of the SRU was clearly defined as ‘covert surveillance’ as a ‘preliminary’ to the arrest of suspects by regular uniformed troops. It was also tasked with the development and handling of agents or informers and to work closely with RUC SB. However the ‘stringent standards’ used to identify and select men for the new unit proved to be difficult to achieve:
“The new-style Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) has proved extremely effective, achieving successes out of all proportion to its size. But the Unit has yet to realise its full potential because it is undermanned; despite strenuous efforts to recruit men…there are at present only some 57 “operators” available for deployment against an establishment of 82.”
Part of the problem was a rule designed to limit criticism of using ‘special forces’ by ensuring that anyone with a background in the SAS could not serve with the SRU until three years after they had left the Hereford based special forces unit. This rule had already been ‘slightly breached’ when the newly selected Commanding Officer of the SRU had a somewhat closer connection with the SAS. The SRU became operational in May 1973.
In the event, the 3-year embargo on SAS personnel serving with the SRU was reduced to two years and then abandoned altogether when the situation worsened and the unit was under strength by thirty operators. Correspondence between the NIO and the Defence Secretariat clearly indicate that concealing the involvement of the SAS was a central priority:
“…there would be a considerable emotional reaction from extremists on both sides to the admission that the SAS were operating in Northern Ireland (they already suspect this and would see it merely as an admission forced from us), more moderate opinion both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere would be unlikely to get particularly excited about the use of the most effective means of defeating the terrorists…Nevertheless, a straight admission is to be avoided if possible”
BALL HEADS SAS UNIT IN CASTLE DILLON, JANUARY 1974 – NAIRAC LIAISES ON BEHALF OF BRITISH AMY HQ
Despite this, in the first week of January 1974, an officer and thirty men from the SAS arrived in Northern Ireland to form a full detachment of the SRU/NITAT. The leader was Julian Antony Ball, now back with the SAS, this time as an officer. The detachment was given the cover name 4 Field Survey Troop, Royal Engineers (RE), based at Castle Dillon, Co. Armagh – embedded with the genuine 33 Field Squadron RE which was housed in a separate part of the same base.
4 Field Survey Troop was an unusual name in that it did not actually exist; it appears to have been chosen solely for ‘local’ consumption and concealment. In documentation, the common cover name of NITAT was used for all three SRU detachments. Shortly after the arrival of the ‘Hereford’ types the Chief of the General Staff (CGS), on a visit to NI, was told that “NITAT was a continuing success”, and the recent reinforcements were well-integrated and doing a first-class job.
In May 1974 the Castle Dillon detachment gained additional assistance from the newly appointed 3 Infantry Brigade Liaison Officer Captain Robert Nairac – a Grenadier Guardsman chosen for this junior, but dangerous staff position.
Captain Robert Nairac – he liaised with Tony Ball’s SAS squad based at Castle Dillon, Co Armagh
Other SAS personnel had arrived in NI earlier under the previous limited embargo arrangements that allowed selected soldiers the option of leaving Hereford towards the end of their SAS training to join the SRU. A set of documents found during research by Ciaran McAirt of the ‘Paper Trail’ revealed the early location of a second SRU detachment.
In April 1974 two soldiers, LCpl Simpson and Ranger Tymon, were charged at Coleraine court with armed robberies at Garvagh the previous month. Both were based at Ebrington Barracks, Londonderry – and both had left the SAS to join the SRU. Yet again, extraordinary steps were taken to conceal the existence of the SRU and its relationship with the SAS. In a ‘Secret’ document distributed to the office of the Prime Minister, the Vice Chief of the General Staff and the Head of DS 10 (responsible for NI), the MOD stated that:
“…it was decided that Simpson exceptionally, should be defended at public expense to reduce the risk of disclosure of the SAS/SRU connection and SRU operations.”
As it turned out, Simpson and his colleague were found guilty and jailed for 6 years, but on the day after their first appearance at Coleraine court a further set-back impacted on the Derry SRU contingent when one the detachment’s operations ended badly. Captain Anthony Pollen, seconded from the Coldstream Guards, was killed while conducting surveillance duties in plain clothes during an Easter parade in Derry’s Bogside. He is often mis-quoted as having served with ’14 Int’, a unit that had not been created at that time.
The third SRU/NITAT unit was based in Belfast and known as ‘East Det’. The unit had been involved in the capture of Gerry Adams and ‘other high-ranking members of the Belfast Brigade HQ’ on 19th July 1973. It was also likely to have been involved in the SRU’s first operational mission in May of that year. This took place on the shores of Lough Neagh, Co. Antrim. After ‘lying-up’ in a derelict house on the north bank for two and a half days, the unit captured a total of seven men.
In sum, we can now clarify the existence of early British army plain clothes operations in NI evolving from the ‘Bomb Squad’ established in the Spring of 1971, through the MRF formed later the same year to the SRU (aka NITAT and 4 Field Survey Troop RE) which first deployed on operations in May 1973. Moreover, although Captain Tony Ball’s involvement with clandestine activity during the Troubles began at Castle Dillon in January 1974, his relationship with covert operations in NI did not end there. Three further developments were to impact on Tony Ball’s secret career.
First was the formal deployment of the Special Air Service to the province in January 1976 following a marked increase in sectarian killings in rural areas. This came to a head with the shooting of ten workmen on 5 January 1976 at Kingsmill, Co. Armagh. The regiment were heavily committed at the time with the Dhofar campaign in Oman and had been ‘volunteered’ to NI without prior warning by Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
The SAS were deployed to Bessbrook base (BBK) in South Armagh and quickly became embroiled in controversy. In April 76 during an operation to arrest a PIRA Staff Captain, Peter Cleary, the man was shot after he was alleged to have tried to grab hold of a weapon in an attempt to escape.
Shortly afterwards, in May, an SAS patrol had crossed into the Republic of Ireland in what became known as the Flagstaff Hill incident. Both incidents are well documented. However, during the subsequent trial of the soldiers in a Dublin court, the Squadron commander of the SAS unit was identified as Major Brian Baty. Major Baty is one of the best-known special forces soldiers who had previously served as an enlisted man in Borneo with the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, and in Aden under the command of Colin Mitchell. Like Tony Ball, Baty was commissioned from the ranks.
It is not clear whether Tony Ball actually participated in the formal deployment of the SAS in 1976. However, a second development at around the same time was the introduction of what was known as the Northern Ireland Patrol Group (NIPG).
The NIPG had a strength of around 30 men drawn, similarly to the arrangements for the Bomb Squad and the MRF, from volunteers from resident battalions assigned to NI. They conducted ambush and surveillance tasks mainly in rural areas and always in uniform. Because the unit were not involved in covert plain clothes surveillance, no specialist training was considered necessary. Here again, it is not known whether Tony Ball was involved – but it was possible.
In a third, and related development, Tony Ball was very much involved – as was Brian Baty at a later date. Such had been the perceived impact of the SAS deployment and, with the limitations on their availability due to other commitments, to that of the NIPG, that it was decided that all major units deployed to NI would each provide a ‘Close Observation Platoon’ (COP) to augment the surveillance capacity of the special forces.
There is a common policy in the British army that on promotion, an officer or soldier is given a new appointment or transfer. Tony Ball’s promotion to Acting Major in October 1976 coincided with his appointment as Officer Commanding (OC) Pontrilas Army Training Area (PATA). Here, he would oversee the delivery of SAS type training for the newly designated COPs – the first course being for the 2nd Royal Green Jackets COP in preparation for their forthcoming tour in South Armagh (9 Dec 77 – 8 Apr 78).
This development it was argued, would provide a ten-fold increase in the number of troops available for ‘fully trained close-observational operations.
Close observation platoons are being formed by each major unit in Northern Ireland as part of the expansion of “SAS-type activities”….These platoons will take over the close observation role hitherto carried out by the NIPG…[they] will thus perform a role which is similar to but distinct from that of the SAS. Their method of operation will, however, provide the same justification for the issue of the Remington Wingmaster shotgun. Their surveillance operations will be carried out from covert Ops and, although they will operate in uniform, they will travel to their area of operations in civilianized cars.
BALL BECOMES A MERCENARY IN THE MIDDLE EAST, WHERE HE DIES IN CAR ACCIDENT
Having taken his career as far as he had, it is believed that Tony Ball, lacking the formal ‘staff qualification’ required for further promotion, decided to further his military career outside of the army. To this end he resigned his commission and was recruited by a prominent private security company, KMS (Keenie-meenie Services), to serve as a Lt. Col. In command of the Sultan of Oman’s Special Forces.
Ball succeeded Lt. Col. Andrew Nightingale, a former Intelligence Corps officer who had also worked with the SAS and was a senior member of KMS. After a short handover Tony Ball was driving Nightingale to Thumrait Airfield in the Dhofar governate of Oman when the vehicle crashed and both men were killed.
However, in his absence from NI a further development occurred June 1977 when the Army Surveillance Company was deployed. More popularly known as ’14 Int’, this unit, not unlike the SRU before it, was deployed in three detachments, viz, North Det (Derry), South Det (Armagh) and East Det (Belfast).
After his tour as SAS Squadron Commander in NI, Major Brian Baty was appointed Officer Commanding Training Wing at Hereford where he was responsible for ‘completely’ reforming the SAS Selection Course. Subsequently promoted to Lt. Col, Baty was given responsibility for overseeing the training of the tri-service ’14 Int’ personnel to prepare them for covert plain clothes operations in Northern Ireland.
Following his retirement from the army Brian Baty joined KMS and is believed to have undertaken government sponsored training in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. A documentary film may be produced later this year which provides some insight into the private security world of KMS.