In July 1971 a unique unit was born into the British Army, in particular 39 Airportable Brigade under the command of Brigadier Frank Kitson (September 1970 – April 1972). Brigadier Kitson has a wealth of experience in counterinsurgency operations, and politically his appointment to 39 Bde was welcomed. Known as the “Bomb Squad,” the original role of this small and secretive unit was “to collect, collate, develop and act upon intelligence relating to terrorist bombing activities” in Northern Ireland. They would operate in civilian vehicles, wearing civilian clothes and specialise in covert operations. Aside from the facts which hindsight appears to have brought us in recent years, this article aims to bring out some of the facts surrounding the formation of this unit from a series of recently released documents.
“To collect, collate, develop and act upon intelligence relating to terrorist bombing activities.”
With this remit there was a great emphasis on gathering admissible evidence to ensure the safe conviction of terrorist suspects. To this end, each “Bomb Squad” section had an embedded RUC Special Branch or CID officer. However, the introduction of internment on 9 August 1971 rather diminished the requirement for police presence, and given the increased threat to RUC personnel and the strain on police resources, their representation was withdrawn. The “Bomb Squad” regrouped and was renamed the “Military Reaction Force (MRF)” undertaking tasks 24 hours a day, often for weeks at a time. In the early days six bombers were caught and jailed for between 9 and 15 years, and two females laying incendiary bombs were also caught for prosecution. The new tactic appeared to work.
Since the formation earlier that year, the remit of the MRF changed to include:
- The covert surveillance of
- Suspect houses and other establishments where an overt force would draw too much attention;
- Suspected IRA bombing targets;
- Wanted men;
- Local buses to prevent hijacking, or to catch the hijackers.
- The covert protection of targeted individuals, in particular Special Branch officers.
- Arresting suspects in areas where a military presence would be seen as inflammatory.
- Providing a covert service to overt units.
There would be two active sections (one “ON” and one “STANDBY”) of up to 12 men at any one time, each operating in three civilianised, but modified, cars. Each Section would be commanded by a Sergeant (Sgt), assisted by two NCOs (Cpl / L/Cpl) and have 9 private soldiers. A third section, on rotation, would be “OFF” duty and not require any vehicles. The HQ was allocated a single vehicle to support larger operations where either the OC or 2IC would be in attendance.
The nature of work was unconventional compared to the role of uniformed soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland, it was discreet, frenetic, and high risk; but they were not special forces. It was thought that the OC was ideally to have SAS training, as was the Warrant Officer (WO). The WO was to come from an explosives background and his primary role was to train the patrols and provide advice on explosive devices and techniques. The soldiers themselves required no special qualification, but those who had attempted special forces selection were seen as desirable, but most of all those with Northern Ireland experience were sought. Each individual was to be specially selected for their role from existing NI units.
On 21 November 1971 the MRF was delivered seven civilian cars in support of their operations. While 39 Brigade had a pool of civilian cars for resident units to use, the MRF was aware that many of these would have been familiar to the IRA, and the use of pool cars was not feasible. As the MRF would operate almost exclusively from these vehicles, the requirement was laid down prior to the purchase of the new vehicles; 1500 cc or over to ensure successful pursuit, respectable appearance to portray the image of commercial travellers, 4 doors, less than 6 months old to ensure reliability. It was also noted that cars with a rough finish arouse suspicion (perhaps this was soldiers wanting fancy new cars!). Between November 1971 and June 1972 the cars had driven approximately 40,000 miles each; no mean feat given the size of Northern Ireland, and the even smaller Brigade Area of Responsibility (AOR)! Recommendations from the unit themselves included the Ford Cortina and Ford Escorts, ruling out the Mini, Vauxhall Viva, Austin 1300, and Hillman Avenger.
The standard weapon of the Army at the time was the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle (SLR). The SLR was a very long rifle, chambered for 7.62x51mm ammunition, and was known to be very accurate and a powerful rifle. It was, however, unsuitable for fast paced vehicle mounted operations, such as those undertaken by the MRF. As such, they required a balance of smaller weapons for use in and around vehicles and built up areas, so handguns were favoured. Each soldier in the MRF was issued with either the standard issue 9mm Browning Hi-Power or the Walther .32″ kept in a shoulder holster. A number of Armalite 5.56x45mm rifles were purchased, along with a small number of SLRs and 9mm Sub-Machine Guns being requested.
Covert surveillance also required some more specialised equipment. The list included:
- 4x telescopes (300m)
- 4x binoculars 20×80
- 6x cameras (Pentax SLR)
- 3x hand searchlights
- 3x mine detectors
- 4x Avimo Frisker metal detectors
- 12x hand torches
- 3x Starlight scopes for the SLR rifles
- 12x Pye Westminster radio sets for the vehicles
- 12x Pye Pocketphone radios, 2x for each of the mobile patrols.
In June 1972 it appears that both 39 Airportable Brigade and 8 Brigade had Military Reaction Force units on active operations, and 3 Infantry Brigade also proposed the (initial) establishment of a small MRF unit of one HQ element and one active section operating from four vehicles.
The MRF was most likely established by Brigadier Kitson as a hard line response to the deteriorating security situation in Northern Ireland. Set against a backdrop of increasing bomb and gun attacks against the RUC, Army and civilian targets, the mission was clear and results appeared to be delivered. As the situation got worse and military internment was introduced, the remit of the MRF may have become greyed, and a group of highly motivated soldiers operating outside of the normal command structure, but in support of the Army mission in Northern Ireland may have entered into situations which Commanders would have little or no knowledge.
All information contained within this article was retrieved from the National Archive at Kew on 11 March 2017.