The SAS in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland

Taken from SAS: The Soldiers Story

The sickest, most horrific thing I’ve seen in my life was the murder of the two signallers who had strayed into that funeral procession, yet none of us took the law into our own hands. None of us went out and took any retaliation or retribution. None of us. That’s part of the training of the regiment and the calibre of the regiment and the professionalism of the regiment. We are not above the law.

Johnny Two-Combs

I’ve got no time for any of them because they’re not professional soldiers. If they would come out on the streets and fight man to man, I might have some respect for them, but the way they do business — no time, no time.


Snapper

On 7 January 1976 Prime Minister Harold Wilson publicly committed the regiment to patrol South Armagh, the district having recently been described by Home Secretary Merlyn Rees as ‘bandit country’. In 1969 and 1974 first D Squadron and then B Squadron had been tentatively introduced into the Province, but now the Prime Minister was making it clear that the SAS were in business.

An advance party from D Squadron set up a base in Bessbrook Mill and within weeks the full squadron of sixty-four men plus support had been deployed. Later the SAS strength was reduced to two half-troops — with a back-up team at the camp known as Screed that could be helicoptered over to the Province within an hour of a request being made.

From the late 1 970s the SAS deployment in Ulster was one troop at Bessbrook under the command of 3 Brigade, one troop in the Belfast area under 39 Brigade, one under 8 Brigade in Londonderry and a fourth under the personal control of the Commander of Land Forces.

In the 1980s this was changed. To make the SAS presence more effective in Northern Ireland, a new organization was established. Called the Intelligence and Security Group (Northern Ireland) — or the Group — it reduced the total number of SAS soldiers from a full squadron to a troop of just over twenty men called Ulster Troop. But they were consolidated, and they worked very closely with the 14th Intelligence Unit, a covert intelligence-gathering body whose recruits were trained by the SAS.

Snapper was first posted to Northern Ireland in 1974.

Snapper

Belfast was a nervous breakdown waiting to happen. To most of us, all that was needed to solve the problem was take out the ringleaders and that would be it. The revolution would have been set back twenty or thirty years. Anyway, the Head Shed kept on about working by the book — going on about the democratic process and working within the law of the land. Belfast was a job for the police, not Special Forces. You needed people who knew all about rules and regulations; yet there we were, issued with strict rules of engagement: ‘Minimum force to be used, with firearms as a last resort; challenges to be given unless you or others in the immediate vicinity are being engaged by terrorists; you may open fire only if an act is being committed likely to endanger life and there is no other way to make an arrest.’ It was classic rules of engagement — up against an opposition who felt no need for any constraints.

The SF [security force] base was bleak. The January weather was bleak. Our weapons were state-of-the-art Japanese cameras. Instead of taking out the opposition, our job was to photograph them. This tour was going to be frustration, with a capital F.

On my second Sunday night I went out in a battered Vauxhall Viva heading for West Belfast, driven by Taff who had been around the town for a long time and knew it backwards. We each had a 9-millimetre Browning pistol and I put mine on my lap, hidden by the News of the World. It was freezing, so cold that the windscreen-washer liquid had frozen up.

We drove around the city all the next morning. Belfast reminded me of photos I’d seen of London during the air-raids: terraced houses with windows and doors boarded up, gardens like bomb sites and groups of youths staring at us as we drove around. All the time Taff was filling me in on the history, telling me where an RPG had been fired, where a guy from the reconnaissance force had been shot, etc, etc.

About midday we stopped at traffic lights outside the Royal Victoria Hospital. We were in the outside lane. Two youths were standing in a doorway, clocking the traffic, and for some reason I sensed trouble. It was the same instinct I’d developed in Oman, sniffing out the adoo. There was just something about the way the two of them were standing, one jerking his head from side to side watching the traffic, the taller one staring straight at us. Then he pounced, rushed through the inner line of traffic and yanked Taft’s door open.

‘Get out of the car,’ he said, ‘or I’ll blow yer fuckin’ head off.’ His right hand was inside his bomber jacket. I thumbed the safety-catch on my pistol and looked at him. Where was his shooter? Show me a shooter, you bastard. He was a perfect target, but I couldn’t do anything. If he was unarmed, I’d be up for murder. I glanced at the other one, still standing there, giving no clue of his intentions. To shoot or not to shoot?

Then Taff, in that instant, took the decision for me. ‘You can fuck off, you wanker,’ he said as he pulled the door towards himself, then smashed it back at the youth, cracking him in the guts and the knee. The guy staggered back and his hand came out of the jacket. No gun. Whether he had one inside his jacket, I’ll never know. Then Taff was off, screeching the car on to the wrong side of the road, burning rubber, getting the fuck out of the place, the door still flapping, traffic coming at us, then he swerved right and we were back on track.

I radioed over: ‘Attempted hijack corner of Springfield and Falls,’ and realised that I was shaking. This was a different type of fear than in Oman. This wasn’t nervous tension before a contact, followed by the old adrenaline rush. This was a sudden shock, and I’d been close, very close, to appearing in the dock on a murder charge.

That evening we watched from the car as four youths were brought into the Castlereagh detention centre. The police had trawled the area and came up with this group — the wrong four, as it happened. One toot of your horn meant a positive ID; three meant a waste of time. I pressed the horn three times and we drove off

Month in, month out, the killing went on, and all we did was take snaps, then one day we were put on stand-by for an assault on a flat in the Andersons town area. Four armed PIRA [Provisional IRA] men were in position on the top floor of a block of flats preparing to snipe at one of our patrols.

For hours we waited in the RUC station on the Springfield Road, ready to go. I checked and rechecked my Remington pump-action shotgun and the 9-millimetre Browning. I was number three in our unit. It was my job to blast the door open and cover numbers one and two as they assaulted the flats armed with Heckler & Koch MP5 sub-machine guns. The word finally came and we all fought our way into our body armour —which stopped anything up to a .357 magnum — with high-velocity inserts, which protected us against even 7.62-millimetre bullets. Assault gear on, gas masks in our hands, we climbed into the two pigs [armoured personnel carriers] for the short dash to Andytown.

Nothing was said on the journey. There was no need. There would be no orders given. We had practised the drill often enough. Then from the driver: ‘Two hundred metres.’ I adjusted the straps of my gas mask. ‘One hundred … fifty…’ and then we were out and running across a muddy verge and a concrete walkway. Two boys of about ten stared at us for a moment. Even through the misted-over eyepiece, I could see the hatred. Then they were off, with a warning that the SF were coming. We ran up the eight-step concrete flights to the first floor, then the second and finally to our target on the third floor. Numbers one and two were in position. I blew the lock away and kicked the door in and they were inside. I heard screams and shouts, followed by the sound of the flash-bang going off, then I went in after them. A man and a woman were sitting on the sofa, coughing and vomiting.

‘The bastards aren’t here,’ one of the guys said. ‘There’s no fucking terrorists in here. We’re going across the landing.’

Same again. Same procedure. Shotgun, stun grenade, yells and roars but still no gunfire. In my earpiece I heard a voice:

‘All stations. This is Jake. The birds have flown. End it. Lift off.’

I cursed, long and loud. (There had been no time for the two kids to warn the terrorists.) The green slime’s tout had got it wrong. Simple as that. I wondered how much he’d been paid.

2

Northern Ireland:
Directly taken from SAS: The Soldiers Story

Belfast. Frustration city. Eighteen months of misery.

R. F. I went out on a five-month tour to Northern Ireland in ‘77 straight after Selection and Continuation Training. I’d been before, in 1970 with 49 Regiment. There had been a particularly bad spate of bombings then, and I’d gone round the streets picking up parts of bodies and putting them in plastic bags. You’d find a finger 400 metres from where the bomb had gone off. Once I climbed on to the awning of a hotel because we’d seen bits and pieces up there. I found someone’s scalp. That’s what we did. We went round with the police picking up scalps and putting them in the bags, the regiment did none of that. It wasn’t an SAS job. Bagging bits of bodies was for crap-hats.

I was in B Squadron and the atmosphere among the lads was great. The bosses left us alone. We knew what jobs we had to do and we did them. There was a lot of inter-squadron rivalry, which is good because it keeps you on your toes. On that first tour I was really under scrutiny. When you join the regiment, you go back down in rank to trooper, and my boss gave us a real chance to prove ourselves. Instead of just letting us look like patrol members, he gave us patrols to run. You would have a senior corporal along with you, but you were in charge some of the time. It was a different way of testing us, but they must have liked what they saw because after two years I was promoted to lance corporal, which was quite unusual. I think only two of us managed it. After all, we hadn’t even done a course between us.

Our brief was principally mobile patrols and intelligence gathering by observation. If the OP is in a house, the longer it lasts the more uncomfortable it gets. You have to seal your shit in bags and bottle your piss because the noise of the lavatory flushing — and the smell — can give you away. Everyone’s issued a piss bag with a one-way valve on it. You obviously can’t shit into that, so if you are unlucky enough to be taken short and you do have to have a shit, then you use a plastic bag. Subsequently you won’t use that bag to piss in. You will have tied it up. Some of the lads like to use cling-film. You shit on to a sheet of cling-film, roll it up, put another couple of sheets around it to seal it, and that’s it.

You don’t want dogs and rats sniffing around. You put the Bergens in one spot and don’t move them. You put on soft shoes. You can’t talk or eat or drink anything hot. No smoking, of course. On an OP no one changes their magazine each day. Unless you actually unload the ammunition from the magazine, there would be no point. Changing magazines is noisy, so you wouldn’t do it for that reason alone. Also, if anything went down with the terrorists while you were changing magazine, you could be compromised if you were delayed in firing off the first rounds even by a second.

OPs are always changing. An OP is always recceed, occupied at night and up and fully operational by daylight. A standing OP is a four-man patrol, where two of you actually move forward into the OP while the other two act as back-up. Other times you’d have four people lying under a hedge or hiding together in a building. Three of the four might be sleeping, or doing nothing but lying completely still in order to minimize noise. The fourth man is doing the actual observation. You swap over at regular intervals in order to keep maximum concentration. And there will always be a back-up. It might be a mile away; it might be 20 metres away.

You take enough gear for as long as is needed, and with luck you’ll get an LLB [live letter box] coming to visit — this being a car appearing at a prearranged RV so that you can get rid of bags of waste and pick up what you need to continue. And you have to be careful about communications because the VHF can interfere with TV sets nearby and maybe someone will get suspicious.

Some ops go on for weeks and weeks. You take photographs and observe meetings. All you are really doing is getting information for possible use later, anything that will help, like licence registrations, routines, contacts. Of course, there have been times I’ve been compromised while on an OP: courting couples who happen along, or drunks looking for somewhere to take a piss, and they nose into where you are stationed. Not only is your cover blown but you have to be ‘hot extracted’. Normally OPs are extracted in a very controlled operation which leaves no sign that you have ever been there. Hot extractions are dangerous because there’s no time for that kind of caution — you’ve been compromised and you have to get out.

One time we were stationed in Omagh and were hidden in a barn at the back of a pub. We’d moved a slate at the corner of the roof so we could see everything. We hadn’t been there very long, hadn’t set up anything. Just before closing time two fellows walked in and climbed up on to the upper floor, so we shouted as loud as we could, and they raced off. God knows what they thought. We told base we had been compromised and got them to pick us up. There is nothing that can be done about that sort of thing, and they don’t ask questions. It just happens.

Once we surrounded a house in which we were told terrorists were hiding. There must have been ten or twelve of our men waiting. Sod’s law: someone jumped out of a window between two of our lads and ran into the darkness. As I recall, no shots were fired because the person jumping from the window was not identified and no weapon was seen.

B Squadron did an operation in the Andersons town area. Our information was that we were to go to an upper-floor flat. A meeting was taking place there between known terrorists. This was to be a house assault. Two of us were dropped off by civvy car, and we walked towards the flat in dirty old clothes, carrying a bag containing high explosives, grenades, gas, etc. We had 9-millimetre Brownings and MP5s under our coats. Our task was to ID the flat and bring in the remainder of the assault team. We ID’d the flat, then waited while the rest of the assault team got into position.

We heard noises from the flat. One of our men opened the door with his MP5. Inside there was one little old lady.

We cleared the flat, climbed into cars and drove back to base.

In none of the towns in Northern Ireland where I have served have I been faced with a terrorist with a weapon. All those man-hours on operations — have they been warranted? I would say not. The chance of being involved in contact with armed terrorists was very slim.

But, deep inside, you always felt that you were in with a chance of coming face to face with armed terrorists while serving in Northern Ireland.

In the seven years between the SAS first going in to Northern Ireland and the mid- 1980s only two of their number were killed. The first was Captain Herbert Westmacott. On 2 May 1980 he led a patrol which stormed a house in Antrim Road, Belfast, where an IRA team was hiding. They hit the wrong door, Number 369 instead of 371, with their sledgehammers. The IRA unit had a 7.62-millimetre M60 machine gun in the house next door and two bursts were fired. Captain Westmacott was killed. He was wearing body armour, but he was shot in the throat. The IRA men eventually surrendered. The door, riddled with bullets and known as the Westmacott door, is now displayed at Stirling Lines.

3

Northern Ireland:
Directly taken from SAS: The Soldiers Story

Then, in December 1984, five IRA men mined a restaurant near Fermanagh with 1,000 pounds of explosives packed into beer kegs. Lance-Corporal Al Slater and two fellow SAS men intercepted the radio message to blow the bomb. But the bomb did not go off, the men approached a car parked nearby, unaware that three IRA men were hidden in a ditch behind it. When Slater challenged the driver, he was shot. Despite being fatally wounded, Slater returned fire, and in the subsequent firefight the driver was killed and another man drowned as he tried to swim the River Branagh. The others were later arrested. Within hours of Slater’s death, his friend Johnny Two-Combs took over as his replacement.

Johnny Two-Combs I was on the CT team training when I got paged and was told that Al had been killed. I went over by helicopter that evening and moved in to Al’s room, sharing with a good friend of mine called Jocky. It was very depressing, but you’ve got to get on with it.

Everybody volunteers for Northern Ireland because it’s known as a constant operations theatre, but there are only so many positions available and not everyone is suitable. You have to have the aptitude to operate in the environment that Ireland produces. Those who are picked spend six months with the Northern Ireland Training Wing. You are assessed throughout for any weaknesses. We don’t go to Northern Ireland to run round the streets killing people. You have to have people who can operate under extreme pressure and not take things into their own hands. You have to be able to contain your emotions.

You learn covert photography. If we find weapons or bomb-making equipment, we go in, using infra-red cameras to get the evidence. We do helicopter fly-pasts, photographing approach roads of operations and then making a montage. We do a methods-of-entry course, going covertly into all sorts of buildings, and we become good at lock-picking. Driving is crucial too, and it’s a pat on the back to be selected as a driver — very prestigious. You have to be able to drive very fast, either pursuing terrorists or intercepting them. Such operations are called fast-balls. You’ve got to get from A to B in a very short space of time and not injure innocent people.

You are issued with normal, tracer and armour-piercing ammunition. It is normally up to the individual to decide how to mix his ammunition. Sometimes the patrol commander would remind us that we were going to do a vehicle intercept and that we should remember to have armour-piercing rounds as the first two in the magazine. In the same way, there is a lot of individual choice as to which weapon you use, but sometimes the commander will stipulate that everyone should carry a particular weapon. And there tend to be certain common-sense rules that relate to choice. For example, Drumnakilly was an ‘outdoor’ job, so it was the G3. You wouldn’t use a G3 in a confined environment — say, from the back of a car — because it is just too big and bulky.

As far as specific operations are concerned, we are involved when anybody reports suspicious activity. Maybe someone has seen a truck or a van parked near a culvert. Someone might be putting a bomb under it. Everyone’s suspicious in Northern Ireland. It goes to the hot line and through to the powers that be. If it’s decided that it requires our interest, then we go in. It’s very rapid. You get paged, check your map and any aerial photography. It normally involves four people and a dog to sniff

The first thing to think about is where the device might be detonated from. Ideally you approach the ground overlooking the target site because there may be someone there. It may be a come-on, someone waiting to ambush you or detonate a device. It’s very dangerous. Once that is okayed, you clear the area. If it’s a big culvert, you just get under there and take a look. If you find a device and a command wire, you follow it and set up a reactive OP. You select a ground of dominance. You and whoever you are with select your ambush position, send your sit rep back and you’ll be joined by whoever else is deemed necessary to complete the task. You could be in that position for several days. You always try to arrest people, but there have been situations where terrorists have been killed.

The classic situation is a bomb in a culvert, a command wire leading to a detonation point or remote-control detonation device. The terrorists turn up either to check their bomb or to move into trigger position. We challenge them and more often than not gunfire is exchanged because they are always armed and they don’t want to be captured. When contact is made, there’s a firefight, which doesn’t last long. When it’s over, we pick up the pieces, and if a terrorist is wounded, he will be arrested and his wounds will be treated. We don’t murder people. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t give people the double tap or the third eye. A firefight is very furious and all you’re concerned about is yourself. Once it’s finished and you have dominated the area, if you come across dead terrorists, so be it. But if they are wounded or in hiding, you arrest them, and terrorists do surrender. We do not take the law into our own hands.

I’ve been asked whether it is possible to shoot to wound a terrorist in order to take him prisoner. The answer is that there is only one way to shoot a person and that is to shoot at the centre of him. You can only shoot a terrorist if your life or the lives of the people it is your duty to protect are in danger. You have to make a split-second decision, and that’s bloody hard to do. However, that is part of our training and we never overreact. We have been involved in numerous operations where people have been shot and wounded and been arrested. You don’t shoot to kill. You don’t shoot to wound. You shoot to save your life or other people’s lives. If the terrorist survives, then his wounds will be treated and he’ll be taken to hospital. Once he is no longer a threat, we cease to take action against him other than to restrain him.

We do a lot of combat shooting, room combat and pistol work in every imaginable scenario based on previous live operations and with live ammunition. We do radio procedure, plan tactics and gather intelligence. But our primary role is at the sharp end. There are others who can gather intelligence. There are a lot of normal units who are perhaps not qualified to go against armed terrorists who have been involved in murder. Our task is to bring these people to justice — and it can be as frustrating as hell.

I was involved in an operation which lasted for ten months. We had intelligence from the police unit E4A that there was a bomb-making factory in a barn in the Newcastle area. We checked it out and found bomb-making equipment in there, so an operation was mounted to survey it and catch the bomb-makers and, more important, the people who were going to plant the bombs.

All the agencies were involved (SAS, the RUC, Special Branch), and we did job after job after job over those ten months in 1988. Each time we would crash out of our accommodation, zoom up to the barn and lie up overnight. Nothing. Frustration.

Then it happened. It culminated. We were sat one night in a police station a few miles away when finally the bombers turned up.

Black masks on, operational kit on and we crashed out in the cars. We had two assault teams. I was to be the first entry man and I was going in with Jocky. We went screaming out of the police station. It was nighttime. We had a large, fast car with an engine upgrade and we thought: Right, this is it. We’ve got them. All we expected was to go in there and arrest everyone inside, but we knew that they were extremely brutal people. We definitely expected them to be armed. However, we were not quite sure. We had to gain entry and take in the situation. We were in a reactive role. There we were, weapons cocked, one in the spout, balaclavas on, ready to confront them. Jocky and I were psyching each other up, saying, ‘This is it. We’re going to do it.’ We knew it might result in a firefight.

About half a mile from the place we heard ‘Stop, stop, stop’ in our earpieces.

‘What?’

‘Stop, stop stop. Abort. Come back.’

We couldn’t believe it. After ten months of sitting around. What an anticlimax. What also pissed us off was that, when you have terrorists around, they have dickers on the look-out and checking the approach roads. They couldn’t have missed us. We had our weapons. We had our hoods on. We were screaming down the road, so we’d probably compromised our situation anyway.

That was it. We obeyed orders, turned back and sat in our private room in the police station, deeply upset. In ten months this was the only time we’d got ‘Go, go, go’. After an hour one of the head men from the Special Branch came in (he was one of those who were killed later in the helicopter crash in Scotland). He said he was very, very sorry, but word had come from the highest level not to engage these terrorists. There would have been a bloodbath. We were never given another explanation. Maybe the source of the information might have been present in the barn. We didn’t know.

Next day there was an open search of the area by the military and the police and the terrorists were arrested, either at home or at their place of work. The job was wrapped up.

If any testament were needed that we obey the law, this was it, though sometimes, like when the two signallers were murdered, you really have to keep a grip on your self-control. That was the sickest, most horrific thing I’ve seen in my life.

4

Northern Ireland:
Directly taken from SAS: The Soldiers Story

It was just after the business in Gibraltar and these two signallers, Corporal Derek Woods and Corporal Robert Howes, based at NI headquarters, strayed into the funeral procession in Belfast. Woods was a specialist and the other guy was his relief. Woods was due to leave in a few days and he was showing the other chap around these locations. They just ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They should never, never, never have been anywhere near that bloody funeral. The RUC and the military had pulled back, allowing the mourners to have their procession. It was policed by their own people, the official IRA. They had their own stewards. They had put up their own road blocks and closed off roads.

I was in an RUC station with a patrol from the regiment. We had unmarked cars, quite a bit away from the funeral. The first we knew was at the same time as the rest of the world — the news flashes on TV.

‘Fucking hell,’ I said. ‘Is that one of ours?’

We were trying to account for ourselves, looking at the car, checking the number plate, and realized it wasn’t one of ours. At first, like everyone else, we thought it was a Loyalist hit team that had gone in to do a job and fucked up. But because streets had been closed off, the guys had ended up going down a couple of streets they didn’t know. They got spooked and panicked and suddenly reversed into that funeral procession. They were blocked in by black taxis. Because they hadn’t been trained and were slow to react, they allowed themselves to get boxed in. Had they been trained, they could perhaps have got out by ramming the taxis.

One of the guys drew a pistol and fired in the air. That again showed lack of confidence, lack of training. By that stage, surely, the game was up. When you are confronted by an angry mob like that, they are going to rip you to pieces. If you’re going to draw a weapon, then bloody well use it, because the moment they fired in the air, they got leapt on. Had they fired and shot somebody, they might even have been able to shoot themselves out of it, although I doubt it because they did not handle the situation well enough. Lack of training: nothing more.

I’m sure that if those two soldiers in that car had been SAS, things would have been very different. In fact, it would never have happened because we would never have allowed ourselves to get into that situation. But just imagining the impossible, that we had found ourselves cornered by a rioting mob, then the streets would have been flowing with blood. For a start, we would have been armed to the teeth, including automatic weapons. Had they come at me, and it was clear that they were going to kill us, I would have issued the correct warning and then opened fire. The world would not have liked it, but I would have been covered legally. Do you honestly think I would stand there, knowing that I was going to be ripped to pieces, limb from limb? Have you ever had a rioting crowd coming at you? It is horrific. It is terrifying. It is very, very frightening.

The signallers ended up being dragged from the car by the mob, then they were dragged through the gates that led to a park. An army patrol got to the waste ground at the back of the shops in the Falls Road within minutes, but it was after the two guys had been shot. We got back to our hangar still thinking, What the fucking hell’s going on? It was quickly established that it was two signallers who had been murdered. We were very upset about it.

Next morning we were buzzed to assemble in the meeting room. All the troop were there. None of us knew what was going to happen, then an Int. officer appeared and told us that the helicopter had videoed the whole thing. I think that the pilot, the cameraman and all those involved, and the people getting the live broadcast at Group, were severely reprimanded because surely the helicopter should have come down and buzzed but it just stood there monitoring. We were all slightly pissed off about that.

The officer warned us that the video was dreadful and that he was going to show it to us there and then. We needed to know what had happened because we were going to have to mount a major operation to bring those people to justice. You could have heard a pin drop in that briefing room. It was horrible. We had to sit and watch while the soldiers were beaten unconscious, thrown over a fence and bundled into a taxi, which drove to some nearby waste ground. Then they were shot, repeatedly.

After seeing the video, we were absolutely dumbfounded, mortified, outraged. I personally felt physically sick. No one spoke. We were just so horror-struck. It was obvious that we had to bring these people to justice. We were the SAS. Yet none of us took the law into our own hands. None of us went out and took any retaliation or retribution. None of us. That’s part of the training of the regiment and the calibre of the regiment and the professionalism of the regiment. We are not above the law.

We continued normal ops, and a long-drawn-out operation was mounted. People were identified. One of the guys, the one who smashed the soldiers’ car window, was an OTR [on the run], and eventually all the people guilty of murdering those two young lads were brought to justice.

Mack Most of the time in Northern Ireland we got pretty much nowhere, but on two occasions we had contact, the first time a fuck-up, the second time very sweet.

The first was a tip-off that a mobile attack was going to be made on the Queen Street police station in Belfast. We knew very little else. We didn’t know what weapons they were planning on using, but the police station was quite heavily protected, so we assumed they would use something with a bit of punch. There was a building under construction directly opposite the main entrance to the police station, which gave us a good view of the road both ways, so we set up our position there. We had been informed that the attack was to be on a Wednesday night so we mounted our operation. Nothing happened.

The next night we mounted it again but had to fly four blokes over from Hereford who were on the back-up team because the rest of my troop were off on another operation that also seemed to be about to come off. The second night we decided to take up a position within the police station. We’ posted two of their operatives, dressed in ordinary police uniforms, on the gate house so that they could deal with enquiries from the public and so on. Of course, you never know when you see someone approaching you whether they are part of the enemy attack team or what. They often sent apparently innocent pedestrians in to ask questions of the blokes on the gate just to ensure how many police targets there were in position. The pedestrians would then go on their way and send a signal to their associates to carry out the attack.

Several people came and went during the evening and, of course, each time my heart beat a little bit faster. By about quarter to midnight still nothing had happened. We had cars out on the road looking for our targets (we knew who they were), but they had seen nothing.

I was just making myself a cup of tea when one of the lads at the window says, ‘Fucking hell, they’re here.’ I looked out of the window. A Volvo was coming down the road towards us with this bloke standing up through the sun-roof with a fucking RPG7 on his shoulder. They drove past our position and stopped. The bloke turned around to face our position and took aim. Everybody down on the floor, because RPG7s do make a mess. It blew a good hole in the wall, but it could have been worse. I was already outside the door when the blast hit, so that put me on the floor, and as I was getting up, I realized there was incoming fire. One of the terrorists was firing an Armalite on automatic in our general direction, and it was coming through the metal fence all around me.

The gate we had planned to exit through had been buckled in the explosion, so it took us a few seconds to get into the street. As we were doing this a couple of our blokes had fired at the car from inside the building which had been hit. As I came out into the street, I saw one of them taking off on foot down an alleyway. As we approached the now abandoned Volvo, I noticed a taxi parked nearby with a woman in the back, screaming. The poor man driving had been hit in the cross-fire. One of our lads fetched a trauma pack and we had a drip into him double quick, but he was in a terrible state and it was obvious he was on his way out, so we made him as comfortable as we could. Meanwhile the rest of the team were chasing the terrorists. Soon our net met with the police line heading towards us. Nothing. The three people had disappeared in the maze of back streets. They must have had another car close by. The only good thing was that we recovered two RPG7s and other weapons that they had left in the Volvo.

5

Northern Ireland:
Directly taken from SAS: The Soldiers Story

Other SAS operations were much more successful. Following information collected from a telephone conversation between two IRA men concerning a planned attack on the RUG station at Loughall, for example, the regiment was able to prepare a carefully planned ambush. The IRA’s notorious East Tyrone Brigade was going to carry out the attack, but the SAS knew the day of the attack — 8 May 1987 — and it brought over reinforcements from England to back up Ulster Troop. These were a sixteen-man troop from D Squadron, who joined the men of Ulster Troop in and around the RUG station at Loughall and waited for the terrorists. The eight IRA men arrived in a Toyota van and a mechanical digger, in the bucket of which was a large bomb.

After the digger had been crashed through the gates of the police station and abandoned and the bomb had been detonated, the IRA men began firing at the buildings with their personal weapons. Then the SAS opened up, and within seconds all the terrorists had been killed, cut down in a deadly crossfire.

Over a year later, Mack’s second contact with the IRA at Drumnakilly in August 1988 was similarly successful, and very different from his first encounter.

Mack We received information that a coal-delivery man, who also worked part time in the security forces, was going to be murdered by the IRA. Many people in the province do two jobs for the extra money. We knew that this particular hit team, the two Harte brothers Gerald and Brian and a big fat bastard called Brian Mullen, had killed before. They were bad fucking people.

We put a reactive OP on the coalman’s house. We watched his house twenty-four hours a day, as we were expecting the hit team to arrive at his house and shoot him at his own front door. The reactive team is on stand-by to take immediate counterattack measures in the event of the hit team arriving on scene. We did this for nearly three weeks. After some time it seemed obvious that the murder attempt wasn’t going to happen and this particular operation was temporarily suspended.

Some time later we were on patrol, following the coalman round as he made his deliveries. He had just driven into a house where he was dropping some coal and the hit team appeared in a car. We weren’t sure if they were tooled up or not, but it looked like a fucking mobile hit was about to go down. For some reason they peeled off at the last minute. God knows why, but it got the whole operation going again. After that, it seemed likely that they would hit him when he was out working rather than at his home, so we decided to substitute one of our men for him in his lorry.

We knew the area where this guy worked, so we looked for a location out of town, on a back road. I did a bit of map study and identified a good place. We decided that it would make an ideal place for our OP. We checked it out one night and realized it was ideal. So the plan began to take shape. We would secure the area around the farm house and move there the evening before we moved the lorry into place. The next morning one of our men would drive the coal lorry to the prearranged location and feign having broken down.

During the night we discussed final operational details and before first light we moved into position along the hedgeway beside the road where the lorry was due to ‘break down’. There were two parallel roads and we placed blokes from the DET out actually covering the road junctions, so as to be able to give us advance warning of the arrival of the hit squad. Plus we had three cars up and about, driving around looking for the enemy. Finally there was a quick-reaction force of covert police also in the area, ready to move in and provide assistance if needed.

Geordie was the substitute. He looked a bit like the coalman, being a similar size and shape. Once we were in position we gave the okay via the radio and Geordie drove the lorry to our location. We were all wearing the green kit: camouflage top and bottom, which looked funny, given that some of us had really long hair and beards and all sorts. We also wore a special brassard which you could flick down to reveal a coloured band which was our ID. We were in communication with Geordie, who was using a covert radio, so we were chatting away to him while he was – on his way and when he first arrived. He was disguised as the coalman, wearing one of those leather jackets like a mat. When he arrived, to my surprise, four more of our lads emerged from the back of his lorry and also positioned themselves along the ditch in under the hedgerow. We still didn’t know if anything was actually going to happen.

I positioned myself right underneath the truck and chatted to Geordie from time to time. We were aware that our base could hear everything we said (and that it was being tape-recorded) and that our boss and several very senior anti-terrorist police officers were also monitoring our operation. We’d been in position for more than an hour. Suddenly the radio crackled to life with a voice I hadn’t heard before that moment.

‘X-Ray One spotted.’ And then, after a few seconds, ‘Heading your way. Over.’

This was our target. A grungy orange car appeared in the road coming directly towards our position. Geordie was working on the offside front wheel, looking as if he was repairing a flat tyre. As the car approached, it slowed right down. It was fucking obvious. I remember thinking, Here we go. But you can’t do anything. We knew they were fucking bad bastards but you can’t just shoot them. They weren’t doing anything wrong. They drove right up and had a good look at Geordie. They carried on up the lane and then, still in full view of our position, turned around and came back towards us.

I thought, This is it. Something’s going to happen. Gerald, the older brother, was driving, his brother was in the back and the big fat fucker was in the passenger seat. They drove past us and off the way they had originally come. The cunts disappeared. They went through a couple of checkpoints and disappeared.

Over the next half hour three or four cars stopped beside Geordie to ask him if he needed a hand. He was polite to them but said, no, he didn’t need them. Of course, each time a car slowed down, we were all ready because we didn’t know if they were going to use a different car for the attack. And if they had appeared, we didn’t want anyone else around for fear of them getting caught in the crossfire.

After several hours in position we were talking over the situation with Control. Geordie seemed to have been changing a wheel for more than two hours and it was starting to look a bit fucking obvious. It doesn’t take that long. We agreed that we would stay for just half an hour more. So Geordie started taking the wheel off again.

Suddenly the radio came to life. ‘There’s a white Ford Sierra just pulled into the farm not far from your position.’ They gave us continual updates on all movements in the area. A few minutes later the same white car reappeared with our three targets in it. They had been waiting in this farm to hijack the car.

The radio continued, ‘Yep, white Sierra approaching the junction. It has now turned right towards you.’

I’d been lying under the truck, facing out between the two front wheels. When I knew they were coming for the actual attack, I crawled to the back of the truck and stood up behind it in order to have some cover and also to be able to get a clear line of fire.

‘Still coming, still coming,’ the radio warned. There was a dip in the road and the car was temporarily out of sight. Just as it came back into view, about 100 metres away, this dick-head was hanging out of the back window fucking shooting off bursts of automatic fire from an AK47, which slammed into the lorry. They were approaching at about 40 miles an hour. Geordie was fucking funny. He hot-footed it round the back of the truck like a cartoon character. He wasn’t running properly. More kind of lurching. He dived head-first into the bushes behind me to get out of the way.

We were using Heckler & Koch G3s. As the car came level with me, I put a burst into it. The weapon does ride up a bit as you fire it, so I had to put a good line up the side of the car. As this was happening, I honestly thought to myself, There s no way they are going to fucking stop. But after the car had only gone on another 10 metres, it stopped. I couldn’t believe it. I had put about nine rounds through it. I didn’t know if I had hit anybody. The next second the rest of the guys opened up from their positions in the hedge. It was nice. Very nice. Johnny Two-Combs was waiting in the hedge.

Johnny Two-Combs I was in the hedge a few feet in front of the lorry and the first I knew about the op going down was the sound of a vehicle coming towards me, a high screech, then whack-whack-whack, a burst of AK47 machine-gun fire went over the top of my head. It sprayed the front of the lorry too. I ran into the road because I was sure the person I was there to protect had been hit. The first sight that greeted me was a man in a blue boiler suit, black balaclava and black gloves getting out of the front passenger seat. He had an AK47 with two magazines taped to each other and brought up to the aim. I had a G3 and I was quicker to the draw. I fired a short burst into him and he fell. I knelt down and fired an accurate burst into him. I turned my attention to the others and they had been dealt with. I looked at the person we were there to protect and found that he was okay. It was a successful conclusion to the operation.

I was absolutely ecstatic, overjoyed. Someone had fired at me. I’d gone to confront that person to protect an unarmed man. I’d been confronted by a terrorist. I’d beaten him. I was happy it was him and not me. He was a known murderer engaged in an act of attempted murder and I was justified, knowing that he could never be in a position to do that again. I was okay. My family didn’t have to worry about me.

5

Northern Ireland:
Directly taken from SAS: The Soldiers Story

It was the training that made the difference between him and me. SAS training is very dangerous. There are accidents, fatalities. We train for real with live ammunition. When you go to a live operation, the reactions are just the same. The fact that this was a terrorist and not a target was just the same.

Mack As the others were firing, I stepped into the middle of the road and pumped rounds into the back of the fucking car. It was all over in seconds. Just after we stopped firing, two of our own cars came screeching down the road to block it off. There was a woman and her kids approaching in another car and someone shouted to our guys, ‘Stop that car before it gets any closer.’ They were stopped and turned away.

I got on the radio. ‘Hello, we’ve just had contact.’

We checked all the lads to make sure everyone was okay. Check your mags. Safety catches on. I went across to the car to make sure they were all dead. The guy in front had half his fucking head gone. The one in the back had fallen on to the ground and the third one was also shot to fucking pieces. Then I got back on the radio. ‘QRF [Quick Reaction Force], please move in.’ The guys. who had been hiding in bushes and on up the road appeared and so did the scene-of-crime officers. They asked us all to move back to the exact positions we had been in when the attack began. One of them marked each of our positions. Once he was finished, I asked if we could leave and he gave us the all-clear. A few minutes later two choppers appeared in the field next to us. They took most of us, while the rest left in our vehicles.

Once we were back in barracks we had some tea and some food. The police arrived and took our weapons from us. It’s standard procedure. The weapons are used as evidence and in the forensic reports. Soon afterwards we were again taken by chopper back to our own base and we were joined there by police who had been involved. I did my written notes straight away while everything was fresh in my mind. I always used to do this. Afterwards we spoke to various officers and had a drink. We didn’t go mad. We knew it was straight back to work soon afterwards. We also knew that we would have to give police statements about the incident the following morning.

That was the Northern Ireland score as far as I was concerned. In five years, three baddies on the plus side, one poor taxi driver on the minus side. Hopefully, that’ll all be history soon.

The deadly cat-and-mouse game between the SAS and IRA continued into the 1990s. Ulster Troop continued to have more successes, testimony to the intelligence-gathering methods of the intelligence agencies. In 1991, for example, the terrorist Peter Ryan was killed while on his way to murder someone, and a year later four IRA members, Kevin Barry O’Donnell, Sean O’Farrell, Patrick Vincent and Peter Clancy, were ambushed and killed in Coalisland after machine-gunning a police station.

The ceasefire announced by the IRA in December 1994 appeared to signal the end of the war in Northern Ireland, but the bombing of Canary Wharf in February 1996 cast doubts on the prospect of a permanent peace. Whatever the outcome, the SAS stands ready to tackle the IRA.

On March 4 police in Malaga spotted a 3 men IRA team; they monitored them crossing the border to Gibraltar 2 days later.  At 15.25 the 3 terrorists left a parked car outside an army barracks and started walking North towards the border with mainland Spain, the Gibraltan police commissioner sat in a command and control centre with three SAS officers who were leading a seven man team and other intelligence officers (presumably from the Northern Ireland Intelligence unit, or MI5/6).

An SAS report sent to them said the Renault was a suspect car and that it had a particularly suspect aerial; possibly a radio control device, the commissioner made the decision to arrest the terrorist before they crossed over into Spain, he signed a form requesting that the SAS apprehend and arrest the terrorists.  By now the three were on a bridge near Smith Dorian Avenue, SAS Officer F ordered his men to intervene and Officer E went out to meet the men and monitor the situation.

As the terrorists were approached by the SAS they realised they were in anger and drew weapons, a fierce gun battle ensued outside a petrol station on Winston Churchill Avenue.

At 16:05 a report came back from the SAS that all three terrorists had been killed, at 16:06 Officer F handed back control to the police.

The car did not contain a bomb, however, two days later another suspect car was found in Marbaya containing five packets of semtex as used by the IRA, there was a detonator on the bomb which wasn’t yet set, but there was a timer set for 11.20am, the precise time of the changing of the guard ceremony in Gibraltar.