I haven’t read too much in to the Northern Ireland battles that went on. I touched on them when reading Harry McCallion’s book, Killing Zone. It was very hush-hush what went on though so massive details aren’t available for many of the operations that occurred.
One thing that I read that was quite interesting was how the SBS – attached to another unit – would be using dirty pants to catch terrorists. It wasn’t like their usual missions. How did they do this you may think? I’ll tell you.
The Military Reaction Force
In the Spring of 1971 the Military Reaction Force (MRF) came in to existence. A small number of men from the SBS joined this force. Their aim was to improve intelligence gathering in Northern Ireland, a response to increased political pressure from London.
The MRF was attached to the 39th Infantry Brigade. It wasn’t an SAS unit like it’s been reported it was before. The MRF tried to get ex-IRA members to inform on the current active members. They would ask the ex-IRA members to act as spotters and informers so that the MRF had up-to-date information.
They would patrol in unmarked cars, using concealed camera equipment for surveillance. The MRF needed to do more than drive around the streets taking lots of photographs. That wasn’t going to get the top-level, detailed intelligence that was required.
Several schemes were used for undercover operatives to gain information for intelligence purposes. One of them was using a massage parlour. Another was using a laundry company and this is what I wanted to look at today.
Four Square Laundry was a normal laundry company on the outside. It was behind the scenes where it got interesting though. The MRF had a forensic laboratory that they would use to test clothes for traces of explosives or anything else that could incriminate them.
How Did They Do This?
They used a laundry van. I know. They used a laundry van to pick up laundry. It’s genius. It started out that they would offer coupons for cheaper laundry to get customers. The operators knew what area the clothes were sent in from because they colour coded the coupons for different areas.
The operators narrowed down the targets by having extra “offers” for certain houses, by using numbered coupons they could match the clothes to a certain house.
Were the clothes being sent in for a man when they knew that no man lived at that address? If so, then this could indicate the possible harbouring of an IRA terrorist. Also different size clothes could indicate extra men staying at the house. All vital information as it built the picture that they could use to go forward with.
Anphoblacht claim in their account of it that:
Using this cover, intelligence was accumulated in a number of ways. The laundry staff, consisting of a driver and a woman, would chat with locals and obtain apparently insignificant bits of information, which could be of great importance when placed together later. Meanwhile, two SAS soldiers hidden under the roof of the van photographed the occupants, houses and vehicles of known republicans.
I couldn’t find it anywhere else about troops hiding in the roof to take pictures.
How Did it End?
The operation came to an end when a laundry van was attacked. An IRA double agent provided the intelligence for them to launch an attack when the van was in the Juniper Park area.
Four IRA volunteers conducted the shooting. Three were firing and one was driving the car. Sapper Stuart was killed driving the van. He was undercover and on loan from the Royal Engineers.
The passenger of the van was a female operative from the Women’s Royal Army Corps. She was in a house collecting laundry when the attack happened and the occupants of the house took her in and kept her safe. The bosses awarded an MBE to the female soldier.
Anphoblacht claimed that they killed two operators in the roof of the van, saying:
As it drove through Juniper Park, it was ambushed by Volunteers of a special intelligence unit of the IRA, who machine-gunned the van, killing two British Intelligence Officers lying under the roof in a compartment specially designed as an observation post. The driver, Sapper Stuart, who was on loan from his parent regiment to the SAS, was also killed.
The British Army didn’t confirm this, but they did confirm that one soldier was killed. The driver Stuart.
The next day they also attacked the massage parlour, they also claimed they killed three soldiers in an attack there but this was again unconfirmed by the British Army.
Although a life was lost some of the addresses collected during the laundry runs ended being raided during Op Motorman. This was in the summer of 1972 when 12,000 troops took action to smash Ulster’s no-go areas. Some good did come from the scheme. It’s a bit of a different mission to when the SBS first started but I thought it was interesting.