Editor’s note: This is the fourth part of a series.
Captured by the IRA or a blown cover. These were the ultimate sins.
In case an operator was compromised, he would either be sent to a different Detachment and location or to the conventional army.
So, the three-week Induction Phase, when fresh operators were paired with seasoned ones, was crucial. The veterans drove their new colleagues through their AO, drenching them with wisdom and knowledge that could save their lives: Who were the major players? Which pubs were off-limits? What clothes would betray them?
Like anxious students during exams, new operators memorized routes and local features and compiled lengthy cheat-sheets with suspects’ names, car plate numbers, homes, stores, pubs, etc.
A Det had anywhere from twenty to thirty operators. The Det commander and Ops officer supervised missions and coordinated teams. Otherwise, operators were free to either run individual ops or act as reserve manpower.
Planning mirrored the SAS’ Chinese Parliament approach, a rankless process where all operators chip-in and debriefs were often informal affairs over drinks.
Bases were small autonomous communities with an operations room, an armory, a bar, a garage to park and ‘improve’ their fleet of vehicles in, and even a small killing house in order to stay proficient in the exacting art of CQB.
Army, MI5, and Special Branch, RUC’s intelligence units and specialist attachments were readily available. Additionally, a small fleet of Gazelle and Lynx helicopters, known as the ‘Bat Flight,’ were constantly on-call.
Secrecy was everything.
Mail and paper were shredded or burnt because trash collection happened locally, and maintenance contractors working on a Det base were English.
Such measures weren’t irrational. When a newspaper published the name of a dead operator, his grave in England was defiled, and his family received hate mail.
Operations happened within both military and civil law, and legalities were often an issue. The psychological pressure was always high. With tours lasting from eighteen to thirty-six months, and vacation limited to few days every couple of months (operations permitting), a few succumbed to the job’s demands. The addition of Special Forces pay was a small bonus.
London’s satisfaction with the 14 Intelligence Detachment’s work ensured a steady flow of funds.
Each operator had a personalized Kevlar-armoured vehicle called Q car (a James Bond connection?). Q cars packed with eavesdrop, communication, and camera equipment, a lights switch for covert drop-offs and sophisticated anti-thief & bomb-detection gadgets. For emergencies, such as an ambush or a checkpoint, a flashbang detonator mechanism, like the one tanks and APCs have, could be triggered by a foot pedal.
Operators tailored their wardrobes with hidden slits and pockets. Black balaclavas and white armbands (to mark them as friendlies) were also used. Wigs and makeup were not limited to just the female operators.
Minuscule noiseless earphones and microphones gave them an edge.
As for their weapons, their preferred loadout was a Browning Hi-power with extended 20 round magazines as the primary firearm and the smaller PKK as secondary. A wide selection of weapon enhancements, such as standard, infrared, and night vision sights, torches (MagLite) and grips were available. Operators didn’t favor body armor because of its bulkiness.
The 14 Intelligence Detachment was so valued by London and hated by the IRA because of its surveillance magic.
The SAS, conventional army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) did the direct action. It was Det operators who fed them with the necessary intelligence.
By nature, surveillance operations are tricky. Add Northern Ireland’s homogeneous communities, where driving through a particular neighborhood twice in a day could be suicidal, and it gets even trickier.
Operators had to be wary of many things: checkpoints, for instance, were a constant nightmare. When they were faced with one, they’d have to rely on their cover—shooting to safety being a last resort.
Whether close-target or long-target, surveillance operations were often reactionary — a response to an MI5 or Special Branch tip.
When it came to longer operations, some lasted for years: the need to retain knowledge of a specific person or group contrasted with the need to rotate operators.
While following a target (a fast-paced affair), effective communication was everything. Radio chatter remained to a minimum. Touching an earpiece or talking, seemingly to the air, attracted attention.
In a hardcore Londonderry neighborhood that could be a death sentence.
So, operators developed a procedure like the one SAS and Delta Force snipers use in hostage rescue operations, when coordinated and simultaneous fire is paramount: Every important feature had a color. Operators, suspects, and common words all had call signs.
Here’s an example description of a target’s movement from a store to his car: Charlie (operator 1), Alpha (operator 2), November 4 (target), Foxtrot (moving) from Green (store) to yellow (car). Brief and to the point.
Human surveillance operations began with the ‘trigger’ (the first operator in a scene). Either on foot or in a car, he followed the target just enough to avoid suspicion. Then, standby operators alternated in the primary position, ensuring secrecy without dropping the scent.
Sometimes, close-target surveillance became too close. Operators, in some cases, even had to hide inside trash bins and carefully peer through the slit (this was an extreme resort in case an immediate ‘trigger’ on a target was needed). This resulted in some rather uncomfortable and smelly situations!
Loitering ‘Dickers’ (young aspiring terrorists) posed a further threat since they alerted the ‘big guys’ of suspicious cars or persons.
It was in such operations that female operators excelled. By nature, it’s harder to suspect a woman walking her dog than a man doing the same thing.
Bugging terrorist houses, cars, or even clothes often made for interesting yarns.
Be advised, the following isn’t fictional.
During a bugging mission, a pair of operators ‘improving’ an IRA car came against a four-legged ‘obstacle.’ The operators radioed for a drugged steak. Since one wasn’t available at their base, a helicopter had to fetch one from HQ in Belfast. An Army vet was woken and provided the medicine. Soon, the operators were luring their opponent with the meat by tying it to a string, and ‘serviced’ the car beside a snoring dog!
Although more than capable to shoot their way out of trouble, operators enjoyed the bonus safety of SAS QRFs. But the undercover nature of the 14 Intelligence operations meant that the danger for friendly fire incidents was high. And blue-on-blue incidents with army and RUC patrols did happen.
The IRA was a brutal enemy. Too many innocents mistaken for British agents were murdered.
The IRA was also a sophisticated adversary. The 14 Int could never rest on its successes. Procedures were reviewed and revamped constantly. Operating in pairs, for instance, became unviable after the IRA caught on.
A specific incident illustrates the IRA’s cleverness: For security reasons, radio transmits between 14 Intelligence operators weren’t direct, even if they sat in the same car; transmits, instead, jumped to the several dishes dispersed through the AO (Area of Operation) and then re-broadcasted in different frequencies. The IRA, ever keen on breaking the British codes, saw its opportunity in a young Dublin hacker. Toiling for months, the hacker tracked the different dishes and managed to break the code of a frequency. Soon the IRA knew the identities of most operators in that section. They then waited for the chance to deliver a major blow. In the end, however, they botched it — although an operator was ambushed and severely wounded.
It didn’t take long to catch the hacker.