The ‘Military Reaction Force’, formally titled the Mobile Reconnaissance Force (MRF), is one of the UK’s most controversial clandestine army units in recent history. Established during ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the British Army tasked the unit with weakening the Irish Republican Army (IRA). However, with a broad remit and a clandestine operational objective, the unit became notable for extrajudicial assassinations of IRA members. They also developed a reputation for the accidental killing of civilians falsely identified as IRA.
As a result of its clandestine nature, the Military Reaction Force was largely ‘off the books’. Any records that detailed the unit’s operations were destroyed after the unit was disbanded. Therefore, all current information regarding the unit derives from the testimony of its former members, witness statements and the released information from police investigations.
Military Reaction Force Origins
The British Army Headquarters Northern Ireland established the Military Reaction Force in the late summer of 1971. The army conceived the MRF due to the perceived necessity for a clandestine unit to combat the increasingly effective and active IRA. The unit was set up under the 39th Infantry Brigade, headed by Brigadier Frank Edward Kitson. Kitson had established the counter-insurgency strategy of ‘counter-gangs‘ during his service fighting the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya (1952-1960).
Building on Kitson’s strategy of developing pseudo-gangs to collect information from insurgents, the Military Reaction Force acted as an intelligence collection unit while undercover in IRA strongholds. However, as the unit was undercover, the Army additionally tasked the unit with assassinating IRA members, as extrajudicial actions could not be openly carried out by officially recognised army units.
The unit’s commanders handpicked around 40 soldiers from across the British Army, based on their combat experience, training and the suitability of their character for clandestine operations. The alleged first commanding officer of the unit, Captain Arthur Watchus had previously been a parachute regiment captain and a senior member of the ‘bomb squad‘ (a precursor to the Military Reaction Force in the 39th Brigade).
The unit’s base was a restricted entry compound within Palace Barracks, Holywood, which served as one of the primary bases for British Army battalions during ‘The Troubles’, due to its proximity to Belfast.
- 9mm Browning Hi-Power
- 9mm Sterling SMG (Both with and without a silencer)
- Walther PPK
- Thompson SMG (Not a standard issue gun for the unit, but used in multiple instances)
Military Reaction Force Operations
Using the information provided by IRA informants, soldiers within the unit would conduct surveillance operations in civilian disguises in order to collect intelligence on IRA members. These disguises would include: Belfast City Council road sweepers, garbage collectors, and “meths drinkers” (A person who drinks methylated spirits). Former Military Reaction Force members report carrying multiple weapons during their surveillance operations. Their weapons included a Browning and/or PPK, as well as a Sterling SMG (Dependent on its concealability).
The Military Reaction Force set up a number of front companies to build up its surveillance capabilities. The unit established the ‘Four Square Laundry’ company, providing highly competitive prices for laundry services in Republican strongholds of Belfast. The laundry was collected by Northern Irish operatives in a van and then delivered to a forensic testing facility, to check for explosive material, firearm residue and blood, before being professionally cleaned and sent back to the customers. Moreover, the laundry van gave operatives an inconspicuous mobile observation post, allowing for further intelligence collection.
The unit also set up a surveillance operation in the ‘Gemini Massage Parlour’, frequented by numerous IRA members and their associates. Believing that the parlour was secure and safe, IRA members felt more relaxed to candidly speak with one another. This provided the Military Reaction Force with a continuous stream of intelligence from IRA insiders.
Former members have described the second arm of the unit as a “hard-hitting counter terror unit”. The British Army gave this arm implicit authorisation to kill known IRA shooters on-site. As a result, the unit conducted several drive-by shootings that eliminated (or intended to eliminate) targets of the British Army.
As Military Reaction Force soldiers operated in plain clothes and civilian cars, they attempted to disguise their assassinations as IRA or Unionist violence to cover up the involvement of the British Army. In one instance, a key MRF soldier, Clive Graham Williams, used a Thompson submachine gun due to it being his preferred weapon and the standard weapon used by the IRA.
As well as killing specific targets of the British Army, the ‘hard-hitting’ squads of the unit also attacked people defending the barricades of Republican areas and those on ‘vigilante patrols’ even without knowledge of firearms being present. One former member reported that this type of activity would attempt to bait the IRA to exit their strongholds.
Due to the destruction of operational records and the unwillingness of former unit members to discuss a specific activity, the number of IRA members killed by the unit is indeterminable.
Killings of Unarmed Civilians
As a result of these uncompromising tactics, certain squads of the Military Reaction Force are alleged to have killed several innocent civilians. These killings allegedly occurred due to cases of mistaken identity or indiscriminate fire at barricades or at vigilante patrols. A BBC Panorama investigation has linked the unit to the shooting of 10 unarmed civilians including:
- John and Gerry Conway- 15 April 1972
- Aiden McAloon and Eugene Devlin- 12 May 1972
- Joe Smith, Hugh Kenny, Patrick Murray and Tommy Shaw- 22 June 1972
- Daniel Rooney and Brendan Brennan- 27 September 1972
In 2015, the Police Service of Northern Ireland began investigating 18 potential killings of unarmed civilians by the MRF. However, there is yet to be a conviction or arrest of a unit member.
The demise of the Military Reaction Force
By September 1972, the IRA had discovered that two of its soldiers were providing information to the Military Reaction Force. Following their interrogation, the IRA leadership became aware of the unit’s operations. The double agents subsequently suffered execution.
After the uncovering of operations of the Military Reaction Force, the IRA planned and conducted a simultaneous attack on the Four Square Laundry van, the Gemini Massage Parlour and the unit’s backup team in College Square. The shock dealt to British Army intelligence from these simultaneous attacks led to the disbanding of Military Reaction Force.
The Military Reaction Force is often viewed as the prototype for subsequent more ‘law-abiding’ intelligence units operating during The Troubles. The unit was succeeded by the 14 Field Security and Intelligence Company (Also known as The Special Reconnaissance Unit).