The Female undercover soldier awarded the Military Medal whilst serving in Northern Ireland.

When it comes to whether women should be allowed to serve in front line combat units in the British army, I agree few women would be capable of serving in units which for operational reasons have to carry heavy loads for long distances, over harsh terrain and as quickly as possible but this problem is simply down to physiology. Although for some roles physical strength and endurance is essential, I reject the argument women are not capable of fighting as professionally and with the same ruthlessness as men and it is interesting to note similar arguments based on the belief women are of the wrong temperament for combat were put forward during the Second World War.

During the research for my forthcoming book, Special Operations Executive in Wartime France, I found in 1941 a handful of politicians and senior military officers who were aware of the existence of the ultra-secret SOE expressing outrage at the recruitment and training of women in subversive warfare and the dangers they would face in German occupied countries, and most of this criticism was down to the institutional and socially accepted sexism of the period.

After this criticism came to the attention of Churchill all opposition ceased to be voiced after announcing he had no objections to women being used in combat or being employed in other hazardous duties.

After the war  some criticised Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, the former head of SOE’s French Section, for recruiting women and the deaths of women agents and in 1952 Buckmaster stood up to his critics by saying:

“It has been suggested that women agents should never have been sent {to France},that they were forced to undertake missions to which both by temperament and by nature they were unsuited, and by physique and spirit inadequate… The dead cannot be revived by such accusations, they can only be dishonoured…. Those of us who know the work done by women can only feel deep anger and contempt to those who try to denigrate… and question the ability of women who fought alongside men… by doubting the readiness of brave women to face perils and if necessary, die for their countries.

The women did an invaluable job and one of which, whatever people say, they were admirably suited. Coolness and judgement were vital qualities; none lacked them. Courage was their common badge. (Buckmaster, Maurice: Specially Employed, 1952)

These extraordinary qualities are still common among women working on operations connected with intelligence and security, and like their male colleagues their names  are unlikely to come to public attention because it has always been government policy to never comment on intelligence operations.

Apart from the mandatory Official Secrets Act those with operational experience have also signed a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement.

james Rennie The Operators

Secrecy surrounding clandestine operations has led to a multitude of conspiracy theories and during the intelligence war in Northern Ireland the IRA used such operations for propaganda purposes.  One of the best-known false narratives still being promoted by the IRA and can be found on the internet is connected with the Four-Square Laundry.

During Operation Banner (the British Military campaign in Northern Ireland) the military contribution to intelligence, which the press often called undercover soldiers, consisted of volunteers from all regiments and from all branches of the armed forces who had successfully passed selection and training and included women from the three services.

As the Sunday Times dated 30 October 2018 points out, in 1973 the army in Northern Ireland ran a mobile laundry service which collected laundry from communities where many residents  were known to be involved in terrorism. Once collected it  was examined for blood, explosive residues and gunpowder before being laundered and delivered back to the customer.

On the morning of 18 April 1973, a Four-Square laundry van driven by Ted Stuart (Royal Engineers) who was on ‘detachment’ arrived at the IRA stronghold of the Twinbrook Estate and started collecting laundry from his regular customers. After stopping outside a house his partner Jane Warke left the van and knocked on the door of another customer and after it was open by a young woman, they started to pass pleasantries and exchanged gossip.

Telford (Ted ) Stuart

The conversation was abruptly cut short after suddenly hearing rapid bursts of automatic gunfire behind her. As  Jane quickly turned to face the road, she  immediately saw   one man sitting behind the wheel of a getaway car whilst three IRA gunmen were firing long bursts from their automatic weapons at close range into the driver’s side of the laundry Van. Ted Stuart had no time to take cover or fire at the gunmen and was quickly killed.

According to IRA propaganda, “The female undercover  soldier started running and screaming to a neighbouring house and told the residents they were loyalist gunmen and they took her in…”

The truth is the direct opposite. After turning to face the road she was confronted by two heavily armed gunmen and  was quickly shot,  but  although wounded she drew her 9mm hi-power Browning handgun,  held her ground and engaged the gunmen who after a brief exchange of gunfire  decided to run to the waiting car.

In the Gazette dated 18 September 1973, among the many awards and honours will be found W/439979 Lance Corporal Sara Jane Wake, Women’s Royal Army Corp and confirmation of her Military Medal for Bravery. For obvious reasons Northern Ireland and the name of the unit she was serving with is not mentioned in the Gazette.

Buckmaster’s comments regarding the women under his command: “ Coolness… and courage being their common badge”  are qualities still found among many women serving with British military forces.

Further readings:

Rennie James, The Operators: Inside 14th Intelligence Company, BCS 1996

Parker, John: Death of a Hero: Captain Robert Nairac, GC and the undercover war in Northern Ireland, Metro 1999

Author: Alan Malcher

Military historian and defence commentator

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