Captain Robert Nairac, GC (Northern Ireland)

Robert Nairac was born in British Mauritius in 1948, not in Ireland as some journalists have stated, and his only connection with Ireland before joining the army was  during his time as a postgraduate student at Trinity College Dublin  where he studied Irish history.

Nairac was not an  SAS officer, as some journalists have also wrongly stated, he  was a Captain in the Grenadier Guards and served at least three tours of duty in Northern Ireland with his regiment before volunteering to undertake selection and training for intelligence work.

Taken in Northern Ireland before joining intelligence

As the disappearance and murder of Robert Nairac continues to be surrounded by myths, conspiracy theories and speculations the following is based on what is generally regarded as facts.

Robert Nairac was an intelligence liaison officer based at Bessbrook Mills which like Forkhill and Crossmaglen  were the most dangerous parts of Northern Ireland where roadside bombs were common and travelling in and out of the area had to be by helicopter. In these remote areas near the border with the Irish Republic  strangers were not welcome and were viewed with suspicion.

Left- taken whilst working under cover

Whilst travelling alone in this hostile area and meeting contacts Robert Nairac was using the name Danny Mcalevey from the Ardoyne in Belfast which was also an IRA stronghold. According to several writers he was happy with his cover identity and was seen visiting various places in South Armagh and the surrounding area which journalists at the time called Bandit Country because of the bombs and snipers who sometimes operated from the safety of the Republic.  

Bessbrook

On Saturday 17 May 1977, it is thought Nairac planned to meet a contact at the Three Steps Inn at Drumintee which was another dangerous area close to the Irish border and some writers claim he had made several visits to this bar.

Robert Nairac was wearing a black donkey jacket, a pullover, flared grey trousers and scuffed down suede shoes and took with him his Browning 9mm pistol and two additional full magazines. Although he also had an SLR and 80 rounds of ammunition he left this in the armoury.

Whilst signing out of the base he said he would only be going out for a few hours and would return  by 23.30 hrs. He then drove out of Bessbrook Mill in a red Triumph Toledo at 21.30 hrs.

His car had a radio concealed under the seat and using his call sign ’48 Oscar’ he told the operations room at Bessbrook he was travelling towards Drumintee.

The Three Steps

At 21.58 hrs he reached the pub and told the operations room he was closing down radio contact.

Several eyewitnesses recall Nairac drinking and speaking to customers but how his cover was blown may never be known.

Several customers recall Nairac fighting in the carpark with five to seven men and was holding his own before eventually being overpowered, thrown into the back of a car and driven away at speed.

Taken prior to is abduction by the IRA

It is known Robert Nairac was driven over the border and tortured for several hours but refused to divulge any information and stuck to is cover story of being Danny Mcalevey from the Ardoyne.

Later the IRA said he was a brave man till the end and never spoke and was eventually shot in the head.  Robert Parker in his book Death of A Hero, makes the valid point that if Robert Nairac had talked all his contacts would have been killed by the IRA and they owe their lives to his bravery.

According to a report by the Irish Times the Garda (Irish Police in the Republic) found blood, teeth and hair but could not find his body and after the Good Friday Agreement the IRA refused to tell the Garda where the remains  of Captain Robert Nairac are buried.

Robert Nairac’s GC and GSM with Northern Ireland Clasp

Citation for the award George Cross

“The Queen has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the George Cross to: Captain Robert Laurence Nairac (493007), GRENADIER GUARDS.

 Captain Nairac served for four tours of duty in Northern Ireland totalling twenty-eight months. During the whole of this time he made an outstanding personal contribution : his quick analytical brain, resourcefulness, physical stamina and above all his courage and dedication inspired admiration in everyone who knew him. On his fourth tour Captain Nairac was a Liaison Officer at Headquarters 3 Infantry Brigade. His task was connected with surveillance operations.

 On the night of 14/15 May 1977 Captain Nairac was abducted from a village in South Armagh by at least seven men. Despite his fierce resistance he was overpowered and taken across the border into the nearby Republic of Ireland where he was subjected to a succession of exceptionally savage assaults in an attempt to extract information which would have put other lives and future operations at serious risk. These efforts to break Captain Nairac’s will failed entirely. Weakened as he was in strength-though not in spirit-by the brutality, he yet made repeated and spirited attempts to escape, but on each occasion was eventually overpowered by the weight of the numbers against him.

 After several hours in the hands of his captors Captain Nairac was callously murdered by a gunman of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who had been summoned to the scene. His assassin subsequently said: “He never told us anything”. Captain Nairac’s exceptional courage and acts of the greatest heroism in circumstances of extreme peril showed devotion to duty and personal courage second to none.”  

Further reading:

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

John Parker, Secret Hero: The Life and mysterious death of Captain Robert Nairac

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