Undercover War : Britain's Special Forces And Their Battle Against The IRA
Harry McCallion

Undercover War : Britain's Special Forces And Their Battle Against The IRA

When the British Army was sent into Northern Ireland in 1969, neither they nor the politicians who authorised their deployment had the slightest idea that the longest military campaign in British Army history was just beginning.  For the next thirty years, Britain’s Special Forces engaged in a ferocious struggle against an implacable, ruthless and unrelenting enemy.  While patrols and petrol bombs, explosions and incendiary speeches, are the defining images of The Troubles, the real war was fought out of sight and often out of mind.  The details of its campaigns and operations are, in many cases, still unknown.  Undercover War tells this true story in full for the first time.

The book starts by setting out the initial developments of the undercover war. Chapter 1 begins with the disturbing history of the Military Reaction Force (MRF), a unit that was so badly thought out, organised, and trained that it degenerated into what can only be called a death squad.  Chapter 2 picks up the story from the disbandment of the MRF and narrates the first deployment to the province of the SAS and the creation and training of 14 Intelligence Company, an elite surveillance unit otherwise known as ‘The Det’. Chapter 3 gives a detailed account of early Det operations from 1974 to 1980, while Chapter 4 tells the story of the second SAS deployment to the province, lasting from 1976 to 1980.

Chapter 5 summarises the lessons learned from the first decade of the conflict, discussing the wholesale reorganisation of British forces and the starting positions for a new, more unified phase of the undercover war.  Chapters 6 and 7 provide parallel accounts of SAS and Det activities between 1980 and 1985, leading towards the turning point at which the upper leadership of the IRA began to accept that a military victory was no longer possible.  Chapter 8 changes perspective and outlines the origins, nature and structure of the various Republican paramilitary groups from 1969-1987.

            In Chapters 9 to 11, we read about SAS operations in the late 80s, including the major success at Loughgall and the controversial killings in Gibraltar.  Chapter 12 charts Det operations from 1985 to 1995 and describes the actions of 9 Det, a new unit which recruited exclusively from Special Forces regiments. In Chapters 13 and 14 we follow SAS operations in the 90s, including the final destruction of the notorious East Tyrone Brigade. Chapter 15 closes the book with the author’s reflections on the morality of the undercover war and compares the restricted operations in Northern Ireland to the new form of unrestricted anti-terrorist warfare pursued in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the US.


  • The author writes with the unique authority of a soldier who has served 7 tours in Northern Ireland with 2 Para, passed 14 Intelligence Company selection, served 6 years in the SAS (including 2 tours in the Anti-Terrorism Team) and 6 years in the RUC.
  • This will be the first comprehensive and authoritative account of British military undercover operations in Northern Ireland to be told from the perspective of the men and women who were there.
  • Harry provides accounts of numerous shootings and operations from perspectives that have never appeared in the public domain before.
  • This book is unflinching in its willingness to portray British actions warts and all, rather than giving a one-dimensional account of the conflict.
  • The author describes the murderous behaviour of the Military Reaction Force (MRF) in the early years of the Troubles, drawing on first-hand sources for the illegal shooting of unarmed civilians.
  • Describes the creation by the SAS of the elite 14 Intelligence Company (‘the Det’), including a first-hand account of Det selection, training, equipment and tactics.
  • Gives the first ever account of the ‘debadging’ of half an SAS Squadron so that the men can be deployed to Northern Ireland without breaking a government promise that no Special Forces soldiers would serve in the province.
  • Includes new insights into the mysterious killing of Captain Robert Nairac, a Det Military Intelligence Liaison Officer who was abducted from a pub and murdered after pretending to be a member of the IRA.
  • Includes an insider’s account of the mistakes that led to the embarrassing arrest of 8 SAS soldiers by the Irish Gardai.
  • Describes the tensions that arose between agent handlers trying to protect the lives of their informers and SAS soldiers whose only concern was to neutralise terrorists.
  • Includes the real story of the shooting of Bernadette Devlin and a discussion of claims of SAS collusion with Loyalist terrorists.
  • Reveals the illicit SAS deployment of fragmentation grenades to Northern Ireland and the capture of an IRA unit when an SAS team threatened to use them.
  • The author tells the story of two dramatic B Squadron operations, including a mobile gunfight through the country lanes of Ulster and the death of Corporal Al Slater as his SAS team attempts to interdict a PIRA ambush in thick fog.
  • Harry provides a powerful refutation of the claim that the SAS operated a ‘shoot to kill’ policy in Ireland, taking the reader through the deadly logic of engagements that were often fatal either to members of the PIRA or to the security forces deployed against them.
  • Narrates the attempted ambush of a lone Det operator by four PIRA terrorists and describes how the operator fought his way free, killing two of his assailants and leaving a third terrorist badly wounded.
  • Tells the story of Det legend Sgt. Paul Oram’s capture by two terrorists and his solo close-range shooting of both men as he escapes. The tragic story of Sgt. Oram’s death on a subsequent operation is also recounted in detail.
  • Harry reports the explosive claim, conveyed to him by an MI5 officer, that Gerry Adams was a British source who fed the security services information to assist them in operations against the East Tyrone Brigade of the IRA. Adam’s actions were thought to be motivated by the brigade’s threat to his leadership and may have led to the 1987 Loughgall Ambush.
  • The book will include the first authoritative account of the SAS operation in Gibraltar and of the decision-making process that led to the death of the three PIRA bombers.
  • Harry describes the formation and controversial shootings of 9 Det, a specialised Det unit for members of the SAS and SBS who wished to serve with 14 Intelligence Company. 9 Det has never been discussed in print before.
  • Includes an insider’s account of the final SAS action of the covert war, the capture of an IRA sniper cell who are subdued in a traditional fist-fight when the SAS team tasked to neutralise them are ordered not to shoot anyone for fear of jeopardising the Peace Process. 

Book Details:

  • Author: Harry McCallion
  • Published Year: 2020
  • Rights Sold
    • UK: Bonnier
Harry McCallion

Harry McCallion

Harry McCallion is in a unique position to write a comprehensive account of the undercover war in Ireland from the British perspective.  Harry is the best-selling author of the ‘SAS memoir’ Killing Zone .  Killing Zone stands out among the other major memoirs of the 1990s for its unflinchingly honest portrayal of the brutality of life in the Special Forces and its refusal to fetishise or glamourise the business of killing.  This kind of honesty is essential for the writing of a history of undercover operations during the Troubles.     &nb...
More about Harry McCallion