Curtain raiser by John S Murray
to the Johannesburg branch of the MHS on
Thursday 11th December 2007
At around 11:45pm on the night of the 14/15 May 1977 Captain Robert Nairac, commissioned four years earlier into 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards, but operating in an indercover role for the British security forces in the vicious conffict with the Irish Republican Army for control of the six Ulster counties that are part of the United Kingdom was abducted from the car park of the Three Steps Bar in Drumintee South Armagh. The area was not inappropriately described in the army parlance of the day as Indian or Bandit Country. He has since become one of what leading historians of the so called Dirty War, such as Martin Dillon and Tony Geraghty have described as 'the disappeared', that is those in unknown graves, in the border counties of Ireland whom grieving relatives have never been able to lay to rest and whose own lives virtually stopped still the day they received the tragic news.
For Naraic's family hit by earlier tragedy with the sudden death of another son, David at just 19, the anguish was compounded by the gruesome claim of a former IRA intelligence officer, Eamon Collins concerning, the disposal of Robert's body. That anguish, to an extent at least, must have been assuaged by the posthumous award, gazetted on 13 February 1979 of the George Cross for, in the words of the citation, 'exceptional courage and acts of the greatest heroism in circumstances of extreme peril', as well as 'devotion to duty and personal courage second to none'. It remains the only such award ever made to a Grenadier, by contrast with the 13 Victoria Crosses won by Soldiers of the Regiment.
In November 1977 Liam Townson, the son of an Englishman incidentally, was convicted of the murder in the Special Criminal Court in Dublin (established to deal with cases of subversive activity, particularly including that of the IRA) and given a mandatory sentence of penal servitude for life. Townson has been a free man for 17 years now, as have, for longer periods, all five members of the gang variously convicted in the Northern Irish courts of murder, manslaughter, the infliction of grievous bodily harm, possession of a gun, kidnap, withholding and failing to give information and membershup of the IRA. None of the six served more than the minimum sentence possible. Such is the malleable nature of that commodity, beloved of the chattering classes, called political expediency; that expediency earlier this year consigned the million and a half inhabitants of Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone to joint government by the former bitter protagonists in a sectarian war that cost over 3 700 lives and traumatised those of tens of thousands more, in an administration headed by the Reverend Ian Paisley and Mr. Martin McGuinness, the respective leaders of the Democratic Unionist and Sinn Fein parties.
Robert Laurence Nairac was born in Mauritius on 31 August 1948, the youngest in a family of four which his parents soon moved to the West of England, where his father Maurice became consultant eye surgeon at Gloucester Royal Hospital. Maurice was Catholic and his wife Barbara Protestant and, although there were no difficulties about that within the family, Robert was to experience at first hand the significance of a religious division that deeply affected the communities that became his prime focus as a serving soldier. Following a year at its preparatory school, at 11 he entered Ampleforth College, attached to the Benedictine Abbey of St Laurence, often regarded as the Catholic Eton, which was then presided over by Abbot Basil Hume the future Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. One of its best known Old Boys, and a hero of Nairac's, was David Stirling, the Scots Guards Officer who founded the SAS.
At Ampleforth, Nairac was an outstanding student with a span of interests far wider than academic ones. He became Head of House and excelled at five sports for all of which he achieved colours, most particularly boxing and was captain of the school team. He adored the countryside around the school exploring the wilderness of the moors, especially in the winter and became absorbed with its pursuits including fly fishing - at which he was a perfectionist - wild fowling, bird watching (that's the feathered variety) and especially Falconry, in which latter context we have an interesting insight into his character recalled by an Oxford contemporory, now a leading Queen's Counsel, Julian Malins.
In his rooms Naivac uniquely kept a variety of ferocious hawks, amongst which was one particularly large and violent bird, which was normally kept hooded. If he felt that a guest was getting above himself - as rugby types can do in the presence of boxers - he would unhood the beast and demonstrate the Nairac method of feeding it by placing a small cube of raw steak on the bridge of his nose, and approaching within a few inches, hold its gaze and remain motionless. After an agonising wait, the hawk would strike leaving Robert's eyes and the rest of his face unscathed. There was no trick to this, on-the-job training, as it were, would not permit of error; it demanded sheer incredible nerve.
Malins remembered someone whom he described as 'a romantic, an enthusiast, simple-hearted, brave, a charismatic leader and quite without guile'. He also had a certain wayward charm as when he arrived at Malins' future parent-in-law's house with two pheasants for dinner and, upon being invited to be an usher at the wedding, replied that he hoped no one would mind his being late - and that was before the date, let alone the time, had been fixed.
Whatever passions Robert Nairac held for Ireland - and passions they certainly were - were not born solely out of his military experience. They had roots in his childhood, his religious background, his schooling and his schooldays' friendship with the siblings of a prominent Irish family. It was headed by Lord Michael Killanin, MBE and a member of the Legion d'Honneur one of Dublin's most prominent public figures for most of the 20th century, whose best known achievements involved collaboration on several films with the director John Ford including the 1952 Oscar winning 'The Quiet Man'. George Redmond Fitzpatrick Morris, who was in Nairac's year at Ampleforth, followed his father into the film industry and the highlight of his career has been his association, as co-producer, with the controversial award-winning film, starring Liam Neeson in the leading role, of the IRA hero, Michael Collins.
Nairac's holiday visits to the Killanin homes in Dublin and Spiddal, an Irish-speaking district on the wild Atlantic coast on the north of Galway Bay imbued in him a fascination with Ireland, its history, its culture, its people. That fascination prompted him to say to an SAS Captain D, (whose anonymity has still to be preserved), one of the last people in the British military to see him alive, that Ireland was his destiny.
I have enquired of Robin Bullock-Webster, the Regimental Adjutant of the Irish Guards, whether Robert Nairac had ever sought a commission with the Regiment, as his background, temperament and instincts almost seemed to demand. He had not and we agreed that the major, perhaps only, reason was that, as an Irish regimental soldier at the time he could not have served in Northern Ireland. To a man with a romantic view of soldiering in the image of a Lawrence, a Gordon, a David Stirling or a 19th century soldier sahib from the Indian North West Frontier the mean streets of Belfast and Derry and the deceptively beautiful countryside of South Armagh together represented the last frontier, the last imperial challenge.
There's an irony in the perception, of course because as some modern historians - most notably Constantine Fitzgibbon have forcibly argued British imperial morale suffered a blow from which it never recovered, not at the fringes of empire, but at its centre in Ireland between the Easter Rising of April 1916 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of Partition in December 1921.
Robert Nairac emerged from Lincoln College, Oxford in 1971 with a good degree (a 2.1 or Upper Second), four blues for boxing, (having been instrumental in reviving the University Club and in consequence the annual fixture with Cambridge) to enter RMA Sandhurst supported by the sponsorship of the Grenadier Guards. From his rooms at Oxford, both intrigued and depressed by them, he observed the beginnings of the modern Troubles in Northern Ireland when they arose at the end of the sixties era of protest which had been in full flight across the world. Dwarfed initially by high profile anti-Vietnam War demonstrations; student revolts throughout Western Europe; the ruthless Soviet crushing of revolt in Eastern Europe, the civil rights upsurge in America and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy the prominent headline '100 Catholics hurt in Londonderry riot' seemed hardly of significance, but ultimately events in Ulster were to outdo them all in their impact.
Nairac chose to try for entry into Sandhurst to establish himself as a career soldier, but all the time with an eye on Ulster as the best theatre for advancement. It was for that reason that, after Sandhurst, he undertook ostgraduate studies at University College, Dublin and honed his knowledge of Ireland to a degree matched by few broither officers, unless they were of Irish birth and upbringing anto the point where his mimicry of the local accent and enthusiastic rendering of rebel songs conviced many who met and heard him that he was an Irishman. Ultimately, however, over-confidence in his capacity to simulate the Irish persona was to be his mortal downfall.
Sectarian rioting began in Londonderry, where some 1 500 Catholic and 300 Protestant families were driven from their homes by petrol-bomb wielding mobs, spread to Belfast, when hundreds of rioters came on to the streets throwing fire bombs and were backed by hidden sniper fire. As the battles raged the inevitable dispatch of British troops to restore law and order was approved by the British Government on 15 August 1969. Four days Later the first detachment from the Prince of Walea own Regiment arrived for what was described as 'a limited operation'; those troops were to be withdrawn as soon as order was restored - but it never was. From then on, in terms of troops deployment, the only way was up reaching in excess of 20 000 by 1972, Ulter's bloodiest year ever, which saw 468 killed and 5 000 injured.
For the people of Northern Ireland when the troops moved in there was initially a sigh of relief, but it was a temporary feeling that soon turned to hatred in many quarters, mostly Catholic, as the troops floundered miserably, poor on intelligence, inexperienced in handling trouble among their own people and headed by a hierarchy whose worst recent experience of urban unrest was in the wild colonial campaigns that marked British withdrawal from the last remnants of Empire. The government and its forces also failed to understand both the depths and reasoning behind the divided communities and based their responses (including such ill-advised policies as intertment without trial and the Falls Road curfew) on the naive belief that the issue was religion and the solution simply civil rights. They were nothing of the kind, extending far beyond those two areas into nationalism and history. Religion merely provided the badge of affiliation.
Robert Nairac first arrived on the streets of Northern Ireland with back-up No 1 Company 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards to experience at first hand the tough uncompromising of the British military and the ruthless conflict between Catholics and Protestants and their rival paramilitaries. It was a conventional tour of regimental soldiering in which, though, he founnd time to volunteer for community relations missions in which he won praise for his work with youth particularly in the Catholic Ardoyne area of Belfast where in its Sporting Club he would sing rebel songs with them, also knowing more about Irish history than all of the assembled fourteen and fifteen year olds together.
The tour proved a turning point in Robert Nairac's career and several of his colleagues are convinced that his experiences pushed him towards a deeper involvement in the problems of Northern Ireland. He could easily have opted for a regular career pattern in the Gurads. Soon his battalion would beposted to Hong Kong offering ample opportunities for some ofthe pursuits he most enjoyed: canoeing, combat survival, judo and diving, quite a few cocktail parties and no threat of military action other than exercises. He rejected all that in f avour of Northern Ireland, volunteering for special duties with an emphasis on intelligence putting himself forward for specialist training at the Army Joint Intelligance College in Kent and an SAS training course in Hereford geared specifically to the Province, convinced that he should try to make some contribution to the resolution of the Troubles. It was, some said, naïve, but they admired his courage.
Even had I the time, none of you would have the patience to come to terms with any detailed excplanation of the complicated British intelligence and counter-intelligence structure as it developed between l969 and the Good Friday Peace agreement of 1998. It must suffice to say that it was a murky world totally in keeping with the ethos - if that is the right word - of the Dirty War in which MI5, MI6, the Army Intelligence units, the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and perhaps other unnamed agencies were far more often engaged in internecine rivaly than co-operation in the common interest.
All this has made it impossible to establish in any detail the intelligence gathering and disseminating activities of Nairac and the actions that he took with the benefit of the considerable amount of sensitive information he accumulated over time from his various sources within both the Loyalist and Republican movements. Predictably, all this has made him the subject of considerable speculation and accusation, which, most conveniently for his accusers, cannot be tested in a court of law, though I am satisfied from my researches (prompted I must add by a member of this society) that he would have been successful in any legal action that he brought. What is certain is that the information he assembled and the manifold contacts he developed made him, notwithstanding his junior status in a dysfunctional structure, extremely vulnerable and it was a fact for which he had a dangerously cavalier regard as evidenced by his failure to follow established basic military prodedure and security measures. For instance the day before his disappearance he made an unauthorised and unaccompanied fishing trip across the border into the Irish Republic.
Attempts to understand the situation are not helped by Nairac himself, because 30 years on the ultimate man still escapes us - and now always will - because he was a paradox. On the one hand, we have the image of the disciplined ceremonial soldier deploying the formidable Guards charm and, on the other the picture of him in what the Army appropriately calls 'scruff order' complete with long hair, singing rebel songs with natural gusto a man, furthemore, capable of laying cold out a London taxi driver in the course of an argument.
May 1977 found Nairac on his fourth tour of Northern Ireland which by then had embraced 28 months in the province, serving as liaison officer with the resident SAS squadron based at Bessbrook Mill, some 14 miles from the Republican stronghold of Crossmaglen and the strain of operating undercover, posing as Danny McAlevey, a Sticky (that's a nickname for members of the Official, as opposed to the Provisional, IRA) from the Ardoyne with a false driving licence to support that identity was beginning to tell.
Strain affects people in different ways. In Nairac's case, typically, it drove him to overachieve in fulfilment of a somewhat vainglorious assertion to a close friend that he had infiltrated the IRA. There is no evidence to suggest that he had and none to disprove it either. The SAS have denied it and the IRA would certainly not admit it. The probability - a racing certainty in fact - was that he was nowhere near achieving his goal and I believe it was his recognition of that which prompted him to take one desperate risk too many by effectively adopting the role of decoy.
Why did he do it, when he had seriously compromised himself in a rural area wherein strangers immediately stand out by regularly patrolling in uniform with the SAS in Crossmaglen, compounding it by visiting the Three Steps for the second night in three; drawing attention to himself by getting up to sing four songs with the band; and then declining their offer to leave with them when they saw trouble brewing for him as the evening wore on? Why did he decline a back-up car when leaving Bessbrook Mill; leave his Browning 9mm pistol out of reach in his car; not radio in from the vehicle when he had early intimation of trouble? We shall never know.
Perhaps he was holding on for the one - or several contacts that would help him secure the biggest intelligence breakthrough in years or perhaps it was no more than heroic fatalism. Who is to say; the reality was that the deposit cheque which figuratively speaking, every professional soldier on active service makes as an assurance of survival had been cashed; that was that.
Back at Bessbrook Mill the operations officer, Captain David Collett checked the clock at midnight. Nairac was now 30 minutes overdue and Collett cursed him for yet again being so, but by l2:45 Robert Nairac had to be reported as missing. Within a short while 400 troops and police were drafted to the search the area, mobile patrols visited remote farms and derelict buildings while roadblocks were set up and virtually every car travelling to the Irish Republic was checked. 20 helicopters carrying spotters using binoculars and hanging out of doors to scan the ground were put up but it was already too late. Within 10 minutes of being overwhelmed by seven kidnappers and pistol whipped into temporary submission he was across the border into County Monaghan and within about two hours having been torturously beaten with staves in a vain attempt to extract the vital information he held - over which period he stuck to his assumed identity - even to a man posing as the priest he had asked for - he was shot by Townson at the third attempt following the unbelievable agony of two misfires.
It is a little known fact that the British army has counted its dead of over 40 campaigns around the world in every one of the 62 years that have passed since the end of the Second World War, with the exception of 1968. In passing I must mention that the only two I knew well among those more than 16 000 are in my thoughts tonight, because they were killed within 3 days of each other in Cyprus 50 years ago this week. I can think of no better setting in which to pay tribute to their memories and to the friendship with which, all too briefly, they honoured me than at a meeting of this society and I must thank Lyn Mantle for the opportunity.
The further point to be made here is done by reference to a short passage from Max Hastings book on the Korean War, when referring to the last stand of the Gloucesters on the Imjin River in 1951, a battle in which only some 50 members of the 750 strong battalion escaped death, wounds or capture: "On the Imjin the Chinese discovered the price of meeting efficient, determined foot soldiers who cared little for the Cold War, the glory of the UN; the survival of Syngman Rhee and, it must be added, were not particularly moved by the abstract of high democratic ideals. To them regiment, the unit, the "oppo" in the next trench were everything. The most political army in the world encountered the least political and was savagely mauled to gain its few sterile miles of rock and paddy".
Happily, that beacon light principle of not letting down one's friends still moves the least political army in the world, a fact to which the citations for gallantry an the present Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns bear eloquent testimony. However, no one has done the principle greater honour than did Robert Laurence Nairac when in declining, under torture and at the ultimate cost of his life to reveal the names of his colleagues in the early hours of 15 May 1977.
In life, and particularly in war, the sincerest tributes are always those from an adversary, so let the ultimate tribute to a hero comefrom Liam Townson the man who killed him: "He was the bravest man I ever met. He told us nothing. He was a good soldier".
John S Murray
Death of a Hero: Captain Robert Nairac, GC and the undercover war in Northern Ireland (John Parker)
The Dirty War (Martin Dillon)
The Irish War (Tony Geraghty)
Ireland: Land of Troubles (Paul Johnson)
The Korean War (Max Hastings)
Return to Society's Home pageSouth African Military History Society / firstname.lastname@example.org