Art & Design


Life at the Tip of a Spear—Part Two: The Troubles

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Nearly a year ago, my editor asked if I’d be interested in interviewing Garth Jones, a former British SAS soldier and security contractor who’d worked extensively in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. I of course said yes without hesitation. What follows is part two of his story as told to me.

To read part one click here.

Brett Hamm: So you went to Northern Ireland in 1986 right around when the Northern Ireland Assembly was dissolved right?
Garth Jones: Yeah. It was an interesting time because you had a lot of power playing going on and a lot of prolific organised crime, which was the underlying supply of standard funding—in the country anyway—to people like UDA/UDF on the Protestant side and IRA, provisional IRA. So it was difficult to differentiate when you were out working on the ground or on particular operations who was who in the zoo. Any instability, any process, any governmental control or legislation coming to an end, you tend to get people coming out of the woodwork and trying to get a bit more of the pizza slice. So it was quite volatile. A lot of people say it was the best time [laughs].

BH: The best time?
GJ: Yeah, that’s probably not the best way to say it [laughs]. So from getting the most use out of the unit, it was a good time to send a message that there may be—never been sanctioned, never been put down on a tangible artefact—a “find and kill” policy, a rendition policy, in Northern Ireland.

BH: That’s what “rendition policy” means?
GJ: Exactly. And that’s the point. It’s never been put on paper. There was a rumour that it was given in the eighties because of all the kills and all the good …good’s a bad word…all the “objectives” that were met during that period. And that means they had very good intelligence and technicals. Surveillance is everything. Operations are 1.1% of the 100%. You cannot get to operate until you do surveillance.

BH: So what’s a typical day then, when you were over there?
GJ: Hang around the ops room at night, talk to the guys on the ground if you’re not on the ground. A job comes in, could be four in the morning. It could be put something inside something that needs to go back to a house within an hour, build something over a couple of days that’s required for a potential op—a covert branch on a tree with a camera and surveillance system in it. It could be a lithium-powered, moulded bug you’re going to fit into an RPG-7. Then look at the locations near that where you could make antennas that’s semi-safe, and put in a listening post.

BH: And then you sit and listen.
GJ: Yeah. For days. I’ll say “Yup, good signal, that’s great, that’s great” and then we’ll let it settle down until I’m getting nothing, and then I’ll be like “yeah, we’re good,” and they’ll put it back and then they’ll piss off. And then we’ll just sit there. Next time that thing goes off, it’s real time. So it’ll be one of two things: our guys sitting around the corner and it’ll end up in an arrest. Or it’ll be Troop and it’ll end up in “an arrest”.

BH: The Troop?
GJ: Troop handle on the ground and this stuff. You know Luc Besson’s Nikita?

BH: Yeah.
GJ: So think about Nikita, the scene where the “cleaner” (Jean Reno) is called when an operation goes off track. That’s what the Troop was. They’d go messy, “we need to finish this fucking quick.” Troop enter the operating zone with heavy weapons and fast cars and generally clean the issue up quite quickly.

BH: So they’d make a different kind of arrest…
GJ: [Laughs] Or if we deem that it might be a win we need to give to RUC or HMSU, they’ll do it and it’ll be an arrest for them.

BH: Was there ever any pissing contests between you guys and the RUC? Was there ever any prestige to be gained by who-nabbed-who or anything like that?

GJ: Naw…oh, HMSU I suppose because they’re known to be a bit trigger-happy. I’ve been in houses with detector systems, on my body, in an RUC uniform with RUC people. They have their suspicions but there is no competitive behaviour, they just stay out of your way.

There are so many people and faces at that time that I’d be sat in a room with 15 people and three of them are in uniform: an RUC guy, an Army commander, and maybe somebody from the Air Corps if we’ve got helicopters involved. Everybody else, there’s no nametags and they’re of all sorts—old, fat, young, long-hair, short-hair, some really bad accents—they’re all different.  They could be anything from MI6 to Special Branch to HMSU to guys from my own unit. You don’t know everybody. And everybody takes in their briefing and then everybody goes and does their own thing. But, look to be honest, no. You didn’t have that kind of relationship.

BH: So while you’re over there, you’re living on a base?
GJ: Yeah, I mean we had some guys living in houses, under different guises. I had a great mate who was a Navy rescue diver working for us, who lived in a flat in Belfast with a girlfriend and everything. We had another guy who was posing as a university lecturer that rode an old racing bike with a leather saddlebag on the back. Bald, 40 years old, you’d look at him 500 times and not think anything. He was a method-of-entry specialist. Get into anything and out without you knowing it. The more you can fragment your unit base the harder it is to catch.

BH: Are you allowed any contact with your family or girlfriend?
GJ: Yeah, you get across. I mean, you’re on secure bases, so you if you had a couple days with no ops coming up, get a fucking flight back to the UK or whatever. And sometimes there are car trips, swapping cars. We’re using covert vehicles and the throughput was huge. I mean 50-60 vehicles a month. Once they’re on an op they’re blown. The armour gets taken off and then they get used as range cars for the Special Forces. Shoot the hell out of them.

BH: Say you got back home, you’re not allowed to mention what’s going on…
GJ: No. I had a cock-up where I took a work car to UK and couldn’t fucking start it. So I called the RAC (same as the RACV here) and the guys came out and said “Of course you can’t start it, it’s got a friggen kill switch in it.” It had an anti-hijack kill switch and they hadn’t told me about it. We took the fuse out from underneath the bonnet and the guy goes, “why have you got a kill switch in this piece of shit?” and I’m like “Just start the car.”

I ended up finding the switch- it was hidden under the carpet next to the gear lever. So someone jumps out—standard car jack technique—the car’s running and they put their guns to the window and say, “Get out we’re taking your car.” This was very common at the time in Belfast.  You look panicky and say sorry—you got a pistol on you anyway, there’s always one on your body, one in the door, one under the carpet, stun grenades and Heckler and Koch automatic weapons all over the place, all hidden—so what you do is say “Absolutely.  Sorry mate, I’ll get out of the car right now.” You hit the kill switch with your knee and as you’re getting out you leave it in gear and it looks like you’ve stalled it.

BH: Did this happen to you?
GJ: On a few occasions. Most were misunderstandings. I’ve been in discos—I went with a guy who got into a fight and his pistol fell out and it got kicked across the dance floor. It was like some comedy show, me on my hands and knees following it, lights going. ‘Cause you don’t go anywhere without being strapped. You know, boredom is dangerous but also girls are dangerous in that environment.

BH: Why?
GJ: Well, there are certain units of women that are operating. And they’re in the Det and green army as well.

BH: I read that 14 Int was the first time they’d used women for such an operation.
GJ: I had two female operators in my Det. Put a baby seat in the back of the car, a bunch of food in a box, nobody gives a second glance. A very lethal tool. But shit happens. I had a car crash on the way back from going to a disco (or the bop as they called it in Lisburn). We got chased by some fucking idiots.

BH: Just because?
GJ: Well, they came at us at speed. Three of us in the car, I’m on the comm saying we’ve picked up a tail, could be a hit. So they’re guiding me in and they’ve sent two cars towards us. And we’ll do a hard stop and find out who they are when they get there.

BH: What’s a hard stop?
GJ: We stop them. [Smiles] But before they got there, I hit a big patch of sewage on the road, spun the car, ran into a school wall.

BH: Oh shit.
GJ: Well the other car pulls up right behind us. The guy next to me is covered in fucking claret and I’m going “You all right?” and he’s going “Mmmhmhmmhmm”.

So I got my pistol out, jumped out of the car and I’m looking at the other car, they’re headlights are off so I can see who’s in it.  It’s a girl and two guys, so I’m thinking if this is going to get nasty I’ll start firing before they get out of the car.

Guy comes out, and he’s freaking right out. It was just a couple of young kids from Lisburn that thought we wanted a race.  That’s how weird it can be. I mean they saw our weapons and heard our radios, and they were like, fuck this. And they saw the other two cars coming down the road at us at about 100 miles an hour and they’re thinking, “Sorry mate!”, got in their car and fucking legged it.

BH: In that situation do they get watched then?
GJ: No, you just dismiss it. Your situational awareness becomes very acute.

BH: Obviously, that’s mostly experience.  But is that something that can be taught to a degree, or not really?
GJ: Ahhh, no. Because you get the same issue in Afghan now and Iraq. You’re at a check-point and some guy drives up and he’s illiterate.  There’s an 80% illiteracy rate in Afghanistan.  And you put a sign up in Urdu or Pashto stating “stay back 100 meters” or “do not approach until allowed” or whatever the fuck you want, it doesn’t matter, you could put it up in gobbledygook. A guy misunderstands what he’s supposed to do because you’re assuming he knows exactly what to do because it’s what you do all day.  And he pulls up at the checkpoint and he’s too close to you or gets too close to your vehicles and you drill his fucking car and it’s full of kids…is that experience or training? I think it’s just lack of attention to detail.

How many people in the car? Are there kids in the car? Buy some fucking binoculars. Look at him 600 meters down the road before he’s 100 meters away. Or change your vehicle check point so he gets stopped, get some local forces to check him first before he gets to the danger point. Or, more to the point, move in covert vehicles so he has no idea you are there.

You can avoid all these situations. By experience yes, but by actually understanding who you’re dealing with. As soon as I looked in the car and saw a young girl, two young guys, probably a bit pissed, probably in their dad’s car—you know a two-litre sedan, not a kind of young kiddie racing car—they’re having a pop, bit of a race. Saw us moving at speed and decided to try and come and chase us, not realising that in that country it’s a fucking dangerous thing to do.

To read about Garth’s life as a soldier in the former Yugoslavia, stay tuned for Life at the Tip of a Spear, Part Three: The Balkans.

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