The Serpent’s Tail
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The Serpent’s Tail
It was a cold and dismal Monday morning in winter. Mist hung low over the Divis Mountain, and West Belfast was quiet.
Ursula Carlin opened her door, left it slightly ajar and made a last-minute tour of her living-room to make sure she was ready to leave the house as soon as the laundry was collected.
A faint knocking on the front door alerted her to the presence of the laundry girl.
'How's Danny?' asked the young Englishwoman as Ursula bent to lift the bag of washing.
Before she could reply, Ursula saw a blue car screeching to a halt at the side of the laundry van. The driver of the van reached to his left, as if to retrieve something, but was fumbling in panic. From the car appeared two armed men, their faces hidden by balaclava masks. One of the gunmen rushed to the side of the van and fired two bursts from an automatic weapon. Ursula and the laundry girl were frozen to the spot as the body of the driver jerked backwards and forwards with the impact of the bullets. The second gunman was at the other side of the van firing one long burst into the roof of the van above the front passenger cabin.
Everything ended as quickly as it had begun.
Suddenly the gunmen turned towards Ursula, who could only stare at them and grab the laundry girl, her instinct telling her that this young woman was in danger because she was English. But the girl's demeanour changed abruptly, and Ursula was flung against the door as the girl ran through the house towards the back door.
'Get down! Get down! ... Get outa the fuckin' way!' yelled the gunmen, motioning to Ursula to allow them a clear line of fire at their next target.
She couldn't find the means to scream. She fell sideways into the hallway and lay there as the men jumped over her and ran through the house. Moments later they returned, paused briefly to look down at her, then rushed to their car. It sped off, the tyres leaving a trail of smoke as they burned the tarmac.
Major Tim Johnston's broad shoulders filled the doorway of the Ops Room. People who were shouting orders and listening to radio messages turned to look at him.
'Who's got the latest update?'
A young intelligence collator rushed forward with a single sheet of paper. The SAS major took it from him and glared at the others in the room. The hubbub resumed.
'Christ!' said Johnston as he made his way to a group of radio operators. 'What have we got?' he asked in a more measured tone which nevertheless suggested he was resigned to bad news.
One of the operators removed his headset and stood up, his head barely reaching the major's shoulders. 'The laundry's been compromised, sir.'
Johnston was clearly irritated by the reply. 'For God's sake, man, give me the latest.'
'There's at least one down in the van, sir, and we've lost contact with Lieutenant Horton. The latest we have says she's running.'
'Has she used her radio?'
'Not yet, sir ... She's in hostile territory and on foot.'
'Stay on her frequency,' said Johnston.
Then he turned, crossed the room and approached a soldier who was studying a map of West Belfast. The soldier was in fatigues, and wore no insignia to denote regimental allegiance.
'How bad is it, Ron?'
'It's bad, sir. The RUC say a housewife saw Jane escape and the sapper driving the van is dead. The others ... your guess is as good as mine. I think we have to assume the worst and concentrate on Jane.'
'OK,' said Johnston, moving closer to the map. 'Get a heli over that area. Put some of our people on the ground and, when we've got a fix, get her out. The IRA'll be after her and I don't want her falling into their hands. Keep the RUC out of this – the less they know the better. I don't want their forensic people examining the van. Have it moved to our base. And fast.'
Tim Johnston walked to a desk where four men were using secure phone lines to communicate with military intelligence operatives at British Army HQ.
'Get on to the Psy Ops people at the Information Policy Unit. Tell them we need damage limitation in the media and to get their story out before the IRA has a field day with this one. The official line must be that this was a surveillance operation ... tell them to stress that.'
He turned to Sergeant Ron Dawson. 'Keep an eye on things,' he said. 'I've the unenviable task of breaking the news to Five.'
'Good luck, sir.'
'Luck won't get me out of this one.'
Four months later, Richard Milner, one of Ml5's most talented officers, was on his way to meet Major Johnston at Palace Barracks.
He was on board a helicopter, accompanied by two armed soldiers who had developed a capacity for staring ahead and resisting any temptation to speak. They were in fatigues with no insignia and were armed with short-barrelled sub-machine-guns which were not British Army issue. Milner had arrived from London over a week before, but this would be his first meeting with the SAS major.
Seconds before the helicopter touched down, the soldiers leapt from it and were waiting for Milner when he carefully stepped on to the ground. Taking his arm, they hurried him from the down draught of the rotary blades which sent dust into his eyes, ears and nose.
Darkness made it impossible to comprehend the sheer size of the base at Palace Barracks. A jeep was waiting for him, its engine already running and a driver in place. The journey through the camp was conducted in silence. His two escorts sat beside him and the driver, who appeared to ignore the right of any other vehicle or person to use the same route.
A large concrete structure loomed into view as the jeep screeched to a halt. Milner's escorts jumped out and told him to follow, leading him towards a massive bunker with a metal doorway and no windows. A single arc-light illuminated the entrance, where remote-controlled cameras were positioned to scrutinise visitors.
'This compound is out of bounds to the regulars,' said one of the soldiers. The other pressed an intercom button on the metal door and announced, 'He's here.'
After a few seconds the door swung open to reveal two men in combat gear, similar in style to that of the soldiers who had accompanied him.
'Just follow those guys, sir. They'll take you to the major,' said one of his escorts. Then he and his partner disappeared into the darkness of the camp.
At thirty-five, Richard Milner had over ten years' experience in MI5, but his bright blue eyes and slim build gave him a youthfulness that was disarming.
After graduating from Cambridge with a First in Classics, he had been introduced to the world of intelligence by a family friend. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who revelled in the new radicalism of the 1960s, Richard had spent those years learning the intricacies of counter-espionage. Based at MI5 headquarters in Curzon Street, London, where considerable resources were devoted to tracking foreign diplomats, he learned how to analyse information collected through electronic surveillance. His private life was occupied mainly with listening to music and drinking fine wines in the sanctuary of his large apartment in Holland Park.
One crisp spring morning in 1974, Richard had been summoned to a meeting with his superiors who had casually suggested he might consider a new post in Northern Ireland. Richard had frozen in his chair. Nothing in his career had prepared him for this. He was told his role would be to liaise with military intelligence and oversee a top-secret operation already in the planning stage.
'The first thing you must do is to find out why one of our major operations has recently been penetrated by the IRA,' his controller had told him.
There had followed a two-week briefing from senior operatives with Northern Ireland experience, and an intensive examination of Ml5's involvement in the conflict. He was informed that, unknown to the government and often the generals too, military intelligence had been running several covert units along with MI5 and the police Special Branch.
'Don't place too much trust in the indigenous security apparatus in Ulster,' one of his briefing agents had said. 'Be careful about Special Branch rank and file –only deal with the man at the top. It's your job to find out how this operation has been penetrated by the IRA, shore up what's left and provide the right analytical skills, to keep us protected, and to make sure there's a blanket of secrecy round the next one. Your co-partner in all of this is an SAS major, Tim Johnston, and you can be sure he's on the level. His file is on your desk ... Read it as if he were a target because you must know his weaknesses and strengths. Remember, though, that officially the SAS are not in Northern Ireland and there is no Major Johnston.'
On the morning of his departure for Belfast, Milner was asked to sign a document which stated that he was accepting a post as a 'liaison officer', appointed to improve communications between military intelligence and MI5. It was intended to be a bland brief should anyone at ministerial level decide at a future date that they wanted to know why Milner had been sent to Northern Ireland. Two electronics experts were assigned to him under the guise of 'collators', with the task of providing electronic security and secretly recording telephone traffic between himself and the major.
Twenty-four hours before his departure, he had immersed himself in the file on Major Johnston, which contained a detailed military history and assessments of his personal characteristics. It was an impeccable record, with commendations for operations carried out in Cyprus and Oman.
A character description written by one of the MI5 collators included the fact that the major was forty years old, and commented on his experience of undercover work. 'He is a dedicated soldier who can be relied on to undertake secret operations with no political fallout. He has a tendency to be arrogant and dismissive of authority, which relates to his experience of working independently and rarely has a bearing on his professional duties. His personal life has been somewhat messy with a failed marriage and a series of affairs with military personnel. He operates best when he is permitted freedom to develop his potential.'
Richard was fascinated by the military citations in the file, especially an account of how the major had wiped out an EOKA cell during the emergency in Cyprus. Assisted by an SAS sergeant, he had attacked a terrorist hide-out in hilly terrain under cover of darkness, leaving six dead. The killing had taken place at close quarters and his partner had been shot dead in the first exchange of fire. Johnston was wounded when a bullet struck the base of his neck and exited through his upper jaw, yet he had managed to return to base on foot and was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
There was, however, a missing ingredient in the file: the SAS major's tour of duty in Northern Ireland was not listed.
Stormont Castle, on the outskirts of Belfast, was the seat of the Ministers sent from London to run Northern Ireland and was situated within sight of the impressive parliament buildings where Protestant Unionist governments had held power for their own people. Richard Milner had been allocated a suite in the castle containing a bedroom, a dining-room, an office and a small ante-room which he had immediately recognised as an ideal den where he could listen to the record collection he had brought with him from London.
His electronics experts had used a device to 'sweep' his quarters to make sure they were not bugged, and on his instructions planted miniature recording devices in his dining-room.
Major Johnston lived within the secrecy of a secure compound at Palace Barracks near the town of Holywood on the coast road out of Belfast. It was not far from Stormont, enabling Richard to hold meetings with the major at short notice. Radio communications between them would be conducted through special lines fitted with scramblers.
Secure telephone lines linked the suite with London HQ and Palace Barracks, and a sophisticated trip alarm and miniaturised cameras were fixed to inner doors to detect any unauthorised entry.
One of the first discoveries which had brightened Milner's arrival was a well-stocked wine cellar and an excellent chef, who welcomed the opportunity to indulge his creativity.
After five days spent reading briefing documents about the security apparatus and the personal characteristics of senior figures within it, Milner had made his first sortie from the confines of Stormont to visit the headquarters of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He travelled in the back of a heavily armoured jeep with members of the uniformed Special Patrol Group sitting on either side of him.
Inside the office of the head of the RUC Special Branch, a large, dour man sat behind his desk, shuffled papers and made no effort to offer a civilised handshake.
'You're one of the "London calling" crowd,' he said, his gaze not leaving the documents.
Richard Milner picked up a chair, placed it within a foot of the desk and stared at the Special Branch chief, who lifted an official memo and scrutinised it before looking at his visitor.
'I knew you were coming, and this memo tells me who you are.' The piece of paper was dismissively flung to one side.
The Special Branch chief 's large hands, ruddy complexion and broad shoulders were those of a man from a rural background who did not take kindly to strangers.
'You know who I am,' said Richard, 'and I know you're Commander Stanley Davidson, so let's define exactly what my role is here.'
Richard waited for a reaction. Instinct warned the big policeman that the slim figure in front of him was no pushover.
'London's told you what I'm about. Is that correct?' Richard folded his arms across his chest.
Davidson mumbled and nodded his head to indicate he'd been briefed.
'My role stops at your desk,' said Richard, 'and I expect your cooperation. It's clear you're not happy about my being on your patch, but I'm afraid that's your problem, commander.
Stanley Davidson moved uncomfortably in his chair, his face and hands twitching as he tried to control his anger.
'No doubt you're aware that London expects full cooperation,' Richard added, 'and they're going to know if I get any less than that. There are to be no leaks at this end.'
Davidson raised his hand in protest but Richard ignored him.
'We may not like each other's perspectives, but that's of little consequence. I expect you to provide me with a list of your best field operatives and their agents within the IRA, and I want it tomorrow.'
Richard rose and quickly left the room, the door swinging behind him.
The following morning a special courier arrived with a large file and a handwritten note from Commander Davidson which assured Milner of Davidson's utmost cooperation and support. It also named two of Special Branch's best officers, Bill Green and John Bradford, and identified their agents as Stephen Kirkpatrick and Michael McDonnell.
That's a job well done, thought Richard, and put the personal note into a small paper shredder on his desk.
The file comprised career details and photographs of the Special Branch officers and their agents.
Forty-eight hours later, Milner was relaxing in his den at the castle listening to a scratchy recording of Teresa Berganza singing 'Una Voce Poca Fa' from Rossini's Barber of Seville. Suddenly his tranquillity was disrupted by one of his aides, who gingerly entered the room.
"Sorry to disturb you, sir. Major Johnston's been in touch. He says there's a helicopter waiting for you at his end ... at your pleasure, of course."
'Tell him on this occasion he can take precedence over Rossini,' said Richard Milner, smiling.
The aide looked confused. 'Is that a code, sir?'
Richard laughed. 'Don't be silly, man. Just tell him to send the transport.'
As Richard entered the large concrete building in the Palace Barracks compound, the steel door slammed shut behind him and his new escorts walked either side of him along a winding, half-lit corridor, down a steep flight of concrete stairs and into a wider passageway with rooms on either side.
Christ, this is like Hitler's bunker, thought Richard.
One doorway was marked 'Mess' and another 'Target Room'. Milner was so busy observing the signs on doors that he failed to notice he was fast approaching the end of the corridor and a door with a remote-controlled camera above it.
'This is the Ops Room, sir,' said one of the guides, keeping a restraining hand on Richard's left arm. 'Just press the intercom. The major's expecting you.'