Operation Motorman: Top secret files reveal reasons behind invasion of nationalist areas

A British tank entering Creggan via Eastway on the morning of July 31, 1972.
A British tank entering Creggan via Eastway on the morning of July 31, 1972.
  • The documents show that changes to the rules of engagement were granted at ministerial level
  • Both the British Army and RUC Special Branch requested assurances of immunity
  • Over 20,000 British troops were involved in the operation

A batch of British military documents relating to one of the most controversial killings of the ‘Troubles’ have given an insight into the rationale behind the invasion of so called ‘no-go’ areas in Derry and Belfast on July 31, 1972.

The papers, deemed top secret by the British Army, also provide documentary proof that soldiers and members of RUC Special Branch were given assurances of immunity against prosecution for their actions in advance of Operation Motorman. The files also reveal that the British planned to lay the blame on any killings carried out by them squarely at the feet of the Provisional IRA and harnessed one of the most galling IRA atrocities of the conflict as a propaganda tool in their favour.

Operation Motorman was the codename given to the large scale incursion by British forces against the ‘no-go’ areas of Derry, Belfast and some other larger towns

on the morning of July 31, 1972.

The barricades that had sprung up In August 1969, mainly in nationalists areas of Derry and Belfast, meant that British forces and the RUC were denied entry to these districts and as a result the IRA had free reign in areas such as Derry’s Creggan and Bogside.

By the end of 1971, 29 barricades were in place to block access to Free Derry.

Funeral of Seamus Bradley.

Funeral of Seamus Bradley.

Operation Motorman, the Derry portion of which was codenamed Operation Carcan, was aimed at the removal of the barricades and allowing Crown forces into the areas.

Operation Motorman was the largest British military operation since the Suez crisis of 1956, and the biggest in Ireland since the War of Independence. In the run up to the operation around 4,000 additional troops were drafted into Northern Ireland. All in all around 22,000 troops were involved, including 27 infantry and two armoured battalions.

Several specially adapted Centurion Tanks wwre involved to clear barricades. The tanks had been transported into Northern Ireland aboard HMS Fearless.

The operation itself began at 4am on July 31, 1972 and lasted just a few hours. The anticipated resistance from both the Provisional and Official IRA did not transpire. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned the republican forces withdrew from the targeted areas and later said this was to save the civilan population from harm by the British Army.

The remains of 19-year-old IRA man Seamus Bradley.

The remains of 19-year-old IRA man Seamus Bradley.

During the Operation in Derry, the British Army shot four people and killed two-a 15-year-old boy and a 19-year-old unarmed IRA member.

For 43 years now controversy has surrounded the circumstances in which 19-year-old Seamus Bradley met his death during Operation Motorman. His family claim the teenage IRA man that after he was wounded by gunfire from British soldiers he was taken away and tortured. The very nature of Operation Motorman meant that witnesses to the incident were extremely scarce.

State Pathologist Dr Thomas Marshall was the medic who carried out the post-mortem examination on Seamus Bradley. He concluded that death was caused as a result of a bullet wound that had severed the left femoral artery.

Startingly, Seamus Bradley had been shot four times and the autoposy report left open the possibility that a fifth wound to the left ankle was a further gunshot wound or was caused by one of the four bullets which had struck the body.

15-year-old Daniel Hegarty who was shot dead by British troops on the morning of July 31, 1972.

15-year-old Daniel Hegarty who was shot dead by British troops on the morning of July 31, 1972.

The autoposy report also referred to bruises on Seamus Bradley’s nose, lips and chin and “some bruising with a vertical linear pattern on the chin and the front of the neck.”

The medical findings were completely at odds with the Brtish Army version of the events.

Given it was extremely unlikely that all the gunshots were inflicted by one soldier as the Army contended, it is therefore implied that further wounds were inflicted, possibly from close range on a man who had already been taken into custody.

Did this for example occur when Seamus Bradley was lying in the field where he was wounded or later when he was taken away in a Saracen?

And, what explanation is there for the finding “some bruising with a vertical linear pattern on the chin and the front of the neck?”

Prior to the granting of another inquest into the death of Seamus Bradley the current status remains that of an open verdict and that his killing was ‘lawful’.

Margaret Brady pictured centre, sister of Daniel Hegarty being interviwed by the media after the late night inquest ruling into her brother's killing in 2011.

Margaret Brady pictured centre, sister of Daniel Hegarty being interviwed by the media after the late night inquest ruling into her brother's killing in 2011.

Whilst the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) report said the death was never “effectively investigated”, it also concluded that if the soldiers were telling the truth then the had operated within their own rules and within the law.

Seamus Bradley’s brother Danny has never doubted that his brother was murdered by the British Army.

With the revelation in 2000 that forensic tests showed the 19-year-old was unarmed when he was shot he became even more convinced that a cover-up surrounding the events in Derry on July 31, 1972.

Danny told the ‘Journal’: “The whole thing has left me in ill health and left me in despair, but I struggled on to get my brothers new inquest which is now in progress. But sadly, if the British Government get their way they intend to put a stop to all inquests and allow these soldiers who murdered people to go free.

“The people of Derry have only to read this story to see the real facts emerging at last. In my brothers case I intend to carry on and pursue his murder as a war crime. My brother was shot twice and captured, and I believe a rope was placed around his neck, then he was shot three more times and left to bleed to death. These orders came from the top of the British Government.”

Daniel Hegarty was shot twice in the head at close range by a member of the Scots Regiment just yards from his home in Creggan on the morning of Operation Motorman and died almost instantly. His cousin Christopher was also struck in the head with a shot discharged by the same soldier but survived.

The initial inquest held in 1973 recorded an open verdict. A second inquest was ordered by the Attorney General in 2009 following an examination by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). The jury in the 2009 inquest unanimously found that Daniel Hegarty posed no risk at the time he was shot dead and rejected claims from the British that warnings had been shouted to the two teenagers before they were hit. The jury also found that none of the soldiers present attempted to approach the injured youths to either search them or provide medical assistance.

The HET report found that the RUC invetigation into the incident at the time was “hopelessly inadequate and dreadful.”

In 2007, the British Government apologised to the Hegarty family for originally describing Daniel as a terrorist.

In just over a week’s time on November 12, Daniel Hegarty would have celebrated his 58th birthday. It is of course a celebration that will never take place.

Although Daniel’s name was cleared of any taint of being a ‘terrorist’ at a fresh inquest in 2011, his sister Margaret Brady is still determined to see the man responsible for shooting twice in the head appear before a court of law and be held accountable for his actions.

Margaret is still scathing about the entire process which saw her and her family fight for almost 40 years until her 15-year-old brother’s good name was upheld.

She told the ‘Journal’: “Our politicians should hold their heads in shame because they know there were a lot of innocent people slaughtered and their memories are being sacrificed so they can keep themselves in jobs. They are not interested in innocent victims. They should be pushing for prosecutions so these murderers can be held to account.”

When asked what effect it had on her family when Daniel was shot she said: “It meant total devastation for us. Not only did they rob us of our brother, they robbed us of our name because Daniel had three sisters who are all married now. They robbed him of his whole life. So our family name will never be carried on. There are no grandchildren to carry the name.

“It left my mother and father devastated. They parents we had before Daniel was killed and the parents we had afterwards were completely different people.

“We had to fight to clear Daniel’s name because they had him down as a terrorist, a gunman, a petrol bomber and a nail bomber. They couldn’t seem to make up their minds what he was. But, on December 6, 2011 we cleared his name. They damned the name of a 15-year-old boy.

“The soldier that did this should be charged with murder. The British Government just don’t want to accept the truth. “

It is very clear from the outset of the planning of Motorman that the British military recognised the need to cover their backs legally in anticipation of killing people during the operation.

Bearing in mind that all this was to take place just six months after Bloody Sunday the scale of Motorman meant they were not only concerned about the public reaction of such another large scale military incursion into Derry but also anticipated high level fighting with the IRA upon their arrival.

Therefore the documents state British forces wanted “an extension of legal powers to free our hands” and “modified rules of engagement within the principle of reasonableness to permit greater freedom of action.”

The British Army Yellow Card system laid out supposedly strict rules of engagement to be followed by soldiers during action in Northern Ireland.

Whilst it has of course already been revealed that military personnel taking part in major pre-planned operations in Northern Ireland had been given assurances of immunity, documents in this file reveal this was sanctioned at the highest level.

The British military estimated the follow-up operation could last up to three months, but anticipated that any initial engagement with either wing of of the IRA would last no more than a few hours.

In a segment relating to the aftermath of Motorman one document states: “It will be a slow business thereafter, even when the IRA areas are completely dominated, to build up a full intelligence picture on which to base effective counter-action. Sporadic terrorist activity will probably continue, and bombing will present the most difficult problem for the Security Forces. A period of several weeks of selective search, arrest and surveillance operations backed by interrogation and internment, will be required before the IRA organisation is, in effect, neutralised.”

Paragraphs on how these future intelligence operations were to be controlled and later reinforced are redacted (blacked out) in these documents. Also redacted is the section which outlined the British ‘Interrogation Policy’. In order to counter potential prosecution arising of out killings or the use of brutality the military sought assurances that their future actions would not result in legal action being taken against them. This is why changes to the ‘Yellow Card’ were sought.

One of the top secret documents reveals that the Army sought either a temporary extension of the already extensive Special Powers Regulations in Northern Ireland or a “Ministerial undertaking to seek an Act of Indemnity in due course.”

The document continues: “It is of course intended the indemnification would only apply to acts which were reasonable and done in good faith....clearly the issue of indemnity is an easier one in the case of the Army-because its discipline can be relied on to prevent excesses-than in the case of the RUC. But it would be virtually impossible to extend to one limb of the Security Forces but not the other: especially as the most urgent pressure for a promise of indemnification is coming from Special Branch. Without an indemnity they are likely to refuse to interrogate.”

It was left up to William Whitelaw as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to secure the request for indemnity by RUC Special Branch.

“Finally with regard to the rules to opening fire, we have from Headquarters Northern Ireland-and are still examining certain specific proposals for amendments to the Yellow Card. A formal submission for Ministerial approval for such amendments as are agreed will be put up within the next few days. But we first need Ministerial guidance on whether it will be regarded as reasonable, in the new situation, to open fire: A- After warning, on escaping prisoners or identified suspects: B.-Without warning, on people carrying firearms (including petrol bombs etc) even if they are not using them or about to use them.”

These discussions took place in the final countdown to Motorman itself. At a meeting of the military command staff which took place at Prime Minster Ted Heath’s official residence at Chequers on July 24, 1972, the date for the incursion into Creggan and the Bogside was set for July 31. It was also suggested at this point that Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw “would accept internment of not more than an additional 300.”

With specific regard to securing changes to the ‘Yellow Card’ one document states: “ A. No-one would sanction legislation that authorised a soldier to act beyond or outside the law; if he did he would, quite rightly be subject to prosecution.”

However, there is a world of difference between legislating for these changes where the world could see them and giving permission within clandestine documents as is the case here

The next paragraph makes a startling admission in terms of British military action in Northern Ireland up until this point. It states: “No soldiers had yet been prosecuted in Northern Ireland unless they had gone beyond the law, and some who had not been prosecuted had been very lucky.”

A document dated July 28, 1972, reveals that the amendments to the Yellow Card which had been sought by the Army and RUC had been approved. The opening paragraph of the document states: “ CGS (Chief of the General Staff) cleared his directive on behalf of CDS (Chief of Defence Staff) to the General Officer in Command Northern Ireland, and also the message from the General Officer in Command Northern Ireland and his Brigade Commanders, which incorporates amendments to the Yellow Card, and they are being taken to Northern Ireland by courier today. they have the status of being fully endorsed by Ministers.”

Again, the public relations offensive was at the forefront of British thinking.

The document continues: “The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is to give an interview this evening to Radio Television (sic) Eireann in which he will put out a general statement linking last Friday’s bombings (‘Bloody Friday’) with the determination of Her Majesty’s Government that such events can no longer be tolerated. Law and order must be restored, and no progress on the political front can be made while areas exist in which there are sanctuaries for lawless men. “Barricades themselves are a total misconception and will have to come down. The protection they are alleged to afford is not needed because the Security Forces are there to protect everyone. If people do not remove them then the Security Forces will have to do so. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will make reference to the agreement of the SDLP to co-operate in talks and say that their helpful attitude too is being frustrated by evil men.”

The documents marked top secret and released by the British Government in the case of the killing of Seamus Bradley immediately set out the British rationale for Operation Motorman.

An initial document in the 400 page file states: “The aim of Op Motorman is to conduct vigourous but selective military operations within a force level of 27 battalions to neutralise the IRA and eliminate their influence in quick time. Priority will be given to simultaneous and major offensive operations in Belfast and Londonderry with limited active operations in the Mid Ulster towns and defensive operations in the border and rural areas. However difficult it may be, operations will be conducted with maximum selectivity against the IRA alone, with the aim of retaining the support of the moderate Catholics.”

The plan was to “swamp” IRA strongholds to “achieve complete domination and demoralisation, to force the IRA to fight and to exort such pressure on them that they have little opportunity to carry out their own offensive operations.”

Also, at a very early stage in the planning of Motorman the British military meticulously laid out a pre-prepared policy of who to blame for the major armed forces incursions into Derry. Ten days prior to the planned implementation of Operation Motorman, the IRA had detonated 20 bombs in an 80 minute period in Belfast killing seven civilians, two soldiers and injuring 130 people.

‘Bloody Friday’ as it became known, was immediately and cynically harnessed by the British as a propaganda tool to justify Motorman. In a draft paper by the Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Carrington, on Army operations in Northern Ireland there is a clear admission that after ‘Bloody Friday’ that success against the IRA was limited.

Carrington’s paper states that even search operations were yielding little success and says: “Their success has been exaggerated for political and PR reasons. Such yields as have been obtained were principally due to chance. Continuation at the present level cannot be expected to produce any better results and is likely in fact to produce

diminishing returns.

“The degree of antagonism these operations (Motorman) are likely to arouse will probably increase as the memory of July 21st (‘Bloody Friday’) fades and the Army’s searches are seen to be random and resulting in searches of houses and arrests of individuals with no direct connection to the hardline Provisional IRA.

“It is important to exploit quickly a situation in which firm and effective action by the Army against the IRA appears acceptable to a wide range of opinion, including a significant proportion of Catholics. If this opportunity is not taken, it may be very difficult to pursue any operational policy which holds out any hope making significant in-roads into IRA strength and their hold on the Catholic community.”

In an earlier document the ‘Information Policy’ of the British military for Motorman was explicit in terms of where the blame for Motorman must be laid. It states: “The blame can and must be laid fair and square on the Provisionals and not on the Catholics as a whole. Our actions will be portrayed openly with the aim of attracting support from Northern and Southern Catholics alike for ridding society of a force which would otherwise bring about a civil war...”

To bolster the attempt to skew opinion in favour of the operation the military aimed to harness the media. One portion of a document states: “All efforts must be applied to get the support of British newspapers, radio and television by briefings, appeals to Editors and if possible by the attachment of Government Information Officers attached to BBC and ITN in their Belfast newsrooms. It might be necessary to take steps to discourage the publication of IRA propaganda by, for example, the Belfast Irish News.”

Care was even taken to create a press statement in which Centurion tanks that were to be deployed, obstensibly to remove barricades in the no-go areas, where referred to as ‘armoured bulldozers’. Whilst the turrets of these tanks were reversed and in some cases covered with tarpaulins, they were not decommissioned and were capable of being used.

The lawyer acting for the Bradley family says there can be no doubt the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) are actively purusing delaying tactics with regard to ‘Troubles’ related inquests.

Richard Campbell, of Quigley Grant and Kyle Solicitors in Derry, told the ‘Journal’ that he is baffled as to why it took the MoD two years to release this information in relation to the Seamus Bradley case.

“It is very frustrating. These documents reveal that it was absolutely shocking the way they were setting all this up. It clearly helped formulate the mindset of the soldiers as they were being handed immunity. There would appear to be no other reason in this case why the MoD would cause major delays other than they did not want to reveal the mindset of the soldiers and how it was created.

“We do know the MoD have been trying to identify all the soldiers in the vicinity when Seamus Bradley was shot. There were 72 of them. Soldier 24 says he was in the back of the Saracen when Seamus was brought in and he has identified four other soldiers by name and has actually given over the contact details of one them.

“All this has been disclosed at recent meetings. We have submitted that because of the age of this man he needs to be interviewed as a matter of urgency. But our jaws dropped when the MoD said they had no interview this man who is obviously a central witness in this case. We have therefore asked the the Coroner to invoke his investigatory powers to track this man down and have him interviwed by police in England or by the Military Police.

“It strikes me that the MoD are delaying these inquests so much in the hope that are parties involve either die or loose interest. That will not happen because a new inquest has been granted and it will take place,” he said.