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Remembering the Past - The Four Square Laundry

On 2 October 1972, 32 years ago, IRA Volunteers struck a significant blow to the heart of the British Army's undercover Military Reconnaissance Force (MRF) in Belfast.

Under the control of General Sir Harry Tuzo, the main work of the MRF — a forerunner of the Force Research Unit (FRU) — was to gather, collate and analyse intelligence on the republicans and on the IRA in particular.

The most devious example of an MRF undercover operation was the Four Square Laundry. The Four Square did business as a real laundry. Laundry vans are usually big, so there was a good excuse to have a vehicle capable of holding several men and their equipment. The van toured nationalist areas of Belfast, soliciting custom at a cheaper rate than other laundries and making collections and deliveries. The washing was sent out to another laundry under contract to the British Army.

Using this cover, intelligence was accumulated in a number of ways. The laundry staff, consisting of a driver and a woman, would chat with locals and obtain apparently insignificant bits of information, which could be of great importance when placed together later. Meanwhile, two SAS soldiers hidden under the roof of the van photographed the occupants, houses and vehicles of known republicans.

Once back from their tour, laundry lists were compared with previous ones. A difference in the size of a man's shirt could indicate the presence of a second man staying in a house. A woman whose husband was in jail or had been killed, giving a man's clothes for laundering, could inadvertently give away the presence of an IRA Volunteer on the run. The clothes were also scientifically analysed for traces of blood, gun oil, gunpowder and explosives.

The Four Square Laundry was simple, yet highly sophisticated, and it took several months for the IRA's Intelligence Department, with the help of a double agent, to unmask it. At 11.15am on 2 October 1972, a green Morris laundry van — bearing in large white letters the words 'Four Square' — approached the Twinbrook area of Belfast. As it drove through Juniper Park, it was ambushed by Volunteers of a special intelligence unit of the IRA, who machine-gunned the van, killing two British Intelligence Officers lying under the roof in a compartment specially designed as an observation post. The driver, Sapper Stuart, who was on loan from his parent regiment to the SAS, was also killed.

The female member of the operation, belonging to the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC), ran screaming into a local's house claiming that loyalist gunmen were trying to kill her. The residents of the house, not knowing her true identity, gave her brandy and a sedative until a plain-clothes RUC member came to collect her. Eighteen months later, she became the first WRAC to receive the military medal for an undercover operation in Ireland.

Within hours of the attack on the laundry van, the IRA shot dead two other MRF members who were operating a massage parlour — the Gemini Health Studios on the Antrim Road. The following day, the British, realising that their covert operations were blown, admitted to the death of the van driver and the aim of their operation. They failed, however, to disclose that not one but five MRF/SAS soldiers had been executed by the IRA on this October day in Belfast.

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