by Trowbridge H. Ford
No part of Britain has experienced more change since World War II than Cumbria, that wild, isolated northwestern corner of the kingdom which has surprisingly improved considerably because of government help, especially in the military and energy sectors. Long known for the ports of Cumberland and wilds of Westmorland, it engaged more often in illegal trade, especially with the Isle of Man, than any legimitate enterprise like mining, farming, forestry or fishing.
Of course, it had long been a tourist attraction with its famous Lake District, but that did little to help its domestic residents: It was only during the postwar that the area began to radically change with the permanent establishment of the British military in the new county, Britain’s nuclear energy being centered at the generating plant at Sellafield, and the growing fields of winds generators in the Solway Firth.
While this growing investment of government money in Cumbria was to make a world of difference to the area, it was slow in making any serious impact upon its inhabitants until the 1970s. The biggest change was caused by Britain’s increasing involvement in colonial wars, and shoring up NATO’s naval activity in the Northeast Atlantic – what caused the build-up of Cumbria’s military establishments.
The most important long-term development was the vast build-up of the British Army’s training establishment at Warcop. Started during WWII to provide the Canadian tank forces with training for the Normandy invasion, it became a permanent facility after war’s end, growing to around 12,000 hectares now, most of it north of the Eden River, and all of it on the east side of the Lake District National Park.
In the process, so many soliders, recruited domestically and from the colonies, found the area so inviting after they completed a very short career with a very generous retirement. Carlisle is particularly noted to its retired military personnel, especially Nepal’s famous Gurkas.
Little wonder when Britain became deeply involved in the growing civil war in Ireland, and the increasing civil unrest at home during the 1970s that British Army recruiters looked to local boys to fill the ranks, and it was hardly surprising that Derek Bird, the youngest of Joe Bird’s three sons, joined the ranks.
Joe Bird lived in a house in the most remote Ennerby Bridge which he had inherited from his grandfather, apparently Thomas Bird, after he failed to gain ownership of Brougham Hall from former Lord Chancellor Brougham, first by telling its tenants not to pay his Lordship their rents, and then by occupacy – what ultimately resulted in a successful tresspass action against Bird in 1843. When it was proved that Brougham Hall was not the same property as the “Bird’s Nest”, Thomas Bird settled for living nearby as a country gentleman. Joe Bird was much like his grandfather, doing little besides talking to everyone who would listen, and hunting for rabbits.
Derek’s chosing the Army was pretty much directed by the family’s and the area’s limited opportunities. Being the youngest of three children, born quite close together, and having a fraternal twin brother David who performed much better in the same class at Ehenside Community School – establising them as a “chalk and cheese” couple – and went on to a successful career in the community as a mechanic and land developer, Derek, 19 years old, answered the call when Major General Dick Trant, Commander of Land Forces (CLF) in Northern Ireland, wanted to expand the forces there to meet the growing IRA threats.
In 1977, he wanted to complement the 14 Intelligence Company with the formation of Close Observation Platoons (COPs) for each of the thirty battalions serving two-year ‘residential’ tours there, and one for the four-month-tour battalion stationed in South Armagh, having found the loosely-ogranized Northern Ireland Patrol Group (NIPG) formed the year before to provide intelligence inadequately trained, and not permanently stationed in the province.
About the COPs, Mark Urban wrote in Big Boys’ Rules, they “…would take the best soldiers from the battalion and give them expert training in observation techniques. The CLF and the brigade commanders would be able to use the new platoons anywhere in Ulster, not just inside the area of the particular battalion to which they belonged. COPs were to become important in establishing the regular patterns of activity among ASUs (IRA Active Service Units) and movements of key republicans.” (p. 45)
The trouble with the plan was that the Army was unable to find enough soldiers from the battalions that it wanted, so it had to recruit volunteers for the new ‘SAS-type units’. In June 1977, The Times reported the drive, stating that the Army was looking for 300 volunteers for the new undercover force, but, according to Urban, it had to settle for about 200, indicating that it was accepting just about anyone who wanted to join, and Derek certainly wanted to.
The biggest cause of Trant creating the SOPs was the failure of the NIPG to have any idea of what Provo terrorist Francis Hughes was up to, especially when he and colleagues Dominc McGlinchey and Ian Milne shot dead two officers of a RUC Special Patrol Group when it tried to capture them in a car chase on April 8, 1977 – what turned out so badly that the authorities later claimed that it was at a checkpoint when they tried to inspect their Volkswagen.
The 14 Intelligence Company aka ‘the Det’ and the RUC’s Special Branch had been vigorously trying to capture the Provos’ South Derry commander since he had apparently killed an elderly Protestant woman, Hester McMullan, for no reason when they killed the two rather clueless RUC members and wounded another. The capture of the trio seemed almost assured when they lost control of their car after being flagged down, and ended up stuck in a ditch while attempting a U-turn.
But they came out of the vehicle with all guns firing, the kind of thing, another PIRA commander opined, that Hughes would do while he was on his way to plan a similar murder. “Shortly afterwards,” Peter Taylor concluded in The Brits, “police posters went up all over the province featuring Francis Hughes, the most wanted man in the North.” (p. 210) Little wonder that the British Army had no reservations about accepting a most dubiouis volunteer for the SOPs under the circumstances.
Even the Army, though, was persuaded that conditions were not bad enough to take Bird into the COPs during his 24-week long basic training, as he just barely got through it, hardly justifying his going on in its special COP course. Instead, Bird joined the regular ranks, and started serving soon with the Gloucester Battalion, though, not very well, as he was used as an errand boy for the ranks rather than preparing to take on combat action himself.
It was while it was involved in the stakeout of a Maghera farmhouse near South Derry’s Glenshane Pass, hoping to catch Hughes unawares when he surfaced there, that Bird pulled off its greatest success. On March 16, 1978, two COPS soldiers, Lance Corporal David Jones, who was on secondment from the 3rd Parachute Battalion, and Lance Corporal Kevin Smyth, were manning the observation post when they spotted two arned men in camouflage clothing, heading for the farmhouse.
Jones, thinking they might be members of the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) because of the insigna on their jackets, stood up, and challenged them to identify themselves. The two Provos returned the challenge with bullets, resulting in a firefight which wounded Jones, who later died, and Smyth. The two Provos apparently escaped unharmed.
In the aftermath of the firefight, soldiers from ‘the Dets’ back-up team, and the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) looked high and low for the Provisional gunmen the whole morning but without success. Taylor claimed that Hughes was found by a corporal called Geoffrey from the QRF, following a trail of blood that he had left as he tried to make his escape. (p. 211)
Actually, this was a cover story to protect the identity of the soldier who had, Private Walnut apparently aka Private Bird. His career in the Army had only gotten worse the day before as he had been put in a cell for appearing dirty on parade day, and had only been released because of the emergency Hughes had caused. During the morning, Bird, the battalion tea boy, had been sent back to headquarters to get refreshments for the search parties, and had just returned.
Thirty years later former UDR officer Wallace Clarke described what happened to Hughes, thanks to the initiative of Private Bird: “Now he wondered off with a dog handler and it was he who spotted a figure propped up against a tree trunk in a deep wooded guilly…” who turned out to be the most wanted Hughes.
Thanks to his capture, the charges against Bird were dismissed, and he gained the code-name “Private Walnut” for having spotted Hughes leaning up against a walnut tree. They are becoming more common in Ireland for their nuts, but until recently, they were not seriously cultivated because of the difficulties of getting them started, and keeping them from rotting. For more about Hughes’ capture, see this link:
As a result, eagle-eye Bird got the sobriquet “Birdy”, and he and the doghandler Geoffrey, according to the Sergeant Major, would never have to pay for a drink in the Company bar.(Taylor, p. 211)
It was then that Bird, it seems, was given his COP training, and returned to Northern Ireland to help in the efforts of its seven COPs to prevent ASUs from ambushing British soldiers, as the number of casualities began to show. “In 1983 five regular British Army soliders were killed, compared to 10 UDR members and eighteen RUC members, and in 1984 nine regular Army soldiers were killed compared to ten UDR members and eight police officers. Most of the UDR murders and many of those of RUC members took place when they were off duty.” (Urban, p. 188)
Little more is known of Bird’s actions during this time than that he started living with LInda Mills, most likely from Northern Ireland since hardly anything is known about her, and established a home back in Cumbria for her. They never married.
Little wonder that the security chiefs then got the COPs to increasingly protect these soft targets not only to save lives but also to insure that local security forces were not depleted to the Provos’ advantage.”The COPs were given their duties,” Urban expained; “by the TCG (Tasking and Co-ordination Groups of the RUC) operation centres. Some of their missions were based on informer intelligence identifying a specific threat to an individual, but high-grade information of that kind was normally given to the Int and Sy Group, leaving the COPs with little better to operate on than local hearsay and the guesswork of intelligence officers.” (p. 188)
It was doing operations like this that Bird became better known, ultimately leading Wallace Clarke to write his glowing account of Private Walnut’s capture of Hughes on its thirthieth anniversary. Wallace had apparently been moved to join the UDR because of what had happened to another Clarke – William, quite possibly a relative, but at least one whose fate had most stuck in Wallace’s mind.
William Clarke was also in the UDR, and was killed while off duty by the IRA after he had visited some relatives in the Republic, and was making his way home when he was shot dead by the Provos as he motored along a lane, Gortnessy, in Pettigoe, County Donegal. Bird, it seems, was so good in stopping the murders of off duty policemen and local soldiers while preparing regular soldiers for more elite duty that he was asked to join the 14 Intelligence Company around 1985.
For his apparent photograph, and the fact that he was sent to ‘the Det’ while another went to the SAS, see the photographs in Urban’s book of four COP operators with their faces blacked out, and the inside evidence he has about two of them. though note that he made no mention of how Hughes was captured, and Private Walnut’s crucial role in it.
Hardly surprising that Birdy became involved when the Thatcher government decided to get rid of Sweden’s statsminister Olof Palme, and make it look like Moscow did it so the Cold War could be settled by a conventional, preemptivie war which would avoid the use of nuclear weapons.
At the time, the RUC was pursuing young Francis Bradley of Magherafelt, County Londonderry, on suspicion that he had been involved in the May 1985 killing of RUC reservist, R. J. Evans. Bradley had gotten on the RUC’s radar screen of suspects in killings because of his attending the funeral of Antoin MacGiolla Bride who was shot dead by the SAS on December 2, 1984 during which he was hit on the head by an RUC baton which required stitches. The RUC put mounting pressure on him to admit to the Evans murder and/or to become an informant, neither of which Bradley agreed to.
Conditions only became worse for him after covert operators, it seems, ratched up matters by shooting up the unnamed Castledawson Police Station on December 9, 1985 – apparently the opening shots of the campaign to sink the Soviets and their allies, especially the IRA and its arms supplier, Gaddafi’s Libya. The RUC was joined by the 14 Intelligence Company, particulary its South Detachment’s CO, Captain Simon Hayward, in hounding Bradley for the crime, making it clear that he would never get married nor live to see Easter.
By this time, the CLF was Major General Tony Jeappes – the only former commanding officer of the 22 SAS Regiment to hold the post – who was willing to conduct the most aggressive actions for the Crown. About Hayward’s role in the campaign, note how Bradley’s close friend Seamus O’Connor described their leading antagonist: “He was 5’10” tall, well built, 30-35 of age.” (Quoted from Raymond Murray, The SAS in Ireland, p. 351) For what Hayward looks like in battle gear, see the back of the dustcover to Tony Geraghty´s The Irish War.
When it came time to start the showdown with the Soviets, the trial assassination of Bradley on February 18, 1986 in preparation for the one in Stockholm ten days later, Hayward led the ambush squad, and Bird apparently did the actual killing. The squad had veiled its mission as best it could by mounting a stakeout for about two weeks of the house yard where it would take place. (Urban, p. 216)
Then it was just a question of getting Bradley there – what was accomplished by a local IRA man asking him to move a cache of weapons from Kevin Walls’ house. When Bradley started doing so, he was gunned down by a barrage of gunfire, the first one apparently from Hayward, aka Soldier ‘A’ wihch hit Bradley’s in the buttocks, and the last ones by Soldier ‘C’ apparently aka Derek Bird, a burst of fire…”into the young man’s stomach which proved fatal.” (Murray, p 356)
While there were a multitude of questions about the killing, almost none of which were adequately answered, the most disturbing ones were supplied by Soldier ‘C’ in a written statement at the inquest, held at the Magherafelt in March 1987. In it, he described in most alarming terms the killing which seems nothing more than shooting an unarmed man, as the squad had had about a fortnight to make sure that the weapons were not armed, in the back until he collasped to the ground on his back where he was finished off at close range.
“I did so fearing for my safety”, Soldier ‘C’ explained, and he finished off Bradley when he “…realised that he was moving into a position to engage me, I just opened fired instinctively and ran through the gap into the farmyard where I took cover by the farm building…” (Quoted from Murray, pp. 355-6.) Neither he nor Soldier ‘A’ attended the inquest, preventing them from being cross-examined about anything.
By the time the inquest occurred, political affairs had changed radically. While Palme had been assassinated, there was no chance of blaming the Soviets because they were prepared for it, thanks to the spying by Ames, Hanssen and others, and London was still burdened with Gaddafi, especially the weapons he was sending on the Eksund for a Provisional ‘tet’ offensive – what had to be stopped at any cost.
This required satisfying London’s major spy involved in the capture, “Steak knife” in the IRA leadership, and he demanded that Hayward be set up for punishment in Sweden for another crime to make up for his assassination of Palme – what was agreed to.
Moreover, Hayward’s role in shoot-to-kill murders was being increasingly debated, thanks to the removal of John Stalker from investigating them. This led to Hayward’s appeal for alleged drug smuggling to stand in October 1987, forcing his retirement from the British Army in 1988 when he was serving his five-year sentence in Malmö prison.
It seems that Bird suffered a similar fate – since he might well have been one of the assassins stalking Palme too, given his role in the Bradley trial run – forced out of the Army, and given essentially a new identity by becoming Derrick Bird, what he was known as when he was given a joiner’s job at Sellafield’s nuclear site around this time.
Bird, unfortunately, returned to his earlier ‘dirty’ ways, stealing wood from the plant for which he lost the cushy job. Then his relationship with Linda Mills went down the drain when he fathered a second child – who he wanted aborted – and she persisted in having, leaving him permanently, and without a word more to him.
Then his father Joe provided his twin brother David with £25,000 from his savings without telling Derrick, and which David had not paid back by the time Joe died. Derrick’s cab-driving became increasingly tense because of the fighting over customers, and the banter among the cabbies while waiting for more.
It seems, given the fact that several of them were also veterans, that it often turned on Bird’s service, especially after Wallace Clarke published the most favorable article about Private Wlnut’s feat. It was after that that Bird was often heard that he would “…like to kill them all”, meaning family, fellow cabbies, and former soldiers.
The crisis peaked when John Larkin, a long-time critic of the Bradley assassination, became Northern Ireland’s first Attorney General since Britain took direct rule, and announced at the end of May that there would be a new inquest into the Bradley killing where his killers, Soldiers ‘A’ and ‘C’, would not only be obliged to attend, but they would be cross-exmained about their testimony. It was this, not alleged tax owed the Internal Revenue, which had Bird complaining to his colleagues that he faced possibly six to ten years in prison for his crimes.
On the moring of June 2nd, Bird went on the rampage, taking vengeance not only on family and cabbies who had allegedly cheated him out of money but also veterans who had on occasion humiliated him over his fall from the COPs and ‘the Det’. Bird killed Ken Fishburn, a “lifetime Army man” who served 25 years in the Durham Light Infantry before he retired, with a blast from his shotgun, fifty meters from his house.
Donald Reed, a former cook with the Royal Irish Regiment, would have suffered the same fate earlier if he had not reacted with his counter terrorism training from the Army immediately when Bird started shooting at him, knowing that he was quite skilled with weapons because of his Army service.
And it was also another cabbie and apparently former Army veteran Richard Webster who made sure that Bird didn’t kill him by calling him off. These three, it seems, knew about Bird’s secret Army career, and had driven him over the edge when it came to dealing with his real problems, not taxes, guns, wills, loans, fares, etc.
The MoD put a veil of secrecy over the carnage, limiting coverage of the killing, especially during the inquests for the victims, to a bare minimum, with the media often just repeating what little bits others had reported, making sure that Bird’s secret years from about 1977 to 1989 were never reported.
And it seems that it will stay that way even now as there has been no movement by Chief Coroner John Lecky in the Bradley killing in over a year, and it is unlikely there will be with HMG apparently closing down the ordered inquest in the name of national security.
Trowbridge Ford (1929 – 2021) was the son of William Wallace Ford, the father of the US Army’s Grasshoppers.
He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, and Columbia University where he received a Ph.D. in political science after a stint in the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps as a draftee during the Korean War, and after being discharged, worked as the sports editor and a reporter for the now-defunct Raleigh Times.
Thought academia was the thing for him. He was quite satisfied teaching all kinds of courses about European and American politics while writing his dissertation about an under-appreciated British politician, Henry Brougham, who became the Lord Chancellor of the famous Reform Government (1830-34).
At the same time, Trowbridge became most interested in the role that A. V. Dicey, a famous Oxford legal professor, played in settling the Irish question – another figure that historians didn’t think did much about. It was while he was doing research on the dissertation at the British Museum in London that President Kennedy was assassinated, and it slowly led him to take a dimmer view of academic life, especially when joined by campus protests over the growing Vietnam War. He was fired by two institutions of higher learning because of his protests against the war.
When the Vietnam War finally ended, he got involved in researching the Dallas assassination, and his first serious efforts about it appeared in Tom Valentine’s The National Exchange in 1978 – what Fletcher Prouty thought was quite good, just urging him to go higher in the Agency and the political world for the main culprits.
He slowly started doing this, ultimately deciding to retire early in 1986, planning on finishing his Brougham biography while living in Portugal. While he did this, he had made too many enemies with the White House not to be punished – first by attempts to establish that he maliciously tried to destroy Richard Nixon during Watergate by libeling him, and when he died, DCI George Tenet tried to have me killed by poisoning – what would make his death look like a suicide or a natural one.
As a result of this, once he had finally determined the cause, he moved to Sweden to not only save his skin but also investigate and write about assassinations, covert operations, ‘false flag’ deceptions, preventive wars, weapons development, and their use, etc. He passed away in 2021.
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