Humouring Lunatics – The Northern Ireland Ferries Saga

Int Corps Northern Ireland Ferries Saga-2

By Peter Jefferies

Between October 1974 and March 1975 I was the liaison officer for the Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre (Northern Ireland) or RICLO for short. The RICLO’s main duty was to liaise with armed forces and police units in the Province to advise them on the most suitable product(s) to meet their air photographic requirements. This entailed being on the road for some 4,000 miles a month and took up the majority of the RICLO’s time. The other part of the job was to deal with complex and unusual tasks and to assemble the best resources to meet the requirement. This story is about one such task.

It started one morning when I was summoned into the operations officer’s presence and the office door was closed:

“The staff at HQNI has identified a potential threat to the Irish Sea ferries and needs aerial photographs of the vessels so that helicopter crews can be briefed and have target prints if they need to land an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team on any of them. Because of the nature of the task you will be responsible for planning and executing the task. OK, carry on.”

My first thought was “who the hell has thought this one up?” and then I remembered the advice given to me some years before by a senior Corps officer: “What you must remember young Jefferies is that you will spend the majority of your time in the army humouring lunatics of varying degrees.” I then asked the operations officer for the rationale behind this task because I could already see it was going to involve considerable resources and liaison.

It started back in May 1972 when the Cunard liner, Queen Elizabeth 2, sailed from New York with over 2,300 passengers on board bound for England. When the liner was in mid-Atlantic the Cunard Line received a bomb threat against the ship, which Cunard believed to be a credible one. However this was not a terrorist threat but an attempt to extort $350,000 from the company. The British Government of the day acted quickly and a British Army bomb disposal team were parachuted from an RAF C-130 Hercules into the ocean near the ship. The ship was searched from stem to stern and one suspicious trunk was found and duly dealt with, and the end result was that someone’s dirty laundry was now even dirtier and charred.

In late-1974 the film, Juggernaut, was released whose plot was very similar to that of the QE2 incident except that this time the “baddie” spoke with a lilting Irish accent and the ransom was £500,000 – well I suppose you do have to allow for inflation.

I believe that someone in HQNI saw the film and then perceived the possible bomb threat that could be posed to the many ferries that plied between the Province and mainland UK and that there could be a need to put an EOD team and its equipment onto one of them. Here we go, I thought, lunatic humouring time again.

The requirement boiled down to photographing all the ferries currently serving the Province so that deck areas suitable for landing personnel and equipment could be identified, and any hazards and obstructions to them could also be noted.  It was also preferable for the photographs to be taken with the ship in open water so that there was no land or other distractions in the background.

To misquote Mrs Beaton: “First, catch your ferry.” There were six ships that  operated between the Province and the mainland. They operated from Larne to Stranraer and Cairnryan in Scotland and from Belfast to Liverpool, so this was going to need a lot of thought and co-ordination.

The next thing was to talk to the ferry companies to find out where the ferries would be and when, their call signs and frequencies and to get the necessary company authority for the ship’s master to be allowed to divert from his normal route to allow us to have the best photographic light on the ship. This would entail the ship doing up to a 360 degree turn. HQNI identified a suitable contact in each of the ferry companies in their local office. This person was briefed on the outline of the task  and was given my name as the RIC contact. I would then arrange a meeting with them to get the details required for the task, and to arrange communications so that the company would know when we were going to execute the task, and could inform ship’s master accordingly.

After collecting the information I now sat down with Irish Sea charts and drew the boxes where we could expect to find the ferries. This was where the first limiting factor came into play. The Belfast to Liverpool route was operated overnight from Liverpool to Belfast and a day service from Belfast to Liverpool. This meant calculating an optimum box where the two ships would be clear of land. Because of their schedule it would be early in the photographic-light day when we could catch them in open water. The other two routes were quite easy because they both operated in daylight and in a narrow part of the North Irish Sea so we could probably get them all together in a small box.

The next complication to rear its ugly head was how to communicate with the ships. Military aircraft were not fitted with radios that allowed them to speak to civil authorities directly, except for air traffic control agencies. Even military search and rescue helicopters were not fitted with radios that allowed them to talk directly to the Coast Guard and other agencies. The ships usually used the marine band radio channels to communicate with other ships and land based radio stations. Without a marine band radio we would not be able to speak to the ships and this would certainly make the task more difficult, so a solution was needed to overcome this obstacle. I spoke to the RAF Wessex squadron at Aldergrove who had a search and rescue role. Their solution was to either land at the scene of the incident, or contact the relevant civil authority before departure and “borrow” a suitable hand-held radio for the duration of the incident. To help maintain security in our quest for appropriate marine band radios and to avoid involving the shipping companies any more than necessary, I spoke to the Royal Navy patrol vessel unit in Belfast to see if they could help us get hold of a suitable marine band radio. They had such radios on their inventory: a fixed one on their ships so that they could speak on civil marine bands for ship safety and portable ones that were used by their boarding parties to talk to the ships about to be boarded. The portable version could be connected to an external power source which gave greater endurance than if we only used batteries. Problem almost solved, apart from fitting it into the selected aircraft which would entail liaison with the aircraft engineers.

Camera selection was the next job. We needed the one that would give us flexibility and the best results to meet the requirement. We discounted the fixed cameras usually used in RIC operations because of their size and their inability to be moved around quickly. We fell back on the well-tried and proven hand-held F95 camera,

which at the time was issued, to Army Air Corps squadrons. The film magazine contained 250 feet of 70mm-wide film so there would be plenty for the task. The hand-held version was normally operated in single-shot mode but the RIC’s camera engineers had modified some to be able to operate in burst mode of four frames per second. This gave us stereo cover needed by the photographic interpreters to  extract the maximum level of information to meet the task.

We then needed to select the most suitable platform. The RIC had organic Army Air Corps Beaver aircraft and they could also request the use of Army Air Corps and RAF helicopters if they were needed. The Beaver and Army Air Corps helicopters were quickly rejected because they were single engine and operating over water for an extended period – the whole sortie was expected to last for about two hours – in a single engine aircraft presented an unacceptable risk. The RAF helicopters in province at the time were the trusty Wessex and the Puma, both of which were twin- engined. The Wessex would probably have been the best platform to use because it was one most likely to be used to land the EOD team on the ferry. However the Wessex was heavily tasked with troop movements, had only one door on the right- hand side and there was the possibility that the exhaust gases could pass in front of the camera lens and distort the results. That left the Puma which had doors on both sides of the cabin and as the engines were mounted above the cabin this removed the possibility of any exhaust distortion. The Puma was also used by the RIC for certain specialist imaging applications so the Puma crews were aware of our needs and foibles. Also in the Puma the pilots were on the same level as the cabin and not above it which was the case in the Wessex which meant easier crew communication that was going to be a vital element to the success of the task. So a Puma was allocated and a crew selected.

The next step was to meet the crew and the engineers to co-ordinate the efforts.  The engineers saw no problems with providing power to either the radio or the camera. The radio came with its own antenna so we did not have to connect it to the aircraft’s, and as we would be operating at close range contact should not be difficult.

The selected crew and I got together. I had formulated a rough plan and an order of photographing the ships. The plan called for photographs to be taken of each side of the ship, the bow and stern aspects and quarter views, if possible. Because the hand-held F95 did not have an automatic exposure control lens, one run of each aspect would be at the optimum calculated f-stop and one each at the f-stop at either side of the optimum. This was to take account of any glare from the sea and to give us the best selection of negatives to select the best photographs to meet the task. In practice this meant three runs around each ship. The crew offered some good  advice this was incorporated into the plan. They also suggested angles they would like to see if they had to use the photographs in anger.

All was now ready to go. All we needed was the right weather and the Liverpool to Belfast ferries to co-operate.

On 28th February 1975 it all came together. We assembled at the Puma Detachment at Aldergrove, calculated the take-off time and I then made the three telephone calls to my contacts at the shipping companies. They would then contact the ships’ masters to tell them that we were on our way and would call them when we were close to them. This was to allow them to reassure their passengers that there was nothing untoward going on and to allow them to position their ships for the photography.

The author on task

Before take-off we had decided in which order we would photograph the ferries. The first one would be the overnight Liverpool to Belfast ferry because we wanted to photograph it before it entered Belfast Lough, followed by the Belfast to Liverpool one as it exited Belfast Lough. We would then move north to catch the ferries on the Larne to Cairnryan and Stranraer. The ferries on the Belfast to Liverpool and the Larne to Stranraer routes ferries were passenger and car ferries, but Larne to Cairnryan was mainly for lorries. It meant that the former were more likely to have more cluttered upperworks.

The procedure for each contact was always the same. On reaching the area where we expected the ferry to be we made a radio call and asked for the ship’s actual position. We also gave them our

ETA at their given position. When the ship came into sight we made a further call to say what we were going to do and would ask for the ship to be moved if necessary for our photographic runs. After each individual run I did a clearing burst so that each run was identifiable. I originally thought that three runs, one at each f-stop, would meet the requirement but in practice we needed  six  so  we  could  ensure that all sides were in the best light and also to get the extra shots that the crew had requested. We did close-ups of certain parts of the ships. Crew co-ordination was vital to position the Puma and the ferry so that we could get the best results. Between targets I was kept busy recording what run covered what target and at what settings. I really started to appreciate the work that goes into executing a successful reconnaissance mission. The photograph above shows shows the RICLO (myself)  at work with the hand-held F95 camera in the doorway of the Puma during the operation.

The first two ferries done were quite good fun although we were working hard. On the passenger ferries the decks were inevitably crowded with the passengers waving as we sped by. Probably the first time some of them had seen a helicopter at such close quarters. The waves were returned by our crew. After the first two it was off to the north to catch our other four and this was duly accomplished. The picture shows the Baltic ferry on the Larne to Cairnryan route. When we had finished photographing them we returned to Aldergrove to debrief the sortie and unload the radio and the camera. I then went back to the RIC for the film to be processed, selections made and annotated prints produced for the customer. Once this was done I contacted the crew and they could come and look at the fruits of their labours.

All over bar the shouting you may think. No, there was still work to be done. The radio had to be returned to the Royal Navy and taken off my signature. Sets of the annotated prints were made for HQNI, the Support Helicopter Detachment and the EOD unit. There were also large copies made that were given to the shipping companies as a thank you for their co-operation.

All that effort just to humour some lunatic! PJ, July 2013