This is an account of life with 14 Intelligence Company - a British military intelligence unit established in 1972 to conduct covert surveillance operations against terrorist organisations (of all stripes) in Northern Ireland. The unit is also known colloquially as '14 Int', and the 'Det' (because it is organised into 'Detachments'). The events related in the book occurred in the 1980s, but the unit is reportedly still in existence.
I first learned of 14 Int in Mark Urban's excellent "Big Boys' Rules". But Urban's book - about the role of special forces and the intelligence services in N.I. - is concerned with a wider thesis and 14 Int is only a part of its story. Peter Taylour's "Brits" contains rather more on 14 Int, including interviews with a couple of ex-Det members, but at times it veers perilously close to the rocks of sensationalism. However, both those books deal with 14 Int from an external perspective, whereas James Rennie tells the story from within this little known unit. He covers selection, training and actual operations.
The selection and training phases absorb well over half the book but that is no criticism: these sections are a gripping read. Such heavy emphasis on the training is quite unusual in this genre, and the effect is to impart a sense of the enormous, nay exhaustive, care and preparation that go into selecting and producing 'Operators'.
Selection standards for entry into the unit are extremely rigourous, both physically and mentally. The work of 14 Int is much more cerebral than that of other special forces groupings. Accordingly selection fortnight intersperses punishing tests of physical endurance with fiendish mental tests of memory, observation, concentration, planning, effective communication and so on (and on and on). Uniquely amongst British special forces, 14 Int contains women. The standards expected of them in selection and afterwards are exactly the same as those for the men. However far from being the granite-jawed East German shot-putter types you might have expected, they sound rather charming and feminine. Rennie's descriptions of these formidable individuals make very interesting reading. They are clearly worthy successors to the heroines of the SOE.
Those who successfully pass the selection move on to six months of gruelling training. Much training is conducted right here in the familiar and comfortable surroundings of dear old Blighty - on our public roads, and in our very own sleepy little towns and bustling cities. It must have been rather odd for the author and his fellow trainees to be conducting their cloak and dagger lessons amidst a populace in which friends and loved ones moved. To be forced to peer behind the veil of familiar and cherished perceptions of life in England would to me have felt like a violation and left me wondering what else there was. This is not the same as fighting (or preparing for) a war in some far and alien place. Homesick and frightened soldiers dream dreams of home. What, I wondered, do 14 Int members dream of?
Seeking out the psychological subtext is very important to an appreciation of what Rennie experienced, of what it is like to serve in this kind of unit. Isolation and loneliness seem to be strong abiding themes of Rennie's recollections of life in the Det. What is intriguing is whether he recognised that himself as he was writing this. The telling phrases and passages are littered throughout: having just passed through the hell of selection he suffers a personal rejection; his previous two years of service in Germany leave him bereft of functioning friendships in the UK; he resorts to placing ads in the lonely hearts columns to find a companion (he strikes gold here, meeting his wife to-be, but that isn't the point); much later, undergoing severe interrogation, he comforts himself with thoughts of what his beloved might be doing at that very moment; within the unit itself, Operators are forbidden to share the details of their lives with each other, and false names are used; Operators are housed in individual portakabins to which they return at all hours to slump in exhaustion on the bed for a few hours before heading out again...It all adds up to a picture of emotional isolation. Loneliness was, I think, a strong contributary factor in his decision to resign his commission and return to civilian life.
On the whole, the impression gained is of a pretty wonderful group - switched on, disciplined and resourceful, but also friendly, egalitarian and relaxed. Rennie himself seems a thoroughly decent type too, and he is balanced and mature in his comments about 'the opposition' and about his colleagues.
I gave the book five stars because, although I am hardly in a position to know whether it is an accurate account of life in the 'Det', I certainly found it an enthralling read.
...this is a really engaging read. From now on, if I am ever passed up by a car full of serious-looking people driving like absolute lunatics I will think twice before waving a fist at them at the next set of lights!!