Download PDF

© Crown copyright 2023

This publication is licensed under the terms of the Open Government Licence v3.0 except where otherwise stated. To view this licence, visit open-government-licence/version/3.

Where we have identified any third party copyright information you will need to obtain permission from the copyright holders concerned.

ISBN 978-1-5286-4212-5

E02786195    06/2023

HC 1539

Home/UCPI Interim Report for Tranche 1/Chapter 1: Formation of the Special Operations Squad – the “Autumn Offensive”

Chapter 1: Formation of the Special Operations Squad – the “Autumn Offensive”

  1. The Special Operations Squad (SOS) was the brainchild of HN325 Detective Chief Inspector Conrad Dixon. It was established on or immediately before 31 July 1968.1 Two surviving founder members of the SOS, HN218 (“Barry Morris”) Barry Moss and HN328 Joan Hillier, have described the circumstances in which they were recruited. Their recollection differs in immaterial details explained by the passage of time, but both agree that a group of Metropolitan Police Service Special Branch (Special Branch) officers were invited to attend a meeting addressed by Conrad Dixon, at which the purpose of the squad was explained: to gather intelligence about the forthcoming demonstration to be staged in October in central London by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC). The only reliable method of doing so was to attend preparatory meetings undercover – by pretending to be supporters of the demonstration.
  2. HN3093 Roy Creamer was also recruited but for a different purpose. As a Special Branch officer since 1958, he had acquired an unrivalled knowledge of anarchists and anarchism, by study and by friendly interaction with two leading anarchists, Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer. He had also studied and begun to acquire some understanding of Trotskyist and Maoist groups. His principal function was to inform Conrad Dixon’s assessments of the potential of these groups to cause trouble on the day of the demonstration.
  3. A Special Branch file was opened on the VSC in May 1966.2 An early report3 was the subject of a comment by Conrad Dixon on 8 August 1966.4 He concluded that it “does not warrant any police action”.5 Despite that, the VSC was the subject of a series of reports in 1966 and 1967, and of Special Branch interest using traditional techniques. These revealed that, on 14 December 1967, the VSC national executive committee proposed that a national ad hoc committee should be formed on 11 January 1968 to organise the staging of a demonstration in March 1968, “at the request of the Vietnamese people”, likely to celebrate what was considered to be the 18th anniversary of the first protest in Saigon against US military involvement in Vietnam.6 (The claim is questionable, for reasons that are not relevant to this report.)
  4. Tariq Ali, who gave oral evidence to the Inquiry, explained the objective of the VSC – to support the victory of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam – and the means by which it hoped to provide that support. He was a truthful witness and his evidence was calm and reflective. He stood by the account he gave in his book, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, and expanded on it. The national executive committee of the VSC had been heartened by the success of a demonstration by about 10,000 people on 22 October 1967, which, to the surprise of both the organisers and the police, almost gained entry into the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. A core group of about seven or eight members of the committee discussed the possibility of gaining entry during a large demonstration and staging a media stunt inside it, such as sending a message to Vietnam saying that the enemy headquarters had been occupied. Tariq Ali proposed that, immediately before the demonstration left Trafalgar Square, he should announce the intention to occupy the embassy. He was dissuaded by Pat Jordan, on the basis that the police would be unlikely to be taken by surprise again, and by lawyers who supported the VSC, who said that he would lay himself open to prosecution for incitement to commit various crimes. He accepted their advice. Instead, a decision was made to assess the “balance of forces” on the day and decide what to do at the last minute.7 Tariq Ali maintained the hope that an incursion could be made into the embassy.
  5. The demonstration gave rise to a notorious confrontation between police and demonstrators in Grosvenor Square on 17 March 1968. On 18 March 1968, the Home Secretary told the House of Commons that 45 demonstrators had received medical treatment and 117 police officers had been injured.8 Proceedings were initiated against 246 people. There are different views about precisely what caused such a confrontation to take place. Tariq Ali and many demonstrators believe that the crowd was forced against police lines by being corralled in South Audley Street, and broke through due to weight of numbers alone. They were then repelled by mounted police. Media reporting suggested that a deliberate attempt, led by a contingent of German demonstrators, was made to force police lines.9 Police analysis, by PN1748 Detective Inspector Riby Wilson and signed for the Chief Superintendent by HN1253 Superintendent Victor Gilbert, suggested that “militant factions of the extreme left wing and their student supporters show a complete disregard for public order and intend to challenge the authorities on every possible occasion”.10 Violent overseas contingents were thought to pose a particular threat. Whatever the cause, these events gave rise to an intention on the part of the VSC national ad hoc committee to stage another demonstration, the largest so far, and on the part of the police and others to contain the threat to the embassy.
  6. The “Autumn Offensive”11 gave rise to concern at the highest levels of government. On 20 August 1968, a meeting was convened between: the Commissioner; the Assistant Commissioner responsible for “A” Division; the Commander of Special Branch, HN151 Ferguson Smith; two senior Home Office officials, one of whom was the Deputy Permanent Under Secretary with responsibility for policing, James Waddell; and the Deputy Director General and another officer of the Security Service.12 James Waddell stated the Home Secretary’s view that the police should handle demonstrations by the use of traditional methods of crowd control, not “foreign importations” such as water cannon, a view with which the Commissioner concurred. The issue was then discussed at a specially convened ministerial meeting chaired by the Prime Minister on 16 September 1968.13 The Home Secretary stated that a hard core of agitators and militants were bent on violence, but it was undesirable to prevent the demonstration taking place. This was to remain his view throughout. He agreed with the decision of the Commissioner, expressed to him on 17 October 1968, not to use his power under section 3 of the Public Order Act 1936 to prohibit it (as a procession likely to cause disorder).14 On 24 October 1968, the Home Secretary told the House of Commons that, despite forceful suggestions that the demonstration should be prohibited, his conclusion was that “in the absence of plain evidence of widespread violence, interference with the right to hold meetings, even of this size, would be a bad precedent which would endanger freedom in this country”.15
  7. One of the reasons that the Home Secretary was able to reach, and hold to, that conclusion was that he and his officials had been provided with weekly reports by Conrad Dixon about the intentions and likely actions of the organisers and participants in the demonstration.16 Those reports were in part based on traditional Special Branch sources of intelligence, but also on reports by undercover officers of the newly formed SOS.
  8. The SOS was a small unit. Including Conrad Dixon and HN1251 Detective Inspector Phil Saunders, it had no more than 16 “field” (deployed) officers at the date of the October demonstration. All attended branch or district meetings of the various groups that were to participate in it. On occasions, they were joined by Special Branch officers who had not joined the SOS. None of them received training or created a “legend” (fictional back history) or obtained documents to support it. Some acquired cover accommodation or employment. Apart from using a false name if necessary, dressing more scruffily than usual and, for some, growing their hair longer, little attempt was made at disguise. It was not necessary, because what they were doing was little different from what they had done as Special Branch officers before joining the SOS. HN218 and HN328 explained the one significant difference. As Special Branch officers, they were instructed to and did attend specific public meetings. As SOS officers, they joined the groups on which they were reporting and sorted out their own tasking, albeit under the supervision of Conrad Dixon and Phil Saunders. They would begin by attending public (advertised) meetings and then attend private (unadvertised) meetings, of which a handful were held in private homes. There was little difficulty in doing so, because none of the groups paid much heed to security.
  9. Conrad Dixon’s first two reports, dated 21 and 30 August 1968,17 must have been based on intelligence gathered from traditional Special Branch sources, such as an individual who knew what was going on in the VSC national ad hoc committee. They mainly concern the political affiliations and disagreements of the VSC national ad hoc committee, rather than branch or district activity. Six of his next eight reports were informed by the reports of undercover officers and his own attendance at meetings of the North West London district ad hoc committee18 and at a national public meeting at Conway Hall on 17 September 1968.19
  10. On 5 September 1968,20 Conrad Dixon reported on continuing ambivalence about the use of violence: at the local level, tactics were being discussed which included the use of steel banner poles as offensive weapons; and there was discussion about the use of more sophisticated weapons, such as Molotov cocktails. No prior written report from an undercover officer to that precise effect survives. However, from 20 August 1968 onwards, HN331 and HN68 (“Sean Lynch”) attended and reported on 18 public and private meetings of the VSC Notting Hill branch, at some of which violent tactics were discussed. At a private meeting on 4 September 1968,21 one speaker suggested that marchers should be in groups of five, wear helmets and be armed with batons, to act as a vanguard to lead charges on police lines. Another said that it was stupid to fight the police and far easier to set fire to motor vehicles by turning them on their sides, puncturing the petrol tanks and setting fire to the petrol. There is no reason to doubt that these things were said and were accurately reported. Conrad Dixon’s report of 5 September 1968 did, however, rightly play down press reports of the large-scale manufacture of Molotov cocktails and the acquisition of small arms as “a carefully-constructed pastiche of information, gathered from a number of sources, and spiced with inspired guess-work”.22
  11. The VSC national ad hoc committee decided, at a meeting outside Sheffield on 7 September 1968,23 that marchers should follow a route that avoided the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. The decision was the subject of a heated debate at the national ad hoc committee meeting at Conway Hall on 17 September 1968 referred to in paragraph 9. A Maoist proposal for a demonstration on 26 October 1968 at Downing Street, followed by another on 27 October 1968 directed at Grosvenor Square, was defeated by 108 votes to 70. The official route of the 27 October demonstration, avoiding Grosvenor Square, was announced on 25 September 1968. Eight SOS officers, including Conrad Dixon, and one other member of Special Branch, attended and reported on the meeting. Some of them may have taken part in the vote. They could not have influenced its outcome.
  12. The decision was also debated at local level. At five meetings of the VSC North West London district ad hoc committee, attended by HN332 Cameron Sinclair and, on four occasions, by Conrad Dixon, the majority agreed to follow the official route.24 The Earls Court and Notting Hill branches did not agree. On 9 September 1968,25 at a meeting of the Earls Court branch attended by HN218, HN68 and HN331, as well as a Special Branch officer who was not in the SOS, a motion was passed that, whatever was decided nationally, the spearhead of the Earls Court branch should be the US embassy (this meeting was held in a private house, but only because the owner of the coffee bar in whose premises it was to have occurred was unwilling to let the VSC meet there). At public and private meetings of the Notting Hill branch on 1626 and 2327 October 1968, attended by HN68 and HN331 (and HN328 on 16 October), the chairman Kenneth Murray proposed that groups of five should go armed with a wet and dry handkerchief as protection against tear gas, banner poles as protection against truncheons, pen knives for use on the soft underbelly of police horses, needles and pepper for the horses’ eyes and fireworks to make them rear. Another speaker suggested jamming a needle in a cork into a horse’s nose. Another advised carrying a stone or bit of wood to enhance the impact of a punch on a police officer. No agreement was reached at the branch about whether or not to follow the official route. Again, there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of these reports.
  13. Before the defeat, on 17 September 1968, of the Maoist proposal for a march on Grosvenor Square, Abhimanyu Manchanda set up the October 27th Committee for Solidarity with Vietnam. HN218 attended and reported on its inaugural meeting on 15 September 196828 and three further meetings on 17,29 2230 and 24 September 1968,31 at the second of which he introduced his replacement, HN335 Michael Tyrrell. HN335 attended meetings on 29 September32 and 13,33 15,34 1635 and 20 October 1968.36 At the last one, a route terminating in Grosvenor Square was agreed and marchers were advised to wear protective clothing and goggles in case tear gas was used. Again, there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the reports.
  14. HN330 (“Don de Freitas”) and HN334 (“Margaret White”) reported on the newly formed Havering branch of the VSC, which was throughout committed to an orderly and peaceful march along the official route. Each took part in the demonstration on 27 October 1968 as members of the branch, all of whom conducted themselves peacefully and did not go to Grosvenor Square.
  15. In all, approximately 60 reports of meetings of five branches and two districts of the VSC and of the October 27th Committee/Britain–Vietnam Solidarity Front (BVSF) by SOS officers have been retrieved. It is likely that there were more and that they were supplemented by personal and telephone reports.
  16. Reports such as these, supplemented by the advice of Roy Creamer, enabled Conrad Dixon, in his report of 3 October 1968,37 to produce a detailed analysis of the various groups that intended to participate in the demonstration. The last two reports, dated 1638 and 22 October 1968,39 contained details of contingents of demonstrators who would arrive from around the country, gleaned by a traditional Special Branch technique: a circular letter written to the chief constables of all provincial forces asking for details of coaches hired and likely numbers.40 These reports also enabled him to assess as “bogus” a “confidential” memorandum purportedly issued by the VSC national ad hoc committee, describing a secret meeting, at which it was decided to depart from the plan and route agreed with the police, to permit marchers to enter and occupy Grosvenor Square.41
  17. Conrad Dixon’s assessments informed those of the Commissioner, HN1877 John Waldron, at his meeting with the Home Secretary on 17 October 1968: there would be a second march organised by an ad hoc committee under Maoist leadership, which would start in Trafalgar Square and end in Grosvenor Square; violence was to be expected, as on previous occasions, but not the use of firearms or extreme forms of explosives.42
  18. On 23 October 1968, Tariq Ali made a public announcement, reported in The Times of 24 October 1968: “We are avoiding Grosvenor Square because it inevitably leads to a punch-up. We do not want a confrontation with the police. What we want to see is a peaceful demonstration.”43 The statement was genuine and an accurate reflection of the intentions of the national organisers. It reflected Tariq Ali’s view that the demonstration should be a “show of strength” (by numbers) not a “test of strength” (by force).44 He expected the self-discipline of the demonstrators, supported by well-organised stewards, to ensure that this is what happened. The route was agreed with Commander Lawlor, in charge of uniformed police protecting the route.45
  19. All of this permitted the Home Secretary to reach the conclusion that he announced to the House of Commons in his statement on 24 October 1968: the organisers of the procession have agreed the route, but some proposed to part company and go to Grosvenor Square; traditional methods would be used to enforce the law.46
  20. The expectations of Tariq Ali and the national ad hoc committee, and the assessments of Conrad Dixon, the Commissioner and the Home Secretary, were justified by events. The main procession peacefully followed the agreed route. No marchers were arrested. Even the Notting Hill contingent, which included HN328 and HN323 Helen Crampton, followed the official route and caused no disorder. However, as Tariq Ali had expected, a number of Maoists and anarchists, estimated by him in the hundreds, but by the police at between 3,000 and 5,000, broke away and tried to enter Grosvenor Square. They were held back by uniformed police. On 28 October 1968, HN2857 Chief Superintendent Arthur Cunningham reported that, despite successive determined charges, accompanied by the throwing of fireworks, small homemade bombs, bottles, staves and other objects, the police prevailed.47 A total of 14 police officers and about 50 demonstrators were hurt.48 The Times reported on the same day: “The official march went impressively according to plan, orderly and comparatively well mannered.”49 The General Secretary for the National Council for Civil Liberties was reported as saying: “In general the police handling of the demonstrators has been exemplary.”50
  21. The Commissioner’s assessment, noted on the outside of the file containing Arthur Cunningham’s report, was: “[I]t bears out in full the debt we owe to Special Branch for keeping us so fully informed of the plans of the various factions prior to the demonstration. One of the successes of yesterday’s operation was the efficient planning beforehand and this we were able to do because we knew – not guessed – what the other side were contemplating.”51
  22. The deployment of undercover officers in the manner and for the purposes described was a proportionate and, with one possible exception, lawful means of gathering intelligence about an event that had the potential to result in serious public disorder, injury and damage. The possible exception is that, on a handful of occasions, undercover officers may have obtained the consent of the occupier of a private house to gain access to it by making an express false representation as to their identity. It is far from certain that that occurred. That apart, it did not involve any significant invasion of privacy or role in the organisation of activities or participation in crime. The deception used – pretending to be a political activist in sympathy with the aims of the groups reported on – harmed no one. It contributed to an intelligence picture, which then permitted the police to deal appropriately with the events that, in fact, occurred on the day. Tariq Ali rightly lays emphasis on the intentions and self-discipline of those participating in the VSC organised march; but in the light of what had happened on 17 March 1968, the Commissioner was entitled to seek intelligence about what might occur by the means adopted. SOS reporting provided him with much of what he needed to know.
Chapter 2