• Notes from the Borderland - Searchlight for Beginners


Since its foundation Searchlight has propagated three really major stories: 'Column 88' in the 1970's, the 'Notting Hill Bomb Plot' in 1981 and the 'Combat 18' story in the 1990's. The Column 88 and Combat 18 fantasies are the most interesting, both in themselves and for the parallels with each other. Of equal importance is what these stories and the activities of Searchlight operatives reveal about the organisations real agenda: spying on and disrupting the Left/Greens as well as running errands for various state agencies.


In May 1975, four months after their relaunch as a magazine, Searchlight entered the lists with their first major scoop. This was a detailed treatment of 'Column 88'(hereafter C88), so named because each number stood for the letter H: hence 'Heil Hitler'. C88 was described as a well-organised Nazi group whose "long-term objectives are to have their members in places of influence across the whole spectrum of the Right, from Monday Club to the National Front, and to slowly but surely make sure National Socialism is not only not forgotten but also hedges ahead bit by bit within these groups" [2]. The only media coverage of C88 I have been able to find before this date are three articles in a local paper the Western Daily Press in April, just before Searchlight's May issue went to print [3]. In content they are very similar to Searchlight, clearly derived from each other or some other common (secret) source. There is a major difference between the local press coverage and Searchlight though: while the newspaper explicitly stated much of their information came from "a man helping Special Branch with their inquiries" [4], this was not something Searchlight told their readers. Yet if Searchlight was a genuinely independent magazine as opposed to a satellite publication, surely they would have told their readers the source of their story was a state asset. In April 1976 C88 hit the national headlines in a big way when it was revealed a unit had carried out joint military exercises with members of Britain's reserve (Territorial) Army in the Savemake forest a few months earlier, in November 1975. One source of these allegations was unquestionably Dave Roberts, Searchlight's first disclosed 'star agent' [5]. That Searchlight were not coy in trumpeting their own role 'exposing' C88 in this way is made plain in all the relevant newspaper articles. In the follow up issue of May 1976, Searchlight boasted of their "scoop on the activities of Column 88 and a Unit of the Territorial Army...the many stories that have resulted from Searchlight's research into the extreme right Column 88" [6].

At this time, Searchlight was estimating C88 membership as "in the region of 200-300" and again describing "the long term aim of C88 to provide a highly trained and efficient cadre for a national socialist party of the future" [7]. Searchlight concluded by pompously stating "C88 is a private army. It is illegal. There is no legitimate reason why it should be allowed to continue" [8]. Roberts, like Gable another former CPGB member only 'came out' as an agent after he was caught in the act and convicted in March 1976 for trying to assault the staff of an Indian Restaurant after a botched arson attempt on nearby Communist Party premises in Birmingham [9]. His co-defendants, when it came to sentencing, issued (implausible) statements denying his involvement, leading to him receiving only a suspended sentence (later served for a public order offence). The facts of Roberts presence and role are undeniable: without a police patrol stumbling across the scene he would never have been caught, and his co-defendants were so convinced he was as complicit as they were that one entrusted to Roberts the task of visiting his home address and removing documents for safekeeping [10]. Searchlight returned to the topic of C88 in May 1978, implying very strongly that contemporary attacks on Black Left and Community bookshops were "co-ordinated on a national scale...Whatever the name used, C88 or 11th Hour Brigade; they all come from the same stable, with an interchangeable personnel" [11].

These extracts don't quite do justice to the flurry of TV and other Media stories covering C88, nor the way the whole phenomenon captivated anti-fascists. As late as October 1980 a Searchlight-written story in Left magazine The Leveller depicted C88 as "by far the nastiest group...thought to have 250 members organised into small cells...Currently lying low, their potential more worrying than the reality" [12]. Without Searchlight's lurid 1975 coverage and subsequent follow up in April and May 1976, there would not have been any national C88 story. This fact is of great significance, as we shall see. The other story Searchlight pushed with all their might at this time was a reprise of the themes in the anonymous 'Monday Club' document mentioned earlier: exaggerating the political clout of George Kennedy-Young (former deputy head of MI6) and various associates, the height of whose influence had been a failed attempt to take over the Monday Club in September 1973. Particularly noteworthy was 'The Men In The Shadows' issue (November 1976) crammed full of primary source material intended to illustrate "the growing trend towards a military/political involvement on the right which bodes ill for democracy in Britain" (p.4). It was thus MI6-connected initiatives or sideshows/irrelevant failures who attention was being focussed on. That this occurred while Ludmer was still the editor, and it was he who initially 'controlled' both Dave Roberts and Sonia Hochfelder (see below) makes me highly suspicious of his lack of integrity. A fitting epitaph for Ludmer is provided by the fact that according to Gable at the very moment he died Ludmer was on the telephone to a "senior Special Branch officer" [13].

As we now know, the key murky secret state activity of the mid-1970's was MI5's efforts to use the situation in Northern Ireland to their own advantage, and even undermine Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson [14]. MI5 did not make the slightest appearance in either of the Searchlight-hyped stories, which is a chilling omission. C88 never added up to much" [15], and neither, frankly did George Kennedy-Young and his friends. As I stated in 1993, "by the Left (and media) concentrating contemporaneously on the agenda Searchlight were pushing...the more dangerous strategies and personnel constructing them were left in peace unmolested" [16]. Searchlight can thus, in the politically charged and volatile 1970's, be seen to have performed a very useful function as a 'distractor', diverting potentially prying eyes away from what was really going on.


Having built up C88 so much, indeed based their reputation on it, the admission by Searchlight concerning the group later on, in for example, their 'Community Handbook' (1995) is nonetheless staggering. After two pages of an (as usual) error-strewn chronology of the far right, they stated "C88, the nazi underground group that existed from around the late 1960's until the end of the 1970's was a honey trap operation by British intelligence and should not be counted as a genuine far right or racist group" (Section 2.2-2). Shortly before, Searchlight had gone even further, claiming that "Column 88...is now thought to have been an unofficial adjunct to the British section of the Gladio network" [17]. In January 1991, while still asserting C88 had been an "underground fascist paramilitary organisation", and not, therefore, a state operation as such (p.6), there was an attempt to retrospectively tie C88 in with George Kennedy Young himself, saying that he "and his close associates used organisations like Column 88 as a smoke screen for their more criminal plans" (p.3). Attacking MI6 in this general way (ie with little evidence) is yet another instance of Searchlight's predisposition towards their MI5 rivals, something we will have reason to return to. If we take their 1995 argument about C88 being a state 'honey trap' at face value, then if C88 was a state operation from start to finish, why did Searchlight not disclose this when it was relevant to do so: ie when it was actually functioning, or while George Kennedy Young was still alive to answer their allegations about his supposed involvement? By not blowing the whistle when it mattered, they themselves acted as "unofficial adjuncts" and disinformers on behalf of this very same "honey trap operation". Indeed, without them, this "honeytrap" would not have been able to function at all in the first place. If Searchlight had not existed, no doubt the secret state would have used (or set up) some other conduit to hype C88-ie peddle disinformation. But the fact is the state didn't need an alternative outlet. Searchlight willingly did the job of selling C88 to the media Left & Right, and at the time were happy to take the credit. In the light of Searchlight's record on C88 alone, everything they say on the subject of security service involvement in fascist politics should be treated as disinformation, in no way as credible 'hard' information. The alternative charitable view, that Searchlight weren't aware at the relevant time of the nature/function of C88 hardly sees them as coming out better: they would be equally lacking in credence but merely naive as opposed to malign..


Searchlight themselves have drawn attention to C88:C18 parallels, stating that "those who have watched C18 have noted that in some ways it resembled a little too closely a nazi underground group called Column 88. C88 turned out to be a 'honey trap operation' set up by British intelligence...[and] disappeared into the wilderness of mirrors that is intelligence once Searchlight and Members of Parliament started to ask too many questions and even infiltrate its ranks" [57]. With hindsight, what are we to make of this? Aside from the posthumous rehabilitation of Dave Roberts, this account of how C88 panned out is an inversion of the true sequence of events. For as we have seen it was Searchlight's publicising C88 in 1975 and feeding stories to the media and MPs in 1976 concerning the Savernake forest exercise and so on that led to the effective launch of C88 nationally without which it couldn't function as a 'honey trap'. And as I have repeatedly stated, there is no evidence MI5 created C18, indeed the only motive suggested by Searchlight for them doing so is preposterous, that concerning Ulster Loyalists. For of virtually all 'extra-parliamentary' groups Ulster Loyalist paramilitaries are the most susceptible to infiltration by the state. The case of the UDA's Chief Intelligence Officer 1987-1990, state asset Brian Nelson, under whose auspices Loyalist paramilitaries were flooded with arms via South Africa, springs immediately to mind. Given that in any fascist-Loyalist co-operation the Loyalists would unquestionably be the senior partner, MI5 would already know, via their assets inside the Loyalists, precisely what 'joint activities' might be going on, indeed they'd be in a good position to organise them! CI8 has far more of a reality and street presence (although a patchy record on functioning cells), than C88 ever appeared to have, so the parallels there are not exact. No significant reports of substantial power struggles within C88 were ever filed, this is not the case concerning C18, for close observers like myself. There are two similarities between C88 and C18 though. The first is one that would not unduly perturb Searchlight. The operations (real/imagined) of both are clearly matters within the province of the secret state generally, both Special Branch and MI5. The second similarity is one which would, and should, make Searchlight very uncomfortable indeed were it to gain wide circulation, and will hopefully already be apparent to those of you who have read this far. Just as Searchlight lied about C88 on behalf of the state when it mattered, so they have already done, and are still doing, in relation to C18. If C18 is a 'honey trap' then Searchlight have helped it become effective, by building it up so much: the first TV programme featuring it was co-produced by them and old friend Andrew Bell for 'World In Action' April 1993. On this 'honey trap' scenario, Searchlight acted in exactly the same way concerning C18 as they did with C88. On the other hand if CI8 (no matter how distasteful a band of neo-nazi thugs they evidently are) is at present run by a leadership who are largely independent of state control, by lying about the allegiance of this Mark I original leadership Searchlight are facilitating a take over by real state operatives. Such a takeover would not be undertaken for pacifist purposes, that much is for sure.


2 Searchlight May 1975 issue p.5

3 7/4/75,29/4/75,30/4/75

4 7/4 /75 and 29/4/75: exact same phrase used in each article

5 see Searchlight May 1976 issue p.4, also Sunday Telegraph 18/4/76 & Guardian 19/4/76

6 pages 2 and 3 respectively. This was (and is) an established pattern: stories are sold to the media and then recycled/embroidered in the next months magazine

7 Searchlight May 1976 issue pages 3 and 4 respectively

8 Searchlight May 1976 p.4

9 The Observer 21/3/76

10 June 1976 issue p.ll. Roberts own story is contained in the May/June/July 1976 issues of Searchlight. See also issue 26 (August 1977) and issue 1 of Unity Against Fascism (1977).

11 issue 35 May 1978 p.3

12 29/10/80 p.25

13 BBC Radio 4 'Soundtrack' programme 16/3/95: it would perhaps be too unkind to speculate about the content of the conversation

14 see for example Peter Wright 'Spycatcher' (Heinemann Australia 1987), Lobster 11 April 1986, Paul Foot 'Who Framed Colin Wallace' (Pan London 1989) and Steven Dorril/Robin Ramsay 'Smear!Wilson & The Secret State' (Fourth Estate 1991)

15 see my piece in Lobster 23 June 1992 p.16/18

16 'At War With The Truth' p.27

17 April 1995 p.2: Searchlight's customary inaccuracy/invention is shown by the statement here that C88 operated "in the late 1960's and early 1970's"—if they can be out by four or five years on the ending of this operation, why should we take seriously any factual claims they make about it?


57 Searchlight April 1995 issue Editorial p.2

Notes from the Borderland - Searchlight for Beginners

  • Product Code: NFB005
  • Availability: In Stock
  • £1.50