Loughgall is a picture-postcard village on the borders of Tyrone and County Armagh that with its neatly arranged window boxes and hanging baskets you would expect to win the best kept village competition year after year. Tourists come for the antique shops and cosy tea rooms that line its narrow main street. 25 years ago in 1987, other visitors came to Loughgall.
The quiet of a May evening on 8 May 1987 was shattered by the thunder of SAS guns as the Regiment (as it is known) ambushed and wiped out one of the most heavily armed and experienced Active Service Units (ASU) the Provisional IRA had ever assembled. It was known as the 'A' Team. Eight bodies in boiler suits, some with balaclavas, lay bloody and dead on the ground and in the back of the van in which they had been travelling. The SAS had been lying in wait and had opened up with a barrage of over 200 rounds blasted from General Purpose Machine guns (GPMGs) and high-powered Heckler and Koch rifles. The SAS outnumbered and outgunned the IRA by three to one. The van was riddled like a sieve and its IRA passengers cut to pieces. It was the biggest loss the IRA had suffered since 1921 when a dozen of its men were wiped out by the notorious 'Black and Tans'. Loughgall police station, a few hundred yards outside the village and the target of the IRA's attack, was reduced to a twisted pile of concrete and rubble. The IRA just managed to detonate its 200 lb bomb before the SAS opened up.
A few miles away in the ops room that was the nerve centre of the security forces' Tasking and Co-Ordinating Group (TCG) from which the ambush had been directed, an SAS Commander, a Senior M15 Officer and two senior RUC Officers (both shot dead 1989) anxiously gathered to hear the result of one of the most carefully planned M15, RUC and Army operations of the northern conflict. They gathered around an SAS officer who was in radio contact with the SAS commander on the ground, when the news came through, the SAS Officer turned to those gathered (TCG) and declared, “Total Wipe-out”.
To the British, the SAS had given the IRA a taste of its own medicine and to Ulster Unionists clambering for the army to take the gloves off, not before time. There was celebration in the TCG at the unprecedented spectacular and quiet contentment in the Northern Ireland Office. Its Permanent Under Secretary at the time, Sir Robert Andrew, later said how he felt on hearing the news. 'My personal reaction was really one of some satisfaction that we had 'won one' as it were. I think it demonstrated to the IRA that the other side could play it rough. I hope it sent a message that the British government was resolute and was going to fight them.'
Certainly the IRA had been playing it very rough. Only a fortnight earlier, it had assassinated Northern Ireland's second most senior judge, Lord Justice Gibson and his wife with a 500 lb bomb as they drove back across the border after a holiday away. The explosives were thought to have come from Libya. The judge had been a prime target ever since he had acquitted the police officers who shot dead Gervaise McKerr (whose case was also ruled on at Strasbourg) and two other IRA men during a car chase in 1982. He commended them for bringing the deceased to 'the final court of justice'. None of them was armed at the time. The then Northern Ireland Secretary, Tom King said, 'We were conscious we were facing an enhanced threat and we took enhanced measures to meet it.' The SAS was the cutting edge.
At the time of Loughgall, the IRA was brimful of confidence. It had recently had its bunkers filled almost to bursting with over 130 tons of heavy weaponry and high explosives smuggled into Ireland in four shipments courtesy of Mrs Thatcher's sworn enemy, Colonel Gaddafi (murdered 2011) of Libya. The depleted ranks of its leadership had also been strengthened by the IRA's mass break-out from the Maze prison in 1983, many of whose senior gunmen were still on the run. One of them was Patrick McKearney (32).
It was known that IRA Commander, Jim Lynagh, had developed a new Maoist strategy of liberating Green Zones, zones that would be cleared of the British and their collaborators. The IRA began its new strategy in 1985 with a devastating mortar attack on the RUC station in the border town of Newry in which nine police officers died. It followed it up with a bomb and gun attack on Ballygawley police station that left two RUC men dead. In 1986, it launched a bomb attack on another police station, unmanned at the time, in the tiny village of the Birches along the shores of Lough Neagh in County Tyrone. Now a new delivery system had been used, a JCB digger with a 200-lb bomb in the bucket. The digger smashed through the security fence, the bomb exploded and reduced the station to rubble. The attack on Loughgall was designed to be a carbon copy of the attack on the Birches. But this time British intelligence knew the IRA was coming and was across its plans.
The first indicator about the Loughgall operation came three weeks earlier from an RUC agent based in Monaghan Town, Patrick Kelly had travelled to Monaghan to meet Jim Lynagh, however, as often happened, Lynagh was not about, Patrick Kelly made the fatal mistake of making inquiries about Lynagh with Owen/Eoin Smyth, the Round House Bar, Church Square, Monaghan Town. Barely three weeks before Loughgall, five of the East Tyrone IRA had shot dead Harold Henry (52), a member of the Henry Brothers construction business that carried out repairs on security force bases. Just before midnight, the IRA took Mr Henry from his home, put him up against a wall and shot him dead with two rifles and a shotgun. He left a widow and six children. To the IRA he was a 'legitimate target', the first of more than twenty 'collaborators' to be 'executed' by the IRA for 'assisting the British war machine.' One of the weapons believed to have been used in the Henry killing was later retrieved at Loughgall.
On the basis of the information passed to the RUC Special Branch by the IRA informer in Monaghan Town, a major security operation was put into action. Extra SAS Teams were brought into the north, within hours of arriving in the north, the SAS Teams were brought to the firing range beneath the RUC Forensic Lab in Belfast, were they test fired similar weapons to those that would be used by the IRA Team at loughgall. The SAS Team was briefed by Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Robert Buchanan. This test firing would allow the SAS to distinguish between friendly and enemy fire on the night of the Loughgall executions. While the Monaghan Informer had given an indicator that a major operation was about to take place, the actual target was not immediately known, this would take a detailed mapping of a myriad of intelligence sources. The Monaghan Informer would contact his handler a couple of days before Loughgall to say that Jim Lynagh had moved to a safe house in Coalisland, County Tyrone.
There was other vital intelligence too from M15's listening devices planted inside the homes of IRA suspects, usually put in place when they were away – or even when the homes of the more prominent ones were being built. As long as the batteries held out, these technical devices – or 'bugs' - could be monitored many miles away or their content down-loaded by helicopters flying over the premises where they were hidden. It's likely too that the location where the explosives were stored for the Loughgall bomb were also under M15 technical surveillance. They were probably also under human 'eyes-on' observation by operators of the army's top-secret undercover unit, 14 Intelligence Company (known colloquially as the 'Det') and the RUC's equivalent covert unit, E4A. 'E' is the code for the RUC's Special Branch.
The security force operation was put in place on Thursday 7 May, the day before the IRA's planned assault. Three Special Branch officers from the RUC's specialist anti-terrorist unit volunteered to remain inside the normally sleepy station as decoys to give the appearance of normality whilst the IRA did its 'recce'. 'Matt', a veteran of such covert operations, was one of them. They entered the station with some of the SAS troopers as darkness fell on the Thursday night. They made sandwiches and cracked jokes to lighten the tedium of waiting and perhaps to calm the nerves.
The joint leaders of the ASU was Patrick Kelly (30), an experienced IRA commander whose sister, supported by the other relatives, was a prime mover in bringing the Loughgall cases before the European Court. Kelly had been arrested in 1982 and charged with terrorist offences on the word of a 'supergrass' but was subsequently released as the testimony lacked corroboration. Jim Lynagh was the second Commander and was the man most sought after by the British and Irish security services. Among the younger members of the ASU were four young friends from the village of Cappagh who had joined the IRA after the death of one of their village friend, Martin Hurson, on hunger strike in 1981. One of them, Declan Arthurs (21), was to drive the JCB with a 200 lb bomb in the bucket – just like the Birches.
Throughout the long hours of Friday, the maze of country lanes around Loughgall police station were watched and patrolled by 'Det' operators on the look-out for the 'A Team'. One of them was a young women called 'Anna' who was driving around the area with her 'Det' partner as part of the surveillance cordon. Suddenly they spotted a blue Toyota Hiace van. At first they thought it was simply stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle but when they realised it was a JCB, they immediately put Ballygawley and the Birches together. 'You suddenly realize it's the MO (modus operandi) used by the East Tyrone Brigade,' she said. 'It was like a replay. But this time we were on top of it and we knew what was happening. So we passed on the information to the TCG and pulled off.' The Chief Constable of the time, Sir John Hermon, said the IRA ASU could not have been arrested. He said it was never a realistic option since the IRA would be unlikely to come out with their hands up and police officers lives would therefore be at grave risk.
At 7.15 pm as dusk gathered, the JCB with Declan Arthurs at the wheel and the bomb raised high in the bucket, trundled past the police station with the blue Toyota van in attendance. Both then turned and headed back in the direction whence they had come. Suddenly, the JCB roared into life, headed for the perimeter fence and crashed through it. Almost simultaneously, the van drew up outside, disgorging Patrick Kelly and other members of the ASU who sprayed the station with their assault rifles. The SAS almost certainly opened up the moment Kelly started firing. Everything seemed to happen at once in a deafening crescendo of noise. Inside the station, 'Matt' (Special Branch), who was by the front window, was only about ten metres from the JCB when it came to a halt right before his eyes. He turned and ran to the back with one word on his mind. Bomb! 'I thought of the Birches and Ballygawley and the next minute there was an almighty bang. I was hit in the face, knocked to the ground and buried. I thought "I'm dead", simple as that!' Miraculously 'Matt' survived although buried in the rubble 'inhaling dust and darkness.' The 'A' Team did not. 'Declan was mowed down. He could have been taken prisoner,' his mother, Amelia Arthurs, said. 'The SAS never gave them a chance.' The photographs taken at the scene are gruesome. The van in which the IRA volunteers had travelled was ripped open by part of the shrapnel from the digger bucket when it exploded, this is new information.
'Matt' felt no sympathy for the bullet-riddled bodies on the ground outside the station and in the back of the van. 'They were there to kill us,' he said. 'These guys were responsible for lots and lots of deaths in that area and other parts of the province. Dead terrorists are better than dead policemen.' Forensic tests carried out on the IRA weapons retrieved at the scene were linked to eight murders and thirty-three shootings.
The area around the police station had not been cordoned off since to have done so would have risked making the IRA suspicious and wary of the carefully laid ambush. As a result, two brothers returning home from work, were shot by the SAS. The security personnel who lay on the outer core of the ambush had been ordered to kill everyone within the kill zone. Perhaps the soldiers thought they were part of the ASU or mistook their white Citroen for an IRA 'scout' car, maybe because one of the occupants was wearing a boiler suit. The brothers had been working on a car. The SAS fired forty rounds at the vehicle, killing Anthony Hughes (36) and seriously wounding his brother Oliver who was scarred for life. He said no warning was given. The RUC's Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, described the attack on the two innocent men as 'an unspeakable tragedy' and blamed the IRA, not planning and operational shortcomings, for his death.
When 'Anna', her 'Det' colleagues and the SAS returned to base, there were great celebrations. 'There was a huge party and it probably went on for 24 hours,' she said. 'A lot of beer was drunk. We were jubilant. We thought it was a job well done. It sent shock waves through the terrorist world that we were back on top.' She said of the dead IRA men. 'They're all volunteers and actively engaged against the British army. They're 'at war' as they would describe it. My attitude is that if you live by the sword, you die by the sword. We were just happy at the end of the day to be alive ourselves.'
Some new information is contained in this article, it is certain that the first indicator for the Loughgall operation came from an RUC Special Branch Informer in Monaghan Town. This informer also contacted the RUC to let them know that Jim Lynagh had moved to a safe house in Coalisland just before the Loughgall operation. Once the security services had their first indicator of a major IRA operation, M15 and the RUC had to simply correlate their myriad of intelligence to match the A Team with their target. At the same time that M15 and the SAS were focused on the East Tyrone IRA, M16 were working closely with Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams and had adopted a hands-off approach to the IRA in Derry and Belfast.
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