(by Peter Taylor, Daily Mail)
May 8, 2001
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. Fourteen years ago other visitors came.
The quiet of a balmy 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 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, a group of SAS men anxiously gathered to hear the result of one of the most carefully planned police and army operations of the current conflict. They gathered around their officer who was in radio contact with the SAS commander on the ground. When the news came through, he turned to his men and said, 'Eight'. 'Eight arrested?' asked one. The officer shook his head and gave the thumbs down.
To the British, the SAS had given the IRA a taste of its own medicine, and to Ulster unionists clammering 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 told me 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 of Libya. The depleted ranks of its leadership had also been strengthened by the IRA's mass break-out from the Maze prison a few years earlier, many of whose senior gunmen were still on the run. One of them was Patrick McKearney (32) who was believed to be the architect of the IRA's new strategy of attacking security force bases in the south of the province and killing contractors who tried to repair them so as to deny the 'Brits' the ground.
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.
There is no substitute for first hand intelligence from deep within the ranks of the enemy and critically the RUC's Special Branch had succeeded in recruiting a highly placed agent within the IRA's East Tyrone Brigade that had been responsible for the bloody killing spree in its area. Barely three weeks before Loughgall, five of its gunmen 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.
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. Both these army and police units would also have been involved in secretly monitoring the movements of suspects since there appears to have been intelligence that one of the IRA's most experienced gunmen, Jim Lynagh (31) a.k.a. 'The Executioner'- would be coming across the border to add his lethal expertise to the planned attack. Lynagh had also been elected as a Sinn Fein councillor. Although the intelligence was extremely good, it was not 100%. The target was identified and so were some members of the ASU who had been chosen to carry out the operation but not all the precise details were known.
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. 'I knew there was danger but I took it in my stride, followed orders and was quite happy to do so,' 'Matt' told me. 'We were briefed on personalities at various times. We just knew they were a lethal unit and ruthless outfit of the IRA.'
The leader 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. 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 friends, 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 told me. '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.' I asked the Chief Constable of the time, Sir John Hermon, why the ASU could not have been arrested instead of being gunned down by the SAS. 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', 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, told me. 'The SAS never gave them a chance.' The photographs taken at the scene are gruesome.
'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.
Although the world did not know it, one of the dead IRA men was the Special Branch agent. Whether he was sacrificed in order to protect the intelligence operation or whether there was no way in which his handlers could extract him, we shall never know. The SAS trap was sprung and the agent was caught in it. In their post-mortem, the IRA searched high and low for the informer and never found him. They never knew he was dead.
But the agent was not the only unintended victim. 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. 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 present 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.' I asked her how she felt about the eight 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.'
Peter Taylor is the presenter of the BBC's recent Irish trilogy Provos, Loyalists and Brits. His new book, Brits The War Against the IRA, will be published by Bloomsbury on May 21. This article appeared in the May 5, 2001 edition of the Daily Mail.