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Special Air Service (SAS) - Loughgall, Northern Ireland

The SAS ambush of IRA gunmen at Loughgall has been hailed as their most successful anti-terrorist operation of the entire Troubles.

When, in May 1987, British Intelligence got wind of a planned IRA attack on a Police Station in Loughgall, County Armagh, the SAS prepared to intercept and ambush the attackers.

An IRA attack the previous year had used a JCB digger, its front bucket packed with explosives, to ram into a Police Station before exploding. Reports of a stolen JCB, combined with other intel (probably a mole within the IRA Active Service Unit planning the attack), convinced the authorities that a similar attack was imminent in the area.

The RUC's covert intelligence unit, E4A had located the stolen digger and suspected that the IRA East Tyrone Active Service Unit (ASU) were involved. Reports of a blue Toyota van being stolen by masked men also surfaced. Such a van would probably be used to carry IRA gunmen to cover the assault on the Police Station. Further signals intelligence confirmed the time and place of the planned attack.

On Friday, the 8th of May, the stolen JCB was seen being retrieved from its hiding place in a local farm. It looked like the IRA operation was on. Several RUC & SAS men stayed in the Police Station to act as decoys. Outside, the SAS took up ambush positions, concealed behind a row of trees behind a fence that ran alongside the road past Loughgall Police Station. Apart from the main ambush force, several cut-off groups were put in place to cover possible escape routes.

The SAS were mostly armed with Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifles. The 7.62mm round fired by the G3 had greater stopping power than either the M16 rifles or MP5 sub machine guns usually carried by the SAS.

At 7pm, the stolen blue Toyota van was seen driving past the Police Station, presumably scouting the area ahead of the main attack. A few minutes later, it returned, followed by the stolen JCB, with 3 hooded men in its cab and a large oil drum in its front bucket.

The hidden SAS ambush party bided their time and watched as the JCB crashed through the wire fence around the Police Station. They watched as the 3 hooded men jumped from the cab, one of them lighting the fuse on the oil drum. As the 3 IRA men ran from the JCB, 5 armed men leaped out of the Toyota van and started firing at the station.

Loughgall Police Station after the attack.

Now the SAS ambush was sprung. The troopers opened fire, riddling the gunmen, the bombers and the Toyota van with bullet holes. It only lasted a few seconds, but the hail of gunfire had killed all 8 IRA men. In the midst of the ambush, the explosives packed into the JCB's bucket exploded, decimating the Police Station.

With unfortunate timing, a car carrying 2 innocent civilians drove into the ambush zone. The 2 men, returning from work, were dressed in boiler suits similar to those worn by the IRA gunmen. In an understandable attempt to escape, the driver began to rapidly reverse away from the shooting. Thinking them to be an IRA back-up unit, one of the SAS cut-off groups opened fire on the car, killing the driver and wounding his passenger. A later investigation determined that neither men had any connection to the IRA and the family of the dead man was subsequently compensated by the British government.

In pure military terms, the SAS operation at Loughgall had been a dramatic victory. It was the largest and most ferocious firefight between the SAS and the IRA and a decidedly one-sided result. Politically, its effect was less clear. Some saw the action as a firm line in the sand that signaled the UK's determination to hold its ground and meet the terrorists head on. Some even believed it would deter people from joining the IRA, whilst others thought quite the opposite. The incident seemed, at least temporarily, to rattle the IRA, who were troubled by the breach of security that led to the ambush. The British authorities were criticised for the lack of a proper investigation into the incident. The European Court Of Human Rights determined that the lack of investigation constituted a denial of human rights to the slain IRA men.

For details in other SAS operations in Northern Ireland, see the history of the SAS in Northern Ireland.

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