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THe SAS In Northern Ireland - A History

Part two : the 80s

1980s - The Group
In the early 80s, Special forces in Northern Ireland are restructured. Rather than an entire squadron, a smaller troop of around 20 SAS men would deploy for year-long tours. They are organized, along with 14 int, under the umbrella command of Intelligence and Security Group (NI) or Int & Sy Group, or just 'The Group'. The longer tours mean that the SAS men can acquire better local knowledge than those who were in the 6 month squadron rotation. The Special Projects anti-terrorist team at Hereford are put on-call to provide reinforcement to the NI troop if necessary.

May 1980
When an IRA team are cornered in a Belfast residential neighborhood, an SAS unit move in in unmarked cars. The SAS storm the wrong house and the IRA are able to engage the SAS with an M-60 machine gun, mounted in a bedroom window. SAS caption Richard Westmacott was killed as his SAS team exit their vehicle. Soon after, the IRA team surrenders to regular units.

September 1980
The SAS arrest 2 IRA men as they attempt to retrieve weapons from a hidden cache in County Tyrone. The weapons had been 'jarked' (made-inert) by army specialists and the 2 IRA men are arrested without shots fired.

January 1981
Sinn Fein politician, Bernadette McAliskey and her husband are shot by Loyalist gunmen at their home in Coalisland. It later transpires that an SAS OP was watching the house but did not arrest the gunmen until after they had carried out the shooting.

March 1981
Following a painstaking surveillance operation by 14 int, 4 IRA men surrender to the SAS when they are surrounded in a farmhouse.

December 1981
The SAS ambush 3 IRA men as they go to fetch a cache of firearms from a hedgerow near Coalisland. 3 Covert SAS OPs are put in around the cache, following a tip-off by an informer. The 3 IRA members arrive by car. 1 stays with the car as the 2 other men go to the cache. The SAS challenge the 2 men as soon as they have their hands on the cached weapons. Opening fire, the SAS kill Col McGirr outright and fatally wound Brian Campbell. The other IRA man flees the scene. Even though he drives through an SAS cut-off unit who open fire at the car, he manages to escape. His shot-up and blood-stained car is later found some distance away. At least one of the members of the cut-off unit is subsequently RTU'D (returned to unit) for failing to stop the escape.

Related Book :

Big Boys' Rules: SAS and the Secret Struggle Against the IRA
by Mark L. Urban

Big Boy's Rules recounts various covert operations mounted by the security forces against the IRA in Northern Ireland. The book covers operations from the mid 70s up to and including the SAS operation at Loughgall and was a primary source for the info on this page.
Highly recommended.

July 1984
Tipped about a planned IRA attack on a kitchen fittings factory in Ardboe, Tyrone, an SAS unit set up an ambush. Following a challenge, the SAS open fire, wounding one man who is pursued into a field and shot dead. 2 other IRA men are arrested at the scene whilst a fourth escapes.

October 1984
Special Branch receive a tip-off about IRA plans to kill an off-duty Ulster Defense Regiment (UDR) man near Dungannon as he drove past a road junction that opened into a haulage yard. The SAS set up OPs and cut-off or stop-groups around the suspected ambush area. Several SAS lay in wait in unmarked 'Q' cars. On the morning of the 18th, an IRA unit hijacks a van which it plans to use in the attack. As the van drove into the ambush area, the SAS attempted to block its way but the van pushed through. The SAS opened fire at the van. Frederick Jackson, an innocent bystander, was driving out of the haulage yard and was struck by a single round. He later died from his wound. An SAS Q car gives chase to the van, its occupants firing through the windscreen with HK53s and an IRA gunman returning fire out the back of the van with a G3 assault rifle. Despite the SAS hot on its tail, the IRA gunmen manages to escape.

December 1984

On the night of the 1st of December, following a tip-off about a planned IRA bomb ambush, 2 Q cars carrying SAS begin looking for a Toyota van believed to be involved. Spotting a suspicious van, the 2 cars form a road block at both ends of the road where the van is parked. Unbeknownst to one 3-man SAS team, they had stop right next to where an IRA unit were preparing a roadside bomb, behind a hedge. The IRA men open fire on the armed SAS men as they de-buss and approach the van. The hail of gunfire kills SAS Lance-Corporal Alistair Slater. The IRA gunmen then make a run for it across the fields. The SAS fire a flare and return fire but 2 of the gunmen escape across the border. A third islater found drowned in a river. A fourth IRA man who had been with the Toyota van is shot and killed by the SAS - a controversial act as he is found to be unarmed.

December 1984
Following a tip-off about IRA plans to kill a UDR reservist who worked at Gransha hospital in Londonderry, the SAS, along with 14 Company and Special Branch, put the area under surveillance. The undercover soldiers wait in unmarked 'Q' cars for the IRA to make their move. After several nights of patient surveillance, on the night of December 6th, the soldiers spot 2 IRA men on a motorcycle enter the hospital grounds. Seeing the pistol in the pinion passenger's hand, a Q car rams into the motorbike, causing him to to fall off. As the motorbike rider attempts to ride off, 3 soldiers engage both him and his fallen passenger with Browning pistols, HKMP5ks and HK53 carbines. Once the firing ceases, the 2 IRA men, Daniel Doherty and William Flemming lay dead.

Febuary 1985
A 3-man SAS OP is set up overlooking a suspected IRA arms cache near Strabane. On the night of the 23rd, 3 IRA men, returning from a fruitless hunt for an ambush target, head to return their assault rifles, petrol bombs and anti-armour grenades to the cache. The SAS engage them with their HK53 carbines, killing all 3.

February 1986
The SAS shoot dead a man handling a weapon from a cache located in the garden of a house in Toomebridge. It later transpires that neither the man shot, or the 2 other men who had driven him to the cache were IRA or INLA. It is speculated that they might have been coerced by the Provos into retrieving the weapons due to suspicions that the Army had the cache under observation.

April 1986
An IRA bomb is discovered by a regular army patrol. A 4-man SAS OP is put in place overlooking the command wire running to the bomb. On the night of the 26th, 2 armed IRA men approach the position. The SAS engage the 2 men, killing Seamus McElwaine and injuring Sean Lynch.

1987 Loughall
Acting on intelligence received, the SAS ambush an IRA active service unit as it attacks Loughgall Police Station.
more info on the Loughgall operation »

1988 Gibralta
In its first action against the IRA outside of Ulster, the SAS shoot dead an IRA Active Service Unit on the streets of Gibralta.
more info on the SAS Gibraltar operation »

August 1988
3 IRA men are ambushed and killed by an SAS unit near the town of Drumnakilly, County Tyrone. The IRA Active Service Unit (ASU) was attempting to gun down an off-duty UDR as he repaired his broken down lorry. The UDR man was in fact an SAS trooper and the breakdown was designed to lure the IRA unit into an attack. Intel received had warned the security services of the planned attempt on the UDR man's life. When the IRA ASU were observed retrieving weapons from a hidden cache, the plan to bait them into an attack was put into place. As the IRA unit drove up to the scene of the breakdown, 1 gunman leant out of the car window, firing an AK47 towards the SAS man, who dove for cover behind a gate post. 8 SAS men, some secreted in the hedgerows, armed with G3 rifles, others manning a GPMG situated in a derelict farm building, opened fire on the IRA men. Up to 236 shots were reportedly fired during the operation. The IRA team, Gerard Harte, Martin Harte and Brian Mullin were all killed.

end of part two

« view part one - the 70s

part three : the 90s-date - coming soon...

« SAS history

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