The attack on Loughgall police barracks carried out on 8th May 1987 by the East Tyrone Brigade, Irish Republican Army has entered the Republican folk memory as being in the noblest traditions of the Irish soldier. The calibre of the men killed in the attack and their contribution to the militant tradition of Irish arms is a testament to the quality of the communities that produced them.
East Tyrone Brigade Losses
During the Troubles the East Tyrone Brigade lost 53 members killed, the highest number in any rural brigade. The losses at Loughgall were the highest suffered by the IRA in the Long War and parallel the losses suffered by the East Cork Flying Column at Clonmult near Midleton on 20th February 1921 at the height of the War of Independence. They were surrounded by the British army, Tans and Auxiliaries. In the fighting the IRA lost 12 killed, 4 wounded, four captured and one man escaped. A total of 22 people died in the ambush and subsequent executions, 14 IRA, 2 Black and Tans and 6 informers.
Loughgall Survivors Inside Story
A number of IRA men also survived the Loughgall ambush, one of whom broke his silence on the thirtieth anniversary of the ambush and he gives the inside story of the IRA action. The East Tyrone Brigade had developed a military strategy of denying the enemy control of territory by destroying rural barracks. This had been successfully carried out on two occasions. The third barracks identified for destruction was Loughgall. The importance of the East Tyrone strategy was understood by the British and they employed the SAS to counter it. A known IRA man scouting diggers to steal in the area suggested to the British that Loughgall Police Station as the next target.
Plan of Attack
The IRA plan of attack was to storm the objective with gunfire and a 200 lbs. bomb placed in the bucket of a digger. The IRA unit hoped to reach the barracks as three policemen clocked off duty. The plan was to kill the police and demolish the station. The IRA volunteer who was to drive the digger was 21 year old Declan Arthurs from the townland of Galbally near Dungannon. Scout 1 with other members of the IRA team drove into the village from the Portadown direction passing the station to a point at the opposite end of the village, which would be the pick-up point for the IRA team when the objective had been achieved. They would then be driven to safe houses. Minutes after the two get-away vehicles had parked up Arthurs arrived behind them quickly followed by the rest of the team in the Hiace van. He had spotted the RUC car which was supposed to be in the station while he drove the bomb into the village and decided not to go ahead with the attack.
Survivors Eyewitness Account
Scout 1 says that after a discussion about what to do a second member of the IRA team who also survived and is referred to as Scout 2, drove Arthurs back into the village in another car. Following a discussion a collective decision was taken to go ahead with the attack as planned. The O/C Paddy Kelly told Scout 1 to drive into Loughgall and bring back the two other men. When he found them they were monitoring the police station which unknown to them was manned by 6 SAS men, 2 members of the specialist Headquarters Mobile Support Unit and a local policeman in case a member of the public arrived at the barrack door. Although Declan Arthurs had a bad feeling about the operation due to the lack of activity in the village on a sunny May evening he did not question the order to carry out the attack. Scout 1 record’s that Arthurs said ‘there is no point in doing the operation as the target is away’ (the three policemen had left the station). The highest level of British security personnel using the code-name ‘Operation Judy’ were involved at Loughgall because they feared the developing tactics of the East Tyrone Brigade.
SAS Kill Zone Set Up
A total of 24 SAS men were strategically deployed around the station where a kill zone involving a 3 point triangular formation had been set up to eliminate everyone in the kill-zone and reduce the risk of friendly fire. When the two IRA men returned to the rest of the team the attack went straight ahead. Declan Arthurs again went into the digger and drove into the village followed by the Hiace Van.
They drove towards the station one more time, turned and faced the objective. At this stage Arthurs used a lighter to ignite the fuse in the 200 lbs. bomb in the bucket of the digger and aimed it at the heavy security doors of the station. The men in the Hiace leapt from the van and opened fire on the station. Fire was returned by the SAS from their various vantage points. The digger struck a blast wall at the entrance to the station, the driver jumped free and ran up a laneway. Seconds later the bomb exploded causing extensive damage to the station and injuring a number of policemen. An unarmed Declan Arthurs was shot multiple times as he tried to escape. He was holding a lighter in his hand.
While the attack was in progress Scouts 1 and 2 waited a short distance away at the pickup point. Following the explosion No. 1 said there was a rattle of stuff (gunfire) and then there was a rattle of heavy stuff (heavy machine-guns). He turned to No. 2 and said ‘They are giving her some rattle here’. He said the firing went on and on and on for what seemed like 3 or 4 minutes, that it was fierce firing. Then out in the distance he saw a helicopter and turning the Scout 2 said ‘there’s something badly wrong here.’
Scouts Face to Face with SAS
They were waiting for their comrades to come down and get away. When they failed to appear both men became concerned. They decided to drive into Loughgall and see what remained happening. As they did so they came face to face with members of the SAS ambush team close to the village. Two other civilian cars came up behind them. Two SAS men turned their weapons on the scout-cars and Scout 1 said he did not know what was going to happen. At this stage several other SAS men jumped from behind a wall and ran towards the bomb team’s Hiace van, which was a short distance away. Scout 1 said that during the incident a SAS man was standing 2 or 3 feet in front of him with his Armalite pointed at him. Scout 2 was covered by a second SAS man. Both men knew that the SAS recognised them as being involved; they had been under observation for 20 minutes before the attack. As Scout 1 sat frozen at the wheel he could see the blue Hiace van and the bodies of his comrades lying around it. He said that while the SAS men he encountered were calm the others were dancing in a frenzy around the van. He said at that stage there was the odd isolated shot and he knew that the unit had been wiped out. He had no doubt it was a shoot to kill operation.
The SAS Disappeared
The IRA men were cornered in a very vulnerable position. The British let the bomb through and waited ten minutes because they wanted the full attacking unit in the kill zone. Scout 2 said that within minutes a large number of regular soldiers jumped from the helicopter he had spotted earlier and made their way to the road where he was sitting in his vehicle. He said the SAS men then ‘disappeared’.
As the IRA men waited 5 or 6 Brits approached the civilian cars and they expected to be dragged out. Instead they were ordered by a soldier to turn their vehicles around and leave the area. As they turned and moved off they expected to be shot. They believe the presence of the elderly couple who would witness the killings saved their lives. Both IRA men made their escape in different directions.
Scout 1 revealed that despite his near shave he had no regrets about driving towards the kill-zone in a bid to rescue members of the bomb team after they were ambushed. ‘If someone had made a go for it, I could have lifted him. And I am glad I did that. I don’t think I could live with myself if I had not.’ Seconds after leaving the area Scout 2 met Liam Ryan on a country road a short distance away and told him what had happened. Ryan had been in radio contact with the bomb team seconds before the attack. He was later killed in his bar in Moortown, Co. Tyrone in an attack claimed by Loyalists. At the time of his death he was one of the most senior IRA men in the county and sat on the Brigade staff.
Slipping the Net a Second Time
Scout 1’s feelings of relief at escaping death were quickly dampened when he drove into an RUC checkpoint a short distance away. ‘Again I was stopped and taken out of my vehicle. I had a load of clothes belonging to the lads in the back. I said to myself this is it this time. They asked what I was doing in that part of the country and I told them I was working. I gave a false name. I had false plates and they had to be coming up wrong (in the police computer system)’. ‘I was waiting to be cuffed’. . Despite his worst fears after about five minutes an RUC man told him he was free to leave. He got into his vehicle very slowly as he was wondering if he was being set up for something. He had slipped the net for a second time and made his way to a safe house. He confirms that Scout 2 and Liam Ryan both made their way to Monaghan, while several other members of the IRA support unit who were in the wider area also managed to escape.
East Tyrone Brigade’s Effective Resurgence
After the Loughgall ambush the IRA in Tyrone reorganised and continued their role as one of the most effective units in the fight against the British. The following year on 20 August 1988 they bombed a British army bus travelling between Ballygawley and Omagh killing eight soldiers. From then on the British were forced to use choppers to ferry their forces to and from the East Tyrone Brigade area.
SAS Shoot Innocents
The killing of an innocent civilian Anthony Hughes in the ambush highlights the ruthless nature of the British operation. He was driving with his brother Oliver in his Citroen car and when he entered the killing zone they were shot up from behind at a distance of 130 yards. Anthony was killed and Oliver badly wounded. There were 34 bullet holes in their car.
Killed After Surrendering
There were 125 bullet holes in the Hiace van and all the IRA men were shot in the head, three of them after they had surrendered. This again parallels the Clonmult ambush where seven IRA men were shot dead after surrendering.
Second Loughgall Attack
Loughgall RUC barracks was again attacked on 5 September 1990 causing widespread damage and wounding 7 policemen. It was rebuilt and transferred to the PSNI in 2001 and was shut down in August 2009. It was later sold for private development.
The joint SAS/RUC Loughgall operation was codenamed Operation Judy. It was the IRA’s biggest loss of life in a single incident during the Troubles.