Battle of Newry Road
The Battle of Newry Road was a running gun battle between British helicopters and Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) armed trucks, fought along the lanes east of Crossmaglen, County Armagh, on 23 September 1993. The engagement began when an IRA team from the South Armagh Brigade attempted to ambush three helicopters lifting off from Crossmaglen barracks.
Previous actions (1974–1991)
According to British Army reports, the IRA carried out 23 attacks on helicopters in south County Armagh during the Troubles. Until the early 1990s, when the Westland Lynx were fitted with heavy machine guns, all British helicopters in Northern Ireland flew unarmed.
Following two attacks with rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) in 1974 and 1976, the introduction by the South Armagh Brigade of M60 machine guns raised its level of firepower. In February 1978, in the follow-up of a shooting between British troops and IRA members, a Gazelle helicopter crashed when its pilot attempted to avoid machine-gun fire, killing a Royal Green Jackets Lieutenant Colonel on board. Exactly a year after, a Scout helicopter was hit nine times while flying over Glassdrumman. A Grenadier Guards Major was wounded, but the pilot managed to land the machine safely. One Gazelle was damaged in January 1980 and another in May 1981, both near the village of Cullaville. In yet another incident, an RAF Wessex was hit nine times over Croslieve mountain, west of Forkhill, in 1983, by rounds fired from a .50 Browning machine gun, allegedly recovered by the IRA from an Allied aircraft that crashed on Lough Neagh during World War II.
The Libyan shipments of weapons for the IRA in the mid-1980s included 18 DShKs 12.7mm machine guns, which further enhanced the anti-aircraft capabilities of the South Armagh Brigade. These weapons were used for the first time against a British Army helicopter in June 1988, when an Army Air Corps Lynx was hit by 15 rounds and brought down by an IRA unit near Cashel Lough Upper.
Another incident occurred on 20 February 1990, when an IRA team composed of at least 20 volunteers attempted to attack a helicopter at Newtownhamilton, but their efforts where thwarted when a van, a car, and several masked men manning a light machine gun were spotted by an RAF Wessex on a reconnaissance mission. After a hot pursuit in which some vehicles and some IRA volunteers escaped, three of the men were tracked to Silverbridge, where the Wessex landed three soldiers and two RUC constables. The men were arrested, but the security patrol was suddenly overwhelmed by a stone-throwing crowd of 40 residents, who forcibly released the suspects. One of the men arrested was Jim Martin, who had recently been part of a scheme to smuggle anti-aircraft missiles from the United States. He was still at large and living in the area at the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. In later searches in the area, security forces recovered two AK-47 and a Heckler & Koch rifles and two light machine guns. The AK-47s had been used in the killing of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan in 1989.
On 23 September 1993, approximately at 2 pm, members of the IRA's South Armagh Brigade deployed five armed trucks in different positions around the Crossmaglen barracks. The targets were a troop-carrying RAF Puma helicopter lifting off from Crossmaglen's helipad and its escort of two British Army Lynx. Author Toby Harnden states that the IRA used two DHsK heavy machine guns and three light machine guns and opened fire from near the St. Patrick's Church and the community center. The IRA version is that they fired from a wooded area, and that their firepower became diminished when a number of weapons jammed. They claimed that the helicopters were in the process of landing when the shooting began.
The Puma was hit by one round almost immediately, and the two escorts, Lynx 1 and Lynx 2, were also targeted from another firing point. Two other escorts, Lynx 5 and Lynx 7, came to support their colleagues. Lynx 2 avoided being hit by heading to the north at low level. The IRA acknowledge that the helicopters manoeuvred away from the stream of bullets directed at them and that they were joined by the other two helicopters. Two of the trucks headed east along Newry Road and a 12-mile chase ensued, amid a fierce exchange of gunfire; one of the helicopters was hit and forced to disengage, according to republican sources. Harnden says that, besides the Puma, one of the Lynx was also damaged in the action.
The British helicopters initially spotted two trucks and one supporting car, but they lost track of the smaller vehicle, while one of the trucks turned off into a farmyard. Lynx 2 rejoined the battle by engaging the retreating trucks from the south. The aircraft tried to fire upon the truck's convoy twice, but the machine gun jammed in the first occasion and another Lynx crossed the line of fire in the second. The IRA claim that the helicopters fired 'indiscriminately' against civilian property and cars with 'rockets and machine gun fire'. The remainder lorry stopped in the main street of a village near Crossmaglen, and a number of men transferred weapons to a Transit van. At this point Lynx 1, which had come back to base to muster troops, landed eight soldiers in front of the van. Three masked men got out of the vehicle and hid in a bungalow. They later slipped away in another car, but the soldiers were powerless to intervene since they were not carrying weapons and the officer in charge of the operation was not sure whether the men were the same ones who had driven the van. Other troops were delivered near the farm where the other truck had been concealed, only to find that the vehicle and its occupants had vanished.
The helicopters fired 200 rounds, while the IRA report put the number of rounds spent in the whole engagement in the thousands. The action lasted for 10 to 30 minutes, and was assessed by the British Army as the most intense gun battle ever in South Armagh. The authorities recovered a DShK, two light machine guns and an AK-47. There were no casualties on either side, and all the IRA volunteers got away.
According to author Nick Van Der Bijl, the Gardaí found two IRA trucks on the southern side of the border. The next year, the IRA in South Armagh managed to shoot down one British Army Lynx and one RAF Puma with home-made mortars.
After the incident, the British Army improved armour protection for their chopper crews in Northern Ireland, as well as the machine gun mountings and sightings. There were plans to purchase a Skyship 600 Airship in the role of flying command post to improve co-ordination from a safe height. Within days of the gunbattle, Royal Navy's Sea King helicopters were deployed to the west of the country to release Army Air Corps and RAF helicopters to boost South Armagh's effort. On 26 April 1994, Staff Sergeant Shaun Wyatt, commander of Lynx 2, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his deeds during the battle. The medal won by Sergeant Wyatt was sold at Bosleys auction house for more than £100,000 in June 2011.
- Harnden (2000), p. 358
- Operation Banner: An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland. MoD, Army Code 71842. Chapter 6, page 3
- "A Chronology of the Conflict, 1978". Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN). Retrieved 12 May 2013.
- Harnden (2000), p. 359
- Harnden (2000), p. 360
- Harnden (2000), p. 361
- Harnden (2000), pp. 396–397
- Harnden (2000), p. 397
- An Phoblacht, 7 July 1994, p. 2
- Ashcroft (2012), pp. 355-356
- Van Der Bijl (2009), p. 82
- Harnden (2000), pp. 398–399
- Medal won during IRA ambush sold for more than £100,000 The Times, 4 June 2011
- Ashcroft, Michael (2012). Heroes of the Skies. Hachette UK. ISBN 0755363914
- Harnden, Toby (2000). Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh, Coronet books. ISBN 0-340-71737-8
- Van Der Bijl, Nick (2009). Operation Banner: The British Army in Northern Ireland 1969 to 2007. Pen & Sword Military. ISBN 1-84415-956-6