Bessbrook landmine attack

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Bessbrook landmine attack
Part of the Troubles
Bessbrook landmine attack is located in Northern Ireland
Bessbrook landmine attack
LocationCamlough, Bessbrook,
County Armagh,
Northern Ireland
Coordinates54°31′42″N 7°12′39″W / 54.52833°N 7.21083°W / 54.52833; -7.21083Coordinates: 54°31′42″N 7°12′39″W / 54.52833°N 7.21083°W / 54.52833; -7.21083
Date19 May 1981
TargetBritish Army soldiers
Attack type
Land mine
Weaponshigh powered explosives
Deaths5 British soldiers
PerpetratorProvisional IRA
South Armagh Brigade

The Bessbrook landmine attack happened on 19 May 1981 during a period of heightened tension in Northern Ireland over the 1981 Irish hunger strike and the death of Bobby Sands MP on 5 May.[1][2]


Convicted prisoners were refused the same rights as internees until July 1972, when Special Category Status was introduced following a hunger strike by 40 Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners led by the veteran republican Billy McKee. Special Category, or political, status meant prisoners were treated similarly to prisoners of war; for example, not having to wear prison uniforms or do prison work.

In 1976, as part of its policy of "criminalisation", the British government brought an end to Special Category Status for newly convicted paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland. The policy was not introduced for existing prisoners, but for those convicted of offences after 1 March 1976.[3] The end to Special Category Status was a serious threat to the authority which the paramilitary leaderships inside prison had been able to exercise over their own men, as well as being a propaganda blow.

There were immediate protests by the Republican prisoners to try and have Special Category Status, the blanket protest first, then the dirty protest and then the 1980 Hunger Strike called by Brendan Hughes which collapsed after 53 days. Then the 1981 protest began in March 1981 led by Bobby Sands, when Sands died on the 5 May there was severe rioting all over Nationalist areas.

There was heightened activity at the time of the protests as well by the IRA outside the prison. In April 1979 the IRA killed four RUC officers in a roadside bomb near Bessbrook.[4] Later in 1979 the IRA carried out its worst attack on the British Army during the whole of The Troubles during the Warrenpoint Ambush in which 18 soldiers were killed and 6 injured.[5] In May 1980 during the Antrim Road standoff an IRA unit dubbed the "M60 Gang" because of their use of a M60 machine gun killed a high ranking SAS officer and injured a second.[6]

A number of prison officers were also killed during this period.[7][8][9]

The Bombing[edit]

The attack happened when the soldiers were travelling in an armoured troop carrier along a road near Bessbrook in south Armagh.

The estimated 1,000 lb bomb was detonated by command wire while the British Army vehicle drove right on top of the land mine causing a massive explosion and the armored vehicle was ripped to pieces causing the soldiers to die straight away.

The explosion left a giant crater in the ground.

An army spokesman said:

The 1,000-pound land mine apparently was concealed in a culvert underneath a remote road at Altnaveigh, just north of the border with the Irish Republic and two miles from McCreesh's village of Camlough.[10]

It was the worst attack the British Army suffered in Ireland since the 1979 Warrenpoint Ambush, and was the fourth worst attack suffered by the British Army at the hands of the Provisional IRA in Ireland (the British Army suffered several worse attacks in England) during the whole conflict from 1969 - 1998, but at the time it was the second worst attack they had suffered in Ireland.[11][12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1981". Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  2. ^ "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths". 1981-05-05. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  3. ^ "A Chronology of the Conflict – 1976". CAIN. Retrieved 9 April 2007.
  4. ^ "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths". 1979-04-17. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  5. ^ "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths". 1979-08-27. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  6. ^ "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths". Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  7. ^ "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths". 1979-02-04. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  8. ^ "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths". 1979-04-16. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  9. ^ "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths". 1979-04-19. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  10. ^ "IRA guerrillas set off a 1,000-pound land mine beneath... - UPI Archives". 1981-05-19. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  11. ^ "CAIN: Sutton Index of Deaths". 1981-05-19. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  12. ^ "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1981". Retrieved 2017-04-21.