Coagh ambush

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Coagh ambush
Part of the Troubles and Operation Banner
Tamlaght, Coagh.jpg
Coagh as seen from County Londonderry
Date3 June 1991
54°38′49″N 6°37′03″W / 54.64694°N 6.61750°W / 54.64694; -6.61750Coordinates: 54°38′49″N 6°37′03″W / 54.64694°N 6.61750°W / 54.64694; -6.61750
Result British victory
IrishRepublicanFlag.png Provisional IRA

 United Kingdom

3 volunteers 8 soldiers
Casualties and losses
3 killed none
Coagh ambush is located in Northern Ireland
Coagh ambush
Location within Northern Ireland

The Coagh ambush was a military confrontation that took place took place in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, on 3 June 1991, during The Troubles, when a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) unit from its East Tyrone Brigade was ambushed by the British Army's Special Air Service (SAS) at the village of Coagh, in County Tyrone, whilst on its way to kill a part-time member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). The ambush resulted in the deaths of all three IRA men involved.


In May 1987, an eight-man unit of the Provisional IRA East Tyrone Brigade was ambushed and shot dead by a Special Air Service (SAS) during an attack by them on a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) rural police station at the village of Loughgall, County Armagh. This was the IRA's greatest loss of life in a single incident during its campaign.[1] Despite this major setback, IRA activity in East Tyrone didn't lessen in the following years.[2]

In August 1988, the British Army shot dead another three IRA men who were stalking a part-time Ulster Defence Regiment soldier whilst he was off-duty near Carrickmore.[3] British intelligence sources claimed the men were involved in the Ballygawley bus bombing, which killed eight British soldiers and injured 28,[4][5] which resulted in the British Army changing its troop transportation methods in East Tyrone, switching from using unarmoured vehicular transport coaches on country roads, to ferrying them in and out of its bases in the district using helicopters.[6]

Tit-for-tat killings in East Tyrone[edit]

The series of killings which led to the Coagh ambush began on 26 April 1988, when a 23-year-old UDR soldier from Coagh, Edward Gibson, was shot dead by an IRA unit at Ardboe whilst at work for Cookstown Council on a bin lorry.[7] Off-duty UDR soldiers, who tended to be Protestants, were common targets of the IRA in County Tyrone. These attacks fostered a perception among some in the Protestant community that the IRA was waging an ethnic war against them.[8] The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) retaliated by murdering Phelim McNally (brother of local Sinn Féin councillor Francie McNally) on 24 November 1988.[9] This was followed by an IRA attack upon a car maintenance garage business owned by a retired UDR soldier called Leslie Dallas on 7 March 1989, in which Dallas, along with two civilian pensioners that were attending the premises at the time of the attack, were all murdered by machine-gun fire from a passing vehicle, the PIRA attackers driving off afterwards cheering as reported by eye-witnesses in the vicinity.[10] The IRA, announcing responsibility for the attack afterwards stated that Dallas was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force.[11][12][13] A subsequent RUC and coroner's inquest found that Dallas had no discernible links with the UVF; and local residents later stated that he had been targeted on the basis of his former service with the British Army, and the fact of his being a prominent member of the Orange Order in the town.[10]

The tit-for-tat campaign around Coagh continued on 29 November 1989, when UVF gunmen attacked a pub owned by IRA member Liam Ryan, shooting Ryan dead, a customer in the premises was also killed in the incident.[14] On 8 March 1990, a part-time UDR soldier and construction worker Thomas Jamison was killed by the IRA in a gun and grenade ambush attack on a lorry he was driving near Donaghmore whilst delivering concrete to a British Army base.[15][16] Jamison was an employee of 'Henry Brothers', a building firm that had a contract with the British Government for constructing police and armed forces' instillations. Harold Henry, one of the two brothers who owned the company, had been murdered by the IRA in 1987 in The Loup, County Londonderry.[17]

On 3 March 1991, the Ulster Volunteer Force carried out an attack at the village of Cappagh, killing three IRA members. The IRA subsequently stated its belief that this attack could have been carried out only with the connivance of the British state forces.[18]

On 9 April 1991, the IRA's East Tyrone Brigade shot dead Derek Ferguson in Coagh (a cousin of local Member of Parliament Reverend William McCrea), stating afterward that he was a paramilitary with the Ulster Volunteer Force. Ferguson's family subsequently refuted that he had anything to do with Loyalist paramilitarism[19]

Historian Kevin Toolis includes as part of this cycle of violence the destruction of Glenanne UDR barracks in nearby County Armagh, in which three soldiers were killed and 10 injured by an IRA truck bomb on 30 May.[19] The IRA later claimed the killings of 3 of its members that followed in Coagh was a retaliation by the British Army for the Glenanne bombing.[20]

The ambush[edit]

A red Vauxhall Cavalier like that driven by the IRA men at the time of the ambush

At 7.30 am on 3 June 1991, three Tyrone IRA paramilitaries – Tony Doris (21 years old), Michael "Pete" Ryan (37) (on the run at the time from the Royal Ulster Constabulary since 1981 after escaping from imprisonment in Belfast for terrorist related offences) and Lawrence McNally (39) – drove a stolen Vauxhall Cavalier from Moneymore, County Londonderry to the village of Coagh,[21] crossing the border of counties Londonderry and Tyrone, to kill a part-time Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, who was in his civilian life a contractor that worked with the security forces.[19] Their intent, however, was known to the British security forces, having been revealed by either a Crown agent within the IRA itself,[19] or from covert technical surveillance.[22] In consequence a detachment from the British Army's Special Air Service was laying in wait for Doris, Ryan and McNally on both sides of Coagh's main street,[23] and also in a red Bedford lorry at the scene.[21]

The stolen car was driven by Doris towards the center of the village,[24] its journey from Moneymore being tracked on the ground and in the air. At the scene of the ambush the British Army had set up a "decoy" target for the IRA to go for in the form of an SAS trooper who was pretending to be their intended victim, sitting in his car at a regular spot while waiting to pick up a friend on their way to work, which IRA intelligence had established the behavioral pattern of.[22] When the stolen car carrying the IRA men approached the scene the Special Air Service detachment opened sustained automatic fire upon it from close range. Doris was immediately hit, and the out-of-control car crashed into two nearby parked cars.[24] The shooting continued until the car exploded in flames and set one of the parked vehicles it had crashed into alight.[25] According to an eyewitness, one of the PIRA men in the car returned fire from within the vehicle after the crash.[26] Some reports claim at least two of the IRA men attempted to exit the crashed car [27] and were subsequently found lying half out of its doors by the later police investigation of the scene.[26] Relatives of the IRA men subsequently stated that they had received information from the scene that two of the IRA attackers had fled on foot from the car after the crash, but had been pursued after and shot down by the British Army in the vicinity, with their bodies being taken back to the car, which was subsequently reported to be riddled with over 200 bullet holes. A Royal Ulster Constabulary crime-scene report stated that a balaclava belonging to one of the IRA men was found some distance away from the vehicle.[20]

The bodies of Doris, Ryan and McNally were badly burnt by the car fire, and had to be identified by police using their dental records.[24] Two rifles were recovered from within the burnt-out stolen car, subsequent police forensic examination of them revealing that they had both been used in the multiple murders at Leslie Dallas's garage (see above) in March 1989.[14]

Subsequent events[edit]

Local Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) politician William McCrea – cousin of Derek Ferguson, killed by the IRA on 9 April – declared that "(the IRA men involved) had fallen into the pit they planned for others.... Justice has now been done".[22] Ian Paisley, leader of the DUP, welcomed the ambush and said "The time has come for a full war".[26] Sinn Féin councillor Francie McNally – brother of Lawrence McNally – said the three men were "good soldiers ... executed by the British Crown forces". Sinn Fein criticised both the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Gardaí for "delaying and harassing" the subsequent funerals of the three men, whose bodies were buried with IRA ceremony. Sinn Fein publicly denied Royal Ulster Constabulary statements that the unit Doris, Ryan and McNally were a part of was engaged in an ethnic-sectarian campaign targeting Protestant workmen.[25] Social Democratic and Labour Party MP Seamus Mallon warned that an "ethic of violence is eating into the soul of this community"[28] and that he "hoped that every effort at arrest had been made".[26]

Subsequent IRA East Tyrone Brigade activity[edit]

Two months after the "Coagh Ambush" (as it came to be known), the IRA shot dead a former UDR soldier whilst he was driving a lorry along Altmore road, near Cappagh,[29] but apart from this, after the Coagh ambush the spiral of paramilitary violence centered around the area noticeably abated.[30]

In January 1992 an IRA landmine at Teebane killed eight construction workmen (one of them a Royal Irish Rangers soldier)[31] who were working on a British Army base.[32]

Another British Army operation in Coalisland in February 1992 intercepted a PIRA detachment at Clonoe, killing four of them.[33] A month later an IRA bomb attack critically maimed a British soldier at Cappagh and prompted a series of non-lethal violent confrontations between local residents and British troops in Coalisland.[34][35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Murray, Raymond (1990). The SAS in Ireland. Mercier Press, p. 380; ISBN 0-85342-938-3
  2. ^ Urban, Mark (1992). Big Boys' Rules. Faber and Faber, p. 242; ISBN 0-571-16112-X
  3. ^ DUP slams GAA club IRA commemoration,, 27 September 2003.
  4. ^ "Land Mine Kills 7 British Soldiers on Bus in Ulster". New York Times. 20 August 1988. Retrieved 24 March 2011.
  5. ^ Lohr, Steve (21 August 1988). "IRA Claims Killing of 8 Soldiers As It Steps Up Attacks on British". New York Times. Retrieved 9 December 2010.
  6. ^ Bijl, Nick van der (2009). Operation Banner: The British Army in Northern Ireland 1969 to 2007. Pen & Sword Military, p. 179; ISBN 1-84415-956-6
  7. ^ Toolis, p. 57
  8. ^ Toolis, p. 60
  9. ^ Toolis, p. 61
  10. ^ a b "Tyrone village 'still wounded' by triple IRA murder 30 years ago". Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  11. ^ McKittrick, pp. 1164–65
  12. ^ Moloney, Ed (2002). A Secret History of the IRA. Penguin Books. p. 332. ISBN 0-14-101041-X.
  13. ^ Palace Barracks Memorial Garden
  14. ^ a b Toolis, p. 66
  15. ^ McKittrick, David (1999). Lost lives. Mainstream, p. 1193; ISBN 1-84018-227-X
  16. ^ Toolis, p. 70
  17. ^ Toolis, pp. 55-56
  18. ^ Toolis, p. 72
  19. ^ a b c d Toolis, p. 73
  20. ^ a b Summers, Chris (2009). "The SAS broke the rules of war",, 28 January 2009; accessed 5 May 2014.
  21. ^ a b Burrell, Ian "Army goes to war over SAS man's revelations", The Independent, 7 August 1997; accessed 4 May 2014.
  22. ^ a b c Taylor, Peter, (2001). Brits: the war against the IRA. Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 305; ISBN 0-7475-5806-X
  23. ^ Toolis, p. 74
  24. ^ a b c Toolis, p. 28
  25. ^ a b MacThomáis, Shane (2005). "Three Volunteers killed in Coagh" Archived 9 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine,, 27 May 2005; accessed 4 May 2014.
  26. ^ a b c d Boycott, Owen (1991). "Unionists approve hardline as army shoots IRA team",, 4 June 1991.
  27. ^ Pogatchnik, Shawn (1991). "3 IRA Guerrillas in Hijacked Car Slain by British", Los Angeles Times, 4 June 1991.
  28. ^ British Commando Squad Kills 3 IRA Gunmen in Ambush by Glenn Frankel, The Washington Post, 4 June 1991.
  29. ^ CAIN Database of deaths −1991
  30. ^ 'The Provos: The IRA & Sinn Fein' by Peter Taylor (Pub. Bloomsbury, 1998).
  31. ^ "Royal Irish Rangers roll of honour". Archived from the original on 10 October 2017. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
  32. ^ O'Brien, Brendan (1999). The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin. Syracuse University Press, pp. 219–20; ISBN 0-86278-606-1
  33. ^ "British try to end the fear in Ulster" by Steven Prokesch
  34. ^ "New Paratroop Controversy" Archived 12 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine. The Irish Emigrant, Issue No. 276, 18 May 1992.
  35. ^ Fortnight (1992), issues 302–12


  • Toolis, Kevin (1995). Rebel Hearts: journeys within the IRA's soul. Picador; ISBN 0-330-34243-6