Operation Motorman

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Operation Motorman
Part of the Troubles and Operation Banner
Planned byMajor-General Robert Ford
ObjectiveRetake republican-controlled areas
Date04:00, 31 July 1972 (+01:00) (1972-07-31T04:00+01:00)
Executed by
OutcomeBritish victory
  • Operation against the IRA succeeds.
  • Civilians:
    1 killed
    2 wounded
  • Provisional IRA:
    1 killed

Operation Motorman was a large operation carried out by the British Army (HQ Northern Ireland) in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The operation took place in the early hours of 31 July 1972 with the aim of retaking the "no-go areas" (areas controlled by residents,[1] including Irish republican paramilitaries) that had been established in Belfast and other urban centres. In Derry, Operation Carcan (or Car Can), initially proposed as a separate operation, was executed as part of Motorman.[2]


The Northern Ireland riots of August 1969 marked the beginning of the conflict known as the Troubles. As a result of the riots, Northern Ireland's two main cities, Belfast and Derry, had become more segregated than before. Many neighbourhoods became entirely Irish nationalist or entirely unionist. In some places, residents and paramilitaries built barricades to seal off and protect their neighbourhoods from incursions by "the other side", the security forces or both. These became known as "no-go areas".

By the end of 1971, 29 barricades were in place to block access to what was known as Free Derry; 16 of them impassable even to the British Army's one-ton armoured vehicles.[3] Many of the nationalist no-go areas were controlled by one of the two factions of the Irish Republican Army, the Provisional IRA and Official IRA. On 29 May 1972, the Official IRA called a ceasefire[4] and vowed that it would not launch attacks except in self-defence.

On 21 July 1972, in the space of 75 minutes, the Provisional IRA detonated 22 bombs in Belfast. Nine people (including two soldiers and a loyalist volunteer) were killed and 130 were injured. The attack prompted the British Government to implement Operation Motorman, just ten days later.[4]

HMS Fearless landed troops and tanks at Derry


Operation Motorman was the biggest British military operation since the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the biggest in Ireland since the Irish War of Independence.[4] In the days before 31 July, about 4,000 extra troops were brought into Northern Ireland.[4] Almost 22,000 soldiers were involved,[4] including 27 infantry and two armoured battalions, aided by 5,300 soldiers from the local Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).[5] Several Centurion AVRE demolition vehicles, derived from the Centurion tank and fitted with bulldozer blades, were used. They were the only heavy armoured vehicles to be deployed operationally by the British Army in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The tanks had been transported to Northern Ireland on board the amphibious landing ship HMS Fearless, and were operated with their turrets traversed to the rear and main guns covered by tarpaulins.[6]

This quick military buildup alerted the Provisional IRA and Official IRA that a major operation was being planned.[7] According to local MP Ivan Cooper and others, the IRA left Derry's no-go areas the day before the operation.[8]

A Centurion AVRE, as used by the Army in Operation Motorman


The operation began at about 4:00 a.m. on 31 July and lasted for a few hours. In "no-go areas" such as Free Derry, sirens were sounded by residents to alert others of the incursion.[9] The British Army used bulldozers and Centurion AVREs to break through the barricades before flooding the no-go areas with troops in smaller, lighter armoured vehicles.[4][10] The Provisional IRA and Official IRA were not equipped for open battle against such a large force and did not attempt to hold their ground.[7] Small scale operations were carried out in other places like Lurgan, Armagh, Coalisland and Newry.[11]

By the end of the day, Derry and Belfast had been cleared of no-go areas, but the Army remained cautious when operating in staunchly republican districts. Casement Park in Andersonstown, the main stadium of the Ulster GAA, was occupied by 19th Regiment Royal Artillery;[12] it was returned in 1973/4.


During the operation, the British Army shot four people in Derry, killing a civilian and an unarmed IRA member.

  • Daniel Hegarty, a 15-year-old Catholic civilian,[13] was shot along with his two cousins as they walked along Creggan Heights in Derry.[14] The boys had gone out to see the tanks and watch the operation unfold.[14] The shots were fired from close range by soldiers, who had hidden themselves behind a garden fence.[14] Hegarty was shot twice in the head and was killed outright. One of his cousins, Christopher Hegarty, survived being struck in the head by a bullet.[15] 47 years later, the soldier who killed Daniel Hegarty is to be charged with murder.[16][17]
  • Seamus Bradley, a 19-year-old Provisional IRA member,[13] was shot as he climbed a tree in Bishop's Field, Derry. Bradley was then taken away in a Saracen APC but bled to death before he could be treated.[7]

In Belfast, some arrests were made but no armed resistance was met.


A few hours after the conclusion of Operation Motorman, the Claudy bombing occurred. Nine civilians were killed when three car bombs exploded on the Main Street of Claudy village, County Londonderry. Five of the victims were Catholic and four were Protestant.[18]


  1. ^ Managing Terrorism and Insurgency: Regeneration, Recruitment and Attrition ISBN 978-0-415-48441-1 p. 101
  2. ^ Sanders, Andrew (2012). Times of Troubles: Britain's War in Northern Ireland. Edinburgh University Press. p. 123. ISBN 9780748646579. Retrieved 7 August 2018.; Burke, Edward (2 September 2015). "Counter-Insurgency against 'Kith and Kin'? The British Army in Northern Ireland, 1970–76" (PDF). The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History (PDF). 43 (4): 658–677. doi:10.1080/03086534.2015.1083215. S2CID 154044385. Retrieved 7 August 2018.; Charters, David A. (2017). Whose Mission, Whose Orders?: British Civil-Military Command and Control in Northern Ireland, 1968-1974. McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP. pp. 167–177. ISBN 9780773549272. Retrieved 7 August 2018.
  3. ^ Taylor, Peter (2001). Brits: The War Against the IRA. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 83. ISBN 0-7475-5806-X.
  4. ^ a b c d e f CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict – 1972
  5. ^ An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland, prepared under the direction of the Chief of the General Staff. Retrieved 2 September 2007. Archived at Internet Archive.
  6. ^ Osprey Publishing: Centurion Universal Tank 1943–2003 ISBN 1-84176-387-X
  7. ^ a b c Museum of Free Derry: Operation Motorman Archived 21 July 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ "IRA left Derry 'before Operation Motorman'". BBC News, 6 December 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
  9. ^ The Pat Finucane Centre: Operation Motorman Archived 3 August 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ History – Operation Motorman Archived 21 July 2010 at the Wayback Machine, Museum of Free Derry. Retrieved 2 September 2007.
  11. ^ Operation Motorman Archived 31 October 2004 at the Wayback Machine from Britain small wars
  12. ^ Beaves, Harry (2018). Down Among the Weeds. Troubador Publishing Ltd. p. 73. ISBN 9781788037532. Retrieved 7 August 2018.
  13. ^ a b CAIN – Sutton Index of Deaths – 31 July 1972
  14. ^ a b c The Pat Finucane Centre: Daniel Hegarty Archived 3 August 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ "'No reason' for soldier shooting Daniel Hegarty". BBC News. 7 December 2011. Retrieved 26 September 2020.
  16. ^ O'Neill, Julian (15 April 2019). "Daniel Hegarty: Ex-soldier to be charged with 1972 murder". BBC News. Retrieved 26 September 2020.
  17. ^ Fitzpatrick, Michael (15 April 2019). "Daniel Hegarty: Ex-soldier begins legal challenge against murder charge". BBC News. Retrieved 26 September 2020.
  18. ^ Cowan, Rosie (21 September 2002). "Does this letter prove a priest was behind IRA bombing?". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 20 May 2010.

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