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The Drummuckavall Ambush was an attack by the South Armagh Brigade of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) on a British Army observation post southeast of Crossmaglen, County Armagh, along the border with the Republic of Ireland. It occurred on 22 November 1975 and resulted in the deaths of three British soldiers.
During the mid-1970s, the most violent decade of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the monitoring of the border between south County Armagh and the Republic of Ireland by the British Army was carried out from several static observation posts (OPs). The main goal of these OPs was to prevent attacks launched from beyond the border. These part-time manned positions were highly vulnerable to attack, as proved by a 1974 bomb attack which claimed the lives of two Royal Marines at the outpost of Drummuckavall.
It was not until 1986, when the first surveillance watchtowers were erected in operations Condor and Magistrate that the British Army tried to regain the initiative in the region from the IRA.
A section of four soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, coming from Crossmaglen, mounted an observation post at 2AM on 21 November 1975. The OP was on a slope at Drummuckavall behind bushes overlooking a small stream that ran along the border. Unknown to them, locals had spotted their position and informed the IRA. At 16:20 the next day, an IRA unit of up to 12 members attacked the OP. Heavy gunfire killed three of the Fusiliers and disabled their communications equipment. A later inquest found that the IRA unit had fired from two positions inside the Republic. Those killed were James Duncan (19), Peter McDonald (19) and Michael Sampson (20). The only fusilier on guard duty was McDonald, who was manning a light machine gun. The other soldiers were resting or taking a meal. The lance corporal in charge of the party, Paul Johnson, survived the first burst unscathed. He remained flat on the ground but was seriously injured on the wrist, side and back by a second burst of automatic fire, after the IRA unit asked him to surrender. A second call to surrender was made, followed by more gunfire. The IRA unit then withdrew into the Republic. According to Johnson, they were shouting "Up the 'RA !" and laughing. Johnson managed to slip away by crawling 25 yards towards a nearby road, where friendly troops eventually airlifted him to safety in a helicopter.
Shortly after the attack, Merlyn Rees, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, issued a famous statement dubbing South Armagh Bandit Country. The next year, the British Government officially deployed the Special Air Service (SAS) into Northern Ireland to deal with the IRA. The secretive and undercover nature of this elite force made of them the best choice to infiltrate the South Armagh area, after the official report on the action exposed several flaws in the layout of the OP.
As a complement to the SAS operations, the British Army also changed tactics. Major General Dick Trant established small teams of troops, called COPs (close observation platoons), to gather information, often in plain clothes or camouflaged in the landscape. They were also able to set up ambushes, like the ill-fated Operation Conservation in 1990.
- Timeline of Provisional Irish Republican Army actions
- Glasdrumman ambush
- Attack on Derryard checkpoint
- Operation Conservation
- Attack on Cloghoge checkpoint
- "The fact that initially the SAS would operate only in South Armagh was an illustration of the seriousness of the situation there and tacit acceptance of the fact that normal soldiering and fieldcraft skills were proving inadequate. This had been brought home by the incident in which the three fusiliers had been killed when their Observation Post (OP) had been attacked in 1975. The Army follow up report identified a number of basic errors. The OP had been established in darkness on a slope at Drummuckavall behind bushes overlooking a small stream running along the border. Lance Corporal Johnson and three fusiliers had been bunched together on a single site, which was exposed and within sight of several houses. None of the soldiers was wearing a combat jacket or head net and a groundsheet had been flapping in the breeze. 'Remember, in South Armagh it is no use removing local vegetation to provide cover, locals will soon spot that' the report said, before concluding that the casualties had been the result of 'bad camouflage, wrong routine and incorrect OP layout." Harnden, p.159
- Ripley, Tim and Chappel, Mike (1993). Security forces in Northern Ireland (1969–92). Osprey, p. 46. ISBN 1-85532-278-1
- Harnden, p.254
- "'Before the towers went in they [the IRA] almost had complete freedom of movement and could pick the time and the place' he [Lt. Colonel Tim Spicer] said. 'They had a number of aces in their hand, and our intention was to try to take the initiative from them through total surveillance combined with impredictable patrols.'"Harnden, p.253
- "The SAS was a finite resource and was soon being used throughout Northern Ireland so there was a need for regular soldiers to be trained to operate covertly. This led to the establishment of Close Observation Platoons (COPs) by Major General Dick Trant in 1977. (...) As well as carrying out surveillance, COPs -which are tasked by RUC Special Branch rather than by the Army- have also been used in South Armagh to mount ambushes." Harnden, p.169
- McKittrick, David (1999). Lost lives: the stories of the men, women and children who died through the Northern Ireland troubles. Mainstream, p. 597. ISBN 1-84018-227-X
- Malcolm Sutton's Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland: 1975. Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN)
- Harnden, pp. 67–68
- A Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney, 2002. (PB) ISBN 0-393-32502-4 (HB) ISBN 0-7139-9665-X p.320
- Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, Richard English, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-517753-4 p.171
- Simon Dunstan: For England and St George – A History of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, p.109
- Harnden, p.68
- Harnden, p.158
- Harnden, Toby (2000). Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh. Coronet Books. ISBN 0-340-71737-8
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