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Warrenpoint

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Or the Warrenpoint Massacre

Troubles in Northern Ireland caused the need to use several routes, randomly selected each day to transport supplies troops etc. On the 27th of August the route chosen between Ballykinler and Newry was a dual-carriageway, part of which ran parallel to the River Newry, along the bottom of a shallow valley. The River marked the border of the Republic of Ireland, and the carriageway ran on the eastern side, just inside British Territory. Woods lined the Irish side of the river.

The convoy was carrying a platoon of soldiers from A company, 2 Para. The convoy was made up of one Land Rover Snatch, and 2 Bedford 4 tonners. It contained 26 soldiers and officers in total.

The IRA had studied the reaction to attacks by British Forces and noted that it was standard to set-up a control point after an incident, from which orders are issued, casualties are evacuated etc. Counting on this occurrence, members of the IRA placed 2 bombs, around two hundred metres apart, one to provide the initial blast and the other to target the possible site of an incident control point.

On the night before the attack a trailer containing a 700kg fertiliser bomb hidden by straw bales was parked in a lay-by and abandoned. The second device was located in the gate lodge of a country house situated further up the valley. On the other side of the road to the gate lodge was a stone tower, built to defend the east coast of Ulster.

At around 1645 on 27th of August, reports from a nearby Royal Marines squadron arrived at 2 Para HQ about an explosion on the main road between Warrenpoint and Newry. The first device had been detonated at 1640hrs, killing 6 soldiers and wounding 2 others.

Accounts after the incident revealed that the first bomb had been detonated by remote control, as the second Bedford, the last vehicle of the convoy had passed the abandoned trailer. The second Bedford was propelled into the air by the force, breaking up as it rotated through the air, before crashing down, aflame, on the opposite side of the road. 6 soldiers were killed instantly, 2 more were wounded, but since recovered. Witness reports stated that body parts of soldiers inside the lorry were strewn as far as the banks of the River Newry, some 30 yards away.

Following the first explosion, the second Bedford sped for cover, parking beneath some nearby trees, and the soldiers inside de-camped. They fired across the river into the woods, believing they were under fire (possibly due to the cracking caused by the ammunition in the back of the destroyed Bedford igniting). This action sadly killed an innocent tourist, and wounded another. The front land rover, advanced a short distance, turned to face the site of the destroyed Bedford and the platoon commander who had been travelling in it set up his incident control point.

A Wessex helicopter airborne in the vicinity was directed to pick up a medical team and the 4-man quick reaction team from Bessbrook (as was standard in the campaign), and take them to incident. The commanding officer of a group of Queen’s Own Highlanders was also airborne at the time in a Gazelle helicopter and judged that his presence was needed on the ground. At the same time, an 8 man reaction force was dispatched from Newry, travelling by land. Major Barry Rogan and Major Peter Fursman followed shortly from Bessbrook in 2 more land rovers.

When the two Majors arrived, they judged the initial incident control point, established by the platoon commander, as too close to the incident, and made the decision to set up a new one in the gate lodge rigged with an unspecified, but larger bomb than the first. The Wessex helicopter landed on the central reservation of the road and the medical team de-planed, rushing to the area. Within 5 minutes a soldier returned telling the crew to expect 2 casualties only, and the crew prepared for take-off. Just before 1700hrs, the CO of the Queen’s Own Highlanders and his signaller de-planed outside the gate lodge, and ran to the incident control point inside. The Gazelle they were travelling in left. At around the same time, the second stretcher was loaded into the Wessex and the crew carried out final pre-takeoff checks.

As the CO of the QOH and his signaller approached the gate lodge, the second device was detonated, again by remote control. The explosion killed 12 soldiers and officers. The Wessex helicopter was rocked by the shock wave, just before huge lumps of granite, formerly part of the gate lodge now destroyed, landed on the road and surrounding area. Witnesses report that a boulder larger than a football came down through the rotor blades of the Wessex and struck its nose, badly damaging it. A window of the helicopter was also blown out by the blast. Despite the damage it sustained, the aircraft managed to get airborne and evacuated 2 casualties to Bessbrook.

In total, 18 soldiers died, 16 from 2 Para, and 2 from the Queen’s Own Highlanders. Warrenpoint was the single largest loss of life by British Forces in the history of The Troubles, and the loss to the Parachute Regiment was the highest in Regiment history since the campaign on Arnhem in 1944.