Derryard aftermath; the introduction of the rifle grenade into Northern Ireland

The introduction of the AP rifle launched grenade came after the lethal IRA ambush at Derryard just after 1600 hrs on 13 December 1989. This prompted an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) to be issued; returning the Luchaire 40mm Rifle Grenade.

Along the southern border of Northern Ireland, just north of the town of Rosslea in County Fermanagh, was a permanent vehicle checkpoint (PVCP) operated by members of the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Outposts such as this were common along the border, but they were also isolated and subject to frequent attacks by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) who could approach from, and escape back across, the Republic of Ireland (ROI); knowing that the soldiers manning these checkpoints were powerless to pursue them. On 13 December 1989 the Derryard PVCP, north of Rosslea was manned by eight soldiers (known as a section, led by a Corporal) from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB), with a further four soldiers patrolling near by. The PVCP at Derryard was so named after the parish in which it was located along the Eshnadarragh Road.

The Derryard PVCP following the attack

Modern PIRA tactics of the time utilised small Active Service Units (ASU) working independently, without knowledge of the larger command structure and other operations. Suspecting large scale infiltration of the organisation and keen to prevent leaks about this attack, the PIRA formed a flying column – reminiscent of their tactics over half a century earlier. The column, made up of 20 ‘volunteers’ consisted of an improvised armoured Bedford lorry fitted with two DShK heavy machine guns and a LPO-50 flamethrower; although a PIRA statement at the time said the flamethrower wasn’t used. They were also armed with rifles (AK47, AR18), hand grenades (various) and rocket propelled grandes (RPG 7). The aim of the raid was to fight their way into the small checkpoint compound and deposit a van packed with explosives. With such heavy firepower being reigned on the isolated soldiers, success seemed inevitable, however a nearby patrol responded to the attack and the van bomb failed to detonate fully. This said, however, two soldiers lost their lives and one was left seriously injured.

Armed only with the SA80 rifle, firing 5.56x45mm ball (lead core) ammunition, the soldiers were virtually powerless against the armoured lorry and its formidable arsenal. A new weapon was needed if soldiers were to prevent attacks like this in the future.

The Derryard Action

As told in the after action report from the KOSB:

On 13 December 1989, PVCP Derryard, north of Rosslea, 2 km from the Fermanagh – Monaghan border was manned by two teams of Support Company, 1 KOSB. The commander was  Cpl RB Duncan, second in command was Cpl MJ Patterson and the other members of the teams were Pte’s Grey, Harvey, Huston, Lansdale, Sloan and Whitelaw. That day, as a result of an unspecific threat to all border locations, the PVCP had been reinforced by an addition support Coy team commanded by Cpl IB Harvey, and Ptes Dunn, Common and Maxwell as team members.

As normal, the PVCP was operated by 4 men; Cpl Duncan in the Cmd sangar, Pte Whitelaw in the rear observation sangar, Pte Huston, the roadman, checking vehicles and Pte Harvey the runner. A visitor, SSgt SN Bradley (Royal Engineers), a NIST SNCO was in the command sangar carrying out maintenance work. LCpl Patterson and his team were off duty and asleep in one of the three small portacabins. Cpl Harvey’s team were on an external security patrol. At 1620 hrs PIRA attacked the checkpoint in considerable force. It is clear the enemy had good knowledge of the layout, manning levels and routine of the PVCP, undoubtedly built up over many months of reconnaissance. For the terrorist it was a soft target, being tactically indefensible, poorly protected and manned with the minimum of weaponry. PIRA brought with them the manpower, weapons, vehicles and explosive devices to destroy the base, which was their intent. They had not counted on the fighting spirit, training and natural aggression of the Jocks, and did not know Cpl Harvey’s team were in the area of the base.The enemy failed in their mission.

At least 12 terrorists were concealed under a tarpaulin in the back of a Hino flatbed lorry. The sides of the lorry had been built up and protected with space compressed sand. A crash bar had been fitted and had mountings for two machine gun stands and external armoured plates. A second vehicle, an Isuzu van, contained a 240 kg bomb. The terrorists were armed with six RPGs, seven rockets, a flamethrower, six Armalite and AK47 rifles, two machine guns and several fragmentation grenades. The lorry approached from the direction of the border and stopped in the PVCP road area. It was seen and reported by Pte Whitelaw and Cpl Harvey’s team, who were on high ground 500m to the north. Cpl Duncan instructed Pte Huston to check the back of the vehicle. The lorry sounded its horn at which point, Pte Whitelaw, who was observing his other arc, turned round to see the enemy attack launched.

Simultaneous automatic gunfire killed Pte Huston, suppressed the command and observation sanagars, and sprayed the thinly protected walls of the base. Grenades were thrown into the base, flame sprayed on the command sangar (although the PIRA statement denied using the flamethrower). Two RPG7s were fired upon the observation sagar, both hit, and the sangar was destroyed. Heavy suppressive fire continued as the lorry was reversed and smashed its way through the gates into the compound and was then drive out of the base. The Isuzu van was driven in, and the bomb primed. At least three terrorists dismounted, and with flame, gunfire and grenades, systematically set about learning the portacabins.

As the enemy attack started, Cpl Duncan immediately returned fire from the command sangar. He continued to do so until forced to withdraw by the weight of fire and flame that was splintering the sangar walls and penetrating inside the sangar through the observation ports. He ordered SSgt Bradley to move undercover to the rear of the base. Pte Whitelaw was thrown to the ground inside the observation as the structure broke apart and the upper floor collapsed. He suffered minor blast burns from the exploding rockets. As he recovered his senses, he saw an unexploded grenade at his feet which he kicked away. The grenade exploded harmlessly. A second grenade exploded causing him multiple minor fragmentation injuries in his side and back.

The destroyed sangar at Derryard from a contemporary ITN new report.

As the enemy sprayed the base with gunfire and grenades, and smashed the lorry into the compound; Cpl Duncan, still firing, crossed through the fire to check all the portacabins and order the men to regroup behind cover to the rear of the base. He checked the observation sangar but Pte Whitelaw was not there, he moved to the rear gate. Inside the kitchen portacabin, Pte Harvey was pinned down.

Inside the accommodation portacabin, LCpl Patterson and his team awoke as the attack started. He ordered his men to put on their helmets and flak jackets, grab their weapons and stay under cover. LCpl Patterson left by the rear door, he moved to the observation sangar where he found SSgt Bradley helping the injured Pte Whitelaw. The two NCOs moved him back into the accommodation. LCpl Patterson left the accommodation again and moved round into the compound where he was killed by gunfire. By this time, Cpl Duncan was fighting his way to the observation sangar and back to the rear gate. Finding no-one there, he moved into the compound to discover the body of LCpl Patterson. The terrorists had just withdrawn, still firing automatic weapons and another RPG7 at at the base. He ordered his soldiers to give first aid, check for casualties and get to the radio in the command sangar. He moved to the front of the base to check for Pte Huston.

Following the sighting of the Hina lorry, Cpl Harvey and his team were moving down to the PVCP from the north when the attack began. Cpl Harvey’s contact report at the time was critical; it was the only message received by Battalion HQ until after the action. It allowed the essential redeployment of reserves and follow up agencies. The team made their way to the PVCP, halting some 75m – 100m to the north. The rear of the lorry was visible outside the base. The terrorists were clearly identified firing into the compound. Cpl Harvey and his men opened fire, hitting the rear of the lorry five times. The enemy immediately switched the bulk of their fire onto the patrol, forcing them to dive for cover into he hedgerows to the west of the road. By skilful fire and manouvre, the patrol worked its way to a position adjacent to the PVCP, continuing to draw heavy enemy fire and forcing the enemy to withdraw.

The lorry was found abandoned at the border with a 210 kg bomb on board. Cpl Harvey and his men came onto the road just as the lorry was disappearing, and as Cpl Duncan was trying to revive Pte Huston. The two Cpl’s recognising that the Isuzu van was a bomb, evacuated the base and established the cordon. As the booster charge of the bomb exploded, the first helicopter arrived bringing reserves. The casualties were rapidly evacuated, and the follow up began.

“they were intent on totally destroying the enemy position.”

This was a terrifying close quarter action which lasted some ten minutes. It was a fight for existence. As PIRA declared subsequently they were intent on totally destroying the enemy position. Every man involved acted with exlempary courage, and the determination to defeat the enemy. The conduct of Cpl Duncan and Cpl Harvey and of LCpl Patterson was in the highest traditions of conspicuous gallantry. By their action, they saved the PVCP. By their action, they fought back at the enemy. Fought to regain some initiative, and finally fought off the attcak, forcing the terrorists to withdraw prematurely and ensuring their failure. As PIRA also stated, the soldiers despite several demands to surrender, refused to comply. Our ASU was forced to withdraw, hastened by the presence of the presence of a sizeable British Army foot patrol. 

LCpl Patterson and Pte Huston died as true soldiers, they died as fighting men in action carrying out their duties. The scale and type of this attack has never been seen before in Northern Ireland. The events of the Derryard Action are a landmark in the modern fighting history of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers.

The site of the Derryard PVCP from Google Maps, 2009. The checkpoint was one of two (Boa Island was the other) announced to be dismantled in 1991 due to the threat of further attacks and the increased presence of mobile army patrols in the area.

A new weapon was required

It was clear that the soldiers were ill equipped to defend themselves against such a determined and well armed enemy. For counter insurgency operations (COIN) in Northern Ireland, it would be inappropriate to use support weapons such as mortars and artillery, and at this time it was not common for support machine guns such as the GPMG (general purpose machine gun) to be mounted on PVCPs. An Urgent Operation Requirement was raised for the purchase of a rifle grenade suitable for defeating an attack such as this. A French company, Luchaire produced such a weapon.

Luchaire Anti-Tank Rifle Grenade

Officially designated Grenade, Rifle, 40mm, HEAT, Anti-armour, L74A1, the Luchaire design grenade offered something that did not exist previously. A lightweight, quick to deploy armour piercing capability. The HEAT (High Explosive, Anti-Tank) warhead utilised a small high explosive charge and a metallic cone liner to form a high velocity slug when fired, capable of penetrating the light armour the PIRA seemed intent on deploying.

Designed for infantry use, the L74A1 grenade fitted over the muzzle of the SA80 rifle and was fired by discharging a live round into the base of the grenade body. The body contained a bullet catcher, capable of containing the fired round, and a small propellant charge to propel the grenade a short distance to the target. Upon impact, the fuze would detonate the warhead, forming the armour penetrating slug, and destroying the target. A second variant of rifle grenade from Luchaire was also brought into service, the L75A1 APAV (anti-personnel, anti-vehicle). The difference being in the warheads, with the APAV containing less armour penetrating ability, but with the inclusion of a fragmentation ring around the warhead for anti-personnel effects.

The L74A1 was in service from 1990 until 1996, when it was replaced by an Israeli design rifle grenade, designated the L86 Rifle Grenade General Service (RGGS). From this event onwards, the army sited heavier 7.62x51mm belt-fed General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMG) at the checkpoints.

The rifle grenade is seen fitted to the rifle in this image of a soldier in Northern Ireland. It is most likely this image was posed, as the rifle grenade would most certainly not have always been fitted to the rifle. The soldier is most probably a member of a Close Observation Platoon (COP) and appears to be working from a rural observation post. Working in shifts, often over days and weeks, soldiers would maintain watch over targets. The bag of rubbish and bottle of what appears to be urine demonstrating the tough conditions the soldiers would have worked in. The rifle is also fitted with an Common Weapon Sight (CWS) for night vision capability, and is also holding a thermal imager.

Footnote

It’s interesting to note that in of meeting of the Internal Security Equipment Committee on 12 May 1972, a bullet trap projectile (rifle grenade), manufactured by the Belgian company MECAR, was under going R&D trials. This rifle grenade would have been used with the L1A1 self-loading rifle (SLR) as was the standard issue rifle at the time. The note had been removed from the minutes of the meeting, it is unsure why. I have no evidence that this particular grenade came into service or was ever carried in Northern Ireland.