Continued from Part I
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s sympathy for Irish republicans was made tangible in four separate shipments of machine guns, explosives, and rocket launchers to Ireland in the 1980s. However, two remaining items of heavy ordinance on the Provisional IRA’s shopping list were lost forever with the Eksund: 82 mm mortars and 106mm M40 recoilless rifles.
In A Secret History of the IRA Ed Moloney writes:
On board [the Eksund] had been military mortars that could have devastated British barracks and RUC bases throughout the North, enabling the IRA to launch damaging attacks from safe distances.
This is a problematic line for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, it’s unlikely that 82 mm mortar rounds could have “devastated” British barracks and RUC bases. A typical 82mm mortar high-explosive round contains 0.42 kg of TNT. The 82mm mortar tube is intended to be transported by infantry. For comparison the IRA’s notorious “Barrack Buster” a 320 mm calibre home-made mortar projectile that debuted in 1992 could have upwards of 100 kg of explosive. Barrack Buster batteries mounted on lorries often counted several individual tubes.
Since the disaster at Newry in 1985 (when nine RUC officers were killed by IRA mortar bombs) and other attacks the British government had undertaken a costly campaign to reinforce and rebuild security installations. British Army outposts were fortified with concrete bunkers and new RUC stations were built with spaced false roofs to protect against mortar rounds.
Secondly, that phrase “throughout the North”. Twelve mortars is not a substantial quantity. There were many British Army and RUC barracks, bases, permanent checkpoints and watchtowers across Northern Ireland. It’s difficult to conceptualise how a handful of light mortars could form the backbone of a hypothetical “Tet Offensive”, especially with the inevitable attrition through combat or captured arms dumps.
Former IRA John Crawley offered his perspective on the infantry mortars:
I firmly believed that, provided the right men were professionally trained and secrecy maintained, the IRA could have attack any barracks in the North...adjacent IRA units could have used 81-millimetre mortars to destroy enemy Quick Reaction Forces and their helicopter transport on the ground. Potential helicopter landing zones in the vicinity of an IRA withdrawal could have been pre-registered for rapid mortar and machine-gun fire...
Moloney correctly notes that the range of the factory-made mortars far exceeded the IRA’s own models. A typical 82mm mortar round has a range of over 3,000 m versus a mere 250 m for the “Barrack Buster”. A trained crew could also aim a military mortar with a fair degree of accuracy, while for the IRA’s mortars hitting their intended target was usually a matter of luck.
Whether any IRA members received training on the 82 mm mortars (or M40 recoilless rifles) is unclear but they were an adaptable group; certainly there were a lot more people in Ireland familiar with the operation of infantry mortars than surface-to-air missile launchers.
As discussed in Part I, if the Eksund was unloaded in Ireland as planned it’s unlikely it would have been the catalyst for an earth-shattering redefinition of the conflict; that would have necessitated a different Provisional IRA. But if the IRA that did exist in reality got its hands on a dozen 82 mm mortars, what impact would they have had?
As irreplaceable weapons it’s almost certain their use would have been mostly confined to border areas. The cumbersome DShK heavy machine gun, another Libyan prestige weapon, was on only a handful of occasions used deep inside Northern Ireland. It was otherwise exclusively a border asset. According to long time IRA member Gerry Bradley, three separate “ops” in Belfast involving the DShK were cancelled, apparently for fear of civilian casualties.
The IRA’s engineering department weren’t going to run out of pipes or gas cylinders to convert to destructive devices. These home-made mortars were intended to be single-use weapons, detonating on a timer long after the IRA Volunteers involved had vacated the area. This suited the IRA.
An 82 mm mortar would require its crew to be at the launch site aiming and loading them. Afterwards they would need to pack up the mortar and return it to an arms hide. This is mitigated somewhat by the Volunteers being kilometres, rather than meters, away from the target.
The military mortars in the context of the IRA’s campaign should be thought of as a precision weapon rather than a tool of large-scale destruction. They could plausibly impose tactical dilemmas on the British Army in border areas. For example, permanent vehicle checkpoints might need to be built several kilometres “inland” to counter the new threat. Another response would be to dismantle checkpoints and replacement them with more flexible infantry patrols, as the British Army did with Derryard and Boa Island in Fermanagh in 1991. The ubiquitous watchtowers in South Armagh would be in danger. Theoretically the IRA could lob 82 mm mortar bombs at Crossmaglen’s helipad without even setting foot in Northern Ireland.
The other new capability promised by the Eksund was the American-made 106 mm M40 recoiless rifle. The M40 is a direct-fire anti-tank cannon firing a hefty shell out to a maximum range of seven kilometres, effective range depending on the munition type but usually falling within a mile.
The recoilless principle operates by allowing gasses from the propellant charge to be expelled from the back of the gun, resulting in a forward recoil force that counteracts the recoil from the muzzle and the projectile. This means that you have an artillery piece far lighter (and simpler) than a conventional model with felt recoil so mild it can be fired from a jeep.
These are obvious advantages for an underground guerrilla group like the IRA. No readily available source says how many they were given by Libya but a dozen seems like a good guess.
The 106 mm gun would have been a priceless asset for the IRA. Like the DShK heavy machine guns they would probably be used near the border. At over 200 kg and eleven feet in length transporting and hiding it would not be trivial, although the IRA had always shown an ability to move mortar-lorries and large bombs.
The 106 mm gun, like the 82 mm mortar, would have presented a new threat to observation towers in South Armagh and other border outposts. It could also have been used in its intended anti-armour role against RUC and British Army vehicles.
One potential target raised by both Moloney and Crawley is the British patrol vessel in Carlingford Lough. The South Armagh IRA had taken potshots at Royal Navy boats in the Lough, most recently in December 1993 when they fired two rounds from a Barret .50 rifle at Bird-class patrol vessel HMS Cygnet. Armed with a more potent direct-fire weapon they could have dealt a lot more damage, no doubt a propaganda coup for republicans.
Moloney raises another maritime scenario for the 106 mm gun: Sinking a ship (or ships) in Belfast harbour, blocking access to the sea. Sinking a single ship, let alone ships, large enough to obstruct passage into Belfast harbour, in the heart of the city, would be a significant undertaking. The loss of the 106 mm recoilless rifle involved seems a given. Had the operation succeeded it would have made great television and embarrassed the British government, but in a historical context IRA attacks on commercial and naval shipping were hardly unknown. In 1990 an IRA bomb crippled the 31,565 ton British naval vessel RFA Fort Victoria at dock, three months post-christening; she narrowly avoiding sinking after listing at 45 degrees and was stuck in Belfast harbour for two years.
In 1994 the IRA in South Armagh shot down two low-flying British Army helicopters using mortars. It’s possible the 106 mm cannon could be co-opted for a similar role, especially considering its accuracy and flat trajectory relative to the IRA’s home-made mortars.
This is ultimately all speculation, but there are two new capabilities that the IRA introduced in the early 1990s that provide a potential blueprint of the strategic and tactical impact the 82 mm mortars and 106 mm recoilless rifles might have had.
The high-powered Barret .50 rifle, which can penetrate body armour with ease, was first fired at the British Army in Northern Ireland in early 1990. However it wasn’t until August 1992 that the sniping campaign began in earnest. From late 1992 until the end of 1993 the IRA killed six British soldiers and three RUC officers in single-shot sniper attacks, all bar one in South Armagh.
The campaign imposed difficulties on the operational manoeuvrability of British security forces in South Armagh, not to mention the effect on morale. A British Army intelligence officer, Patrick Mercer, recounted a meeting discussing the sniper threat:
We’re all sat around talking then suddenly the Major-General, Commander Land Forces, said “I can’t believe it. I’m sitting here with a bunch of highly-paid and clearly bright, able people talking as if I was a Second-Lieutenant, dealing with a sniper. What have we come to?” And everybody sort of had a nervous laugh. “But this is the point isn’t it? Two or three expert gunmen can hold the British Army, the RUC, and the British government to ransom, by every so often killing or wounding a small number of men but in a particular style.”
The sniper campaign coincided with a significant escalation in the IRA’s mortar campaign via the introduction of the new “Barrack Buster”. Specifications varied, but broadly mortars in this class contained upwards of 100 kg explosives per projectile, effectively a flying car bomb.
IRA mortar attacks in Northern Ireland in the years leading up to 1993 were largely ineffective, compared to the series of devastating attacks in the mid-1980s. However the introduction of the Barrack Buster at the end of 1992 signalled the beginning of more destructive and injurious mortar attacks.
In January the IRA carried out a mortar attack on Clogher RUC barracks, landing in the car park and leaving several police officers with minor injuries. In February the IRA mortared XMG Crossmaglen, damaging the base and hospitalising a civilian worker. In March there was a mortar attack on Bessbrook base, damaging over thirty houses in the village. That same month the IRA struck at Keady RUC base, killing a civilian contractor operating a crane and seriously injuring three others. In April the IRA lobbed a mortar bomb at Crossmaglen again, injuring three British soldiers.
As mentioned previously, in 1994 the IRA in South Armagh used these mortars to shoot down two low-flying British Army helicopters.
This is far from an exhaustive list but should give a flavour. The IRA’s pride in their new artillery was evidenced by a live-fire demonstration for journalists in a border Sitka forest in March 1993.
The menacing sniper and mortar campaigns along the border, particularly in South Armagh, made the IRA a more dangerous factor in the region than they had been for some time. Author Chris Harnden described this period as the “zenith” of the South Armagh Brigade.
However viewed in a broader context this did not alter the military-political trajectory of the IRA. The British government were no closer to acceding to the IRA’s public demand of withdrawal. The road to the 1994 ceasefire was well advanced. The extent to which equipment as much as expertise played a role can be debated; three of the lethal sniper attacks in South Armagh in 1993 involved a regular 7.62mm rifle rather than a .50 weapon.
Had the IRA gotten its hands on the 82 mm mortars and 106 mm recoilless guns there could well have been more “spectaculars”, more pressure on the British Army in border areas, and more morale boosts for the republican movement. Conversely, surface-to-air missiles and flamethrowers from Libya were used once or twice before being relegated to bunkers in the South and that may have been the fate of the Eksund weapons.
Either way a greatly changed high-level strategic calculus for both sides was unlikely to emerge.
The Eksund, following the earlier Libyan shipments, would have presented a significant further boost to the IRA’s arsenal and enabled it to carry out some new kinds of operations, and provided a greater pool of arms for regular actions.
The idea, however, that receiving the Eksund’s weapons would have somehow had a transformative effect on the IRA’s training, tactics, and organisational structure, or changed the nature of the conflict altogether is hard to substantiate. Perhaps republicans would have had bigger arms dumps to use as leverage during the unending peace process-era decommissioning crises. Maybe dissident republicans would be better armed because there was more materiel floating around to fall into their hands.
The organisation would have been on the same path it was in our timeline, with a leadership who had long decided on a political strategy steering the movement to the 1994 ceasefire followed by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and an end to the campaign on the terms of constitutional nationalism, rather than traditional republicanism.
⏩Brandon Sullivan is a middle-aged West Belfast émigré. He juggles fatherhood & marriage with working in a policy environment and writing for TPQ about the conflict, films, books, and politics.
⏩Bleakley is an IT consultant currently living in the south of Ireland. Covid-19 boredom spurred an interest in the nitty gritty of Irish history.