Despite blanket military reinforcement of the area, widespread arrests, the introduction of successive ‘elite’ military units such as the SAS, Royal Marines and Paratroopers, South Armagh’s First Battallion IRA continued its remarkable attrition of British soldiers. It was the only battallion of the IRA to have units on constant active service. When the going got tough for the IRA elsewhere, Crossmaglen could always be counted on to turn in a ‘spectacular’. It devised singular expertise in remote control explosions; use of heavy weaponry, including the M60 armour piercing machine gun; mortar attacks, and long-range sniper ambushes. Most of all, it became expert at planning and waiting for the right moment to strike. Despite the determination of the British army to isolate the area through its saturation presence and intelligence operations, soon the local IRA spread its wings.
On 27 August 1979, a South Armagh IRA active service unit carried out an ambush at narrow water in County Down, between Newry and Warrenpoint. First hit was a truckload of soldiers in a military convoy. The survivors took cover at a predicted spot, and a second bomb was detonated just as a military rescue helicopter touched down. In all 18 soldiers including their commanding officer, Lt-Colonel David Blair, lost their lives in that ambush. It was the army’s biggest single death toll since the assault on Arnhem during the second world war.
The Army threw all it could into the war around Crossmaglen during the 1980’s. It built up its garrisons, both in manpower and infrastructure, created its peripheral installations, invested heavily in electronic survellance equipment, and adopted erratic procedures to foil ambushes. It built up and it dug in. Yet the increased military presence only multiplied the number of targets for IRA snipers and ambush parties. When the army tried to turn the tables, its covert ambush parties came under fire. There was nowhere to hide, even inside the huge fortifications. The attrition rate continued to spiral ever upwards.
For several years, it seemed that all the dead soldiers being dispatched back to England were coming from South Armagh. The death toll elsewhere was mainly local - police, UDR, prison officers, paramilitary activists. The conflict could be portrayed throughout the world as a squalid and bloody dispute between rival communities in Northern Ireland in which the British security forces were playing a peace keeping role, although some twisting of the truth occured to give it this image. Not so in South Armagh, where no amount of spin-doctoring could disguise the nature of the army’s clash with the local IRA volunteers. In a sense, this was a contest the army could never win, even if it managed to crush the local IRA in humiliating defeat. For in a few short years, Crossmaglen had been transformed from a quiet backwater to a treacherous sinkhole by the arrival of that military force. The Local population aided the IRA - if only by their stubborn lack of cooperation with the military authorities - against an army of occupation that was only there to maintain a presence in a peripheral community that had no allegiance to its unwanted flag.