Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: How the Army foiled an IRA propaganda coup after terrorists shot down helicopter

By Steve Taylor

It was the airborne workhorse of the security forces in South Armagh, and became a prime target for the IRA throughout the Troubles.

Now an elaborate ploy devised by the RAF to conceal the true extent of the damage inflicted on a Wessex helicopter in a terrorist attack almost 40 years ago has been revealed for the first time.

On the evening of April 15, 1976, a Wessex of the RAF's No 72 Squadron was on a routine troop-carrying flight to Crossmaglen when it came under attack from the IRA firing an RPG-7 rocket launcher as it came in to land at a football pitch next to an RUC station in the town.

At the time the RAF insisted the chopper had only been hit "a glancing blow" by the rocket-propelled grenade, but it has now been revealed that the damage was far more serious. "As [the pilot] came into the hover, they fired an RPG-7 at him, which hit the step outside the cabin and then ricocheted down through the fuel tank. Luckily, it didn't go off," revealed David Morgan, another Wessex pilot serving with 72 Squadron at the time.

Mr Morgan said the craft was targeted by 'small arms fire' from alongside the football pitch.

After making a successful emergency landing, the crew and the soldiers on board wheeled the stricken aircraft into the grounds of the fortified police station, under heavy IRA fire.

Shortly afterwards the squadron's senior pilot arrived at the station with a team of RAF engineers to evaluate the damage.

Although it was found that the RPG rocket had inflicted serious damage, the RAF officer bravely chose to fly the crippled Wessex to Bessbrook Mill army base on a single engine, an act for which he was recommended for the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The official recommendation for the award stated: "Knowing that the ground inspection might not have revealed all the damage, [he] nevertheless decided to fly to the more secure landing site at Bessbrook, thereby reducing the risk of further attack on the security base and his own ground crew.

"His brave decision, made in the knowledge that his personal safety was at considerable risk, was a magnificent example of leadership and devotion to duty," which, it went on, "was in accord with the finest traditions of the Royal Air Force."

Realising the Wessex would require several weeks' worth of repairs, and anxious to deny the IRA the propaganda coup of admitting that the attackers had put one of their helicopters out of commission, the RAF devised a plan to convince the Provisionals that their attack had failed.

"They thought, 'Right, we don't want the IRA to think they've won here,'" explained Morgan, who went on to become a Harrier jump jet pilot.

"So they repainted one of the other Wessex, putting the airframe number of the damaged aircraft on this other Wessex and flew that down the next morning to the same place!"

Background

The south Armagh town of Crossmaglen was at the heart of what became known as 'Bandit Country' during the Troubles and was a particularly hostile environment for the British Army. The security forces had a heavily fortified base which has now been dismantled. 124 soldiers and 58 police officers were murdered in South Armagh by the Provisional IRA. A team of snipers killed 12 members of the security forces in the 1990s.

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