16 Aug 2022

Heavy fog in Derry perfect cover for Motorman

British got no strategic gain from Motorman and took a lot of pain and casualties - Mitchel McLaughlin

British got no strategic gain from Motorman and took a lot of pain and casualties - Mitchel McLaughlin

British got no strategic gain from Motorman and took a lot of pain and casualties - Mitchel McLaughlin.

“In the lead-up to Operation Motorman, people were starting to recognise the lethal measures the British were prepared to deploy,” said Mitchel McLaughlin.

Illustrating his observation, the former Sinn Féin national party chairperson and Derry City councillor cited operations including Bloody Sunday (January 30, 1972), which resulted in the murder of 14 people, and the Springhill / Westrock massacre (July 9, 1972), in which three teenagers and a Catholic priest were murdered by the British army.

Said Mitchel: “'Free Derry', as it became known, goes right back to the Battle of the Bogside, when the British army was initially introduced, and there have been several subsequent manifestations.

Mitchel McLaughlin erecting an Irish street sign in Cable Street in the Bogside. Included, from left: Sinn Féin activists, Martha McClelland, Tony Brown, Dodie McGuinness, Donnacha McNelis and Tony Doherty.

“The 'Free Derry' barricades were substantial but it was never believed they could prevail against the British army had it wanted to come in. British soldiers could just have climbed over them or smashed through them.

“There was a very healthy debate at the time about the barricades. They inhibited the ability of the Brits to roam in and out freely, however, they also inhibited the IRA going out on operational activity. There were only so many points of entry and egress, and, in reality, this  actually made it easier for the Brits to track the movement of known suspects.

“Motorman was well flagged in advance. People like Bishop Farren had been alerted, I suspect, by the RUC Commander, Frank Lagan, who had also taken a stand against the deployment of the British army on Bloody Sunday in fairness to him, albeit quite ineffectively, but he had at least recorded his objection.

“He was also briefing people like John Hume and others that the Brits were bringing in heavy armaments. They were already offshore and ready to be landed. They were coming up Lough Foyle. The briefings were quite detailed. The idea was obviously to alert the IRA so as not to start a firefight,” he said.

Mitchel contended the British army was not concerned about losing such a firefight, rather it was concerned about killing more civilians in Derry just six months after Bloody Sunday.

He added: “The decision was subsequently taken by the Republican movement, in the knowledge the British army was coming in, to move all the gear out of Derry, stand down the IRA and not to get involved in any conflict on the streets. This was pretty well observed. There was a considerable amount of discipline and control in those circumstances.

“What I remember about the day itself, and it made you wonder if the Brits were able to predict or control the weather, was that it was a morning like no other. I don’t remember any similar mornings. There was the heaviest fog I have ever seen in Derry. It was perfect cover for them coming in.

“Myself and some others were driving around Creggan looking for them and I nearly drove into a Centurion tank. It was huge, the size of a building, and it was adapted with a massive shovel for moving the barricades. It was very early in the morning, about four o'clock. We had to make a hasty retreat. They did not interfere with us.

“I presume there were soldiers behind them, in smaller vehicles which would have been more mobile, but the tank would simply have rolled over us if we hadn’t reversed and got offside,” said Mitchel.

As the day went on, he recalled information starting to filter back about people being beaten and people being arrested.

“There seemed to be quite a few arrests, although there were not many people charged afterwards. They were just scooped and taken away.

“Then word came through about young Daniel Hegarty (15) and Seamus Bradley (19) being shot dead. Lethal force was used again in Derry within a few short months of Bloody Sunday, just in case people thought the first incidence was a mistake and the Brits would avoid it in future.

“They minimised it but they were certainly prepared to use it. Maybe they couldn’t necessarily contain every single soldier but they shot young Hegarty using a machine gun and Seamus Bradley was shot deliberately as he was arrested. I don’t think they knew him. He wasn’t a known Volunteer. He wasn’t on the run.

“The people who were on the run, who were identified, they were gone. They were not going to make themselves available for arrest,” revealed Mitchel.

According to Mitchel, the efficacy of putting barricades around Derry had been well debated.

“It raised questions including, 'Could you actually do it?' and if you did, could you take responsibility for ensuring safe passage for milkmen, bread men, oil deliveries, everything, which also provided the opportunity for the Brits to actually send people in in tankers and things like that, who would not necessarily be spotted.

“Interestingly, I remember a wee man called [Gerard] O'Grady from Rinmore Drive who was a former Irish army officer. He was a member of the Alliance Party, a very rare kind of animal in those days. We were making barricades and they tended to go upwards but he advised us that was wrong and they should be more spread out. He said: 'Spread them out and they'll be harder to shift.'

“Our barricades were just piles of stones. They were made like a wall. The Brits could dismantle them. Even the jeeps could knock them down and scoop them up, so it was an interesting dynamic to have Mr O'Grady's advice.

“It was a community in revolt after Bloody Sunday, including this wee man who was avowedly Alliance. It was very game and brave to be an Alliance member in those days. There were not many people giving him room,” said Mitchel.

People in 'Free Derry' were also debating what would happen if the British army had free run.

“Nobody actually knew the answer to that in advance,” said Mitchel. “Some people were arguing, 'Well if they come in, we might have a shot at them'. Other people were saying, 'If they come in, they can do lightning raids', and the example of Colm Keenan and Eugene McGillan was given.

“Colm and Eugene were sleeping in their billets in Dove Gardens when the alarm went up because there were vigilantes on the barricades at night. It was a Brit raiding party. They just opened up with automatic fire and Eugene and Colm ran into it. The two of them were not even fully dressed. I think Eugene was in his bare feet.

“So people had that in mind. The Brits could come in and do that again. They could do it any time they wanted. Sneak in, shoot anybody in the street and just make allegations they were shot at by whoever.

“The arguments went back and forth but the Brits in their own way, and I think at the end of the day stupidly, just stalled that complete argument. They moved into the Gasyard, the High Flats and the Essex factory and built fortifications and lookout towers. They also moved into the Shell garage out in the Foyle Road. They set up down at the bottom of Abercorn Road guarding the Craigavon bridge,” said Mitchel.

The British army ringed the city centre. They also had Fort George on the Strand Road.

“They were down at the border too, where they tried to constrain traffic,” said Mitchel, “but in the Gasyard in particular, and in the High Flats, they were eventually actually driven out because they had the same kind of problem the IRA had; they were sitting targets. There was a time when they were actually flying supplies into the Gasyard.

“And even ordinary punters and some of the community workers who were not necessarily Republican were saying, 'You would think they would know that is a stupid place to be', because from the Lone Moor Road or any of the high ground at all, you could just ping away at them. They took a lot of casualties in the Gasyard, more than anywhere else.

“In a sense, that proved that, while the idea of 'Free Derry' politically had some kind of purchase, at the end of the day, it had more strategic disadvantage than it had advantage. I think people kind of moved off the idea, not because the Brits were actually in the area, but because they had much more operational opportunity. Eventually the British army was driven off the High Flats, Essex, the Gasyard and the Foyle Road Shell garage.”

Mitchel described Motorman as a “significant day” not least because of the casualties.

“There was no more 'Free Derry', but in fact 'Free Derry' has existed in a whole lot of ways since, maybe not so much now, but many times during operations, including SAS shootings, the whole of Derry rejected the British government and Stormont and whatever. It was a society in revolt. 

“Free Derry and the different variations of that theme throughout the North, areas where the cops and Brits were excluded, became a debating point probably internationally as well.

“Maybe it politicised a lot of people as well, in the sense that the misbehaviour of the RUC and the Brits, once they got back in, cemented that politicisation process.

“Ultimately,I don’t think the Brits got much strategic gain out of Motorman and they took a lot of pain and casualties, which they might not have got if they had stayed out, but they maybe could not stay out because of their sense of their own importance. The British government was listening to the unionists ranting and raving about 'no go areas' on a daily basis and the media played its part in building the pressure. The Brits were always going to have to come in,” said Mitchel.

Perhaps surprisingly, Mitchel said he did not think the demise of 'Free Derry' was not  mourned for very long.

He said: “I don’t think the IRA lamented it anyway. Free Derry after Burntollet was symbolic more than anything.

“It didn’t stop the RUC coming in and wrecking St Columb's Wells. The slogan on the Free Derry wall which survived was a battle in itself. The authorities wanted to demolish the house to make way for the flyover, a British military intervention. But it did not come down. The only thing not up for discussion was the dismantling of the wall.

“Bearing in mind there were those who were in support of the campaign and those who were not, I think one of the things they probably all agreed on, in an unsaid way, was they were glad to see the back of the barricades.

“The presence of the British army on the streets was resented, especially after Bloody Sunday, albeit the majority of the families were not Republican. Derry was in essence anti-British and anti-Stormont, between the history of Stormont and the discrimination against Derry to start with, and then the Brits coming in reinforced this.

“And division was there between the SDLP and the Provos. The SDLP was arguing an unarmed political approach while the IRA were responding to the lethal force the British army and RUC were using. That was what was dividing people. It was not over the nature of the conflict. It is like the Good Friday Agreement. The war is over but the conflict continues,” Mitchel, now aged 76, concluded.

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