Operation Conservation
Operation Conservation was a British Army
British Army
The British Army is the land warfare branch of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the United Kingdom. It came into being with the unification of the Kingdom of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England...

 attempt to ambush a large Provisional Irish Republican Army
Provisional Irish Republican Army
The Provisional Irish Republican Army is an Irish republican paramilitary organisation whose aim was to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and bring about a socialist republic within a united Ireland by force of arms and political persuasion...

 (IRA) unit along the Dorsey Enclosure, between Cullyhanna
Cullyhanna is a small village and townland in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. It lies on the main road between Newtownhamilton and Crossmaglen. It had a population of 306 in the 2001 Census...

 and Silverbridge, in south Armagh
County Armagh
-History:Ancient Armagh was the territory of the Ulaid before the fourth century AD. It was ruled by the Red Branch, whose capital was Emain Macha near Armagh. The site, and subsequently the city, were named after the goddess Macha...

, during the early days of May 1990. The operation was uncovered and thwarted by the IRA South Armagh Brigade
Provisional IRA South Armagh Brigade
The South Armagh Brigade of the Provisional Irish Republican Army operated during the Troubles in south County Armagh. It was organised into two battalions, one around Jonesborough and another around Crossmaglen. By the 1990s, the South Armagh Brigade was thought to consist of about 40 members,...


British plan

The British Army, in the hope of luring a large IRA active service unit
Active Service Unit
An active service unit was a Provisional Irish Republican Army cell of five to eight members, tasked with carrying out armed attacks. In 2002 the IRA had about 1,000 active members of which about 300 were in active service units....

 into attacking an entrenched Light Infantry
The Light Infantry
The Light Infantry was an infantry regiment of the British Army, part of the Light Division. It was formed on 10 July 1968 as a "large regiment" by the amalgamation of the four remaining light infantry regiments of the Light Infantry Brigade:...

 unit, deployed its troops around the route between Cullyhanna and Silverbridge. A heavy machine gun ambush had taken place on another Light Infantry patrol on 28 April near the same area. More than 180 rounds were fired and a soldier was wounded in the leg.

The main position was to be surrounded and watched by 16 concealed sections
Section (military unit)
A section is a small military unit in some armies. In many armies, it is a squad of seven to twelve soldiers. However in France and armies based on the French model, it is the sub-division of a company .-Australian Army:...

 belonging to the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards
Scots Guards
The Scots Guards is a regiment of the Guards Division of the British Army, whose origins lie in the personal bodyguard of King Charles I of England and Scotland...

. The goal was to surprise and destroy any IRA unit attempting to penetrate the area.

The action

The troops were inserted into the zone on the first hours of 3 May. The IRA watched these movements and was able to spot several of the hidden observation post
Observation post
An observation post, temporary or fixed, is a position from which soldiers can watch enemy movements, to warn of approaching soldiers , or to direct artillery fire...

s (OPs). Eventually, they decided to attack one of the British positions at Slatequarry, near Cullyhanna, which was in the more vulnerable situation. According to author David McKittrick
David McKittrick
David McKittrick is a Belfast-born journalist who has reported on Northern Ireland since 1971.-Professional career:McKittrick began his career as a reporter for the East Antrim Times. He joined the Irish Times in 1973 as a reporter in Belfast, becoming Northern editor in 1976 and London editor in...

, the British soldiers were lured to an open field after seeing smoke coming from the chimney of a derelict building.

On the very first hours of 6 May, the guards began to receive heavy fire from an IRA unit emplaced on the slope of a hill nearby. The OP was attacked with two 7.62 mm GPMGs
General purpose machine gun
A general-purpose machine gun is a multi-purpose weapon: it is a machine gun firing a full-power rifle cartridge and which can be used in a variety of roles, from a bipod- or tripod-mounted infantry support weapon to a helicopter door gun or a vehicle-mounted support weapon...

 and a Heckler & Koch G3
Heckler & Koch G3
The G3 is a 7.62mm battle rifle developed in the 1950s by the German armament manufacturer Heckler & Koch GmbH in collaboration with the Spanish state-owned design and development agency CETME ....

 rifle; the latter used to cover the machine gun team's retreat towards Slatequarry road, where a vehicle was waiting to pick them up. A bomb was planted between the OP and the road, to prevent any attempt to give chase. The IRA members fired their machine guns from a rocky terrain next to an abandoned building. The shooting lasted some 90 seconds, and a total of 316 rounds were expended by the two sides. The section's leader, Lance Sergeant
Lance Sergeant
A lance sergeant in the armies of the Commonwealth was a corporal acting in the rank of sergeant. The appointment is retained now only in the Foot Guards and Honourable Artillery Company...

 Graham Stewart was hit and died of wounds the following day.


The sudden counter-ambush disrupted the British operation, and the officer in charge aborted it. He later stated that:

In military terms, it was one of the IRA's finest attacks in South Armagh. They picked out the COP team in the most exposed position. With hindsight, it was the one weak link in the operation and it says something for the IRA's tactical and field skills that they identified that fact before we did.

After the incident, another British senior officer concluded that a skillful gun team was operating at that time near Cullyhanna. Indeed, on 20 September, another soldier was hit and wounded there during a heavy machine gun attack on a 1st Cheshire Regiment
Cheshire Regiment
The Cheshire Regiment was an infantry regiment of the British Army, part of the Prince of Wales' Division.The regiment was created in 1881 as part of the Childers reforms by the linking of the 22nd Regiment of Foot and the militia and rifle volunteers of Cheshire...

 patrol at Drumalt. The IRA unit responsible for the ambushes was nicknamed the "Cullyahanna Gun Club" by the British army. Author Toby Harnden
Toby Harnden
Toby Harnden is an Anglo-American journalist and author. He has been US editor of The Daily Telegraph since 2006.-Background:...

 suggests that the IRA show of force proved again that they could dispute the ground to the troops everywhere in south Armagh due to its better knowledge of the terrain and use of rugged soil to conceal positions.

Lance Sergeant Stewart was 35 at the time of his death. He was buried with full military honours in his home town of Perth, Scotland
Perth, Scotland
Perth is a town and former city and royal burgh in central Scotland. Located on the banks of the River Tay, it is the administrative centre of Perth and Kinross council area and the historic county town of Perthshire...

 on 11 May 1990.

See also

  • Chronology of Provisional Irish Republican Army actions (1990-1999)
    Chronology of Provisional Irish Republican Army actions (1990-1999)
    This is a chronology of activities by the Provisional Irish Republican Army , from 1990 to 1999. For actions before and after this period see Chronology of Provisional Irish Republican Army actions....

  • Loughgall Ambush
    Loughgall Ambush
    The Loughgall ambush took place on 8 May 1987 in the village of Loughgall, Northern Ireland. An eight-man Provisional Irish Republican Army group launched an attack on the village's Royal Ulster Constabulary station, but was ambushed by a British Army Special Air Service unit of twenty-five. The...

  • South Armagh Sniper (1990–1997)
  • Attack on Cloghogue checkpoint
    Attack on Cloghogue checkpoint
    The attack on Cloghogue checkpoint was an unconventional bomb attack carried out on 1 May 1992 by the Provisional Irish Republican Army against a British Army permanent vehicle checkpoint...

  • Glasdrumman ambush
    Glasdrumman ambush
    The Glasdrumman ambush was an attack by the Provisional Irish Republican Army against a British Army observation post. It took place on 17 July 1981 at a scrapyard southwest of Crossmaglen, County Armagh.-Background:...

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