An extract from a new book, ‘The Yank – My Life as a Former Marine in the IRA’, in which former IRA Volunteer John Crawley delivers an unvarnished account of his role in the armed struggle.
Once the Surge was about 50 percent ready, I took a trip home in March 1984 to brief the IRA on developments. I had a meeting with three members of the Army Council in a safe house near Ardee. One of them, from Belfast, who I believe was chief of staff at the time, chaired the meeting. A capable and dedicated republican, I was impressed by both his demeanour and the intelligent and professional manner in which he conducted the meeting. He would later be marginalised by more devious elements within the movement who didn’t share his unqualified commitment to achieving a complete British withdrawal from Ireland. The two other Army Council members were from rural parts of the North. Martin McGuinness did not attend.
I briefed them about the boat and our progress to date. I was surprised when the Belfast man asked if I thought we could move Libyan arms shipments from Malta to Ireland. I replied that I was no skipper but was confident if the Surge could cross the North Atlantic, it could certainly manage the Mediterranean.
I didn’t get too excited about this suggestion. Acquiring military equipment from a government was the holy grail of logistics, but I had heard so much talk and speculation over the years about big weapons deals and game-changing arms shipments that I took it all with a pinch of salt. The Belfast man asked me to write out a list of weapons I thought it would be useful to look for. Martin McGuinness had never sought my opinion on that. The wish list was ready for our second meeting a week later. I believed we were chasing the rainbow, that we’d probably never get any of this stuff, but there was no harm in writing it down.
The first item on my list was the 106-millimetre recoilless rifle. I had recently read that when the Italian Army adopted the Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided (TOW) anti-tank missile, it sent its 106s to its former colony of Libya. No one in the IRA leadership had heard of the 106. I had fired it in Japan and Pat Nee was a 106 gunner in the Marines; in fact, it was Pat’s Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). Pat knew the recoilless rifle far better than I did – I had merely fired one for familiarisation purposes as part of my Recon training, but Pat could field strip the weapon and knew how to zero it in.
The 106 is an anti-tank gun that fires a shell weighing ten kilograms out to a maximum range of over 7,000 yards, although its optimal range is approximately a mile. The barrel is a shade over eleven feet long. Because it is recoilless, the 106 is much lighter than conventional artillery, weighing in at less than 230 kilograms. It can be fired from the back of a jeep permitting the gunners to shoot and scoot. The shell’s shaped charge can penetrate 400 millimetres of armour plate. The acquisition of 106-millimetre recoilless rifles would have given the IRA direct fire artillery. They could have demolished British Army watchtowers in South Armagh, sunk Royal Navy patrol vessels in Carlingford Lough and heavily damaged British military and police installations throughout the North.
Other items I put on the list were AK-47s, 12.7 heavy machine guns, 81-millimetre mortars, RPG-7 anti-tank rockets, hand grenades, flame throwers and SAM-7 man-portable surface to air missiles. If we obtained arms of that nature, I firmly believed that, provided the right men were professionally trained and secrecy maintained, the IRA could have attacked any barracks in the North, killing or capturing the garrison and relieving it of weapons, supplies and intelligence files. In a well-planned and highly coordinated assault, 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 preregistered for rapid mortar and machine-gun fire should Crown Forces attempt to cut them off. Simultaneous attacks by IRA units throughout the North using mortars, recoilless rifles and 12.7 heavy-calibre machine guns could have damaged or destroyed command, control and communications infrastructure critical to a British counterattack.
I knew that only South Armagh could handle anything approaching that levl of military performance – perhaps East Tyrone if they were trained up to it. I couldn’t imagine handing out recoilless rifles to units whose maximum operational reach to date had been to shoot an off-duty UDR man, or 81-millimetre mortars to volunteers who didn’t know how to use a map and compass. How was that going to work? It’s a crude mechanistic view of war to believe equipment alone is the answer. Training would have to reach a hitherto unimagined level, not just in terms of weapons and tactics but also advanced operational planning. We’d have to change our entire organisational culture. I was confident we had the required calibre of leadership within the IRA to accomplish this. Whether or not we had that leadership within the leadership was a different question. Time would tell.
One of the first responses from the London and Dublin governments to such an assault would have been internment, the detention without charge or trial of IRA suspects. Both governments had used it in the past with varying results. We’d lose some good men, but it would also hoover up a lot of dead weight holding us back. By that stage, the gloves would be off. People would be forced to choose sides in the starkest of terms as had happened in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. British aggression or Irish resistance. It would be go big or go home. Would the leadership permit that? Their necks would be in the noose with everyone else’s. That didn’t deter Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke or James Connolly. It didn’t faze Bobby Sands or Francis Hughes. But then, isn’t leading by example what leadership is all about? Why seek out all this equipment unless we intended to use it?
* The Yank: My Life as a former US Marine in the IRA, by John Crawley, is published by Merrion Press.