On 17 February 1978, a British Army Gazelle helicopter, serial number XX404, went down near Jonesborough, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, after being fired at by a Provisional IRA unit from the South Armagh Brigade. The IRA unit was involved in a gun battle with a Green Jackets' observation post deployed in the area, and the helicopter was sent in to support the ground troops. The helicopter crashed after the pilot lost control of the aircraft whilst evading ground fire.
Lieutenant-Colonel Iain Douglas Corden-Lloyd, 2nd Battalion Green Jackets commanding officer, died in the crash. The incident was overshadowed by the La Mon restaurant bombing, which took place just hours later near Belfast.
By early 1978, the British Army forces involved in Operation Banner had recently replaced their ageing Bell H-13 Sioux helicopters for the more versatile Aérospatiale Gazelles. The introduction of the new machines increased the area covered per recce sortie as well as the improved time spent in airborne missions. In the same period, the Provisional IRA received the first consignment of M-60 machine guns from the Middle East, which were displayed by masked volunteers during a Bloody Sunday commemoration in Derry. Airborne operations were crucial for the British presence along the border, especially in south County Armagh, where every single supply and soldier had to be ferried in and out of their bases by helicopter since 1975.
The Royal Green Jackets had been on tour in South Armagh since December 1977, and had already seen some action. Just a few days after arrival, two mortar rounds hit the C Company base at Forkhill, injuring a number of soldiers. In the aftermath of the attack, two Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers were wounded while recovering the lorry where the mortar tubes were mounted. Two days later, a patrol near the border suffered a bomb and gun attack, leaving the commanding Sergeant with severe head wounds. The sergeant was picked up from the scene by helicopter. He was later invalided from the Army as result of his injuries.
Shooting and crashEdit
On 17 January 1978, a Green Jackets observation post deployed around the village of Jonesborough began to take heavy fire from the "March Wall", which drew parallel to the border with the Republic to the east, along the Dromad woods. The soldiers returned fire, but the short distance to the border and the open ground prevented them from advancing.
The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Iain Corden-Lloyd, along with Captain Philip Schofield and Sergeant Ives flew from the battalion base at Bessbrook Mill to asssess the situation and provide information to the troops. While hovering over the scene of the engagement, the pilot lost control of the aircraft during a turn at high speed to avoid the ground fire. The Gazelle (serial number XX404) hit a wall and crashed on a field, some 2,000 meters from Jonesborough. Corden-Lloyd was killed and the other two passengers were wounded. The machine laid on its right side. The pilot remained trapped inside the wreckage, but he survived thanks to his helmet. The IRA said that they had shot at the helicopter with an M-60 machine gun. The IRA unit vanished into the Dromad woods and inside the Republic's boundaries. Some Gardaí witnessed the attack from the other side of the border.
In spite of the death of one of the most senior British officers killed during the Troubles, the gun-battle and Gazelle shootdown was displaced from the headlines by the shocking deaths of 12 civilians in the bombing of La Mon restaurant on the same day. Initially the British Army downplayed the IRA's claim as published by An Phoblacht—that the helicopter was shot down, on the basis that no hits were found on the wreckage, but finally they acknowledged that the IRA action had caused the crash.
The death of Corden-Lloyd, a former SAS officer, was deeply regretted by the Army, who lost a promising young officer. He was awarded a posthumous mention in dispatches 'in recognition of gallant and distinguished service in Northern Ireland'.
In 1973, Irish Republican sources had accused Corden-Lloyd and his subordinates of brutality against Irish Catholic civilians in Belfast during an earlier tour of the Green Jackets in 1971, at the time of Operation Demetrius.