Operation Motorman was a military operation carried out by the British Army in Northern Ireland. It took place on the morning of the 31st July 1972 and involved the use of Centurion AVRE tanks to break down barricades erected in Belfast and Derry. The barricades were erected to segregate Nationalist (Catholic) and Loyalist (Protestant) communities. The first barricades were put up in 1969 around an area of Derry where there were large numbers of Nationalists living in what became known as “Free Derry”. The barricades were put up to stop Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) patrols and this lead to a three day clash between both sides in what is now known as the Battle of the Bogside.
The barricades of “Free Derry” were taken down but it set a tone for the future as more areas in Belfast and Derry erected barricades and by 1972 there were 29 of these segregated areas that were effectively under IRA and Nationalist control. Both factions of the IRA (provisional and official) patrolled these areas and enjoyed widespread support. For London the situation was intolerable and the Army was instructed to destroy the barricades and regain control.
Seven Centurion AVRE engineering vehicles and upto 100 armoured vehicles such as the Saracen 6×6 APC were involved in the operation. The operation was carried out swiftly so as to limit the ability of the Nationalists to respond. A battle was not wanted by either side as this would no doubt cause horrendous civilian casualties; the British Army were still smarting from the “Bloody Sunday” tragedy and didn’t want a repeat while the IRA didn’t want to risk their own people’s lives and possibly suffer their own backlash from a high casualty rate. The IRA dispersed while the British Army took down the barricades with the only resistance being the odd rock or bottle thrown at the vehicles.
Sadly, what could have been a relatively bloodless end to this chapter of the history of Northern Ireland was not to be as a fifteen year old boy and his cousin were shot as they climbed a wall to watch the tanks demolishing barricades in Derry. The boy was killed while his cousin was wounded. One IRA member was shot and died a short time later while numerous arrests were made by the RUC in Belfast and Derry.