Earlier that morning the van had been hijacked south of the border and its dairy delivery driver held captive while the van was taken north. Having been loaded with a bomb estimated to contain around 1,000 lbs of explosive the van was left parked at the side of Millvale Road. The terrorists waited in bushes on a hillside overlooking the scene and waited for a patrol to pass by. The next patrol to pass by was a two-vehicle RUC patrol from the joint RUC-Army barracks at Bessbrook Mill nearby. The terrorists exploded the van by remote control as the lead vehicle passed alongside it. The police Land Rover took the full force of the blast and its four occupants were killed instantly. Eleven civilians travelling along the road at the time were also injured and nearby homes were damaged. It was said that the explosion was heard up to three miles away.
A policeman travelling in the patrol car behind the Land Rover later described the aftermath of the explosion: "I looked up the road and could see one of the wheels of the Land Rover embedded in the boot of a car which had been travelling immediately in front of the Land Rover. There was a man and he came running towards us carrying two children under his arms. One of them I could see was bleeding badly. I was looking for the Land Rover, but I couldn't see it".
The Land Rover had been obliterated in the explosion and debris scattered up to 400 yards away. The remains of the four officers had to be identified through dental records and fingerprints. The bomb was thought to be the largest of its kind deployed by the IRA up to that point. It was also the biggest single loss of life inflicted on the RUC prior to the 1985 mortar attack on Newry police station.
|Constables Paul Gray, Noel Webb, Richard Baird and Robert Lockhart
The four victims were all Protestants. The youngest was Constable Paul Gray, a 25-year-old originally from Belfast. He had only joined the RUC eight months earlier and at the time of the attack was due to be married two months later. The eldest victim was Constable Robert Lockhart and he was also the newest recruit, having joined the force in November 1978. The 44-year-old was a native of South Armagh and left a wife and three children. His name was included on a memorial unveiled in 1986 alongside six other local Orangemen murdered by republican terrorists during the course of the Troubles.
The other two men killed were Noel Webb, 30, and Richard Baird, 28. Constable Webb was a single man from Lurgan with 13 months service under his belt. Constable Baird was known as 'Allen' and came from Scarva in County Down. He was survived by his wife and two children and was the most experienced officer with three years of service. The day after the funeral his younger brother applied to join the RUC and went on to serve for two decades.
In January 1981 a 27-year-old from the republican stronghold of Crossmaglen was found guilty of the four murders and seven other terror-related offences. Patrick Traynor received life sentences for each murder and an additional 12 years for the other offences.