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Our Top Stories from 2020 Forty-year anniversary of Irish UN troops’ legendary firefight to save villagers in Lebanon

First published April 5, 2020.

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The battle at At Tiri in South Lebanon remains one of the Irish Army’s biggest fire-fights

The battle at At Tiri in South Lebanon remains one of the Irish Army’s biggest fire-fights

The battle at At Tiri in South Lebanon remains one of the Irish Army’s biggest fire-fights

KHALASHNIKOV bullets slamming off the armour felt like a giant hammer being used to smash open the Irish Army’s ‘little white tank.’

The impact sent flecks of paint flying inside, that cut TC Martin’s face as he drove the armoured car into position to fire back.

The gunner, Thomas Jones, in the confusion thought his pal had been hit but it didn’t stop him loading the high-explosive anti-tank round and aiming at the militia’s armoured vehicle.

Jonesy’s fire was on the button and the commander, Johnny Molloy, radioed back to HQ: “I’m finished firing, and he’s finished moving.”

Forty years ago the Battle of At Tiri in South Lebanon remains one of the Irish Army’s biggest fire-fights and saved a Shia village from being cleared of its people.

“They were throwing roses at us afterwards,” said TC, who turned 22 on that day on April 12.

But it was Jonesy at 21 who was the youngest man of the three-man crew of a Panhard AML 90 armoured car which the Israelis, in a nod of respect, dubbed the little white tank.

The little white tank was small but with a 90mm anti-tank cannon mounted on top, it packed a powerful punch.

A native of the garrison town of Newbridge, young Jones had won his place in the 46th Irish Battalion after edging out colleagues in target shooting.

The Irish troops, who were part of the United Nations missions, had been thrown into the sharp end of the complex geo-political game between the Americans, Israelis and Palestinians.

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In April 1980 that meant Israel was using Major Saad Haddad’s murderous ‘South Lebanese Army’ to create a buffer zone north of the Israeli border.

They didn’t care how they did it with Shia families being kicked out of their homes at gun-point as the ill-disciplined militia rode rough-shod over people’s lives.

When they went into At Tiri on April 6, the Irish Battalion was holding their sports day.

“That’s when we got the call out. I had to borrow a uniform I think I had Norwegian trousers and a Dutch top,” said Jonesy.

His reconnaissance unit armed up and got their vehicles at Tibnin and went straight to At Tiri where Irish troops on checkpoints were cut off.

It settled into a week-long stand-off with sporadic bouts of intense gunfire. The Irish had to get permission each time to return fire.

“It was long periods of just sitting there looking at them wondering was going on. Then suddenly there’d be a burst of gunfire,” said Jonesy.

In the distance Israeli armour could be seen moving about while Haddad’s men had their own Super Sherman tanks adding to the tense situation.

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Thomas Jones relaxes with his first beer after At Tiri

Thomas Jones relaxes with his first beer after At Tiri

Thomas Jones relaxes with his first beer after At Tiri

Referring to when one of the tanks appeared in the village he said: “That was the day we s**t ourselves, when we saw that yoke coming up the road.”

During that time Galway man Stephen Griffin was hit, badly wounded and died a few days later in hospital while a Fijian soldier Sevati Sovonaivalu was shot dead.

A number of Irish troops, including Jonesy’s brother Michael, were decorated for rescuing wounded men while under fire.

The militia also forced civilians to throw rocks at the UN soldiers who had to fire over their heads to stop them reaching the position.

The tactics had worked in other areas where UN vehicles were burned out.

“After that they started to roll the burning tyres down the hill. My job then was to shoot at the tyres to knock them down before they got to us. There was mayhem,” said Jonesy.

After a week of the tense stand-off it was decided that the time had come for the Irish troops to take back the village and push Haddad’s men out.

The first job that had to be done was to take out the half-track armed with .50 calibre machine guns that dominated the village from the high ground. That task fell to Molloy, Martin and Jones in the AML 90 and they went forward into a hail of fire to destroy the half-track that threatened the lives of the Irish troops.

“We were hit about 13 or 14 times. I hadn’t a clue, it was like someone outside with the biggest hammer you can imagine hitting the 90 as hard as they could,” recalled Jonesy.

“There was nothing but flames coming off the inside — just down the turret ring you could see the flames coming off, flashes and sparks, the paint flying off the inside of the turret.

“We hadn’t an idea what was after happening, that was the first time. That was battle inoculation, to get hit that hard that close.”

TC, who wasn’t getting his preferred style of birthday party, remembered thinking that if he got out alive he’d light 12 candles in the church.

“On the way home from Dublin Airport with my mother and father we stopped at Kill. I went into the church on my own and did that,” said TC.

TC’s prayers were helped by the AML 90’s position as well as it its thick armoured-plating.

“The thing that saved us a lot is that the armour on a 90 is very good but we were slightly lower than them — they were firing downhill so the slope probably helped us,” said Jonesy.

As ordered, he fired two high-explosive rounds into the now unmanned half-track which went straight through its thin armour.

“The first two rounds seemed to have no effect, it turned out to be the thinnest part of the half track, face-on.

“We didn’t destroy it but there was nobody on it. Then we were given the order to go back up and neutralise it.”

This time the two rounds fired from the AML 90 completely destroyed the half-track which went up in a spectacular explosion.

They managed to avoid the attention of the Super Sherman tanks, although later a round from one of the tanks came close.

“At one stage one of the Shermans fired, I could hear the round going over our heads. There was a serious clenching of arse,” added Jonesy.

The experience didn’t stop Trooper Thomas Jones from going back to the Lebanon, serving four tours there over the course of a 32 year career.

Likewise Lieutenant John Molloy enjoyed a long military career and after retirement worked as a political officer for the UN in Lebanon.

Corporal TC Martin was also happy to return to Lebanon, serving seven tours of duty there during his 24 years in the Defence Forces.

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