Battle for skies of south Armagh

A Lynx Mk 7 helicopter of the Army Air Corps (AAC).
A Lynx Mk 7 helicopter of the Army Air Corps (AAC).
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He was an Army Air Corps legend, whose daring exploits during the Falklands conflict earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

And now a new book – Air War Northern Ireland – reveals how the army helicopter pilot Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Drennan went on to be decorated once again eight years later for another extraordinary feat of airmanship, this time in the Province.

The cover of Air War Northern Ireland.

The cover of Air War Northern Ireland.

During the Battle of Mount Tumbledown on June 13, 1982, Drennan – then a captain serving with 656 Squadron – flew his Scout helicopter to the front line, where soldiers of the Scots Guards were engaged in heavy fighting with Argentine Marines.

“Captain Drennan repeatedly volunteered to fly forward to evacuate very seriously wounded casualties who required immediate medical attention and who could not have survived movement on stretcher over the extremely rough ground of Tumbledown,” explained his medal citation.

“He was personally responsible for the evacuation of sixteen casualties from Tumbledown,” it continued, and stated that “his complete disregard for his own safety undoubtedly saved many lives”.

Drennan, who himself served in the Scots Guards before joining the Army Air Corps in 1972, later recalled: “There were casualties scattered all over the mountain.

A Chinook helicopter pictured over farmhouses in South Armagh in March 1988. Pic: Pacemaker

A Chinook helicopter pictured over farmhouses in South Armagh in March 1988. Pic: Pacemaker

“At one point the Scots Guards were firing M79 grenades over the top of my Scout at a sniper 50 yards from us on the side of a hill. I don’t know how he could have missed us – probably the grenades landing around were putting him off a bit.”

Seven years later, by then a major serving with the Northern Ireland Regiment AAC, Drennan was called out on December 16, 1989 to Croslieve Hill in south Armagh to evacuate a soldier who was seriously injured after falling on the rocky slope, where his unit was to relieve another patrol positioned at an observation post on Croslieve Hill.

The injured soldier, explained Drennan’s official award recommendation, “was badly concussed and unable to move”. It added: “There was a suspicion that his skull had been fractured.”

At the time it was snowing heavily, visibility was poor and there were gale force winds.

Because of these conditions, the crew of another army helicopter that had initially been called out to airlift the casualty was forced to abandon the attempt.

However, “due to the seriousness of the casualty’s condition, Major Drennan volunteered to attempt the casevac [casualty evacuation],” in his Lynx helicopter, revealed the award recommendation.

“Undeterred by the conditions, Major Drennan, with the greatest skill, determination and daring, edged his aircraft to the pick-up point, talking himself in by radioing to the troops on the ground,” it continued.

With the aid of his night vision goggles, Drennan managed to land the leading edge of the Lynx’s skids on the slope of the hill and the injured soldier was carried on board. Drennan safely landed back at his base and the soldier went on to make a full recovery.

For what his medal citation described as an “outstanding performance”, Major Drennan was awarded the prestigious Air Force Cross for his daring rescue a year later, in November 1990.

He eventually retired from the army as a lieutenant-olonel and passed away last August, at the age of 70.

• Air War Northern Ireland is released today via Pen & Sword Books (£19.99)