The Provisional IRA carried out two separate attacks on the same day on 1 May 1988 against British military personnel which resulted in the deaths of three RAF members and another three being injured. It was the worst attack suffered by the British security forces during The Troubles from 1969 to 1998 on mainland Europe.
The Troubles broke out in 1969 in Derry with the Battle of the Bogside followed by the August 1969 riots when Loyalist mobs burned hundreds of Catholic homes in Belfast. Soon after the British Army was called in to restore order in Belfast, Derry and other badly hit places in Northern Ireland. In December 1969 the IRA split into the more socialist, Marxist Official IRA and the more militant Provisional IRA, Sinn Fein (regarded as the political wing of the Irish Republican movement) also had a similar split with Official Sinn Fein and Provisional Sinn Fein splitting in early 1970. By early 1971 the PIRA had become the bigger of the two IRA's and a year later in 1972 the OIRA called a complete ceasefire. By the early part of 1972 the conflict had turned into a three way low scale guerrilla war with the British Army, The IRA (and other Republican paramilitaries) and the loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association although the British security forces to an extent sympathised with the loyalists and sometimes turned a blind eye to their activities and some members of the British Army and the RUC even helped plan and carry out loyalist attacks, usually against Catholic civilians who had no connection to the conflict. The PIRA or "Provos" as they were also known had launched an all out offensive against the Northern Ireland state, British security forces and loyalist paramilitaries in early 1971, killing the first British soldier of the conflict during riots in Belfast in February 1971. The introduction of interment without trial in August 1971 and Bloody Sunday when the British Army shot dead 14 unarmed Nationalist civil rights protesters greatly boosted support for the IRA and recruits flocked to join both the Provisional IRA and Official IRA. By 1973 the IRA had extended their campaign to the British mainland with bombings in central London. They IRA would carry out several bombing campaigns in England between 1973 until they ended their military campaign for good in 1997 with a final ceasefire.
1988 was one of the worst years of the conflict in terms of violence during the 1980s, it saw an increase in IRA activity, a new campaign of sectarian killings by Loyalist paramilitaries and a heavy response by the British Army to IRA attacks. On 6 March the SAS shot dead 3 unarmed IRA Volunteers in Gibraltar. On the 16 March at the funerals of the IRA Volunteers shot in Gibraltar a loyalist UDA member killed 3 people and injured dozens in a grenade and gun attack at Milltown cemetery. At the funeral of one of those killed in the Milltown attack two undercover RUC members were cornered by an angry crowd who believed they were under attack and the IRA killed both of them. In May the UVF killed 3 Catholic civilians and injured 9 in a gun attack in a Belfast pub. On the 15 June 7 people were killed, first 6 British soldiers were killed in the Lisburn van bombing and then the IRA shot dead a UVF member. On the 7 July an IRA Volunteer and 2 civilians were killed ina premature bomb explosion. Later that month on the 23 July the IRA killed a family of 3 in a botched operation in Armagh. On 20 August the IRA killed 8 British soldiers and injured a further 28 in the Ballygawley bus bombing, this was the worst attack suffered from the British army since 1982. Ten days later on the 30 August the SAS shot dead 3 more IRA Volunteers at Drumnakilly. One day later 3 civilians were killed when somebody triggered an IRA booby-trap bomb by mistake. Twenty-nine people were killed in the month of August alone. 104 people died in 1988 compared to 61 in 1986 and 57 in 1985. It was the worst year since 1982 when 110 people died.
The IRA and other Republican paramilitaries such as the Irish National Liberation Army had been carrying out attacks against British military personnel and British diplomats on mainland Europe since the late 1970s. Some prominent attacks included:
22 March 1979: Richard Sykes, then British Ambassador to the Netherlands, and his Dutch valet, Krel Straub, were killed in a gun attack in Den Haag, Netherlands.
28 August 1979: Four British soldiers were wounded when the IRA detonated a bomb under a bandstand in Brussels, Belgium, as British Army musicians were preparing to perform.
16 February 1980: a Britsh soldier was shot dead by the IRA outside his home, Bielefeld, West Germany.
24 November 1981: the left-wing Republican group the INLA claimed responsibility for exploding a bomb outside the British Consulate in Hamburg, West Germany.
25 November 1981: the INLA claimed responsibility for exploding a bomb at a British Army base in Herford, West Germany; one British soldier was injured.
23 March 1987: 31 people were injured in a car bomb attack at Rheindahlen Military Complex, near Mönchengladbach in Germany.
The first attack took place in Roermond a popular social center for British military personnel in the southeastern part of the Netherlands. Two enlisted Royal Air Force members were sitting in a parked car near their base at around 01:00 am when an IRA Volunteers fired shots from an automatic rifle into their car, killing one of the soldiers (Ian Shinner, 20) and badly injured a second soldier. Police on the scene said that at least 23 bullets were fired into the vehicle.
About half an hour later, in Nieuw Bergen, a booby-trap bomb that was placed under the car of four other RAF soldiers exploded while they were parked outside a disco, killing two more RAF soldiers (John Miller Reid and John Baxter) and injuring two more as well. "The bodies were in such a condition that they could not immediately be identified," police spokesman Louis Steens told The Associated Press in Nieuw Bergen.
The IRA were able to identify the British military personnel due to the number plates on the cars. In both attacks, the cars being driven by the RAF members had British military license plates.
The IRA issued a statement in relation to the attacks saying: "We have a simple message for (Prime Minister Margaret) Thatcher. Disengage from Ireland and there will be peace. If not, there will be no haven for your military personnel and you will regularly be at airports awaiting your dead."
Both the British and Irish governments condemned the attacks.
Many Irish Republicans saw the attacks as revenge for the killings of the three IRA Volunteers in Gibraltar two months before.