Somehow or other MI5 got wind of plans by the IRA to bomb the changing of the guard in Gibraltar that was carried out with some ceremony by members of the British Military. A plan was put in place - Operation Flavius - to intercept this attempt and kill or capture the members of the IRA involved. In the event no attempt was made to capture and all identified members of the team were cut down without warning.
When Savage, McCann and Farrell—known IRA members—travelled to Spain in preparation for the attack, they were tracked at the request of the British government. On the day of the shootings, Savage was seen parking a white Renault in the car park used as the assembly area for the parade; McCann and Farrell were seen crossing the border shortly afterwards.
After a military bomb-disposal officer reported that Savage's car should be treated as a suspected bomb, the police handed over control of the operation to the SAS. As soldiers were moving into position to intercept the trio, Savage split from McCann and Farrell and began running south. Two soldiers pursued Savage while two approached McCann and Farrell; as they did so, the pair were said to make threatening movements, as a result of which the soldiers opened fire, shooting them multiple times. As soldiers caught up with Savage, he was alleged to have turned around to face them while reaching into his jacket; he was also shot multiple times.
All three were subsequently found to be unarmed, and Savage's car was found to contain no explosives; enquiries resulting from keys found on Farrell led authorities to a second car, containing a large quantity of explosives, in a car park in Spain. In all probability their presence in Gibraltar that day was a ‘test run’ and there was no immediate threat to anyone on the Rock that day.
Their deaths created huge controversy as it was hard to mask the fact that they had been killed in cold blood - a charge the British Government denied but without much success. When the bodies of the deceased were returned to Dublin they were met by thousands of well wishers in the pouring rain at Dublin Airport. The Corteges were escorted to the North by large numbers of vehicles and many more turned out to pay homage as the funeral cars made their way to the Border and back to Belfast.
Once the Border was crossed their was a different atmosphere as the Crown Forces clamped down on any open expressions of sympathy. Further deaths then followed at their funerals that shocked the Nation and indeed abroad in one of the most dramatic and bloody weeks in recent Irish History.