19 March 1969
In February 1967, the British government had allowed the Caribbean island of Anguilla a degree of self-government on condition that it accepted a subservient status as an associated state of the larger island of St. Kitts, 112 miles away. In July, the islanders voted overwhelmingly to reject a new constitution dictated from London, and the island council elected Ronald Webster as the tiny country’s new president. For nearly two years, negotiations continued with Harold Wilson’s Labour Government, but when on 11 March 1969, William Whitlock, the British envoy, arrived with demands that Anguilla accept interim administration from London, he was promptly expelled.1
Wilson considered Whitlock’s expulsion an unforgivable insult and ordered an invasion. Under the Codename Operation Sheepskin, the Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment was flown out to Antigua for embarkation on to two Royal Navy frigates. As the troops were driven in trucks to the harbour, angry locals booed and spat at them and shouted ‘Shame on the British’ and ‘Go and attack Ian Smith and Rhodesia,’ referring to Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence in order to preserve his country’s brutal racial apartheid.2 At the same time in London, George Brown, Stewart’s predecessor as foreign secretary, reminded the government, to cheering from some Labour MPs, that it had not resorted to gunboat diplomacy then, so why now ?3
Meanwhile in Anguilla, Webster assured reporters that ‘his people would not make martyrs of themselves by hopeless resistance.’4 Nevertheless, the paras didn’t take chances, landing in the early hours of 19 March and forcing locals to stand up against walls with their hands raised while they were searched.5 Not one British soldier sustained any injuries, but as soon as the newly appointed British Commissioner, Anthony Lee, arrived at his office, he found himself surrounded by about 500 angry women and children. They sang and chanted and held up a placard which read ‘Go home Tony Lee. We don’t want you. You must go. Freedom is our aim.’ Lee was soon forced to vacate the building, protected by British police who had accompanied the soldiers. In the process his Volkswagen received dents on the hood and roof and a policeman had his shirt torn in the angry melee.6 The sledgehammer methods used to crush a small island’s aspirations for independence were supported in Washington, but condemned by most other nations. Cabinet Minister Tony Benn noted in his diary: ‘We’ve got ourselves into terrible trouble all over the world for no good purpose.’7
- William Wolff, ‘Island kicks out British peace envoy,’ The Daily Mirror, 13 March 1969, p. 32.
- Gerard Price, ‘3 am: Frigates leave Antigua with 315 paras,’ The Birmingham Daily Post, 19 March 1969, p. 37.
- Douglas Haig, ‘MPs in storm as forces approach “rebel” Anguilla,’ The Birmingham Daily Post, 19 March 1969, p. 37.
- Gerard Price, op. cit..
- Brian Hitchen and Howard Johnson, ‘PCs in Anguilla play it cool but anger flares over “betrayal”,’ The Daily Mirror, 21 March 1969, p. 32.
- Brian Hitchen and Howard Johnson, op. cit. and ‘Operation Sheepskin: The invasion of Anguilla,’ The Colonial Film Website accessed online at url http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/node/2021
- Tony Benn, Office Without Power: Diaries 1968-72, Hutchinson, London, 1988, p. 156.
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