Recolonization: The Unlikeliest of Successes.

Last Thursday, March 19, marked the fortieth anniversary of the British invasion of Anguilla. The operation, termed ‘Sheepskin’ by the British military, was widely repudiated by the international community and scorned by the world press. An immediate parallel was evoked as soon as ‘Sheepskin’ was replaced, in the eyes of the world, for ‘Bay of Piglets.'[1] And discomfort at the English Parliament was such that, according to Donald Westlake, Prime Minister Wilson was called, among other charming names, ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing.'[2]

Militarily, things in Anguilla went more smoothly: two British frigates (the H.M.S. Minerva and the H.M.S. Rothesay) had sailed from Antigua the night before, reaching the Anguillan shoreline before dawn. On board was the Second Battalion, Parachute Regiment, who had been flown to Antigua expressly for this mission. The 135 Red Devil paratroopers had the perimeter of the island secured by 8 am, less than three hours after landing.[3] Then again, once they got to Anguilla, they didn’t find all that much to secure: penetrating the island simultaneously from Crocus Bay and Road Bay, the British encountered some surprise and a good degree of indignation among the locals. But no resistance, at all.

At this point, the Anguillan conflict had been going on for at least 22 months. Since May 30, 1967, the day when local rebels expelled the police force from the island, the world had been made aware that Anguilla was not happy to be an appendix of St Kitts, acknowledged only in name in the (British) Associated State of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla. Since then, the provisional government of Anguilla had managed to keep the Kittitians at bay, to gain the sympathy, if not the official support, of most neighbouring Caribbean nations, and to catch the attention of the world’s press.

British soldier on guard. Foto: Unknown.

In a half-hearted effort to ease negotiations between Anguilla and St Kitts, Britain appointed an Administrator to the rebel island for an interim period of one year, starting on January 1968. Twelve months later, little had changed and nothing had been achieved: both sides remained equally steadfast in their resolve not to yield, with the Kittitian government insisting on the illegality of Anguilla’s secession, and Anguilla proving in practical terms that it was quite capable of running its own affairs and provide for its people (government coffers at the end of 1968 showed a profit of over BWI $90,000).[4]

With no final solution to the conflict in sight, and fearing no progress would be derived from the appointment of yet another period of British interim administration, Anguilla declared independence (again) on February 7, 1969, after a referendum to ratify an earlier declaration passed by 1739 votes to 4.[5] St Kitts retaliated by demanding support (from the British, from Jamaica, from Trinidad, from anyone, really) for a military expedition to crush the insurgency. Britain’s response was to step-up her efforts to make diplomacy prevail. This brings us to the figure of William Whitlock: one of the most incompetent envoys to have served the British Empire in the history of its existence.

A Junior Minister of the Cabinet, Whitlock was the Under Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. He had been involved in the Anguilla ‘issue’ for months, meeting the relevant characters both in London and the Caribbean several times. After negotiating a deal that seemed by all means favourable to Anguillans, he was sent to the island on March 11, 1969 with the sole purpose of persuading the local government to allow a new interim administration by the British to be appointed, this time one of indefinite duration. His method of persuasion included a short, curt speech, indiscriminately throwing leaflets at a gathered crowd, hardly acknowledging the local head of government, and snubbing the arrangements he had made for lunch. William Whitlock and the rest of the British delegation were forced out of the island at gunpoint, before the end of the day. Then came the two Parachute Regiment.

Local didn’t turn out to be as fierce as initially feared. Source:

It has been explained to me that at any given moment the British military have a number of troops ready to jump into action, if action is required. By pure coincidence, on the night of the 17th of March, 1969, the fortunate garrison standing by happened to be the Parachute Regiment. At no point was it the intention, however, to parachute anyone onto the island. Luckily. As Simon Hemans, Deputy Commissioner of Anguilla from March (19th) to October 1969, put it to me, ‘we had received reports that the ground was solid rock, and the last thing we wanted was to have forty or fifty broken legs even before the operation started.’ No kidding.

So the British forces judiciously exchanged the speed afforded by an aerial invasion in favour of the safety provided by a naval approach. Indeed, they sacrificed speed to such degree that, by the time they reached Anguilla, newspapers back in England had been leaking news about ‘Britain’s worst-kept security secret’ for 36 hours.[6] The British troops had been gathered at Lyneham airfield the night of March 17, with views to departing to Antigua early in the morning. However, a fog so dense fell over the Oxfordshire countryside that taking off was out of the question. A number of the troops were then mobilised to Brize Norton – but the trucks that took them there were hardly immune to the weather conditions, as was evident in their speed. Eventually, a nice sample of the RAF fleet, including at least one Hercules, a Vickers VC10 and a Bristol Britannia, managed to find its bearings in the mist and lift the troops en route to the perils awaiting them in the Caribbean.

However, the bad weather was not exclusive to the English countryside: strong headwinds throughout the flight forced the VC10 to stop for refuelling in the island of Bermuda; the same headwinds, presumably, which brought about a rather brusque landing that claimed two tyres. Which was a problem, because the text book said that the VC10 should always carry one spare wheel in case of an accident. But no one had envisaged a scenario where two tyres blew, causing absolutely no further damage to the aircraft.

As anyone might be forgiven to imagine, the cosmopolitan airport facilities in Bermuda didn’t happen to have a spare wheel of the specifications required. So a motley crew of paratroopers in their red berets and Scotland Yard policemen in their uniforms loitered while reinforcements from wherever came to the rescue. Meanwhile, another bunch of white men in red berets tapped their fingers or, more likely, scorched, in Antigua, as they awaited the arrival of the remainder of the task force to, finally, pounce on their prey.

By the time the men from Bermuda arrived in Antigua, late in the afternoon of March 18, the London Daily Express and Evening News already had divulged the secrets of an invasion that wouldn’t take place for another twelve hours. The delays in the transportation of the troops had caused a lag in the operation, which forced the British to overnight in Antigua. No arrangements had been made for the hundred odd men to sleepover in the island but it was a cool evening; and the rainy season had already started; and, happily, the long landing strip in Antigua has a service road towards the end that is seldom used by anyone; and the grass by the side of it was soft, and moist, and rather cosy. I suppose a beret isn’t much of a pillow; on the other hand, it must be better than a bobby. Simon Hemans, the only passenger travelling without headgear, promptly checked himself into a hotel.

Searches. Source: Ronald Webster’s Scrapbook of Anguilla’s Revolution

When the British finally landed in Anguilla, a day or so late, Ronald Webster, president of the rebel nation and leader of its revolution, was asleep. In fact, so were most Anguillans. Only a bunch of journalists and one untimely photographer eagerly awaited the arrival of the invading army. Reminiscing with one of the leaders of the Anguillan ‘Defence Force’, he told me how he too had been caught off-guard by the early landing: ‘we drove from the southern side of the island but by the time we reached Rey Hill we could see the British coming from Crocus Bay (north side). We knew they were coming from Sandy Ground (west side) too, so there was nothing we could do. We went back to our boat and escaped to St Martin.’

This reaction was symptomatic of the resistance Anguillans would mount. The fact was that, beyond the universal antagonism all islanders felt against the government of St Kitts, public opinion was seriously fragmented when it came to constructive initiatives concerning the future of the country. This much would have been obvious to Whitlock, had he bothered to read the banners held up in front of him, some showing support, some disdain, for British rule. This too was palpable to the Red Devils, as they encountered contrasting reactions (from ‘God save the Queen’ to ‘shame on you’) while they swept through the roads looking for all of that which they would not find: weapons, ‘Mafia-like gangster elements’, intimidated portions of the population, etc.

Official photo of the British Army’s operations. Source:

Before the end of the day the oil drums blocking Walblake Airport had been removed, Tony Lee (the man who had acted as interim Administrator in 1968 and now came as H.M. Commissioner of Anguilla), Simon Hemans and the rest of the British high command had arrived by RAF Andover (to continue the RAF’s parade of aircrafts on the day); they had set their headquarters in the secondary school building (the schools were in the middle of Easter holiday); and the peace that had always reigned in Anguilla had been restored. Indeed, the most critical act of violence witnessed during the whole invasion came on April 11, 1969 when a crowd of a few hundred people came to demonstrate outside the house where Lee and co. had lodged themselves, in Sandy Ground. A lone policeman guarded the house and the crowd harassed him to the point where they picked up wooden sticks and started beating him. Then he produced the gun he was supposed not to have. The mob vanished into thin air before he even had the chance to fire a shot.[7]

Which is not to say there had been no tension. As Hemans told me: ‘we arrived prepared to find people pointing guns at us.’ It is to the credit of Anguillans that precisely this was what the British did not find. And it wasn’t for a lack of guns. But the British were not the enemies: the government of St Kitts was. And, indeed, the British could provide that which the Anguillans wanted most: not only secession from St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, but legality at that.

It would take two more years for this to happen, and over ten more after that for the status of Anguilla as a British Overseas Territory to be settled. By then the eighties were already underway – soon would come the luxury hotels (Cinnamon Reef, Malliouhana, Coccoloba, Cap Juluca) that would change the economic dynamics of the island and substantially improve the standards of living for future generations. But back in 1969 the balance of the struggle to gain autonomy was still precariously poised and the danger of yet another failure in the history of an island whose greatest achievement had been survival was very much present. Ironically, it was the demonised British intervention which, in time, ensured Anguillans would get what they wanted.

The invasion of Anguilla cost the British tax payer at least £600,000;[8] compare that to the total expenditure of the Anguillan government for 1968: US $210,000 (roughly £90,000 at the time).[9] The invasion of Anguilla cost William Whitlock his job and ended his ministerial career;[10] it contributed to Harold Wilson’s defeat in the 1970 general elections in the UK; and it certainly cost the no-longer-existent British Empire some of the little face it had left.

It wasn’t all work for the British troops. Source:

It wasn’t all work for the British troops. Source:

Yet, somehow, forty years on, ties between the governments of Great Britain and Anguilla remain strong. The island’s economy has grown exponentially over the past decade and political lessons have been learnt under the guidance of what has proved to be a benevolent parent. To this day Simon Hemans returns to the island to spend several months every year. He is befriended with the leader of the ‘Defence Force’, these days a seriously successful businessman. Last time I spoke to him, they had just had dinner a couple of days before. Isn’t that weird? I asked: being friends with the people who came to take you over? ‘I hold no grudges against them’, he replied. ‘No grudges at all.’ Military aggression is certainly not the recommended strategy to establish friendships, yet, implausibly, operation ‘Sheepskin’, for all the criticism it sparked back in the day, might well be the unlikeliest of success stories in the history of Britain.


[1] A clipping, ostensibly from the Philadelphia Inquirer, dated March 20, 1969 already states that people in London ‘were calling it the Bay of Piglets.’ From Scrapbook of Anguilla’s Revolution, by Ronald Webster (Seabreakers (Anguilla) Ltd, 1987), p. 106.

[2]Under an English Heaven, by Donald Westlake (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1972), pp. 202-18.

[3] The exact number of paratroopers used by the British seems to be a contentious issue, with figures ranging from 135 to, uncannily, 315. Each frigate would generally carry 20 marines; and at least 40 policemen were shipped to Anguilla with the invading force, to restore and maintain order in the island.

[4] ‘February 14th, 1969’ by Peter Hahn, from San Juan Star, in The Beacon, No. 74, February 22, 1969, ed. by Atlin Harrigan (p. 2).

[5] Anguilla first declared independence on July 11, 1967, after public consultation led to an overwhelming result in favour of secession from St Kitts. The referendum showed 1813 votes for, and 5 against separation.

[6] Westlake, p. 202.

[7] ‘Editorial’, The Beacon, No. 79, April 19, 1969, ed. by Atlin Harrigan (p. 4).

[8] ‘Cost of the Anguilla Operation’, The Beacon, No. 97, August 16, 1969, ed. by Atlin Harrigan (p. 1).

[9] ‘Webster Tells Why Anguilla Is Independent’, by Eloy O. Aguilar, The Daily News, February 20, 1969, in Scrapbook of Anguilla’s Revolution, by Ronald Webster (Seabreakers (Anguilla) Ltd, 1987), p. 94.

[10] ‘Anguilla Will Cost Minister His Job’, Reprinted from The Miami Herald, October 8, 1969, in The Beacon, No. 104, October 11, 1969, ed. by Atlin Harrigan (p. 1).





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