IT was 50 years ago today that one of the most extraordinary military actions in the history of the UK took place on the island of Anguilla in the Caribbean which had twice declared itself independent.

The invasion of Anguilla on March 19, 1969, by a force of paratroopers and police officers is long forgotten.

That’s probably because there was very little action and the invasion became farcical – Britain was invading a territory where the people wanted to be British. Not a shot was fired and the laid-back islanders didn’t organise any sort of major resistance – not least because there was no telephone system on the island.


IN the rush to get rid of the Empire, numerous countries gained independence from the UK in the 1960s, with Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his two foreign secretaries, Michael Stewart and George Brown, overseeing the process during the Labour Government’s term in office from 1964 to 1970.

First controlled by England in 1650, Anguilla was the poor relation of the eastern Leeward islands and was lumped in with St Kitts and Nevis as part of the West Indian Federation. In 1967, the British colony of St.Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla was granted full internal autonomy by the Wilson Government, but the people of Anguilla were not happy, not least because the government based on St Kitts was hostile to their own leaders who in turn detested the leaders of the larger island.

The 6000 Anguillans rebelled against the new administrative arrangement and declared their independence on May 30, 1967, sending the officials and police from St Kitts back home.

A referendum on independence was held on July 11, where the vote was 1,813 to five in favour of secession from the state of St.Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla.

The Anguilla Council took over the island with a British civil servant, Tony Lee, effectively its governor alongside Ronald Webster, the leading political figure in the so-called Anguilla Revolution.

No long-term governance arrangement could be made, so on February 6, 1969, a second referendum was held. This time the vote was 1,739 to four against a return to the St.Kitts-dominated state and again the island declared independence.

The following month Labour’s junior minister Bill Whitlock was sent to negotiate with the Anguilla leaders, but was sent packing after a few days, reportedly at gunpoint. Whitlock did not panic, as befitted a veteran of the Arnhem landings in 1944, but he would become the scapegoat for what happened next, not least because he claimed the island was in the grip of gangsters with caches of arms scattered around the villages.

He said later: “After several threats and the bringing of more and more nasty armed men and the firing of shots, I was hustled off the island.” In fact most of the shots were fired by young men shooting into the air some distance from Whitlock’s residence.


CONVINCED by Whitlock that the island was in the grip of armed madmen and the Mafia, the Wilson Government decided on a show of force, and Operation Sheepskin was born. The Government rushed through an Order in Council to give the invasion a semblance of legality, but the matter was never voted on by the House of Commons.

At 5.16am on March 19, 1969, a force of 331 paratroopers of the 2nd Parachute Regiment plus Royal Marines, accompanied by 30 Metropolitan Police officers, landed on the beach – there was not a single navigable pier on the island.

The commanding officer, Colonel Richard Dawney, watched the invasion from the deck of HMS Minerva and feared the worst when flashes of light were seen close to his men. They turned out to be flashbulbs from among the press and broadcasters –60 of them, to be exact – who were there already and soon having a ball at Britain’s expense, not least because Anguilla’s tiny defence force had been told to stay at home.


THE press dubbed the invasion ‘The Bay of Piglets’ while back home the newspapers turned on Wilson. So did the Tory opposition, Ted Heath

querying the legality of the invasion while one Tory MP congratulated Wilson on his success in beating an opponent of the same size.

The American papers were even more scathing. The Washington Post wrote: “London looks silly.”

The full extent of the farce became known as more and more information came out from Anguilla – there were no arms found and the ‘Mafia’ turned out to be a loud-mouthed brash American businessman who was quickly ejected from the island when his background was exposed.

Tony Lee was sent back to run the island as Commissioner and, after a few minor demonstrations against him by the islanders, the paratroopers were soon gone. The Metropolitan Police volunteers swung into action, training Anguilla’s own police, playing football, lazing on the beaches and enjoying months of peace in the sunshine.


WEBSTER went to the UN and after months of embarrassment for Britain, Tony Lee worked out an ‘interim arrangement’ with the Anguillans who eventually got what they wanted - to be British.

In 1971, the New York Times noted: “Nobody seems to have noticed at the time, but the instant the troops landed, Anguilla had won her rebellion. She had seceded from St. Kitts in order to become a British colony, and she had just

become a British colony. It took two years to win, and now it has taken another two years for Great Britain to admit defeat.”

In 1980, Anguilla formally seceded from St Kitts and Nevis, who themselves gained full independence from the UK in 1983. Anguilla is still a British Overseas Territory and is flourishing thanks to tourism and its tax haven status.