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All the Countries We've Ever Invaded
And the Few We Never Got Round to
By Stuart Laycock
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Stuart Laycock
All rights reserved.
AFGHANISTAN TO BURUNDI
We start with Afghanistan because in English it's the country that comes first alphabetically, but it's an appropriate place to start due to our long history of involvement in the country.
The Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s was the first time that many Britons alive today became much aware of the country. A lot of our early involvement with Afghanistan has to do with the country's strategic (and from the point of view of being invaded, let's face it, unfortunate) location between areas of Russian control and influence to the north, and areas of British control to the south. This is the so-called 'Great Game', the battle for domination of Central Asia that was such a preoccupation with the Victorians. They called it a game, but it was the kind of game where people ended up dead in large numbers rather than just, for instance, being given a stern word by the referee or getting sent off.
Our first venture into the Great Game as far as Afghanistan is concerned could not, however, be described as a great success. Early signs of spreading Russian influence, plus a failure to conclude a British alliance with the emir of Afghanistan, Dost Muhammad, led to a British attempt at regime change. In 1838, a British army of 21,000 men set out from the Punjab to replace Dost Muhammad with a previous pro-British ruler of Afghanistan, Shah Shuja. The army successfully took Kandahar and advanced north. Eventually, Shah Shuja was installed as the new ruler in Kabul and over half the army left Afghanistan. Dost Muhammad was captured and sent to India. But the final whistle hadn't blown. This wasn't the end of this particular episode of the Great Game. It was only half time, and in the second half things went downhill spectacularly from a British point of view.
Shah Shuja was unfortunately fairly heavily reliant on British arms and British payments to tribal warlords to stay in power, and as it became apparent that the British were settling in for a long occupation, the Afghans weren't too keen on the whole idea. A senior British officer and his aides ended up getting killed in a riot and when the local British agent, William Hay Macnaghten, tried to restore the situation by negotiating with Dost Muhammad's son, Macnaghten was also killed and his body dragged through Kabul before being displayed in the Grand Bazaar. Not at all the sort of thing you want to see when you go shopping.
As the situation deteriorated almost as fast as the weather, the British commander in Kabul decided, in January 1842, that his situation was untenable and tried to negotiate safe passage out of the country for his force and the British civilians there. Instead of this, the retreating column was forced to try to make its way through snowbound gorges and passes in the face of heavy attacks. In the end, only a single Briton, a surgeon, Dr William Brydon, made it as far as the comparative safety of Jalalabad.
After this disaster there were plans to reoccupy Kabul, but a new government came to power in London determined to end the war and, instead, we made do with destroying Kabul's Grand Bazaar as a reprisal, and withdrew back to India. Dost Muhammad was subsequently released and returned to power in Kabul.
After such a disastrous start, you would almost have thought that we might have left Afghanistan alone, but the Great Game continued so another round was almost inevitable. This time around, it all went a lot more smoothly for Britain. Well it would have been pretty unfortunate if we'd ended up with a disaster as bad as the first one on two occasions.
By 1878 Dost Muhammad's son, Sher Ali Khan, was, after a spot of family feuding with his brother, now emir of Afghanistan. When a Russian diplomatic mission arrived in Kabul, Britain insisted that, as a balance, a British diplomatic mission should also be allowed there. The British mission was duly dispatched and was duly not allowed beyond the Khyber Pass. So we reckoned it was time we sent in the troops again.
This time an army of roughly 40,000 men, divided into three columns, invaded Afghanistan. Initial Afghan resistance soon crumbled, with the collapse aided by the death of Sher Ali Khan at Mazar e Sharif in 1879. After this, to prevent Britain occupying Afghanistan, Sher Ali's son, Mohammad Yaqub Khan, signed the Treaty of Gandamak, handing over control of the country's foreign affairs to Britain. Then, it will probably come as no surprise to you that the situation began to get complicated again.
In September 1879, mutinous Afghan troops killed the British representative in Kabul, Sir Pierre Cavagnari. And in the aftermath of this, General Sir Frederick Roberts led an army into central Afghanistan, defeated the Afghan army at Char Asiab and occupied Kabul yet again. That was then followed by yet another uprising against the British presence in Kabul, which was eventually put down, but by this time Britain had had enough of Yaqub Khan and decided that more regime change was needed. Splitting the country up was discussed, as were other options, before we finally made Yaqub's cousin, Abdur Rahman Khan, emir instead. Then there was yet another insurgency, this time in Herat, which led to a British victory at the Battle of Maiwand, and finally, with Abdur Rahman Khan still in power and the Treaty of Gandamak still in force, the British Army managed to make a timely exit from Afghanistan. Glad to be out, no doubt.
Subsequently, Abdur Rahman Khan ruled Afghanistan with a heavy hand, but at least managed, on the whole, to prevent competition between Russia and Britain causing him too many problems. In 1919, though, his son and successor, Habibullah Khan, was assassinated and a power struggle ensued between his brother and his son, Amanullah. Eventually, Amanullah had his uncle arrested and decided that what was needed, in order to quell domestic trouble, was a nice little foreign war. So he invaded India.
At first sight this seems like a total mismatch, with Afghanistan up against the entire might of the British Empire, but in fact the situation was nothing like that simple. In 1919, Britain was exhausted after the First World War. What is more, just as today, cross-border loyalties there made it a difficult area for outsiders to operate in. However, like today, and unlike previous occasions, Britain now at least had an air force to assist it.
On 3 May 1919, the Afghan army crossed the border and captured Bagh. The Afghans hoped that an insurgency against Britain in Peshawar would help them, but we reacted quickly and managed to contain any possibility of rebellion. Eventually, on 11 May, British forces, including the use of planes, managed to push the Afghans out of Bagh and back across the border. Then Britain invaded Afghan territory again, and occupied the town of Dakka. But fighting was fierce and the situation was deteriorating behind the British advance. The Khyber Rifles became mutinous and began to desert. British Handley-Page bombers attacked Kabul, but the intended British advance to Jalalabad ground to a halt and things worsened when the South Waziristan Militia mutinied as well. Eventually, forces under Brigadier General Dyer pushed back Afghan army units and Amanullah offered an armistice which the British accepted. The war was in many ways inconclusive, but it did effectively mean we gave up on trying to control Afghan foreign policy. Instead it left us concentrating on the equally insoluble problem of trying to control the long-running and bitter insurgency in the North-West Frontier area that dragged on pretty much for as long as the Raj. As Great Games go, our venture into Afghanistan hadn't proved to be such a great one from our point of view. Mind you the Russians haven't exactly had a lot of fun in Afghanistan either. And, of course, it's all brought a lot of misery to the Afghans. So not a Great Game from anybody's point of view.
Now we are back in Afghanistan. Names like Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar e Sharif have once again become regular features of the news. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, we joined the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom to topple the Taleban regime and remove Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. At the time of writing, we are still intending to be there at least a little bit longer, attempting to crush the Taleban insurgency and help establish a stable and democratic Afghanistan. Let's hope it ends better than some of our previous efforts in the country.
Ah, Albania, Land of the Eagles (see flag), but also, until not long ago, the land of the less than attractive dictator Enver Hoxha and place where you could spot a statue of Stalin as recently as 1980. This was a land so scared of invasion that it had large numbers of concrete pillboxes scattered across the countryside in a slightly bizarre and surprising fashion.
During the Cold War, most of Eastern Europe seemed remote and cut off to West Europeans. But Albania seemed remote and cut off even to most East Europeans. If you'd asked a selection of Brits in 1975 where Albania was, I suspect a fair percentage wouldn't even have guessed it was in Europe. In fact, for anyone who grew up in the Cold War period, Albania was such a mysterious, closed land that it seems almost inconceivable that Britain's armed forces could have a history of operations in the area, but, in fact, they do.
We tend to think of Trafalgar and Waterloo when we think of the Napoleonic Wars, which in some sense is fair enough, but we actually fought the French in all sorts of places, one of them being the Adriatic. The Albanian coast saw assorted actions by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, including, for instance, the capture of the French corvette Var at the Albanian port of Valona (now Vlorë) in 1809 by HMS Belle Poule. You'll come across some rather fabulous names for Royal Navy warships in this book. I know our modern Royal Navy doesn't have that many ships to name, but when they do have new ones to name, it would be nice if they resurrected some of the more jolly ones from the past. The rather unusual name of this particular ship comes from the fact that she was a French ship until we captured her in 1806.
In the First World War, in December 1915, the Austro-Hungarian navy, aiming to impede the evacuation of Serbian troops retreating in front of the enemy onslaught (see Serbia), sent a naval force to attack Durazzo (Durres, Albania's main port) which was then in Allied hands. British ships, including HMS Dartmouth and HMS Weymouth, stalwartly helped to repel the attack. And British troops landed in Albania to help the epic evacuation of the retreating Serbian army across a narrow stretch of sea to Corfu. Thinking of Corfu today, as the holiday island it is, you might be tempted to be jealous of people being evacuated to it, but this was before the days of sun-and-sand package tours. The retreat was long and bitter, and the evacuation was sort of Serbia's Dunkirk. The brave men of the Royal Navy's Danube Flotilla, who had made the long and grim retreat with the Serbian army, were also rescued.
Then in October 1918, with Durazzo now in Austro-Hungarian hands (so much for our efforts the first time round), Royal Navy ships, including HMS Weymouth, took part, along with, Italian, Australian and American warships, in the Second Battle of Durazzo. Shore batteries and assorted other buildings were destroyed, and a squadron of Austro-Hungarian patrol craft was defeated. Shortly afterwards, Austria-Hungary lost the war and HMS Weymouth could go off and do something else.
Early in the Second World War, we were back in the area. In 1940 and 1941, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force (RAF) launched operations to try to help Greek troops by attacking Valona, treading in the footsteps or sailing in the wake of HMS Belle Poule almost 150 years earlier. For instance, on 19 December 1940, HMS Warspite and HMS Valiant (good names but much more obvious than Belle Poule) shelled Valona, destroying Italian planes. The Special Operations Executive (SOE), also got in on the act and conducted assorted operations here during the war, with the aim of assisting resistance.
In October 1944, sailing from Brindisi in Italy, Number Two Army Commando and 40 Commando, with help from a Royal Navy bombardment, fought their way into the southern Albanian port of Saranda, opposite Corfu, and took it from the German defenders.
Brits found themselves fighting alongside Albanian Communists during the Second World War, but such close ties were not to last. Shortly after the end of the war, relations between Britain and Albania were plunged into crisis over incidents involving the Royal Navy in the Corfu Channel.
We don't tend to think of Algeria as an area of British influence, so it may come as something of a surprise to find out that our forces have been in action here many times.
In the early centuries this mainly had to do with Algerian pirates. Britain, of course, has a long history of producing pre-eminent pirates and privateers, but we do tend to object when others play the game too well. The so-called Barbary Corsairs played it exceptionally well. They didn't even just attack targets in the Mediterranean; they attacked ships and raided coastal areas as far north as Britain itself. All in all we didn't like Barbary Corsairs. And some of the most successful North African pirates worked from the area around Algiers.
We tried to deal with the problem with a mixture of diplomacy and rather less subtle violence. By the 1630s we had partially effective treaties in force, but then things got messy and a treaty signed in 1671 broke down into open warfare. Defeats by British naval forces under Arthur Herbert forced Algiers to sign another treaty in 1682.
It's worth pointing out at this stage, that even though we do have quite a record of attacking places around the world, it wasn't just us having trouble with Algiers. Frankly, the city seems to have been a rather unsafe place to live at the time and you have to wonder what happened to the house prices. The French bombarded Algiers on a number of occasions, including in 1682, 1683 and 1688. So did the Spanish on a number of occasions, including in 1783 and 1784. In 1770, the Danish-Norwegian fleet had a go. Even the Americans, rather far from home, got in on the act by sending ships to Algiers in 1815.
We tend to think of military interventions on humanitarian grounds as a modern invention, but in 1816 we carried out what can, in some sense, be seen in these terms. It was our turn to bombard Algiers. With Napoleon finally defeated, we decided that it was time to do something (yet again) about the slave industry in North Africa. Admittedly, in this instance Britain was mainly concerned with preventing Europeans and Christians being enslaved, but it was perhaps better than nothing.
So Lord Exmouth set off for the North African coast to persuade the locals to stop their bad habits. And he took a small squadron of naval ships with him to make his arguments even more convincing. Indeed, the Deys of Tripoli and Tunis found Exmouth's arguments, or at least the sight of the British Navy, thoroughly convincing and agreed to do as demanded by Exmouth. However, things proved a little more difficult in Algiers. Exmouth thought he'd succeeded only for events to end with a massacre of European fishermen we thought we were protecting.
Not surprisingly, people in Britain weren't exactly happy about how it had all worked out, so Exmouth was sent back to drop a few less subtle hints on the Dey of Algiers, along with the threat of some even less subtle cannon fire.
For his mission, Exmouth took along assorted ships of the line, frigates and various other vessels. In Gibraltar, a Dutch squadron also joined the mission. Just as today, the safety of diplomats could be a problem in such situations, and the day before the attack a party from the frigate Prometheus tried to rescue the British consul and his wife, only to be captured. Not a huge success.
When the fleet was finally in position for the bombardment, an Algerian gun started the battle and a flotilla of small Algerian boats full of men tried to reach the British ships and board them. Neither Algerian guns nor the boarding parties achieved much and, instead, Exmouth fired at both ships in the harbour and the Dey's military installations before withdrawing and demanding the Dey fulfil his demands about slaves and slavery. The Dey now finally complied.
In 1825, however, we ended up bombarding Algiers again. In some ways it's surprising that people chose to remain living in Algiers, particularly since, in 1830, the French bombarded it yet again. Oh, and then invaded it as well. Which meant that the next time we returned to the area, it wasn't the Barbary Consairs we were bombarding any more.
Mers-El-Kebir is situated in western Algeria, near Oran. In July 1940, a large number of French warships were concentrated here and Britain feared that because of the Vichy government's relations with Nazi Germany, these ships could at some stage be used against us. So we shelled them.
In 1942 we were headed back to Algiers yet again, this time for Operation Torch. This operation involved landings in Vichy-controlled Morocco and Algeria, and a lot of the forces involved were American, but British forces also played major roles. The Eastern Task Force aimed at Algiers was commanded by British Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson and included troops from the British 78th Infantry Division and two commando units, No. 1 and No. 6 Commando.
French Resistance forces staged a coup in Algiers, and when the Allied troops arrived they met little local resistance from Vichy forces. The heaviest fighting took place in the port of Algiers where HMS Malcolm and HMS Broke launched Operation Terminal to try to prevent Vichy forces destroying the port facilities. Both ships came under heavy artillery fire in the port and were badly damaged, but HMS Broke managed to land the American troops it was carrying, before withdrawing. HMS Broke was, it turned out tragically, indeed broken, and eventually sank from the damage it received in the operation. The American troops who had landed were eventually forced to surrender, but, at least, the port was not totally destroyed.
Excerpted from All the Countries We've Ever Invaded by Stuart Laycock. Copyright © 2012 Stuart Laycock. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Afghanistan to Burundi,
2 Cambodia to Dominican,
3 East Timor to France,
4 Gabon to Hungary,
5 Iceland to Jordan,
6 Kazakhstan to Luxembourg,
7 Macedonia to Norway,
8 Oman to Portugal,
9 Qatar to Rwanda,
10 Saint Kitts and Nevis to Tuvalu,
11 Uganda to Vietnam,
12 Yemen to Zimbabwe,