The United Kingdom has invaded more countries than any nation since Rome. Indeed, it is often easier to list the countries the British did not invade than remember all the nations they attacked.
Interestingly, only a fraction of the countries the British invaded became part of their Empire. Strangely, many countries we know as part of other empires were under British rule at various times.
Countries you did not know the British Invaded include:
The first major British conquest in the Far East was the Philippines in 1762. On 6 January 1762, the British cabinet authorized the British East India Company, then ruling much of the subcontinent, to seize Manila.
Manila was the main Spanish base in Asia and the capitol of the Philippines. The Spanish and British empires were fighting the Seven Years’ War (the French and Indian War in America). British strategists hoped to deprive the Spanish of a key source of income from Asian commerce by capturing Manila.
The attack on Manila was a major military operation; involving 16 ships and 6,839 men. The architect and commander of the operation was Colonel William Draper, a British officer stationed in Madras.
Draper arrived in Manila Bay on 24 September 1762 and laid siege to the city. Manila fell on 6 October 1762, and the British war for control of the Philippines began. Spanish troops fled into the countryside and began guerrilla warfare against the British.
Ironically, the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris on 10 February 1763 during the fighting for Philippines. Under the Treaty of Paris, the British returned most of the Spanish territory they captured to Spain. British forces withdrew from Manila and Cavite in April 1764 and never returned to the Philippines.
British forces invaded Cuba twice, once in 1741 and again in 1763. The first invasion was a failure, but the second succeeded.
The British first invaded Cuba during the bizarre War of Jenkin’s Ear. Yes, the name is correct. War broke out between the Spanish and British Empires because Spanish sailors allegedly cut off the ear of a British merchant ship captain named Jenkins.
That incident led to major military operations, including the first British invasion of Cuba. In August 1741, a large British fleet carrying 4,000 British, American, and Jamaican troops arrived in Cuba.
British forces landed and wandered around the undefended island for several months but did not try to attack Spanish fortresses. Eventually, illness, probably yellow fever, forced the British to withdraw.
Twenty-one years later, in March 1762, the British returned to Cuba during the Seven Years’ War. Britain attacked Cuba because it was part of the Spanish Empire. Spain was allied with Britain’s enemy France during the Seven Years’ War. One reason the British attacked Cuba was to keep the French from using it as a base to attack their colonies in the New World.
This time British and American forces captured the island by launching a direct attack on Havana. The poorly defended city fell fast. The Siege of Havana was one of the last times British and American troops fought together before World War I.
As with the Philippines, the British returned Cuba to Spain under the 1763 Treaty of Paris. The British never returned to Cuba. The island remained in Spanish hands until the Spanish-American War of 1898.
The British were trying to seize one of Spain’s principal ports and establish a base in South America. Interestingly, all three attacks failed because of a disease, yellow fever, rather than Spanish resistance.
During an invasion in 1741, British forces lost between 9,500 and 11,500 men to yellow fever. Some units lost 90% of their forces, which left the British unable to seize the city. Yellow fever was a deadly enemy that would defeat another British invasion over fifty years later.
Haiti and Saint Domingue
In 1793, British forces took advantage of the wars of the French Revolution to invade Haiti.
The island of Saint Domingue (modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic) was in chaos because of French Revolutionaries’ efforts to free Haiti’s slaves. The black general François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture overthrew French planters and starting driving the Spanish off the island.
The British launched a massive invasion of the island to seize its sugar plantations; one of the world’s most valuable economic resources. Around 30,000 British troops arrived in 200 ships. Toussaint’s forces were not powerful enough to stop the British, but yellow fever was.
By 1798, the British forces were too weak to fight, so His Majesty’s generals made a truce with Toussaint and withdrew. Historians estimate that yellow fever killed or disabled over 100,000 British soldiers in San Dominique.
One person who did not learn from the British debacle in Haiti was French dictator and Emperor Napoleon I. Napoleon sent an army to reconquer Haiti. Yellow fever killed most of that army, too.
Haiti became the second independent republic in the Americas. However, Haiti has endured several American occupations.
A far more successful British operation was the seizure of the strategic island of Malta in the Mediterranean.
The Knights of Saint John; or Knights Hospitaller, or Knights of Malta ruled Malta from 1530 to 1798. In 1798, French Republican forces commanded by General Napoleon Bonaparte seized the island. Bonaparte hoped to use Malta as a base to conquer the Mediterranean.
British hero Admiral Horatio Nelson wrecked Bonaparte’s plans by sinking the French Fleet at the Battle of Nile. Shortly afterwards, the Catholic Maltese revolted against the secular French regime.
The revolt led to a two-year siege of Malta by British and Portuguese naval forces. During the siege, Nelson’s fleet intercepted and destroyed several French relief convoys. Malta’s French garrison surrendered on 3 September 1800.
Malta remained a British colony until 1964. During World War II, Malta endured another epic siege as Italian and German forces tried to seize the island.
The Maltese people’s resistance to Axis forces so impressed King George VI that he awarded the entire island the George Cross, one of Britain’s highest medals for valor. The George Cross appears on the flag of the Republic of Malta.
Today Malta is an independent republic and a member of the European Union.
One of the last countries invaded by His Majesty’s Armed Forces was one of the closest countries to the United Kingdom: Iceland.
On 10 May 1940, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines carried out Operation Fork, the occupation of Iceland, then a Danish colony. The British invaded Iceland because they were afraid the Germans could seize it. The Germans had recently overrun Denmark.
The British fear was that German aircraft and submarines could use Iceland as a base to attack convoys crossing the Atlantic. Most of Britain’s food and war materials were coming from the United States and Canada. Theoretically, German planes operating from Iceland could have sunk many of the ships carrying supplies to the UK.
Britain could have seized Iceland far earlier, but the island had no strategic importance until the invention of aircraft in in the 20th Century. In 1940, new technology made what had once been a backwater strategically important.
Interestingly, the Operation Fork invasion force comprised 747 Royal Marines and a few ships. However, 4,000 Canadian troops soon reinforced Operation Fork.
Strangely, historians are unsure if Adolph Hitler planned to invade Iceland. There was a German plan to seize the island called Operation Ikarus; however, it is unclear if the German High Command assigned any forces to the invasion of Iceland
After the United States entered World War II in December 1941, large numbers of American troops and other personnel came to Iceland. A US military presence remained in Iceland until 2006, as part of the Cold War defenses against Soviet expansion.
During the occupation, Iceland declared itself an independent republic on 17 June 1944. Hence, Operation Fork was one of the few British invasions that created an independent country.
These are only a few of the many British invasions. However, there were many more British invasions than even history buffs realize.