This Saturday is the anniversary of the 1983 American invasion of Grenada, codenamed Operation Urgent Fury, which squashed a revolution on the tiny island that dared to challenge US control of the Caribbean. Margaret Thatcher, the UK prime minister at the time, felt put out because US President Ronald Reagan had kept her in the dark about his plans to land troops on the former British colony. But newly discovered documents reveal that the previous Conservative government had hatched a virtually identical invasion plan almost a decade before the Americans stormed the island in order deal with a younger version of those same revolutionaries.
Grenada was once a British sugar plantation worked by African slaves. By 1974, Grenadian strongman Eric Gairy looked set to become the country's first prime minister when the Brits eventually left. Gairy was obsessed with UFOs, compared himself to God, and relied on a personal militia called the Mongoose Gang to crush protests against his increasingly dictatorial leadership.
As mad and ruthless as Gairy was, his presence on the island represented stability for British interests. So British spies in the Caribbean were busy trying to stop opposition elements from assassinating him on Independence day, “when his public presence amongst crowds, noise and fireworks might present a favorable opportunity,” according to declassified UK government files that I found at the National Archives in London.
One intelligence report, marked “secret,” was written by an MI5 officer. Describing his work as “intelligence” might be a stretch, however, as the British spook also reported, “On the other hand, the West Indian temperament does not seem to lend itself to determined and fanatical action except sporadically.” That sounds like a weird mix of guesswork and racial stereotyping rather than legitimate insider information.
Nevertheless, the files reveal that information from this officer prompted the British military to prepare a full-scale invasion plan on the eve of Grenada's independence, “to restore law and order and constitutional government. This would involve a reversion to colonial rule,” the foreign secretary warned Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath in January 1974.
MI5 was worried about the New Jewel Movement ("Jewel" was an acronym for “Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation"). It was viewed as “an extremist organization whose main aim is the overthrow of Gairy and his government (by force if other means fail) and the setting up in its place of a people's revolutionary regime.” The files show that Britain's economic interests in the Caribbean were comparable with investments in India and oil reserves in the Middle East. They reveal that MI5 spied on Grenada's trade unions and ran informants inside the New Jewel Movement (NJM) in the months before independence, looking for plots against Gairy.
MI5 did this knowing that Gairy was no angel. Their intelligence reports refer to his Mongoose Gang as “ruthless” and described it as “an un-uniformed and undisciplined body… many of them have criminal records.”
In the end, the British invasion plan was never used, because Gairy clung to power during independence. It would be another five years before the NJM ousted Gairy in a coup, creating a progressive republic in the Caribbean that would be a thorn in the side of American free marketers with slogans like “Education: A Right, Not a Privilege.”
Chris Searle, a former speechwriter for the NJM leader, told me he was surprised to learn about the UK's contingency plans, as the movement had viewed British imperialism as in the past, unlike the threat of American aggression. But the British plans were credible. The secret intelligence reports on Grenada were compiled by the MI5 station on the neighboring island of Trinidad, which had orchestrated the overthrow of Guyana's democratically elected government in 1953 when Winston Churchill feared the country's leader, Cheddi Jagan, was too left-wing.
British concerns about the NJM overthrowing Gairy in Grenada went to the very top of the government. On January 25, 1974, the foreign secretary advised the prime minister that “the internal situation in Grenada has deteriorated seriously in the last few weeks. There have been strikes, interruptions of public services, and demonstrations which have led to violence including shooting, with resultant casualties including three deaths. Nevertheless Mr. Gairy's Government is still in control. There is a fair chance that, with the security forces at his disposal (the police and the newly recalled 'police aides' [the Mongoose Gang]), he will succeed in containing the situation at least until independence on the 7th February 1974.”
However, the foreign secretary warned the PM that drastic measures had to be contemplated. “In the worst case it is possible that the government may not succeed in retaining control so that it becomes impracticable to transfer sovereignty on the 7th of February to a cohesive and effective authority,” he wrote. This would put the UK in a difficult position, the minister explained, and an invasion to restore “colonial rule” had to be considered.
Britain's defense secretary then convened a meeting on January 30 with the military top brass to discuss a secret paper titled “Grenada: Policy on Intervention by HM [Her Majesty's] Forces.” On the scenario of “Intervention to restore law and order after a breakdown of the Gairy Government,” the briefing noted that “the Ministry of Defense has examined in general terms how such an operation might be mounted.”
The plan bears striking resemblance to the 1983 US invasion. It involved a battalion of Royal Marines or paratroopers, a squadron of helicopters, and warships with “sufficient logistic support for 28 days' operation.” Military lawyers even asked, “What would be the legal position of British forces sent into the Island? If a Marine, in the course of his duty, should kill a local inhabitant, would he be liable for trial by court-martial for the civil offense of, for example, manslaughter?”
The papers also show how British planners were concerned about deploying the Parachute Regiment in Grenada, “whose associations with Londonderry we might wish to avoid in the Grenada situation”—a reference to the paras' role in the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre of peaceful protesters in Ireland. You can see why. In November 1973, Gairy's Mongoose Gang had shot activists in an episode known as Grenada's Bloody Sunday.
In fact, Whitehall had sanctioned Gairy's crackdown. The foreign secretary sent a secret memo to the prime minister in May 1973 warning, “There are signs that the role of the official Opposition in Grenada may before long be taken over by a newly formed Black Power organization.” The minister suggested, “It might be better that Mr. Gairy should have a free hand to keep such developments under control in an independent Grenada than that we ourselves should run the risk of becoming involved in the task.”
The UK Foreign Office did not respond to requests for comment.