In August the Round Table, the Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, will publish a special edition on ‘The Commonwealth and Peacekeeping’, produced to mark over sixty years of peacekeeping operations since the establishment of UNEF after the 1956 Suez Crisis. This edition will contain articles on Gender and Peacekeeping, on Oceania’s role in UN and other operations, as well as chapters focusing on Bangladesh, Ghana, Malawi, Rwanda and the United Kingdom’s approach to this type of military operation. While researching the latter, I included a brief description of the British Army’s involvement in the US-led Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNF) from August 1982 to January 1984. This small-scale engagement of British troops has been overshadowed by the far more dramatic experiences of the US and French contingents, culminating in the Hezbollah suicide attacks on the US Marine and French barracks in Beirut on 23rd October 1983.
One commonly quoted statistic is that the British armed forces have been involved in combat operations since 1945, with 1968 as the sole year in which UK military personnel were not in harm’s way. The British public are generally aware of conflicts such as the Falklands (1982), Gulf 1990-1991, Northern Ireland (1969-1998), Iraq (2003-2011) and Afghanistan (2001-2014), but there are other military interventions which involved British troops which have disappeared from popular memory. Hyperion is one of these forgotten missions, partly because the British contingent to the MNF (BRITFORLEB) was far smaller than the US, French or Italian contributions. The UK had at most 115 personnel committed to this ill-fated operation in Lebanon, compared to the 1,800 US, 1,657 French and 1,291 Italian troops on the ground. Aside from a 1986 article by John Mackinlay, a brief discussion in John Pimlott’s coffee-table book on post-war British military operations, and a couple of snide comments in Robert Fisk’s account of the Lebanese civil war, there is very little discussion on BRITFORLEB and its deployment. This blog post uses recently declassified sources from the UK National Archives in Kew to describe the origins and ending of Operation Hyperion. The documentary record behind it can be found by consulting the following links.
In April 1975 Lebanon became embroiled in a protracted, complex and often brutal civil war involving militias from its main confessional and ethnic communities, Palestinian armed groups in exile, and the armed forces of both Syria (in 1976) and Israel (in 1978 and 1982). Lebanon also became a battleground for a proxy war waged by other regional actors, notably Iran (which established Hezbollah), Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Libya, and the focus of a UN peacekeeping mission in the South from 1978. Western intervention was preceded by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, with the Likud government’s aim being to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s base in the South of the country, and to impose a Christian Maronite regime in Beirut that would make peace with Israel. This policy collapsed on 14th September 1982 when the pro-Israeli President, Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated in a car-bombing in the Lebanese capital. Gemayel’s militia, the Falange, assaulted the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla the same evening, massacring up to 1,700 civilians while the Israeli Defence Force cordoned these camps off.
The massacres shocked and embarrassed Ronald Reagan’s administration, not only because of Israel’s indirect culpability, but because a US-led intervention (MNF-1) had overseen the evacuation of PLO fighters from Beirut. After a furious interagency dispute pitting the Secretary of State George Shultz and the Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Reagan decided to commit US troops to bolster the Lebanese government – now led by the dead President’s brother, Amin Gemayel – and sought the backing of European allies for this second intervention (MNF-2). Italy and France (the latter being the colonial authority from 1920 to 1943) readily offered their support. The question was whether Britain, the USA’s main ally, would do the same.
American requests for support in Lebanon posed a dilemma for the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She was firmly committed to the maintenance of the ‘special relationship’ with the USA, and had forged a close political partnership with Reagan. However, Thatcher shared the MOD’s reluctance to become embroiled in the Lebanese conflict. The British armed forces were overstretched by their commitments with NATO and Northern Ireland, as well as with the task of garrisoning the sovereign base areas of Cyprus and (following the war with Argentina) the Falkland Islands. She was also concerned about the safety of any British soldiers deployed to Beirut in the middle of a multi-faceted civil war, and was able to fend of US requests for assistance for at least three months.
Thatcher came under pressure from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and from the Foreign Secretary Francis Pym, to send troops to augment the MNF. Pym stressed that Britain owed its superpower ally for backing it against Argentina during the Falklands War, and argued that any backing for the Gemayel government would be warmly welcomed by ‘moderate’ pro-Western Arab rulers. While the latter argument made little impression on the Prime Minister, the importance of the ‘special relationship’ made it difficult to keep rejecting the Reagan administration’s requests for aid. On 15th December 1982 she agreed to send a Squadron of 80 soldiers from the 1st Queen’s Dragoon Guards – assigned to the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus – to Beirut. BRITFORLEB was sent to the Lebanon in early February 1983, being the first British soldiers to serve in that country since the April-May 1941 war against Vichy France. This small force was based in the East Beirut district of Regie Hadath, and in November they were relieved by a 115-strong unit from the 16th/5th Royal Lancers.
Image: BRITFORLEB Ferret Scout Cars on patrol in East Beirut. The British contingent was a neutral actor in the Lebanese civil war, as the Thatcher government sought to avoid intervention.
Like their MNF comrades, the British contingent faced a volatile situation on the ground. Its troops were frequently shot at, and a flight of Buccaneer strike jets was placed on stand-by at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, ready to provide air support if needed. The prospect of BRITFORLEB coming under a sustained attack from one of the warring factions was unsurprisingly a constant concern, amplified by the Hezbollah truck bombings against the US Marine and French airborne barracks in October 1983. Two days after the attacks General Sir Frank Kitson, the UK Land Forces Commander, flew into Beirut to review the security situation of the British MNF contingent. He had planned to fly to the US base in the city to express personal condolences to Colonel Timothy J. Geraghty (the commanding officer of the US Marine contingent), but his helicopter was diverted mid-flight after reports that a second suspected truck bomber was inbound sent the Marines on alert. The decision by the US, French and Italian governments to evacuate MNF in February 1984 clearly came as a great relief to Thatcher and her ministers, as it meant that BRITFORLEB could be extracted from Beirut along with their allies (on 8th February) without suffering any fatalities.
One factor that probably saved British lives was the fact that the UK government – like Italy’s, but unlike the USA or France – was determined that it would remain impartial. The security of the US and French MNF contingents was compromised by the fact that both the Reagan administration and Francois Mitterand’s government became embroiled in the civil war by effectively aligning with Gemayel; the fateful step being the shelling of Druze positions in the Shouf mountains by the US Navy on 5th September 1983. Both the USA and France were also the targets of proxy warfare by Iran – the former because it was the Islamic Revolution’s ‘Great Satan’, the latter because it was aligned with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war – hence the Hezbollah suicide attacks in October 1983. In contrast, British officials recognised the fact that Gemayel’s government existed in name only, and that as far as Shiite, Sunni and Druze factions were concerned both it and the Lebanese Armed Forces were just another faction in the civil war. BRITFORLEB remained above the fray, and its headquarters in Regie Hadath became a useful location for brokering local ceasefires. The lack of an overall command structure for the MNF meant that the Thatcher government alone shaped the British contingent’s role and rules of engagement, the latter being very much limited to self-defence.
Image: A BRITFORLEB Land Rover. British soldiers serving on Operation Hyperion faced a complex civil war with multiple potential hostile actors, and often came under fire. The Hezbollah suicide attacks on the US and French contingents in October 1983 illustrated the extent of the threats they faced.
Operation Hyperion was a limited liability mission. The commitment of BRITFORLEB was made reluctantly, and the decision to send British troops to East Beirut was made solely to cement Anglo-American relations (and, to a certain degree, to preserve the goodwill of allied Arab regimes) rather than on any presumption that the MNF could impose peace upon Lebanon. The Thatcher government’s calculations were realistic, if pusillanimous, and even if the troop commitment was small the soldiers involved faced considerable risks to themselves.
Yet in retrospect, it is also significant that with the MNF the UK sent only a token military contribution to an American-led mission, in contrast with recent operations in Afghanistan (2001-2014) and Iraq (2003-2011) where Britain has presumed to act as the USA’s lead ally on the ground, without ensuring that operations in Helmand and Basra can be sustained. With BRITFORLEB, the government at the time was wary of overstretching the armed forces as a whole, and of undermining more strategically vital commitments, and did the bare minimum to keep the UK’s superpower ally happy. Sound criteria, perhaps, for their successors in considering any future discretionary military operations overseas.
Image: British soldiers attached to the Multinational Force (MNF) at Beirut International Airport, 1983. All photographs taken from the ‘British and Commonwealth Forces’ Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pg/commonwealthforces/photos/?ref=page_internal).