The Invasion of Rockall

Hoisting the Union Jack over Rockall.

Hoisting the Union Jack over Rockall.

At its height, the British Empire owned a large chunk of Earth’s habitable land. The saying went that “the sun never set on the British Empire.” However, by the 1950s much of the venerable old empire’s territory was gone, either lost during World War II or abandoned in light of the anti-colonial feelings that dominated the day.

While the empire crumbled, the UK did engage in one last territorial expansion. The Queen herself ordered the expansion, and troops were duly dispatched to secure the coveted island. However, in stark contrast to the grand conquests of the imperial hey day, this bit of land lay only 300 miles west of Scotland. The 100ft wide and 70ft tall rock, aptly named Rockall, jutted out of the ocean, the only visible piece of a vast, extinct volcano that lay deep beneath the waves.

The “invasion” took place on September 21, 1955. Sailors from HMS Vidal were duly dispatched after the Queen’s order. Royal Marine Sergeant Brian Peel became the first person to set foot on the rock since 1862. The sergeant attempted to gather samples for naturalist James Fischer from the rock’s water line, but was soon overwhelmed by the waves of the tumultuous north Atlantic. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Desmond Scott raised the British flag over the rocky redoubt, previously only claimed by sea birds.

Why would the UK expend so much energy claiming a barren rock? As with most bits of strange behavior from the middle part of the last century, the answer lay with Cold War paranoia. The UK had secured a tactical nuclear missile, the Corporal, from the United States. The device would form the linch-pin of the NATO strategy in Europe should the Soviets decide to invade. The British decided the best place to test the missile would be in the far northern ocean. However, Rockall Island lay within radio range of the testing site. They worried that Soviet agents could set up an outpost on the island and monitor their testing activities. So, they annexed the island to prevent that from happening.

It is not clear that the Soviets even knew the island existed. As was said, no one had set foot on the lonely rock for nearly a hundred years before the invasion. The annexation was lambasted in the media, and satirists naturally had a field day. To this day, Britain claims the rock, although other nations contest the claim because there is evidence to suggest mineral resources might be available on the continental shelf beneath it.



Danek, Ondrej. Rockall. Brno, 2009.


Gavaghan, Julian. “On This Day: Britain invades uninhabited Island in bizarre Cold War drama.” September 27, 2013. Yahoo News. November 8, 2014.–britain-invades-uninhabited-island-in-bizarre-cold-war-drama-140941246.html#RD8b12a


MacDonald, Fraser. The last outpost of Empire: Rockall and the Cold War. School of Anthropology, Geography & Environmental Studies, The University of Melbourne. Journal of Historical Geography 32 (2006) 627-647.