Since the Second World War, the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces have fought in numerous conflicts around the world, from colonial unrest to the fight against terrorism.
The British Armed Forces have undergone major changes since 1945. National Service (compulsory enlistment in the Armed Forces) ended in 1963 following a reduction of Britain's colonial commitments and the development of a nuclear deterrent.
Britain's membership of the United Nations and NATO, together with rapid technological advances, has resulted in a smaller but better-equipped force able to deal with a variety of tasks. Since the Second World War, the British military has fought in numerous conflicts with only one year (1968) in which a British Service person has not been killed.
- 2003 Second Gulf War
- 2001 War in Afghanistan
- 2000 Sierra Leone
- 1992 Balkans Wars
- 1990 First Gulf War
- 1982 Falklands War
- 1969 Northern Ireland Troubles
- 1963 Aden Emergency
- 1962 Borneo
- 1962 Oman and Dhofar
- 1956 Suez Crisis
- 1955 Cyprus
- 1952 Kenya
- 1951 Canal Zone Emergency
- 1950 Korean War
- 1949 Yangtze River Incident
- 1948 Malaya
- 1922 Palestine
SECOND GULF WAR: 2003-2011
Also known as the Iraq War, this conflict was in some ways a result of issues that arose after the First Gulf War. The invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain in 2003 aimed to “disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism and to free the Iraqi people” according to the British and American leaders at the time.
British involvement in the war was codenamed Operation Telic. 46,000 troops were deployed at the start of the conflict, including 5,000 Royal Navy sailors, 4,000 Royal Marines, 26,000 British Army soldiers and 8,100 Royal Air Force airmen. This was one of the largest deployments of British forces since the Second World War.
During the initial invasion of Iraq, the army’s 1st Armoured Division commanded British forces in the Gulf. Air strikes across the country prevented an effective resistance from the Iraqi army and Iraq was quickly occupied by coalition forces, toppling the government of Saddam Hussein.
Conflict continued after the initial invasion: British and coalition forces fought against an insurgency that emerged to oppose them and the new Iraqi government. British troops were mainly based in the southern city of Basra to maintain security and help train the new Iraqi armed forces. 179 British personnel lost their lives in the war.
WAR IN AFGHANISTAN: 2001-2014
The war in Afghanistan started after the September 11 attacks. The United Kingdom was a key ally to the United States, invading Afghanistan in 2001 with the aim to dismantle Al-Qaeda and to deny it a safe base of operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power.
The majority of British operations in Afghanistan were codenamed Operation Herrick, consisting of support to American-led operations and contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). All three UK Services – Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force – were part of the British contribution to the war in Afghanistan.
In 2006, Camp Bastion was built in the desert of Helmand province, one of Afghanistan's most volatile regions. At its peak it was home to 40,000 people - the size of Reading - and supported up to 600 aircraft movements a day. It was the UK's fifth busiest airfield.
British forces faced regular attacks from the Taliban and as violence increased, reinforcements were sent in. At the peak of the campaign in Helmand alone, there were 137 UK bases and about 9,500 UK troops stationed there, fighting alongside Afghan forces.
The increase in operations coincided with a sharp rise in the death toll. In total, 456 UK troops lost their lives in the conflict - a death rate much higher than the conflict in Iraq or the Falklands war. The bloodiest year was 2009, when 108 troops died.
In 2014, Task Force Helmand was closed and Camp Bastion was handed over to Afghan security forces. The last British combat troops left Afghanistan in October. About 450 troops remained to train, advise and assist local Afghan forces.
SIERRA LEONE: 2000
British troops launched a rescue mission in September 2000 after a militia group threatened to kill six British soldiers being held hostage in the remote jungle. One soldier was killed during the mission and 12 others were injured.
BALKANS WARS: 1992-2001
The disintegration of Yugoslavia led to a bitter civil war in Bosnia. British troops were deployed as part of the United Nations peace force and were caught in the crossfire trying to keep all sides apart.
FIRST GULF WAR: 1990-1991
The Gulf War began in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which was internationally condemned. Coalition forces led by the United States deployed troops into Saudi Arabia, with the aim to expel the Iraqi troops from neighbouring Kuwait. The coalition of 34 nations was the largest military alliance since the Second World War.
The United Kingdom’s involvement in the Gulf War was codenamed Operation Granby. Britain deployed 53,462 troops during the conflict, contributing more to the coalition than any other European country involved in the war.
All three UK Services were mobilised: British Army regiments, mainly with the 1st Armoured Division, were mobilised in the Persian Gulf along with Royal Navy vessels. The Royal Air Force operated from air bases in Saudi Arabia. SAS squadrons were also deployed.
After 42 days of relentless attacks by the allied coalition in the air and on the ground, a ceasefire was declared on 28 February 1991. Most Iraqi forces in Kuwait had either surrendered or fled by this time.
The Gulf War resulted in 47 fatalities of British troops, as well as unusual symptoms developing in veterans which are now referred to as Gulf War illnesses.
FALKLANDS WAR: 1982
In April 1982, Argentinian forces landed on the British territory of the Falkland Islands. The islands were claimed by Britain in 1690, but Argentina has disputed this since the 19th century.
The Argentinian troops vastly outnumbered the 80-man garrison of Royal Marines and quickly took control of the capital, Stanley, alongside South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands – another of the British Overseas Territories. The Argentine forces were firmly in control, but Britain quickly responded, sending more than 110 ships and 28,000 Service personnel to reclaim the Falkland Islands.
After the SAS and Royal Marines successfully retook South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the mission to retake the Falkland Islands was stepped up: In two days, British forces bombed Port Stanley Airport and torpedoed an Argentinian ship to great effect.
Two days later, HMS Sheffield was struck by Argentinian missiles causing a huge fire. 20 British seamen were killed and many suffered serious burns exacerbated by the nylon fibres of their uniforms melting in the heat. The attack was filmed and shown on British television, making the war very real to the British public, despite the distance.
By the end of May, British troops had retaken Goose Green and Darwin. They then started a lengthy and gruelling 'yomp' in bitter winter conditions towards Stanley. The British marched into Stanley almost unopposed - the Argentinians lay down their weapons and surrendered on 14 June. A ceasefire was declared and a formal end to the conflict was declared on 20 June.
NORTHERN IRELAND TROUBLES: 1969-1998
The Troubles refers to a violent three-decade conflict over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The goal of the unionist and Protestant majority was to remain part of the United Kingdom, while the goal of the nationalist and Catholic minority was to become part of the Republic of Ireland. This was a territorial conflict, not a religious one.
Thousands of British Army soldiers were deployed to Northern Ireland in 1969 to support the country’s police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), which was at breaking point and unable to contain the violence on the streets.
Military commanders thought their troops would be deployed for only a few weeks. However, Operation Banner lasted for 38 years and was the longest continuous campaign in the history of the British Army.
More than 300,000 British soldiers served in Northern Ireland during the campaign, with 763 troops killed.
The Good Friday Agreement was signed on 10 April 1998, which restored self-government to Northern Ireland and brought an end to the worst of the Troubles. A reduced number of British troops remained in the country.
ADEN EMERGENCY: 1963-1967
An insurgency mounted against British rule in Aden by two rival nationalist groups which wanted control of Yemen following Britain's promised departure.
Alongside targeting UK forces in combat, the guerrilla attacks focused on killing off-duty British personnel and policemen. The violence resulted in 68 fatalities of British Service personnel.
The Borneo confrontation stemmed from Indonesia’s opposition to the creation of Malaysia.
British forces backed Malaysia and fought against Indonesian nationalists in a violent conflict. Most of the action occurred along the border between Indonesia and Malaya-controlled Borneo. The undeclared war claimed the lives of 126 British soldiers.
OMAN AND DHOFAR: 1962-1975
A rebellion broke out in Oman’s Dhofar region in 1962, opposing the rule of the Sultan of Oman.
British forces assisted the Sultan’s military with training and advice, helping to combat the uprising. The Royal Air Force fought alongside the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force, which the RAF also helped to train and modernise.
SUEZ CRISIS: 1956
After President Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal, UK forces joined Israel and France to invade Egypt with the aim of regaining control of the canal and to remove the Egyptian president from power.
The combined forces soon defeated the Egyptians, but the invasion sparked a major international crisis and Britain, France and Israel were all forced to remove their troops.
Britain lost 22 soldiers during the crisis.
Cyprus became the UK’s new Middle East headquarters after withdrawing from Egypt.
A Greek Cypriot militant group wanted to remove the British from Cyprus so it could be unified with Greece. The insurgent campaign against the British presence took the lives of 371 UK Service personnel, and ultimately led to Cyprus being granted independence in 1960.
Unrest in Kenya began after the African nationalist movement known as the ‘Mau Mau’ was banned by British authorities in 1950. After sabotage and assassination campaigns increased, the British Kenya government declared a state of emergency.
CANAL ZONE EMERGENCY: 1951-1953
KOREAN WAR: 1950-1953
North Korea invaded the Republic of Korea in June 1950. The UK responded to the United Nations' call to send military assistance to the Republic, successfully pushing the North Koreans back onto their own territory, despite assistance from China.
YANGTZE RIVER INCIDENT: 1949
On 20 April 1949, during the Chinese Civil War, HMS Amethyst was travelling up the Yangtze River when it came under attack from the People's Liberation Army of China.
The ship took dozens of direct hits and the damage meant it was unable to use its guns in defence. The crew was forced to evacuate many of its wounded and 46 were killed in the incident.
After the creation of the Federation of Malaya after the Second World War, a period of unrest followed known as the Malayan emergency.
An uprising from the rebels of the largely Chinese Communist Party of Malaya was suppressed by UK forces, losing 340 British troops in the process. After political grievances were addressed, the uprising subsided.
Britain was granted control over Palestine in 1922 by obtaining a mandate from the League of Nations.
Until Israel’s independence in 1948, there was unrest and violence in Palestine, sometimes directed at British forces. The bloodiest period was during the run-up to Israel's independence when Zionist underground forces targeted British troops. A total of 233 British soldiers were killed throughout the conflict.