On This Day: Britain invades uninhabited Island in bizarre Cold War drama

Julian Gavaghan
The Royal Navy's Survey Ship H.m.s. Vidal in the Atlantic with a Navy helicopter used to travel to Rockall. (Rex)

SEPTEMBER 21, 1955: Britain announced it had annexed the tiny uninhabited island of Rockall on this day in 1955 after one of the most bizarre military operations of the Cold War.

Sailors from HMS Vidal invaded the aptly named 100ft-wide and 70ft-tall rock, which lies 300 miles west of Scotland, in a bid to fend off Soviet spies.

Military chiefs feared communist agents could use the Atlantic islet, which is home only to a few hundred of birds, as an observation post to spy on British missile tests.

A British Pathé newsreel filmed a landing party being lifted by helicopter with Lieutenant Commander Desmond Scott raising the flag on the disputed island.

The first person to set foot on Rockall since the Royal Navy landed in 1862 was experience rock climber Royal Marine Sergeant Brian Peel.

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He also tried to collect specimens from the waterline for naturalist James Fischer, who once described the island as 'the most isolated small rock in the oceans of the world'.

But his mission did not go too well as he misjudged the heavy Atlantic swell and a wave crashed over him.

Sergeant Peel told the BBC: 'I had to grab a handful of seaweed, ram it in my mouth and get up the rock as fast as possible.'

The bizarre invasion was authorised by the Queen, with her orders stating: 'On arrival at Rockall you will effect a landing and hoist the Union flag on whatever spot appears most suitable or practicable and you will then take possession of the island on our behalf.'

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During a time when Britain was in the process of relinquishing its overseas colonies, many viewed the landing as a farcical imperial expansion.

Satirists like Tony Hancock, who while listing the UK’s dwindling possessions ended with the words 'and sweet Rockall', mocked the Royal Navy’s mission.

While no one claimed Rockall before the landing, Britain is now engaged in a territorial dispute with Ireland, Iceland and Denmark, on behalf of the Faeroe Islands.

The rock itself - which has only been landed on 20 recorded times with the longest continuous stay of 42 days - is of little interest.

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Instead, they demand the rights to the continental shelf beneath, which may contain oil and other minerals.

The island is administered by the Outer Hebrides council and would become part of an independent Scotland if the country votes to leave the UK next year.