As part of the British Overseas Territories, Ascension Island has a long military history under the Union Flag, being crucial for many military operations since the nineteenth century, including the Royal Navy’s campaign against the slave trade and the Falklands War.

Britain’s presence in the South Atlantic is closely linked to the country’s rise as the prominent trading and imperial power in Europe and elsewhere. At the sunset of the Victorian Age, London possessed the high-hand in the region through its colonies and dependencies, which provided the Royal Navy with an enormous and safe network of bases for refuelling, repairs and staging points for operations beyond the region.

Amongst Britain’s possessions, Ascension Island – alongside Saint Helena and Tristan da Cunha – remained a British territory after the decolonisation process that swept away the old imperial system. As a British Overseas Territory (BOT), it is governed as part of the ‘Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha’, with a total population of roughly 5,600 and a total area of 394 km² (152 sq. miles), Ascension alone has nearly 800 inhabitants and a land area of 88 km² (34 sq. mil). Although the islands’ territory is relatively small, their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with more than 1,6 million km² is larger than Argentina’s.

Despite the long-dated British presence, Ascension was first discovered by the Portuguese. The navigator Afonso de Albuquerque, later known as the Duke of Goa, reached the Island in 1501 on Ascension Day, naming it after this feast day. In spite of that, the Portuguese did not claim the tiny and dry island as it seemed to have no relevance for Portugal’s growing trade with the East Indies.

In the eighteenth century, the Island was visited by many Europeans navies, including the Royal Navy and the Dutch Navy, the latter used Ascension as an open prison for criminal sailors at least once. In 1701, the HMS Roebuck a fifth-rate warship sunk nearby the Island while returning from an expedition to explore the Terra Australis, the crew sought relief onshore being rescued two months later. Captain James Cook also visited Ascension and Saint Helena during his voyages in the early 1770s.

Only in the early nineteenth century the brig-sloops HMS Zenobia and HMS Peruvian claimed the Island for HBM King George III. Following the formal annexation in 1815, the Royal Navy declared the entire island as a stone frigate, officially known as HMS Ascension. The British also established a garrison in the same year to aid the ongoing surveillance of Napoleon I, imprisoned on the nearby Island of Saint Helena.

Hereafter Ascension became a prominent location. It served as a needed stopping-point for vessels and communications. During part of the nineteenth century, the Royal Navy used the Island as a station for its ships battling against the slave trade. The South Atlantic was an important field for most of the naval operations against slave traders occurred on its waters, as the Empire of Brazil was their primary destination and it seemed unwilling to abolish the trade and slavery. British economic and political pressure on Brazil, alongside with the Royal Navy operations, helped to hasten the Brazilian Government to bring the trade and ultimately slavery itself to an end.

In 1899 an underwater telegraph cable was installed, connecting the isolated island to Britain and South Africa, allowing better communications between distant parts of the British Empire. In 1922 Ascension was made a dependency of Saint Helena and would remain so until 2009 when a new constitution came into force giving the islands the same status within the new administrative territory.

The geostrategic importance of Ascension was once again recognised during the Second World War. In 1939 the Island became a high-frequency direction finding radio station covering the vital trade routes of the area. During the Battle of the Atlantic, Ascension and Saint Helena were used by the Allies to base patrolling anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface-commerce-raider forces employed against the Axis’ naval assets. Later in the war, envisaging improvements on the struggle to protect with air coverage the vital sea routes that supplied the Allies, an airfield was built in 1942 by the United States with British consent. During the conflict, more than 25,000 aircraft landed on Ascension helping the Allied war effort. The airfield was closed in 1947.

During the Cold War, the United States Air Force (USAF) activated a ‘Target Tracking Radar Station’. Its main purpose was as a test facility for tracking re-entry vehicles launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida; an ‘anti-ballistic missile measurement’. Latterly, it also became the location of a base for the joint National Security Agency (NSA)/GCHQ Composite Signals Organisation worldwide operations. NASA operates a Meter Class Autonomous Telescope (MCAT) on Ascension, its facility is named ‘John Africano NASA/AFRL Orbital Debris Observatory’. The European Space Agency also monitors rockets launches from the island.

In 1956 works commenced improving the old military facilities for British and American usage. The airfield built during the war and enhanced in the 1950s was named RAF Ascension – also known as ‘Wideawake Airfield’ or ‘Ascension Island Auxiliary Field’- and would be used by the British Forces South Atlantic Islands. The base is jointly operated by the Royal Air Force and the USAF. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and its dependencies, Britain used RAF Ascension extensively as a staging point, especially for air operations. The Island quickly became the vital centre of Operation Corporate; which was the name given to Britain’s military operations in the Falklands War.

Amongst the aerial war operations, the Operation Black Buck is well-remembered. Technically it was a series of seven long-range ground attack missions performed by the RAF using Vulcan bombers of the RAF Waddington Wing. The aircrafts involved were from the Squadrons No. 44 – which served for most of its history as a heavy bomber squadron –, No. 50 and 101. The first two squadrons were disbanded in December 1982 and March 1984 and No. 101 being disbanded after the Falklands War and reactivated in 1984, thenceforth it has been in active service.

The Black Buck operations objectives were to attack Port Stanley Airport and its defences that had fallen into Argentine hands. The raids had to go through almost 6,500 nautical miles or 12,000 km before reaching its targets, for these accomplishments the RAF pilots reached the mark of the longest-ranged bombing raids in world history at that time. It is worth mentioning that this was only possible due to RAF’s aerial refuelling as the Vulcans were initially designated to medium-range operations in Europe.

After the war, RAF Ascension has become the refuelling point for the Ministry of Defence’s air bridge flights to another RAF base in the South Atlantic, the RAF Mount Pleasant, on the Falkland Islands, from RAF Brize Norton in Britain. Almost thirty-six years after the Falklands War, in November 2017, the island has acquired another role. The Ascension Island Government has contracted the South African carrier Airlink to hold regular charter flights between Saint Helena Airport and Ascension on a monthly basis.

In short, Ascension Island is the location of a Royal Air Force base, an Anglo-American signals intelligence facility and host one of four ground antennas that directly assist in the operation of the famous satellite-based radio navigation system, the Global Positioning System (GPS). Moreover, it also bases the BBC World Service Atlantic Relay Station.

Ascension is known for its label as “one of the most remote places in the world”, sitting in the middle of the South Atlantic with the nearest dry land roughly 1,300 km² (800 miles), the Island can be easily considered a tiny far-away part of Britain. In 2015 events were held to celebrate the Bicentenary of British settlement. The official logo of the celebrations was the shape of the Island featuring the Union Flag. Ascension’s 800 British citizens enjoyed cricket matches, a concert of the Royal Marines Band Scotland along with a visit of personnel from the Royal Navy and RAF.

So, tiny Ascension has been proving its gigantic capabilities for more than two centuries. It played crucial roles during the Royal Navy’s campaign against slave trade in the nineteenth century and was central to the Allied strategy during the Second World War. Moreover, when the Falklands War broke out 1982, the island was intensively used as a staging point for the British forces. Thus, Ascension Island – and others Overseas Territories –  is not merely a ‘relic of Empire’, it is a bastion of Britain’s worldwide interests and an entrepot of British heritage in the South Atlantic.

Alongside Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Ascension is part of Britain’s history and gives her a far louder voice in determining the future geopolitics of the South Atlantic than is imagined – for some this is the classic British ability to ‘punch above its weight’, however, this might be an underestimation of Britain’s global stature and privileged position in the region. Therefore, as noted during the bicentenary celebrations in 2015, 200 years after it was first garrisoned, Ascension’s military legacy lives on today.

47 COMMENTS

  1. Blimey that photo tugged the old heart strings. Full on RAF presence days after Black Buck 1 with two of the first wave of three RAF Harriers that had been tanked there by a Victor. The first Victor had a tech failure and caused one of the three Harriers to be diverted elsewhere. They are waiting for Atlantic Conveyor to arrive the following day so they and the other GR 3s could join Sea Harriers and Chinooks already on board to the Falklands. Guessing its May 3rd ….?

    36 years on and that photo would show a fleet of Voyager tankers still using Ascension, no Maritime aircraft and the Harrier replacement the F-35B

  2. Lets hope we get to see a long range version of Tempest. The Vulcan needs a replacement when you consider what is currently taking place in the South China sea. Updated anti ship missiles and MK41 VLS/57 GMVLS fitted to our fleet wouldn’t go a miss either!

    • I worked on a publication for the launch of Britain’s network of Overseas Territories, many of which are tiny islands dotted around the global south. Before these had been known as Overseas Dependencies and, typically, the Foreign Office wished to be rid of as many as it could. I was amazed at how much of the globe can still be arguably described as ‘British’. Britain is thereby responsible for the safeguarding of more coral reefs and endangered island species than any other country in the northern Hemisphere! Long seen by some a dead weight I believe they are more than that. The Falklands were much less of a triumph than many might think; our service personnel got us through and then only by the skin of their teeth. We owe them much. Rather than ignoring these British islands we should ponder why China feels the need to build theirs.

  3. (Chris H) Quite ironic the EU don’t want us in Galileo but need Ascension and other British Territories for base stations … Wrong call by the EU on every front

    • Chris,
      Funny you should mention that. Here is a story from todays Guardian:
      EU may give UK unique Galileo deal after Brexit
      British police and armed forces could be guaranteed uninterrupted access to the encrypted signal of the European Union’s Galileo satellite system, it has emerged, as Brussels negotiators consider a unique deal for the UK on the project after Brexit.

      The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, is mulling an offer on the satellite project that would put the UK on better terms than other third-party countries over use of the encrypted service, according to diplomatic sources. The plans, which are still on the drawing board, suggest a bit more flexibility than Barnier’s public position that the UK would be treated like any other non-EU country. But in a blow to the government, the EU has not budged in its insistence that UK-based firms should be excluded from building modules for the secure signal.Conceived as the EU’s answer to the US global positioning system (GPS) and Russia’s global navigation and satellite system (Glonass), the €9.7bn (£8.6bn) Galileo project now has 26 satellites orbiting the globe, providing free global positioning to smartphone companies, app developers and search and rescue services anywhere in the world. At the heart of the Brexit clash is Galileo’s public regulated service (PRS), the encrypted signal that cannot be jammed by hostile powers. The PRS can be used by governments during national emergencies, such as terrorist attacks, and allows the military to plan operations and guide missiles. Barnier has said he wants a partnership with the UK over the “most sensitive signal”, but it now emerges the commission could go a step further.

      At a closed-door meeting last month, the commission floated the idea of involving British officials in decision-making over any restrictions on the PRS. “To me this is not heresy, this is the logical consequences of a close partnership on security,” said one source.

      Another official said the UK could be offered a guarantee not to be “cut off in any circumstances”, albeit stressing none of the ideas had been agreed among EU member states.

        • (Chris H) farouk – As usual a well presented comment. I think my gut instinct is to say either the UK is a full on 100% equal member or we are not in at all. We have the technology, skills and manufacturing capability to build our own satellite system and then operate it from places like Ascension. After all most of Galileo’s control platforms are on British territory (as I understand). On this (as in all Brexit talks IMHO) we should in no way go in on bended knee.

          ironically the EU forgets we actually wrote most of the encryption so when we leave we take permission to use it with us. And we shut it down. This is the stupidity of the EU in all this. More keen to teach us a lesson than do the really sensible thing. Rules can be amended when national security is at risk.

  4. I first visited Assi on my way down south in 1982 and stopped by again in 1983 and 1984. (perks of being a sapper) Anyway I was really lucky to get picked for a six month tour in 1996. Loved it.

  5. One thing worth remembering-the airport is now into the second year of a very slow repair operation to the runway which has severely restricted its role as a staging post. Big jets cannot use Ascension at present and the runway is restricted to aircraft that can cope with the much shorter available area such as Hercules etc.

  6. Absolutely-pity we never ad them in 1982-would have been able to take out the main Argie airfield from which their Air force launched so many successful attacks against the RN

    • (Chris H) geoff – We did have considerable submarine capability down there – 6 of them. One might say the sinking of the Belgrano and the subsequent blockading of the Argie fleet by two nuclear subs was key to the safety of the Task Force. All except Valiant were nuclear powered:
      Churchill Class – Torpedoes and Harpoon missiles
      HMS Conqueror
      HMS Courageous
      Oberon Class – Torpedoes
      HMS Onyx
      Valiant Class – Torpedoes and Harpoon missiles
      HMS Valiant
      Swiftsure Class – Torpedoes, Harpoon and Tomahawk missiles
      HMS Spartan
      HMS Splendid

      So we did have the capability to bomb Argie airfields from the sea but also from the air with Vulcan bombers but a political decision was taken to not formally bomb mainland Argentina. Didn’t stop the SAS having a go there though …. One of the tactical benefits of the Black Buck first raid was the Argies moved their attack aircraft further away from the coast reducing their range and loiter time. One Vulcan actually force landed in Buenos Ares after a refuelling failure. They got it out by spreading the rumour it had a nuclear bomb on board (if scuttlebut is to be believed)

      • Yes the rumours of SAS and SBS involvement on the mainland are fascinating. Never officially admitted by HMG but likely IMO. Said to have been dropped off by O Class subs to watch the airfields.

        And then there was the Sea King scuttled in Chile. Either a clever ruse to make the Argentinians look west or indeed an insertion gone wrong. Whatever, the crew got the DFC I recall.

        • (Chris H) Daniele – the only certainty in military stories is that if someone ever says they know what the SAS are doing then you know they are lying! No one ever really knows and even then only the parts that the SAS want out…

          Officially the Sea King was ditched after running out of fuel due to navigation failure …. yes of course it was …

          • Hi Chris.

            Which is of course nonsense.

            Hermes and Broadsword left the task force at night and sailed west in radio silence to launch that Sea King. The date I don’t recall.

            I have a copy of the diary of a neighbours son who was aboard Hermes at the time. They thought I would find it interesting as they knew i was interested in the military but was still a child.

            Its fascinating reading.

        • (Chris H) Julian1 – Jesus H Christ now THAT was some Typo of mine … D’UH! and Double ‘D’UH!’
          Well spotted and I can’t even blame spellchecker – Yes indeed it was Rio of course.

          A little addition if I may? What was really worrying the RAF / MoD and even the US Government was the Vulcan, which had been trying to force Stanley to activate radars so it could use its Shrike missiles, still had a very new Shrike anti-radar missile full of advanced NATO kit that had misfired stuck on a wing pylon and was actually live. In a radar saturated environment! Hence the need to get this aircraft out of a country that was actively supporting the Argies locally and had links through Cuba to Russia.

          Hence the ‘failure to deny’ it had an atomic weapon on board and the Brazilians glee in her departure ….. Something supported by the fact such weapons were on board the carriers classified as ‘Atomic depth charges’.

  7. Pain in the proverbial having to log in every time we make a comment. Surely it should at least be able to last for a session?? Also my reply above was to Robert re Astute

  8. Hi folks hope all are well, good comments!
    As it appears Russia and China are stepping up thire overseas basies, Russia in Syria and China now in Africa, we and the US will require as many fixed assets as we can hold. We will not be able to ask our EU allies to assist in an urgent matter, especially if we have to make first strategic conventional strike.

  9. Re: Gllilaio Project
    Looks like the EU have woken up to the fact we have the most experienced and capable security and intelegence operation in the world. After all why would the EU want to be left out in the cold if we have intelegence in order to prevent a teroist attack, or something worse. Although we should still consider a backup Just in case the EU want to juck thire toys out of the pram again!
    Why not have collaborative working with close allies, makes good sense!

    • Agree.

      The EU need us more than we need them. We are part of 5 Eyes, the Anglosphere intelligence club founded by the 1948 UKUSA agreement and close WW2 links.

      Germany is only a level 2 partner I recall?

      As is so often the case with Brexit the EU will be coming off far worse IMO. If only they would co operate with their ally and major trading partner and get a free trade deal sorted rather than cutting their nose off to spite their face just to make a point to others, and to the UK.

  10. Seems odd that this article does not refer to the current runway issues and repairs. Surely one of the most important current issues relating to Ascension’s role?

  11. Excellent article thanks.

    To me our PJOB’s are a real feather in out cap, providing runways and sigint sites for further our reach and ears.

    A legacy of empire we should exploit to the full.

    • how many of them are there left – AI, Gib, Akrotiri…perhaps a couple in the Caribbean, Falkland’s of course…..anything we can use in the Far East?

      • Probably Singapore and we have a military presence in Brunei but not sure whether fullaccess is available. Possibly BIOT-Diego Garcia?

        • Falklands, Ascension, Gibraltar, Cyprus ( comprising several sites ), Diego Garcia are all called Permanent Joint Operating Bases by PJHQ. They all have airfields, naval facilities and Intelligence sites.

          Sembawang Port in Singapore I don’t believe is a PJOB as we just make use of an Oil Fuel Depot and Warehouse as a part of the Five Powers Defence agreement. RN maintains a naval party there for that.

          Brunei again is not a PJOB. It has the British Army Jungle Training School and a Battalion of Gurkha’s ( Either 1st or 2nd RGR on rotation ) are based there at the invitation and expense of the Sultan. UKSF also use it for training.

          Diego Garcia is listed as a PJOB yet apart from the small Naval Party supporting HQ BIOT I’m unsure what we have there. The Naval facilities, Airbase and Intelligence sites are overwhelmingly American.

          I guess we could add Pride Barracks in Belize, but again that is just a training school.

          Then we can add the newer naval facilities in Bahrain and GCHQ maintain three separate sites in Oman.

          • Can you imagine if the US hadn’t annexed Hawaii and the UK still supported the monarchy? I’m sure it wouldn’t have survived WW2 in fact it would probably be Japanese now and they along with the United States like would not have gone to war. But that’s another story.

  12. There was a very good segment on Ascension on the World Service a few months ago. It was one of the earliest recorded cases of Terra Forming. The island was a dry barren rock at the time so the 19th Century botanist Joseph Hooker, encouraged by Charles Darwin had the garrison plant the slopes of the mountain with plants and shrubs to alter the trade wind and encourage a change in the rainfall pattern of the clouds when they hit the island.

    There is an excellent article on Black Buck here
    https://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2018/03/long-read-update-operation-black-buck/

    Oh and the diving at Ascension is world class. Crystal clear water and tons of marine life.

    • I was going to comment on the terra forming. It was a great achievement at the time even if technically it has affected some native fauna species. The marine protection zones are another great feature of many of these places too.

  13. The idea that a Vulcan bomber would had had any chance to land at Buenos Aires during the Falklands War is sick, to say the less. The Argentine would have had a nice day shooting it down.

    About the Sea King HC.4 found in Chile near Punta Arenas city, it was a very complicated situation, which in fact put an end to flight operations from Chilean territory. A Nimrod R1, together with one or two C-130s were based in Chile at that moment, to operate exclusively in intelligence gathering and support roles. Against all the fancy versions existing, general Pinochet was not in favour of helping the British but, facing that he was not going to be able to stop the heads of the Navy and Air Force to do it, accepted it on the conditions that it would be secret and he would know nothing. That’s how Chile’s Navy and Air Force cooperated with the British while the Army, Pinochet’s service, stood away from it. Pinochet got hysterical with the finding of the HC.4, and demanded an end of involvement. The Navy and Air Force involvement in providing the British with intelligence did not end, but all British aircraft and most of British personnel had to leave Chile in a hurry.While the Nimrod R1 and the C-130s left, plans for operations of Canberra PR9s from Chilean soil were definitively cancelled.

  14. I’d like to get a high resolution image of the lead photo of aircrfat on the Wideawake ramp. Any suggestions where I can go?

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