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.