Alamy image of Invasion of Grenada 1983 D6P4PP
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Urgent Fury: the operation that led to a shake-up of the US military

Was the invasion of Grenada a regime-change attempt disguised as a rescue mission?

Alamy image of Invasion of Grenada 1983 D6P4PP

Operation Urgent Fury had been billed as a rescue mission to protect American citizens.

They were caught up in the aftermath of a bloody struggle for power between warring factions of the left-wing government on the tiny island of Grenada.

Critics, however, have suggested that the US administration under President Ronald Reagan had deeper motives. The operation is widely regarded to have been a US-led multinational military intervention meant to affect regime-change and rid the island nation of its Marxist-Leninist leadership, as part of a strategic foreign policy against Communist influence.

US armed forces led the operation in the early hours of 25 October 1983 with an invasion of the Caribbean nation state. At just under 135 square miles, it is one of the world’s smallest countries, while Urgent Fury was one of the biggest military operations to have occurred in the western hemisphere in 40 years.

The objectives were threefold: to gain control of Granada, a country in danger of becoming a Soviet satellite state. Secondly, to rescue 650 US citizens who were in the country at the time. Lastly, to ensure the release of Governor Sir Paul Scoon, whom the US and its coalition allies considered to be the legitimate leader as the resident head of state in the former British colony.

These objectives were not only met but done so swiftly and effectively – the whole operation was over within two weeks. The US was able to quickly overwhelm the military of Grenada and a detachment of Cuban forces who had been sent to the island to support the left-wing regime. Casualties were also minimal, with fewer than 20 US troops dying in action, 24 Cubans and 45 Grenadians.

The operation, however, has since been the subject of scrutiny and held up as an example of how military planning and execution can run into major mishaps.

Lack of intelligence and joint training of the various branches of the US military involved in the operation almost jeopardised the mission’s success. 

The lessons learned in Granada led to the biggest shakeup of US military structure since 1947. What started as a four-day operation had far-reaching consequences that still affect US combatants today.  

Grenada shown in the Caribbean sea (Picture: Alamy).

In 1983, Ronald Reagan had only been in power for two years and some sceptical political critics have suggested that the administration had been eager for an easy win. The right opportunity could bolster the president's popularity and restore the reputation of the US military, especially following the recent embarrassment of the failed 1980 Iranian hostage crisis and what was seen as a humiliating retreat from Vietnam.  

Reagan's supporters thought of the invasion as the first major offensive to roll back pro-Marxist influence since the start of the Cold War. 

Two weeks prior to the invasion, Grenada seemed to be on the brink of civil war. On 12 October 1983, a military coup removed Grenada’s popular communist leader Maurice Bishop. As a Marxist, Bishop had aligned himself with Cuba, which had supplied Grenada with the necessities and manpower for the construction of an international airport on the island’s southwest tip. The claim was that the airport was to support Grenada’s bid to attract international tourists.  

However, there was no evidence that there were any plans to build other accompanying tourist infrastructure such as hotels and this led the Americans to believe that the airport could serve as a base for the Soviets in a strategic location.

According to historian and former lieutenant colonel Sharon Tosi Lacey, the fear was that Grenada could become part of a triangle in the Caribbean sea between hostile communist Cuba and Nicaragua through which a considerable number of US aircraft and warships would have to pass on the way to NATO reinforcement operations.  

A communist state in such an important strategic position, no matter how small, was considered detrimental to US geopolitical interests. The political chaos in Grenada in October 1983, therefore, served as the perfect incentive for a swift invasion to restore democracy to the island, as well as served to explain the ‘urgency’ of the operation.

The chaos intensified when Bishop was assassinated by his revolutionary rival Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard on 19 October. Operation Urgent Fury was launched six days later.

However, following on from the lessons of Operation Eagle Claw that saw the US military fail to rescue 52 US embassy staff members from Iran, the US knew they had to act fast to protect their own.

In 1983, Grenada was home to around 650 US students that were enrolled at the Grenada St. George’s University School of Medicine. A major objective of the operation was to rescue them, but lack of adequate intelligence meant that the US military had not been aware that the students were spread out at three separate locations across the island.

This was revealed only after boots had hit the ground and meant that the rescue missions had to be improvised on the spot. There had also been failures in the planning of the mission – with many of the US military not even being deployed with appropriate military maps of Grenada, leaving many troops having to rely on tourist maps.

Despite the difficulties, the students were all rescued and brought back home to be greeted at the airport by the press. One of the students was captured on live TV dropping to his knees and kissing the tarmac.  

The exuberant celebration prompted President Reagan’s chief press spokesman, Larry Speakes to exclaim: “That’s it! We won.” 

Mishaps aside, the outcome of the mission was a clear victory. Commonwealth Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon returned to power and stayed in office until 1992. Free and open elections for a new stable democratic government were held the following year.  

US 82nd Airborne Division soldiers use their rifle butts to break into a car to check for bombs during Operation Urgent Fury. (Picture: Alamy)

Operation Urgent Fury had been headed by Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III’s Joint Task Force 120, comprising of the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit, the 82nd Airborne Division and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

JSOC had been considered perfect for this type of mission and had been involved from the start. 

The attack involved Army Ranger battalions, Delta Force operators, Navy SEALs and Air Force Combat Control Teams. However, with less than four days to plan the invasion, the main problem arose from the simple fact that none of the individual branches had previously had the chance to train together. 

Experts in military strategy have since pointed out that the Task Force came dangerously close to jeopardising the entire mission several times as a result of its lack of coordination. Had the Grenadian forces been more numerous, a US victory might not have been so assured, even for the might of the American military against the forces of such a tiny island state.

One tragic result of the poor planning was a US aircraft accidentally targeting a mental hospital, killing 18 patients and setting the rest free to wander in the nearby town.

Politically, what followed the Grenada invasion in America was a series of Congressional hearings to pick apart what had gone wrong. This culminated in the passing of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act which aimed to synchronise the structure of the US military, bringing it under a single command.  

Internationally too, there were repercussions. The invasion of Granada was overwhelmingly denounced by the United Nations as a violation of international law. Only Israel, El Salvador and six Caribbean nations voted with the United States. The end vote was 108 to nine against the legality of the invasion, with 27 nations, mostly close allies of the US, abstaining.  

The operation also split NATO, with half of its 16 members voting to deplore the recent US military action in the Caribbean. 

As it turns out, one of the countries that was not best pleased with US's invasion was its major ally, the United Kingdom. Grenada was one of its former colonies and a member of the Commonwealth. Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was reported to have said: 

 "This action will be seen as intervention by a Western country in the internal affairs of a small independent nation, however unattractive its regime." 

The Iron Lady’s reprimand pushed President Reagan to apologise. In a personal phone call to the UK Prime Minister, the US President was reported to have said in a penitent tone:

“I’m sorry for any embarrassment we caused you, please understand it was just our fear of our own weakness over here in regard to secrecy.”

The President was referring to his reason for not informing the Prime Minister before the invasion, what he referred to as fear that the information might leak out and ruin any element of military surprise.

Referring in turn to her own political context, Thatcher said shortly afterwards:

"Thank you very much. I must return to this debate in the House (of Commons), it's a bit tricky."

To which President Reagan responded:

"Oh. Well, all right. Go get 'em. Eat 'em alive."

Cover image: A US Marine Corps Sikorsky CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter being used to transport the wounded during the invasion of Grenada (Picture: Alamy).