Troops On The British Streets: A History


As news emerges that armed British troops will be deployed to guard “key locations” such as Buckingham Palace and Downing Street, we’ve taken a look at previous deployments of forces personnel to the streets.

Operation Temperer, which is believed to allow up to 5,000 troops to be deployed in support of the police, is being enacted for the first time after security experts warned the government that another terrorist attack could be imminent.

Northern Ireland

British troops patrolled the streets of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Under Operation Banner, they were deployed to assist the Royal Ulster Constabulary between August 1969 and July 2007 – the longest continuous deployment in British military history.
The British Army was initially deployed after the August 1969 riots, at the request of the unionist government of Northern Ireland. About 21,000 British troops were deployed at the peak of the operation in the 1970s, mostly from Britain.

Heathrow Airport

The only other recent major deployment of troops to the streets in response to a terror threat came in 2003. Tony Blair sent tanks and 450 personnel to Heathrow airport (pictured above) and other London locations after warnings of a plot to bring down an airliner with a surface-to-air missile.
The then-Prime Minister was strongly criticised for risking undue panic.
Less Recent Times

The last time troops were officially widely deployed on the British mainland was during the police strikes of 1919. They’re also known to have escorted food lorries during the General Strike of 1926.
Other Domestic Deployments

The Armed Forces made up 50% of the security manpower at the London 2012 Olympic Games, with 18,200 troops deployed to provide security.
The government was forced to involve more soldiers than previously planned at the last minute, amid fears that private security firm G4S could not deliver the number of staff it promised.
An additional 1,000-strong unarmed contingency force was arranged in the event of an “Olympics-related civil emergency”.
Emergency Response (Non-Terror Related)

Other UK operations involving the Armed Forces have ranged from reacting to fire strikes and floods, to one-off emergencies like the ‘big freeze’ in 2010 and 2001’s Foot and Mouth outbreak, to the regular safe disposal of historic explosive devices upon discovery.
Remember the Green Goddess? It was the fire engine used by the military when they had to step in for the fire service. It was most notably used in 1977 and 2002-2003.
In 1977, 20,750 servicemen manned more than 1,000 Green Goddess engines as firefighters went on strike.
Between 2002 and 2003, the armed forces provided emergency fire service cover in Operation Fresco. They once again used the vintage Green Goddess, alongside the modern red fire engines.
Green Goddess
Threat Level

The move to enact Operation Temperer comes after an extremely unusual raising of the terror threat level to ‘critical’, meaning an attack is expected imminently.

It’s only the third time the risk has been set at the highest level since the scale was made public in 2006.

The others came in:

August 2006 after a plot was uncovered to bomb up to 10 transatlantic flights.
June 2007 after a plot to bomb a club in central London.
On both occasions, the risk level was lowered after a few days.

When plans were drawn up to deploy large numbers of troops to the streets, they were said to have been contentious with the Army leadership, due to fears about overstretch, morale problems and difficulties with deciding when to end the operation.

It’s been argued that once soldiers are deployed, it’s hard to justify withdrawing them without also lowering the terrorist threat level.

Theresa May’s predecessor David Cameron is said to have been reluctant to implement the plan, fearing it would provoke comparisons to the Troubles and give the impression that the government had lost control and was imposing martial law.

In announcing the move, the Prime Minister said that the police had asked for military support, adding that Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon had approved the request.

Mrs May said it came after experts at the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) raised the threat level.

The JTAC, based at MI5’s London headquarters, brings together representatives from 16 government departments and agencies.

The country’s senior counter-terrorism officer on Tuesday acknowledged the use of troops was “unusual” but said it would allow police to “stretch our armed capability”.

Britain isn’t the first country to deploy troops to guard against terrorist threats in cities either.

Other European countries to do so include France, which deployed over 10,000 under Operation Sentinelle after the January 2015 attacks in Paris, and Italy, which deployed 4,800 troops in Rome and other cities in February 2015.