Part 2 of my ‘Half-Time History’ series focuses on England’s second world cup game against Panama, a country whose military history is quite frequently overlooked.
Panama, like Tunisia, is another country that most people do not automatically associate with military history. However, despite its very small population, hovering at around 700,000 people during the Second World War, Panama had in fact, declared war on Japan even earlier than the United States did.
After Panamanian independence from Spain and later from Columbia, America was keen to gain influence in the region. It did this by constructing and managing the Panama Canal, which was completed in 1914.
The Panama Canal connected the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, making trade flow through the area much quicker and a lot easier. The Canal would remain in American ownership, and would be pivotal to US trade. During the Second World War, defences along the canal were bolstered and, at its height, there were over 65,000 American troops stationed in Panama, tasked with the protection of the canal, which were the subject of both Nazi and Japanese bombing plans, which were eventually shelved.
The US maintained strong ties to the region, including a large military presence in the Canal Zone, right up to 1989, when an American Intelligence asset, General Manuel Noriega assumed dictatorial control of Panama.
Throughout the 1980s however, the relationship between the United States and Noriega began to deteriorate somewhat, as he began to become less cooperative with the Drug Enforcement Agency, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency. In this time, he also began to accept help from Soviet-backed countries, such as Nicaragua, Cuba and Libya.
Relations decreased even further when pro-Noriega forces assaulted presidential candidates to claim that he had in fact, won the presidential election in Panama in 1989. This resulted in a higher state of alert in the Canal Zone, as well as increased training, designed to put pressure on the Panamanian dictator. President Bush also called on Noriega to respect the will of the people and announced that no negotiations between the US and a drug trafficker would take place.
On 15th December, Noriega decided that the actions of the United States had amounted to an act of war and a state of war was passed by the Panamanian assembly.
On 16th December, four American military personnel were on their way to dinner, unarmed according to the US, when they were surrounded and fired upon by Panamanian forces, killing one of the personnel, Marine First Lieutenant Robert Paz. The day after, President Bush ordered that the plans for the invasion of Panama, should be executed on 20th December 1989.
27,000 US troops, as well as over 300 aircraft took part in a series of operations designed to crush La Comandancia (Noriega’s military) and to capture General Noriega himself.
The airport in Panama City was seized and a Navy SEAL operation destroyed Noriega’s private jet and boat, in an attempt to prevent his escape, in which four navy SEALs were killed. Two US aircraft were shot down, with one being crash landed into the Canal itself. The heavily populated downtown area of El Chorillo was almost completely destroyed, and military police officers began to seize copious amounts of weapons, supplies and insurgents.
A few hours after the invasion began Guillermo Endara was sworn in as president, the Americans claiming that he would have been the one to win the presidential elections had they been carried out.
After relentless operations by Navy SEALs to prevent Noriega’s escape, he began to run out of options and so found refuge in the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Panama City. As a result, the US began to put pressure on Noriega and the Vatican to release him, and began an onslaught of psychological warfare by playing heavy rock and roll music, day and night, as a way of winding Noriega up, who apparently loathed rock and roll.
This continued for some time until, on 3rd January 1990, Noriega surrendered himself to US forces and was then sent straight to the United States.
This then ended hostilities in Panama, but not after a number of civilian deaths had been incurred. Figures for civilian deaths vary, some coming from US departments, estimating deaths at around 300, while other organisations, such as the Roman Catholic Church put the number closer to 700, with others still claiming to have evidence of a number of thousand civilians killed.
23 US servicemen had lost their lives, two as a result of friendly fire, and several hundred had been wounded.
On the International stage, there was widespread criticism of the invasion, with only three members of the United Nation’s Security Council vetoing a bill to demand the immediate withdrawal of US forces from Panama.
After the end of the conflict, the US began Operation Promote Liberty, which lasted until 1994, designed to support the American installed civilian government.
Hopefully that still leaves a few minutes of half-time for another drink or a toilet break, but either way, I hope you’ve learned al little bit about England’s opponents today!