British Atrocities in Counter Insurgency


All too often over recent years allegations have come to light concerning the wrongful behaviour of British troops in Iraq. After a notable court martial involving personnel from the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, a corporal was found guilty of inhumane treatment of civilians and his Commanding Officer acquitted. There remains suspicion that witnesses lied and that the Royal Military Police (RMP) investigation was grossly flawed.

A similar enquiry is under way regarding the deaths of civilians at a permanent vehicle check point on Route 6 south of Al Amarah in southern Iraq nicknamed ‘Danny Boy’ where it is alleged that soldiers from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (PWRR) killed detainees. An eminent historian, Richard Holmes, chose to write the history of this tour and devotes 20 pages to the battle for Danny Boy, and includes the allegation (p 246) that prisoners had been tortured, murdered and mutilated. 1 A similar incident took place when the Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq found himself the centre of media attention, accused of having kicked and punched prisoners, ‘shot at the feet of Iraqi civilians’ and pistol whipping a local chief. 2 Again, all charges were eventually dropped.

Further claims have been made that 222 detainees were tortured and mistreated whilst in British military detention in southern Iraq between March 2003 and December 2008, placing the activities of the Joint Forward Interrogation Team (JFIT) under scrutiny. Allegations, including the practices of hooding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, exposure to loud pornography and death threats, are currently the subject of an investigation by the Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT). This investigation is likely to continue until 2012. 3 As of November 2010, three men had been referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions (DSP). 4 A total of 1,253 video recordings of interrogations were seized by military police. It has been alleged that interrogation trainees were instructed to deliberately encourage a perception of humiliation, insecurity, disorientation, exhaustion, anxiety and fear. Techniques allegedly included beatings, electric shocks, enforced nakedness, blindfolds, sensory deprivation and starvation on a systematic basis. 5

Broken Society?

Whether proven or not, these activities were, in the opinion of some, the symptom of a ‘broken society’ where ethical acumen no longer applied and where, through a combination of family breakdown, the increasing abandonment of observed religion and a permissive sex, drugs, drink and violence culture among the young, British society had ‘lost its way’. Those British troops serving in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 could in this view be at least understood for their various misdemeanours, if not actually excused their behaviour. Officers were, of course, held responsible but weren’t their failures perhaps a consequence of the relaxation of entry standards over several decades? Or perhaps these alleged failures of leadership had something to do with ethical or moral relativism that has dominated British university campuses, leaving future Army officers incapable of moral choice under the pressure of events or, worse, amoral with regards to values and standards?

Changing Nature of War?

Another theory has been that warfare itself has irrevocably changed - ‘war among the people’ replacing ‘industrial inter-state warfare’. Most notable in making this claim has a highly regarded military leader, General Sir Rupert Smith, in his seminal ‘The Utility of Force’ 6 . In this paradigm, there is little point in visiting military history as today’s challenges are quite distinct from those of the past. As an aside, had Rupert Smith written his tome in 1905 as opposed to 2005, he might have had a point. John Mackinlay 7 makes a similar claim, that insurgency itself has evolved from its ‘classical’ Maoist origins post World War Two to the current ‘insurgent archipelago’ driven by the ideology of Al Q’aida (AQ) intent on the establishment of a global caliphate in response to that same ‘broken society’ typical of most if not all western states. Morbid delusions of the 17th century over witchcraft spring to mind. The former UK Labour Minister for the Armed Forces himself recently remarked on the ‘new’ situation, for which ‘new’ training and education would be required. This is not to say that the AQ threat should be ignored but that it has been grossly exaggerated.

It is of course true, to a point, that every war is ‘new’ tautologically speaking. This has many benefits, not least in ensuring a role for vast numbers of political scientists who are entitled to analyse the ‘new’ and create yet another paradigm or theory that might illuminate the present and perhaps point to the future. It presumes a science of society and a science of warfare. To an extent, this may indeed be the case, as Colin Gray 8 has pointed out: warfare divides rather neatly between states - ‘regular’ warfare, and everything else associated with violence for political ends – ‘irregular warfare’. That both have evolved over time is a truism.

It is the latter form of warfare that is the context of this paper, not so much that the nature of war has evolved all that much - rather that it has not. The British know and understand this because fighting irregular warfare has been part and parcel of our history for such a very long time. If ‘modern’ counterinsurgency can be said to have arrived, it did so as early as between 1775 and 1781 in what is now the USA. The ‘Boston Massacre’ of 1770 in which five civilians were killed by British soldiers was perhaps the first ‘atrocity’ of modern British counterinsurgency. More prescient was the defence of the British Empire in India, which required a military commitment on the North West Frontier with Afghanistan from 1849, a period of nearly one hundred years, until Pakistan took over the same task in 1947 9 (this and other references are merely suggested reading for those who would like to know more). This was but one commitment, others including: the repelling of the Fenian invasion of Canada 10 in 1868; countering the Boer guerrillas in South Africa 11 from 1900 to 1902; containing the Easter Rising in Dublin 12 in 1916; countering the Irish Republican Army in Ireland 13 from 1919 – 1921; the Somaliland insurgency of 1919; Amritsar 14 in 1919; the Mesopotamian insurgency of 1920 15 ; disorder in Palestine in 1920- 21; the ‘first Intifada’ in Palestine from 1936 – 9 16 ; countering the Fakir of Ipi from 1936 – 1937; the Jewish insurgency in Palestine from 1943 - 1948; the Malayan Emergency from 1948 – 1960 17 ; the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya 18 from 1952 – 1956; the EOKA campaign in Cyprus 19 from 1955 – 1959; the Egyptian Canal Zone emergency from 1951 – 1954; the aftermath of the Suez operation in November – December 1956; operations in the Arabian Peninsula from 1957 – 1960; the Radfan campaign of 1964; South Arabia from 1964 – 1967; the war for Dhofar in Oman from 1965 – 1980; Northern Ireland from 1969 - 2007; Iraq from 2003 – 2009; and now, Afghanistan since 2006, where at the time of writing, over 350 British troops have so far been killed. There is no comparable history of counterinsurgency anywhere in the world to match that of the British record.

Insurgent goals have varied between those of nationalism, communism and religious fanaticism, or a mixture of all three. To claim, as does John Mackinlay, that there has been some lineal dimension to this evolution pays no attention to the recent Maoist insurgency in Nepal and that ongoing in India, nor that the nationalist insurgent campaigns in Northern Ireland, Spain and Corsica continue. Methods have usually been brutal, involving terrorism, torture, executions, extortion, ‘propaganda of the deed’ and a forcible conversion of the civil population to the goals of the insurgent organisation. Modern technology has usually been successfully applied, whether in the utilisation of dynamite or mobile phones. Conventional weapons have been adapted for the purpose of guerrilla operations. The movements have usually been able to take full advantage of the legal conundrum that surrounded activities of neither war nor peace, politically motivated yet employing criminal acts on a routine basis. Insurgents have invariably played on issues of duration – as in the Taliban saying, ‘You have watches – we have time’. Insurgents have always relied upon neutral space, be it the mountains of Waziristan, a secure and safe haven across an international border, as in the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) as a base for the launch of attacks into Oman, and in the case of the Provisional IRA, the complex border between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Finally, the insurgent has always assumed that he can outlast the will of the government to resist.

The British Response to Insurgency

If these diverse campaigns can be linked in any way it is in the nature of the response to insurgency and terrorism by British Security Forces. All have been underpinned by a legal framework, that Common Law was to apply at all times. The identification of the nature of the insurgency has been crucial and not mistaking it for something else, is fundamental. Identification requires ‘intelligence’, in human form and/or by technical means, and invariably this will only be forthcoming under duress in the former case.

There has been a need to isolate the insurgent from the civil population, which is ‘the prize’. This has required ruthless control of food supplies, as in the wire fence around Salalah in Oman, a technique ‘borrowed’ from Malaya and in turn from South Africa. It also requires a government propaganda campaign of its own, combining every media outlet available.

Having identified the insurgent and isolated him, he has to be neutralised. This might be achieved by attrition – ‘kill or capture’ – or physical barriers preventing the insurgent from reaching the population or of his own resupply, as in the Hornbeam Line in Dhofar. This will require substantial numbers of troops and police for success, together with highly mobile forces, as with helicopters and drones, airpower and indirect fire weapons.

And finally, if a better peace is to be achieved, there has to be a negotiated, often diplomatic, end to the insurgency, somewhat belying the Thatcherite rhetoric that ‘we don’t talk to terrorists’. Yes we do!

The downside of all this has been that in all the above insurgencies, British troops have from time to time, exceeded their powers under the law and committed acts of violence that were deemed unacceptable and outwith the underpinning principles of jus in bello – discrimination and proportionality. On occasions there were indeed ‘atrocities’ – as in an act of ‘extreme wickedness; atrocious deed; repellent act or thing; very bad’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary, Seventh edition, 1982).


This article will now attempt to estimate the extent to which British government forces went beyond their remit in this regard and examine the circumstances that might have allowed this to happen. It will also ask why, despite it being unlikely that some of the more extreme cases would be repeated in today’s climate, there is still room for atrocious acts to take place.

It does not comment upon the role of the Security Services, though the current controversy over the involvement of MI5 and MI6 in waterboarding is acknowledged and there can be no doubt that this technique of interrogation amounts to an atrocity, as the Director of Amnesty International has recently made clear. 20 The Guardian writers, Ian Cobain and Richard Norton-Taylor also deserve mention here as having been shortlisted for the Liberty Human Rights Campaign of the Year Award for their investigations into Britain’s complicity in the use of torture. 21 At the time of writing, the investigation into allegations of torture of 16 British citizens by the commissioner for the intelligence services, Sir Peter Gibson, is still awaited. That 222 Iraqi citizens suffered ‘systematic abuse’ by British soldiers is very much the focus of this paper 22 and the notion that these will be investigated by a British appointed former CID officer, already a contentious matter. 23

This author began his journey into counterinsurgency having replaced a platoon commander in South Armagh in 1973 who had been removed from command for having permitted his soldiers to steal milk bottles from local doorsteps. Whilst such acts were obviously a felony, they hardly fit the above definition of ‘atrocity’. These are far more serious matters, where life has been taken illegally or suspects placed under extreme conditions of physical and/or mental duress. In many cases they have involved ‘innocent’ civilians, especially women and children or other non-combatants.

In fairness and unlike other counterinsurgencies such as those involving the French in Algeria, or at times, the USA in Vietnam, certainly the Soviet Union in Afghansitan, when atrocities have occurred, they have been swiftly dealt with under the military or civil law and the offenders punished accordingly. The conundrum is why the products of a ‘Christian’ educated British society have nevertheless resorted to such acts of violence, this in spite of the widely recognised quality of its leaders.

Misguided Senior Officers

Some situations of atrocity were not so much as a consequence of a defect of character but rather a misguided sense of judgement. Of these, there are many examples, mostly involving senior British leaders in times of stress within a counterinsurgency. Perhaps most notable or most notorious, was that which took place in South Africa between 1900 and 1902 when Kitchener was in command of British troops countering the Boer insurgency. Never minding the 1000 deaths from typhoid as a consequence of inadequate sanitation and hygiene in the field, the internment of civilians was to lead to 3,854 deaths in the following year after 155,399 had been interned. The burning of 30,000 farms and 40 towns in Orange Free State by May 1901, plus the overall detention without trial of 320,000 internees, of which 51,000 died, may have been conducted with the best of intentions – to bring the Boer war to a speedy close, but by atrocious means.

That Horatio Herbert Kitchener was wholly responsible for the policy enacted cannot be in doubt. He inherited much of this from Roberts, though the tenets of counter-guerrilla warfare during the 19th century as espoused by Callwell were clearly also in play. Memorandum Number 29, dated 21 December 1900 spelt out just how the war was to be conducted. It took two humanitarian investigations, initially by Emily Hobhouse and then Dame Millicent Fawcett, to bring matters to public attention. How prescient Kitchener was in his remark that ‘I fear it will be many a generation before the Boers forget or forgive this war’. 24 It would be hard to find an example as stark as that of South Africa as to how ‘hearts and minds’ were never to be won over.


If there have invariably been ‘bad apples’ in the collective ‘barrel’ of the British Armed Forces, equally there have been isolated cases of the genuinely insane, most notably Captain J C Bowen-Colthurst, known by reputation to have been ‘half-cracked’. He had served with the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR) for 15 years and relieved of his command in the opening weeks of the First World War for having blatantly disobeyed orders, attempting in effect to take on the entire German Army single handed. He was sent to Portobello Barracks in Dublin so as to pose no further risk to the war effort. Perchance, his new posting coincided with the Easter Rising of 1916. 25

Colthurst took out a party of some forty men and stopped a youth by the name of Coade, whom he shot dead on the spot. He went on to throw a grenade into a tobacconist’s shop and arrested three individuals in the vicinity, including Sheehy-Skeffington, a prominent Irish nationalist politician. All were incarcerated in the barracks overnight and were then shot dead the following morning under Colthurst’s orders to the guard. Colthurst was eventually convicted of murder and pleaded criminal insanity, serving his sentence (until his release in 1918) in Broadmoor prison.

There were other episodes of misconduct by British troops during the Rising, notably the allegation of the murder of 13 innocent civilians by soldiers of the 2/6th South Staffordshires and that one senior NCO, Sergeant Floods, believed he was required to obey a ‘no prisoners’ order.

Massacre out of Duty

There have been other episodes of misjudgement by leaders. Most notable was the action by Colonel (a local Brigadier-General, hence ‘General’ in much of the literature) Rex Dyer at Amritsar on 13 April 1919. To his dying day, Dyer was convinced that he had no choice but to order his Gurkha soldiers to open fire on the crowd in the Jalianwallahbagh, the local town square in Amritsar, where an entirely peaceful, though illegal, demonstration was in progress. A total of 1,650 rounds were fired and at least 380 civilians killed, probably as many as 1,500 wounded. 26 That Dyer was convinced of the necessity of this action if a second Indian Mutiny was to be averted is not in doubt. The verdict of the subsequent Hunter Committee was at odds though, with Dyer’s assessment however, and he paid the price accordingly, retiring in disgrace at the age of 57.

It is worthy of recall that Dyer was regarded as ‘strange’ during his attendance at the Army Staff College at Camberley in Surrey, ‘out of water’ in English society, yet excelled as a commanding officer of the 25th Punjabis back in India from whence he came and as commander of the 45th Infantry Brigade at Jullunder in the Punjab.

Government Complicity

Atrocity as a consequence of misguided policy has also been all too frequent. The disastrous campaign in Ireland from 1919 – 1921 springs to mind. The Government, it must be stressed, was divided at to what action might be appropriate to the occasion. Churchill spoke strongly for a policy of coercion and reprisals; others wished to see the usual rule of law applied. The outcome was the Government’s ‘two for one strategy’, the policy of murder of IRA suspects on the basis of two for every soldier killed. What to do when, as by 1920, IRA attacks amounted to an average of 400 each week and with a mere 20,000 troops allocated for counterinsurgency? The ‘solution’ in the form of the ‘Black and Tans’ was an unmitigated disaster, 27 described as ‘ruthless, arrogant and often drunk and violent’. 28 Major Percival of the Essex Regiment (with its notorious torture squad) and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers were identified by IRA leaders as particularly brutal. 29

The commander of the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (ADRIC), Brigadier Frank Crozier summarised this dark stain on the reputation of British Security Forces thus: ‘Had I been told, in 1918, after four and a half years of blood-letting, that in our own British Isles I should be witnessing acts of atrocity, by men in the King’s uniform, which far exceeded in violence and brutality those acts I lived to condemn in the seething Baltic, I - well, I would have laughed out loud. I am concerned here with the conduct of Englishmen in the uniform of the Crown, because I greatly respect the Crown and have no wish to see it dragged in the mud. 30 Crozier resigned his commission, stating, ‘I resigned because the combat was being carried out on foul lines, by selected and foul men, for a grossly foul purpose, based on the most Satanic of all rules that “ the end justifies the means”. 31

In the words of the historian, Professor Charles Townshend, the British Army ‘showed few signs of a professional approach to guerrilla war’. 32 This might well have been true but the Commander-in-Chief, General Macready, was far more concerned with the reputation of his Army for its ethical stance: ‘My principal aim and object, and that of all officers in Ireland, was to maintain untarnished the credit of our profession in the face of a situation almost unparalleled in the records of the Service.’ 33 Crozier was more blunt: ‘But how many people realise that the British Army left the shores of Ireland in 1922 respected by the Irish people because it declined to fight in the dirty, underhand way in which the British Government wished it to fight? The dirty work was left to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), reinforced by Englishmen.’ 34

Bombing Civilians

The employment of Royal Air Force (RAF) bombing of civilian towns, villages and economic infrastructure at various times between 1919 and 1970 across the Middle East but especially in South Arabia, Oman, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Somaliland. As Squadron Leader Arthur Harris commented, ‘they the villagers now know what area bombing means, in casualties and damage; they know that within forty-five minutes a full sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.’ 35 A lone voice of protest against air power atrocities was made by Air Commodore Lionel Charlton, Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) in Iraq, who resigned his commission after the bombing of Suleimaniya. 36

The 1920 Army Directive regarding Mesopotamia was clear on the issue: villages were to be razed to the ground; pressure was to be brought on the inhabitants by cutting off water power and by destroying irrigation channels; cultivation was to be interdicted; the food supply chain was to be destroyed.

Air control doctrine was controversial from the outset and remains so, even in RAF sponsored publications. 37 The economics of air power as a means of pacification were hardly in doubt. The ethics of so doing continued to be debated over decades. Rhetoric replaced reality in many instances. Villages were termed as ‘forts’ and bombed regardless. The destruction of local economies was regarded as a reasonable means of bringing recalcitrant tribes to heel, most notable in Oman on Jebel Akhdar in 1957 – 9. There appears to be little doubt with hindsight, that the survival of the RAF as an independent service was on the basis of numerous acts that today would be regarded as war crimes. Few RAF officers with any career ambition were to state the rather obvious truth that this form of warfare was ‘atrocious’, women, the elderly and children being the price of ‘pacification’.


Atrocities in the ‘first intifada’ in Palestine under the mandate have been recorded by Dr Simon Anglim. 38 He records that ‘any suspect insurgent…could expect a thorough beating, and mock executions were sometimes used to extract information...Much was also made of ‘Oozle Minesweepers’, captured insurgents forced to run in front of British convoys on mined roads…while some units actually tied them to the front of their lorries (a practice with origins in Ireland).’ A ‘Hostage Corps’ was also in use. The destruction of the villages of al Bassa and the deaths of 14 suspects by dereliction of duty in Halhul were all part of what Wingate referred to as ‘government terror’. The Commander of the Palestine Expeditionary Force, Lieutenant General Sir Robert Haining, wrote to O’Connor and Montgomery thus:
‘Unnecessary violence, vindictiveness which is un-British, killing in cold blood are incidents on which there must be no doubt as to our and the Army’s attitude; and defections from the standard we must adopt must be thoroughly investigated and, if proved, punished in exemplary manner.’ 39


Malaya is most often cited as a celebrated case study in how to ‘do’ counterinsurgency, with General Templer as the personification of sound leadership in difficult times. This is a fair assessment and Malaya has become something of an historic case study at many staff colleges ever since. At long last, with the publication of Chin Peng’s account, this campaign may be viewed form the vantage of the Malay Communist Party as well as by those British commanders who were there. 40

The killing of 24 unarmed villagers on 11 December 1948 at Batang Kali, north of Kuala Lumpur, in Malaya and the eradication of the village by fire by a 16 man patrol of 7 Platoon, G Company, 2nd Battalion Scots Guards remains controversial, with the possibility of a long overdue public enquiry. The incident was investigated by the Attorney-General, Sir Stafford Foster-Sutton, but the findings later destroyed. The official historian of the Malaya campaign, Professor Anthony Short, withdrew his account of the incident which absolved British troops of complicity in an atrocity in early November 2010, describing the incident as ‘a matter of dispute, recrimination, dishonesty, disgrace and disguise’. 41 The Malaysian version of events is now available, some sixty years later, when all those involved have long passed away. 42 There is evidence also of ‘exemplary’ public executions by New Zealand SAS whilst under British command as a deterrent to assistance to the Communist Terrorists (CTs). 43 It is also of note that Chin Peng refers to casual incidents of atrocity during the enforcement of the ‘New Villages’ scheme. In the event that an inhabitant refused to vacate his or her squat, it was simply set on fire regardless. 44


The most easily understood, if vile, cases of atrocity involved individuals or groups who were simply criminally minded. David Anderson refers to just such an example in Captain G S L Griffiths during the Mau Mau emergency in Kenya, whose court martial followed the dismissal of his Kings African Rifles (KAR) brigade commander. Griffiths was a Kenyan resident and described by Anderson as ‘a brutal sadist’, who was accused of murdering two Kikuyu prisoners with a Sten Gun, at close range, completely cutting one of them in half in the process. Prior to this, he had engaged in torture and also cut off one of the detainees’ ears. He was eventually convicted of torture and sentenced to five years in a UK prison after 22 Kenyans had been killed by soldiers of B Company, 5 KAR. His Commander In Chief, General Erskine, who was determined to make an example of Griffiths, faced accusations that he was in some way ‘undermining morale’ by his insistence on the prosecution. The matter went as far as the House of Commons where, not for the first time, the behaviour of British forces in the field came under close parliamentary scrutiny. It is also worthy of note that in all, 430 Kenyans were shot ‘resisting arrest’ and at least 92 died in custody. In David Anderson’s words, ‘British justice in 1950s Kenya was a blunt, brutal and unsophisticated instrument of oppression’. 45 Ruthagathi detention camp gained a particular reputation as a torture centre and Arthur Young, Commissioner of Police, was forced to resign in the knowledge of complicity at senior levels. The Hola camp massacre in turn led to agreement across the House of Commons between the Rt Hon Enoch Powell MP and the Rt Hon Barbara Castle MP that Britain had no right to its empire if moral leadership of a higher order was not to be forthcoming. 46 Trevor Phillips makes a similar point, quoting Powell’s peroration in the House, “….Nor can we ourselves pick and choose where and in what parts of the world we shall use this or that kind of standard…We have not that choice to make. We must be consistent with ourselves everywhere…We cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own highest standards in the acceptance of responsibility.” 47

The controversy over the treatment of Mau Mau suspects continues to this day. More than 150,000 detainees were involved and torture of suspects ‘routine and brutal’, including castration and severe sexual abuse, activities ‘sanctioned at the highest levels of government in London’. Mau Mau was only granted a legal footing in 2003 and all allegations stem from this date and the formation of the Mau Mau Veterans Association. 48 The official figure of Mau Mau killed in action is 11,503, with a further 1,090 hanged, plus 100 civilian victims of Mau Mau, a total of some 17,000 ‘excess’ deaths, according to the demographer, John Blacker. When women (7,000) and children (26,000) are included, a total of 50,000 emerges, these deaths including those from malnutrition and disease, not the figure of 300,000 as concluded by Caroline Elkins, but shocking enough, all the same. 49

The extent to which these atrocities were or were not sanctioned as policy continues to be debated. Dr Huw Bennett, writing in June 2007, is firmly of the view that they were, 50 the ‘much-vaunted regimental system.. presenting as many problems as solutions in ensuring a disciplined soldiery’. He notes that of 57 courts martial during the Emergency, none involved any act of brutality against the civilian population and that a regime of beatings, torture and murder was the reality in a policy of ‘exemplary force’ (though this never amounted to outright extermination) between October 1952 and June 1953 when General Erskine’s leadership began to take effect. 51

This claim was itself countered by Dr Rod Thornton 52 , noting how the sidelining of Major General Hinde and his replacement by General Erskine was all that was required to restore the situation to that of ‘minimum force’, claiming that whilst the Kenya Regiment, Kenya Police Reserve, Kikuyu Home Guard, the police and the Kings African Rifles might have been culpable for ‘excesses’, this could not be said of the Regular British Army. Huw Bennett in turn responded to Thornton 53 claiming that the historical record was on his side, illustrating just how important is rigorous historical research to issues under discussion such as these and that vigorous self-examination is infinitely preferable to the complacency associated all too often with regimental historians.

The degree of British Government complicity in atrocities in Kenya only came to light in the spring of 2011, following the revelations that files likely to cause ‘embarrassment’ to Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) had been withdrawn from Kenya prior to independence and deposited at Hanslope Park, the home of Her Majesty’s Government’s Communications Centre (HMGCC) in Buckinghamshire. Four Mau Mau veterans sued the British government over claims of torture and mutilation (castration) during the Emergency. The case opened in the High Court on 7 April 2011, where, for the first time, 300 boxes of documents containing 1500 files were revealed. There are 1,400 surviving Mau Mau veterans seeking an apology and also some form of welfare fund. The accusation is that the ill-treatment was part of a system of torture, inhumane and degrading treatment applied by the security forces in the full knowledge of the Colonial Administration. The Foreign Office claim is that it is not legally liable. 54 Not surprisingly, the Kenyan government has also flatly denied any responsibility, claiming, with justification, that it simply did not exist at the time of British rule.

That colonial officers were strongly opposed to what took place is not in doubt. For example, John Nottingham, recalled his own deep dismay years later. 55 Neither side, though, is doubting the appalling acts undertaken by Mau Mau. Equally, the suspension of the rule of law permitted actions just as dreadful by the British authorities. In Professor David Anderson’s own words, ‘It was the ugliest of all of British imperial adventures and the one we now want to deny’. 56 Or as the Kenyan Attorney General of the time stated, ‘If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly’. 57 Or as Provincial Commisioner C M Johnson wrote to the Attorney-General, ‘each and every one of us, from the Governor downwards, may be in danger of removal from public service’. His stance compares starkly with the actions in 2011 of Edward Inglett from the FCO, whose determination to uncover the truth is remarkable and highly commendable. 58

The scale and depravity of actions by the security forces was truly barbaric, including the burning alive of detainees, beatings (eleven detainees beaten to death at Hola Camp in 1959), sexual abuse, food and sleep deprivation and torture. As Matthew Parris has made clear, to examine this record by the standards of today is open to question but that there can be no doubt that those implicated were all too aware of the enormity of their crimes: ‘they knew at the time that some of what was being done was shameful, and if disclosed would be seen as disgraceful at the time. It was to the searchlight of their own generation and their own circumstances, that, if held up, their actions would be found wanting.’ 59

Ministers in London were made fully aware of the acts of brutality. Alan Lennox-Boyd, Secretary of State for the Colonies, received a secret memorandum from Eric Griffith-Jones, Attorney General in Kenya, on the substance of these abuses and laws were enacted to legalise atrocious acts such as beatings to the point of unconscious, the acts of brutality awarded the term, ‘dilution’. The Mwea technique provided buckets of stone to be placed on a suspect’s head, then ordered to run in circles until he confessed to Mau Mau oath taking. The belief then held was that only ‘violent shock’ could overcome the Mau Mau ethos. The ethical distinction between Mau Mau atrocity and government response was never made clear. It was claimed that victims were ‘grateful’ for such treatment. One plea for mercy smuggled out of one of the camps simply stated, ‘Even animals are not beaten like that’. 60

Very few of those in positions of responsibility spoke out against atrocity. However, one, Colonel Arthur Young, did so, much to his credit. As a former Commissioner of the City of London Police, he lasted but one year in the moral cesspit of Kenya, stating to Baring in December 1954 that the camps ‘present a state of affairs so deplorable that they should be investigated without delay so that ever-increasing allegations of inhumanity and disregard for the rights of the African citizen are dealt with’. 61 ‘In the majority of cases the death has been caused by wilful violence and ill-treatment on the part of the staff of these Screening Camps and Home Guard Posts which classifies the matter as murder’. 62 Young resigned four months later. A mere eight European district officers were cited as culpable for extreme brutality – none prosecuted. As The Times summarised the issue in regard to Young, ‘If you are part of a bureaucracy that has interests and a history to protect, going against the prevailing line will make you, at best, an uncomfortable colleague, and at worst, an intolerable irritation. And yet you could well be, in the longer term, the most important person in the place’. 63


Cyprus too witnessed a campaign of nationalist violence by EOKA between April 1955 and 1959. Allegations of brutality against EOKA detainees in Camp K detention camp were followed by the murder of two British soldiers. A further two murders resulted in the rounding up of 1,000 youths in Famagusta, 100 of whom required medical attention. The murder of two army wives led to the detention of 1,000 Cypriots at Karaolis camp, 256 injured in custody and two killed, one following the fracture of seven ribs by his interrogators, another from head injuries. Major General K T Darling, the Director of Operations, issued Directive No 3, a ‘standards of conduct’ instruction, banning ‘viking patrols’.


Similar issues arose in Aden during the mid to late 1960s, most notably after the Argylls occupied Crater district. ‘Quelling Insurgency’ was published in 1965, 64 a prescient moment just as Britain was facing yet another urban insurgency, candidly admitting that ‘the lessons of the past had frequently to be re-learned because they had been insufficiently studied beforehand’. 65 Equally, the authors were remarkably astute in claiming that the document would remain valid for no more than five or six years, predicting that the doctrine applied to a Middle Eastern colony would not be at all applicable in Northern Ireland. Aden also witnessed the realisation that RAF ‘air control’ which had dominated doctrinal thought since 1919, had had its day and was no longer acceptable to western public opinion.

Lieutenant Colonel Colin Mitchell, Commanding Officer of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, remains central to the accusations of misconduct by British troops in the colony, though he preferred the term ‘tolerant toughness’ and openly excoriated brutality in any form. He was, though, critical of policy in Aden after his arrival in February 1967, as ‘containment’. He was also obviously deeply affected by the mutiny of 20 June and the murder of 22 soldiers, not to mention the 1,000 attacks that had taken place since April. The National Liberation Front’s (NLF) control of Crater was complete.

The reoccupation of Crater on 3 July was itself not contentious. Rather, it was the subsequent application of ‘Argyll Law’ that was to lead to recriminations that, rightly. were seen as of Mitchell’s culpability. Bayonets, robust house searches and interrogation techniques, together with detainees ‘shot whilst attempting to evade arrest’ were not uncommon. 66

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland too has had its share of unexplained killings by the Security Forces (i.e., both the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary). It is claimed by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) that an ‘amnesty’ existed between these two bodies between 1970 and September 1973, during which some 150 killings remained un-investigated or poorly so by Royal Military Police, as opposed to civilian police officers. 67

The events of 30 January 1972 in Londonderry also deserve inclusion now that the Saville report has been promulgated. In essence, 14 unarmed civilians were shot dead by soldiers of Support Company of 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment (1 PARA) during an arrest operation or ‘scoop’ that afternoon against the Derry Young Hooligans (DYH), who had been participating in an illegal march against internment without trial that had been introduced the previous summer. 1 PARA had already gained a reputation for ruthless violence and has been accused of reckless killings in West Belfast during Internment as well as brutality during the Magilligan marches just prior to the events of 30 January. The circumstances leading to these deaths were investigated by Lord Chief Justice Widgery 68 , appointed on 1 February 1972 and reporting his findings on 18 April, a period of a mere 77 days. His report, 45 pages in a small A-5 format, concluded that responsibility for the deaths lay as much with the organisers of this illegal march as the soldiers who opened fire. Equally, had the Army maintained a ‘low key’ stance, there would have been no arrest operation at all and no deaths or injuries. His conclusion was that the soldiers came under fire and returned fire in accordance with existing rules of engagement - the ‘Yellow Card’, but that, ‘At one end of the scale some soldiers showed a high degree of responsibility; at the other, notably in Glenfada Park, firing bordered on the reckless.’(para 8, p38) Crucially he also concluded that ‘None of the deceased or wounded is proved to have been shot whilst handling a firearm or bomb…but there is a strong suspicion that some others had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon’ (para 10, p38).

Owing to the very strong emotions and controversy that these findings aroused, the incident was the subject to a second investigation commencing in 1998 and ending in June 2010 under Lord Justice Saville 69 . This found that the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, was ordered to mount an arrest operation by Brigadier MacLellan at 1607 hours, now that the rioters were separated from the peaceful marchers and was told to do so with one company and forbidden to conduct a running battle down Rossville Street towards the Rossville Flats. Wilford instead mounted a two company operation, including Support Company in armoured vehicles (Humber 1 ton ‘Pigs’), which did proceed down Rossville Street, where there were a mix of rioters and peaceful marchers, the soldiers having no way of distinguishing between them as they dismounted to make arrests. The Brigadier was uninformed of the decisions and actions made and would certainly have refused to sanction such a deployment had he known what Wilford intended. Lieutenant N, commanding the Mortar Platoon fired two warning shots above the heads of civilians, a clear breach of the Yellow Card guidelines on opening fire. In so doing, it is highly likely that the ‘Derry sound’ occurred, where the echo from the shots convinced other soldiers that they were under fire and who themselves opened fire. The Anti-Tank Platoon also opened fire. The incident was over in ten minutes and 108 rounds fired. As with Widgery, Saville also concluded that (3.70) ‘None of the casualties shot by soldiers of Support Company were armed with a firearm or (with the possible exception of Gerald Donaghey) a bomb of an description. None was posing any threat of causing death or serious injury. In no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire.’ ‘None of the soldiers admitted missing his target and hitting someone else by mistake’ (3.73). ‘No soldier of Support Company was injured by gunfire on Bloody Sunday’ (3.76). ‘We have concluded…that many of these soldiers have knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing.’(3.82) In the end no proceedings were pursued against any of those who had been arrested.

The use of torture by water-boarding was also prevalent in the early 1970s. In April 1973 Liam Holden was convicted of the murder of Private Frank Bell of 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment and sentenced to hang, later commuted to life imprisonment, for which he served 17 years in jail. He allegedly confessed to the murder after water-boarding by the Intelligence Officer, this after the Heath government’s banning of the ‘five techniques’ of interrogation in March 1972. Holden claimed that he was arrested, beaten, burned with a cigarette lighter, hooded and threatened with execution as well as water boarding. The case is currently due for appeal. 70

There are also allegations that there was a culture of systematic mistreatment of suspects by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) at this time in ‘The Troubles’. The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) has received over two hundred allegations of beatings under interrogation, of which as at October 2010, 26 were referred to the Belfast court of appeal and in 24 instances, convictions overturned. This form of maltreatment was almost certainly at the behest of senior RUC officers. Equally disturbing has been the suggestion that defending lawyers were actively involved in securing false convictions and that police doctors’ evidence of ill-treatment during interrogations was being systematically ignored. 71

The Castlereagh interrogation centre in East Belfast gained a notorious reputation as the focus for illegal interrogation techniques, including the ‘five techniques’ banned in 1972, and despite an Amnesty International call for a public enquiry in 1978. It was, as usual, a change in leadership with the appointment of Jack Hermon as Chief Constable that brought this regime to a sudden end. 72

So too was civilian life lost without justification. Most poignant must be the case of Majella O’Hare, a 12 year old school girl, shot in the back by a Private Michael Williams, a soldier of 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment as she was walking to church in County Armagh on 14 August 1976. The subsequent abuse of her father by the soldiers when he arrived on the scene remains a disgrace, the claim of the soldier subsequently that he was under sniper fire regarded as ‘unlikely’. The charge of murder was reduced to that of manslaughter and Williams was acquitted. The HET inquiry found that there was no evidence of an IRA gunman in the area. Majella’s mother received a formal apology on 28 March 2011 from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Patterson. As to why, in contravention of standing orders, the General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) in Williams’ hands was already cocked, has not been revealed. 73


The incidents described above may appear to paint a somewhat unbalanced picture of the overall British record, bearing in mind the thousands of government officials, police and troops whose behaviour has been exemplary. However, even when a ‘minority activity’ these actions have always led to severe repercussions, both within the UK’s press and parliament as well as for its wider global reputation. In many countries the pain associated with the British has not diminished over time, the deep sense of injustice still not brought to closure.

The truly disturbing aspect of this study is the manner in which senior officials of both the military, civil service and government, thought it expedient to steadfastly refuse to face the facts when atrocities took place. The ‘system’ has long taken the view that while it knows these crimes have been (and are) committed, to admit to them - until forced by sheer weight of incontestable evidence – is that admission would ‘give aid and comfort’ to the enemy. It is furthermore of great concern that official papers on such matters were/are withheld from the National Archive on grounds of political sensitivity.

It cannot be emphasised enough that where the leadership has been sound, as in officers such as Richard O’Connor, Bill Slim, Bernard Montgomery, Gerald Templer, Bob Erskine and Rupert Smith, the likelihood of misbehaviour by Security Forces appears to have been much diminished. It is when those such as Percival, Harris, Hinde or Mitchell gain the ascendency that trouble inevitably followed. Yet all went through the same officer ‘factory’ at Dartmouth, Woolwich, Sandhurst or Cranwell, raising the question of whether these hallowed institutions and later, staff colleges, were able to weed out those capable of such lasting damage at a later time in their lives.

So What?

Returning to the recent allegations, Brigadier Robert Aitken was tasked with the investigation into cases of abuse and unlawful killing in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, his report published in January 2008. 74 The Chief of General Staff (CGS), General Sir Richard Dannatt, provided a Foreword, making clear that whereas ‘our record is exceptional…we have an unprecedented number of tough, battle-hardened officers and soldiers who have performed to the highest standards…under extraordinarily testing conditions…But I take no pride in the conduct of those of our people – however few – who took it upon themselves to deliberately abuse Iraqi civilians during 2003 and the early part of 2004….Please do not think that putting these matters right is the sole responsibility of some staff branch in Wiltshire or London: this will require leadership at all levels, from myself down to the most junior lance corporal.’ Amen to that!

Brigadier Aitken’s task at a time when the Baha Musa case was sub judice was not an easy one. He would have liked to include issues of ‘command climate’ in the various units and formations under scrutiny but was prevented from so doing. He acknowledged the lack of planning for ‘Phase 4’, stabilisation operations required of the occupying power on the cessation of hostilities between states, and that, in the absence of any civil authority, there was a risk that ‘rough justice’ would become the norm in certain circumstances. Indeed, the very ethos of ‘mission command’ ran the risk of misinterpretation of ethical values, especially under duress. In this respect, the values and standards imbibed into all ranks were themselves open to misinterpretation, with the possibility of a conflict of interest between the notion of regimental loyalty and moral courage, between respect for others, common humanity and so on. But his conclusion was that whilst there may be ‘rotten apples’ in the barrel, this did not imply that the barrel itself was ‘rotten’. 75

But taking the evidence of over a century in context one is bound to question whether Robert Aitken’s conclusions are entirely valid and to ask whether the training and ethos of the Armed Forces has ever properly addressed the issue of how to handle its opponents when they are no longer legitimate targets for lethal force. This is not just a matter of ‘wars among the people’ but as significant in full scale conventional wars, such as the Falklands in 1982. Prior to the battle of Goose Green, Colonel H Jones (killed in action, 28th May, 1982), to his great credit, did not command his officers that the Geneva Conventions would be respected at all times with regard to enemy prisoners for no particular reason.

In all, the capacity of British military to deny the human rights of those they are required to protect is hardly edifying. References to ‘wogs’, ‘coons’ ‘untermensch’ ‘rag heads’ ‘taigs’, ‘boy’ and so on are legion in British military historiography, for all of whom ‘rules of conduct ’ by the security forces were allowed to become an irrelevance. For as long as soldiers are trained and led to believe that such categorisation is ‘acceptable’ atrocities will continue to occur. Officers bear the brunt of ensuring this not to be the case but so often are themselves part and parcel of the reason why.

Returning briefly to Iraq, overall there were 229 allegations of criminal activity between March 2003 and early 2004, of which 20 were handled either by court martial or summary dealing. Altogether six civilians died in British military custody. The ‘Five Techniques’ (wall standing, hooding, subjection to noise, sleep deprivation and deprivation of food and drink) which were banned by the Heath Government in 1972, and officially re-stated in 1977 by the Attorney General, were nonetheless used in Iraq. How and why this unlawful activity was reintroduced into the Armed Forces remain unclear.

The possibility that British troops have also been engaged in the unlawful killing of civilians in Afghanistan has now been raised. The Coldstream Guards, Royal Marines and The Rifles have been identified as having collectively killed or wounded some 15 civilians in 21 incidents. 76

Overall though and returning to the alleged ‘broken society’, I would suggest that the likelihood of another Amritsar, or Batang Kali or a Bloody Sunday, are much reduced in modern times. British officers and soldiers are far better educated than in previous generations, the Human Rights era predominates, and the 24/7 media coverage of conflict ensures that every and any act could be beamed across the globe within seconds of having taken place. In this new context it is perhaps all the more shocking that there are still cases outstanding and that insufficient attention has been granted to the terrible mistakes of the past. A recent COMISAF, General Stanley McChrystal, might well have thought that his policy of ‘courageous restraint’ in Afghanistan reflected a ‘new’ understanding of counterinsurgency. This was despite an ongoing ‘secret war’ using drones in Pakistani airspace with little, if any, regard for civilian casualties. For the British, Afghanistan is merely déjà vu, courageous restraint always required over decades, regrettably not always exercised.

Colonel (Rtd), David Benest, OBE
Submitted, April 2011.

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68 The Rt Hon Lord Widgery OBE, TD, Report of the Tribunal appointed to inquire into the events on Sunday , 30th January 1972, which led to the loss of life in connection with the procession in Londonderry on that day, HMSO, London , H.L. 101, H.C. 220
69 Lord Saville, Report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. June 2010
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76 Bob Evans, Richard Norton-Taylor, David Leigh, British forces exposed over Afghan attacks, The Guardian, Wednesday 27 October 2010, pp 1, 2, 8, 9

Article by Colonel David Benest, OBE
Added Mon, 25 Apr 2011 00:22

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