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Civilian casualties from British military engagements since World War II: summary

This report by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) sought to quantify the civilian death toll from British military global activities since 1945.

In total, a team of researchers examined 28 different conflicts where the British military were involved in active fighting since the close of the Second World War. In those conflicts, the team found 1,620 civilians killed by British forces, as reported in historical documents, government reports and contemporary news reports. In that time some 8,517 British servicemen and women also lost their lives during combat operations.

Though our combined figure of noncombatant fatalities uncovered is likely an underestimate, the research conducted offers pertinent insights into continuities and evolutions in patterns of civilian harm across four thematic periods of British military involvement in domestic and global conflicts.  These are described as below.

The purpose of this research was not to castigate the British military, but rather to highlight that war has inevitable consequences on civilian lives, and all-too-often such deaths go unrecorded and unrecognised. This is a small attempt to address that imbalance.

A list of the conflicts (by order):

  1. Palestine Emergency
  2. Greek Civil War
  3. Vietnam War
  4. Indonesian War of Independence
  5. Malayan Emergency
  6. Korean War
  7. Anglo-Egyptian War
  8. Mau Mau Insurgency (Kenya)
  9. Cyprus Emergency
  10. Suez Crisis
  11. Muscat and Oman Intervention
  12. Jordan Intervention
  13. Brunei Revolt
  14. Borneo-Malaya
  15. East African Mutinies
  16. Aden Emergency
  17. Troubles (Northern Ireland)
  18. Dhofar Rebellion
  19. Falklands War
  20. First Gulf War
  21. No-Fly Zone War (Iraq)
  22. Bosnia and Herzegovina
  23. Kosovo Conflict
  24. Sierra Leone Intervention
  25. Afghanistan War
  26. Iraq War
  27. First Libyan Civil War
  28. Intervention Against ISIS

The End of Empire: 15 Conflicts. 3 Continents. 704 Civilian Deaths.

The thirty-two years following the end of the Second World War saw British military involvement in fifteen separate conflicts over territories formerly occupied by the United Kingdom and other European powers. These resulted in 704 confirmed civilian fatalities.

Far from the conventional engagements in the European and Pacific theatres, British troops found themselves tasked with internal security missions traditionally associated with law enforcement. No longer did success hinge on locating, closing with, and destroying enemy centres of gravity; instead, British troops in locations as diverse as Cyprus, Palestine, and Malaya faced operational realities defined by terrorist tactics, popular support for insurgent forces, and an illusory adversary capable of striking and disappearing at will. 

Civilian deaths were generally concentrated in the initial phases of these counterinsurgency efforts, when planners sought to meet opposition with overwhelming force. In Malaya, this phase, known as the ‘Counter-Terror’, involved British formations conducting large-scale sweeps through civilian areas. Rooted in the infantry traditions of World War II, where platoons or companies conducted offensives against similarly-sized forces, this cumbersome approach offered ample early-warning to insurgents and increased the risk of noncombatants being inadvertently killed by advancing troops. When combined with unrestrictive rules of engagement, British reports in the initial phases of these conflicts were noted for numerous killings of individuals ‘attempting to escape’ or ‘failing to halt’, often with no mention of weapons or military equipment recovered. This, in addition to casualty reporting procedures that required little justification for the use of deadly force, means that colonial counterinsurgency efforts were defined by initially-elevated levels of civilian deaths and nearly-nonexistent means of ensuring post-fatality accountability. Though politico-military programs to secure ‘hearts and minds’ subsequently became defining features of initial campaigns, the continued delay in implementing this holistic approach early-on in subsequent conflicts indicates a potential failure of British military institutional knowledge. 

An International Actor: Unclear Figures and Diffused Responsibility

In addition to largely-unilateral counterinsurgency efforts, the United Kingdom participated in seven multinational military interventions between 1945 and 2001; in four of the seven cases, however, no figure of civilian deaths was determined, and only 294 noncombatant fatalities could be confirmed.  These operations were frequently defined by a high degree of interoperability between military forces – British aircraft over Bosnia, for instance, conducted operations against Yugoslav targets in unified formations with the US Air Force, Navy, and other NATO partners. The result is the diffusion of accountability amongst belligerents, rendering the task of assigning responsibility for civilian deaths to specific militaries, even when the political and public will to do so exists, nearly impossible.

Interventions in states such as Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kuwait also coincided with a revolution in military affairs and the proliferation of sophisticated technical platforms such as laser-guided ordnance and stealth aircraft. Though effective at allowing states to achieve strategic effects that would have previously required mass levels of military commitment, these advancements, combined with the largely humanitarian auspices of interventions, entrenched a narrative of a lessened threat to civilians. In reality, this period saw large numbers of noncombatant fatalities and continued difficulties in reporting and investigating civilian deaths. In fact, the single deadliest event for noncombatants included in this report occurred in 1991 when an errant RAF laser-guided munition killed 130 civilians in Fallujah, Iraq, a strike initially denied by RAF leaders and only acknowledged days later. 

Rooted in History: Northern Irelands, the Falklands, and Growing Accountability

British military operations in the Falklands and Northern Ireland stand in marked contrast as the first instances where widespread data on civilian deaths became available, with 191 confirmed noncombatant fatalities. In a pattern subsequently repeated in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, few British troops would be held criminally liable for these incidents, with only six servicemembers charged for Northern Ireland-related offences despite the comparatively abundant degree of information available. 

Afghanistan, Iraq, and Beyond: 21 Years. 431 Civilian Deaths.

The aftermath of the September 11th attacks has seen near-simultaneous British military involvement in four separate engagements, from the relentless close combat of Afghanistan and Iraq to sustained air and special operations campaigns in Libya and Syria, which resulted in 431 confirmed civilian deaths. As with events Northern Ireland, these conflicts were marked by detailed fatality data in addition to a continued lack of legal recourse when noncombatants were killed by British forces: over the course of the UK’s twelve-year Operation Herrick in Afghanistan, only one service member, Royal Marine Sergeant Alexander Blackman, was prosecuted for an unlawful killing. 

The precise casualty reporting of Iraq and Afghanistan did not, however, extend to subsequent operations in Libya or the ongoing effort against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Despite taking place decades later, a surprising degree of historical continuity was noted in these conflicts. Much like interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, military action in Libya saw continued British involvement in multinational air campaigns. When noncombatants were killed in these strikes, the tightly integrated nature of coalition operations once again diffused accountability amongst participating military forces. To this day, the UK maintains that no civilians were killed during operations in Libya, with the only acknowledgement of inadvertent noncombatant fatalities referring to a NATO strike that resulted in the death of a family. 

This diffusion of accountability is not limited to international aerial efforts. The British ground presence in Iraq and Syria, for instance, was primarily composed of special operators liaising with local forces to integrate coalition aviation, intelligence, and fire support. This approach of working alongside locals serving as the primary offensive manoeuvre element was visible in British support to the Sultan of Oman: in a similar pattern to present-day operations, the UK’s role largely focused on British officers serving as combat advisors to the Sultan, the use of 22 SAS to train and lead irregular formations, and RAF support overhead. The reliance on local surrogates supported by airpower, thus, represents another enduring legacy of earlier engagements and highlights the difficulties of ensuring accountability when British involvement centres not on unilateral action but on advising, assisting, and enabling a partner force to achieve shared military goals.

The Why

The patterns of civilian harm outlined in this report reflect evolutions in the conduct and recording of military operations as well as continuities that remain as relevant in the present-day as they were in the aftermath of World War II. It is, ultimately, hoped that this report serves as a point of departure for further investigation, scrutiny, and a renewed awareness of the human costs inherent in the employment of military force to pursue British objectives at home and abroad.

The conflicts

  1. Aden Emergency
  2. Afghanistan War
  3. Anglo-Egyptian War
  4. Bosnia and Herzegovina
  5. Brunei Revolt
  6. Cyprus Emergency
  7. Dhofar Rebellion
  8. East African Mutinies
  9. Falklands War
  10. First Gulf War
  11. First Libyan Civil War
  12. Greek Civil War
  13. Indonesian War of Independence
  14. Intervention Against ISIS
  15. Iraq War
  16. Jordan Intervention
  17. Korean War
  18. Kosovo Conflict
  19. Malayan Emergency
  20. Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation
  21. Mau Mau Insurgency
  22. Muscat and Oman Intervention
  23. No-Fly Zone War (Iraq)
  24. Palestine Emergency
  25. Sierra Leone Intervention
  26. Suez Crisis
  27. Troubles (Northern Ireland)
  28. Vietnam War