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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Mau Mau Insurgency

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Mau Mau Insurgency.

When did this conflict occur?

20th October, 1952^ – January, 1960*

^ – Though a state of emergency was formally declared in Kenya on the 20th of October, 1952, Mau Mau activity had steadily increased throughout 1952 and resulted in the first murder of a European citizen on the 3rd of October. [1]

* – British combat operations, however, largely came to an end following the capture and execution of Field Marshal Dedan Kimanthi, a senior Mau Mau military commander, in October of 1956. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

The Colony and Protectorate of Kenya was established in July of 1920, when the former East Africa Protectorate, with territory spanning from the Indian Ocean to the present-day Kenyan-Ugandan border, was formally designated a British Crown colony. Though local grievances initially centred on low pay for Kenyan workers and mandatory identification documents, disputes regarding land ownership were transformed into a focal point of controversy. Efforts by the British-led Carter Land Commission to identify a compromise, however, ended in a series of expropriations which seized 28000 square kilometres of fertile land in the Rift and Central Valley Provinces for use by largely European settlers. [3] Resentment, particularly within the Kikuyu tribe whose members were among the most heavily affected by the Carter Commission’s policy proposals, grew throughout the 1940s and culminated in the formation of the militant Kenyan Land and Freedom Army, known simply as the ‘Mau Mau’. [4] With limited military equipment, which resulted in the frequent use of edged weapons and improvised firearms, Mau Mau forces exploited Kenya’s dense wilderness to their advantage; by 1952, Mau Mau insurgents operated confidently in the colony’s rural areas, launching attacks against European settlers, British forces, as well as Kikuyu leaders who remained loyal to the protectorate’s government and rapidly melting back into forests. Over the next four years, evolutions in British doctrine, with a renewed emphasis on human intelligence gathering and the forced resettlement of the Kikuyu populace, allowed security forces to turn the tide against the Mau Mau. [5] The 1956 capture and execution of Field Marshal Dedan Kimanthi, the Mau Mau’s senior military leader, ultimately proved fatal for the movement, which never recovered the tactical initiative it enjoyed in the early years of the uprising.  

What role did British military forces play?

In a similar pattern to the Malayan Emergency of 1948, the initial British military effort against the Mau Mau in Kenya was marked by a reliance on coercion exercised through physical abuse, loosened rules of engagement, and collusion with irregular armed vigilante groups. The colonial garrison in Kenya, consisting of three battalions of the King’s African Rifles and an additional British infantry brigade, formed the core of the British ground combat capability; alongside elements of the Kenya Regiment, a volunteer territorial unit composed largely of local settler, government security forces embarked on a counterinsurgency campaign defined by brutality. [6] Servicemembers were encouraged to make vigorous use of personal weapons, with a Kenya Regiment officer asserting that “the Kikuyu must be taught a lesson that will be remembered for generations”. [7] These efforts, however, were largely hampered by a lack of accurate intelligence concerning the movements and locations of Mau Mau forces, resulting in British troops adopting an operational posture centred on mobile sweeps through forested areas and static guard positions on European properties. It was the 1953 arrival of Lieutenant-General Sir George Erskine which sparked major shifts in doctrine: military and civilian intelligence collection efforts were integrated into a common chain of command shared by Intelligence Corps personnel and Special Branch officers; large-scale surrender schemes were introduced as a means of incentivizing desertion within Mau Mau ranks; and the expansion of a Kikuyu loyalist Home Guard as well as the Kenya Regiment freed British troops for offensive operations against the Mau Mau. [8] Allegations of torture, mistreatment, and summary executions were common, even following efforts by Lieutenant General Erskine to address instances of misconduct among British troops. Nonetheless, government security forces succeeded in fatally weakening the Mau Mau insurgency by 1956, with the state of emergency declared over four years later. 

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

Yes. Over the course of the Mau Mau Insurgency, there were 144* confirmed killings of civilians by British military forces. In contrast to these 147 civilian deaths, 95 British military personnel died in the conflict. [9]

* The figure of 144 civilian fatalities does not include killings perpetrated by members of the Kenya Regiment, a territorial unit composed of local settlers who undertook assumed primary responsibility for static defensive duties, or the Home Guard; it is for this reason that instances of deliberate civilian killings such as the 1953 Mununga Ridge massacre, in which members of the Home Guard killed approximately 400 civilians in retaliation for the assassination of a tribal leader’s son, in addition to atrocities perpetrated by the Kenya Regiment and Home Guard as part of forced resettlement efforts are not included.  [10]

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

The overwhelming majority of instances where British military forces employed lethal force against non-combatants were claimed to have occurred when individuals attempted to flee or failed to halt when called to do so. Rules of engagement, particularly in the year prior to Lieutenant General Erskine’s arrival, were notoriously loose, with heavily forested areas designated as ‘prohibited’ and military units within them permitted to employ lethal force without warning. When combined with informal inter-unit competitions to attain the greatest possible number of enemy killed in action as well as a culture of impunity reinforced by a refusal to prosecute junior officers for misconduct, instances of deliberate civilian killings multiplied within some formations of the British Army. Most notorious among these was 5th Battalion, the King’s African Rifles, which, in the span of one week, killed 13 Kenyan civilians. 

  • 11th June, 1953: A platoon from B Company, 5th Battalion, the King’s African Rifles, embarked on a cordon and sweep operation near Nyeri. The platoon commander, Captain Gerald Griffiths, had stated prior to embarking on patrol that rules of engagement allowed the troops to “shoot anybody you like”. Shortly after beginning the operation, three Kikuyu forestry workers encountered the KAR platoon. Captain Griffiths conducted a brief tactical questioning, and, after sending the eldest man away, Griffiths opened fire with a Bren gun. Both civilians were fatally injured and subsequently executed by Captain Griffiths and his Command Sergeant Major, W.P. Llewellyn. [11]

18th June, 1953: A patrol from 5th Battalion, the King’s African Rifles, entered the village of Mogokulo and separated a group of nine local men. While moving them through the town, two more local civilians, known only as Nkira and Muchiri, were asked to join the group. All 11 men were subsequently searched, stripped of valuable possessions, and told to grab weapons to join the KAR patrol on a search for Mau Mau forces. Approximately 40 minutes to an hour later, gunfire was heard in the forest, and the KAR patrol returned with spears, pangas, and bows previously carried by the 11 men in addition to severed African hands. [12]

Endnotes:

[1] Elkins, Caroline. Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (London: Pimlico, 2005): 32.

[2] Clarke, Colin P et al. Paths to Victory: Detailed Counterinsurgency Case Studies (California: RAND Corporation, 2013): 72.

[3] Kanogo, Tabitha. Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau, 1905-63 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1987): 8.

[4] Wa-Githumo, Mwangi, “THE TRUTH ABOUT THE MAU MAU MOVEMENT: THE MOST POPULAR UPRISING IN KENYA”, Transafrican Journal of History 20 (1991): 1–18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24520300.

[5] Erickson, Edward J. “Introduction” in A Global History of Relocation in Counterinsurgency Warfare, edited by Edward J Erickson (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020): 12.

[6] Clarke, Paths to Victory, 66.

[7] Bennett, Huw, “‘A Lot of Indiscriminate Shooting’: Military Repression Before Erskine’s Arrival”, in Fighting the Mau Mau: The British Army and Counter-Insurgency in the Kenya Emergency (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012): 160. 

[8] Kenya Emergency, National Army Museum, 2017, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/Kenya-Emergency

[9] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972075/20210325_UK_armed_forces_Operational_deaths_post_World_War_II-O.pdf

[10] Bennet, Huw, “‘Severe Repressive Measures’: The Army Under Erskine”, in Fighting the Mau Mau: The British Army and Counter-Insurgency in the Kenya Emergency (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012): 216.

[11] Huw, “A Lot of Indiscriminate Shooting”, 181-182.

[12] Huw, “A Lot of Indiscriminate Shooting”, 86-188.