Striking Back - at the Empire

Britain's Colonial Wars from 1945


‘Ah, British Mother, had you a boy there?
No blame to him for the evil done
Or that a sorrowing Cypriot couple
Lost that day a beloved son
When at eighteen years, in the cause of freedom
Petrakis Yiallouris met his eclipse
Shot through the heart, by a conscript soldier,
“Cyprus, Cyprus!” upon his lips.’

From Cypriot Question
by Helen Fullerton


In 1914-18 Britain, to protect its world interests and prevent Germany dominating Europe, had thrown all the resources of the country and empire into the 1st World War. Emerging triumphant, but weaker financially and militarily, Britain found itself losing markets and influence to the US – who gradually supplanted Britain as the dominant western power. Britain’s armed forces spent the time between the two world wars mainly in their traditional role of policing the Empire. New forms of warfare were used to keep British rule in place and aircraft were found to be cheap and effective weapons for machine-gunning and gassing rebel bands and dropping bombs on towns and hamlets ‘to teach the natives a lesson’.

Just over two decades after the end of the ‘Great War’, Britain and the Empire were embroiled in another global conflict against German Nazi expansionism and its Japanese ally in the far east. In the 2nd World War, imperialist countries again used their modern technology of warfare against each other with devastating effect, as this conflict became the first conventional modern war in which more civilians than combatants were killed.

Before the 2nd World War many members of the British ruling class had been virulently anti-communist and pro-fascist, even turning a blind eye to the overthrow of the elected republican government in Spain. However, establishment opinions began to change - and war became certain - when it became clear that unchecked fascism threatened parts of the empire and even the old order in Europe itself. To win support for the ‘war against fascism’ Britain then indicated that it stood for the equality and self-determination of all nations and from all parts of the Empire volunteers and/or recruits came to join Britain’s armed forces. Consequently, many of these soldiers, sailors and airmen returned determined to put these democratic principles into practice at home.

During the 2nd World War many areas of the British Empire were threatened and some occupied by enemy troops and the indigenous fight against the invader was undertaken by the native peoples - often led by nationalists or communists, or a combination of both. Afterwards, it was clear that the war had helped create an attitude of mind that was conducive to throwing off the chains of colonial rule. There was now also an availability of arms, with an ability to use them. As independence movements emerged it became clear that many people in far off lands were no longer willing to live under the Union Jack. Britain’s leaders, on the other hand, were determined to hang on to the Empire and moved swiftly to re-establish their control.



The Fall of Singapore

In early 1942 General Arthur Ernest Percival, under pressure from Japanese attackers, ordered the retreat of his troops from Malaya to make a last stand on Singapore Island. Percival was a seasoned soldier and British imperialist prestige would rest on whether or not he could defend this ‘crown jewel’ of the Empire. Twenty years earlier, on 16th April 1921 during the Anglo / Irish war, the then Major Percival had led a unit of his Essex Regiment soldiers to Woodfield, the home of the Collins family in West Cork. Michael Collins was then the most wanted IRA ‘terrorist’ in Ireland, before he became a ‘statesman’ by meeting the British PM Lloyd George at Downing Street and signing the treaty.

The soldiers had come to carry out the official ‘punishment policy’ of destroying the family homes of rebels in martial law areas. This was supposed to include giving notification to the residents to allow them to remove valuables, but no warning was given to the Collins family. The two women and eight children were roughly forced from their home and could only watch in horror as Woodfield was set alight and destroyed. A few soldiers did not like their task and rescued some family possessions from the flames while their officer’s back was turned.

In another incident two IRA men, Tom Hales and Pat Harte, were captured by Major Percival and his troops. The prisoners were stripped and severely beaten by the soldiers with their rifle butts. Later, back at the barracks, Hales and Harte were taken to an upstairs room where six officers, including Percival, were waiting to interrogate them:

Two of the other officers ... beat him [Hales] with canes, which they did, one standing on either side, till they ‘drove the blood out through him’. Then pliers were used on his lower body and to extract his finger nails, so that Hales says, ‘My fingers were so bruised that I got unconscious.’

On regaining consciousness he was questioned about prominent figures including Michael Collins. He gave no information and two officers took off their tunics and punched him until he fell on the floor with several teeth knocked out or loosened. Finally he was pulled by the hair to the top of the stairs and thrown to the bottom, where he was again beaten before being dragged to a cell. Hales recovered. Harte, however, suffered brain damage and died in hospital, insane.[1]

Twenty-one years later, Percival, now a Lt.-General, commanded the British and Commonwealth forces fighting the Japanese in Malaya and Singapore. Britain’s war leader, Winston Churchill, sent this cable to his military commanders:


The RAF, especially, were badly under strength and the Japanese quickly acquired decisive air superiority. With the city about to fall, Churchill was forced to allow the troops to cease resistance and on 15th February 1942, Percival surrendered to General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who commanded the Japanese attackers. Churchill described the fall of Singapore as ‘the biggest disaster and capitulation in our history’:

In a brilliantly conceived, whirlwind campaign, at the cost of a few thousand casualties, Yamashita defeated a force superior in all aspects but aircraft and competence. Percival surrendered not only 130,000 men and the Crown Jewel of the Empire but also British prestige in Asia. The fortress had been “impregnable”, the British garrison keen, the outcome certain - and no one believed that more than the British. But Yamashita had cut away the bland face of British superiority and revealed the tired muscles and frail tissues of a decaying empire. Later victories never made up for the debacle at Singapore, and prestige was never regained.[2]

While senior officers were treated relatively well by the Japanese, many of Percival’s British and Imperial rank and file troops were to suffer and perish on Japanese slave labour projects like the Burma railway.

1: Michael Collins,
by Tim Pat Coogan,
Arrow Books 1991.

2: On Revolt - Strategies of National Liberation,
by J Bowyer Bell,
Harvard University Press 1976.




Even as the 2nd World War was ending British troops were being used to reassert the pre-war status quo in places as wide apart as Greece and Vietnam. In Greece, after the Germans were forced out, there occurred civil strife between right-wing royalist forces and the left-wing National Popular Liberation Army (ELAS) which had borne the brunt of the fight against the Germans. British troops were ordered to intervene on the royalist side, prolonging the conflict and sparking an all-out civil war. With the odds now stacked against them, the ELAS forces were eventually defeated.

While the victorious Allies moved to build a new world order open to their manipulation and control, tensions often surfaced between them. In the Far East, Britain was suspicious of US intentions towards the old areas of European dominance. These issues were discussed among the Allies at Yalta in early 1945. Afterwards US President Roosevelt stated: ‘I suggested ... that Indo-China be set up under a trusteeship ... Stalin liked the idea, China liked the idea. The British didn’t like it. It might bust up their Empire, because if the Indo-Chinese were to work together and eventually get their independence the Burmese might do the same thing.’ [3]

Other European countries, like France and Holland, faced the loss of parts of their empires, because of the time it would take them to get their military forces back to the area. Britain, to stabilize its own colonial interests in the area, was determined to ensure Holland could return to dominate Indonesia and France to control Vietnam (Indo-China):

Throughout the war Churchill did his best to ensure the restoration of the pre-war Imperial status quo in Asia, American ideas of political emancipation for former French colonies were not to his liking. He knew well that independence is a contagious force, and that if allowed in Vietnam it might well spread to Burma and to India itself. Using every weapon in his formidable armoury, Churchill worked to scupper Roosevelt’s liberal policies, particularly over French Indo-China.[4]

In both Vietnam and Indonesia nationalist movements, who in conjunction with the Allies had fought the Japanese, were about to come to power. In early September 1945, the Vietnamese made their Declaration of Independence: ‘We are convinced that the Allied nations, which at Teheran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.’ The Vietnamese went on to explain that they were ‘a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the Fascists during these last years, such a people must be free and independent ... We, members of the Provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country...’ [5]

Ho Chi Minh was one of the leaders of the Vietnamese independence struggle. Twenty-five years earlier he had stayed in London for a short period:

On October 25 [1920], the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney - a teacher, poet, dramatist and scholar - died on the seventy-fourth day of a hunger strike while in Brixton Prison, London. A young Vietnamese dishwasher in the Carlton Hotel, London, broke down and cried when he heard the news. “A nation which has such citizens will never surrender.” His name was Nguyen Ai Quoc who, in 1941, adopted the name of Ho Chi Minh and took the lessons of the Irish anti-imperialist fight to his own country.[6]

In 1945, as British troops first entered Saigon, they were welcomed by the people. They had arrived at a time when Ho Chi Minh and the Viet-Minh had widespread support throughout the country. The British commander, General Gracey, later wrote: ‘I was welcomed on arrival by the Viet-Minh ... I promptly kicked them out.’ [7]

3: The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy 1941-1946,
by Arthur M Schlesinger Jr,
Houghton, Mifflin,
New York 1967.

4: The British In Vietnam - How the twenty-five year war began,
by George Rosie,
Panther Books 1970.

5: Ibid - The British In Vietnam - How the twenty-five year war began.

6: A History of the Irish Working Class,
by Peter Berresford Ellis,
Pluto Press 1985.

7: Journal of the Royal Asian Society,
July-Oct. 1953.



The Japanese Rearmed

Twenty years later, one of Gracey’s officers, Robert Denton-Williams, told how he had arrived with the advance party of British troops: ‘As an officer of the Indian Army, I was part of the first allied unit to reach Indo-China in 1945. The 20th Indian Division was stationed in Burma. The greater part of it embarked by sea, but an advance battalion of Gurkhas (900 men with British officers) flew to Saigon via Bangkok. I was with the advance groups as ammunition and transport officer ...’ Denton-Williams then gave his account of what happened:

The British troops were made most welcome ... and posters from the airport to the rue Catinat (the centre of Saigon) bore the legend “Welcome to the allies, to the British and to the Americans - but we have no room for the French”. Everything seemed to be going well. The government of the country was in the hands of the Committee of the South, a united front organisation of the Viet Minh and various Buddhist and other groups. Ho’s picture was all over Saigon.

... Then an appalling thing happened. Some eighty Free French (not the discredited Vichy French) resolved to restore French power in Indo-China ... they occupied a number of key public buildings in Saigon, hoisted the tricoleur, and declared the return of Indo-China to French sovereignty. Then they called upon the British to arm them and join them against ‘les jaunes’ (the yellow people).[8]

Back home people were deliberately misled as to what was happening. As Robert Denton-Williams explained: ‘In a command paper (R 2817; 25 March 1954), and also in other papers before and since, the Central Office of Information has given it out that because of “unrest and terrorism”, General Gracey had given orders to arm the French. Both parts of the statement were wholly untrue. There was at this time no unrest and no terrorism, and General Gracey did not give the order to arm the French. The order came from the Foreign Office through an F.O. official in Saigon, and it was delivered to the local British Commander, Brigadier-General Taunton.’ [9]

To stem the increasing tide of nationalist hostility, the British sought help from their defeated enemy. Ironically, as the Allies tried and executed some Japanese soldiers as war criminals, others were rearmed and prepared for front line duty. George Rosie, in his book The British in Vietnam, said: ‘A further element of irony was contained in the unenviable role of the Japanese, who, defeated and humiliated, were obliged to pick up their arms for their former enemy and to bear the brunt of the “Allied” casualties.’ [10]

Robert Denton-Williams, who took part in this process, later recalled: ‘As there were less than a thousand allied troops and some 79,000 Japanese concentrated round Saigon, the Japanese units (previously under the command of Field Marshal Count Terauchi) were now taken under British command to defend Saigon.’ Denton-Williams also helped rearm the Japanese: ‘ They were even issued with 3-inch mortars and bombs which they had themselves captured from the British at Singapore in 1942. I myself was responsible for issuing arms and deploying transport with the help of Colonel Endo and Lieut.-Colonel Murata of the Japanese army.’ [11]

Alongside British soldiers, these Japanese troops were used to police Vietnam until French forces could return and take over. Military force was used to quell dissent, as Vietnam became a colonial battleground for British, then French and finally US troops:

We are used to the idea that wars in Vietnam have been exclusively the concern of first the French, and later the Americans. But, in late 1945, it was British bullets which were whining across the paddy-fields around Saigon, British mortars which were pounding the frail villages of the Mekong Delta (and British soldiers who were being brutally ambushed by the forerunners of the Vietcong). The history of the British occupation of South Vietnam does not form a happy narrative. Like most post-war colonial interludes, it is a tale fraught with political complexity and intrigue, with internecine struggle, with terrorism and repressive counter-measures...[12]

8: Statement by Robert Denton-Williams,
in Ho Chi Minh and the Struggle for an Independent Vietnam,
by William Warbey,
Merlin Press 1972.

9: Ibid - Statement by Robert Denton-Williams.

10: The British In Vietnam - How the twenty-five year war began,
by George Rosie,
Panther Books 1970.

11: Statement by Robert Denton-Williams,
in Ho Chi Minh and the Struggle for an Independent Vietnam,
by William Warbey,
Merlin Press 1972.

12: The British In Vietnam - How the twenty-five year war began,
by George Rosie,
Panther Books 1970.



Critical Voices

The British, with the Japanese now fighting alongside them, were as harsh and inflexible in suppressing Vietnamese independence as the French and Americans who followed them. George Rosie stated: ‘It is quite clear the war was no trifling affair, and that some of the operational instructions issued to the British division were implicitly ruthless. There was an alarming directness about the way in which the British troops operated, a directness which cost the lives of thousands of Vietnamese.’ Rosie went on to give as examples ‘two operational orders [which] stand out as indicative of the way in which the war was waged. Both are disturbing in their implications. They were issued to 100 Indian Infantry Brigade, operating to the north of Saigon (the worst area) under the command of Brigadier Rodham.’ Rosie continued:

The first is Operational Instruction No. 220, dated 27 October, 1945, which states that, ‘We may find it difficult to distinguish friend from foe ... always use maximum force available to ensure wiping out any hostiles we may meet. If one uses too much no harm is done.’ Thus, while admitting that it was often impossible to tell combatants from civilians, the British units are exhorted to use ‘maximum force’, which means that in this thickly peopled territory any hostile act could have brought down fire from mortars, 25-pounders and the guns of the 16th Light Cavalry’s armoured cars. With such firepower, in these conditions, how could civilians (who were ‘difficult to distinguish’) have avoided high casualties? Similarly, the second order, Instruction No. 63, dated 31 December 1945, states quite categorically that it was ‘perfectly legitimate to look upon all locals anywhere near where a shot has been fired as enemies - and treacherous ones at that - and treat them accordingly...’[13]

By October 1945 British forces in Vietnam numbered nearly 26,000 men, backed by RAF Spitfire and Mosquito warplanes. Many of the troops were from India, where critical voices were raised. This dissent was given expression by Indian independence leaders like Pandit Nehru: ‘We have watched British intervention there [Vietnam] with growing anger, shame and helplessness, that Indian troops should be used for doing Britain’s dirty work against our friends who are fighting the same fight as we.’ [14]

Back home in Britain the wartime coalition government, led by Churchill, had resigned and, at the end of July, Labour won a ‘landslide’ victory in the 1945 general election. With its programme of ‘radical reforms’, many expected changes in overseas affairs from Attlee’s new government. Instead, it gradually became clear that Labour was continuing Churchill’s colonial policy. On 11th December in the House of Commons, Labour MP Tom Driberg questioned the use of British troops in Vietnam:

Claiming that the British people had ‘learned with dismay that four months after the end of the war in the Far East, British and Indian troops were engaged and were suffering heavy casualties in a war in ... French Indo-China ... the object of which appeared to be the restoration of the ... French Empire.’ He made use of the fact that Terauchi’s soldiers were being used against the Vietnamese: ‘... their [the British people’s] dismay was not lessened when they learned that we were also employing Japanese troops...’

As late as the end of January, Driberg was still pressing for information on the activities of the British forces of occupation. On 28 January he demanded a statement on British withdrawal, details of casualties, and an assurance that guarantees of future independence would be given by the French. He was told that, ‘Allied casualties during the period from mid-October up to 13 January were 126 killed and 424 wounded. Of the killed, three were British and thirty-seven were Indian.’ The government also estimated that the Vietnamese dead numbered 2,700. No figure was given for Vietnamese wounded.[15]

In the end, military might won the day and the Vietnamese were forced back. As Robert Denton-Williams explained: ‘October and November 1945 saw some fierce fighting, and the Viet-Minh suffered severe casualties. Finally the Saigon bridgehead was made secure, pending the arrival of General Leclerc and his Foreign Legion troops from Madagascar.’ Britain’s actions in denying Vietnamese self-determination and restoring French rule led to three decades of bloody colonial warfare, before the Vietnamese finally achieved their independence.

Many of the British forces fighting in Indo-China believed their government’s policy was the result of a ‘secret deal’ between the French and the Labour government:

As many British and Indian officers in Saigon understood it, a deal had been done between Ernest Bevin, British Foreign Secretary, and Massigli of France. Under this secret agreement, the French were to be allowed to re-establish themselves in Indo-China on the understanding that they would not attempt to return to Syria and the Lebanon. The Committee of the South, in the face of Western perfidy, resolved to fight; and nightly attacks on Saigon began.[16]

13: The British In Vietnam - How the twenty-five year war began,
by George Rosie,
Panther Books 1970.

14: New York Times,
1st Jan. 1946.

15: The British In Vietnam - How the twenty-five year war began,
by George Rosie,
Panther Books 1970.

16: Statement by Robert Denton-Williams,
in Ho Chi Minh and the Struggle for an Independent Vietnam,
by William Warbey,
Merlin Press 1972.




In Indonesia, British forces were also used to occupy the country, allowing the Dutch to return and take control. Here the fighting was even fiercer as British and Indian troops suffered nearly a thousand dead and many more injured. The Japanese troops, who fought alongside them, also had some 1,000 soldiers killed. The 23rd Indian Division, which took heavier casualties in just over a year in Indonesia than in four years fighting the Japanese in Burma, recorded in its official history their feelings about fighting with their former enemy: ‘As remarkable as it was unwelcome ... we had for a time to order the Japs to fight with us, an event hushed up at home.’ [17]

Tens of thousands of Indonesians died as towns and villages were bombed by aircraft and shelled by artillery and Navy ships. With the population overwhelmingly on their side, the nationalists would not give in. The British Commander, Mountbatten, despairingly informed London that Indonesia threatened to become a ‘situation analogous to Ireland after the last war, but on a much larger scale.’ [18] Many British soldiers, who had expected a quick return home as the 2nd World War ended, became resentful about ‘saving’ Indonesia for the Dutch:

When the Seaforth Highlanders set off for Jakarta docks in November, 1946, after months of coping with the Indonesian liberation movement on behalf of the absent Dutch, they passed contingents of troops just in from Holland. With one accord, the British soldiers raised clenched fists and shouted “Merdeka!”(“Freedom!”). Liberation salute and slogan were more than just a joke at Dutch expense. They were a recognition by men of what was still an imperial army that empire was not going to long survive in the Indies - something which the young Dutchmen in the lorries going the other way did not yet understand.[19]

Britain’s holding-role in Vietnam and Indonesia directly led to large scale colonial wars, which saw the Dutch forced from Indonesia and the French from Vietnam. Over 3,000,000 US troops were ultimately involved in Vietnam after the French withdrawal. The Americans lost 58,000 soldiers killed in the conflict, but the Vietnamese estimated their dead at over 3 million.

17: A forgotten war: British intervention in Indonesia 1945-46,
by John Newsinger,
in Race and Class, vol.30, no.4, Apr./Jun. 1989,

18: Troubled Days of Peace,
by Peter Dennis,
Manchester 1969.

19: Guardian,
10th Sept. 1999.
Article by Martin Woollacott about Indonesia and East Timor.




Just three years after the defeat of the Japanese, British troops were engaged in a bitter ‘Emergency’ in Malaya. During the 2nd World War, the people of Malaya had been promised self-government because of their fight against the occupying Japanese troops. That promise was renewed in October 1945 by the Labour government and the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army laid down their arms. For the next three years a Malayan independence movement strove by peaceful means to achieve their freedom. Britain’s establishment, however, wanted to retain control of the country’s rubber and tin: ‘In 1950, Malaya produced 37% of the world’s natural rubber (and 25% of total world rubber production, including synthetics). In the same year, rubber (61%) and tin (12%) accounted for 73% by value of all exports from the colony .[20]

The British colonial elite had done very well in Malaya, exploiting the country’s resources and using the native people as cheap labour. In its May 1926 edition, British Malaya expounded on the white role in the Far East: ‘The function of the white man in a tropical country is not to labour with his hands, but to direct and control a plentiful and efficient supply of native labour, to assist in the Government of the country, or to engage in opportunities offered for trade and commerce, from an office desk in a bank or mercantile firm.’

Ironically, while workers at home, through trade union struggles, gradually managed to win concessions of better wages and working conditions, the ruling class, to maintain their profit margins, ruthlessly increased the exploitations of native workers abroad. In Malaya, while great wealth was made from rubber, the native labourers lived poverty-stricken lives. In 1948, Patrick O’Donovan wrote about their living conditions in the Observer:

Several times I have been shown with pride coolie lines on plantations that a kennelman in England would not tolerate for his hounds ... There is little consciousness [among the plantation owners] of the poverty and illiteracy that exists in this country. And, too often, it is a foul, degrading, urine-tainted poverty, a thing of old grey rags and scraps of rice, made tolerable only by the sun.[21]

Across the country trade unions started to demand wage increases and better living conditions. Bitter disputes occurred in which detained Japanese troops were often released and used to take the places of striking workers. The whites in Malaya, who controlled the production of rubber and tin, demanded that the British administration stay in control and that the trade unions and independence movement be suppressed. The Labour government complied and an ‘Emergency’ was declared in mid-1948.

20: Malaya - The Making of a Neo-Colony,
edited by Mohamed Amin and Malcolm Caldwell,
Spokesman Books 1977.

21: Observer,
10th Oct. 1948.



The ‘Emergency’

One of the first measures was to declare the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions illegal and force it to be disbanded. All forms of constitutional protest or reforms were effectively blocked off and the situation soon escalated into violence. British military and counter-insurgency experts now took control - setting in motion an all-out conflict. The Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA) led by Chin Peng, a communist who had been awarded an OBE while fighting for the Allies against the Japanese, launched guerrilla actions against the government.

A scenario, that was to become familiar, began to unfold as local ‘loyal’ forces were greatly increased and reinforcements of British troops were rushed to the area. General Sir Harold Briggs took charge of military operations and ‘suspect’ members of the native population were ‘resettled’ into fortified hamlets that were little more than mass prison camps, with guards, barbed wire and searchlights at night. The idea was to deprive the guerrillas of their source of food, shelter and recruits:

The war could not have been won without ruthless government control over the totality of the population. The most conservative and pro-British observers are agreed upon this. ... the whole operation formed one whole, dedicated to physically separating the non-combatants from the combatants among the Malayan masses - or, in the terminology of the administration, separating “the people” from the “communist terrorists”.[22]

Over 500,000 natives were ‘resettled’ in the camps, euphemistically called ‘new villages’, where they were forced to labour on plantations for barely subsistence wages. They were also often ‘punished’ by detentions and food reductions and were subjected to constant controls, including curfews and searches.

The build up of the security forces was on such a large scale that the British Survey of June 1952 stated that ‘in some areas there is an armed man to police every two of his fellows, and more than 65 for every known terrorist ...’ The British High Commissioner, General Sir Gerald Templer, stated in his report for 1953 that a ‘main weapon in the past four years has been ... the sevenfold expansion of the Police and the raising of 240,000 Home Guards and of four more battalions of the Malay Regiment.’

Between 1948 and 1957 some 34,000 people out of a population of 5 million were imprisoned without trial, with another 20,000 being deported. The police were a typical colonial style force, based on the Royal Irish Constabulary, who operated mainly through fear and intimidation. Victor Purcell, a former colonial civil servant, observed:

There was no human activity from the cradle to the grave that the police did not superintend. The real rulers of Malaya were not General Templer or his troops but the Special Branch of the Malayan Police. What General Templer had ordered was virtually a levy en masse, in which there were no longer any civilians and the entire population were either soldiers or bandits. The means had become superior to the ends. Force was enthroned, embattled and triumphant.[23]

Despite this overwhelming concentration of security forces, the British administration was not secure. Templer’s predecessor as High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, had been killed in an ambush in 1951, and few areas were safe for colonial administrators or agents.

22: Malaya - The Making of a Neo-Colony,
edited by Mohamed Amin and Malcolm Caldwell,
Spokesman Books 1977.

23: Malaya - Communist or Free?,
by V Purcell,
Gollancz 1954.



‘A Handful of Bandits’

Concerned voices about Malaya were raised in Britain, including The Times which stated in its editorial columns: ‘The cost in human life has been considerable; in money it is counted in millions ... Several able and resourceful men have tried their hands at solving the problem, but none of the recent news has appeared to hold out better hope for the future.’ [24]

A few weeks later, The Times reported on the trip to Malaya of Oliver Lyttelton, the Colonial Secretary just appointed by Churchill’s newly elected Conservative Government: ‘At no time were there fewer than 1,000 troops and police on guard, and when Penang was visited about 2,000 were directly involved. Outside Kuala Lumpur, Mr Lyttelton was compelled to travel in an enclosed armoured car and one observer remarked that his progress was rather like that of a Nazi leader travelling through occupied Europe.’ [25] Lyttelton had been educated at Eton and Cambridge and served in the Brigade of Guards. In 1937 he had been chairman of the London Tin Company, which had extensive mining interest in Malaya.

In contrast, communists in Britain, like Harry Pollitt, campaigned in support of Malayan independence. Pollitt wrote the pamphlet, Malaya - Stop the War!, in which he set out his forthright views. He outlined the size of the security forces and their repressive use against the Malayan people by the administration. Then Pollitt went on to state: ‘And all this, we are told, “against a handful of bandits”! This must surely be the biggest and most persistent handful that has ever existed in human history.’ Pollitt continued:

The British lads who are being sent thousands of miles away to Malaya are not defending Britain or safeguarding democracy. They are there to defend the corrupt colonial system under which two-thirds of the children receive no schooling, the workers’ own trade unions have been suppressed, and real wages are only a third of their pre-war starvation level. Despite all the official propaganda about Malaya being the most prosperous British colony, for the Malayan people conditions are appalling.

... This is the degraded Police State for which the Tories want to sacrifice more British lives. Already hundreds of British lads have lost their lives in Malaya. It is time for the British people to put an end to this cruel and ghastly war. ... For the Tory rubber and tin profiteers there is plenty to gain, but for the British people the only dividends are death, more taxation, cuts in social services, and attacks on wages and working conditions.

Mr Churchill has already confessed that the British Government is spending £50 million a year on the Malayan war ... Now fresh burdens are to be added. It was no coincidence that Lyttelton’s tour of Malaya and the announcement of his six-point plan for an intensified war came at the same time as the employers’ rejection of the claims put forward by the dockers, miners and other British workers ... the Government’s announcements of £15 million cuts in education, and further cuts in rations and rises in prices.

The British Defence Secretary then issued a directive stating that those called ‘bandits’ should now be referred to as ‘communist terrorists’ (CTs). But Pollitt’s Stop the War campaign had more positive effects, with even the establishment paper, The Times, in its edition of 30th November 1951, stating that: ‘Together with the usual colonial suspicions is a growing belief, hastened by the statements of rubber producers, that Malaya is regarded first as an investment area to be made safe for British capital.’ As Pollitt had indicated, guarding that capital were young British soldiers, often doing their national service, who fought a bitter war in the jungle areas.

24: The Times,
Nov. 13th 1951.

25: The Times,
Dec. 9th 1951.



Massacre at Batang Kali

In 1960, Anthony Short, who had completed his national service in Malaya, was commissioned by the Malayan government to write the official history of the Emergency. They sat on his work for three years, then rejected it. Short omitted various contentious parts, but the book was continually turned down. Eventually, seven years after its completion, the book was published in London. As the writer Malcolm Caldwell stated, in the book Short had tried to come to terms with ‘the problems of waging a “counter-insurgency” war against a hostile population, deemed to be “friendly”’:

In the early stages of the campaign, and indeed wherever contact took place ..., how, in the few seconds of confusion when figures are running from huts into jungle does one decide to open fire or not? ... unless they are uniformed or obviously armed, there is no guarantee that the people who are running are guerrillas or wanted criminals rather than very frightened men and women who may or may not be willing or unwilling guerrilla supporters.

Almost every other situation report at the beginning of the emergency recorded the shootings of men who ran out of huts, were challenged and failed to stop. Too often, no weapons, ammunition or anything else in the least way incriminating, either materially or oral evidence, was ever found ... the CPO (Chief Police Officer) Johore was particularly concerned with the situation in which suspects were shot while attempting to escape: ‘I can find no legal justification for the shootings, whether under the normal laws or the emergency regulations, unless the incident occurs in a protected place or during curfew hours.’ So far it seemed that the magistrates had brought in verdicts of justifiable homicide; but the CPO thought that would not always be the case and that some major scandal might occur.[26]

Short also recorded that it was seriously suggested in the British parliament that a force of ‘Black and Tans’ be recruited to send to Malaya, but British troops were soon to prove that they did not require a new force to carry out terrorism on behalf of the state. On 11th December 1948, a unit of the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards entered Batang Kali, a small hamlet in the Selangor area of Malaya. The soldiers then rounded up and massacred 25 Chinese villagers and burnt many of the dwellings. When word leaked out, the authorities attempted to justify the killings by saying that the victims had been detainees who had tried to escape:

There matters rested until, 20 years later, The People, a London newspaper, challenged a statement by George Brown, a leading Labour Party politician, discussing revelations of the My Lai massacre [by Americans in Vietnam], that ... “there are an awful lot of spectres in our cupboard too...”

... Among those who read this challenge was a Scots Guardsman who had been a member of the patrol. Eventually, he and three other members of the patrol swore statements on oath to the effect that the 25 Chinese had been massacred and that they were not trying to escape. The victims, moreover, were all civilians, and “this is just one of the many British My Lai’s in Malaya”.[27]

The soldiers’ statements provoked new public interest and, under pressure, the government instructed Scotland Yard to undertake an ‘Official Inquiry’. But this was quietly shelved later after interest faded, so the details of this colonial atrocity have still to be fully revealed.

In 1952, soon after being appointed High Commissioner, General Templer had said ‘the hard core of communists in this country are fanatics and must be, and will be, exterminated.’ That same year the Daily Worker carried a photo of a smiling Royal Marine commando in Malaya, holding the severed head of a dead guerrilla. Shortly after, a second photo was shown, with another marine holding two severed heads. The authorities claimed that heads and hands were taken from the bodies of ‘terrorists’ for identification purposes. But many soldiers regarded them as trophies, which showed their unit’s effectiveness: ‘Other photos reproduced in British papers showed severed hands propped next to severed heads in mock salute and dead guerrillas stretched out like tiger skins in front of the units that had “bagged” them.’ [28] This was eerily reminiscent of the way English soldiers had displayed Irish heads, during the Elizabethan conquests 400 years previously.

The ‘Emergency’ did not officially end until 1960, but by the mid 50s guerrilla numbers had dwindled and those who were still active could only operate from the deepest jungle. The MPLA had launched their campaign from the Chinese community, who, while being the main labour force, were a 45 per cent minority of the Malayan population. This proved a fatal flaw for although the guerrillas tried to broaden their appeal, Britain used ethnic and religious divide and rule tactics against them to keep them separated from the Malay and Muslim majority.

For years the authorities had also been cultivating the native political and commercial elites, especially the United Malay National Organisation and the Malayan Chinese Association - and convincing British businessmen that it was safer to exert economic control over a neo-colony, than continue with direct rule. ‘Independence’ was declared in August 1957 and British companies had good reasons to be happy at the outcome: ‘At independence 75 per-cent of all rubber plantation acreage was in European (mostly British) hands, along with 61 per-cent of all tin production, and 75 per-cent of all services and trade.’ [29] For them the expense and the ferocity of the ‘Emergency’ had paid off.

26: The Communist Insurrection in Malaya - 1948-60,
by A Short,
Frederick Muller, London 1975.

27: Malaya - The Making of a Neo-Colony,
edited by Mohamed Amin and Malcolm Caldwell,
Spokesman Books 1977.

28: British Counterinsurgency, 1919-60,
by Thomas R Mockaitis,
Macmillan Press Ltd 1990.

29: Malaya - The Making of a Neo-Colony,
edited by Mohamed Amin and Malcolm Caldwell,
Spokesman Books 1977.




While British soldiers were still fighting ‘terrorists’ in Malaya a new colonial war was starting in Kenya (this will be discussed in detail in the next chapter - The Myth of Mau Mau). At the height of the conflict in Kenya, another ‘Emergency’ was declared on the island of Cyprus, a British colony in the Mediterranean. Britain’s interests in Cyprus were mainly strategic, during the ‘Emergency’ the Suez invasion was launched from the island and afterwards it became a base area for missiles trained on Russia. The population, a volatile five to one ratio of Greeks to Turks, was ripe for British divide and rule tactics.

The Greeks’ political leader was Archbishop Makarios who was demanding ‘Enosis’ (union with Greece). They also formed an underground military organisation, known as EOKA (the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters), led by a right-wing ex-Greek army colonel called George Grivas, who had colluded with British forces in Greece at the end of the 2nd World War to crush the left-wing ELAS forces.

On 25th September 1955, Sir Robert Armitage was replaced as Governor by Field-Marshal Sir John Harding KCB, DSO and MC:

Harding launched at once into a campaign against EOKA, and at the same time began talks with Archbishop Makarios. The strategy was obvious: as EOKA was gradually subdued, Makarios would lose his bargaining power and would have to meet the Government’s terms. Harding took personal charge of Security and welded together the police, whose ranks were being filled with Turkish Cypriots, and the Army, which had now grown to twelve thousand men. The offspring of the marriage was called the ‘Security Forces’, a title which covered everyone from ice-cream peddlers enlisted into the auxiliary police to subalterns from Sandhurst.

It was an old routine, pioneered in other colonies. A State of Emergency would be declared: villages and towns curfewed by day, and by night; collective fines would be levied; the public finger-printed, identity cards issued ... Already a Detention of Persons law had been introduced, permitting people to be held without trial, and there was evidence that it was being abused.[30]

The situation quickly escalated into open conflict, with EOKA using guerrilla warfare against the British forces. The propaganda war also went into overdrive, with the British media vilifying the Greek leader, Makarios. In 1956, Peter Benenson, who afterwards was to initiate Amnesty International, visited Cyprus and later wrote: ‘Although frequently invited, Archbishop Makarios refused to condemn the methods used by EOKA ... the British Government seized on his refusal to make him a figure of execration throughout Britain, to scoff at his cloth, to mock his crozier and to “singe his beard”.’ Benenson continued:

In repeated statements in Parliament, Government spokesmen emphasised the particular wickedness of the Archbishop, and the bestial behaviour of EOKA. The same story was retold to every journalist or visitor who visited Cyprus. Within one year this systematic vilification brought forth its harvest. By the summer of 1956 the first protests against violence and torture were to be heard in Cyprus. The Army, 30,000 strong under a Field-Marshal, had been hunting unsuccessfully for a year for an elusive, small-statured, large-moustached guerrilla colonel. All the while they were being told by their Ministers back home and by their commanders in the field, that they were fighting a barbarous enemy under a villainous cleric, painted in the colours of the Anti-Christ. Not unnaturally some of the men came to regard the Cypriots, or the ‘Cyps’, as they were by then called, with contempt.[31]

30: Legacy of Strife - Cyprus from rebellion to civil war,
by Charles Foley,
A Penguin Special 1964.

31: Gangrene,
John Calder Ltd. 1959.



Detainees and Torture

As more and more detainees were rounded up, reports of ill treatment began to circulate. Most concerned the interrogation methods that all prisoners were subjected to. In his book, Legacy of Strife, Charles Foley outlined the beginning of the process: ‘The start was usually quiet. A man might be shown a photograph and asked if he recognised it; he might be asked if he knew a certain person or had some information about EOKA which was common knowledge. Later questions would take a threatening turn, or a bundle of folded money might appear from a drawer. If you refused to answer you might then be taken across the corridor to another room containing an iron bedstead, to which you would be strapped by the wrists and ankles.’ Foley then described what could happen next:

Methods of treatment varied widely, depending on the imagination of the operators, who were jocularly known by the foreign Press as ‘HMTs’ [Her Majesty’s Torturers], and there was apparently no time-limit. You might be alternatively maltreated and questioned by relays of men for one hour or four or twenty-four. You might be beaten on the stomach with a flat board, you might have your testicles twisted, you might be half-suffocated with a wet cloth which forced you to drink with every breath you took, you might have a steel band tightened round your head. Techniques were backward for the twentieth century; there were, for instance, no proven reports of treatment by electric shock. No more than six people died under interrogation during the whole Emergency [my emphasis].[32]

The protests by concerned Cypriots expanded in volume and grew louder, as Peter Benenson stated: ‘When I first arrived in Cyprus, in October 1956, the entire Greek Cypriot Bar was inundated with complaints against the authorities. I have seen a queue of anxious parents at the chambers of the present Minister of Justice so long that it stretched outside the front door.’ Benenson explained how the British administration ignored their complaints, or took evasive action:

The authorities insisted that the Greek lawyers were mischievously inventing allegations of violence. To prevent them talking to their arrested clients, they were refused information as to their whereabouts. Independent Greek doctors were denied access to prisons or prison hospitals. Regulations were passed permitting the Government to hold arrested persons administratively in close confinement for 16 days without charge. Letters of enquiry, complaints and protests from Greek barristers went without answer. Another regulation was passed making it impossible for any lawyer to start criminal proceedings against any member of the Security Forces without permission from the Attorney-General.[33]

By 1957, Britain stood accused before the Council of Europe of 49 specified cases of torture in Cyprus. But a political deal was struck between Britain and Greece, who then dropped the charges.

32: Legacy of Strife - Cyprus from rebellion to civil war,
by Charles Foley,
A Penguin Special 1964.

33: Gangrene,
John Calder Ltd. 1959.



Conscript Soldiers Die and Kill

As the conflict continued, British troops found themselves in an increasingly hostile environment. Many members of the security forces were killed or injured, often in street ambushes. Charles Foley describes how the soldiers were isolated from the Cypriot people and crowded together in bad living conditions: ‘Most of the troops were living under canvas, plagued by flies and dust. When it rained, the tents were often found to leak; bedding was soaked, the electricity system broke down, the fuel for the stove gave out, and the ground became a swamp. The men were confined to barracks more or less permanently; if they were allowed out they had to move in groups of four, armed and in uniform, and they could visit only the handful of bars officially declared “in bounds”. This frustration and discomfort sought an outlet. As the troops’ frustrations built up, soldiers were fed on hate propaganda and the security chiefs excused anything that smacked of reprisals on the grounds of “intolerable provocation” ...’ Many of these young soldiers became angry and aggressive and ‘incidents’ started to occur:

A typical incident occurred at Kathykas, one of three villages which had been searched by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders after one of their men had been killed and another wounded in an ambush. The authorities spoke of ‘slight injuries’ and the Greek mayor of men beaten and bayoneted and a nineteen-year-old wife raped. One Cypriot had been shot dead after stabbing two soldiers who burst into his home in the darkness. A village priest was said to have had his beard set on fire and his head rubbed with mud.[34]

The authorities set up an ‘Official Investigation’ which was clearly not impartial, because it justified the ill treatment by reporting that: ‘Not only were the soldiers searching for the killers of one of their comrades, but the villagers were uncooperative to the point of serious resistance in one case.’

Barbara Castle, then Vice-Chair of the Labour Party, visited Cyprus and went to Kathykas. She met a number of the people injured by the Argylls and when Castle returned to Britain she stated that she believed the troops were being permitted to use unnecessarily rough measures after a shooting, on the grounds that they were engaged in ‘hot pursuit’:

At once a storm of execration broke over Mrs Castle’s head in the British press, despite a statement from the Governor that ‘when their comrades are killed, troops are naturally angry and roughness can and does take place’. Mr Gaitskell [Labour leader] hurriedly disowned Mrs Castle, remarking on the intolerable provocations to which our forces had been subjected by brutal murders which horrified and disgusted him. With a General Election alarmingly close the Labour leaders could not risk offending public opinion by seeming to take sides against the troops.[35]

Gaitskell’s attack on Castle was in vain, as Labour lost the election anyway.

34: Legacy of Strife - Cyprus from rebellion to civil war,
by Charles Foley,
A Penguin Special 1964.

35: Ibid - Legacy of Strife - Cyprus from rebellion to civil war.



The Cypriot Question

In July 1958 the Prime Minster, Harold Macmillan, who had succeed Sir Anthony Eden as the Tory leader after the Suez debacle, visited Cyprus. His trip included several meetings with the troops:

One of the Premier’s calls was to Lyssi village, which lay under a ten-day curfew, but he spoke to no one there except soldiers and police, departing with ten copies of The Grenadier, a Guards magazine for Guards. Breaking into verse at one point, the cyclostyled magazine declared:

Sergeant Clerk is the Acorn’s clerk
But is prone to get in rages.
If the Wogs give any trouble
He puts them into cages.

The cages were the barbed-wire pens where men waited their turn for questioning - another name for them was ‘play-pens’; the Wogs, of course, were the Cypriots. The visitor wrote across a souvenir copy: ‘With best wishes from an old Grenadier - Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister’.[36]

Helen Fullerton gave an alternative view of British soldiers’ actions in her poem Cypriot Question. On February 1956, in Famagusta, troops had opened fire on a demonstration of students and school children and 18-year-old Petrakis Yiallouris was killed by a bullet from a soldiers’ sten-gun. In the poem a Cypriot mother has an imaginary conversation with the mother of a British conscript soldier:

In Famagusta, one February morning
The market place and the streets were full
When crowds of children marched protesting
That General Harding had closed their school:
Then the British Army went into action
With baton charges and tear gas drill
And the children’s stones were met with bullets
For the troops had orders to ‘shoot to kill’.

Ah, British Mother, had you a boy there?
No blame to him for the evil done
Or that a sorrowing Cypriot couple
Lost that day a beloved son
When at eighteen years, in the cause of freedom
Petrakis Yiallouris met his eclipse
Shot through the heart, by a conscript soldier,
‘Cyprus, Cyprus!’ upon his lips.

When the dockers heard it, they struck in anger
And our shops were closed and our streets were still
And we drew around us our little children
Your troops had orders to ‘shoot to kill’;
But they feared Petrakis more dead than living
And they made us bury him out of sight
Fifty miles from the scene of the murder
In lashing rain and by lantern light.

Scotland’s hero, brave William Wallace
They slew for the love he bore his land
And they shot James Connolly as he was dying
And made a mighty crown of the felon’s brand;
They make the widow, they make the orphan,
They shoot the children - it’s come to this:
But ah, British Mother, had they a quarrel
Your conscript laddie and our Petrakis?

The military conflict ended in stalemate, but this was really a victory for EOKA – because a few hundred guerrillas, with popular support, had remained undefeated while facing British troops who numbered over 40,000 at the height of the conflict. However, the bitter course of the struggle - coupled with the divide and rule tactics used by the British authorities – meant there was little chance of unity between Greeks and Turks. This left an ‘independent’ Cyprus in a political mess, that became worse after the Turkish invasion and illegal occupation of Northern Cyprus. Britain’s rulers, on the other hand, were well satisfied with the outcome, because they retained two strategic ‘sovereign bases’ on the island - which during the ‘cold war’ contained nuclear missiles aimed at the Soviet Union.

36: Legacy of Strife - Cyprus from rebellion to civil war,
by Charles Foley,
A Penguin Special 1964.




In 1963, Aden became the new ‘trouble spot’, carrying on from Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus. The area had first come under British rule when the port had been seized by the British East India Company in 1838, to protect shipping routes to the East. As troops were rushed to Aden, National Service had ended and the army was returned to a fully ‘professional’ force. Even now, some soldiers became disturbed by the actions they were ordered to carry out and came to question their role. Like this Para, who later wrote about his tour of duty:

Towards the end of Britain’s corrupt rule in Aden, a colony in the Persian Gulf, I got off the aircraft at RAF Khormaxer. A miner’s son, an ex-miner myself, I had crossed a gulf to become an NCO in one of Britain’s crack units. The previous weeks had been taken up in a propaganda blitz on us, as we were indoctrinated into a racist frame of mind in order to be able to put down a nation of ‘ungrateful wogs’ who were biting the hand that fed them. I am ashamed that the lot of us fell for it.

... As an NCO I was given a section of men, a landrover for patrol and a 007 licence. Arabs were to be roughed up when searched at roadblocks so they could be shown who was boss. ‘It’s the only method they understand’, we were told. The natives naturally enough resented this and demonstrated. The ‘bloody wogs’ actually had a trade union and started a dock strike. So we now became strike-breakers, protecting the troops and scab Arabs who were drafted in to break the strike.

After the people had been starved and threatened, after the leaders had been arrested and lodged at Al Mansura, the political prison, the workers reluctantly returned to work. Our unit was praised for the tough no-nonsense stand it had taken. This included the arrest of one of the instigators, who must have been an ‘extremist’ as he was a militant trade union leader. We took him at a reasonable time - about two in the morning - as I kicked the door down and dashed into the hovel to be met with the sight of about 12 people sleeping in a room that measured about 12 feet by 20.

Oh, you could see by this luxury that he was financed by ‘Chinese Gold’. After all, he had an orange box for a bedside locker. He actually had the gall to draw himself up to his full height of 5 feet 2 inches and demand to know what right I as a British soldier had to break his door down. However, dragging him downstairs so that his head bounced on every step soon quietened him.

After these heroic deeds we were posted up-country for a rest, which consisted of keeping the Arabs there in line. There were two camps at Dhala. One was the British camp, about a mile from the town on the slopes of Jebel Jihaff, and about 400 yards away was the Arab camp, manned by the Federal Army. There was a permanent curfew from dusk to dawn. After 6pm there was a fireworks display from the machine guns, mortars and cannon in the British camp and the artillery in the Arab camp. This was supposedly to register the bearings for recorded night targets but was more in fact to ‘show the flag’. Quite a number of shots strayed into the town in order to reinforce this. However all this never seemed to deter the ‘terrorists’. In fact most nights, even though we sent out ambush patrols, they usually reminded us that they were still around by firing Swedish rockets and British 84mm mortars at us. The armaments firms recognise both sides when the price is right.

Our tactics was to send sweep patrols up the wadis (valleys) to flush out the ‘terrorists’ during daylight hours. This was not very successful, since most of the population were anti-British. It was on one of these patrols that the truth of what we were doing started to come through. We had marched through the night to occupy a high Jebel ready for a sweep the next morning. As we were a small party of around six men, being unobserved was the main task.

Just before daylight we turned a corner and came face to face with an early rising local Arab camel dealer out to check his herd. We grabbed him and then debated what to do with him. I was the most adamant of the party, wanting to cut his throat. My men agreed with me and I volunteered to do it. The one voice against, fortunately, was a young officer, just out from Britain who was along for the ride. But new or not, he had a pip on his shoulder that made him superior to me. The lucky camel dealer had a day’s outing with the British Raj instead.

Back at base with the pressure off me, I started to think about the incident. I, an ex-miner, the son of a miner, had actually had a knife out and was going to cut an innocent man’s throat just because he had seen us. I had shot men in ambush, but this was different. I was becoming as corrupt as the fat Emir we were keeping in power. Just around the corner the artillery were firing white phosphorus shells. In normal circumstances these are used to provide smoke for cover, but phosphorus burns when exposed to air and when any gets onto human flesh it continues to burn unless the flesh is kept under running water. These shells were fired as an airburst so that it descended like rain on anybody below. And there is not much water in a desert.

... I wasn’t sorry to leave Aden as my attitude was coming to question with the ruling caste of the Army. Nor was I alone, for when the BBC came round and asked the soldiers, ‘If you were killed while serving in Aden what would you have died for?’, only the few bucking for promotion said, ‘We were protecting the locals from terrorists’. The great majority had a simple but honest answer: ‘£10 a week’.[37]

37: Socialist Worker,
17th Dec. 1977.



Failure and Withdrawal

The decisive battle took place in Aden town, where the soldiers faced a totally hostile population. The Army was desperate for information, especially after the Arab Special Branch had been decimated by assassinations, and the use of torture was systematised at the Fort Morbut Interrogation Centre. Along with vicious beatings, various other forms of humiliating and disorientating treatment were used. Detainees were interrogated naked, were refused toilet visits so they had to soil their cells, were kept awake and deprived of food. The International Red Cross was refused permission to visit detainees and the same fate met an Amnesty International emissary.

George Lennox, a corporal in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, who was stationed in Aden in the country’s last years under the Union Jack, later explained how the soldiers were used:

Most of the soldiers who went into the Adenis’ houses, who arrested them, shot them, who even tortured them, never asked the question, ‘Why am I doing it?’ This is not part of your thinking while you’re in the Army. You haven’t got the experience to think for yourself which is one of the reasons why you join the Army, and if you did you’d probably come up with a lot of unsatisfactory answers and I think you would question your role.

So it’s very easy for the politicians to use a military force, those in uniform, to perform tasks such as the Army was doing inside Aden and that was to crush any political opposition. Because the people who are performing that task, who themselves are the people who are being killed and injured, don’t ever question why they’re doing it. That’s always been a fact.

I know that when I was in Aden we never talked about the political situation there. Our level of consciousness or our level of conversation of talking about Adenis was, ‘Oh these fucking wogs’, etc. which was essentially I think to be expected of any army or military personnel under active service. We were conditioned to think in terms of, ‘That is the enemy, this is who we’re fighting’, and never question it.[38]

Despite the level of repression, Aden proved a failure for the Army’s counter-insurgency methods, and Britain was finally forced to withdraw in 1967. However, by then Britain was already strongly entrenched in neighbouring Oman, where oil had been found: ‘Oil, which had been the subject of much exploration throughout the 1950s, was finally discovered in commercial quantities in the early 1960s and the first exports began in 1967... Shell ... had an 85 per cent interest in Omani oil.’ [39]

38: British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland,
edited by Aly Renwick,
Information on Ireland 1978.

39: The Ambiguities of Power,
by Mark Curtis,
Zed Books 1995.




In Oman, British troops found themselves upholding the rule of a despotic Sultan: ‘The Omani regime was highly repressive and existed for the benefit of the Sultan - in power with British support since 1932 - his immediate entourage and Britain. The infant mortality rate in 1970 was 75 per cent, torture was commonplace in Omani prisons and the population was kept in a state of utterly impoverished subservience to the Sultan.’ [40]

There were periodic revolts against the absolute rule of the Sultan, but the British forces were always on hand to crush dissent. In 1957-59 the RAF bombed rebel villages while the SAS fought a counter-guerrilla war on the ground. At the end of 1965 the United Nations General Assembly called for British forces to be withdrawn and recognised Oman’s right to self-determination. But British forces were now well entrenched and Westminster was determined that they should remain.

Because of the dubious legality of using British forces in this way, in a country that was not even a colony, the tactic of secondment - the temporary transfer of units to the Omani defence forces, which were commanded by British ex-officers - was undertaken. Oman became full of British ‘advisers’, mercenaries and troops on secondment.

By the late 1960s Britain had around 700 troops, including an SAS contingent, RAF personnel and private mercenaries, in the country. Customary methods were used in countering rebels. A British army officer stated that ‘we ... burnt down rebel villages and shot their goats and cows. Any enemy corpses that we recovered were propped up in a corner of the [main city’s market] as a salutary lesson to any would-be freedom fighters.’[41]

In 1970, Britain’s grip on the Omani state machine enabled them to mastermind the overthrow of the old Sultan in favour of his son, Qaboos, a Sandhurst graduate. Supposedly more ‘liberal’, the new Sultan is not any more democratic and British forces continue to ensure his rule.

40: The Ambiguities of Power,
by Mark Curtis,
Zed Books 1995.

41: Ibid - The Ambiguities of Power.



Disaffection and Monotony

In the post 2nd World War years the British Army was made up of regulars and conscripts. The writer Alan Sillitoe joined up at the end of the 2nd World War and in the RAF he recalled the type of conscripts he met: ‘It was a rule that one never talked about politics or religion, a sure sign that nothing else was worth discussing. I met IRA supporters and communists, anarchists and rebels and nihilists. I was torn between hatred of the life, of those blinkered barbaric swine who tried to make everything unnecessarily difficult and whom we generally regarded as the scum of the earth, and what I found of interest in talking to youths from all over the country...’ [42]

Sillitoe, who before his call-up had been a factory worker and trade unionist, described his politics as ‘extremely left-wing’. Later, he found himself at Butterworth in Malaya working as a skilled radio operator:

My abilities in this direction were called upon when the so-called State of Emergency was declared in June 1948. A squadron of heavy Lincoln bombers was sent from England to try and hunt out the communist guerrillas in the jungle. This increased my work to a hectic degree, work indeed that now went strongly against my political beliefs.

The bombers roamed around the jungle dropping their loads, and when they asked me for bearings in order to check their positions the angles I sent back began to lack their accustomed accuracy. Even as much as half a degree out - something which could not be proved one way or the other - meant that they missed their targets (which often could not be seen under the massively thick coating of forest) by many miles.[43]

Some soldiers caught up in colonial wars became so frustrated that they attempted to bring some retribution down on their officers. Charles Foley described an incident which occurred in Cyprus: ‘Four privates of the Highland Light Infantry were court-martialled for the novel offence of throwing grenades at their officers’ mess. Their defending counsel said they resented the officers’ privileges and were “upset about women coming in”. They had drawn lots to see who would throw the grenades.’

Most National Servicemen often complained about their lot, but usually did not contest the views put out by the authorities. They often served in exotic locations, but found themselves cut off from the native people and outside attractions by the situation. As Foley stated:

Cyprus, to the British Army, meant little more than a long spell of boredom from which the commonest escapes were the NAAFI and sudden death. The Army, after all, was largely made up of civilians in uniform - boys doing their National Service and spending two years of their lives on duties which often seemed pointless. Everything inside the walls of Nicosia was ‘out of bounds’ - the Just-a-Minute Milk Bar, the Magic Palace Cinema, the Frolics Cabaret. The troops could not even walk down Ledra Street and buy some small souvenir to take home. Officers might be able to join the English Club or take the Company Commander’s daughter to Kyrenia. But the Other Ranks had nothing to do but sit in draughty tents and tin huts writing letters home. The monotony was broken only by patrols and operations, which were not only boring but dangerous. Few soldiers came in contact with a Cypriot, apart from the man who cleaned the bath-houses; fewer still ever met a girl, except the kind who threw stones.[44]

42: All Bull: The National Servicemen,
edited by B S Johnson,
Quartet Books Ltd. 1973.

43: Ibid - All Bull: The National Servicemen.

44: Legacy of Strife - Cyprus from rebellion to civil war,
by Charles Foley,
A Penguin Special 1964.



The Empire Guard

Throughout the 2nd World War Britain’s armed forces had continued with their hierarchies intact, but many militant anti-fascists had joined up to fight Hitler. They did their best to subvert officer class views, circulating books like Jack London’s People Of The Abyss and Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Later, informal discussion groups were organised, which, when successful, often progressed into more formal structures based on Westminster to allay their commander’s fears. In Egypt the ‘Cairo Parliament’, which regularly attracted hundreds of troops to debates, became so radical that officers eventually suppressed it. It was activity of this sort that secured the huge ex-services vote for Labour after the war had ended.

In the Far East, at the end of the war, there occurred a series of ‘strikes’ by British servicemen. Mainly brought on by the slow rate of demob, but some men also protested against the colonial role some of these 2nd World War veterans were now being ordered to fulfil. From 1939 to 1945 Britain’s armed forces had been filled with valiant combatants who had fought Nazism because they found it repugnant, and to stop a foreign power from occupying their country. The British Army had emerged from the war highly mechanised with a formidable array of weaponry. Ironically, it was then returned to its role as the Empire guard - in other peoples’ countries.

As the red of Empire gradually shrank in school atlases, back home, the British people took little notice - except when new ‘trouble spots’ sprang to their attention. 1968, ironically called the year of revolution, was the first year since the end of the 2nd World War that a British soldier had not died in action somewhere in the world. Up to that date, conflicts of varying intensity had included:

  • Greece, 1944-47.
  • Palestine, 1945-48.
  • Vietnam, 1945.
  • Indonesia (Java), 1945-46.
  • India/Pakistan, 1945-47.
  • Aden, 1947.
  • Ethiopia (Eritrea), 1948-51.
  • British Honduras, 1948.
  • Malaya, 1948-60.
  • Korea, 1950-53.
  • Kenya, 1952-56.
  • Cyprus, 1954-59.
  • Aden (border), 1955-60.
  • Hong Kong, 1956, 1962, 1966 and 1967.
  • Suez, 1956.
  • Oman, 1957-59, 1965-present (Advisers, secondment of troops and mercenaries).
  • Jamaica, 1960.
  • Cameroons, 1960-61.
  • Kuwait, 1961.
  • Brunei, 1962.
  • Malaysia (North Borneo and Sarawak), 1962-66.
  • British Guiana (Guyana), 1962-66.
  • Aden, 1963-68.
  • Swaziland, 1963.
  • Uganda, 1964.
  • Tanganyika, 1964.
  • Mauritius, 1965-68.
  • Bermuda, 1968.

Just one year later, in 1969, British troops were ordered to make ready for possible duty in Northern Ireland - some were told a spot of ‘paddy bashing’ might be required. Many soldiers, especially the veterans of previous colonial wars, could not believe they would experience much opposition or resistance so close to home. But in a part of Britain’s oldest colony, Ireland, the scene was being set for the longest small war in the run-down of Empire.

The late James Cameron was a journalist who covered many of Britain’s colonial conflicts. His reporting was an honourable exception to the usual jingoistic type of coverage. In an article about Northern Ireland, published in The Guardian in 1975, he made these comments about the previous small wars:

I have spent the greater part of my working life watching British troops being pulled out of places they were never going to leave. The process started in the 1940’s, when Mr. Churchill insisted that the British could never leave India, and of course they did. A wide variety of Colonial Secretaries in the years to come made it abundantly clear that their forces would never leave Malaya, or Kenya, or Cyprus, or Aden. All these places were integrally part of an imperial system that could not be undermined and must be protected, and one by one all these places were abandoned, generally with the blessing of some minor royalty and much champagne.

In most cases some rebellious nationalist was released from gaol, or its equivalent - Nehru, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Makarios - given the ritual cup of tea at Windsor and turned into a President. The thing in the end became a formula, though the process wasted a great many lives and much time and money, and as far as I know on every occasion the formula followed the one before it: We shall not leave; we have to leave; we have left. At no time in our colonial history did one occasion leave any precedent for the next one, except for the statement that we would never pull out, which was always one thing before the last.[45]

From 1945 British governments, confronted with freedom demands from national movements in British colonies, used armed force in attempts to crush them. These happenings were often hidden from view and/or had their events distorted by biased reporting and therefore constitute a hidden history for most British people. Just as the Victorian wars to build the Empire had been accompanied with waves of jingoism and propaganda, so the run-down followed a similar pattern. During these conflicts cinema news (later TV) took over from the music-halls, and with the press took up the task of imperial cheer leaders with a relish.

Cocooned in a media web - of ‘Our boys doing a jolly good job in trying circumstances’, ‘peace keepers’ amid ‘bandits’, ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’ - the folks back home rarely asked any questions. The truth was quite different as these ‘small wars’ were about power, hegemony, natural resources, cheap labour and profits - where intimidation, internment, torture and mass murder was systematically used to protect ‘British interests’.

45: Guardian,
2nd June 1975.



......................© 2004 Aly Renwick / TOM....................


Now read chapter six of Oliver’s Army
The Myth of 'Mau Mau'

State Murder in Kenya