The role of British forces in countless actions overseas after world war two were generally presented publicly by it as ‘policing actions’. The enemy was often presented as criminal or a terrorist or a communist and black propaganda served up by a largely compliant British media presented them as sub-human, subversive, cruel, ruthless and brutal.
In truth these military operations were desperate attempts by a dying imperial power to hang on to colonies which were demanding independence.
By the time of Operation Banner in 1969, the British Army name for its military involvement in the north of Ireland, the British Empire was part of history. It had fought and lost in countless political and military actions in Africa, the Middle East, India and South East Asia.
This colonial experience of war and politics was a fundamental part of the British military psyche. It generated several theoretical books on the role of counter-insurgency techniques with the most widely read, and the most influential being Kitson’s ‘Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency’, which this blog has written about before.
Robert Taber in his book ‘War of the Flea’ argued that for a guerrilla movement to succeed it needed the support of the people or at the very least a significant proportion of the people.
Kitson understood this so his strategies were about subverting that support through reshaping government structures, the judiciary, the law, the police and the media all with the aim of defeating the enemy. He wrote: ‘The fundamental concept is the working of the triumvirate, civil, military and police, as a joint and integrated organisation from the highest to the lowest level of policy making, planning and administration.’
Kitson also defended the use of death squads and the corruption of the judicial process. Counter-gangs, which he formed and participated in while in Kenya, had been successful in helping defeat what was labelled as the ‘Mau Mau insurgency’ although Britain still had to lower the flag and leave in 1964.
Kitson wrote: ‘Everything done by a government and its agents in combating insurgency must be legitimate. But this does not mean that the government must work within exactly the same set of laws during an emergency as existed beforehand. The law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal, in which case it becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.’
Kitson’s writings, based on his experiences in Kenya and Malaya and Aden and elsewhere became standard practice for British operational procedures in the north of Ireland, especially after he was appointed British Army Commander in Belfast in the summer of 1970.
Hiding behind the legitimacy of a law which its government moulded to fit its objectives, the British Army embarked on a range of covert and overt actions, tactics and strategies which were about defeating the IRA. This included, ‘the disposal of unwanted members of the public’.
The British military and political establishment’s only interest in the violence of unionist death squads was in how effectively the UDA (Ulster Defence Association), the Red Hand Commando, the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and others could be used as counter gangs against those the British regarded as the real enemy – the republicans.
Structured formal and informal collusion between elements of the British military and intelligence agencies and organisations; shoot-to-kill operations by British units and the RUC; the use of plastic bullets as a means of community control; torture and ill-treatment of prisoners; special courts and special rules in the courts; and much more all became part of the British government’s counter-insurgency strategy in Ireland.
Recently some new material has become available which highlights the British military’s colonial approach to Ireland.
In June 1989 Lieutenant General Sir John Waters, who was then the General Officer Commanding (GOC) in the north wrote a lengthy detailed proposal to the Officer Commanding Armoured Infantry Training and Advisory Team about the preparation work that new British Army units, about to be deployed in the north, needed to undertake.
His ‘Concept of Operations’ paper is interesting because of the insight it gives into the mindset of the British Army general running the British Army in the north.
Waters wrote: “It is well established that the terrorists and their supporters use a mass of fabricated complaints against the Security Forces as a means of trying to discredit them and increase their alienation from the nationalist community...Some inconvenience – delays as a result of checkpoints and collateral damage during searches etc – is inescapable in any counter-insurgency operation. However we must recognise that if in the past and still today there were not some cases of real stupidity or wilful rudeness or careless damage by policemen and soldiers, the terrorists would have little prospect of success for their allegations of widespread insensitive behaviour.
I have looked very carefully into the whole matter of complaints. I entirely accept that the number of cases in which soldiers offend, almost invariably under some sort of provocation, is in the circumstances amazingly low. Nevertheless in the context of what has gone before in the Province and the heightened sensitivities that have resulted each ‘offfence’ is one too many and entirely unhelpful. Incidents which anywhere else would be seen as an innocent soldiers prank or just an expression of youthful high spirits can give real offence.”
Later in a section under “Discipline and Propaganda’ Waters wrote: “Most of what they say about bad behaviour by soldiers is lies. But it is believed by many, particularly in the nationalist community.”
So there you have it. The truth according to Waters is that nationalists and many others around the world were all gullible. The thousands of wrecked homes; the communities oppressed by occupying British troops; the deaths of almost 400 people in disputed circumstances and over a thousand more in attacks by loyalist counter-gangs; the beatings and the terror were all just ‘youthful high spirits’ or the result of ‘some sort of provocation’ or a prank!
But Waters denial of reality doesn’t just stop there. He describes how the RUC and the British Army consist of ‘standard units’ and ‘specialist units (Special Forces)’. He wrote; “In very general terms the ‘standard units’ provide the constant present on the ground to give Reassurance and Deterrence. Attrition operations are usually carried out by the specialist units – but not always.’
And then the colonial mindset kicked in. The years of acting out the role of colonial overlord in India and elsewhere found voice. Waters reduces the killing and capture of the enemy to a tiger hunt!
“The way that the standard units and the specialist units should work together to get success can be compared with an old-fashioned tiger hunt. The most experienced hunters are placed in what is judged to be the very best position from which to get a shot. These are the specialist units. The beaters surround the area of the jungle where the tigers are expected to be and drive them on to the guns. These are the standard units. Beating requires great skill and co-ordination to prevent the tigers breaking out of the cordon, of killing some of the beaters. Frequently the tigers break back, make a mistakes and expose themselves to the beaters. This is the opportunity for the beaters, who also carry guns to get a tiger.
And there you have it - ‘the disposal of unwanted members of the public’. Shoot-to-kill operations were modelled on ‘tiger hunts’!
Is it any wonder that two months later Water’s boss, Major General Guthrie who was Assistant Chief of the General Staff wrote to him asking that he reword his paper. Guthrie admitted to ‘brooding and re-reading your tiger shoot’ letter’ following a visit to Waters in the north.
While he regarded the paper as excellent Guthrie was worried that the use of the ‘Tiger Hunt’ example would get out sooner or later and cause “you and the Army department and Ministers” embarrassment. He added: “I am convinced that you are running an unnecessary risk and you world achieve your aim – which I fully understand and applaud – just as well in another way.”
Waters was having none of it and told him no. He refused to temper his language and stuck to his guns – pardon the pun.
There is a danger in reading Waters language that you almost dismiss him as a pompous, jingoistic Colonel Blimp like character but he was the General in charge of the British Army in the north. He and those who held that post before him and others in a host of intelligence, policing and military agencies took decisions that had a profound impact on the lives of citizens in the north. And it is clear from Guthrie’s letter that he was not dissenting from the sentiment just the use of language.
It is no accident that those places and people which were the target of such tactics and strategies remain conflict zones to this day. The one significant exception in Ireland. And that has been achieved despite our military overlords and colonial tiger hunters.
For that we give thanks.