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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent history of the British army from 1945 to 1971, 23 July 2014
William Podmore (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Army, Empire, and Cold War: The British Army and Military Policy, 1945-1971 (Hardcover)
This is a remarkable book. French writes, “The army has been written out of post-war British history because to admit that it took part in active service operations in the empire after 1945 is to admit the hollowness of British claims that their imperial mission was the beneficent one of bringing peace, democracy, and independence to colonial peoples. Most academic historians of the end of formal empire have long abandoned such notions, although it is still possible to find occasional assertions that ‘as would happen so often in the period, the British lacked the stomach for repression’. That was a claim that would have come as a surprise to the insurgents who fought against British rule in Palestine, the Suez Canal Zone, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, and South Arabia. In fact, between 1945 and 1968, the British not only deployed their military forces overseas more frequently than either the USA or the USSR, but they also mounted about three dozen overseas military operations, fought in more than twenty countries, and in nearly every region of the world. These operations came at a considerable human cost. Between 1945 and 1960, the army suffered about 11,000 fatal casualties.”

This book examines the army’s doctrines, resources (equipment and manpower), and conduct of operations, both those planned for and those carried out. The army had three main tasks: to act as a deterrent against a mythical Soviet attack on Western Europe and the Middle East, to conduct counter-insurgency campaigns in the colonies, and to carry out expeditionary operations.

“Montgomery had designed the post-war army to fight high-intensity land operations in Europe and the Middle East. Slim had reconfigured it to fulfil a second mission alongside the first, to conduct Cold War counter-insurgency operations. Consequently, there was not much left to spare to mount expeditionary operations beyond Europe and the empire. That was already apparent by 1950-51. It was only with the utmost difficulty that the War Office could scrape together two brigade groups to send to Korea. Once they had done so they discovered that unless they mobilized part of the Territorial Army, they had almost nothing left to send to Abadan. Wisely, in view of the lack of American support, the Attlee government decided not to do so. In 1956, and with the benefit of hindsight, the Eden government would have done better had it followed their example during the Suez crisis.”

French notes, “Force also had an important role to play within the confines of the empire. The British believed that the greatest benefit they conferred on their colonial subjects was honest government and the rule of law. Anyone who rejected those benefits was ipso facto a criminal, a ‘thug’, ‘gangster’, or ‘bandit’. Such language robbed them of any political legitimacy and opened the way for security forces, including the army, to use force against them. The cornerstones of most British counter-insurgency campaigns were coercion and counter-terror, not kindness and economic development. The innocent might be hurt alongside the ‘guilty’ but that was acceptable.”

“Where exemplary force did not work, the government employed still more severe measures. These actions ranged from mass arrests and wholesale detention without trial, deportations, forcible population resettlement, and, at their most extreme, the creation of free-fire zones.”

Of forcible population resettlement, French writes, “the number of people involved was staggering. In Malaya about 423,000 Chinese squatters were moved into 410 ‘new villages’, and another 650,000 Chinese mine and estate workers were subject to ‘regrouping’ in wired-in villages. Together they accounted for about half of Malaya’s Chinese people. The numbers and proportions were even larger in Kenya where about 1,077,500 people, or 69 per cent of the population of Kikuyu, Meru and Embu were forcibly resettled in 854 new villages.”

British soldiers looted, ‘meted out indiscriminate violence to civilians’, carried out reprisals, killed innocent people, and used torture. Kenya’s General Officer Commanding, General Sir George Erskine, admitted, “there was a great deal of indiscriminate shooting by Army and Police.” The authorities then routinely covered up the killings.

A subaltern serving with 6th Malay Regiment wrote in 1953, “No Chinese rubber tapper is safe when we search an estate, my men are trigger-happy with Chinese, and several platoon commanders have had to plant grenades on tappers and call them bandits when their men have made ‘a small error in judgement’.”

In Cyprus, an Intelligence Corps sergeant admitted, “A certain amount of casual brutality against the ‘enemy’ by soldiers is inescapable but some units, as a matter of routine, placed metal buckets on the heads of their prisoners and banged them with rifle barrels until he or she confessed.”

He sums up, “The idea that after 1945 the British developed a counter-insurgency doctrine that allowed them to wage war amongst the people in ways that minimized harm to the civilian population is misplaced. British counter-insurgency doctrine as it was practised in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, and Cyprus, deliberately targeted the civilian population. Coercion took various forms, ranging from cordon and search operations, collective punishments, detention without trial on a sometimes massive scale, right up to the creation of free fire zones. But in every case civilians were always in the front line. In all this the army operated within the law, but it was a law that deliberately and specifically legalized such acts. The military authorities did not order soldiers to commit crimes against civilians. However, the doctrines they implemented, and the legal structures within which they implemented them, significantly increased the likelihood that they would do so.”
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