Frank Kitson in Northern Ireland and the ‘British way’ of counterinsurgency

Published in Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Volume 22

Brigadier Frank Kitson in 1971. How much of an agent of change in the Northern Ireland conflict was he? (Victor Patterson)

Brigadier Frank Kitson in 1971. How much of an agent of change in the Northern Ireland conflict was he? (Victor Patterson)

Recent developments have focused attention on the nature of British counterinsurgency as ‘dirty war’, not only in Northern Ireland but also in several other anti-colonial struggles after World War II. In 2012 the British high court found that British troops perpetrated the Batang Kali massacre in Malaya in 1948. In 2013 Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, apologised and accepted that its security forces had tortured, mutilated and raped Mau Mau fighters, agreeing to compensate as many as 8,000 and to build a memorial in Nairobi. As a result of both of these investigations, an archive of colonial documents from Malaya, Kenya, Aden, Cyprus and other places of controversy, hitherto kept secret in breach of Britain’s Freedom of Information Act and amounting to 200 metres of shelving, was discovered. Meanwhile, the Saville Report (2010) into Bloody Sunday and the de Silva Report (2013) on collusion with loyalist paramilitaries led to two further ‘unconditional’ British apologies for the behaviour of its security forces in Northern Ireland. In November 2013, a BBC ‘Panorama’ investigation into British counterinsurgency in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s revealed that members of a special covert operations unit known as the Military Reaction Force (MRF) admitted to the murder of suspects and unarmed Catholic civilians. These admissions by the state or its agents confirm previous claims by critics dating back many decades. Such abuses were not merely low-level tactical excesses by undisciplined and racist troops but were institutional, systematic, and approved or covered up at the highest levels. Yet these conflicts were consistently interpreted almost universally by British academics as exemplifying the best practice of counterinsurgency. Even as the new revelations about atrocities were being made, new publications by British historians and political scientists were uncritically extolling the British ‘model’ or ‘way’ of counterinsurgency, asserting that the many positive lessons to be drawn, especially from Northern Ireland, should be applied in Iraq and Afghanistan. This conclusion is also drawn by the British military’s Operation Banner report (2006) into its role in the North, and the claim informs the new JDP 3-40 (2010) counterinsurgency doctrine for the British Army. To term a 30-year-long war that ended in military stalemate and political compromise a ‘success’ is by any benchmark delusional.

Brigadier Frank Kitson

Much of the myth-making about the success of the British way of counterinsurgency in Northern Ireland centres on the role played by one individual, Brigadier Frank Kitson, both as a counterinsurgency theorist and as an operational commander in 1970–2 in Belfast, where he established a generic framework for the conduct of the British war that remains the foundation of British counterinsurgency practices. How much of an agent of change in the conflict was Kitson, and how transferable are the lessons of Northern Ireland?

In March 1972 a right-wing Tory MP, Philip Goodhart, told the House of Commons that he was delighted that Brigadier Kitson was in Belfast because this was ‘very much a case of the right man being in the right job at the right time. One could have nobody better there.’ Kitson was commander of 39 Airportable Brigade from September 1970 to April 1972 and was responsible for one of the British Army’s three main regional sub-commands in the North, the greater Belfast and Eastern area. He arrived in Belfast from a visiting fellowship at University College, Oxford, where he had been writing a book, Low intensity operations (published in November 1971), which would become a British Army manual on counterinsurgency and counter-subversion. The greater Belfast area during the period of Kitson’s command saw the bulk of the escalating violence in Northern Ireland. The honeymoon between the Catholic community and the British Army that existed after August 1969 began to dissolve following the Falls Road curfew in July 1970, but it accelerated from late 1970 contemporaneously with Kitson’s command in Belfast. According to the SDLP’s Paddy Devlin, Kitson ‘probably did more than any other individual to sour relations between the Catholic community and the security forces’. One of the units under his command, 1 Para, was nicknamed ‘Kitson’s private army’ and had a reputation even in the British Army for being thuggish, but its role in the killing and wounding of a large number of civilians in Ballymurphy in July 1971 and Derry’s Bloody Sunday in January 1972 earned it even official British condemnation for being ‘reckless’ and ‘out of control’. The MRF was based at Kitson’s headquarters in Palace Barracks outside Belfast. In April 1972, within a few weeks of Bloody Sunday and his receipt of a CBE for his service in Northern Ireland, Brigadier Kitson returned to England to head the Infantry School at Warminster. It was a sideways promotion. According to Douglas Hurd’s memoir, the new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, saw Irish unity as the solution to the Northern Ireland problem. Kitson’s removal was a confidence-building signal to nationalists that Whitelaw’s approach would be focused on the political options, including negotiation with the Provisional IRA. Equally, it gave Kitson the opportunity to train and indoctrinate a new generation of British soldiers in his counterinsurgency framework.

 

Major-General Robert Ford, commander of Land Forces in Northern Ireland, 1971–2. Like most senior British Army career soldiers who served there in the early ’70s, he had seen recent service in British counterinsurgency campaigns—in his case in Palestine and Aden. (Victor Patterson)

Major-General Robert Ford, commander of Land Forces in Northern Ireland, 1971–2. Like most senior British Army career soldiers who served there in the early ’70s, he had seen recent service in British counterinsurgency campaigns—in his case in Palestine and Aden. (Victor Patterson)

‘The sun around which the planets revolved’

Kitson was an archetypical scion of the upper military caste of the British élite. The eldest son of a rear-admiral, he attended one of England’s leading public schools, Stowe, in the mid-1940s, and was head boy of his house. Stowe was an experiment by a leading educationalist, J.F. Roxburgh, to produce a ruling imperial cadre ‘with the cobwebs brushed off’ that was capable of meeting the mounting challenges to the British Empire. Stowe was the second choice for the British ruling class, after Eton. As a junior, then middle-ranking officer in the Rifle Brigade, Kitson was decorated and promoted for tactical successes in three of Britain’s most notorious colonial wars in the 1950s and 1960s—the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the mainly Chinese communist revolutionary struggle in Malaya (known as the ‘Malayan Emergency’ by the British), and the EOKA-led Greek nationalist uprising against British rule in Cyprus. Unlike most of his peers, as a military practitioner his interest and expertise lay not in strategy but in the tactical suppression of internal wars. Kitson’s promotion in the 1980s (he was appointed commander-in-chief of UK Land Forces in 1982) is indicative of the priorities of Thatcher’s revolution. Not surprisingly, Kitson was security-obsessed and there is little in the public domain about his life. He is not mentioned in most of the British studies of the Northern Ireland conflict, even those that have a security focus. When Kitson is discussed, the concern is with the development of his counterinsurgency parameters in the mid- to late 1970s, and less on his actual tour of duty in Belfast in 1970–2. General Sir Michael Jackson, who was an adjutant in 1 Para in the early 1970s, described Kitson as an ‘incisive thinker and military theorist’, and claimed that ‘he was the sun around which the planets revolved . . . and very much set the tone for the operational style’ in Belfast.

Many senior commanders, officers and career soldiers of the British Army who served in Northern Ireland in the critical period of 1970–2 had seen recent service in British counterinsurgency campaigns. For example, of the overall commanders in 1970–2, the GOCs, Sir Ian Freeland and General Harry Tuzo, were veterans of counterinsurgency in Cyprus and Borneo (Brunei) respectively. The commander of land forces in 1971–2, Major-General Robert Ford, was a veteran of Palestine and Aden, and Kitson’s predecessor as commander in the Belfast Area, Major-General Farrar-Hockley, was a veteran of Palestine, Cyprus, Aden, and of covert operations in Indonesia. One paratrooper recalled that on being deployed in Belfast in September 1970 his unit inadvertently confronted rioters with a ‘disperse’ banner written in Arabic (a relic of Aden). In his evidence to the Saville Enquiry Kitson downplayed his expertise in counterinsurgency, but his books had forewords by leading army generals, and his international reputation in the field was recognised by his inclusion in a small group of foreign military officers brought to the USA for a RAND symposium on counterinsurgency in 1962, anticipating an escalating US involvement in South Vietnam.

 

Derry’s Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972—described in 2010 by British Prime Minister David Cameron as ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’. The unit responsible, 1 Para, was nicknamed ‘Kitson’s private army’ and had a reputation even in the British Army for being thuggish. It was also involved in the killing and wounding of a large number of civilians in Ballymurphy in July 1971. (Stanley Matchett)

Derry’s Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972—described in 2010 by British Prime Minister David Cameron as ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’. The unit responsible, 1 Para, was nicknamed ‘Kitson’s private army’ and had a reputation even in the British Army for being thuggish. It was also involved in the killing and wounding of a large number of civilians in Ballymurphy in July 1971. (Stanley Matchett)

Low intensity operations

Kitson’s book Low intensity operations drew on the lessons of Britain’s colonial wars to elaborate a plan of action for coordinated political, military, legal and media operations against insurgents and subversives. Kitson’s main contributions to counterinsurgency theory are in essence fourfold.

Firstly, he stressed the centrality of controlling the population. The population-centric approach was a common lesson drawn by the RAND symposium of 1962. The approach is often concealed under terms such as ‘pacification’, ‘stabilisation’ or ‘winning hearts and minds’. It contains a core, flawed, assumption—that the insurgents’ number is small and that most of the population are neutral. This assumption has been replicated in the ‘Petraeus doctrine’ with disastrous outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kitson, however, reworked the Algerian lessons provided by French officers such as Trinquier and Galula. Like them, and following the experience of the Briggs Plan in Malaya in 1949 (when 600,000 Chinese rural ‘squatters’ were placed in concentration camps termed ‘new villages’), he concluded that population control was essentially about coercion and raising the costs for disloyalty, not winning by ideas: ‘conditions can be made reasonably uncomfortable for the population as a whole . . . to act as a deterrent towards a resumption of the campaign’. With regard to the classic Maoist formula that the relationship between guerrillas and their supporting community was akin to that between fish and water, Kitson observed: ‘If a fish has got to be destroyed it can be attacked directly by rod or net . . . But if rod and net cannot succeed by themselves it may be necessary to do something to the water . . .’. Conceivably, he surmised, this could extend to ‘polluting the water’. Moreover, the law would be ‘little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public’.

Secondly, in his books Gangs and countergangs (1960) and Bunch of five (1977) Kitson stressed the value of covert operations, the ‘turning’ of insurgents through ‘carrot and stick’ measures, and what he called ‘countergangs’ or ‘pseudogangs’, which could infiltrate or deceive insurgents. He accounted for much of his tactical success against the Mau Mau by the turning of a resistance fighter code-named ‘George’. Kitson adapted other experiences, notably the infiltration tactics of Edward Lansdale and Magsaysay against the Huk rebellion in the Philippines, and the covert assassination ‘Q’ squads organised by Roy Farran in Palestine. Kitson proposed a ‘chain reaction system’ of intelligence-gathering whereby the accumulation of masses of low-grade ‘background intelligence’ (at this time kept in books and index cards but later computerised) would generate ‘contact information’, which would then expose the enemy for elimination. This intelligence would come partly from informants, harsh interrogation of prisoners (he is a source for the persistence of the ‘five techniques’ in the British Army) and turning insurgents, and partly from covert operations—in Palestine and Aden this meant dressing up like Jews or Arabs, in Africa it required ‘blackening up’, and in Belfast plain clothes and civilian vehicles for the MRF. Mostly, however, background information was to be gathered by cordons and mass ‘screening’ of populations, which required static fortified bases in occupied areas (what the French army termed ilôtage and quadrillage in their operations in Algeria from 1957). Fortified ‘forward operating bases’ (FOBs) were standard practice in Northern Ireland, and are a characteristic of the US-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kitson’s third contribution was to propose the use of ‘special units’ within the army to conduct counterinsurgency. He was a key proponent of incorporating the SAS into the army’s command structure, something that he advanced as a war office planner in 1958 through the use of the SAS in Oman. In his works he also envisaged the use of ad hoc special units using ‘special people and specialised techniques’ but did not elaborate further. In essence, Kitson envisaged the paramilitarisation of the British Army, switching its focus from conventional to unconventional warfare, training troops ‘to support civil power’ in mock-ups of Belfast streets, adopting the techniques of insurgents, and fighting ‘terrorism’ with state terror units in a form of gang warfare.

Fourthly, Kitson was a pioneer of psyops (psychological operations) and media manipulation by briefing and spin, and he established close relationships with British journalists in Northern Ireland, turning them into ‘useful mouthpieces’ (as one journalist told the Saville Enquiry).

A random British Army search operation in Belfast c. 1971. Kitson proposed a ‘chain reaction system’ of intelligence-gathering whereby the accumulation of masses of low-grade ‘background intelligence’ would generate ‘contact information’, which would then expose the enemy for elimination. (An Phoblacht)

A random British Army search operation in Belfast c. 1971. Kitson proposed a ‘chain reaction system’ of intelligence-gathering whereby the accumulation of masses of low-grade ‘background intelligence’ would generate ‘contact information’, which would then expose the enemy for elimination. (An Phoblacht)

Lasting legacy

An internment swoop in August 1971

An internment swoop in August 1971

The lasting legacy of Kitson’s tactics in Belfast was a framework of intelligence tactics of penetration of paramilitaries, abuse of prisoners and the psyops of disinformation, with ‘going in hard’ against the Provisional IRA and coercive control of the Catholic community. Kitson favoured shock troops like 1 Para and the SAS, and the undercover MRF that operated like a ‘Q’ assassination squad. The MRF not only murdered suspects and unarmed Catholic civilians but also colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in a campaign of sectarian murder of innocent Catholics. The 30-year duration of the conflict in the North is the most obvious evidence of the military failure of these tactics. Despite penetration and surveillance, the Provisional IRA conducted its most spectacular and damaging bomb attacks in England in the final years of the conflict. Politically, Britain’s claim to be ‘umpire’ simply never recovered from Kitson’s framework as applied to Catholic communities in 1970–2, and in the years after. The disastrous replication of many of these parameters by American and British troops in dealing with the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan indicates that militaries have learned little from their past failures. The military consequences of Kitson’s approach were that the Provisional IRA rapidly developed from a faction of a largely defunct IRA in early 1970 to a national liberation movement for many northern Catholics by spring 1972 (the deadliest year). That it took another twenty years for the political process to move towards a settlement tells us that the sharp polarisation that gave rise to the PIRA in 1970–2 had a profound and lasting effect on the course of the Troubles. At the Saville Enquiry Kitson’s memory of events was poor, but he was sure that there was no insurgency when he arrived in Belfast in late 1970. By the time of his departure in April 1972 the Catholic community was in all-out revolt.  HI

James Hughes is a professor of comparative politics at the London School of Economics, and director of its Conflict Research Group.

the ‘cages’ of Long Kesh. Kitson is a source for the persistence of the ‘five techniques’ of ‘in-depth’ interrogation used by the British Army at the time and in 1978 ruled as ‘inhuman and degrading’ by the European Court of Human Rights. (An Phoblacht)

the ‘cages’ of Long Kesh. Kitson is a source for the persistence of the ‘five techniques’ of ‘in-depth’ interrogation used by the British Army at the time and in 1978 ruled as ‘inhuman and degrading’ by the European Court of Human Rights. (An Phoblacht)

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Counterinsurgency army

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Further reading
C. Elkins, Imperial reckoning: the untold story of Britain’s gulag in Kenya (London, 2005).
J. Hughes, ‘State violence in the origins of nationalism: British counterinsurgency and the rebirth of Irish nationalism, 1969–1972’, in J. Hall and S. Malesevic (eds), Nationalism and war (Cambridge, 2013).
F. Kitson, Gangs and countergangs (London, 1960).
F. Kitson, Low intensity operations: subversion, insurgency, peace-keeping (London, 1971).

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