Counterinsurgency army

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

Suspect insurgents held by British troops during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, 1954. (Popperfoto)

Suspect insurgents held by British troops during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, 1954. (Popperfoto)

The British Army was historically a counterinsurgency army with a colonial policing mind-set oriented to supporting covert operations. Its deployment in Northern Ireland should be understood in this context. Arguably, decades of colonial policing left the British and French unprepared for conventional warfare in World War II. The British military was at the messiest interface of end of empire, which was accelerated owing to British weakness after World War II and frequently bloody. Between 1945 and 1969 the British Army had 53 deployments (most notably Palestine in the late 1940s, Malaya from 1948 to the late 1950s, Kenya in the mid-1950s, Cyprus in 1955–9, Aden and Oman in the 1960s) that can be considered as colonial wars, and only two (Suez and Korea) conventional wars; 1968 was the first year in decades when the British Army suffered no conflict-related deaths. None of the colonial wars ended satisfactorily, and all, with the exception of Oman and the Trucial States, ended with British withdrawal and a serious diminishing of British interests and prestige.

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