How the British government used reformists to capture Mau Mau guerilla fighters

Hundreds of arrested Kenyans wait to be questioned after the massacre of 200 loyalist Kikuyus in a Mau Mau camp, in March 1953. PHOTO | AFP

One of the most important ways in which British governments prepared for, and smoothed, the end of colonial rule was with intelligence.

MI5 is often viewed as Britain’s domestic intelligence agency but, this is only partially true. Rather, it was the intelligence service responsible for covering the United Kingdom and its colonies on which for many years the sun literally never set.

While MI5 was best known for hunting Eastern Block spies, it was actually also deeply embroiled in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and support of the political process of decolonisation.

Having a presence in nearly all the colonies, MI5 created a common intelligence culture across much of the British Empire and worked hard to create links to the leaders of the newly independent states.

As a result, the agency was able to keep in place its security liaison officers (SLO, in essence, MI5 station chiefs) in almost all the former colonies.

The SLO worked hard and usually successfully to create mutually beneficial relationships between the new governments and their former imperial overlords.

On the negative side, Britain often left behind functioning security apparatuses that the new rulers sometimes used more to maintain their own power than to actually secure their societies.

In the various wars of decolonisation, British security forces, particularly police Special Branches made use of “counter-gangs,” or “pseudo-gangs” notably in Kenya, Palestine, Cyprus, and Malaya.

These were enemy personnel who had turned and formed into units and sent back into the field to conduct intelligence and conduct raids.

Although this tactic was effective, it also produced an environment in which abuses could easily occur and go unchecked.

Although the pseudo-gang model was not unique to Kenya, it was here that the most successful use of the idea was witnessed.

Pseudo-gangs were formed between 1953 and 1955 and were made up of groups of reformed Mau Mau enlisted by the colonial government to hunt down and kill or capture their former Mau Mau brethren.

The pseudo-gang concept was developed by Frank Kitson at the Special Methods Training Centre he established in 1954. The gangs were organised and supported by the Commander-In-Chief in Kenya, Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Lathbury (nickname “legs”) and were under the tactical leadership of individuals like Ian Henderson, the man who would eventually capture Dedan Kimathi, Eric Holyoak, and seconded field intelligence officer, Frank Kitson.

Originally, the pseudo-gangs were made up of turned Mau Mau, loyalist Kikuyu drawn from tribal police or regular constables, and white soldiers disguised in “black face” working together to target Mau Mau leadership.

The turned Mau Mau were most important for lending credibility since they knew the latest secret signs, finger snaps, and oaths with which to convince the Mau Mau.

The turned Mau Mau were trained by white officers in the use of small arms, grenades, and in close combat who in return learned about the Mau Mau and bushcraft.

When operating with the pseudos, white officers used potassium permanganate solution to give their skin the right colour.

However, the Mau Mau got to know about the white pseudos, and they could tell when they were approaching because of the brand of cigarettes they were smoking, and other times white officers shot one of their own in error because of the disguise.

Eventually, the white officers were removed completely, and the gangs operated with only white supervision.

By 1956, the pseudo-gangs had accounted for the capture of the vast majority of Mau Mau leaders. However, the most wanted leader Dedan Kimathi was still at large.

Ian Henderson would eventually be the man to hunt down and capture Kimathi by, with, and through his native pseudo-gang troops.

Ironically, Kimathi managed to escape the trap, but in attempting to flee through the forest, he ran directly into Henderson and tribal policemen at 9:30 am on October 21, 1956.

With the capture of the last Mau Mau leader, the forest war in Kenya was effectively over.

The British government was able to successfully turn guerrilla against guerrilla and with superior military and economic support the outcome was predictable.

Ultimately, the threat of terror, resource denial, co-option and divide and rule proved to be very effective tools in the subjugation of the Mau Mau uprising.

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