Kikuyu hammered on the Anvil

Story by The Daily Nation
Publication Date: 04/15/2004

In the second part of our series on the First Liberation, the Nation Investigation Team looks at events from June 1953 to May 1955, including the setting up of a Kenya Gulag – the notorious Village-isation programme – the formation of a colonial war council, Operation Anvil, when Nairobi was cleared of Kikuyus, and the inexorable move towards the horror of Hola Camp and its martyrs.

A British Army machine gunner stands guard over the city as troops cleared the Kikuyu from Nairobi in fight against Mau Mau. The move, called Operation Anvil, simply shifted the battle from the city to the camps.

The arrival of General Erskine in Nairobi on June 1, 1953 profoundly affected the whole course and outcome of the Emergency. 

Over the next two years he injected a solidly professional approach to the purely military problems he and Governor Baring faced, at the cost however of creating a massive new problem in the detention camps on Baring’s civilian front.

This was only resolved at the first 1960 Lancaster House Conference by a constitutional settlement openly and bitterly described as a "victory for Mau Mau" by the European Settlers’ leader.


On the political side the next two years also produced a change of colonial secretaries. Oliver Lyttelton (later Lord Chandos), who had hacked out a fiddly new constitution in early 1954, was succeeded in July by Alan Lennox-Boyd, whose tenure was also to be marked by yet another new constitution and a fancy electoral franchise, especially designed to limit African, and particularly Kikuyu, voters.

Gen Erskine, at the beginning of his stint had carefully kept out of the political limelight. However, as early as September 1953 out of the blue he publicly and provocatively announced, without any apparent consultation with anyone who mattered, that military measures alone would not solve the country’s problems which were "purely political". 

Or was he cleverer and more devious than he seemed? After all, no one could deny that the concentration camps in which his strategy was dumping hundreds of thousands of political detainees, were to become a critical political, rather than a military or religious, problem. 

By the end of his time, Gen Erskine had still found no rapport with the European Settlers, whose sleaze and petty narrow-mindedness he privately, but comprehensively, condemned in correspondence to his friends, and particularly to his wife, in England.

Within a week of assuming command, Gen Erskine had been horrified at indiscriminate shooting which he had found to be rampant in several British and King's African Rifles (KAR) units, many of which were keeping inter-unit competitive scoreboards recording kills (but without evidence of the nature of these kills). 

The practices included a £5 reward for the first sub-unit to kill an insurgent. Mr Frank Kitson, a member of Gen Erskine’s staff, artlessly commented: "Soon after, three Africans appeared walking down the track towards us: a perfect target. Unfortunately they were policemen." 

Mr Michael Blundell, later a member of the war council, had announced to the crowd of Europeans threatening to storm Government House in January 1953: "I am glad to tell you that I now, at long last, bring you your shooting orders." 

In an article in an authoritative British newspaper in December 1952 Mr Blundell pronounced that "the problem" would not be cured "until we make it much more painful and distasteful to be a member of Mau Mau than it is to support the Government."

The most notorious military personality of all was a company commander of the 5th (Kenya) Battalion of the KAR. The 43-year-old Captain Gerald Griffiths was eventually taken to court for his atrocities. The company sergeant-major gave evidence that he was told "he could shoot anybody he liked as long as they were black".

On June 23 Erskine issued a strongly worded order insisting on an immediate stamping out of all such practices: "I most strongly disapprove of beating up the inhabitants of this country just because they are the inhabitants".

Charity Waciuma, a schoolgirl at the time, had no doubts where this attitude was leading. She wrote in Daughter of Mumbi, her remarkable commentary on those days, that "the Settlers wanted to kill every Kikuyu, every living soul, and to be finished with them and their land troubles for ever".

In 1953 to many Kikuyu the dark shadows of racist-based genocide were becoming ever more obvious. Except, initially, for the very few who were considered the loyalest of the loyal, every Kikuyu was now being screened, a process described by Blundell as "– nothing more than intensive and sustained interrogation, using every possible known trick of the interrogator." 

Sir William Worley, however, Vice-President of the Court of Appeal for East Africa, described screening teams as using "unlawful and criminal violence" which is "the negation of the rule of law".

Mr Peter Evans, a lawyer who was chased out of the country, has documented in Law and Disorder some of Mr Blundell’s interrogation tricks. They included slicing off ears and boring holes in eardrums; pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight; flogging suspects until they died; and the burning of eardrums with lighted cigarettes. 

A British Parliamentary Delegation to Kenya in 1954 was shocked and reported that "–brutality and malpractices by the police have occurred on a scale which constitutes a threat to public confidence in the forces of law and order." 

Even when the due process of the law did come into play, cases were accelerated to a point where sheer speed was more important than any of the niceties of justice.

In July 1953 Attorney-General Sir John Whyatt (no friend of the Provincial Administration) reported a possible breaking of the justice speed record. In the last two months, he proclaimed, no fewer than 10,000 Mau Mau cases had been disposed of at an average of one case every two minutes. Conviction usually entailed seven years imprisonment.

All through these two years Governor Baring and Gen Erskine seemed to be taking it in ignominious turns to plead the cases of the Provincial Administration or the security forces with the Attorney General. 

Gen Erskine’s order of June 23 had concluded that he would not "tolerate breaches of discipline leading to unfair treatment of anybody". It was the attitude of the forces raised locally Ð the Kenya Regiment, the Kikuyu Guard and the Kenya Police Reserve Ð that proved the most troublesome. After Sir John Whyatt pressed some cases involving members of the Kenya Regiment, Gen Erskine told the commanding officer: "I am not going to get any more of your men off a murder charge". 

Even more often it was Sir Evelyn Baring who found himself supporting the Provincial Administration, sometimes even to the point of abuse of the Governor’s Office, against Sir John Whyatt’s insistence on CID inquiries and prosecutions. 

This illustrated an internal power problem which became at one time the biggest obstacle to a speedy end to the Emergency, perhaps even extending it by an unnecessary four years or more. Sir Evelyn Baring could not govern Kenya by British bayonets and colonial policemen alone. The AG was forcing him to choose between the rule of law and losing the trust of the district officers and district commissioners, the vital constituency through which he had to govern the country. It was a Catch-22 situation in which he eventually lost everything. It was worse. Almost all his district officers, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, believed that they were fighting a just cause and this adopted creed of theirs affirmed that Mau Mau was an evil atavistic cult with no political or economic objectives. It could only be destroyed by forcing its members to confess, if necessary by the use of illegal force that they had taken the society’s oath of allegiance.
Gen Erskine (centre), commander of the colonial forces in Kenya, on a tour of inspection at a detention camp.

The Administration, almost to a man, believed that this end justified almost any means. This was to lead directly to the Hola carnage. However, so strong was the Administration’s belief in the creed and their emotional involvement in the consequences that even Hola did not convince all of them that they had been wrong. And Sir Evelyn Baring’s technique of governance was dominated by the axiom that once he began to destroy the morale of his district officers by giving in to the Whyatt demands, they would "cease to be an effective force" and he would be unable to govern. Simple as that. If necessary, the rule of law would be trashed.

The 1954 Parliamentary Delegation’s report unanimously demanded action to bring to an end the brutality it had found to be rampant. In early 1954 Mr Lyttelton chose and appointed Colonel Arthur E. Young to be Kenya’s new Commissioner of Police, succeeding Mr M. S. O’Rourke who had held the post since 1949. Most unusually Governor Baring was not consulted. He was actually on a lengthy sick leave at the time and there was considerable doubt whether he would even return to Kenya.

Col Young, who was seconded from the City of London police, where he was commissioner, arrived in Nairobi on April 4, 1954. One of the reasons for his appointment was that he had a reputation for being a stickler for the rule of law and would not stomach any suggestion of a culture of police brutality. 

Additionally it was felt that he would work well with the AG, Sir John Whyatt. The clincher, though, was that quiet inquiries showed the Parliamentary Delegation would approve the choice. The problems that soon arose did so because neither Col Young nor Sir John Whyatt could work with Governor Baring (usually representing the Provincial Administration) or the Settlers. 

The reason was that both the Governor and the Settlers frequently needed to manipulate the law for their usually illegal purposes. Sir John Whyatt was a devout Roman Catholic and a deeply emotional person who was never at ease with Governor Baring and distrusted his eternal self-confidence. 

He resisted Settler pressure for summary justice and for radically shortening the time between arrest and sentence. He prosecuted both sides regardless of their status or any excuse of "winning the war".

He threatened to resign whenever he felt his principles were about to be jeopardised. Short of temper and hard of hearing, he openly accused the Kenya War Council of being an illegal body, which even Governor Baring had to admit might strictly be the case. He went on leave in June and did not return, as he was appointed Chief Justice of Singapore. His successor, Mr Eric Griffith-Jones was a considerable contrast, proving as bendable as Sir John Whyatt was inflexible. He later became a major figure in the Hola debacle.

Col Young never accepted that any member of the Kenya Police Force, of whatever rank, was in any way liable to accept the orders of anyone (even the most senior members of the Administration) when a crime had been committed. He wished to transfer to Kenya the concept of the independence and power of the constable as it existed in England. 

The Governor dismissed this as creating two centres of power, which would confuse everyone, especially in the middle of the Emergency and what Sir Evelyn called "the enlightened dictatorship of a Crown Colony." 

As the argument continued, Col Young found that police inquiries had unearthed a number of atrocities by some chiefs and also several Europeans in the Administration. The CID had prepared eight cast-iron and well-substantiated case files for Sir John Whyatt to prosecute. This put Governor Baring in a serious fix. He had always backed the Provincial Administration but, if he tried to sweep the cases under the carpet, both Col Young and Sir John Whyatt would definitely resign and expose their reasons. This would ignite a major political flare-up in Kenya and the UK. 

The governor cleverly solved it by linking a surrender offer to the freedom fighters with an amnesty to the Government officers involved in the cases. However, Col Young continued to press on relentlessly with persuading the Government to accept his view of the role of the police force, narrowly losing his case in the Executive Council of Ministers by one vote only. It was a close thing and Col Young’s opponents prevailed only by setting the issue in the particular circumstances of the Emergency. 

A few weeks later, Col Young resigned – on December 30 – and returned a frustrated person to Britain, intending to warn the Colonial Secretary (then Alan Lennox-Boyd) about some very dangerous moves towards a police state in Kenya. His resignation letter was 30 paragraphs long and there was strong pressure in Britain from prominent opposition MPs, including Barbara Castle, to get it published.

Col Young told one journalist that when he got to Kenya he found that he was subordinate to an utterly useless Minister of Defence, that he was not a member of the War Council or even invited to its deliberations when police affairs were being discussed.

As with Hola, informed political opinion at the time felt that, had Col Young’s letter of resignation been published, both Governor Baring’s and Mr Lennox-Boyd’s jobs would have been at risk. Mr W. Robert Foran’s official history of the Kenya Police, published in 1962, allots a mere seven lines out of 237 pages to Col Young’s time in the force, tactfully noting that his tenure was brief but that he "instigated important changes in police policy".

By late 1954 Governor Baring’s stubborn support of the Provincial Administration had had a visibly tonic effect on the District Administration. The uncertainty and confusion was replaced by a misplaced but energetic hustle and bustle. As one Provincial Commissioner remarked: "People felt they were getting somewhere." But few realised exactly where this ‘somewhere’ was leading. 

The new policy of closer administration reached its peak in 1955 when there were 206 administration officers in the field in Central Province, 35 in the Settled Areas of the Rift Valley and 15 in Nairobi. The increase came largely from the recruitment of temporary District Officers (Kikuyu Guard), mostly enrolled from the younger European settlers who had been conscripted into the Kenya Regiment.

Every district had also been divided into three or four divisions, each staffed by a regular District Officer. 

In March 1953 the loyalists were reformed into the Kikuyu Guard. A post was built in each location, manned by 50 men, 10 of whom were armed with shotguns or rifles and commanded by a D.O (Kikuyu Guard). 

By 1955 there were some 40 administrative Europeans in each of the three Kikuyu districts. In Fort Hall (now Murang’a and Maragua districts) by 1956 there were some 80 Kikuyu Guard posts manned by 4,700 guards, armed with 467 rifles and 677 shotguns, as well as 400 Tribal Police and 1700 Tribal Police Reserve. There were also an average of 8 to 10 regular police stations with some 500 regular police and one battalion of the KAR. 

This immense increase of administrative and military power and the virtually complete isolation of Central Province from the rest of Kenya was described by one historian as bringing "a degree of direct administration of the Kikuyu unparalleled in the history of British colonial Africa.

One final, crushing, policy decision remained. It was made by Governor Baring personally, apparently strongly influenced by the powerful and persuasive arguments of Dr Louis Leakey, then in the Special Branch; Kenya’s Rasputin who still retained considerable personal influence on the governor's strategies.

So it was that the order went out from the War Council in mid-1954 to concentrate the remaining mass of the Kikuyu people into villages. Dr Leakey, an ethnographer, should have known better than most what this would come to mean in terms of shattering social upheaval, mental and material hardship, malnutrition, famine and victimisation.

"In the shadow of the sten gun", as one District Commissioner put it, the process began.

First the destruction of the original homesteads which, now emptied of people, could not be left as possible hide-outs for the fighters from the forests. 

Then the building of the new houses on land confiscated from guerrilla fighters, at a spot marked out by the sub-chief, but land on which they had no rights. 

Then, inevitably, the embarrassment of sharing that house with another family or families as decreed by the sub-chief. 

Then digging a protective ditch right round the stockaded and barbed wire village area. 

Finally surviving the unwelcome and often lusty attentions of the Kikuyu Guards in their post and without whose authority no one could move either in or out of the village.

The original idea of confining the population in villages, apparently so successful in quelling the Communist rebellion in Malaysia, arose from the various attempts made in 1953 by administrators seeking ways and means to recover control over the Passive Wing in the Reserves. They needed to break the lines of communication and the flow of supplies to the forest fighters, as well as to punish the disloyal general population. 

By October 1955 more than one million people had been concentrated in 854 villages. The programme achieved its basic military objectives of totally controlling the lives and existence of those Kikuyu not already either in the forest, the detention camps, the Kikuyu Guard or prison, and also of cutting off the forest fighters from their support and families.

However this was done at an unacceptable social cost, many of whose consequences (as so vividly and convincingly shown in the recent BBC2 documentary White Terror) are still with us today. 

While the final battle for freedom and land would be fought out man to man in Hola, a five-year struggle for the survival of the Kikuyu as a people and a culture was being fought out, almost entirely by women and children, in these villages of tragedy and despair.

Gen Erskine’s overall military plan was to restore the colonial government’s control over each district in turn.

He had found that parts of Central Province, in or near the forest, were firmly in the control of the freedom fighters - "almost resembling small republics." 

First the leaders of each area’s Mau Mau Passive Wing support groups would be sent to one of the detention camps already mushrooming across Kenya. 

The rest of the civilian population would then be forcibly herded behind barbed wire in the guarded villages under 23-hour curfews. 

Militarily Erskine was thus able to claim success at the end of his two-year stint. However, his plan inevitably entailed a huge increase in the numbers of political detainees in the over crowded camps and led inescapably to the catastrophe at Hola. 

Nevertheless in August 1953 the colonial government and Gen Erskine felt confident enough to make their first appeal to the forest fighters to surrender "waving green branches". 

In September 1953 Erskine asked for reinforcements and he was sent a third brigade. This gave his strategy the extra punch it needed to begin aggressive operations against the carefully sited and defended-in-depth positions of the freedom fighters in the forests. 

The Royal Engineers began constructing roads cutting through the bamboo areas of the forests to new bases built near or on the moorlands.

Operation Anvil, whose ambitious plan was to remove all Kikuyu from Nairobi, aimed to cut off the lines of communication between the forest fighters and the city and to shatter the Mau Mau cells still working in the capital. 

The city was divided into sectors, each of which was cordoned off in turn by the military and subjected to an intensive search by the police. Five British battalions were involved, supported by Police GSU units and teams of Administration and Labour Department officials.

An operation of this type and magnitude was completely outside the experience of the soldiers and even the army staff. Gen Erskine would only compare it with the attempt to clear Tel Aviv before World War Two.

But perhaps it is not surprising that the operation was efficiently managed. Gen Erskine had two of Britain’s most outstanding soldiers on his staff in Kenya: (Lord) Michael Carver who was to rise to the highest rank of all, Chief of the General Staff; and Frank Kitson, author of 'Gangs and Counter Gangs', later became the British Army’s top expert on guerilla warfare. 

However, a large number of innocent people suffered grievously and family members were often irrevocably, ruthlessly torn apart. 

After Anvil a new passbook system, for Kikuyu only, tightened the ever more rigid and inflexible colony-wide control over their increasingly harsh and intolerable existence.

Anvil had profound consequences. Governor Baring’s biographer says that 65,000 Kikuyu were cleared out of the capital and at least half of these were later detained. Others have different figures. Another writer says 30,000 were arrested and 16,500 detained. A special screening camp was built at Langata. 

Mackinnon Road and Manyani, the huge detention camps being constructed in Coast Province, were not ready in time and caused protracted delays for the operation. Special legal powers for temporary evacuation and detention also had to be promulgated.

Manyani, built in four months and planned to hold 16,000 detainees, was later to be the centre of a major scandal when hundreds of the inmates died in a typhoid epidemic which was badly mishandled by the medical and administration officials. Deliberately concealed at the time, the scandal eventually reached the House of Commons. 

It seems likely that typhoid as a cause of death was used to cover up the guards beating uncooperative detainees to death a disturbing prologue to events at Hola five years later. 

But what the month-long Anvil operation ensured was that enormous numbers (by mid-1954 possibly 150,000) of alleged Mau Mau adherents would now be in the concentration camps Ð probably 10 times the number that by then were still fighting from their forest sanctuaries.
A general view of Langata Detention Camp in Nairobi.

From Anvil onwards most of the camps were used by the Mau Mau leaders inside them most effectively to politicise, organise and discipline the recruits pouring into them as a result of Gen Erskine’s strategy. 

The camps soon became the new battleground and the critical battles would no longer be between the British army and the remaining Mau Mau forces in the forest but between the mass of politicised and united detainees and the Provincial Administration (standing firmly by their false creed), assisted by the Prisons Department and the Rehabilitation Staff.

The final battle in that long drawn out campaign would be staged five years later at Hola Camp in 1959.

After Anvil, from December 1954 to April 1955, Gen Erskine’s military strategists turned their attention to a series of deep penetrations of the forest, using especially selected tracker combat teams to act as the spearhead of larger formations.

Frank Kitson of the British Army and Ian Henderson of the Kenya Police were part of the small team developing the pseudo-gangster techniques to counter the acknowledged bushcraft skills of the surviving Mau Mau groups.

Curious scholars often ask how the security forces managed to turn some of the forest fighters round so quickly to join the pseudo-gangs. Under the Emergency laws any captured fighter could be taken before a court and summarily sentenced to death. (Hardly the spirit of the Geneva Convention). 

The European leader of the ‘turning’ section concerned thus had the effective power of life and death over him. At the same time in many cases the "recruits" were simply beaten up and agreed to cooperate to stop any further pain. 

Once returning in a group to the forest their chances of being shot by their former comrades were equal to those of being shot by their new companions, except for the fact that the pseudo-gangs had much better equipment than the freedom fighters possessed at this stage of the war. The choice was stark. "Either you join us or you will be charged with a capital offence". 

By 1956 over 1,000 executions had been carried out after the accused had been sentenced to death in court. Less than a third of these were for homicide. The remaining two-thirds were for such offences as "consorting with terrorists" and "illegal possession of firearms".

The psychology underlying the treatment prescribed by Ian Henderson for the recruits for the pseudo-gangs had its origins in the techniques used in the Settler-run Screening Camps, as graphically described above by Michael Blundell in his book 'So Rough a Wind'. This was to trump the fear of betrayal by an even more powerful fear of instant death by hanging.

Mr Kiboi Mureithi alleges in his recently republished book 'The War in the Forest' that on some occasions there was simply overt bribery with money. 

Mr Ian Henderson, known as the torturer-in-chief during the Emergency, continued doing the same job in Rhodesia and Bahrain after his deportation from Kenya by the Kenyatta Government after Independence. He was the prime mover in the preparation of bogus evidence in the 1953 trial at Kapenguria.

In January 1955 a second surrender offer was prepared to coincide with the major operations being launched by Gen Erskine in the Aberdares and Mount Kenya. The amnesty for crimes committed on the government side was two-faced. Governor Baring needed it more than anyone else in order to stop a series of brutality, murder and torture cases that were at last being prosecuted by the C.I.D against the Security Forces and Administration officers. Persuading forest fighters to come in from the cold was always very much a secondary purpose in this mind. The cases must somehow be kept out of the courts. 

In May 1955 peace talks that had started in the Aberdares collapsed among recriminations from both sides. The forest fighters had finally demanded that the Colonial Secretary himself should fly out to meet them in Nairobi if the negotiations were to have any meaning. 

In June 1954 Gen Erskine confirmed his strong views about the European Settlers in a letter to his wife: "Kenya is the Mecca of the middle class, so I have been told. I have coined a new phrase, a sunny place for shady people... I hate the guts of them all, they are all middle class sluts. I never want to see another Kenya man or woman and I dislike them all with few exceptions". 

In April 1955, his two-year tour of duty completed, he was now gently eased out of his post. He was succeeded by another typical professional soldier Ð Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Lathbury. 

Gen Erskine had conducted his campaign in a unique country among people he was forced to meet and cooperate with but for whom he felt open contempt. He coped with the military aspects of the war most competently but was often at a loss with the civilian population.

He was not alone. Ms Margery Perham, a leading British scholar on colonial affairs, described Kenya at this time as living in "a pathological atmosphere" not only in the detention camps but in society as a whole.

It was this ambience that Gen Erskine sensed and loathed. The atmosphere was one in which to a European KPR officer every Kikuyu was a Mau Mau and visiting British critics of Kenya were all seen as Communist agents, including even, or perhaps especially, Mrs Barbara Castle, M.P. and future British Cabinet minister. 

It was a topsy-turvy world in which the Christians hated the Mau Mau but the demonised Mau Mau did not hate the Christians and indeed borrowed many of their most popular hymn tunes, while changing the words a little.

It was a milieu in which Sir Richard Woodley, a well-known and long established Kenya Settler, could be loudly applauded when, at a Nairobi dinner, he said: 

"Three years of slavery from dawn to dusk, on a ration sufficient to keep him alive and working but no more – powers to prison officials in charge to cut rations, and inflict corporal punishment of a severe nature for a misdemeanor are more likely to be an effective deterrent than 10 or 20 years of an ordinary sentence". 

Gen Erskine had even found himself arriving in the country shortly after the local newspaper reported that a Settler at a meeting in Nakuru seriously proposed the shooting of 50,000 Kikuyu as a lesson. 

Although Gen Erskine's departure marked around the half-way point on the road to Hola, in many ways the hardest, the most depressing and exhausting, part of the journey is yet to come. 

Not unexpectedly in view of the unevenly matched military forces involved, by 1956 the freedom fighters were being increasingly isolated in their individual forest redoubts. 

Their function now was at all costs to survive in their sanctuary and from time to time to wrong-foot the opposing forces. The strategy must now be classical guerilla low-key, dispersed activities. There would be no more pitched battles.

Henceforth the centre-point of the real war would now be in the camps and the barbed wire villages where what was left of the Kikuyu community was held hostage by Britain.

Both sides were grappling with the problem of hearts and minds. The ideology of the Mau Mau military was still as simple and directed as it always had been - Land and Freedom.

The Provincial Administration, however, had by now been fighting for four years for a very different creed. To them Kenyatta was Satan and the Oath satanic.

They were prepared to use any means to chase this "disease" out of Kenya once and for all. 

The struggle, as with all collisions between faiths, would be titanic. There would be brutality and torture, arrogance and deceit but from now on all the roads would lead to and from Hola and its martyrs.

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