British Decolonization

By MSW Add a Comment 9 Min Read


Decolonization and greater Dominion autonomy, however, ensured that Britain could bring less to the strategic table. Indian independence in 1947 was particularly important, as Indian troops had been crucial to Britain’s expeditionary capacity in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The loss of these troops removed an important mainstay of the military dimension of the British Empire so that, for example, whereas, in 1941, Indian forces had played a major role in the successful invasion of Iraq, a decade later, when Britain was in dispute with the Nationalist government in Iran over its seizure of Britain’s oil interests, Plan Y, the plan for a military intervention by the seizure of Abadan, was not pursued, in large part because, without Indian troops, and with British forces committed in Germany and Korea, it no longer seemed militarily viable. There were no Indian troops to help in the attack on Egypt in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, nor to enable Britain to participate in the Vietnam War, had that been a goal. Thanks in part to the fact that Britain could no longer deploy imperial military resources, British intervention in the Middle East in the two Gulf Wars (1991, 2003) was very much as a junior partner of the United States. By then, the idea that Britain might have fought in part by deploying Indian troops was no more than a distant memory.

Assertiveness in the 1950s, particularly in Malaya and Kenya, at Suez and in Cyprus, and in British membership of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and the Baghdad Pact, was intended to protect British interests and to demonstrate that Britain was not weak. However, these commitments put serious pressure on Britain’s ability to maintain force levels in Europe as part of NATO, a strategic goal that itself, in turn, seriously compromised Britain’s role as a military power outside Europe. At the same time, imperial conflict brought the combat experience and training in “small wars” that NATO membership could not offer. In suppressing the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya in 1952-1956, the British benefited from linking military to social policies, and from flexibility in both. The move from the initial defensive stage, in which the lessons of Malaya were not learned, to a recapture of the initiative, in which these lessons were applied, was crucial. This move entailed the development of a system of command and control encompassing army, police, and administration, and the introduction of appropriate tactics, including a large-scale attempt to separate the guerrillas from popular support. This entailed fortified villages, a large ditch around the forest, and the detention of possibly over 160,000 Kikuyu, the ethnic group on which the Mau Mau were based. The harshness of this has led to criticism, but at the time it seemed an appropriate response to insurrection.

In 1954, in Operation Anvil, the capital, Nairobi, was isolated and combed, in a move that denied the Mau Mau urban support. The successful use, alongside the regular army and the white settler Kenya Regiment, of loyal Africans, the King’s African Rifles, Kenya Police, Kikuyu Home Guards, and former insurgents, was also important; as were (until 1955) larger-scale sweep operations and, later, air-supported forest patrols. Bomber command was particularly active in 1955. From 1955, success led to the withdrawal of troops, and this was accelerated after the capture of Dedan Kimathi, the leading Mau-Mau commander, in October 1956. The following month, the police took over responsibility for operations. A wide-ranging social reform policy, including land reform, in which the government distanced itself from the white colonists and sought to win hearts and minds, was also important. It proved difficult to control events in Cyprus during the Greek Cypriot insurgency of 1954-1959, but, again, by applying the Malayan lessons, it proved possible to contain the crisis, while the use of sympathetic Cypriots was also significant.

The Suez Crisis of 1956, in which Britain (and France) attacked Egypt in response to the latter’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, saw a major display of British military power, particularly naval strength and amphibious capability. Much of the Egyptian air force was destroyed as a result of air attack on its bases, and helicopter-borne troops were used by the British in the invasion. American opposition, which underlined the vulnerability of the British economy, was crucial, however, in weakening British resolve, and led to a humiliating withdrawal. The American government felt that the invasion needlessly compromised Western interests in the Third World, particularly the Middle East, and were, more generally, opposed to the retention of colonies and imperial habits by European powers. The British were therefore far more successful when they attacked Egypt in 1882 than in 1956. In 1882, there had been an enormous capability gap at sea, but a far smaller one on land. In 1956, in contrast, British forces could draw on far superior air power (although a lack of practice was held responsible for low bombing standards), while the availability of parachutists greatly expanded the range of possible “landings,” and thus enhanced the risk posed to the defenders. Nevertheless, the contrast between 1882 and 1956 indicated a major shift in Western attitudes toward force projection, both by one’s own state and by others.

Failure in the Suez Crisis indeed marked the end of Britain’s resolve to act independently; and, from then, there was an implicit reliance on American acceptance, as in the Falklands War in 1982. Furthermore, the pace of decolonization dramatically increased after Suez. This was largely due to a shift in attitude within the Conservative governments of 1951- 1964, but defense factors did play a role. Colonies now appeared less necessary in defense terms, not only because of alliance with the United States, but also because, in 1957, Britain had added hydrogen to the atomic bomb.

Military deployments, nevertheless, continued in the defense and protection of the formal and the informal empire-particularly in Jordan (1958), Kuwait (1961), Brunei (1962), Malaysia (1963-1966), Aden (1963- 1967), East Africa (1964),36 Anguilla (1969), and Oman (1970-1976)37- and this was related to an ambitious sense of British power, one that was in no way restricted to NATO roles. Malaysia, a state composed of former British colonies, was attacked by neighboring Indonesia. The crisis began in 1962 with the Indonesian-supported Brunei revolt, which was suppressed by British forces from the Singapore garrison. President Sukarno of Indonesia then turned on the neighboring, Malaysian, part of Borneo. The Indonesians had good weapons, especially antipersonnel mines and rocket launchers, but the British and Commonwealth forces were well led, had well-trained, versatile troops, and benefited from complete command of air and sea. The British made effective use of helicopters, had a good nearby base at Singapore, and an excellent intelligence network, and were helped by the absence of significant domestic opposition to the commitment. This contrasted with the American position in Vietnam, but the struggle there was longer and more intractable. The British used a flexible response system to counter Indonesian excursions, and, eventually, followed up with cross-border operations of their own, putting the Indonesians on the defensive. Indonesian attempts to exploit tensions within Malaya by landing forces by sea and sending parachutists there failed. Anglo-Malaysian firmness prevented the situation deteriorating, and a change of government in Indonesia in the winter of 1965-1966 led to negotiations.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version