Frank Kitson and the myth of the counter-insurgent

  • Themes: History, War

Frank Kitson was lauded for his prowess in counter-insurgency, but those who celebrate his legacy should question whether his tactics ultimately exacerbated the violence he sought to stop.

Frank Kitson in Beirut, October 1983.
Frank Kitson in Beirut, October 1983. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Frank Kitson, who died on 2 January 2024, was the architect of ideas of counter-insurgency that have been implemented, condemned and venerated throughout the world and across the political spectrum. Yet, although the British general’s contributions to military doctrine have been often quoted, they are little read or properly understood.

Kitson was born in London on 15 December 1926. His father, Vice Admiral Sir Henry Kitson, was a war hero who fought in the First and Second World Wars, and his mother, Marjorie, was the only daughter of Sir Eliot de Pass, a wealthy merchant involved in imperial trade in the West Indies. The marriage symbolised the fusion of the imperial pillars of military service and free trade, with Frank Kitson’s early life intimately shaped by the social structure of empire.

Kitson joined the Rifle Brigade in 1945, spending the last days of the Second World War in England before being posted to the British Army on the Rhine in West Germany. He would later complain about his time in Europe, which he said encapsulated everything he hated about soldiering. His unhappiness was soon replaced by a feeling of excitement when he was posted to Kenya to work with the local police, who had been facing a growing revolt by the Kikuyu ethnic group and the Mau Mau insurgency, which emerged as a dissident challenge to the Kenyan African Union (KAU) led by Jomo Kenyatta.

The Mau Mau revolt against the British colonial authorities in Kenya in the early 1950s came at a time when the European imperial powers were contracting around the world. Britain faced challenges to its rule on several fronts, including in Malaya and Cyprus. The governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, even visited Kuala Lumpur to learn how the authorities there were fighting insurgents from the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). Returning to Nairobi with a ‘Malaya Plan’, Baring decided to form a ‘war cabinet’ that would preside over the decisions taken by joint civil-military-police committees at provincial and district level. The Kenyan police’s Special Branch division was to be the eyes and ears of these committees, working in conjunction with the army, the colonial administration and MI5 to provide intelligence on the insurgents. The individuals directly responsible for liaison with the committees were the District Military Intelligence Officers (DMIOs).

Frank Kitson arrived in Kenya in August 1953 for a two-year posting as a DMIO. He was attached to the Special Branch headquarters responsible for the region of Kiambu. Kitson’s work centred on the concept of ‘pseudo-gangs’, who would pose as Mau Mau fighters to draw out the enemy from the forests and mountains. The idea revolved around complementary and overlapping tactics, such as the capture and interrogation of Mau Mau suspects, payment of informers, the turning of Mau Mau fighters to become trackers, and the management of a vast card index on suspects. It was Kitson’s leadership, however – particularly in directing these small teams – that enabled them to provide the security forces with the intelligence necessary to locate the enemy.

Frank Kitson reflected in his memoir Gangs and Counter-Gangs (1960): ‘In some cases the presence of the leader acts also as a spur to the efforts of those below him, but in my case that was not necessary’; he maintained that his subordinates were self-motivated and dedicated, which made his job easier. Kitson’s second in command, Dennis Kearney, was a member of the Kenya Regiment on loan to the police. He spoke fluent Kikuyu and Swahili and, as Kitson observed, his ‘chief characteristic, other than his enthusiasm for slaughtering Mau Mau, was his liking for practical jokes’.

Despite his reputation for no-nonsense, counter-insurgency tactics, Kitson was not beyond indulging in a form of cultural relativism. In one incident he hired a witch doctor to participate in the interrogation of a Mau Mau fighter, who then led Kitson and his team to a weapons cache. ‘Telepathy is a widely accepted accomplishment and that is the only acceptable explanation I can give’, Kitson later wrote. He was awarded the Military Cross in the 1955 New Year’s Honours in recognition of his role in building up an effective intelligence machinery to defeat the insurgency in the areas where he had been deployed.

Kitson’s next deployment was to Malaya. The Malayan Emergency began in 1948, when insurgents from the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), the fighting arm of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), turned their guns on the British colonial authorities. Their objective was to use guerrilla warfare as a means of securing independence. Following the Communists’ assassination of High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney on a lonely mountain road above Kuala Lumpur in 1951, Winston Churchill, as prime minister, appointed General Sir Gerald Templer to take the fight to the Communists. Templer’s success against the insurgents was not instant, however, and he left without eliminating them.

In the summer of 1957, Kitson found himself in charge of a company of troops coordinating operations against the Communists in west Segamat, along the Johore-Malacca border. Kitson fought bravely and was rewarded with a bar to his Military Cross. His citation noted that he had ‘always been to the fore leading his troops against the terrorists’ and possessed ‘almost uncanny skill’ by which he ‘conducted these operations’, winning ‘the complete confidence of everyone acting under his command or in concert with him’. His troops killed half of the MNLA fighters they were sent to destroy, meaning ‘two complete Malayan Communist Party branches… virtually ceased to exist’.

From Malaya, Kitson went to Muscat in Oman, where he met with the commanding officer of the Special Air Service (SAS), Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Deane-Drummond, to advise him on Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) that the SAS might use in their operations against rebels in the mountainous Jebel Akhdar region.

Kitson’s driver on this occasion was Major Malcolm Dennison, an intelligence officer on secondment to the Sultan’s armed forces, who later offered considerable insight into Kitson’s thinking on his counter-insurgency plan for defeating the rebels as they drove from Muscat to Nizwa. ‘I poured cold water on it’, recalled Dennison. ‘To me it smacked too much of fighting the Mau Mau, to which he made frequent reference – jungle squads, turned-round rebels, disguised British officers. He was insufficiently aware of local conditions – scant cover, very little water, no British officers who pass off as Omanis. I could see he regarded me as pretty negative, another case of what you call Jebelitis. But he impressed me nonetheless. Here was a man with a logical mind.’

There could be no doubting that his military superiors also saw Kitson as an impressive thinker on military strategy. He had built up a firm reputation in the Ministry of Defence, leading those involved in directing military operations to ‘regularly seek his opinions and advice’ because of his ‘reputation for realistic and practical good sense, and for helpful and reliable hard work’. Interestingly, the senior general who wrote Kitson’s citation for his OBE was Cecil Blacker, who had commanded 39 Airportable Brigade in Lisburn, in Northern Ireland, in 1962-64 and would rise up through the ranks to become the army’s Adjutant General in the early 1970s. The brigade had been operationally deployed to Cyprus and Kenya in the 1950s and South Arabia (later South Yemen) from May to October 1964. With recommendations by senior officers like this, it is unsurprising that Kitson would find himself on a similar trajectory, even assuming command of Blacker’s old brigade in the early stages of the Northern Ireland Troubles in September 1970.

In the late 1960s protest marches in Northern Ireland sought to highlight discrimination against the Catholic minority in employment, housing and electoral politics. Sectarian clashes led to a deterioration in the security situation. The local police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), were unable to contain the violence and requested British military assistance in August 1969. The army deployed and 39 Brigade became responsible for operations in Belfast, the largest city in the province.

A major concern for Kitson at this time was the looming prospect of civil disturbances giving way to insurrection. As Kitson himself observed in his much-cited, though little read, book Low Intensity Operations (1971), published a year after he arrived in Northern Ireland:

‘If subversion fails to achieve the aim, it merges imperceptibly into insurrection, which at one end of the scale covers the activities of small sabotage or terrorist groups but which spreads across the operational spectrum to include the activities of large groups of armed men. If these gangs become sufficiently numerous and well-armed to take on the forces of the government in open combat on relatively even terms, insurgency merges into orthodox civil war, because at this stage force has again become the senior partner.’

In his important new study of army operations in Northern Ireland, Uncivil War, Huw Bennett has cautioned against the temptation of reading too much into the colonial model adopted by some army officers, including Frank Kitson. While they were prepared to take forward certain ideas from their colonial experience, ‘which seemed to have some validity, such as ideas about riot control’, they were also aware ‘that many colonial techniques were now unacceptable’. Nevertheless, the contention of Kitson’s critics is that he pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in taking his war to Britain’s enemies wherever they were to be found.

One of the most controversial episodes in the Troubles was the formation of the Military Reconnaissance Force (MRF). The British army’s Intelligence Corps Museum has recently revealed that this highly secretive unit was known internally as the ‘Mobile Reaction Force’, ‘a small unit of approximately 40 soldiers’, who were ‘tasked with sowing division with [sic.] PIRA ranks and gaining intelligence via double agents, front companies and undercover surveillance’. Despite claims to the contrary by Kitson’s critics, he does not seem to have had a hand in the disbandment of the MRF and the setting up of its replacement, given he had already left Northern Ireland in May 1972 prior to any reorganisation taking place. Moreover, it could even be argued that Kitson’s tenure in Northern Ireland was too short-lived to have any meaningful strategic impact. Looking at his time in command of 39 Brigade, it is perhaps more accurate to see it as a failure, especially given Kitson presided over a massive upswing in violence on the streets. British policy at the time had been focused on de-escalating conflict.

In a lecture at the US Army War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in late January 1973, Frank Kitson looked back at his time in Northern Ireland, evaluating the threat posed by the IRA and the efforts he took to defeat them. Apart from a reasonably good general insight into Irish history and the dynamics of militant republicanism, Kitson lamented the lack of actionable intelligence, which took far too long to filter down from Special Branch headquarters to his troops. It threw the ‘fundamental difficulty posed by insurgency in a vivid light’, Kitson told his audience, which he thought was the inability of the Catholic community to ‘express itself freely or respond to moves by the government once a terrorist organisation becomes established within it’. In an observation shared by later generations of army officers, he acknowledged how the pursuit of the defeat of the IRA was theoretically possible, though in practice it risked alienating the population by doing so. Kitson was remarkably prescient in his observation that the IRA could turn any heavy-handed tactics by the army into a propaganda coup. Despite his pragmatic disposition on this occasion, Kitson did not address the question of whether he might have had a guiding hand in driving opposition to army operations.

Insurgency was regarded as more than a military problem by the British army long before Kitson applied his own TTPs to try and combat it. What made Kitson’s approach so different was that he advocated evaluating every insurgency on its merits; in his words, ‘without regard to customs, doctrine or drill’. However, while he had applied his model in Malaya in a way that relied on locating and neutralising a jungle-based enemy, his application of the same techniques in the heavily urbanised city of Belfast, where the insurgents moved among the people, had mixed results. When he was summoned on 24 September 2002 to give evidence at Lord Saville’s Tribunal into the events of Bloody Sunday it was clear his reputation as a practitioner of the dark arts of counter-insurgency loomed large in his cross-examination by legal counsel. In what may have been a sign of false modesty, Kitson told the inquiry: ‘you keep saying I am a… counter-insurgency expert, [though] this is on the strength of my year… on the defence fellowship at Oxford. I do not think anyone else thought I was more of an expert than they were themselves’.

The problem for Kitson, however, was that the label of ‘counter-insurgency expert’ had a sticky quality to it. A few years after he gave evidence to Lord Saville’s Tribunal, an army officer, responsible for drafting the updated doctrine on counter-insurgency, observed that ‘Kitson’s influence on Army thinking was considerable, introducing novel approaches as a brigade commander in Northern Ireland, commandant of the Staff College, a divisional commander and, finally, as Commander-in-Chief United Kingdom Land Forces’. On Kitson’s contemporary influence, one former officer told me in relation to his reading of Low Intensity Operations in 1971 how some people read it while others ignored it. It is also worth considering how a stubborn culture of what the military historian Michael Howard once called a ‘complacent anti-intellectualism’ has periodically afflicted the British army and was at least partly to blame for the strategic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Irish republicans Frank Kitson’s name conjures up an evil genius who used overly oppressive means to try and stamp out their insurgency. There is little point in challenging this one-dimensional characterisation, given the power of ethnic myth-making and the IRA’s propensity for armed propaganda. For those who prefer to closely examine the historical record, including Kitson’s own writings on counter-insurgency, there is evidence of an inconsistency in his ideas. When considered alongside his own self-deprecating style, false modesty and, as the army’s own folk wisdom goes, blunt, sardonic personality, it is tempting to read too much into his influence. That said, there can be no doubting Kitson was representative of a knee-jerk tendency within the British army when dealing with irregular adversaries to rush highly improvised approaches from the past to new frontlines. Frank Kitson’s legacy, therefore, will forever be mired in controversy for as long as that continues.

When US military officers and their civilian advisors came to draft their own counter-insurgency doctrine amid the Iraq intervention after 2003, Kitson’s Low Intensity Operations was hastily retrieved from military academy libraries and rushed to the front. According to the US Field Manual 3-24, Kitson’s work was seen as an ‘explanation of the British school of counterinsurgency from one of its best practitioners’. Writing in a US Army War College in-house journal Parameters – 30 years after Kitson’s speech at the same institution – military historian Robert R. Tomes noted how ‘students of ongoing efforts in Iraq will benefit from Kitson’s comparison of counterinsurgencies and peacekeeping’. This observation was, ironically, something that might have been taken on board more seriously by British forces responsible for security in Basra in Iraq. At the time they were struggling to contain the violence from a multitude of bad actors, including Shia militias, disgruntled Baathists and elements of the growing Sunni insurgency.

It was the noted underperformance of British troops in counter-insurgency that led to one academic advisor to the US-led Coalition, Daniel Marston, to articulate a case for learning lessons not only from success but also from failure. As Kitson noted in Bunch of Five (1977), ‘ignorance or excessive diffidence in passing along such knowledge on can be disastrous’. A similar view might also be taken of Kitson’s own work as we face new and emerging challenges in irregular warfare today.


Aaron Edwards