The Colonial Roots Of British Military Operations During The Troubles

By James Kinchin-White

(I have been meaning to post this for some time but other matters intervened. It is a great piece, well worth the read – EM)

The effect of Britain’s colonial past is key to understanding the often disastrous impact of political policy and military tactics on the Northern Ireland Troubles between 1970-75 (the definitive years that established the relationship between the community and the British army).

The origin, structure and tactics of British covert forces during that early period of Operation Banner (the longest deployment of the British Army in history) can be traced back to their operations in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden.

In the early 1920s, RIC, Auxiliaries and Black and Tans recruited directly from Ireland provided the backbone for the British Palestinian Gendarmerie. Records show that many of these men were approached for recruitment while still serving in Ireland and eventually numbered over 700.

Military structures in Palestine, close cousins to the forts that were constructed during the Troubles

The British Gendarmerie morphed into the Palestinian Police ater 1926 and from this one of the first covert reaction units (as opposed to a purely intelligence gathering unit) was led by then Captain Ord Wingate in 1938.
Wingates ‘Special Night Squads’ subsequently became the model adopted by Nicol Grey (Inspector General Palestine Police 1946-48 and former Lt. Col. Royal Marine Commando WWII)

Grey appointed Brigadier Bernard Fergusson in 1947 to recruit ex British special forces officers to lead the new ‘Special Squads’. One was led by then Captain Roy Farran and the other by Captain Alistair McGregor (father of Captain Hamis McGregor who was to be one of the commanders of the highly controversial Mobile Reaction Force (MRF) in Belfast in 1972).

The Palestine Special Squads used tactics that would not be dissimilar to those subsequently employed by the MRF and in a further extraordinary anecdotal episode, the then Lt. Colin Mitchell of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders (later better known as Mad Mitch of Aden and Crater fame 1967), was involved in ‘procuring’ a Laundry Van for the Special Squads to use for covert surveillance and transport.

This fort could have been in South Armagh but it was actually built by British troops in Palestine

It was the subsequent use of a Laundry Van by the MRF in Belfast that was to partly lead to the units downfall. In MRFs Four Square Laundry operation, Sapper Ted Stewart, from Strabane, and Lance Corporal Sarah Jane Warke were ambushed in Turf Lodge after the operation had been discovered by PIRA intelligence. Stewart was killed and Warke narrowly escaped.

Following the withdrawal from Palestine in 1948, around 500 former British Palestinian Police were recruited to form a ‘Special Constrbulary’ in Malya while others were sent to Kenya (the latter included one of the two Palestinian ‘Special Squad’ Sergeants who assisted Farran to escape from custody during his flight from the consequences of the murder of Alexander Rubowitz (Ceserani, 2009).

During the Troubles, the construction of border (and urban) fortresses were a mere modernization of the ‘Tegart Forts’ built in Palestine and their purpose was virtually identical. (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19019949). Somewhat ironically, Charles Tegart was born in Derry and though the Troubles era structures have largely been demolished, Tegart’s Palestinian Forts have survived and now lie mostly within the borders of Israel.
According the the BBC, Tegart had other ‘colonial skills’:

His methods wouldn’t stand up to much modern scrutiny. Long before the world hit upon the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques“, he was reputed to take a violent and uncompromising way with detainees.


The first troops deployed in Derry on 14 August 1969 unfurled their ‘Do not cross this line’ banners perhaps to the bemusement of the crowd since they were written in Arabic and last used in Aden (Major M. Sullivan, Prince of Wales Own Regiment of Yorkshire in Walsh, A. 2015 ‘Belfast 69’).

There is a wealth of such information that connects British colonial policy and military tactics with the debacle that was the early period of Op Banner and which must take a major share of the causes of a war that went on far too long.

Employment contract of an ex-RIC man (a Black and Tan) joining the Palestinian police

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