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1,600 Civilians Killed by British Forces Since 1945 is ‘Tip of the Iceberg’

New data on civilian killings by British forces in colonial wars of independence, plus more recent conflicts, exposes the gaps in our knowledge of recent military history

During the Mau Mau insurgency, British soldiers killed at least 144 civilians. Photo: Interfoto/Alamy

1,600 Civilians Killed by British Forces Since 1945 is ‘Tip of the Iceberg’

New data on civilian killings by British forces in colonial wars of independence, plus more recent conflicts, exposes the gaps in our knowledge of recent military history

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More than 1,600 civilians reportedly lost their lives in all the conflicts where British military forces were engaged since 1945 – and thousands more likely endured torture and degrading treatment and many deaths went unrecorded, a new report has found.

Data from the charity Action On Armed Violence (AOAV) has calculated the numbers of civilians killed by the British military in active fighting since the end of the Second World War by consulting a range of sources, including historical documents, government reports, and media articles.

It found at least 1,620 deaths, with many conflicts – especially in the immediate post-war years – showing a marked absence of recorded fatalities.

Due to the chaos of war and the fact that many of the conflicts in the decades since the Second World War were colonial wars of independence, it found that, where the British governed with a policy known as “legal lawlessness”, the true figure could be far higher. 

During the Kenya emergency that took place between 1952 and 1956, for instance, AOAV recorded 144 confirmed civilian killings by British military personnel during the emergency. Other less-specific sources, however, put the figure closer to 2,000 civilian deaths along with the killing of over 10,000 Mau Mau fighters – although not all the civilians would have been killed by British forces.

In 2012, survivors of the Mau Mau emergency became the first victims of colonialism to be awarded compensation for their treatment at the hands of the British. The abuse they endured during the conflict included the use of castration, systematic beatings, rape, and sexual assault, all of which were known about and sanctioned at the top levels of the British Government.

Out of the PictureThe Two Sides of British Kenya

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The conflict with the highest number of confirmed civilian killings by British soldiers was in Greece, when between December 1944 and August 1949 the British killed 451 men, women and children. This may be because of better recording of the dead in Greece, compared to in conflicts such as Kenya or Aden.

AOAV recorded 38 civilians confirmed killed by British forces during the Malayan emergency between June 1948 and July 1960, where communist forces fought for independence from British rule. These included the massacre of 24 unarmed rubber plantation workers. The treatment of Malay people during this bloody conflict went beyond civilian killings and included torture, imprisonment, and ‘divide and rule’ policies. 

Iain Overton, executive director of the charity, said: “There has not been a systemic attempt to record or capture the overall impact on civilians in Britain’s numerous conflicts since 1945. This research was designed not just to record the known dead, but also to highlight the immense gaps in historical knowledge about the impact the UK’s wars has had on civilians around the world. Without capturing the dead, we fail to learn from the lessons learnt from each tragedy.”

Decades of Death

The total number of civilians confirmed as killed by British military personnel during the post-war period in conflicts related to colonialism and increased calls for national independence was 416 – although this number increases if you include Northern Ireland, where 188 civilians were killed by British forces. 

These were the 1945-48 Palestine conflict (25); the Malay emergency (38); the Canal Zone conflict (2); the Mau Mau insurgency (144); the wars in Cyprus (16), Jordan (1), and Brunei (1); the Suez crisis (163); and the conflict in Aden (26). 

The killings of civilians in Northern Ireland included the massacre of 26 unarmed civilians in Derry in 1972, where teenage boys were among the dead. It also includes the Ballymurphy massacre, where 11 civilians were killed by British soldiers in Belfast over three days. Of those killed in the period known as The Troubles, 29 were children. 

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During the post-colonial era – from and including the 1982 Falklands War – British military forces have killed 565 civilians, with the highest total in Afghanistan, where at least 298 non-combatant men, women and children were killed. The data is based on claims register data, where survivors and the bereaved claim compensation for family members killed. One raid in 2008 led to 18 civilian killings, of which seven were children

A recent BBC investigation – in collaboration with AOAV – found that British Special Forces had repeatedly killed Afghan detainees, with one Special Air Services (SAS) unit accused of unlawfully killing 54 people in one six-month tour. Those killed would not necessarily have been classed as civilians, but the shocking findings reveal the levels of deadly force and violence during the long conflict.

Iraq has the second-highest rate of civilian killings in the post-colonial era. AOAV found that 107 civilians had lost their lives as a result of British military actions. The total increased to 237 when the first Gulf War was included. Some of those deaths were the result of cruel treatment of civilian detainees by British soldiers, including 26-year-old Baha Mousa who died after being subjected to food and sleep deprivation, hooding, and stress positions by British troops in 2003.

The most recent civilian killings by British military personnel occurred during the conflict against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Airstrikes by British forces killed 26 individuals, of which nearly half (12) were killed in one incident in summer 2017.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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