The Controversial Legacy of Frank Kitson in Northern Ireland…

Frank Kitson has been fulsomely praised in death through a number of obituaries while others have damned him over what is widely seen as his background role in the Ballymurphy massacre (August 1971) and in the killings at Derry on Bloody Sunday(1972).

Frank Kitson had joined the Rifle Brigade as he was turning twenty in the months after the end of WWII. In choosing a career in the Army he had gone against a family tradition of naval service that at that time had spanned two centuries; his chronic asthma had made naval service an impossibility. Inevitably, in entering the army just after WWII , his career developed during the slow collapse of the British Empire in the decades following the war After initial training the first seven years of his military service was spent on the Rhine in BAOR as a junior officer.

With the outbreak of the “Kenya uprising” he was promoted to the rank of captain and posted to Kenya ,serving there from 1953-55. Despite having little previous training in intelligence, he became district military intelligence officer at the predominantly Kikuyu province of Kiambu with an attachment to the Special Branch of the local police. Kiambu was an epicentre of the Mau-mau rebellion, due to extensive local land seizures white settlers. When he arrived the evolving counter-insurgency strategies employed by Britain in Kenya already involved shocking levels of torture and state sponsored killing. This has been recently exposed in the archival researches of the American academic, Caroline Elkins. To this, Kitson brought a developing awareness that such conflicts were not going to be brought to their desired conclusion by physical force alone, but primarily through a highly controlled management of the public perceptions of the insurgency, both in Kenya itself and through the world’s media. The following year found him promoted to major and acting as the military intelligence officer for the Nairobi Area. In the course of his field service in Kenya he was awarded an MC.

In an army noted for its ingrained anti-intellectualism, Kitson rapidly developed a reputation as a counter-insurgency theorist and he was posted to Malaya during the Emergency in 1957, where he added a bar to his initial MC… The following year 1958, he was seconded to Muscat and Oman to assist the Sultan against a localised revolt. After a period acting as an instructor in Britain, he served two further stints in Cyprus, 1963-64 and 1967-68. His experience in these theatres of conflict had offered him ample opportunities to experimentally test out many of the ideas of the highly influential post war French counter-insurgency theorists.

France’s experiences in colonial wars in Indo-China (Vietnam) and in North Africa (Algeria) had produced a new generation of military theoreticians in counter-insurgency strategies; notable amongst the were Roger Trinquier and David Galula. Trinquier , whose work in Modern Warfare is quoted extensively by Kitson, had served during the First Indochina War and the Algerian War and Galula had served in Algeria from 1956-58. Galula had spent time in China during the Communist takeover and his “four rules on counter-insurgency” reflect Mao Zedung who had argued that “revolutionary war is 80 percent political action and only 20 percent military. Galula had recommended that …

  1. The aim of the war is to gain the support of the population rather than control of territory.
  2. Most of the population will be neutral in the conflict; support of the masses can be obtained with the help of an active friendly minority.
  3. Support of the population may be lost. The population must be efficiently protected to allow it to cooperate without fear of retribution by the opposite party.
  4. Order enforcement should be done progressively by removing or driving away armed opponents, then gaining the support of the population, and eventually strengthening positions by building infrastructure and setting long-term relationships with the population. This must be done area by area, using a pacified territory as a basis of operation to conquer a neighbouring area.


Kitson’s developing experience in Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus had shown him that low intensity counter-insurgency operations were going to succeed not primarily through the deployment of physical force alone but, in his selective reworking of Galula’s theories, were only going to be achieved through the careful management of local popular perceptions through what would become known as Psyops In contrast to Galula’s “hearts and minds” thinking a significant component of this psychological “prodding” for Kitson still continued to be recourse to crude coercion …

…..he concluded that population control was essentially about coercion and raising the costs for disloyalty, not winning by ideas: ‘conditions can be made reasonably uncomfortable for the population as a whole . . . to act as a deterrent towards a resumption of the campaign’. With regard to the classic Maoist formula that the relationship between guerrillas and their supporting community was akin to that between fish and water, Kitson observed: ‘If a fish has got to be destroyed it can be attacked directly by rod or net . . . But if rod and net cannot succeed by themselves it may be necessary to do something to the water . . .’. Conceivably, he surmised, this could extend to ‘polluting the water’. 

Kitson had been given a Defence Fellowship at University College Oxford where he had started writing what would be published as Low Intensity Operations. He had already incorporated selected elements of Galula’s psychological approach into his own theoretic model when he was given an opportunity to offer a practical demonstration of his theories with posting to Northern Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the Conservative election victory of June 1970. The decision to deploy Kitson was in part due to Heath’s personal interest in his writings . This new posting offered Kitson the rare opportunity of being offered a personal testing ground for his counter-insurgency theories that had been first formulated in an entirely colonial setting, but could now be tried out on ordinary western European people on the city streets of first world towns. As Adeyinka Makinde has argued….

Kitson’s philosophy and activities in Northern Ireland is also important to consider in the context of Britain at the time. This is because he believed that there was a strong possibility that the breakdown in law and order in Northern Ireland could be mirrored in the rest Britain and that the tactics employed there would be required on the mainland.

His experimental findings during his Belfast service seemingly addressed the developing fear of conservative western governments that the growing student and worker unrest of the 1960s would lead to an open revolution against the established order. This fear was greatly supported by the unexpected overthrow of De Gaulle following the 1968 Paris disturbances, an event which appeared to be establishing a new pattern of radical unrest. When the unwavering resistance of Northern Irish loyalism against constitutionalist demands for political equality and civil rights in the province had driven unrest onto the streets, it appeared that Loyalist intransigence had unwittingly invoked the first serious challenge to Unionist control since partition. The inept Stormont recourse to coercion led to a final breakdown of local control of the situation. On the streets, Loyalists strove to dominate the unrest by repeating their pogrom strategies of 1920/22 and 1935. In response the Labour administration at Westminster had attempted to repeat the policies of 1920/22 to manage violence in the Northern Irish counties, to deploy the army in order to avoid an open conflict developing between Nationalists and loyalists by acting as a buffer between the two sides.

This Labour policy of containment and the development of a balanced constitutionalist settlement was never given a chance, The incoming Heath administration of June 1970 changed direction entirely from the Labour policy when Heath’s cabinet opted to return to their own version of the blunt physical force strategies that had failed in every instance from pre-war Palestine to the recent debacle in Aden. The Army had warned Westminster that it could only effectively manage to contain one “side” in any armed confrontation, and as loyalism was perceived to “offered no threat to the status quo”, management of loyalist paramilitarism could be left to the RUC to manage while the army concentrated primarily on defeating Nationalism and a resurgent physical force republicanism. Kitson’s reputation as a leading scholar/warrior in his field ensured that he was given command of 39th Airborne Brigade and posted to Northern Ireland a few months after the election, in September 1970 at Edward Heath’s express orders.

Kitson’s experiences in Kenya – described in his book Gangs and Counter-Gangs – would become the basis of the “false flag black ops” brought shortly after to the streets of Belfast in the shape of the Military Reaction Force The MRF gathered intelligence, but more controversially, instigated parallel tactics of intimidation through the assassination that were carried out on identified members of what Army command perceived as the insurgent support base. The mushrooming loyalist paramilitary groups also seem to have offered a readymade local model for similar acts of intimidation against the insurgent support, following tactics that Kitson had already developed in other theatres of conflict.

In addition, Kitson initiated a policy of strict army influenced control over the media representation of the conflict.

In order to influence opinion effectively it is necessary to control the means of communication

This was effected by what Roger Faligot described as a close censorship of reportage and the grooming of “Journalist soldiers” working closely with the Army to create a controlled narrative. This approach theoretically extended to influencing the work of the judiciary also. In Low Intensity Operations Kitson argues

The law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal and in this case it becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.

Mark McGovern in his paper “Collusion, Counterinsurgency and Colonialism: The Imperial Roots of Contemporary State Violence”, explains what this

In other words, and entirely in keeping with a ‘peculiarly British way’ of counterinsurgency, the key problem was to ensure the civil authorities generated a juridical order that allowed state agents to do ‘what was necessary’ to preserve its interests. The key question for the political system was to find ways to ensure the protection of state agents in conducting counterinsurgency operations by making, if required, what might otherwise be illegal, legal.

Kitson’s approach to the army’s management of the law and media reporting essentially made Northern Ireland a place very much apart from what were the recognised English norms of the period on such matters.

Space limits a fuller discussion of these issues buy it is important to remember that Kitson’s experimental models provided the basis of the later British counter-insurgency policy in Northern Ireland as endorsed by successive governments at Westninster and arguably may have even seriously prolonged the conflict by building a one sided conflict that entailed a policy of renewing what had been fading divisions across what Kitson himself recognised in 1971 as an essentially integrated community…

For all the polarisation of the past three years Belfast is still essentially integrated but if it is intended to keep it that way urgent steps must be taken to prevent further segregation

As the policies inspired by Kitson’s theories finally served to strategically encourage the further polarisation of political and cultural division the Irish labour politician Paddy Devlin would note that Kitson “probably did more than any other individual to sour relations between the Catholic community and the security forces” in Northern Ireland.

Ironically, Sinn Fein have been the principal beneficiaries of his model strategies. Republicans watched tactics developed with the intent of influencing their support base against them and have learnt their own counter strategies of a sophisticated psychological warfare from having to counter it. This has been carried over into their post-Agreement political policies in a manner that is looked upon with some envy by their Unionist political opponents.

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