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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Now moving on from the RAF'S involvement in Malay we come to Kenya, which is the next major conflict that the RAF has to deal with overseas. And Ross, how did the RAF become involved in the Mau Mau conflict in Kenya between 1953 and 1955?

Skip to 0 minutes and 25 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Well of course, the Mau Mau Rebellion breaks out in '52, filters on to about '60, but sort of ends in '56, is really when the rebellion ends. The RAF become involved because just like in Malaya there is a need to support the troops on the ground. So it's performing many of the similar roles that it's doing in the Malayan campaign-- troop transport, air mobility, close air support roles in attack , that sort of thing. The major problem in Kenya is actually a lack of resources. And linked to that is the challenge of RAF Eastleigh, the key airbase in East Africa, which is quite high elevation and has quite a short runaway. There are a few challenges ongoing.

Skip to 1 minute and 7 secondsI mean, indeed actually the RAF in Kenya end up using Harvard trainers equipped with small capacity bombs in the strike role. But eventually we do see the deployment of some Lincoln bombers, which is the one behind us from Bomber Command, and also Vampires deployed from Aden to support the ongoing campaign against the Mau Mau rebellion.

Skip to 1 minute and 32 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: OK, now you mentioned RAF Eastleigh in a different context. Maintaining civilian links to the Empire, the former Empire, was the background of some of the British government decisions. So we see the VC10 being designed as a passenger aircraft and being able to land at what was RAF Eastleigh and became, I think it's Moi in the long run. But that's a broader sort of post-imperial consideration.

Skip to 2 minutes and 4 secondsROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, of course, one of the elements of the design of VC10 is yeah, its ability to get into difficult airport stations around the Empire. And of course, Eastleigh is a key example of that.

Skip to 2 minutes and 19 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Now getting back to the '53 to '55 period, what role did the RAF play?

Skip to 2 minutes and 24 secondsROSS MAHONEY: As I mentioned, air mobility is a key area. We are using Lincoln bombers to bomb Mau Mau positions. So as we talked about with Malaya, it's very much those same sort of roles, just in a much smaller scale.

Skip to 2 minutes and 37 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: OK Ross, thank you for that one. So we have another example of the RAF helping to support parts of the Empire as they transfer from imperial control to democracy, and to a lesser degree, dealing with some of the geopolitics of communist insurgency that we do see elsewhere in the world during this period. Thank you, let's move on from here.


The Mau Mau conflict

In this video we consider the following questions and comments:

  1. How did the RAF become involved in the Mau Mau conflict in Kenya 1953-55?

  2. What role did the RAF play during the conflict?

  3. The elevation of RAF Eastleigh (now Moi) presented the RAF with some technical issues - and in the longer term influences the development of the VC-10.

Please raise your own issues in the comments which follow.

The Harvards in Kenya

Ross mentioned the use of the Harvard trainer in Kenya. These were hardly designed for an offensive role. Here is an account of their actions in the field.

Sebastian Richie. The RAF, Small Wars and Insurgencies: Later Colonial Operations, 1945-1975, Air Media Centre: London, 2011: 33-39.

Some accounts maintain that the British response to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the mid-1950s provides an illustration of how the ‘Malayan model’ was drawn on to suppress insurgencies elsewhere. … By 1953, the active wing of the Kikuyu rebel movement could commit between 12,000 and 15,000 men to their campaign to recover farmland lost to white settlers, but this force was sustained by a ‘passive’ wing that numbered perhaps another 30,000, including elements of Kenya’s urban population. …

When a State of Emergency was declared in October 1952, the RAF were even more strapped for resources than the Army, and their presence in Kenya was virtually non-existent – a single airfield (Eastleigh) and a communications flight of one Proctor, two Ansons and a Valetta. ….1340 Flight RAF, which comprised eight Harvard trainers, … made available in theatre in March 1953… The Harvards were adapted to provide a basic offensive capability in the form of a single Browning .303 machine gun and bomb racks capable of carrying 20lb fragmentation bombs … 1340 Flight flew predominantly in a ground-attack role… … 1340 Flight, while they could provide direct fire support and fly harassing missions similar to those mounted in Malaya, they could also be despatched to execute independent air strikes … A typical week’s work in July 1953 involved some 56 attacks, 21 in support of ground operations and 35 independent missions targeting suspected rebel hideouts in the Aberdares. …

The impact of air operations during the Mau Mau rebellion has never been easy [to assess] … [T]here were those who claimed that air operations were at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. This would hardly be surprising given the constraints imposed by the environment and the weather, the fact that the Harvards were not designed for use as offensive platforms, that their 20lb bombs, intended for operations in open country, produced minimal kinetic effect in dense jungle environments, and that few 1340 Flight personnel had much experience in the field of offensive or tactical air support.

Yet it is important to note that the Harvards only deployed to Kenya at all in response to Army requests for air support, and it is notable that Erskine reached the conclusion after a few months that he needed more – not less – offensive air power. At the very least, their non-kinetic impact is known to have been significant. The rebels were compelled to split up into smaller groups and to stay on the move, and (as in Malaya) there was some evidence of increased surrender and desertion due to air action.

… [A] request for more air support led in November 1953 to the deployment of a detachment of heavy Lincoln bombers to Kenya. Their initial operations were mounted on a trial basis to test the psychological effect of heavy bombing on the Mau Mau. … The Lincolns’ primary contribution was of course the massive increase in firepower that they provided. A report by 39 Infantry Brigade in December 1953 stated that ‘Harvard bombing had a negligible damage effect.’ By contrast, ‘the craters made by the Lincolns averaged 12ft deep and 25ft in diameter. The devastated area extended to a radius of 80 yards and some spoil carried over 100 yards.’

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This video is from the free online course:

From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

Royal Holloway, University of London