Book review: Kenya Cowboy

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The Kenyan “Emergency” of the 1950s was one of a number of nasty insurgencies and counterinsurgencies the British faced in the wake of World War Two.
Britain faced a number of insurgencies at the time, principally in Malaya, Cyprus; in addition to the last phase of the Korean War and the Suez intervention of 1956: Quite a handful for a bankrupt United Kingdom.

The principal consequence was that the colonial authorities in Kenya were largely left to their own devices. At peak, five British battalions were deployed in theatre along with six of the King`s African Rifles. They were augmented by the whites-only Kenya Regiment and a plethora of reserve and auxiliary formations, including the Kikuyu Home Guard (KHG), who suffered the bulk of the government casualties.

As behoves a properly constituted counterinsurgency, the ultimately successful struggle against the Mau Mau relied heavily on the KHG and the Kenya Police Force and particularly the latter`s paramilitary formations, largely staffed by “supernumerary” short-service sub-inspectors, effectively hired from anywhere in the Empire for the duration of hostilities. These young officers, who were given six weeks of police and paramilitary training were quickly nicknamed the Kenya Cowboys. Among their number was a former Fleet Air Arm rating Peter Hewitt, the Kenya Cowboy of the title.  
Hewitt arrived in Kenya in the autumn of 1953 and was posted to a police training establishment at Gilgil on the edge of the Rift Valley. The facility was most rough-and-ready but did provide the training the young counterinsurgents needed.    
We next meet Hewitt at Hermann`s Post, a tiny police “fort” on the property of one Alec Hermann, a farmer on the so-called “White Highlands” that were opened to European settlement after WW2 and which was a major theatre of insurgent activity. Hewitt tells us that the locating of actual Mau Mau gangs was “a game of chance with the odds stacked against [the police at forest posts such as his].” This being the case, the primary task of a police officer such as himself, his sergeant and fifteen reserve constables (commonly called Askaris) was to prevent Mau Mau gangs from “becoming too comfortably ensconced.” The gangs – whose bushcraft were impeccable – had to be continually harried and denied food, access to farm labourers, farm stores and the like. Aggressive patrolling also had as an aim discovering and destroying “their cunningly situated hideouts.” The primary task, says Hewitt, “was to purge one`s area and maintain it so. The young inspector had to ensure that his farmers and their staff could go about their normal and lawful activity … in peace, that their losses through Mau Mau were kept to a minimum, and any inconvenience they were caused was not caused with impunity.”
In early 1955 Hewitt was assigned to command a tracker combat team (TCT) and take a more active role in combating the insurgents. His TCT quickly started scoring successes, often assisted by recently captured or surrendered insurgents. Hewitt would take the man back into the field and “systematically and hopefully take him over all the ground covered by him and his gang during the immediately preceding weeks. … At every stage of his singular association with the team I displayed a keen interest in the way he lived and the raids he participated in.” Often such insurgents would lead a TCT onto a gang, or at least onto a hot trail.
The TCTs must, of course not be confused with the equally successful pseudo-gangster teams set up by Special Branch to emulate and destroy insurgent gangs, a tactic later perfected in the Rhodesian Bush War by the Selous Scouts. From Hewitt`s telling the TCT concept worked very well and may well be worth further study. The use of pseudo-gangs also had a telling effect, making gangs suitably wary of each other and also upping the level of paranoia within gangs. Soon, leaders were decimating their numbers by executing followers on the slightest of suspicions, which increased the rate of desertion, which reinforced the paranoia and led to another round of deaths. As a consequence, by the end of 1956, the Mau Mau had been comprehensively defeated.                
                   
It should be noted that two factors that certainly assisted the counterinsurgents, was that the Mau Mau infestation was somewhat geographically contained, allowing the authorities to mass their forces to telling effect. The second was that the Mau Mau had no external base. Ultimately they had no foreign sponsor, little access to adequate finances and armament and no strategic rear area safe from attack. The Mau Mau were probably doomed from the start.      
That said, the conflict and Hewitt`s account is food for thought and shows how an insurgency can be beaten.
Peter Hewitt
Kenya Cowboy, 3rd Edition
300 South Publishers
Johannesburg
2008