Two years into the Mau Mau emergency, my uncle John Alldridge reported from Kenya for the Manchester Evening News in March, 1955 – Jerry F.
Tactical Force Headquarters
East Africa Command
Nyeri, Kenya, Monday
The tiny plane hangs like a hawk on the blue African sky. A thousand feet below us is the forest, a sea of olive green. Nothing moves down there.
No breath of air stirs the tight-packed foliage. It seems a dead world from which frightened man has long since fled.
We cruise around watching idly as the little aircraft throws a giant shadow cross over the dense green roof.
We do not speak, for we are infected by the uncanny silence of the silent world below.
Suddenly the radio, which has been quiet for so long, stutters into nervous life. Through a muddle of static we hear a voice coming up to us; a young voice which I would place not five miles from Leeds.
The young pilot of the Kenya Police Reserve air wing grins and points down somewhere into the wild wood.
“That will be Baker Company of the Koylis. They’ll be bellyaching again about the biscuit. Listen.”
I listened. A thousand feet below us a British sergeant in a tent, cunningly hidden by brush and plaited branches, is talking to a man he has never seen but who is as familiar and as necessary to his existence as the grocer’s boy back home in Batley.
Around him, stripped to the waist, will be three young National Servicemen, their white English skins tanned now to the colour of good coffee. They will be lounging at rest, but you will see how they cuddle their rifles.
In the forest there is time for only one shot. A thousand yards away perhaps – though it might be a thousand miles in this tangled wood – the rest of the patrol is following in Indian file along an elephant track (the elephants were here last night: you can see the fresh droppings).
Ahead of them goes their Kikuyu tracker, his impressive black face lost in the shadow. With them too goes Rex, their Alsatian tracker dog, and his handler, a beardless Royal Veterinary Corps man from Grantham.
Only the sergeant is more than 20. For the rest, six months ago the only trees they knew were the few parched plane trees in the local recreation ground.
Now they are out here in a game preserve 1,000ft up on the slopes of Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa. And the game they are hunting is the shyest game of all – desperate man.
The pilot has finished making up his ‘shopping list’. One more request for bread instead of the eternal biscuit has been duly noted – even though in this heat fresh bread is as brittle as toast after two hours in the sun.
The platoon’s situation report has been passed on to be sorted out with a mass of others by brigade intelligence far down below.
A sack of cigarettes, newspapers, mail goes twisting and turning down to those invisible men in that eternal forest.
We shall waggle our wings in good-bye and head for home – a few tents around a dusty airstrip at Nanyuki. Down in the forest Operation First Flute goes on. . . .
Reading the bare facts in your paper over breakfast tomorrow morning Operation First Flute must seem a simple straightforward affair.
Somewhere up there in the forest and moorland of Mount Kenya, their traditional hunting ground, is a handful of desperate Mau Mau terrorists. Official estimate as to their number is cautious, but 3,000 might come near enough.
They have been lying up there hiding under the great roots of ancient trees, in caves under waterfalls since Operation Hammer blasted and flushed them out of their hereditary sanctuary in the Aberdare Mountains, 20 miles to the west.
Nominally this half-starved army of guerillas, armed with a few stolen shotguns, automatics and some pathetic home-made “rifles”, is commanded by a renegade corporal of the Kings’s African Rifles, one “General” Dedan Kimathi.
But in fact this so-called Kenyan liberation army deteriorated into a score of independent self-contained gangs, linked vaguely in stubborn resistance against a common enemy.
Opposed to them are three battalions of veteran British infantry – the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, and the Rifle Brigade – three battalions of the King’s African Rifles raised here in Kenya and famous fighters on their own ground, and 2,500 Nyeri Home Guard armed with shotguns, rifles, and spears.
For close support they have a regiment of ack-ack guns and regular round-the-clock air strikes delivered by a mixed squadron of RAF Lincolns and Vampire jets.
The job of the infantry is to flush the Mau Mau out of their holes. Afterwards the RAF go in to bomb and strafe.
And they go in close, those clumsy old Lincolns. Going down to 200 feet to machine-gun the forest is no picnic, I found. That was one morning when I wanted no breakfast.
Yet the results so far of Operation First Flute – now in its third week have been disappointing to say the least.
The bag to date counts 45 Mau Mau killed and nine captured. Not much to show for a military and civilian operation which in all its phases is costing £1m a month.
How is it that a handful of starving scarecrows can defy an experienced well-equipped military force of 8,000 professionals?
There are two reasons, as I see it.
The first is the nature of the country itself. This must be the most formidable battlefield in the world – not excepting even Malaya.
From the verandas of fashionable resort hotels like The Mawingo, at Nanyuki, the snowcapped peaks of Mount Kenya, towering 17,040 feet high, are fabulously beautiful, particularly in the dawn light.
In a close-up it becomes a nightmare even for experienced mountaineers. Once you are in the forest itself – and the forest begins around the 5,000 feet contour – you have a second 5,000 feet of tight-packed cedar and camphor and yellow-wood and bamboo to hack your way through.
From then on to the top you are above the snow line, among dead craters and glaciers interspersed with tussocks and grass and heather as high as a tall man. This is something left over from the Ice Age.
“It’s like being on the mountains of the moon” the colonel of the Fusiliers put it to me. And that is a fair description.
Nothing daunted, these young British infantrymen are carrying out a series of slow, meticulous sweeps, which started up there among the snow – higher than British troops have ever operated before – and now has them down among the bamboo and the scrub.
Here the real danger is not from hidden Mau Mau but from herds of stampeding elephants and rhinos maddened by the bombing. Only last week the CO of the Koylis was charged by an enraged rhino.
Patrols are delayed for hours by buffalo. A patrol of Yorkshiremen camped out on the line near the edge of forest told me their only “nuisance” was the scavenging wild-cats that prowled around their bivouac at night.
The second element in favour of the Mau Mau gangster is his intimate knowledge of this kind of country. For sheer fieldcraft he would make the old-time Redskin look like a Tenderfoot.
He can go to earth for days in a ditch or under a bush while patrols looking for him walk right over his face – as actually happened on one patrol last week.
This is a phantom army of invisible men that operates only by night – and then only to forage for food and ammunition.
For a fortnight a whole battalion of the King’s African Rifles – experienced woodsmen all of them – have been combing by day and laying ambush by night an area of only 3,000 square yards.
In that time they have seen four Mau Mau and killed two. They also shot a lion – but only in self defence. For, ironically, though up here man may be shot on sight, animals are strictly protected.
But if the Mau Mau remain invisible they see and note every move made against them. Moving up to a forward position in a forest clearing yesterday I had the uncomfortable feeling that savage eyes were watching me all the way.
So, apart from healthy outdoor exercise, thoroughly enjoyed by all ranks in wonderful weather, and the fact that there have been no casualties from enemy action to date, the Army, to use its own expression, “is having no joy.”
And somewhere up there in the mountain General Dedan Kimathi is counting on that simple but deadly weapon – frustration – as his last hope.
In a few weeks the big rains are due and then life up here will be all but impossible to all but a desperate African. And no doubt he knows that if he can continue to be supplied with food and ammunition from “loyal” bands of frightened Kikuyu on the reserve – as he most certainly is now – then he can hope to prolong this stalemate indefinitely.
A sentiment shared gloomily by his opposite number, Major General WRN Hindle, CBE, DSO, the British Field Commander. “A long, bitter, frustrating, expensive business” is how he summed it up to me.
And whatever the final outcome on Mount Kenya it seems as if a considerable military force will have to be maintained in Kenya for a long time to come; and at a million pounds a month – or even half a million pounds – that is quite an item.
Jerry F 2021