18 November 1953
On 18 November 1953, the RAF commenced a massive carpet bombing operation against Mau Mau insurgents opposed to British rule in Kenya. Code-named Operation Mushroom, and deploying enormous quad engine Lincoln heavy bombers, the campaign was to see 900 sorties over the next two years dropping six million bombs, weighing 50,000 tons, on suspected forest hideouts, gatherings and villages. That’s equivalent to a hundred times the weight of bombs dropped on Coventry by the German Luftwaffe during its November 1940 blitz which devastated the city.1
These bombing operations had been preceded by the use of smaller Piper Pacer and Harvard aircraft from as early as April 1953. The use of the heavy Lincoln bombers, however, represented an unprecedented escalation and their devastating firepower was further enhanced in April 1954 by the use of Vampire bombers equipped with rockets and 20mm cannon.2
The British press lauded Operation Mushroom as a ‘war against terror,’ with colourful descriptions of the raids. A crew member of the first Lincoln to drop its load informed a reporter that he and his crew could ‘feel the blast of their “stick” as they swept over the Aberdares at 2,500 feet above the crest. The bombs tore a huge crater in the ground… We felt the blast and saw trees fold on themselves, but it was impossible to see anything more.”‘3
Early the following year, the air strikes intensified. In April 1954, according to the Daily Mirror, General Sir George Erskine declared that ‘we are going to hit these people harder than they’ve ever been hit before,’ although he also reassured the press that ‘every target is in the prohibited area where no person may be lawfully present.’4 No one was churlish enough to ask about the danger to those who might have been unaware of the ‘bomb on sight’ edict. The restrictions of bombing to prohibited jungle areas were in any case temporary, Erskine lifting the limitation in May 1954.
The same month Cabinet records show that even the RAF was deeply concerned by the pressure exerted on it by the government to continue and extend the area of its bombing operations. Sir William Dickson, Chief of the Air Staff, advised ministers that ‘air action is not a good discriminatory weapon in these circumstances’ and that ‘Air Staff don’t like this in principle.’ He added that they were ‘ready to accept it,’ as long as the pilots were specially trained and remained in close contact with the ground commander, but he also cautioned that air strikes had usually ‘not been very successful’ in similar counter insurgency operations in Aden and elsewhere. The Cabinet duly decided to expand the bombing onslaught but concluded that there was ‘no need for (a public) announcement.’5
- Kofi Lion, ‘Outline of the Kenya Land and Freedom Uprising,’ accessed online at url https://www.academia.edu/9911998/Outline_of_the_Kenya_Land_and_Freedom_Uprising_1952-1960 p. 5 and Amanda Mason, The Blitz Around Britain, The Imperial War Museum, 8 January 2018, accessed online at url https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-blitz-around-britain
- The National Archives – CAB 129/68/22.
- ‘Lincolns drop 1000 lb bombs on Mau Mau forest hide-outs: New phase of war against terror opens,’ The Liverpool Echo, 19 November 1953, p. 12.
- ‘RAF is out Again,’ The Daily Mirror, 12 April 1954, p. 16 and ‘Bombing is Stopped by Weather,’ The Liverpool Echo, 25 November 1953, p. 3.
- The National Archives – CAB 195/12/25.
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