The 5th KAR B Company had been sent to the Chuka area on June 13, 1953, to flush out rebels suspected of hiding in the nearby forests. The Company commander, Major G.S.L. Griffiths, set up a base camp from which he directed operations – two platoons would sweep through the forest to flush out the rebels, while African members of the local Home Guard policed the forest boundary. The sweeps were conducted by two junior officers. This was a typical anti-Mau Mau operation.
Two Mau-Mau fighters that was recently captured were brought by the soldiers to act as "guides" to assist revel hideouts. When they were questioned, neither were willing to provide information. Griffiths and his two junior officers interrogated the men, and when the first prisoner seemed unwilling to cooperate, Griffiths ordered that a hole be made in his ear with a bayonet. A string was passed through the gaping wound, to be used as a tether over the next four days. The second prisoner also proved uncooperative. His ear was amputated on Griffiths’ orders, and he was then summarily shot dead. Griffiths would later claim he had been shot whilst trying to escape.
Over the next two days, the KAR platoons flushed out a number of Mau Mau fighters who were caught by the Home Guard stationed at the forest edge. Then, in the early afternoon of June 17th, a patrol of ten men led by an African Warrant Officer moved out of the forest and into the surrounding farmland. It came across twelve members of the Home Guard gathered at a farmhouse. For reasons, that have never become clear, the twelve men were ordered to lie face down, and were badly beaten. Two of the victims were sent to fetch food for the soldiers – and subsequently made their escape – while the remaining ten were escorted into the forest by the KAR patrol. They reached the soldiers’ camp around 4 pm and made to lie face down in a line. At sunset, they were shot where they lay, at close range and in cold blood.
The following morning, June 18, the Warrant Officer led his patrol along the forest edge, close to the settlement of Karege. Again it encountered and interrogated a group of Home Guards. The soldiers pillaged food gardens in Karege and shot a farmer before escorting their captives into the forest. African witnesses saw a British officer with the patrol. Early that afternoon, the captives – nine men and one child – were executed in a clearing near a small coffee farm at the forest edge. Soldiers cut off the hands of six of the victims and tucked these into their packs before returning to camp. The final killing occurred between 2 and 3 am the next day, when the surviving guide, still tethered by his ear, was shot, allegedly while trying to escape. At dawn, the soldiers broke camp, heading back to B Company’s headquarters at Nyeri, leaving the body of their dead guide where it lay.
Aftermath and trial
Days after the massacre, a new commander-in-chief, General George Erskine, arrived in Kenya in June 1953. He quickly sought to change the conduct of of the security forces. In a directive to all troops he stated: "I will not tolerate breaches of discipline leading to unfair treatment of anybody," and ordered that "every officer ... should stamp on at once any conduct which he would be ashamed to see used against his own people." However, Erskine took the decision to cover-up what had happened.
A military inquiry was hastily convened for the following Monday on June 22 but its findings were never made public. Rumours of what had happened spread quickly, but the colonial government refused to acknowledge the affair publicly. Fragments of information nonetheless found their way into the public record, and from these sources we are able to reconstruct what happened. A letter held in the Kenya National Archives in Nairobi makes it clear that, in an effort to prevent a haemorrhaging of support towards the Mau Mau in the Chuka area, the colonial government authorized the payment of compensation to the families of the murdered villagers. General Erskine then wrote personally to the local chief, a loyal ally, to reassure him that ‘investigations have satisfied me that whoever is to blame, it is not any of the persons killed.’ Despite this, the army did not pass its findings to the Attorney General, and so prosecutions could not be taken forward "due to lack of evidence".
All of the soldiers involved in the Chuka patrols were placed under open arrest at Nairobi's Buller Camp, but Erskine decided not to prosecute them. Instead, he would make an example of their commanding officer, Major Griffiths. And, rather than risk bringing publicity to the Chuka affair, Erskine was able to obtain evidence to have Griffiths charged with the murder of two other suspects in a separate incident that had taken place a few weeks before the Chuka massacre. This ruse went badly wrong, however, when the 5th KAR soldiers giving evidence at the courts martial in November 1953 refused to speak frankly against Griffiths. He was acquitted of the charge and rest of the soldiers were not charged either. To this day, no British soldier involved in the massacre is charged.
In a letter to the War Office, in December 1953, to be found in the British archives, Erskine made this candid admission: "There is no doubt that in the early days, i.e. from Oct 1952 until last June there was a great deal of indiscriminate shooting by Army and Police. I am quite certain prisoners were beaten to extract information." To avoid a scandal, McLean's inquiry, therefore, drew a veil of official secrecy over the first eight months of the emergency. Though McLean went carefully into the details of the Chuka affair, his final report was a whitewash. He concluded that, whilst there may have been some irregularities in procedures by some units, the conduct of the British army in Kenya "under difficult and arduous circumstances, showed that measure of restraint backed by good discipline which this country has traditionally expected".
- Anderson, David; Bennett, Huw; Branch, Daniel (2006). "A Very British Massacre". History Today 56 (8): 20–22.