British war crimes

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British war crimes are acts proven to be committed by the armed forces of the United Kingdom that have violated the laws and customs of war from the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 to the present day. Such actions include the summary executions of prisoners of war, the use of excessive force during the interrogation of POWs and enemy combatants, and the use of violence against civilian non-combatants‌.


War crimes are defined as acts which violate the laws and customs of war (established by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907), or acts that are grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I and Additional Protocol II.[1] The Fourth Geneva Convention extends the protection of civilians and prisoners of war during military occupation, even in the case where there is no armed resistance, for the period of one year after the end of hostilities, although the occupying power should be bound to several provisions of the convention as long as "such Power exercises the functions of government in such territory."[2][3]

The Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict published by the UK Ministry of Defence[4] uses the 1945 definition from the Nuremberg Charter, which defines a war crime as "Violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labour or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity."[1] The manual also notes that "violations of the 1949 Geneva Conventions not amounting to 'grave breaches' are also war crimes."

The 2004 Laws of Armed Combat Manual says

Serious violations of the law of armed conflict, other than those listed as grave breaches in the [1949 Geneva] Conventions or [the 1977 Additional Protocol I], remain war crimes and punishable as such. A distinction must be drawn between crimes established by treaty or convention and crimes under customary international law. Treaty crimes only bind parties to the treaty in question, whereas customary international law is binding on all states. Many treaty crimes are merely codifications of customary law and to that extent binding on all states, even those that are not parties.

The 2004 publication also notes that "A person is normally only guilty of a war crime if he commits it with intent and knowledge."[5]

Boxer Rebellion

During the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901, including the aftermath of the Battle of Peking, troops from Britain committed war crimes while stationed in China. Author Bertram Lenox Simpson, who was in China at the time, reported that he came across "a whole company of savage-looking British and Indian troops" molesting a group of female converts "green-white with fear" while a lady missionary vainly tried to beat them off with an umbrella. British leaders and generals pointed out that looting by troops "was carried on in the most orderly manner and the houses of all those known to be friendly were protected." However, one British officer[who?] noted, "that it is one of the unwritten laws of war that a city which does not surrender at the last and is taken by storm is looted."[this quote needs a citation] For the rest of 1900-1901, the British held loot auctions everyday, except Sunday, in front of the main-gate to the British Legation at Peking.[this quote needs a citation] Many of stolen items ended up in Europe.[6][7]

Boer War

During the Second Boer War, concentration camps were established initially for use by refugees.[citation needed] As part of the strategy to defeat the Boers, farms were destroyed including the systematic destruction of crops and slaughtering of livestock,[8] the burning down of homesteads, poisoning of wells and salting of fields. This was to prevent the Boers from resupplying from a home base. 45 tented camps were created for Boers and 64 for black Africans. Tens of thousands of women and children were forcibly moved into the concentration camps via open cattle trucks in freezing rain during winter, without being given adequate food and water.[citation needed] Of the 107,000 people interned in the camps, 27,927 Boers died along with an unknown number of black Africans.[9]

Breaker Morant

On 27 February 1902, two British Army officers — Lieutenants Harry Morant and Peter Handcock of the Bushveldt Carbineers — were executed by firing squad after being convicted of murdering eight Afrikaner POWs. Morant and Handcock had been acquitted of the sniper-style slaying of Reverend Daniel Heese, a Lutheran minister who had witnessed the massacre and threatened to inform their commanding officer.[10]

Despite having left a written confession in his cell, Lieut. Morant has become a folk hero in modern Australia. Believed by many Australians to be the victim of a kangaroo court, public appeals have been made for Morant to be retried or even pardoned. His court-martial and death have been the subject of books, a stage play, and an award-winning Australian New Wave film adaptation by director Bruce Beresford.

In 2012, South African historian Charles Leach published the book The Legend of Breaker Morant is Dead and Buried: A South African version of the Bushveldt Carbineers in the Zoutpansberg MAY 1901 - APRIL 1902. Basing his conclusions upon the newly discovered court martial transcripts and documents held by descendants of their victims, Leach accused Lieuts. Morant and Handcock of a total of 35 murders. He further alleged that their actions had the tacit approval of Captain Alfred Taylor of military intelligence.

In response to his book, British Boer War historian Joe West wrote, "Charles Leach's impressive research has revealed that the crimes of Morant and his associates were worse than originally thought. In today's day and age Morant and Handcock plus several others would be arraigned before a War Crimes Tribunal."[11]

World War I

Chemical weapons usage

A World War I-era British gas bomb

During the First World War, in retaliation to the use of chlorine by Germany against British troops from April 1915 onwards, British forces deployed chlorine themselves for the first time during the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915. By the end of the war, poison gas use had become widespread on both sides and by 1918 a quarter of artillery shells were filled with gas and Britain had produced around 25,400 tons of toxic chemicals.

Britain used a range of poison gases, originally chlorine and later phosgene, diphosgene and mustard gas. They also used relatively small amounts of the irritant gases chloromethyl chloroformate, chloropicrin, bromacetone and ethyl iodoacetate. Gases were frequently mixed, for example white star was the name given to a mixture of equal volumes of chlorine and phosgene, the chlorine helping to spread the denser but more toxic phosgene. Despite the technical developments, chemical weapons suffered from diminishing effectiveness as the war progressed because of the protective equipment and training which the use engendered on both sides.

Mustard gas was first used effectively in World War I by the German army against British and Canadian soldiers near Ypres, Belgium, in 1917 and later also against the French Second Army. The name Yperite comes from its usage by the German army near the town of Ypres. The Allies did not use mustard gas until November 1917 at Cambrai, France, after the armies had captured a stockpile of German mustard-gas shells. It took the British more than a year to develop their own mustard gas weapon, with production of the chemicals centred on Avonmouth Docks.[12][13] (The only option available to the British was the Despretz–Niemann–Guthrie process). This was used first in September 1918 during the breaking of the Hindenburg Line with the Hundred Days' Offensive.

The use of chemical weapons in warfare during the Great War was in violation of the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, which explicitly forbade the use of "poison or poisoned weapons" in warfare.[14][15]

War Crimes at Sea

During the campaign against German U-boats, there were numerous incidents in which the Royal Navy violated the Hague Convention of 1907's prohibition against killing unarmed shipwreck survivors under any circumstances. These incidents contributed directly to the Imperial German Navy's decision to cease adhering the Prize Rules and to practice unrestricted submarine warfare.

The Baralong Case

After the sinking of RMS Lusitania by a German submarine in May 1915, Lieutenant-Commander Godfrey Herbert, commanding officer of the Q-ship HMS Baralong, was visited by two officers of the Admiralty's Secret Service branch at the naval base at Queenstown, Ireland. He was told, "This Lusitania business is shocking. Unofficially, we are telling you ... take no prisoners from U-boats."[16] Since April 1915, Herbert had ordered his subordinates cease calling him "Sir", and to address him only by the pseudonym "Captain William McBride."[17]

SMS U-27 with members of her crew

On 19 August 1915, the German submarine U-27 surfaced, stopped, and searched the Nicosian, a British freighter, 70 nautical miles off the coast of Queenstown. After find the Nicosian loaded with war materiel and mules bound for the British Expeditionary Force in France, the U-27's commanding officer, Kapitänleutnant Bernhard Wegener, instructed the Nicosian's Captain and crew to take to the lifeboats.

As Wegener and his men prepared to sink the now-empty Nicosian with their deck gun, the Baralong arrived, flying the neutral American flag as a ruse of war. After lowering that flag and raising the British White Ensign in its place, Baralong's crew opened fire and sank the U-27.

Twelve German sailors survived the U-27's sinking: the crews of her two deck guns and those who had been on the conning tower. They swam to Nicosian and attempted to join the six-man boarding party by climbing up her hanging lifeboat falls[note 1] and pilot ladder. In response, Herbert ordered his men to open fire with small arms on the men in the water.[18][19][20][21]

After a few German survivors managed to climb aboard the Nicosian, Herbert sent Baralong's 12 Royal Marines, under the command of a Corporal Collins, to board the sinking vessel. As they departed, Herbert ordered Collins, "Take no prisoners."[22] The Germans were discovered in the engine room and shot on sight. According to Sub-Lieutenant Gordon Steele: "Wegener ran to a cabin on the upper deck - I later found out it was Manning's bathroom. The marines broke down the door with the butts of their rifles, but Wegener squeezes through a scuttle and dropped into the sea. He still had his life-jacket on and put up his arms in surrender. Corporal Collins, however, took aim and shot him through the head."[23] Collins later recalled that, after Wegener's death, Herbert threw a revolver in the German captain's face and screamed, "What about the Lusitania, you bastard!"[23]

In Herbert's report to the Admiralty, he alleged the German srvivors were trying to board the Nicosian and scuttle her, so he ordered the Royal Marines on his ship to shoot the survivors. The Admiralty, upon receiving the report, vainly ordered that the incident be kept secret.

After the Nicosian's crew arrived at Liverpool, however, the American members of the crew gave sworn testimony to the United States Consul about the massacre of U-27's crew. After their return to the United States, they repeated their testimony before a notary public at the Imperial German Consulate in New Orleans. As a result, the US State Department forwarded a formal protest by the German Empire to the British Foreign Office.[24]

HMS Baralong

The memorandum demanded that "Captain McBride" and the crew of HMS Baralong be court-martialed and threatened to "take the serious decision of retribution" if the massacre of U-27's crew went unpunished.[25] The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, replied through U.S. State Department in a textbook example of diplomatic effrontery. He argued that the massacre of U-27's crew could be grouped with the Imperial German Navy's sinking of SS Arabic, their attack on a stranded British submarine in neutral Dutch territorial waters, and their attack on the steamship Ruel. In conclusion, Grey suggested that all four incidents be placed before a tribunal chaired by the United States Navy.[26]

Despite the British Government's refusal to arrest or prosecute him, the Prussian Ministry of War's Military Bureau for the Investigation of Violations of the Laws of War", (German: Militäruntersuchungstelle für Verletzungen des Kriegsrechts) added Baralong's commander, whose name was known only as "Captain William McBride", to their "Black List of Englishmen who are Guilty of Violations of the Laws of War vis a vis Members of the German Armed Forces."[27]

While interviewing German U-Boat veterans after the Armistice, American journalist Lowell Thomas learned that the Baralong case caused many U-Boat captains to cease adhering to the Prize Rules and to torpedo Allied merchant ships on sight. A slogan also spread, "Its their lives or ours. No warning."[citation needed]

Lieutenant Commander Herbert and the crew of HMS Baralong  were awarded a bounty of £185 for sinking U-27.[28]

Similar incidents

On 24 September, 1915 HMS Baralong also sank U-41, which was in the process of sinking the cargo ship Urbino. According to Karl Goetz, the submarine's commander, Baralong continued to fly the American flag after opening fire on U-41 and then rammed the lifeboat carrying the German survivors, causing it to sink.[29]

The only witnesses to the second attack were the German and British sailors present. Oberleutnant zur See Iwan Crompton, after returning to Germany from a prisoner-of-war camp, reported that Baralong had run down the lifeboat he was in; he leapt clear and was shortly after taken aboard Baralong. The British crew denied that they had run down the lifeboat.[30]

Crompton later published an account of U-41's exploits in 1917, U-41: der zweite Baralong-Fall, which called the sinking of U-41 a "second Baralong case".[31]

On 19 June, 1918, the U-boat SM UB-110, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Werner Fürbringer, was depth charged, rammed, and sunk off the Yorkshire coast by the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Garry, which was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Charles Lightoller. Fürbringer later alleged in his memoirs that the Garry then hove to and opened fire on the German survivors with revolvers and machine guns. During the ensuing massacre, Fürbringer watched the skull of an 18-year old member of his crew being split open by a lump of coal hurled by a Royal Navy sailor. When Fürbringer attempted to help a wounded officer to swim, he was told, "Let me die in peace. The swine are going to murder us anyhow." The shooting only ceased when the convoy the destroyer had been escorting and which contained many neutral-flagged ships, arrived on scene. He later recalled, "As if by magic the British now let down some life boats into the water."[32] Lieutenant Commander Lightoller was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for sinking UB-110.

The Portobello Barracks Murders

The Courtyard of Portobello Barracks, Dublin, c. 1900.

Following the suppression of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, martial law remained in effect and Captain J. C. Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles went looking for Fenians. Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Thomas Dickson, and Patrick McIntyre had already been arrested on the evening of 26 April 1916 when Bowen-Colthurst demanded they be handed over to him as hostages to protect him while he went on a raid.[33] Bowen-Colthurst then fatally shot a 17-year-old boy in the street. The following morning, all three men were shot in the back by an ad hoc firing squad in the courtyard of Portobello Barracks. Captain Bowen-Colthurst went on to kill a union leader, Councillor Richard O'Carroll, and another boy. Dickson and McIntyre had both been Pro-British journalists; Sheehy-Skeffington was an ardent pacifist and advocate of Irish Home Rule within the British Empire. All three bodies were put in sacks and buried in the barracks yard.[34]

Although Major Sir Francis Fletcher-Vane of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the commander of Portobello Barracks, regarded the killings as murder and desired to court-martial Bowen-Colthurst, both Dublin Castle and their military superiors refused to permit his arrest. When Fletcher-Vane obtained a direct order for arrest from Lord Kitchener, Vane said that Sir John Maxwell, the commander of the British Army in Ireland, ignored it.[35]

The Royal Military Police belatedly arrested Captain Bowen-Colthurst on 6 June, after Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington appealed directly to Prime Minister H. H. Asquith. In a court martial widely seen as a miscarriage of justice, Captain Bowen-Colthurst successfully pleaded insanity based on his experiences in the trenches and was committed to Broadmoor Hospital. He was released as cured in 1921 and retired on a full pension.[35]

Irish War of Independence

In the December 1918 election, the Irish republican, Sinn Féin Party, won a landslide victory. On 21 January 1919, the Sinn Fein candidates, who had refused to take their seats in Westminster, met at the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, convened a nationalist parliament called Dáil Éireann, declared Irish independence from the United Kingdom, and voted to depose the House of Windsor.

On the same day, the 3rd Tipperary Brigade of the paramilitary Irish Volunteers ambushed a Royal Irish Constabulary convoy at Soloheadbeg and fatally shot Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O'Connell. Although the Dáil had not authorized the attack and was outraged by it, the Soloheadbeg Ambush is still regarded as the first engagement of the Irish War of Independence.

This resulted in a conflict between the British government and supporters of the Dáil and its armed wing, the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The conflict ran from January 1919 until July 1921, when a truce was signed. Although it is today called the Irish War of Independence, the British at the time called it the Troubles.[36]

While the British government initially considered their actions to be an attempt to suppress the guerilla tactics of the IRA by use of the military in a policing role, they eventually devised a coherent strategy that involved both political and armed responses. War was never officially declared but a policy-based state of war effectively existed from late July 1920. Historian Martin Seedorf says that

War was first implemented under the guise of restoring order in Ireland and later by martial law. Accompanying Lloyd George's war policy between the summers of 1920 and 1921 were systematic reprisals against Irish civilians and their property by British forces retaliating for the IRA's killing of their own men.[36]

In hopes of breaking support for the Irish cause, UK Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill, suggested recruiting World War I veterans into paramilitary units of Special Constables of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, agreed and advertisements were placed in newspapers. The recruits were formed into groups who became known as the Black and Tans, so called because of their mixture of British Army and police uniforms. Veterans who had been commissioned officers were formed into the Auxiliary Division, who were better paid and received better supplies.[citation needed]

As IRA members fought in civilian clothing and due to an insistence that Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom, the British Government refused to grant POW status to captured IRA members. However, by calling their war in Ireland a police action, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet denied themselves the legal grounds to censor news reports. As a result, the press exposed numerous cases of misconduct by British security forces, which in turn destroyed support for the continuation of the war among the British public.[citation needed]

Rineen Ambush and its aftermath

On 22 September 1920, the IRA ambushed an RIC patrol lorry at Drummin Hill in the townland of Drummin, near the hamlet of Rineen (or Rinneen), County Clare. The attack resulted in the deaths of six policemen. Shortly after, the IRA volunteers were attacked by ten lorry-loads of British Army personnel, who had been sent as reinforcements. However, they held off this attack long enough to flee the scene and sustained only two wounded.[37]

In reprisal for the ambush, the RIC and British military raided three nearby villages, killed five civilians, and burned down 16 residences and shops.[38][39]

Ballyduff and Killorglin

On 21 October, 1920, 18-year old medical student and IRA Volunteer Kevin Barry was sentenced to death by a military tribunal in Dublin. On the eve of Barry's execution on 1 November, IRA Headquarters sent out orders for a general attack on British security forces throughout Ireland. An order calling off the attack issued at the last minute failed to reach Patrick Cahill, the IRA's Officer Commanding in County Kerry.[40]

On the night of 31 October, 1920, the IRA's 1st Kerry Brigade assassinated RIC Constables George Morgan and Thomas Reidy in Ballyduff, County Kerry. Within hours, British security forces entered the village, burned down the creamery and several local businesses. Teenaged Ballyduff resident John Houlihan was dragged from his parents' house, dragged across the road, bayoneted, shot, and finished off by being bludgeoned with a rifle butt.[41]

On the same night, RIC Special Constables Herbert Evans and Albert Caseley were fatally shot near Killorglin following a date with two local girls. In retaliation, the Black and Tans burned down Killorglin's Sinn Fein Hall, a nearby garage, the Temperance Association Hall, and the residence of a prominent local Sinn Fein member. Shooting continued until 5:30 AM and local resident Denis O'Sullivan was taken from his house and shot four times in the village square. He never fully recovered and died the following year.[42]


On 31 October, 1920, RIC Constables Patrick Waters and Ernest Bright were abducted by the IRA in Tralee, County Kerry and later killed. The same night, RIC Constable Daniel McCarthy and naval radio operator Bert Woodward were both shot and wounded, also in Tralee. On 1 November, Black and Tans entered the village, forcibly closed all businesses, and did not let anyone sell or purchase food for nine days demanding the return of the missing men. They shot up and burned down several houses and all businesses believed to be connected to IRA activists. Local residents who went outside their homes were verbally abused and fired upon. In the course of the week, Crown security forces shot dead three local residents, John Conway, Thomas Wall, and Simon O'Connor. By the time businesses were allowed to reopen on November 9th, starvation conditions were prevailing in Tralee. The incident caused a major international outcry, angry denunciations in the House of Commons, and front page stories in the British, French, Canadian, and American press.[43]

In an editorial published in the London Daily News, Hugh Martin argued that Tralee was a microcosm of what was happening in Ireland as a whole; the IRA struck, Crown security forces violently retaliated against the entire local population, and support for the IRA was even more firmly cemented throughout the surrounding district.[44]

Bloody Sunday

On Bloody Sunday, 21, November 1920, Michael Collins' assassination squad, known as "The Twelve Apostles", assassinated 13 MI5 and Intelligence Corps spymasters, including the majority of the "Cairo Gang". That same afternoon, a combined force of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, the Royal Irish Constabulary, and the British Army stormed Croke Park during a Gaelic football match and indiscriminately opened fire within the stadium. The shooting resulted in the deaths of 13 unarmed spectators and 1 player.[45]

That evening, two captured IRA members held in Dublin Castle, Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, together with another man, Conor Clune (a nephew of Patrick Clune, Archbishop of Perth, Australia), were allegedly tortured and summarily shot,[46] officially while attempting to escape.[47]

The Burning of Cork

Workers clearing rubble on St Patrick's street in Cork in the days after the fires

The Burning of Cork took place on the night of 11–12 December 1920, during the Irish War of Independence. It followed an IRA ambush of a British Auxiliary patrol in the city, in which one of the patrol, Spencer Chapman,[48] was killed by an IRA grenade. In retaliation for Chapman's death, a combined force of the Auxiliary Division, the Black and Tans, and the British Army set numerous fires and then looted and burnt numerous buildings in the city centre. Many civilians later reported being beaten, fired upon, robbed, and verbally abused by British forces. Firefighters later testified that British forces hindered their attempts to tackle the blazes by intimidating them, shooting at them and/or cutting their hoses. Over 40 business premises, 300 residential properties, City Hall and the Carnegie Library were destroyed by fire. Over £3 million worth of damage (1920 value; 172 millon euro in today's money) was caused, 2,000 civilians were left unemployed, and many others were left homeless. Unarmed brothers Cornelius and Jeremiah Delaney, who were members of F Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Cork Brigade IRA, were also shot dead in their bedroom in the north of the city,[49] and a woman died of a heart-attack when Auxiliaries burst into her house.[citation needed]

The British Government at first claimed the IRA was responsible for setting the fire. Meanwhile, the British Army launched its own inquiry the "Strickland Report",[50] but Cork Corporation instructed its employees and other corporate officials to take no part in it.[51] The "Strickland Report" pointed the finger of blame at members of the Auxiliaries' K Company, based at Victoria Barracks. The Auxiliaries, it was claimed, set the fires in reprisal for the IRA attack at Dillon's Cross. The British Government refused to publish the report at the time[50] but has done so since.[36]

Reaction in Britain

Arsons, lootings, prisoner abuse, and routine reprisals and against noncombatants made countless recruits for the IRA and caused the British electorate to demand a peaceful resolution. Tory MP Edward Wood, rejected force and urged the British government to make an offer to the Irish "conceived on the most generous lines".[52] Sir John Simon MP was also horrified at the tactics being used. Lionel Curtis, writing in the journal The Round Table, wrote: "If the British Commonwealth can only be preserved by such means, it would become a negation of the principle for which it has stood".[53] King George V, senior Church of England bishops, MPs from the Conservative, Liberal, and Labour parties, British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley, Jan Smuts, the Trades Union Congress and parts of the British press were increasingly critical of continuing the war in Ireland.

In an editorial published during the Tralee Pogrom, The Daily News commented, "The vital fact in the tragedy is that while the chief secretary is repeating his stereotyped assurances that things are getting better, it is patent to readers of newspapers the world over that things are daily getting worse. At the moment the supreme need is to withdraw the troops. If the police cannot remain unprotected, let them go too. Ireland could not be worse off without them than with them. There is every reason to believe her state would be incomparably better."[54]

Mahatma Gandhi said of the ultimate ceasefire and Treaty between the British Government and the Dáil: "It is not fear of losing more lives that has compelled a reluctant offer from England but it is the shame of any further imposition of agony upon a people that loves liberty above everything else".[55]

World War II

Crimes against enemy combatants, civilians, and civilian property


In violation of the Hague Conventions,[which?] British line of communication troops conducted small scale looting in the French towns of Bayeux and Caen, following their liberation.[56] On 21 April 1945, British soldiers randomly selected and burned two cottages in Seedorf, Germany, in reprisal against local civilians who had hidden German soldiers in their cellars.[57] Historian Sean Longden claims that violence against German prisoners and civilians who refused to cooperate with the British army "could be ignored or made light of".[58]

On 23 May 1945, a number of British soldiers searching for Heinrich Himmler held Prince Ferdinand of Holstein, along with his family and staff, at gunpoint in the courtyard of Glücksburg Castle, in Schleswig-Holstein. The troops then looted the castle, stealing jewellery; some of which, was later recovered. The prince alleged that these soldiers also broke open 38 coffins in the castle's mausoleum.[59]

Excessive force against POWs

An MI19 prisoner of war facility, known as the "London Cage", was utilised during and immediately after the war. This facility has been the subject of allegations of torture.[60] The Bad Nenndorf interrogation centre, in occupied Germany, managed by the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre, was the subject of an official inquiry in 1947. It found that there was "mental and physical torture during the interrogations" and that "personal property of the prisoners were stolen".[61]


Rape took place during the British advance towards Germany.[62] During late 1944, with the army based across Belgium and the Netherlands, soldiers were billeted with local families or befriended them. In December 1944, it came to the attention of the authorities that there was a "rise of indecency with children" where abusers had exploited the "atmosphere of trust" that had been created with local families. While the army "attempted to investigate allegations, and some men were convicted, it was an issue that received little publicity."[58] Rape also occurred once British forces had entered Germany.[62] Many rapes were the result of alcohol or post-traumatic stress, but there were also instances of premeditated attacks.[58] For example, on a single day in April 1945, three women in Neustadt am Rübenberge were raped.[62] In the village of Oyle, near Nienburg, two soldiers attempted to coerce two girls into a nearby wood. When they refused, one was grabbed and dragged into the woods. When she began to scream, in according to Longden, "one of the soldiers pulled a gun to silence her. Whether intentionally or in error the gun went off hitting her in the throat and killing her."[58]

Sean Longden highlights that "Some officers failed to treat reports of rape with gravity." He provides the example of a medic, who had a rape reported to him. In cooperation with the Royal Military Police, they were able to track down and apprehend the perpetrators who were then identified by the victim. When the two culprits "were taken before their CO. His response was alarming. He insisted since the men were going on leave no action could be taken and that his word was final."[58]

Bombing of Dresden

The city centre of Dresden after the bombing

The British, with other allied nations (mainly the U.S.) carried out air raids against enemy cities during World War II, including the bombing of the German city of Dresden, which killed around 25,000 people. While "no agreement, treaty, convention or any other instrument governing the protection of the civilian population or civilian property" from aerial attack was adopted before the war,[63] the Hague Conventions did prohibit the bombardment of undefended towns. Allied forces inquiry concluded that an air attack on Dresden was militarily justified on the grounds the city was defended.[64]

This city was filled with refugees fleeing the oncoming Red Army.[65][66] Allied leaflet drops and radio broadcasts had warned all civilians to evacuate major towns and cities.[67] When asked whether the bombing of Dresden was a war crime, British historian Frederick Taylor replied: "I really don't know. From a practical point of view, rules of war are something of a grey area. It was pretty borderline stuff in terms of the extent of the raid and the amount of force used."[68] Historian Donald Bloxham claims that "the bombing of Dresden on 13–14 February 1945 was a war crime". He further argues that there was a strong prima facie for trying Winston Churchill among others and that there is theoretical case that he could have been found guilty. "This should be a sobering thought. If, however it is also a startling one, this is probably less the result of widespread understanding of the nuance of international law and more because in the popular mind 'war criminal', like 'paedophile' or 'terrorist', has developed into a moral rather than a legal categorisation."[69]

War crimes at sea

Unrestricted submarine warfare

On 4 May 1940, in response to Germany's intensive unrestricted submarine warfare, during the Battle of the Atlantic and its invasion of Denmark and Norway, the Royal Navy conducted its own unrestricted submarine campaign. The Admiralty announced that all vessels in the Skagerrak, were to be sunk on sight without warning. This was contrary to the terms of the Second London Naval Treaty.[70][71]

Shootings of shipwreck survivors

According to Alfred de Zayas, there are numerous documented cases of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force deliberately firing upon shipwreck survivors.[72]

In July 1941, the submarine HMS Torbay, under Lieutenant Commander Anthony Miers, was based in the Mediterranean where it sank several German ships. On two occasions, once off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, and the other off the coast of Crete, the crew fired upon shipwrecked German sailors and troops. Miers made no attempt to hide his actions, and reported them in his official logs. He received a strongly worded reprimand from his superiors following the first incident. Mier's actions violated the Hague Convention of 1907, which banned the killing of shipwreck survivors under any circumstances.[73][74]

Attacks against non-combatant ships

On 10 September 1942, the Italian hospital ship Arno was torpedoed and sunk by RAF torpedo bombers north-east of Ras el Tin, near Tobruk. The British claimed that a decoded German radio message intimated that the vessel was carrying supplies to the Axis troops.[75] Arno was the third Italian hospital ship sunk by British aircraft since the loss of the Po in the Adriatic Sea to aerial torpedoes on 14 March 1941 and the bombing of the California off Syracuse on 11 August 1942. Five sea-rescue boats, used to search for missing pilots from both sides of the conflict were also strafed and sunk by RAF planes during the same period.[76]

On 18 November 1944, the German hospital ship Tübingen was sunk by two Beaufighter bombers off Pola, in the Adriatic Sea. The vessel, which had paid a brief visit to the allied-controlled port of Bari to pick up German wounded under the auspicies of the Red Cross, was attacked with rockets nine times, despite that the calm sea and the good weather allowed a clear identification of the ship's Red Cross markings. Six crewmembers were killed.[77] American author Alfred M. de Zayas, who evaluated the 266 extant volumes of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, identifies the sinking of Tübingen and other German hospital ships as war crimes.[78]


On 12 December 1948, during the Malayan Emergency, the Batang Kali massacre took place which involved the killing of 24 villagers. The official British position was that these villagers were insurgents attempting to escape, and that detailed investigation into the situation was not possible due to a lack of evidence.[citation needed] Six of the eight British soldiers involved were interviewed under caution by detectives. They corroborated accounts that the villagers were unarmed, were not insurgents nor trying to escape, and had been unlawfully killed on the order of the two sergeants in command. The sergeants denied the allegations. The Government's position was that if anyone is to be held responsible, it should be the Sultan of Selangor.[79][80][81][82]

Decapitation and mutilation of insurgents by British forces were also common as a way to identify dead guerrillas when it was not possible to bring their corpses in from the jungle. A photograph of a Royal Marine commando holding two insurgents’ heads caused a public outcry in April 1952. The Colonial Office privately noted that "there is no doubt that under international law a similar case in wartime would be a war crime".[83][84][85]

As part of the Briggs' Plan devised by British General Sir Harold Briggs, 500,000 people (roughly ten percent of Malaya's population) were eventually removed from the land, had tens of thousands of their homes destroyed, and were interned in 450 guarded fortified camps called "New Villages". The intent of this measure was to inflict collective punishments on villages where people were deemed to be aiding the insurgents and to isolate the population from contact with insurgents. The British also tried to win the hearts of the internees by providing them with education and health services as well as piped water and electricity within the villages. While considered necessary, some of the cases involving the widespread destruction went beyond justification of military necessity.[citation needed] This practice was prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and customary international law which stated that the destruction of property must not happen unless rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.[83][84][86]


Treatment of detainees

During an eight-year conflict in Kenya from 1952 to 1960 in which Britain sought to restore order many Kikuyu were relocated. According to David Anderson, the British hanged over 1,090 suspected rebels: far more than the French executed in Algeria during the Algerian War. It was found out that over half of them executed were not rebels at all. Thousands more were killed by British soldiers, who claimed they had "failed to halt" when challenged.[87][88][89] Among the detainees who suffered severe mistreatment was Hussein Onyango Obama, the grandfather of U.S. President Barack Obama. According to his widow, British soldiers forced pins into his fingernails and buttocks and squeezed his testicles between metal rods and two others were castrated.[90]

In June 1957, Eric Griffith-Jones, the attorney general of the British administration in Kenya, wrote to the governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, detailing the way the regime of abuse at the colony's detention camps was being subtly altered. He said that the mistreatment of the detainees is "distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia". Despite this, he said that in order for abuse to remain legal, Mau Mau suspects must be beaten mainly on their upper body, "vulnerable parts of the body should not be struck, particularly the spleen, liver or kidneys", and it was important that "those who administer violence ... should remain collected, balanced and dispassionate". He also reminded the governor that "If we are going to sin," he wrote, "we must sin quietly."[90][91]

Chuka Massacre

The Chuka Massacre, which happened in Chuka, Kenya, was perpetrated by members of the King's African Rifles B Company in June 1953 with 20 unarmed people killed during the Mau Mau uprising. Members of the 5th KAR B Company entered the Chuka area on 13 June 1953, to flush out rebels suspected of hiding in the nearby forests. Over the next few days, the regiment had captured and executed 20 people suspected of being Mau Mau fighters for unknown reasons. It is found out that most of the people executed were actually belonged to the Kikuyu Home Guard - a loyalist militia recruited by the British to fight an increasingly powerful and audacious guerrilla enemy. In an atmosphere of atrocity and reprisal, the matter was swept under the carpet and nobody ever stood trial for the massacre.[92]

Hola Massacre

The Hola massacre was an incident at a detention camp in Hola, Kenya. By January 1959 the camp had a population of 506 detainees of whom 127 were held in a secluded "closed camp". This more remote camp near Garissa, eastern Kenya, was reserved for the most uncooperative of the detainees. They often refused, even when threats of force were made, to join in the colonial "rehabilitation process" or perform manual labour or obey colonial orders. The camp commandant outlined a plan that would force 88 of the detainees to bend to work. On 3 March 1959, the camp commandant put this plan into action – as a result, 11 detainees were clubbed to death by guards.[93] All of the surviving detainees sustained serious permanent injuries.[94] The British government accepts that the colonial administration tortured detainees, but denies liability.[95]

Iraq War

There were a number of cases where British soldiers opened fire and killed Iraqi civilians in circumstances where there was apparently no imminent threat of death or serious injury to themselves or others. Many of them resorted to lethal force even though the use of such force did not appear to be justified by military necessity in order to protect life.[96][97][98] Many Iraqi civilians also died or were seriously injured from brutal mistreatment while under British custody.[99][100] In one case, following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a video showed British soldiers brutally beating an Iraqi civilian after the killing of six Royal Military Policemen, known as Red Caps, by an Iraqi mob.[101]

In May 2003, Saeed Shabram and his cousin, Menem Akaili, were thrown into the river near Basra after being detained by British troops. Akaili survived but Shabram did not as he drowned in the river. Akaili said that he and Shabram were approached by a British patrol and led at gunpoint down to a jetty before being forced into the river. The punishment was known as "wetting" and said to have been inflicted on local youths suspected of looting. "Wetting was supposed to humiliate those suspected of being petty criminals," said Sapna Malik, the family's lawyer at Leigh Day and Co. "Although the MoD denies that there was a policy of wetting to deal with suspected looters around the time of this incident, evidence we have seen suggests otherwise. The tactics employed by the MoD appeared to include throwing or placing suspected looters into either of Basra's two main waterways." Iraqi bystanders dragged Akaili out of the water but his cousin disappeared. Shabram's body was later recovered by a diver hired by his father, Radhi Shabram. Shabram's mother waited on the river bank for four hours, screaming and crying, while the diver searched the river. "When Saeed's corpse was finally pulled from the river, Radhi describes how it was bloated and covered with marks and bruises," said Leigh Day. Though the MOD paid compensation to Saeed Shabram's family, none of the British soldiers were charged for his death.[102]

Ahmed Jabbar Kareem Ali, aged 15, was on his way to work with his brother on 8 May 2003, when British soldiers assaulted him. The four British soldiers beat him then forced him into a canal at gunpoint to "teach him a lesson" for suspected looting (which wasn't proven to be true). Weakened from the beating Ali received from the soldiers, he floundered. He was dead when he was pulled from the river. Four British soldiers who were involved in the death of an Iraqi teenager were acquitted of manslaughter.[103][104]

Corporal Donald Payne (born 9 September 1970)[105] is a former soldier of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment of the British Army who became the first member of the British armed forces to be convicted of a war crime under the provisions of the International Criminal Court Act 2001 for the death of Baha Mousa when he pleaded guilty on 19 September 2006 to a charge of inhumane treatment.[106][107] He was jailed for one year and dismissed from the army as a result of his actions.[108]

On 1 January 2004, Ghanem Kadhem Kati, an unarmed young man, was shot twice in the back by a British soldier at the door to his home. Troops had arrived at the scene after hearing shooting, which neighbours said came from a wedding party. Investigators from the Royal Military Police exhumed the teenager's body six weeks later but have yet[when?] to offer compensation or announce any conclusion to the inquiry.[96]

In May 2004, a British soldier identified as M004 allegedly mistreated captured, unarmed prisoners of war during a 'tactical questioning' in Camp Abu Naji.[109]

In February 2006, a video showing a group of British soldiers beating several Iraqi teenagers was posted on the internet, and shortly thereafter, on the main television networks around the world. The video took place in April 2004 and was taken from an upper storey of a building in the southern Iraqi town of Al-Amarah, shows many Iraqis outside a coalition compound. Following an altercation in which members of the crowd tossed rocks and reportedly an improvised grenade at the soldiers, the British soldiers rushed the crowd. The troopers brought some Iraqi teenagers into the compound and proceeded to beat them. The video includes a voiceover in a British accent by the cameraman, taunting the beaten teenagers. The individual recording could be heard saying:

Oh, yes! Oh Yes! Now you gonna get it. You little kids. You little motherfucking bitch!, you little motherfucking bitch.[110]

The event was broadcast in mainstream media, resulting in the British government and military condemning the event. The incident became especially worrisome for British soldiers, who had enjoyed a more favourable position than American soldiers in the region. Concerns were voiced to the media about the safety of soldiers in the country after the incident. The tape incurred criticism, albeit relatively muted, from Iraq, and media found people prepared to speak out. The Royal Military Police conducted an investigation into the event, and the prosecuting authorities determined that there was insufficient case to justify court martial proceedings.[100][111]

Afghan War

A Royal Marine Sergeant, identified as Sergeant Alexander Blackman from Taunton, Somerset,[112] was convicted at court martial in Wiltshire of having murdered an unarmed, wounded Afghan fighter in Helmand Province in September 2011.[113] On 6 December 2013, Blackman received a life sentence, with a minimum of ten years before he is eligible for parole, from the court martial in Bulford, Wiltshire. He was also dismissed with disgrace from the Royal Marines.[114][115]

In popular culture


  • Breaker Morant (1980) by Bruce Beresford. A film which focuses on the 1902 court martial of Breaker Morant for a POW massacre during the Second Anglo-Boer War and the subsequent murder of a civilian eyewitness who had vowed to inform his commanding officer. Director Bruce Beresford has expressed regret that his film has caused many Australians to view Lieut. Morant and his co-defendants as victims of a miscarriage of justice. In a 1999 interview, Beresford said, "The film never pretended for a moment that they weren't guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It's the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time... Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits."[116]
  • Michael Collins by Neil Jordan. A biopic set between during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, Michael Collins depicts British security forces' retaliation for the IRA's massacre of British secret service agents on Bloody Sunday. The film is incorrect, however, in its depiction of a machine gun being used during the Croke Park massacre.
  • The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) by Ken Loach. Set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War in rural County Cork, The Wind That Shakes the Barley depicts total war tactics used against both IRA-members and noncombatants by British security forces. The films opens with the Black and Tans' summary execution of a non-IRA member for insisting on giving his name in the Irish language. After the local IRA flying column is captured, a British Army Intelligence Corps officer interrogates the unit's leader under torture and rips out his fingernails when he refuses to name names. In a subsequent scene, another British Army officer tells a captured IRA member, "You are a gangster", and vainly orders an enlisted man to shoot him in the head.

See also


  1. The ropes by which a boat is lowered from the deck of a ship to the water


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