Revisiting Operation Anvil: 67 years later

by Evan Mbugua

Some 67 years ago, British authorities in Kenya commenced Operation Anvil, a brutal barricade and search operation in Nairobi to ostensibly flush out Mau Mau supporters and sympathizers.

The operation mainly targeted members of the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru tribes – whose Mt Kenya region was the theatre of the Mau Mau uprising.

The idea behind the operation was to destroy Mau Mau’s strength in the capital and consequently weaken the movement, thought to be backed by Nairobi-based workers.

Based on this line of thinking, security forces rounded thousands in Nairobi starting April 24, 1954 in arguably one of the biggest counter Mau Mau operations in the history of the war. With zeal and cruelty, the government arrested over 20,000 suspects.

This operation, conducted 18 months after the declaration of a state of emergency, was unique in many ways. It began at dawn with simultaneous raids on homes in the city.

However, the were no means of identifying Mau Mau adherents and, therefore, the crackdown, involving more than 4,000 British and local askaris,  mopped up all the targeted tribes for arrest and removal from the city.

The colonial government had ordered Nairobi’s entire police force to be involved in the operation with orders to shoot and kill in quelling any form of resistance.

Richard Turnbull, then minister for Internal Security and Defence, issued a blanket condemnation of the entire Kikuyu population in Nairobi saying: “The great majority of the Nairobi Kikuyu are either active or passive supporters of Mau Mau or are in tacit sympathy with the movement’s aims. In certain parts of Nairobi there has been a virtual breakdown of the processes of law and order. During the past 15 months there have been something like 100 cases of murder and manslaughter, for which no more than a handful have been successfully prosecuted.”

His statement revealed the heights of fear that the Mau Mau had instilled in the British population living in the country.  In order to destroy the Mau Mau, the British authorities associated the movement to some thugs who were using the breakdown of law and order to extort money from traders.

On the fateful day, security forces descended on Kikuyu, Embu and Meru populated areas of Nairobi such as Bahati, Kariokor, Pumwani, Ziwani and Makongeni. The government agents relied on informers disguised with hoods to identify Mau Mau members and sympathisers. The process of identification is widely contested but it resulted to the arrest of over 20,000 suspects. Another 30,000 were deported to the rural areas.  This operation continued for weeks and ended on 26th May the same year.

Before the Operation Anvil commenced, the government had completed construction of various detention camps in the country with over 2,000 detainees locked up.

And weeks before the operation, the government cancelled an amnesty issued to Mau Mau members to surrender, consequently withdrawing from a peace deal it had worked for months to create.

Away from the city, the war had greatly escalated. The Mau Mau had intensified raids on government institutions and attacked many pro-British individuals. Mau Mau had also carried out raids in peri-urban areas, including the widely-covered Lari Massacre in Kiambu.

The Mau Mau movement had gained international media coverage for such attacks much to the dislike of government that now appeared weak and inadequate to stop the Mau Mau.

The government on the other side launched a major offensive against the Mau Mau by utilizing planes to bomb Mau Mau hideouts in both Mt Kenya and Aberdare Forest. It had also banned people from living in the forests.

It is against this backdrop that the government mooted Operation Anvil. The operation had support of Sir George Erskine, who was commanding all security forces in Kenya.

The operation presented an opportunity for the investigative arms of the British establishment to gather information on the funding models of the revolution movement. Suspects were tortured to provide information they knew about Mau Mau.

Buoyed by the information received from some of the suspects, the government changed the approach in containing the Mau Mau movement. After the operation, Mau Mau operations subsided a bit.

This operation presented a huge morale beating to many people who wanted to join the movement in Nairobi. It, however, did not stop the war.

In the reserve areas, the movement grew as those deported from Nairobi became disgruntled with the government.

Operation Anvil, the government hoped, was to be a final blow meant to break the spine of the Mau Mau war – but it didn’t. More so, it laid ground for the acceleration of demands of self-rule.

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5 comments

Collins Nayara April 30, 2021 - 9:39 am

The operation was so brutal that am shedding tears now! I know that our people went via bitter experience but they achieved their goal.

Reply
Paul Mbuthia May 4, 2021 - 8:17 am

We should never, never forget what our fathers and mothers went through, and the realization that only a few of the colonial sympathizers got to enjoy the freedom cake.

Reply
Patrick muriuki May 4, 2021 - 12:09 pm

My grandmother, Wacuka wa Mathai of Mathira, fell under a hail of bullets on suspicion of being a sympathizer. She was pregnant with her third child. She was taking mukimo to the granary and was assumed to be feeding the freedom fighters. The shooter who is known to the family was an unseccessful admirer.
I her honor I will make a series of films to tell the truth about what actually happened to our people

Reply
Mwaura June 25, 2021 - 8:12 pm

We need to tell the world wat happened. Am a film maker..but funding is always a problem.maybe if we share ideas we can get help.

Reply
Paul July 1, 2021 - 8:08 pm

Mwaura this very thought of making films based on the entire events has been ringing in my mind as I am reading these articles

Reply

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