The British Empire Library

The Last Colonial Regiment: The History Of The Kenya Regiment (T.F.)

by Ian Parker

Courtesy of OSPA

Patrick Stone (Major-General, President of the KAR and East African Forces Association)
I came across The Last Colonial Regiment whilst on holiday in Kenya, when our neighbour, an ex-member of the Kenya Regiment, thrust a large book into my hand and said, "Patrick you must read this, it's the new history of the Kenya Regiment" . My heart sank, as all my previous experience of regimental histories was of turgid narrow-focussed volumes, with never-ending indices and few maps or pictures. However, it was quite obvious from the moment I opened the book that this was different.

The author, Ian Parker, who served in the Regiment during the Mau Mau emergency and still lives in Kenya, has not attempted to write a conventional history, which is not surprising, bearing in mind that from its foundation the Regiment was intrinsically unconventional. Instead, he has scrupulously assembled the Regiment's military record from a wide selection of sources, and set these within the historical background of both the Colony and world events, thereby wonderfully capturing the true character of this unique Regiment.

To my great joy, he commences the history by properly setting the scene, with a brilliant foreword by John Lonsdale (7 KAR 1956/58, Professor of Modern African History, University of Cambridge 1969-2004), and an excellent historical background of the Kenya Colony from its formation, thus allowing the less knowledgeable reader to place subsequent events within their proper historical context. The Regiment's early antecedents from the ad hoc settler-raised East African Mounted Rifles of WW1, and the subsequent emergence of the Kenya Defence Regiment following that war, is well covered; as is the increasing breakdown of trust during the interwar years between the white settler community and the Colonial Government over Whitehall's ambivalent attitude towards the future of the colony and the KDR. These divisions were to ultimately lead to the formation of the Kenya Regiment in the thirties.

From the outset the new regiment's principal role was to provide officers and specialist expertise to the King's African Rifles in times of war and national emergencies; a role in which it was soon to excel in the fast approaching world conflict.

The author acknowledges that the major campaigns of World War 2 have already been extensively described, and avoids repeating the wider strategic history of the campaigns in Abyssinia, Madagascar and Burma. Although the Regiment did not enter the field as a formed unit, I found these chapters enthralling, not only for their description of the Regiment's outstanding performance in these campaigns as part of the KAR, but also how the growing sense of comradeship developed between the Askari and their white officers as both were tested in the cauldron of war.

For me the book comes into its own in Part 3, which covers the post-war reorganisation of the Kenya Regiment; the deterioration of the security situation as the winds of change swept across Africa; the rise and ultimate suppression of the Mau Mau insurgency, and finally the sad, but I suspect inevitable, disbandment of the Regiment at Independence. Drawing on a wide range of personal reminiscences, and not afraid to tread on the more sensitive post-colonial toes, the author not only describes the Regiment's role during these difficult years in detail, but sets these against an honest no-nonsense account of this period of Kenya's history, when the old social order was having to come to terms with the inevitable changes and uncertainties that independence would bring.

The Regiment's special knowledge and skills were in high demand during the emergency, when in addition to providing operational patrol companies it also deployed in support of the Kenya Police, Special Branch and KAR - and as the insurgency progressed with British units, who lacked both local knowledge and language skills. This is well illustrated at Appendix III and IV, which show the widespread deployment of the Regiment in November 1954 and May 1955 (it must have been a CO's nightmare).

Thanks to his knowledge of the area and people, I found Ian Parker's description of the Regiment's part in setting up and supporting the various specialist intelligence and patrol units, whose deployment deep into the Aberdares was to prove so decisive in defeating the insurgents, quite excellent. It was also good to see the role of the African tracker described in these operations, and the Regiment's part in their recruitment and training. The wide divergence of tribes who were recruited for this special role is detailed at Appendix VI.

At midnight on 12 May 1963 the Regiment was formerly suspended and disbanded. By the end of the week the suspension was being regarded as symbolic of the closing days of Colonial Kenya. Luckily this wonderful history captures and preserves the character role and achievements of this unique Regiment for posterity, a sentiment best expressed by the author in his final paragraph:

'It would be wrong to mourn the Regiment's passing for under present day conditions it could never retain its character; a unique and colourful character originally evolved from a blend of the British Territorial and the Kenya Settler, a character which has now passed into history.'

A wonderful history, not only of the Kenya Regiment, but also of Kenya itself. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

British Empire Book
Ian Parker
Librario Publishing Ltd
978 1 906775 25 4


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