Frank Kitson, 97, Dies; Helped Shape the Conflict in Northern Ireland

Gen. Frank Kitson arrived in Northern Ireland in September 1970, charged with leading a brigade of British paratroopers in Belfast. The 30-year struggle known as the Troubles, pitting loyalists, who wanted to stay part of Britain, against Republicans, who wanted to separate, was just beginning — and over the next two years, General Kitson would do much to shape the course of the conflict.

By then, General Kitson was considered one of Britain’s leading warrior-intellectuals. He had just come off a yearlong fellowship at Oxford, and he had used his time there to write a book, “Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping” (1971), which drew on his decades of experience fighting colonial wars in Africa and Asia and has since come to be regarded as a classic text in the art of counterinsurgency.

General Kitson was short and stocky, with a ramrod posture and a high, nasal voice. He detested small talk and spoke rarely, but he had a martial charisma that won him widespread admiration among his ranks.

In his 2007 autobiography, “Soldier,” Gen. Mike Jackson, who at the time was a young officer in General Kitson’s brigade, called him “the sun around which the planets revolved,” adding that he “very much set the tone for the operational style.”

General Kitson drew on his experience overseas to change Britain’s approach to the Troubles. He set up an undercover unit, the Military Reaction Force, tasked with surveillance and occasional assassinations of Republican fighters. He fed slanted information to local reporters, and he supported the British Army’s campaign of interning thousands of suspects without charge.

On the morning of Jan. 30, 1972, some 10,000 unarmed Irish Republicans were holding a march through the city of Derry to protest internment. They were walking along the edge of a “no-go” area, where British soldiers were blocked from entering and risked armed attack if they did.

Soldiers from General Kitson’s brigade were waiting for the protesters, with plans to apprehend several leaders of the Irish Republican Army, whom they expected to be at the head of the march.

As the protesters neared the soldiers, a few began throwing rocks; the soldiers responded with rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons. Suddenly, shots were fired, and within minutes, 13 protesters were dead; another died in the hospital from injuries. The day became known as Bloody Sunday, one of the worst losses of life during the Troubles and a rallying cry for Republican forces.

General Kitson was on leave when the shootings occurred, but when he returned, he gave his deputy a dressing down — for not being more aggressive. Once the firing began, he said, his soldiers should have taken advantage of the confusion and pushed into the no-go area.

“There was no doubt that we could have retaken the ‘no-go’ area,” General Jackson, who was listening to the conversation, wrote in his book, “though this would almost certainly have resulted in more deaths.”

Just weeks after Bloody Sunday, General Kitson was made a commander of the Order of the British Empire. He left Northern Ireland in April 1972 and later held a number of high-ranking military positions, including aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth II and commander of the United Kingdom Land Forces. He was knighted in 1980.

His death on Jan. 2, at 97, was greeted with cautious praise for his career by many of the London newspapers, which detailed his innovative counterinsurgency tactics. The Belfast Telegraph, however, noted that his “controversial methods led to him becoming a hate figure for Republicans” in Northern Ireland.

The death was announced by the Royal Green Jackets Association, a memorial organization dedicated to General Kitson’s original infantry regiment. The statement did not provide a place or cause of death.

Frank Edward Kitson was born on Dec. 15, 1926, in London. He came from a 200-year line of armed forces officers. His father, Henry Kitson, was a vice admiral in the British Navy; his mother, Marjorie (de Pass) Kitson, was the daughter of a wealthy sugar and coffee importer.

He knew early on that he wanted to be an Army officer, and he joined an infantry brigade directly after graduating from Stowe School, a prestigious private academy, in 1945.

He was first stationed in Germany, too late to see combat in World War II. But he was just at the beginning of a new era of warfare in Britain’s far-flung colonies across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Serving as an intelligence officer in Kenya during the Mau-Mau uprising by pro-independence guerrillas, General Kitson developed the concept of “pseudo-gangs,” which were made up of Kenyans who worked with the British in secret to disrupt the rebels’ operations.

The eight-year conflict resulted in more than 10,000 killed, more than 1,000 executed and at least 100,000 detained in concentration camps, many of whom were also tortured by the British.

General Kitson went on to serve in what is now Malaysia, where Communist rebels threatened Britain’s hold over that resource-rich colony, and later in Cyprus and Oman. He twice received the Military Cross, among Britain’s highest honors, for his service.

Over time, he built on his innovations in Kenya to develop a comprehensive counterinsurgency doctrine. He emphasized the importance of gathering information, developing informants and double agents among the insurgent ranks, conducting covert operations, and using psychological warfare to root out guerrillas.

“If a fish has got to be destroyed, it can be attacked directly by rod or net,” he wrote in “Low Intensity Operations,” borrowing a metaphor from the Chinese leader Mao Zedong. “But if rod and net cannot succeed by themselves, it may be necessary to do something to the water” — including, he added, “polluting the water.”

General Kitson’s book “Low Intensity Operations,” published in 1971, has since come to be regarded as a classic text in the art of counterinsurgency.Credit…Stackpole Books

General Kitson married Elizabeth Spencer in 1962. She survives him, as do their daughters, Catherine, Rosemary and Marion, and seven grandchildren.

His reputation as a counterinsurgency expert won him senior leadership positions as well as his Oxford fellowship. After serving in Ireland, he led an armored division and an Army staff college before assuming command of the British land forces, responsible for defending the homeland and other territories.

General Kitson retired in 1985, his time in Northern Ireland seemingly far behind him. But the end of the Troubles in 1998 brought renewed interest in Bloody Sunday. Prime Minister Tony Blair launched an inquiry into the Army’s conduct during the event, and General Kitson was called as one of its key witnesses.

The inquiry concluded in 2010 with a report blaming General Kitson’s soldiers for firing the first shots on Bloody Sunday.

Investigations into General Kitson’s leadership did not end there. In 2015, he was named a co-defendant in a lawsuit by Mary Heenan, the widow of Eugene Heenan, a laborer killed by a loyalist paramilitary group in Belfast in 1973. Elements of the group, the Ulster Defence Organization, had ties to the British military — making it, according to the suit, a version of the pseudo-gangs that General Kitson had long promoted in counterinsurgency campaigns.

Even though he had long since left Northern Ireland by the time of the killing, the lawsuit blamed General Kitson for establishing policies and tactics that were “reckless as to whether state agents would be involved in murder.”

The suit, which also named the British Ministry of Defense as a defendant, was continuing at the time of General Kitson’s death.