H-Diplo Article Review 821 on Poppy Cullen. “Operation Binnacle: British Plans for Military Intervention against a 1965 Coup in Kenya.”

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Article Review

No. 821

9 January 2019




Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse

Web and Production Editor: George Fujii


Poppy Cullen.  “Operation Binnacle: British Plans for Military Intervention against a 1965 Coup in Kenya.”  International History Review 39:5 (2017):  791-809.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/07075332.2016.1261917.


URL: http://tiny.cc/AR821


Review by George Roberts, University of Cambridge


The early 1960s were testing times for Africa’s post-colonial governments. With the common enemy of formal colonialism cast aside, the political coalitions which had led the fight for independence in the name of the nation struggled to hold together. Rival groups fought for control over the state, often leaning on willing external sponsors for assistance. Disaffected militaries looked to take their chance of seizing the reins of power. Everywhere, the Cold War powers were believed to be pulling the strings behind the scenes, seeking to replace post-colonial governments with regimes more closely aligned with their own geopolitical interests. Not only African governments, but the superpowers and their allies, were prone to see the subversive hand of their rivals in these machinations. Talk of coup plots—real, rumoured, purely imagined—swirled around African capitals, and caused worry for onlookers in the global North, including former imperial powers attempting to define new relationships with newly independent states.


Poppy Cullen’s article is about one such coup ‘plot’ and Britain’s planned response to it. It is set in early 1965 in Kenya, where politics seemed to have hit fever pitch. Less than two years after independence, the sole political party, the Kenya Africa National Union, was split between factions, one of which was led by Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s Vice-President. In contrast to President Jomo Kenyatta, who seemed to be swaying towards the West even as he nominally pursued a policy of non-alignment, Odinga openly courted aid and especially student scholarships from the Eastern Bloc and China. On 24 February, Pio Gama Pinto, one of Odinga’s closest supporters among the elite, was gunned down outside his home. Rumours spread that the assassination had Kenyatta’s own seal of approval. Then, on 5 April, the Kenyan government gave word to the British High Commission that they suspected an imminent seizure of power by Odinga and his faction—and called for help.[1]


As in her monograph on British-Kenyan relations,[2] Cullen draws on documentation from the National Archives in Kew to trace the evolution of the ‘coup’ through the corridors of the British foreign affairs and security establishments. She begins with a telegram from Malcolm MacDonald, the British High Commissioner, describing his meeting on 5 April 1965 with Charles Njonjo, the Kenyan attorney-general. MacDonald relayed “reports that Mr. Odinga and his associates may attempt some kind of armed or other action to seize power.” Njonjo, speaking for Kenyatta, asked that British ships to be stationed off the East African coast. He also requested “the help of British troops to maintain law and order” should the Kenyan government find itself in “serious difficulty” (793).


Was there actually a plot? Cullen, following a number of historians, sensibly suggests not—although the lingering sense of uncertainty is captured in her conclusion that “the coup was most likely largely fictional” (804). However, this did not prevent Britain from jumping to the defence of the Kenyatta government. In London, the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO) dismissed the talk of a coup as ‘unlikely,’ but, in the context of an unstable domestic political situation, decided that it was best to press ahead with drawing up plans to meet the Kenyan request. One official argued that


we should work on the assumption that we would wish to intervene if necessary to prevent the overthrow of the present regime in favour of a minority government of the extremists; that such a risk does exist and that a contingency plan should be made as soon as possible […] we must assume for the moment that there is a real danger (794).


British officials recognised that there was little evidence for a coup, but the risk was still deemed critical enough to warrant establishing the plans that became ‘Operation Binnacle.’ As Cullen notes, “discussions of how likely a coup actually was were fairly quickly subsumed by planning the military action which would be used if it occurred” (795).


Cullen details the multi-layered plans for armed intervention, which involved the re-positioning of ships in the Indian Ocean, the despatch of battalions from Aden and Britain, and even the use of Special Air Service (SAS) troops. These plans were facilitated by existing military connections between the former colonial occupier and the post-colonial government. The SAS, for example, was already in Kenya, providing training for local special forces. However, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was also concerned to limit the extent to which British troops could become embroiled in Kenya, should a post-coup situation escalate into more generalised civil warfare. The troops, the MoD stipulated, must not “be drawn into a long guerrilla-style campaign,” like that of the Mau Mau conflict of the 1950s. Cullen states that “the British military was prepared only to prevent a coup, not to reverse one” (801). In the end, no coup materialised.


Why does all this matter—the story of unfulfilled plan in response to an event that never took place? As Cullen argues, the gestation of Operation Binnacle offers a window into the priorities and principles of foreign policy-making that gave Kenya such significance in Britain’s geostrategic plans in the era of African decolonisation.[3] Why did the British go to such lengths to draw up plans for military intervention, even if—by their own admission—the evidence for an Odinga-led plot was so slight? Cullen sets out several reasons. Most importantly, the overarching imperatives of the Cold War led British decision-makers into believing that the fall of Kenyatta and the rise of Odinga would move Kenya into the Soviet orbit. Political unrest or the rise of a socialist government might also pose a risk to the security or prosperity of Kenya’s large community of British citizens. Finally, Britain wanted to maintain its strong military relationship with Kenya. British troops continued to train on Kenyan soil and also provided instruction for the Kenyan armed forces.


A particular strength of Cullen’s work is her ability, through a deep knowledge of the British government archives, to locate the influence of certain individuals in the formulation of foreign and defence policy. Here, she foregrounds the role of MacDonald, the final governor of Kenya and then Britain’s High Commissioner in Nairobi from 1964. Among British officials, he had been an early advocate of supporting Kenyatta as a leader with whom London could cultivate a strong post-colonial relationship. Even though no coup plot came to fruition, Cullen observes, MacDonald considered the whole affair to have been to Britain’s benefit, since “Kenyatta and his principal colleagues’ confidence in our wise and effective friendship has been further increased” (804).

More broadly, Cullen rightly points out that the planned military operation in Kenya demonstrates that Britain was not so dissimilar from France in its attitude towards direct intervention in former African colonies, as is sometimes thought. Certainly, France had a much longer track-record of military interventions on the continent since independence. But Britain was hardly a ‘non-interventionist’ power, even after the supposed watershed moment of the Suez Crisis in 1956. As Cullen notes, in January 1964, just over a year before the Odinga ‘plot,’ Britain had responded to requests for military aid from the governments of Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda in putting down genuine barracks mutinies in the three Eastern African states. A violent revolution in Zanzibar during the same month also prompted the British to prepare for a military intervention, although none ultimately took place. Indeed, Cullen might have made more of these earlier operations—implemented or otherwise—and the degree to which they informed British thinking in response to Njonjo’s cry for help in 1965. In any case, the Binnacle plans remained in place until 1971, when they were scrapped as Britain faced the consequences of its decision to cut back on its military presence ‘east of Suez.’


The Cold War looms large over the story of the ‘plot’ against the Kenyatta government.[4] The threat of the Soviet Union or China benefitting from a coup which brought the Odinga to power shaped British responses to the situation, which was itself confused by a welter of rumour and gossip. What, then, of Britain’s American allies? Although Cullen’s article depends largely on British sources, it would be revealing to know the extent to which Britain consulted the United States when considering the Kenyatta government’s request for military back-up. After the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964, Washington had made clear to London that it regarded East Africa as a British ‘sphere of influence.’ But recognition of Britain’s influence brought the expectation that it would use it, and the State Department was unhappy when London proved unwilling to intervene directly to prevent the consolidation of a socialist revolutionary government in Zanzibar.[5] Were the same dynamics of influence and expectation at play in Kenya a year later?


Finally, Cullen’s article leads us to ponder the uses of the Cold War to members of powerful yet also fragile post-colonial elites in Africa. One recurrent trend in the now voluminous literature on the globalisation of the Cold War has been an appreciation of the ability of Third World actors to harness the ideological and geopolitical fixations of the superpowers blocs in pursuing their own interests. Cullen shows how Kenyatta and his supporters were able to draw upon British fears about the potential implications of an Odinga-led government to encourage the former colonial power into creating a contingency plan for propping up the Kenyan regime, should it have been required. In that sense, the next step for international historians of Africa is to keep digging away at the African side of these histories, in spite of the difficulties of accessing the archival records of the post-colonial states.[6]


George Roberts is a postdoctoral researcher in History at the University of Cambridge. He is presently completing a monograph based on his Ph.D. thesis, written at the University of Warwick, provisionally entitled Rumourville: African Liberation, the Cold War, and Revolutionary Politics in Dar es Salaam. He is also beginning a postdoctoral project on Marxism in Africa. His published work has appeared in the Journal of Eastern African Studies and Cold War History.


© 2019 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] For more background on Kenyan politics after independence, see Daniel Branch, Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2011 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 25-65.

[2] Poppy Cullen, Kenya and Britain after Independence: Beyond Neo-Colonialism (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

[3] In addition to Cullen, Kenya and Britain, see also David Percox, Britain, Kenya and the Cold War: Imperial Defence, Colonial Security and Decolonisation (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012).

[4] See also Poppy Cullen, “’Playing Cold War Politics’: The Cold War in Anglo-Kenyan Relations in the 1960s,” Cold War History 18:1 (2018): 37-54.

[5] Ian Speller, “An African Cuba? Britain and the Zanzibar Revolution, 1964,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 35:2 (2007): 1-35.

[6] Stephen Ellis, “Writing Histories of Contemporary Africa,” Journal of African History 43:1 (2002): 1-26.