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British war crimes are crimes committed by the armed forces of the United Kingdom from its formation in 1707 to the present day. Actions labeled "war crimes" range from independent actions of individual soldiers, such as the abuse of prisoners in the Iraq War,[1] to officially sanctioned actions such as the bombing of Dresden in 1945.[2][3]


While most of the war crimes committed by the British during their wars of conquest in India were not recorded, those committed during the brutal British suppression of the 1857 war of independence were recorded in passing. These included widespread summary executions across the countryside, particularly by forces under the command of Neill and Renaud; indiscriminate murder of civilians during the capture of Delhi; and the summary execution of the princes of Delhi and other Indian leaders. [4]

Boer War

Lizzie van Zyl, visited by Emily Hobhouse in a British concentration camp

During the later stages of the Second Boer War, the British Empire ordered the civilian internment of the Afrikaner population into concentration camps,[5] one of the earliest uses of this method by modern powers.[6][7] Though intended as a humanitarian gesture to protect the civilian population from the British Army's scorched earth policy, the women and children were rounded up and driven to, or transported to the camps under the most brutal, inhuman and appalling conditions, e.g. being transported in open cattle trucks in freezing rain during winter, without being given adequate food and water.[citation needed] A significant portion of adults died.[8] Some Afrikaners consider this to be a war crime,[9][10] which ended with the death of at least 34,000 people.[10] A later Prime minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, declared in the British Parliament on 14 June 1901: "When is a war not a war? When it is waged in South Africa by methods of barbarism."[11]

World War I

Two German submarines, U-27 and U-41 were sunk by the British Q-ship HMS Baralong between August and September 1915. In the first case, a number of survivors were summarily executed by Baralong´s crewmembers under orders of Lieutenant Godfrey Herbert on 19 August 1915. The massacre was reported to a newspaper by American citizens on board Nicosia, a British freighter loaded with war supplies which was stopped by U-27 just minutes before the incident.[12] On 24 September, Baralong destroyed U-41, which was in the process of sinking the cargo ship Urbino. According to Karl Goetz, the U-41's commander, the British vessel continued flying the U.S. flag after opening fire on the submarine, and the lifeboat carrying the German survivors was rammed and sunk by the British Q-ship.[13]

Chemical weapons in warfare

Poison gas was introduced by Imperial Germany, and was subsequently used by all major belligerents (including Britain) in the war against enemy soldiers, in violation of the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, which prohibited the use of "poison or poisoned weapons" in warfare.[14][15]

Irish War of Independence

Prime Minister David Lloyd George declared a state of emergency during the Anglo-Irish War.[when?] To break the Irish Republican Army, Winston Churchill, then UK Secretary of State for War, suggested recruiting World War I veterans into paramilitary units. Lloyd George agreed and advertisements were filed in British newspapers. Former enlisted men were formed into the Black and Tans, so called because of their mixture of British Army and police uniforms. Veterans who had held officers rank were formed into the Auxiliary Division, who were better paid and received better supplies.[citation needed]

Kevin Barry, an 18-year-old medical student and Irish Republican Army volunteer, was captured following a gun battle between IRA volunteers and British soldiers, which resulted in the deaths of three British soldiers, Privates Humphries, Washington and Whitehead, at least two of whom were around the same age as Barry.[16][16] Following his capture, Barry was interrogated and allegedly subjected to violence and threats of murder by British soldiers.[16] As the British Government denied POW status to IRA members, Barry was interrogated under torture by British servicemen without access to a solicitor or civilian constable. He refused to name the others present at the ambush and was subsequently charged and convicted of first degree murder by a military tribunal on 28 October 1919 and executed by hanging on 1 November 1919.[17]

John Ainsworth, author of Kevin Barry, the Incident at Monk's bakery and the Making of an Irish Republican Legend, has pointed out that Barry had been captured by the British not as a uniformed soldier but disguised as a civilian and in possession of flat-nosed "Dum-dum" bullets, in contravention of the Hague Convention. Dum-dum bullets were invented by the British Indian Army in the 1890s at Dum-Dum Arsenal, near Calcutta. The inventor (Capt. Bertie Clay of the Royal Artillery)[citation needed] realized that by drilling a hole in the bullet, it would expand on impact, maximising the damage to the "unfortunate individual" who was targeted. A recent adaptation is the hollow-point bullet, which has a pit in the nose of the bullet maximising damage on impact. Under international law, dum-dum bullets are banned from military use but are used by police forces around the world, because they suggest, they decrease the chances of causing collateral damage to innocent passers-by.[18]

Bloody Sunday was a day of violence in Dublin on 21 November 1920. The day began when Michael Collins' assassin squad, known as "The Twelve Apostles" assassinated 13 British intelligence agents, including most of the "Cairo Gang". That same afternoon, a combined force of British soldiers, policemen, and paramilitaries opened fire on the crowd at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, killing 14 civilians and wounding 68.[citation needed]

Iraqi revolt (1920)

During the first years of British rule in Iraq, numerous attacks on civilians were carried out, including village burning and indiscriminate bombing.[19]

World War II

Crimes against prisoners, civilians, and civilian property

In violation of the Hague Conventions, British line of communication troops conducted small scale looting in Bayeux and Caen in France, following their liberation, during Operation Overlord.[20] At Seedorf, in Germany, British armoured forces randomly selected and burned two cottages on 21 April 1945, as a reprisal against local civilians who had hidden German soldiers in their cellars.[21] On 23 May 1945, British troops in Schleswig-Holstein plundered Glücksburg castle, stealing jewelry, and desecrating 38 coffins from the castle's mausoleum.[22] The British Government closed public access to the official report about the incident for 75 years.[23]

The "London Cage", a MI19 prisoner of war facility in the United Kingdom during and immediately after the war, was subject to allegations of torture.[24] 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, which found that there was "mental and physical torture during the interrogations" and that "personal property of the prisoners were stolen".[25]

Unrestricted submarine warfare

In response to Germany's intensive unrestricted submarine warfare during the Battle of the Atlantic and its invasion of Denmark and Norway, the British Navy carried on its own unrestricted submarine warfare contrary to the 1936 Second London Naval Treaty after the British Admiralty announced on 4 May 1940 that all vessels in the Skagerrak were to be sunk on sight without warning.[26][27]

War Rape

Although far from the scale of those committed by the Red Army, rapes of local women were allegedly a common feature among British and Canadian troops in Germany. Even elderly women were allegedly targeted. The Royal Military Police tended to turn a blind eye towards abuse of German prisoners and civilians but rape was a major issue for them. Some officers reportedly treated this behaviour with leniency. Many rapes were committed under the effects of alcohol or post-traumatic stress, but there were cases of premeditated attacks, such as the assault on three German women in the town of Neustadt am Rübemberge and the attempted gang-rape of two local girls at gunpoint in the village of Oyle, near Nienburg, which ended in the death of one of the women when one of the soldiers, it is not clear if unintentionally or otherwise, discharged his gun, hitting her in the neck.[28]

Bombing of Dresden

Civilians killed in a hospital room at Dresden

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 Dresden, which killed over 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,[29] the Hague Conventions did prohibit the bombardment of undefended towns. Allied forces inquiry concluded that an air attack on the German city of Dresden was militarily justified on the grounds the city was defended.[30] This city was filled with refugees fleeing the oncoming Red Army. It has been widely believed that the bombing was to showcase to the Red Army the "bombing capability" of the British and of the Americans.[31][32] When asked whether the bombing of Dresden was a war crime, British historian Frederick Taylor replied that "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."[33] 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."[34]

Iraq War

Corporal Donald Payne (born 9 September 1970)[35] 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 when he pleaded guilty on 19 September 2006 to a charge of inhumane treatment.[36][37] He was jailed for one year and dismissed from the army as a result of his actions.[38]

See also


  1. "Iraqi prisoners 'were beaten and tortured by British soldiers to avenge fallen comrades'", Daily Mail (17 October 2009); retrieved 7 June 2011
  2. Bass, Gary Jonathan (2000).Stay the hand of vengeance: the politics of war crimes tribunals. Princeton University Press, p. 16; ISBN 691092788
  3. Addison, Paul and Crang, Jeremy (2006).Firestorm: the bombing of Dresden 1945. Pimlico, p. 180. ISBN 184413928X
  4. "British Atrocities". Harpers Weekly. Retrieved 16 October 2013. 
  5. The Second Boer War and the concentration camps BBC; retrieved 7 June 2011
  6. Ferguson, Niall. (2004) Empire: the rise and demise of the British world order and the lessons for global power. Basic Books, p. 232; ISBN 0465023290
  7. Cooper, Alan. (2009) The geography of genocide. University Press of America, p. 152; ISBN 0761840974
  8. "British Concentration Camps of the South African War 1900-1902". University of Cape Town. Retrieved 5 June 2011. 
  9. Ashplant, Timothy; Dawson, Graham; Roper, Michael (2004). Commemorating War: The Politics of Memory. Transaction Publishers, p. 122; ISBN 0765808153
  10. 10.0 10.1 Crawford, Keith and Foster, Stuart (2008). War, nation, memory: international perspectives on World War II in school history textbooks. IAP. p. 43; ISBN 159311852X
  11. Pakenham, Thomas (1992). The Boer War. HarperCollins, p. 539; ISBN 0380720019
  12. Halpern, Paul G. (1994). A Naval History of World War I. Routledge, p. 301; ISBN 1857284984
  13. Hadley, Michael L. (1995). Count Not the Dead: The Popular Image of the German Submarine. McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP, p. 36; ISBN 0773512829.
  14. Telford Taylor (1 November 1993). The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-3168-3400-9. Retrieved 20 June 2013. 
  15. Thomas Graham, Damien J. Lavera (May 2003). Cornerstones of Security: Arms Control Treaties in the Nuclear Era. University of Washington Press. pp. 7–9. ISBN 0-2959-8296-9. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 O'Donovan, Donal. Kevin Barry and His Time, Glendale, Dublin, 1989; ISBN 0-907606-68-7
  17. Golway, Terry. (2001). For the Cause of Liberty. New York: Simon & Schuster; ISBN 0-684-85556-9.
  18. Ainsworth, John. "Kevin Barry, the Incident at Monk's bakery and the Making of an Irish Republican Legend", History, Volume 87, Number 287, July 2002 (p. 381).
  19. Glancey, Jonathan (19 April 2003). "Our last occupation". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 February 2010. 
  20. Flint, Edwards R (2009). The development of British civil affairs and its employment in the British Sector of Allied military operations during the Battle of Normandy, June to August 1944. Cranfield, Bedford: Cranfield University; Cranfield Defence and Security School, Department of Applied Science, Security and Resilience, Security and Resilience Group. p. 354. 
  21. Biddiscombe, Perry (1998). Werwolf!: The History of the National Socialist Guerrilla Movement, 1944–1946. University of Toronto Press. p. 257. ISBN 978-0-8020-0862-6. 
  22. Castle looted by British troops, AAP, 23 August 1947
  23. Looting of Glucksburg Castle, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, by British troops on 23 May 1945, UK National Archives
  24. Cobain, Ian (12 November 2005). "The secrets of the London Cage". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 February 2009. 
  25. Lt Col R.G.W. Stephens (2000). Oliver Hoare (ed.). ed. Camp 020: MI5 and the Nazi Spies. Public Records Office. p. 7. ISBN 1-903365-08-2. 
  26. Innes McCartney (15 July 2013). British Submarines 1939-45. Osprey Publishing. p. 21. ISBN 1-8460-3007-2. 
  27. Nachman Ben-Yehuda (15 July 2013). Atrocity, Deviance, and Submarine Warfare: Norms and Practices during the World Wars. University of Michigan Press. p. 133. ISBN 0-4721-1889-7. 
  28. Longden, Sean (2004) To the victor the spoils: D-Day to VE Day, the reality behind the heroism. Arris Books, p. 195; ISBN 1844370380
  29. Gómez, Javier Guisández (2010). "The Law of Air Warfare". pp. 347–363. Digital object identifier:10.1017/S0020860400091075. 
  30. USAF Historical Division[verification needed]
  31. Crawford, Keith A.; Stuart J. Foster (2007). War, Nation, Memory: International Perspectives on World War II in School History Textbooks. IAP. ISBN 9781593118525. 
  32. Taylor, Frederick (21 April 2009). Dresden. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780061908170. 
  33. "Dresden Bombing Is To Be Regretted Enormously". Spiegel Online. 2 November 2005.,1518,341239,00.html. Retrieved 15 January 2010. 
  34. Addison, Paul & Crang, Jeremy A. (eds.). Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden. Pimlico, 2006; ISBN 1-84413-928-X. Chapter 9, p. 180
  35. "Parliamentary publication (Hearing Transcript)". 30 April 2007. Retrieved 15 July 2009. 
  36. Charge sheet for trial by court-marshal. The Queen v. Donald Payne...,, July 2005
  37. "British soldier admits war crime". BBC News. 19 September 2006. Retrieved 23 September 2006. 
  38. "UK soldier jailed over Iraq abuse". BBC News. 30 April 2007. Retrieved 30 April 2007. 

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