A new book tells the story of an elite band of ex-special forces who wreaked havoc around the world. Their calling card? A live grenade in a wine glass
by Neil Tweedie, Daily Mail, UK, February 1, 2020
- Private military company KMS operated behind the scenes in the 1970s and 80s
- It did jobs that would cause a diplomatic fall-out if carried out by regular troops
- New book lifts lid on KMS’s activities around the world and the men behind it
As Army tricks go, you would be hard-pressed to find one more devastating.
Take one old-style grenade, remove the pin and insert it delicately into a wine glass — so the glass holds down the lever to keep it from exploding.
Then throw the deadly cocktail from a helicopter. When the glass shatters, the lever will spring back and detonate the grenade.
Simple, cheap, indiscriminate and deadly, it was a favourite of a shadowy mercenary company which operated with impunity across the planet for years, making rich men of the former SAS officers who controlled it.
The targets of these ‘wine glass bombs’, along with waves of bullets fired from the machine guns mounted on the helicopters? Tamil guerrillas in Sri Lanka, supposedly.
Yet the victims were often women, children and the elderly — innocent civilians caught up in a brutal civil war that raged across the Indian Ocean state during the final decades of the 20th century.
KMS Ltd was the sober, business-like name of this private military company, which offered lessons in professional killing to those willing to pay for them.
But within the secretive international mercenary world (referred to by insiders as The Circuit), KMS was better known as Keenie Meenie, a name variously sourced to Arabic, for ‘covert operation’, and Swahili slang, for ‘the movement of a snake through the grass’.
Keen and mean in equal measure, KMS operated behind the scenes in the Seventies and Eighties in places as far flung as Sri Lanka, Nicaragua and Oman, usually with the tacit agreement of Her Majesty’s Government, doing jobs that would cause a diplomatic fall-out if carried out by regular troops.
KMS Ltd was the sober, business-like name of this private military company, which offered lessons in professional killing to those willing to pay for them. A live grenade in a wine glass is pictured above
‘I know this [wine glass tactic] was happening because I went to Trincomalee [a Sri Lankan port] and had lunch there and there were no wine glasses at all,’ says retired Lieutenant Colonel Richard Holworthy, defence attaché at the British High Commission in Sri Lanka from 1985 to 1987.
‘The whole bloody lot had been dropped on Tamils with grenades inside them!’
Indiscriminate bombing of the Tamils, who were seeking independence from the Sinhalese majority backed by Britain, was a feature of this dirtiest of wars.
Raging through the Eighties and beyond, the conflict was characterised by random massacres, torture and ‘necklacing’ — putting rubber tyres around the necks of prisoners then setting them alight.
‘The [Sri Lankan] air force was strafing, using rockets and, eventually, blanket bombing,’ says Lt Col Holworthy, who now lives in France.
‘They had no worry as to where they were dropping them. These were war crimes.’
Their deleterious impact is still felt to this day.
Just this month, the Sri Lankan government acknowledged for the first time that more than 20,000 people who disappeared during the brutal civil war were in fact killed.
Now, a new book, Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes, by Phil Miller, lifts the lid on KMS’s activities and the men behind it — upstanding officers in the regular Army and patrons of London’s exclusive gentlemen’s clubs, where money-making plots were hatched over whisky in smoke-filled rooms.
They were not so gentlemanly, though, when it came to the business of privatised war.
‘KMS helicopter pilots were supposedly flying as co-pilots to Sri Lankan pilots,’ says Miller.
‘But often, when the shooting started, the British had to take control. They would sit in the helicopter on the ground while the soldiers they were carrying went off and committed atrocities.
‘But KMS was more than that. It was involved at a senior level in the military operations in Sri Lanka, helping to direct the war.
‘Senior KMS staff were complicit in atrocities and have never been held to account.’
One of the KMS helicopter pilots in Sri Lanka was Tim Smith, a former member of the Army Air Corps.
In need of money after leaving the force, he applied for a job with KMS and says one of those vetting him was a Ministry of Defence official.
Smith recounts how, during one anti-guerrilla mission, his Sri Lankan co-pilot machine-gunned a harmless old man on a push bike, simply on a whim.
He later wrote in his memoirs that KMS regarded anyone in the area following an attack on government forces as ‘in season’ — open to summary execution from the air or on the ground.
In another incident, a bus thought to be carrying insurgents, but actually full of women and children, was thoroughly peppered with bullets.
As well as carrying out their own atrocities, KMS was contracted to teach Sri Lankan combatants about its dirty tactics.
It trained the Special Task Force (STF), a Sri Lankan paramilitary police unit responsible for numerous massacres, most notoriously in January 1987, when an army and STF contingent helicoptered into a prawn farm near the village of Kokkadichcholai in a dawn raid and allegedly murdered 85 people.
Many of the bodies, including those of teenage boys, were thrown into a well.
But KMS’s murky tentacles of death weren’t simply confined to the Indian subcontinent.
Thousands of miles away in Central America, KMS earned more dirty money, this time from the American government.
It was 1984, the height of the Cold War, and the Reagan administration was obsessed with removing Nicaragua’s Marxist Sandinista government.
Enter U.S. Marine Lt Col Oliver North, member of the U.S. National Security Council, arch cold warrior and the architect of a plan to topple the Sandinistas by financing a secret war against them, ostensibly conducted by its Right-wing Nicaraguan opponents, the Contras.
But a secret war required expertise beyond that possessed by the Contras, so North called in KMS boss David Walker.
A graduate of Cambridge University and Sandhurst military academy, Walker had been an SAS troop commander, along with other founding members of KMS, during Britain’s undeclared involvement in a civil war in the Dhofar region of Oman in the early Seventies.
North decided that the best course of action was to get rid of the Sandinistas’ Soviet-supplied Hind helicopter gunships, which gave the regime a crucial advantage over the Contras. Walker was happy to oblige and, in March 1985, KMS carried out a bomb attack against a military complex in the Nicaraguan capital Managua.
But it soon emerged that the complex contained a hospital treating civilians and some 150 patients had to be evacuated as explosions rocked the city. Luckily, no one was killed.
KMS’s chief man on the ground in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, was another SAS veteran, Major Brian Baty, who had led operations against the IRA in the ‘Bandit Country’ of South Armagh. Known as The Baron in SAS circles, he operated in Sri Lanka under the name of Ken Whyte and gradually assumed a central role in orchestrating the anti-Tamil campaign.
Files show that when Baty was quizzed about the Sri Lankan STF police force by British officials in the Eighties, he defended the blood-soaked unit.
Naturally that did little to allay the concerns of the British government, which was torn between shutting down KMS and utilising the unit to its own ends.
With its SAS heritage, declassified Foreign Office files unearthed by Miller reveal that MI5 regarded it as a ‘go-to’ source for steely bodyguards required to defend embassies in hostile countries.
Supporting Sri Lanka’s government was also a key priority for the Thatcher government, which feared a Tamil victory would allow the expansionist Soviet Union to gain a foothold on the island.
And so KMS’s operations in Sri Lanka allowed Britain to support the embattled government without providing overt military aid, which would cause friction with neighbouring India.
Miller also suggests that KMS may have been used by MI6 to supply weapons and advice to the anti-Soviet Mujahideen, made up of militant Islamist fighters, in Afghanistan during the Cold War.
For all KMS’s secrecy, however, its participation in conflicts across the globe was tricky to keep out of the spotlight.
And, in 1987, Labour MP Dale Campbell-Savours questioned Thatcher directly on what she knew about the mercenary unit.
The PM simply responded: ‘It has been the practice of successive governments not to answer questions about the details of discussions which may have taken place with foreign governments.’
Despite her reticence — which in itself spoke volumes — we know for certain that KMS had direct access to Downing Street in the form of one of its secret backers, former Army officer Tim Landon.
Thousands of miles away in Central America, KMS earned more dirty money, this time from the American government. It was 1984, the height of the Cold War, and the Reagan administration was obsessed with removing Nicaragua’s Marxist Sandinista government. The former US President is pictured above
Landon, whose son Arthur is a socialite and friend of Princes William and Harry, was on close terms with Thatcher, which may have dissuaded concerned mandarins in Whitehall — the previous Labour government had considered banning all mercenary companies — from kicking up a fuss.
KMS also had a friend in Lord Royle, the Tory vice-chairman in the Eighties, who acted as its informal link with the Foreign Office.
But for all its links to people in high places, not every KMS trooper was comfortable with its blatant disregard for military ethics.
One KMS contractor who couldn’t turn a blind eye to the mercenary group’s atrocities was former SAS trooper Robin Horsfall, a veteran of the Iranian embassy siege operation in London in 1980.
He accepted a KMS job in Sri Lanka in 1986 aged 27 after working as a bodyguard for Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed.
Imagining KMS to be a responsible organisation, he hoped it would be different to the ‘Dogs Of War’-style mercenary outfits that had rampaged through Angola and the Congo in the Sixties and Seventies.
But after just four months as a battle school commander in Sri Lanka, he quit, appalled at the ethnic slaughter taking place around him.
The tipping point came when a South African helicopter pilot described to him how his Sri Lankan door gunner had on one occasion mown down every living creature in sight.
However, when asked by the Mail about what he witnessed, Mr Horsfall insisted that he does not believe former British military personnel were directly involved in war crimes — as they themselves didn’t fire weapons at civilians.
‘I have no knowledge of that and never heard of anything like it —and I’m sure I would have heard,’ he says.
‘But there is no doubt that the Sinhalese commanders perpetrated genocide against the Tamils.’
By 1985, KMS’s name curiously disappeared from government documents, but its subsidiary company, Saladin Security — founded in 1978 by Walker — lives on, and to this day has strong links with Saudi Arabia’s despotic regime.
And what of those who made money from their involvement in these secretive wars?
Major Baty lives in retirement in England. When visited by Miller and asked about his role in the dirty war in Sri Lanka, his reply was short and to the point: ‘Bugger off!’
As for Walker, he re-invented himself as, of all things, a local Tory councillor on Elmbridge Council in Surrey for a time.
Before his election, he reportedly told voters that he was ‘a man of action’ and involved in ‘defence matters at a national level’.
In 2017, on learning of a ceremony commemorating the STF, he penned a letter to its then commandant, praising its founders.
Describing Keenie Meenie’s role in Sri Lanka from 1983, he wrote: ‘It continues to be a matter of great pride that I frequently heard STF described as the most effective force in the country.’
‘Effective’ is one way to describe it. The loved ones of those butchered by it may disagree.
Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes is published by plutobooks.com at £12.99.
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