Aden Days 1965-67
Aden Colony 1965 to 1967 My first posting as a commissioned officer. This was an eye-opener of a first tour of duty for a 24 year old RAF "zombie" officer doing my duty as far as I could, to the extent of my ability. My duty was selling scrap equipment to 70 odd Arab contractors.
Where I worked in Cemetery Valley, the Aden Forces Pistol Club had a range - so I joined them! Of course, when I joined, Col Drake-Wilkes, the President, welcomed me and appointed me as club secretary! This was a mixed blessing and I managed to keep my head above water so to speak!
The matches were grand affairs when we visited Djibouti as guests of the French where lavish entertainment was laid on and no expense seemed to be spared!
On the other hand, when the French were our guests in Aden, the celebrations were much muted under the stricture of non-public funds which were deemed sufficient by the Command Secretariat for the entertainment of foreign forces during matches.
This situation prevailed throughout the two years I was on posting and was to say the least a complete embarrassment for us. Nobody complained - least of all the French - so we all had a good time while it lasted.
I was working away selling scrap equipment by tender action rather than auction to 70 Arab contractors. As OC I organised the assembly of the lots according to their attractiveness and had about 10 lots per week. These were viewed on a Thursday by the contractors and they would have to submit their bids by the next Tuesday. This meant that any illegal rings amongst the contractors that an auction sale might throw up thereby reducing the price would be overtaken by the tender action time to be submitted on the Tuesday. By this time any Arab illicit agreement would have been torn up because each individual really wanted the equipment.
The picture shows a successful contractor collecting his lot of boxes filled with spares. This action was so successful that the Air Ministry looked at their sales of scrap equipment in UK being back loaded in empty shipping coming out to collect redundant, but serviceable, equipment from Aden. But this was overtaken by events i.e. autumn 1967 when we all left!
Anyway what I'm coming to, I was telephoned by a Sqn Ldr Alan D'Arcy, an Arabist of HQMEC, to ask as I was a member of the Aden Forces Pistol Club and had my own weapon would I be prepared to act as his personal escort as he was going to live with the upper Aulaqui tribe of Arabs for some 10 days and I would be responsible for protecting his life! - I was 25; so I agreed!
This is my personal weapon a Walther P 38 parabellum 9mm semi-automatic pistol which I bought through mail-order direct from the Walther Works in Ulm, Germany. I took sufficient 9mm ammo boxes for the 10 days and waited for the call forward which had been agreed by my CO.
We travelled out from Khormaksar on a Beverley of No 84 Sqn, staging at Habilayne camp where you see a travel control security check carried out by the Beverley crew in progress. This was on the emplaning of Federal National Guard (FNG) soldiers at the staging post. Alan D'Arcy is seen walking on the perimeter in the distance passing his time during this turnaround.
We arrived at Ataq and were met by representatives of the Upper Aulaqui tribe including their leader called the Naib.
Habilayne Flag Stop
Arrival at Ataq
Here he is, in western dress, firing his pistol as a practice shoot, again to pass the time, whilst waiting for the tribal transport to take us to the Arab town of Nisab.
You see Alan leaning against the Naib's vehicle and the leader's Chief of Staff looking into the distance for sight of them.
These duly arrived:
Landrovers driven by Arab drivers over the barren countryside at high speed, with tribesmen escorts armed to the teeth.
These high rise buildings were built entirely of mud with very thick walls at the base and the atmosphere inside very cool during the heat of midday with draughts allowed through the windows, although being ornate wooden frames, but with no glass so cooling air moves freely.
At this point I must explain the role of Alan D'Arcy's trip up country. He was a secretarial officer at HQMEC but was also a fluent Arab speaker; and as such he had offered his services of Arabic translation to the HQ branch concerned. Hence, he was asked to visit the leader of the Upper Aulaqui tribe and to explain to him what British government policy was with regard to their tribal future in the politics of the day.
I must explain further what the situation was in the Colony of Aden at that time. The British Government had made a rather vague statement that the end of British control of Aden was on the horizon. This was a highly political statement for it unleashed a fever of nationalism amongst the Arab workforce. They considered themselves head and shoulders above their countrymen in the tribes of the surrounding area. As time went by this national fervour spawned extremist groups which were: Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) an Egyptian sponsored group and The National Liberation Front (NLF). Another Egyptian sponsored front but with different objectives and methodology so they were in direct competition and daggers drawn at each other in their respective race to replace the British with their form of government when we left.
What had put the cat amongst the pigeons was the British decision - which had been maintained throughout - to devolve power to the tribal leaders and a new government HQ building was constructed and commissioned for use at Al Ittihad for this purpose.
The Aden Arab workforce were far from happy to be ruled after independence by a bunch of feudal tribal warlords who, in their opinion, came out of a 16th century world and not the then present 20th century day of commerce, trade and distribution.
Also, in 1967 the Arab/Israeli war was in full swing so Cairo was spreading propaganda saying that we - the British in Aden - were aiding and abetting the Jewish Nation in the slaughter of brother Arabs on the Golan Heights!
So, it was to counter these untruths that Alan was sent to Nisab to give the correct British interpretation of events leading to our pull-out from Aden in 1967. Although, he was unaware of what was in store, as traumatic events took place after we left and for which we had no control.
Having arrived at the Arab town of Nisab we were taken to our accommodation, a white building of mud in the shape of a stockade on the outskirts of the town. You see Alan walking towards the building alone.
He was play-acting for the photograph, carrying his briefcase and dressed in an Arab futah (skirt) pretending to be the typical British colonialist about to take over a fort with just modest physical exertion!
During the history of South Arabia since Capt Haines of the Indian Navy captured Aden in 1839; only Aden town itself was taken and the vast hinterland beyond was left to its own warlike way of life. The sole attempt at pacifying the Northern tribes was to send Arabic speaking political officers out to ethnic areas to report back to Aden on local intelligence gained and to make friends with local leaders to try and bring them into the British scheme of tactics and policy for the area. So, it was to the old political officer's residence at Nisab that we were about set up the accommodation for a 10 day stay. The building was protected with one entrance gate which could be securely locked.
We were in a male preserve where the prowess of each man was measured by his ability to fire his weapon accurately. In other words, to kill the enemy with as few rounds as possible.
In the town, women were there, but hidden from view whilst strangers were in their midst. Although youngsters, of either sex, could roam around unhindered.
The Tribal leaders decided that the next day - after Alan and I were refreshed - we should all go for a picnic in the desert close to the edge of the Aulaqui territory. The journey started early next morning before the sun rose too high in the sky so that we could get shelter from it, at the huge boulder you see here and below.
Our day out was to include a sumptuous meal which would be slaughtered and cooked on site. You see the meal tethered in the Landrover being completely unaware of what their future held for them!
Water was carried in hog skins so that coffee could be prepared and the cooks had their knives sharpened. We were going to the outer fringes of the tribal region so attack from neighbouring tribes and nationalists were a distinct possibility.
We enjoyed the meal which was indeed fresh meat cooked to perfection so it wasn't long before the tribal warriors went to sleep, leaving specified watch keepers on the lookout of course!
After sleeping, shooting practice was the next item on the agenda. Here you see the Naib with his Russian AK 47 automatic rifle showing his men what a superb shot he was. I was asked to compete but I chose to use my Walther pistol and with a suitable trajectory and after allowing for the wind, got near to the target at the extreme edge of my pistol's range. Nevertheless, I was congratulated by the assembled warriors - it also, let me off the hook in case I showed greater ability than the Naib with his own weapon type!
Finally, a scrupulous tidy-up of the campsite so that others who visit will have no inkling of who was there before - a very necessary security precaution in this part of the world!
We returned from our interesting picnic in the shade of the massive boulder in the desert. As to how it got there in the first place, is lost in the sands of time. After some minor mechanical problems with our transport, which were deftly dealt with by the able bodied warriors filling the radiator with water from a pigskin container. We got on our way back to Nisab. There is a definite skill in desert driving over sand dunes for if you are not careful you can easily bottom the vehicle leaving it high and dry with wheels spinning. I quickly found this out when I was given a spell at the wheel; much to my embarrassment. Nevertheless, this was overcome by the expertise of the company with me and we were on our way without delay. It was not long before we arrived at Nisab and were delivered to our stockade home.
The next day we were invited to a gathering of the clan or, rather the tribe. We made our way on foot to the assembly point were a sizable number of people were gathering in a large circle. Alan and I were together and he was explaining what was going on. The food was being prepared and while we were waiting for this, a man made his way, entertaining the crowd as a sort of court jester. Alan warned me that he would be coming our way to administer olives which were tainted with a very bitter substance - so much so that you would have to spit it out much to the enjoyment of the assembled crowd. I was handed the olive, I pulled my pistol out, tossed the olive into the circle in front of me, and shot it to pieces with one round. All the warriors stood up and fired their weapons into the air in jubilation!
The two pictures show Alan with his followers and me with a very proud warrior who insisted that I was to carry a rifle if I was to have my photo taken with him - so I did!
After the gathering of the clan we returned to Nisab following a coolant and one burst tyre problem, both ably remedied by my companions. You see them here changing a wheel in the desert. When fixed, we went on our way to our base at Nisab. Travelling through this part of South Arabia (now Yemen) is passing through another time spread - the land has not been molested by the modern world and ancient sites and workings still exist in their original settings.
See my friendly warrior pointing out some ancient chiselled script on the side of a rock.
This was the land of the Queen of Sheba and the civilisation of that time has left much evidence of their importance in this centre of the world which, as I said, has been largely untouched.
When we arrived back at our stockade we found that we were visited by a couple of wandering minstrels who continued to play whilst we took notice of them. The fact that they had gained access to the stockade was significant: intelligence once gained can be sold for money - probably to the wrong side - which would mean to our detriment. However, our stay was coming to an end. So these minstrels, on foot and with no communication, would take weeks before news of our presence filtered to the republican forces waiting to pounce.
Another personality turned up: a sole Arab wanderer armed with ancient rifle and happy to have his picture taken. This character wandered the deserts shooting rats and other vermin and drinking from lichen full of condensation on the desert at dawn.
Alan had completed his mission of confirming that all was well with the South Arabian Federation which would be supported by the UK forces even after our departure. However, whilst we had been out of communication with the outside world little did we know that the Foreign Secretary, George Brown, had spelt out Aden's future in that he said that independence for South Arabia would be granted on 9th January 1968 but that in departure from the Government's policy of military assistance with ground forces then - no support - instead after Conservative opposition badgering the Government, he relented, and offered a force of Vulcan bombers with conventional weapons which would be available to assist the Federation, based on the island of Masirah. The bombers would be supported by a strong naval force in South Arabian waters.
Although this was a new departure from Government policy of - no support - it was too little too late in terms of supporting the fledging South Arabian Federation. By now the NLF had infiltrated at all levels South Arabian society and were sleepers awaiting the right time to strike.
Our departure from Nisab and the Upper Aulaqui tribe was imminent. As you see from the picture there was a great danger I was going to be offered as a sacrifice! - I jest; but the leaving of these brave people to the political unknown that was before them on the withdrawal of British control of Aden Colony after 129 years of control was absolutely devastating for these proud tribes of warriors. We returned to Khormaksar and re-established our life in our respective jobs. Each evening, along with others, I had volunteered to replace an Army patrol through the streets of Aden. We reported to the Army Control Centre where I would brief my scratch team of airmen and then go out on our patrol looking out for potential assassins and grenadiers.
The political situation was coming to a head. FLOSY and the NLF were each confident that they were going to assume power post our departure. This was decided in Sheikh Othman and Crater, the Arab district which was easily cut off at Main Point by British Security and on this occasion when the fire-fight started in Crater there were no British forces involved. This was a survival of the fittest by fire-power and it went on hour after hour involving civilians being caught in the onslaught between the two Arab factions. At the sunset it stopped and the NLF appeared supreme for takeover. This was to be accepted as a reality much to our dismay but we had no choice.
When this happened I was commanding a patrol controlling a checkpoint on the coastal road from Khormaksar to Crater stopping all traffic apart from service on duty going into the district. As there had been the fire-fight traffic was sparse. Until I noticed two Landrovers, one with a commander's pennant, approaching from the Crater region. I called to my scratch team of RAF tradesmen operating as soldiers to warn them of a senior officer approaching and to look smart. The lead LR arrived and out stepped Lt Col Colin Mitchell of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders (AKA: "Mad Mitch"). I saluted whereupon two shots from across the bay aimed at us tore through the air between Col Mitchell and myself at head height and struck the cliff on the other side of the road splintering the rock face but no damage to us! The good Col said, "I think I've outstayed my welcome!" The cover of the book, "Aden Insurgency", depicts this incident, but as it was commissioned as a painting for the Argyle's, there was no RAF involvement!
The next day I had a similar situation commanding a check point at the customs point on the road to RAF Steamer Point. There had been rioting in the Steamer Point district of Tawahi and a number of Arab ring leaders had been killed. The bodies had been loaded on flat bed trucks and taken to the Aden Cold Store (food). It was the only cold place of sufficient size in Aden. However, this meant that as each lorry passed our check point it had to be searched. Dead bodies are an ideal place to secrete away weapons and IED's.
Whilst I was on the truck checking bodies for weapons I noticed in the bay a motorised longboat with a dozen or so sailors on board with the Hammer and Sickle red flag flying from the stern of the vessel which was approaching the jetty! I immediately jumped off the wagon and grabbed the nearby Arab police officer and we both went to the jetty where I put my hands up in a denying fashion saying "No Landing - we have unrest - Danger" They protested, whereupon the Arab police officer pulled out his pistol and fired two shots over their heads. This action convinced them that we meant business and they turned around and went back to their ship. They had been on an intelligence gathering mission and had picked up enough information without landing.So, my posting to this outpost of empire came to an end. I was posted to RAF Marham to a quieter existence!
Since I retired, as with others, I have searched the internet and to my amazement found news of Alan D'Arcy. He was a member of the British Yemeni Society and takes parties to Aden each year. I contacted him by e-mail and at his request sent him pictures of our time in tribal areas - he was amazed with these pictures for he explained that the tribal leaders and their henchmen had been wiped out by NLF insurgents after we left. The Naib managed to get his heavily pregnant wife out of the country to Saudi Arabia - she escaped just before he was summarily executed with the rest of his tribal henchmen. Alan told me that the Naib's wife had a son and now that he was mature he had been asked to return to the Yemen and resume the leadership of the Upper Aulaqui which he did, and Alan showed him and his tribal brother's pictures of their fathers whom they had never seen.
So, the story ends: but as I said it was an eye opener for a 25 year old embarking on a career - everything from then on rather paled until at RAF Marham I managed to find the excitement I yearned for - I went gliding with the Fenland Gliding Club in my spare time and achieved silver C standard.