Witness of an Execution
Execution of Royal Princes & Army Officers
By Rabbi Burns RAF Regiment
Rabbi served 12 years in the RAF Regiment from 1954 to 1966. He served in Egypt, Cyprus, Aden, UK, Cyprus 2nd Tour, Libya, Malta, UK, Singapore, Borneo, and UK. He was Demobbed April 1966 at RAF Catterick.
In 1955 there was a revolt against the ruler, Imam Ahmad, and some princes and army officers involved in the failed coup were caught in Aden by the British Forces, along with the Aden police, and had to be returned to face trial. This came about because the Imam had asked for British assistance to capture and return the princes and army officers who had escaped to Aden, and because we needed to maintain peaceful relations with the Yemeni rulers, we obliged.
An RAF Dakota was prepared to take the prisoners and their armed escort to Saana, which at the time was the capital of the Yemen. The armed escort consisted of 8 Aden policemen plus an Inspector Collins and Sergeant of the Aden police, 12 RAF Regiment personnel, of which I was one, commanded by Flying Officer D. Smart along with Sergeant W. Mason and Corporal G. Priestley, a Political Officer, along with an official from the Yemeni Legation with us.
One thing I must say is that I really admired the officers of the Political Office for they went into harms way more than any other. Their role was to go into the tribal areas and obtain information to assist the British forces to keep the peace, often disguised as tribesmen, and their knowledge of languages and customs had to be excellent.
Once all were in place and the prisoners aboard in chains for the flight we took off. It was a short 30-minute flight and when we landed an armed guard of the Yemeni Royal Guard had transport for the prisoners and us. The escort took the prisoners to the local prison were they were incarcerated and we were then taken to our accommodation in the British Legation compound to rest until the next day when we would fly back to Aden.
We were just settling in when our officer in charge called us all together as the Political Officer had something to tell us; it was that we had to parade in the morning and be present to witness the execution. That went down like a lead balloon but as we didn't have any option we had to do as we were ordered. He then explained that the Imam had requested this and that the High Commissioner had agreed. We dismissed and went to eat and all the talk was what it would be like and would we see it all or just be in the background for show. Well we would just have wait and see. It seemed a bit sudden that these prisoners' trial had been so short until our officer explained that they had already been tried in absentia and convicted and the only punishment was death by the sword. We all spent a restless night, as you could imagine, and woke up on tenterhooks waiting for what was to come. It had been arranged that the execution would take place in the Royal Square at midday so we got bulled up and awaited our transport.
At about 1130 hrs the trucks turned up so we boarded them and set off. When we arrived at the Square we were placed right in the front row standing at ease with bayonets fixed. The Square started to fill with all the dignitaries and the common people who filed in at the back. Armed Royal Guards ringed the Square and they soon settled everyone in their places. The Imam and his retinue arrived for the ceremony and we were brought to attention and gave the 'Present Arms' salute to him.
At about 1150 hrs the prisoners were brought out and allowed to pray, the charges were read out and the sentence given. The executioners arrived with their helpers. There were two helpers to each prisoner and one officer executioner. The prisoners were made to kneel and the helpers stood behind them and grasped their wrists that were handcuffed. On the given word of command, the helpers forced the prisoners arms up and the executioners jabbed them in the side with their scimitars to make them put their necks out and then swiftly beheaded them all with one stroke. It was all over in seconds and if we hadn't been watching we would have missed it. On discussing it afterwards we all said the same thing, which was that it had been hard not to be sick at the sight before our eyes.
Once we were released and got back to the legation the Political Officer and the High Commissioner told us that the reason we had been asked to be present was because the Imam wanted to send a discreet message to the Governor through us. The message was that this was the way they dealt with any enemies and it was, in a way, a warning to the British forces and the government. We spent an hour having a meal that hardly anyone ate and then we were trucked back to the airport. We took off and flew back to Aden where we were dismissed and told to tell our mates what had happened.
We were also told to advise them not to be caught by the Yemeni's when we went up country on patrols or on any convoy runs, as they didn't take any prisoners because they were a feudal society. By that it means that their way of life was if anyone hurt or killed any member of their family then every member of the family had to kill a member of the family of the person who killed one of theirs. In a way they weren't much different from the hillbillies of Kentucky or Tennessee in that they were easily insulted and you had to be very careful in your handling of them, as it was hard to know how you had upset them sometimes. They would get some dried meat, a couple of loaves of bread and a water skin and go and lie up near where the other family grazed their goats or camels and wait for days just to get a shot in and every one was a kill.
They were armed with mostly Jezzails or old French Lebel rifles and they made their own ammunition and, don't let anyone tell you they weren't good for their eyes were almost perfect and they could see for miles. I always had a great respect for them even although I didn't like them very much but you had to keep your wits about you when you were in their backyard. When they came down to Aden, as they did frequently with the camel caravans, when they walked through the Souks and Markets the Adenis got out of their way fast; they parted like water does when the prow of a boat cuts through it. They all carry a curved knife called a Jambayya usually with an ivory or rhinoceros horn handle in their waistband, and are not slow in drawing it and using it if insulted or they feel threatened in any way. All in all a people to tread warily when they are around.