45 Commando in the Radfan
45 Royal Marine Commando served in Aden from 23rd April 1960 until November 1967 and the advance party arrived on the 10th of March 1960. One of the first tasks of the advance party was to take over the camp in Little Aden from the British Petroleum Company. The heat and humidity combined to make the Aden posting an unpleasant station for British troops. The main body of 45 Commando arrived on the 23rd of April 1960 relieving the 1st Battalion, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. The other British forces in the colony at the time were an internal security battalion at Khormasker Airfield RAF, a cavalry squadron equipped with Centurion tanks at Bir-Fuqum, a cavalry regiment in the camp opposite Four Five's with Ferret and Saladin armoured vehicles, HQ Middle East Command, HMS Sheba Naval Base, HQ Aden Garrison, and other base installations situated at big Aden.
45 Commando's second home was Dhala Camp, which lies on a plateau at an altitude of some 5,000 feet, situated some eighty miles north of Aden and less than ten miles from the Yemen border. In addition to the rifle troop stationed at Dhala, there was also a detachment of support troops based here to man the mortar and heavy machine gun positions and there was also an airstrip built about 300 yards away for Twin Pioneers to land in order to bring in fresh supplies and that most important cargo, mail. With activities in the early, sixties described as the 'brewing up' period, Oman was facing very grave threats to its stability because the Sultan of Muscat had styled himself the ruler of Muscat and Oman. British assistance was asked for to restore the rightful ruler of the Oman, so an expeditionary force of the Special Air Service was sent, which achieved great success. The Royal Marines provided the Sultan's Armed Forces with officers and NCOs in a training and operational capacity and throughout the many years in Aden Four Five made a valuable contribution to the Sultan's Armed Forces.
The newly formed Republican Government of the Yemen was now starting it's anti-imperialist campaign, many internal and external threats began to emerge and the volatile situation in the border states was at a boiling point. It was decided to put up a show of force, as dissidents had been active in the region. The British force consisted of over 1,000 troops including Four Five Commando, a squadron of centurions of the Royal Scots Greys, a troop of the 9th/12th Lancers, D Battery Royal Horse Artillery and other supporting units. An amphibious landing was made at Shuqra with over 150 vehicles in the convoy making their way to up to Lodar. While Four Five picketed the mountain heights, the convoy kept going through the sweltering heat. The track in some places was so narrow, sections of the 34th Independent Field Squadron R.E were brought in to widen and repair the surface and it took nearly two days to reach the objective. Sea Vixens and Scimitars supported the ground troops from the carrier HMS Ark Royal. They screamed past the convoy at heights of only a few feet and could not of failed to impress friend and foe alike.
During this period, the merger of Aden Colony (now to be known as Aden State) into the federation of South Arabia went forward despite fierce opposition from within the Colony. It was quite impossible to seal the border with the Yemen as the Yemeni population in the now state of Aden had risen to about 80,000 and it was easy enough to issue them with arms and explosives from the Yemen border, which of course was open to traffic from either direction. The British Government, not recognising the Yemeni Republic, had inflamed the hostile tribesmen of the mountain region known as the Radfan, from which for centuries they had preyed upon the Dhala Road and they had become increasingly aggressive during 1963. It was estimated by Military Intelligence that the hostile force in the Radfan area was over 6,000 strong and would have to be overcome if progress was to be made. The Dhala Road would have to be developed to subdue the rebel strongholds in the mountains. The final goad was a grenade that was thrown into the lounge of the civil airport at Aden on December 10th 1963 injuring the High Commissioner of the Federation Sir Kennedy Trevaskis and fifty-five other persons. The federal Government declared a state of emergency and the British Government gave the go-ahead for the occupation of the Radfan.
The operations began on January 1964 with the Federal Regular Army at brigade strength and the objective was Bakri Ridge, 8 miles east of the Dhala Road at Thumier. The dropping of picketing parties by Belvedere on the mountaintops did not bring any success as the F.R.A were forced to retreat when they were outnumbered by the well-armed Radfan Rebels (supplied by Egypt). The F.R.A, by a series of determined advances, gained the Bakri Ridge after about two weeks hard slogging and by the end of January the sappers had built a road to the ridge. The F.R.A advance now continued and had subdued most of the Radfan but in the course of it's commitment it had become overstretched in trying to keep the rest of the Federation peaceful. They were therefore withdrawn from the Radfan and the tribesmen resumed their offensive with greater weight of firepower than before and the Yemeni's even came across the border to give support to the rebels. It was also reported that Egyptian trained Commandos were operating in the Radfan. The Federal Government appealed to the British for direct military aid. In the absence of the 24th Brigade, tied to the defence of the new African states, the garrison Commander, Brigadier R. L. Hargroves had to scrounge officers and men to form a new Headquarters. He had 45 Commando, just back from the Tanganyika Mutiny and ready for a spearhead role with B company with the 3rd Parachute regiment attached, D squadron 4th R.T.R with armoured cars, J Battery 3rd R.H.A, 2 Troop 12th Field Squadron and 653 squadron A.A.C. The East Anglians also provided a company for the defence of the base at Thumier.
Brigadier Hargrove's aim was to 'end the operations of the dissidents' and chose two towering features north of Bakri Ridge from which the road from the Yemen could be dominated. One ridge was christened "Cap Badge" and the other to the north "Rice Bowl". It was decided that both 'Rice Bowl' and 'Cap Badge' should be captured by a sudden attack on the night 30April/May 1st. The Radfan was mountainous, rough and difficult for troops to operate in, so it was proposed that 45 should achieve its objective by helicopter assault but owing to the shortage of helicopters and the treacherous terrain and insecure landing zones this type of approach was abandoned. 45 Commando decided that the best prospects lay in deep penetration by night so the plan was to take the feature nicknamed 'Cap Badge' which dominated the village of Danaba, the main dissident stronghold. 'Cap Badge' divided the Wadi Taym and the Danba Basin, which was a fertile area some three miles wide and about nine miles long. The most direct route was through the Wadi Rabwa, which was blocked by rebel tribesmen; the second route was the Wadi-Boran, which was much rougher and longer and led into the plain between two features nicknamed 'Coca Cola' and 'Sand Fly. The advance was now going to be made on foot and in order to capture 'Rice Bowl' a diversionary approach was to be made through Wadi Boran. In the darkness Four Five advanced, dropping Z Company at 'Sand Fly' to secure the supply route. B Company, 3 Para, was to drop by first light on May 1st after the DZ had been marked by A Squadron 22 Special Air Service.
45 approached with some men carrying mortars and Vickers machine guns besides their normal equipment while a total of some 400 Commandos hid in the surrounding hillsides waiting until the fading light then moving into the Wadi Boran. As darkness set in all the Marines could see was the black mass of the mountains towering above. Z Company made it's way to the summit of 'Sand Fly' and X and Y Companies branched off to 'Rice Bowl'. During the night move, a message was received from force HQ, that the parachute drop had been cancelled and that 45 was to go in on 'Sand Fly' and 'Coca Cola'. This decision to abort the Para drop was because 3 Troop, A Squadron, 22 S.A.S had been discovered and throughout the day of the 30th, the ten-man patrol had fought off superior numbers of dissidents. They fought their way out of their positions under cover of darkness and the troop commander and the radio operator were killed. The Marines going up the Wadi Rabwa met some opposition and did not reach their objective before two-thirty. By now 45 had infiltrated some distance into enemy held territory, B Coy, 3Para, whose drop had been cancelled, came straight up to Thurmier arriving at about 2am on the 1st of May. The CO of 45 had to re-assess the situation and made the decision to go for 'Coca Cola' ridge, some 1,500 feet higher than the present position. The climb was formidable, especially as some of the men were heavily loaded with Vickers machine guns and mortars and wide wadis had to be crossed before the final ascent could be made.
The side of the mountain being climbed was in shadow from the moon and the climb made was in darkness and before the summit was reached a steep section had to be negotiated with ropes. 45 Commando was on 'Coca Cola' ridge at about four in the morning just before dawn as the CO of Four Five reported that 'Sand Fly' and 'Coca Cola' had been secured and 45 looking out from their lofty heights could see the Danba Basin and 'Cap Badge' ridge to the east. A foothold had been gained in the Radfan without a shot being fired. It was a nasty surprise for the rebels to find themselves fired at from one of these features the next morning. For the next few days 45 Commando remained in its positions. During the day the hot sun beat down on the ridge and the only shade available was what the Marines could provide for themselves while the only respite was the occasional firing of the Vickers and mortars at the dissidents in the plains below.
Only part of the plan had been implemented and Damba and the dominating 'Cap Badge' feature were still in enemy hands. 'Cap Badge' was given to Lt. Col. Stevens RM as the next objective. The feature was a difficult one to capture and there was a likelihood that the dissidents would put up a fierce fight to defend their strongholds. 'Cap Badge' rose some 1,200 ft above the plain and it was decided to undertake a night approach march. The two possible routes to the objective were from the southwest and the southeast and these were allotted to X Company and B Company 3 Para. Both routes could easily be defended by a small number of dissidents. A third unit, Y Company, was given the task of seizing 'Gin Sling', a feature to the southwest of 'Cap Badge', which gave 45 Commando the added advantage of being in possession of the high ground should things go wrong on 'Cap Badge'.
45 Commando was relieved on 'Coca Cola' by the 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment on the 4th of May and began to make its way down to the Wadi Boran in preparation for the march of five or so miles to 'Cap Badge'. The advance over the next three miles to the dispersal point was led by Y Company 45. The pathfinder team was able to stick to the route with remarkable accuracy and skill. About a mile from 'Cap Badge', X Company 45 broke off and Y Company turned south with Headquarters for 'Gin Sling'. Although only 1,000 feet high, 'Gin Sling' was formidable and a tiring climb at night but the summit was reached before dawn. X Company skirted a village as dogs started barking and anxious Marines waited for several minutes lest the game be given away. The villagers slept on and progress continued. 'Cap Badge' was more difficult to climb being sheer in places and as dawn began to streak across the eastern horizon the troops of X Company fanned out to search their objective with the only sign of the enemy being empty, but well used, sangers. The observant sentries of 45 Commando's X and Y Companies had reported seeing flickering lights lower down the mountainside.
Nothing had been heard from B Company 3 Para since it had passed south of 'Gin Sling'. Radio contact had been screened by the surrounding hills. Gunfire broke out from the direction of 'Cap Badge' and the meaning of the flickering lights, seen earlier on, was now fully realized. It was dissidents making their way to their daytime positions, the sangers, but Four Five had arrived in the nick of time. X and Y Companies in their secure positions were not bothered by the dissidents' firing but the sounds of battle from the east of 'Cap Badge', invisible from 'Gin Sling', indicated that B Company 3 Para was now in action. Dawn had found the Company still in open low-lying ground to the south east of 'Cap Badge'. Lt. Col. Stevens had already given instructions to the Companies that they were to fall under 'Gin Sling' but if unable to do that they were to 'kick' their way into a village. 3 Para had the misfortune to choose Habil Sabaha, which was the nearest village and lay about half a mile on the lower slopes of 'Cap Badge'. The village was fairly widely spread out and consisted of mud buildings and forts.
As B Company advanced, the dissidents opened up from the left area of the village, causing several casualties. For about an hour the firefight ensued. Major Peter Walker, 3 Para, led one attack and cleared dissidents from one fort. Another platoon dealt with more dissidents who were trying to outflank the company. One other platoon was detached to deal with dissidents in another outlying fort whilst the remainder of the Company attacked the village proper, accounting for several of the enemy. As B Company reorganized, the surviving dissidents fled to their sangers on the hillside below 'Cap Badge'. They then opened up on the Parachutists and from their commanding positions began to inflict more casualties. The Company Second-in-Command, Capt. Jewkes, led a counter attack into Habil Sabaha but soon afterwards he was killed, administering morphia to a wounded sergeant lying out in the open.
In the meantime, Four Five Cdo. had moved up to see what assistance could be given. The village Habil Sabaha was at maximum artillery range and safety could not be guaranteed. Mortars and Vickers machine guns were mounted but there were no obvious targets amongst the somewhat confused fighting below. The dissidents' sangers were tucked into the base of a sheer cliff which formed 'Cap Badge' and X Company on the top were powerless to intercept. Relief had to be found for the Paratroopers who had had two killed and ten injured, and in turn had killed six dissidents and wounded many more. Army Air Corps Beavers braved the small arms fire to drop water and ammunition into the battle area.
Lt.Col. Stevens decided to retain X and Y Companies in their strategic positions and asked Headquarters to airlift Z Company to 'Cap Badge' from their reserve position on 'Sand Fly' so that Z Company would be able to attack the rebels from above. Zulu Company was flown in by chopper from 'Sand Fly' and moved down the feature to secure a LZ prior to casevacing the wounded by Belvedere from the village. As the helicopter pulled away from what was later to be known as Pegasus Village, the battle weary Parachutists set off to climb 'Cap Badge'.
For the next three days Four Five Cdo. remained in its hilltop positions until relieved. An uneasy calm had settled over the Radfan. In just over a week the enemy had been forced to withdraw from the Rabwa Pass, the Wadi Boran, Wadi Taym and his supply routes from the Dhala Road were seriously jeopardized. Four Five Commando had achieved complete surprise by the two brilliant infiltrations.
For the next few days Four Five rested in Little Aden. On May 11th 1964, 39 Brigade (Brigadier C. H. Blacker) took over control of the Radfan Campaign, and Four Five came under his command. The next phase of the operation to penetrate deep into Radfan country was to continue. For the next few days, routine searches by day and night were made in the Wadi Taym before the advance to the higher mountains in the south, and the advance down the Wadi Misrah and the Bakri Ridge. X Company, Four Five, was detached and under command of the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment Lt.Col. A. H. Farrar-Hockley. 3 Para began their move on 18th May and by the 24th May had secured the entire ridge. It had been tough progress against stiff opposition, which culminated in a two-company attack with air and artillery support against the dissident stronghold village of Al Qudeishi. On 25th May, X Company, Four Five, flew up to join 3 Para on Arnold's Spur. The Wessex helicopters of 815 Squadron, HMS Centuar, had now come into the theatre of operations to relieve the RAF Belvederes.
X Company, once established on Arnold's Spur, began to make final plans for the raid on the Wadi Dhubsan. The Wadi Dhubsan lay some 2,000 feet below the Bakri Ridge and the sides were steep. To the west of Dhubsan, and half a mile south of the Bakri Ridge, lay the Jebel Haqla, a flat topped feature rising to over 1,500 feet, which dominated the surrounding wadis. It was known that the Wadi Dhubsan was a stronghold of the dissidents and was therefore the next objective. Throughout the afternoon, sections of X Company moved cautiously to the edge of Arnold's Spur and began to reconnoitre their routes for the following day. C Company, 3 Para, moved to establish pickets on the Jebel Haqla as A Company, 3 Para, descended the steep escarpment to secure the western end of Dhubsan. X Company's, Four Five, task was to advance 1,000 yards and conduct a sweep as far as the village of Hawfi. The pickets of 3 Para reported some fifty dissidents coming up the Dhubsan and did not make their presence felt. For the next 600 yards, X Company progressed in silence until suddenly Sgt. W. Patterson of 1 Troop spotted a group of dissidents way up on the steep ridge to the right. 3 Troop was in the lead on the wadi floor.
The leading sections under command of Cpls. 'Jan' Bickle and Terry Warterson took cover behind a wall and opened fire, sending the well armed dissidents scuttling behind a rock, dragging their wounded with them. The dissidents, from the protection of their well-concealed sangars, opened up from all directions to the front of X Company. The Marines slowly picked their way up the slope, dodging from rock to rock with the enemy fire increasing every minute. The high-pitched drone of a Scout helicopter, carrying the Commanding Officer and Intelligence Officer of 3 Para, could be heard approaching from the rear. The Scout became the target for a strong barrage of enemy fire and was hit on several occasions. The pilot, Major Jackson, skilfully kept the helicopter under control and landed it safely in front of 3 Troop and the Marines dashed forward to give it protection.
Lt.Col. Farrar- Hockley then ordered A Company, 3 Para, to move up on the high ground. Air strikes were authorized and X Company began to lay out bright red and orange fluorescent panels with the panels pointing towards dissident sangars, thus giving the Hunter pilots, approaching at over 400 mph, a clear reference point to the target. Moving out from behind cover with the bright panels, Capt. R. Brind 2i/c X Company soon became the target for heavy fire and was shot through the thigh and stomach. He completed his task and was dragged to safety, before sustaining further injury through steady sniper fire, by Marines Brownett and Robertson and was treated for his wounds by one of X Company's Naval Sick Berth Attendants, SBA Williams.
1 Troop, commanded by Lt. J. Barr, came under the heaviest fire. The majority of the troops were down in the bottom of the wadi near the wall, where Marine Kimber with the GPMG had been keeping up a steady rate of covering fire; the Marines approached the top of the knoll. Marine David Wilson, the troop signaller, was shot through the chest by enemy fire and died almost immediately as Lt. Barr began to drag him behind a rock. 1 Troop suffered another casualty when Marine Dunkin was shot in the knee and his leg was later amputated. As is the custom in the Marines on these occasions, the kit of Marine David Wilson was later auctioned amongst his comrades in X Company and the proceeds forwarded to his relatives. The Company group of 150 men raised 700GBP in the auction. His cap badge (on his green beret) fetched 100GBP.' As early afternoon approached the firing began to die down as 2 Troop had moved up the northern side and forced the dissidents to pull back. The remainder of X Company had by now moved up to the rear of the wadi bend. Paratroopers were advancing along the ridges ensuring that the enemy sangars were covered. The dissidents, demoralized by aircraft, mortar and artillery fire, started to withdraw. This gave Major Banks the opportunity to reorganize the Company, which was spread out over a large area and gave the other medical orderly, Sick Berth Attendant Edward Wade, a chance to treat the three badly wounded Marines. Wade, later mentioned in despatches for his bravery in the Radfan, had, in the true tradition of his branch of the Navy, been moving about in the open visiting all the troop positions throughout the battle giving first aid to the wounded.