08 February 2023
Joshua Bilton explores the insurgency that developed in the British protectorate of Aden.
The High Commissioner of Aden Sir Kennedy Trevaskis, sauntered across the shimmering ribbon of tarmac that constituted the Khormaksar civil airport, Aden. On the runway, sat the glistening airframe of a twin-engine monoplane, its pilots awaiting the senior diplomats arrival.
In somewhat of a hurry, and certainly aware of the time-sensitive nature of the affair, Trevaskis lengthened his stride, shortening the distance between himself and the motionless aeroplane (BAOC Flight BA 237) bound for London, England, where the Commissioner sought to discuss the constitutional developments of the Federation of South Arabia.
Although the situation was not acute, it was nonetheless urgent, given the heightened unrest; organised protests and acts of violence had erupted in response to occupation. Trevaskis was of the opinion that an increase in British servicemen, together with a consignment of military hardware (aircraft, firearms and vehicles), might mitigate any further agitation.
Keeping pace with the British emissary marched George Henderson, Deputy High Commissioner, and Donald Foster, Permanent Secretary. In a matter of seconds, Trevaskis’ retinue was beside the monoplane with a throng of onlookers watching.
As Trevaskis alighted the fuselage steps, a noise behind attracted his attention. However, before he could turn, George Henderson moved in behind and took the full blast of a grenade, thrown by a single guerrilla, a member of the National Liberation Front. Foster, the Deputy, was also wounded, along with 24 others.
Ironically, the assassination attempt highlighted, more than any subsequent diplomatic talks, the imminent crisis that was brewing. The date was 14 December 1963. It was on this day, a state of emergency was declared. It was designated, the Aden Emergency.
The colony begins
The British presence in Aden was established in 1839; the port, along with the Hadhramaut (the historical Qu’aiti and Kathiri sultanates), were seized by elements of the East India Company and the British Army. Occupation was strategic, the harbour serving as an anti-piracy facility and later a coaling station.
Although initially controlled by the Bombay Presidency, jurisdiction of the territory, which included the Aden Settlement (the port) and the Protectorate (the hinterland), was ceded to the Foreign Office in 1917. Fear of an Ottoman (Turkish) invasion prompting its transference. This continued until 1928, when Aden Command was established, its aim to provide security for the region from internal and external factors.
Then, in 1937, Aden was designated a Crown colony (a country administered by a Governor acting on behalf of the monarch), a status it retained until 1963. It was now, Aden Colony. As a consequence of its importance, the port swiftly flourished, becoming one of the richest colonial assets. Indeed, its significance was demonstrated by the number of ships entering the harbour; for example, approximately 5,329 craft (large and small) berthed in 1955, making it the second busiest anchorage in the world after New York.
However, by the early 1950s British control was no longer seen as a benefit (contributing to the economy), but an impediment to national identity. Challengers emerged, attempting to displace the western authorities with the greatest danger coming from Yemen, supported by militant tribesmen in the hinterland.
Moreover, as the British Empire collapsed the Protectorate gained further significance, both as a major harbour for accessing oil in the Middle East and as a remaining bastion of British power in the region. However, sensing decline, nationalist pressure escalated, resulting in the creation of the Federation of Arab Emirates of the South (a conglomerate of six nations), together with the additional assurance of independence, in conjunction with financial and military assistance.
Over the next three years, the Federation of six increased by nine and on 18 January 1963, Aden Colony merged with the coalition, forming the Federation of South Arabia (or FSA).
Left: Company Commander of the 1st Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, receives intelligence from a forward platoon, while cradling an L1A1 Semi-Loading Rifle (SLR)
The warring parties
Anti-imperialist (ultimately anti-colonial) sentiment was rife in the 20th century and by the 1960s it had reached its apex, culminating in the formation of two guerrilla organisation, both with varying political agendas: the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY).
The NLF was a Marxist, paramilitary organisation supported by the Egyptian government and established in June 1963. Its ranks were comprised of exiles from Aden and the Federation, together with supporters from the tribes of the hinterland and the ports and refineries along the coast.
Insurgent Said Nasr declared that there were two distinct types of NLF fighters: ‘Tribesmen who were fighting in the mountains and border areas’ and ‘… those from towns working as fedayeen with explosives.’
FLOSY was a pro-Arab conglomerate, opposing the Marxist NLF. Established in 1964, FLOSY, like its counterpart, was an amalgam of fighters and included those instructed in Egypt and Yemen, along with a composite force of poorly trained guerrillas, ill-equipped to wage a war of insurrection. Despite their inexperience, most were, as the report A note on terrorism in Aden concluded, singularly motivated by: ‘Strong anti-British and anti-Federal feelings, allied to sympathies for the Socialist Egypt and … an admiration for Nasser as … leader.’
On the other side, and in direct opposition, was the Federal Regular Army (FRA), comprising approximately five battalions, together with an additional 30,000 British personnel. Although relations were initially harmonious, the colonial authorities soon became suspicious of the FRA, owing to the alarming rate of infiltration by both NLF and FLOSY insurgents, resulting in deep-seated tension.
Left: Royal Marines, of 45 Commando, sight and prepare to load an 81mm mortar, somewhere in Silent Valley (so named because of the poor radio reception), c. January 1965
The Emergency (1963–67)
Though dissension was evident before the 1960s (secret meetings, strikes and anti-imperialist slogans daubed on walls demonstrating their grievances), it was inconsequential and fundamentally unorganised. That is, except for the execution of political officer Peter Davey and the near fatal stabbing three years later (in 1950) of Major Seager.
The first significant act of sedition, following the attempted assassination of High Commissioner Sir Kennedy Trevaskis on 10 December 1963, occurred a few days later, when insurgents threw a grenade at a children’s party on the base of RAF Khormaksar. One infant was killed and four wounded.
This was followed by a general outbreak of violence, culminating in the deaths of Inspector Fadhl Khalil, Aden Special Branch, on 26 December and an Arab national shot by a British sentry.
Right: An Alvis Stalwart HMLC (High Mobility Load Carrier) Mk I traverses difficult terrain in Southern Arabia
Part of the British security forces efforts to contain disaffection resulted in the implementation of the Radfan Campaign of 1964; an operation designed to regain control of the Dhala Road. Running from Aden to Yemen, the highway was of vital military importance. However, and as a consequence of its length, the thoroughfare was practically anarchic, insurgents ambushing military and commercial targets with impunity. This necessitated a counterinsurgency response, and in January British forces descended on the mountainous district seeking to restore order, through two interconnected campaigns (one codenamed Nutcracker, the other Cap Badge).
Although multiple operations ensued, the most infamous occurred on 29 April 1964, when a combat patrol directed by Captain John Edwards of No. 3 Troop, Somerset and Cornwall Light Infantry (SCLI), was ambushed. The senior officer, together with trooper John Warburton, were captured, summarily executed, their heads removed and displayed in the Yemini capital, Sana’a.
Throughout both campaigns, support was derived from RN (Royal Navy) Wessex HAS. 1, Bristol Type 192 Belvedere and Sycamore Type 171 helicopters, along with Avro Shackleton Mk II and Hunter FGA. 9 aircraft, both of which conducted photo-reconnaissance missions.
Incidentally, the RAFs main role within Aden was in support of ground forces, with personnel undertaking anything from casualty evacuation (commonly referred to since the Vietnam War, as Casevac), to air reconnaissance and offensive operations.
One of the most important tasks (of the Army), and one demanding outstanding attention to detail, was the location and destruction of arms caches. One superintendent remarked that they were, “… usually hidden in hessian sacks, buried very deep in the ground, they could easily be missed in a sweep.” On one occasion, in June 1966, security forces were deployed to the remains of a smouldering ruin (once a house in Crater). Upon searching the debris, British servicemen discovered a torso missing both arms and head, together with a stack of notebooks from a sabotage tutorial conducted in Cairo, Egypt. It was apparent, the would-be-terrorist had mistakenly ignited the explosive he was seeking to produce, killing himself.
Left: Riots in Crater (the capital of Aden) prompted a clampdown by British security forces, on 4 October 1965
What made the security forces position so difficult was not the tactics employed, but the environment in which they operated. Crater was, as Imperial War Museum archivist, Geoff Richards observed: ‘A rabbit warren.’ It was a maze of winding, narrow streets, dead ends and imperceptible vantage points, facilitating guerrilla warfare.
Seeking to frustrate such endeavours, and in an effort to contain the insurgents, the 518 Company Royal Pioneer Corps (formerly the Labour Corps), erected concrete barricades, thus partitioning thoroughfares and forming obstacles designed to impede guerrilla activities. However, as quickly as they were established they were destroyed. Holes were knocked though, creating passages to facilitate escape.
In the maze of streets and the interminable crowds, the British servicemen’s ability to respond appropriately to hazardous stimuli was hampered. Soldiers therefore quickly learned to scan and retaliate with accurate shooting at fleeing targets.. Indeed, a British Army report into the Tawahi district attack on 2 March 1966, demonstrated just how effective the security forces were when a Royal Marine Lieutenant killed a fleeing man aged about 20, with one shot from his 9mm Browning pistol.
Unfortunately, their task was greatly frustrated by local sympathisers (sometimes women and children) providing concealment. Thus, insurgents, upon completion of their objective (usually the throwing of a grenade), were quickly hidden by co-conspirators, making retaliation problematic, if not impossible.
In response to the mounting colonial presence, the NLF orchestrated a series of riots in the city of Aden between 19–20 January 1967, with hundreds of protestors demonstrating the occupation. The security forces were deployed, promptly suppressing the uprising. However, as one insurrection was contained a second developed. FLOSY supporters confronted British servicemen, encouraging many to open fire. 60 grenades were also thrown and shockingly, a Douglas DC-3 commercial airliner was destroyed in mid-air.
Right: Servicemen of the 1st Battalion, The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), move warily through a bazaar in Tawahi, Aden
This was the second of two aircraft attacked by the guerrillas with the first crash-landing at Wadi Rabtah on 22 November 1966, following an explosion on-board. The aeroplane (VR-ANN) was on route from Mayfa’ah to Aden International Airport. Some 30 passengers were killed, along with Amir Mohammed bin Said, Prime Minister of Wahidi. The attacker was none other than his son, Ali.
Just to make things worse, the Six-Day War, the conflict fought between Israel and Egypt, exacerbated tensions in the region still further, with President Nasser proclaiming that the British government had assisted Israel. Incensed, Federation Army soldiers mutinied, killing 22 British servicemen. Personnel of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards (QDG), together with the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment (KORBR), were deployed to contain any further insurrection.
Unrest, however, quickly spread and in Crater elements of the Aden Armed Police (AAP) seized the regimental barracks, firing from open windows at vehicles, including two containing British soldiers.
Emboldened by their success, the men carried their rebellion further prompting the British authorities to retire, else risk capture. Self-styled bands of NLF Commandos roamed the deserted streets in the absence of an authoritarian force, settling old scores and releasing political prisoners. Meanwhile, rebel snipers targeted those monitoring the situation from outside the city. Although orders had prohibited direct engagement, servicemen were nonetheless authorised to fire upon insurgents. One Royal Marine sniper observed dispassionately, following the killing of two guerrilla fighters, “One of them had a British rifle that could only have been captured in last week’s ambush. I felt good when I saw him fall to my shot.”
Public facilities were understandably closed, along with shops and other small businesses. Detritus littered the streets (the road sweepers having abandoned their profession) and the price of fresh produce rose exponentially in the wake of the chaos.
While the majority of the 75,000 Arabs, Hindus and Somalis sheltered indoors, British nationals (those working independently) sought refuge in their homes, praying that they remain undetected. 13 days later, after with multiple fatalities, Crater was finally reoccupied. Elements of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, together with the armoured cars of A Squadron, 1 QDC, entering the city. Overall, 24 British servicemen had been killed and a helicopter destroyed.
Although few chose to admit it, this event precipitated the withdrawal of all UK forces, and by November 1967 the remaining British personnel had retired, under the auspices of 45 Commando, Royal Marine. Mercifully, no shots were exchanged, for even the NLF, noted Jim Herlihy: ‘… knew that the departing British still had sharp teeth, and they had no need to take unnecessary risks.’
Casualties for the campaign were high, with approximately 91 British servicemen killed and 510 wounded. However, Arab losses were far greater; 382 dead and a further 1,714 wounded.
The sun had finally set on the British Empire.
Left: Taking up defensive positions atop an escarpment, near the garrison town of Mukeiras, infantry of the 2 Battalion, Federal Regular Army (FRA), monitor the surrounding area within the State of Audhali
Given the nature of the campaign and the protagonists involved, memorabilia ascribed to NLF and FLOSY are not merely rare, but priceless. The bulk of collecting is therefore centred on the British security forces who for five years sought to hamper the uprising.
Webbing is by far the most readily available collectable, with tens of thousands of sets produced over the years. Yoke, belts, magazine pouches, pistol holsters and the like can all be purchased online or at collectors fairs; for example, the P58 (1958 pattern) mag pouch can be purchased for as little as £5. Meanwhile, a full-set of webbing is between £20-£100.
Firearms are another relatively common collectable, with weapons, such as the Bren, Sterling and the L1A1 SLR, in great abundance. The latter, although ubiquitous is nonetheless extremely expensive, prices starting at around £1,000 and rising to £3,000-£4,000, depending on both their condition and provenance. However, be aware, many were produced before and after the conflict, with the SLR (Self-Loading Rifle) being in use from 1954 until approximately 1994.
Production of the AK-47 (or Kaláshnikova) began during the ’40s. By the 1960s, it was universal, in use with militia, terrorists, freedom fighters and other renegades, given not only its reliability, but cost. Thus, a number were purchased by NLF and FLOSY, and today surviving models (of the period, not the conflict) retail for approximately £850-£4,000.
Finally, a number of different hand-grenades were used by both the British security forces and the Arab revolutionaries, the most common being the No. 36 Mk I Mills Bomb. Prices range from £50-£300, dependent on condition, provenance and epoch.
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