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A dirty war in Aden: Britain’s role in Yemen’s history

British forces killed hundreds in their war for the port of Aden, in today’s South Yemen. Western interference continues today causing bloodshed and division as Yemen becomes the new front in the ‘war on terror’, writes John Newsinger

Published Tue 12 Jan 2010
Issue No. 2184

The fact that the US has allowed Gordon Brown to host a summit on 28 January about the supposed threat that Yemen poses to the world is obviously of immense satisfaction to the New Labour government.

This, after all, is what 108 British soldiers died for in Afghanistan in 2009 – so that these little marks of favour could be bestowed on our rulers.

The rest of us, however, should be deeply concerned about the opening of another front in the so-called “war on terror”. And, of course, we have been here before.

It was under Harold Wilson’s Labour government that British troops were driven out of South Yemen in November 1967. It is worth recalling this imperial humiliation.

The British Empire had established control over what it called South Arabia during the nineteenth century. By the time of the Suez Crisis of 1956, when Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez canal, the British government had come to regard holding onto the territory as absolutely essential for the maintenance of what was left of British influence in the Middle East.

With Arab nationalism threatening imperialist power throughout the region, the British military base in Aden was seen as indispensable. As one governor of the colony put it, South Arabia would be held for “as long as Britain remains great”.

The British position faced two challenges. One was from neighbouring Yemen, then a semi-feudal state ruled over by the Imam Ahmed, who laid claim to the territory.

But more dangerous was the challenge posed by the labour movement in Aden, a labour movement that was fiercely nationalistic in sympathy and looked to the left.

In the aftermath of Suez, the British felt obliged to provide some constitutional dressing for their colonial rule.

The Conservative government established the Federation of South Arabia, bringing together the sheikhdoms, sultanates and emirates that made up the territory. The Federation could be presented as an ally rather than as a colony, although the British privately acknowledged its puppet status.

In Aden, the Aden Trade Union Congress led opposition to the Federation. There were general strikes and demonstrations that the British cracked down on. They suppressed the TUC newspaper, The Worker, and imprisoned its general secretary, Abdullah Al-Asnag.

On 24 September 1962 the TUC called a general strike against the inclusion of Aden in the Federation. British troops shot one demonstrator dead.

What fatally undermined the British position, however, were developments in Yemen. On 26 September, a military coup led by radical army officers overthrew the Imam’s regime. They proclaimed the Yemen Arab Republic.

The new revolutionary government in the capital Sanaa included four members of the Aden TUC. They called for the unification of the country and the expulsion of the British.

From the very beginning the British tried to bring down the government. They encouraged royalist rebellion, supplying the rebels with arms, money and advisers.

Former SAS officers, with close connections to right-wing elements within the Conservative party, were enlisted in a MI6-run mercenary operation that was financed jointly with the Saudis.

Such was Saudi hostility to revolutionary nationalism that they turned a convenient blind eye to the arms that the Israelis provided for the royalists.

The British government at the time categorically denied any involvement in attempts to bring down the Yemen government. The prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home, assured the House of Commons that there was no truth in the allegations. It is freely admitted now that he lied through his teeth.

Resistance

The events in Yemen gave a great impetus to the resistance in the South. On 10 December 1962, an attempt was made to assassinate the British high commissioner Kennedy Trevaskis. The British responded with the declaration of a state of emergency and mass arrests. The leadership of the TUC was interned.

In Yemen, the revolutionary government sponsored the establishment of the National Liberation Front (NLF) that launched a guerrilla campaign to drive the British out of the South.

The first serious fighting took place in 1964 when the British carried out punitive operations against NLF strongholds in the Radfan mountains. Most famously, two SAS soldiers were killed in the fighting and their heads were taken for display across the border.

The British “pacified” the Radfan by traditional colonial warfare methods. Areas outside British control were declared proscribed zones, giving the RAF the right to attack any targets they chose. They destroyed homes and crops, and killed livestock and civilians.

Between April and June 1964 Shackleton heavy bombers dropped 3,504 20 pound bombs and 14 1,000 pound bombs, while Hunter jets fired 2,508 rockets. The Radfan wasn’t considered pacified until the end of the year.

In Aden, the challenge to the British was launched in November 1964, coinciding with the arrival of the new Labour government’s colonial secretary, Anthony Greenwood. Labour was absolutely committed to supporting the Federation, although it hoped to build some support for the puppet government among the people. There was to be no let up in the repression though.

Greenwood sacked Trevaskis, who was thought to be too reactionary. He was replaced as high commissioner by Richard Turnbull, who had played a major role in crushing the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.

Turnbull was regarded as someone who could both handle security and encourage the emergence of “moderate” nationalists who would be prepared to collaborate with the British.

Turnbull found himself confronting a guerrilla war of bombings, assassinations, fire fights, riots and demonstrations.

At the same time, he completely failed to find anyone with a popular following who was prepared to collaborate with the British. By now the conduct of British troops had alienated just about everyone. The minimal demand of even the most moderate nationalists was British withdrawal.

The conflict was low level, with the British losing six dead in 1965 and five dead in 1966. But the continual street clashes nevertheless were a continual strain. The routine brutality of the troops, confronted by a hostile population, alienated the people of Aden.

The Daily Express newspaper correspondent wrote quite cheerfully of there being “A lot of boot, gun-butt and fist-thumping”. This was accompanied by considerable racist abuse.

Inevitably British forces tortured their prisoners. This happens in every counter-insurgency. While old fashioned types of torture predominated, there was also the use of Abu Ghraib-style methods.

These were later to later prohibited by Ted Heath’s Conservative government after the scandal their use caused in Northern Ireland.

Scandal

This prohibition was later relaxed under US pressure in Iraq – until the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. The history of the British use of torture in colonial wars has yet to be written.

In February 1966, the Labour government took the decision to pull out of South Arabia and to abandon its Aden military base.

The decision, needless to say, was not motivated by any anti-colonial sentiment. Britain’s economic difficulties had forced a cut in the defence budget. Moreover, even though the conflict in South Arabia was low level, the Federation clearly had no support.

Even the army recognised that this made the base untenable.

Too many troops had to be used to protect it. The intention was still to hand over to a puppet regime – and to this end the South Arabian Army had to be built up.

In 1967, the resistance stepped up its attacks. The mutiny of the South Arabian Army on 20 June was decisive. The NLF had infiltrated both the army and the police.

Indeed, on a number of occasions Arab troops had paraded holding NLF banners. By the end of 20 June,

22 British soldiers had been killed and the town of Crater was under NLF control.

Crater was not reoccupied until 3 July, when the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders went in under colonel Colin “Mad Mitch” Mitchell.

They crushed the resistance with considerable brutality, all of which was denied at the time. Labour ministers were particularly vociferous in their denials, although today the brutalities of the Argylls are freely admitted.

In 1981 after members of the regiment were convicted of the murder of two Catholic farmers in Northern Ireland – the so-called “Pitchfork Murders” – veterans of the Aden conflict came forward in the Scottish media to admit to atrocities they had seen or participated in.

Wounded prisoners had been murdered by morphine injection, unarmed Arabs had been shot out of hand, and a teenager caught out after curfew had been bayoneted to death on the orders of an officer.

There had been widespread looting. No one has ever been called to account for any of this. Indeed, Mitchell was elected as a Conservative MP. British governments have been much more successful at covering up colonial crimes than the US has.

Meanwhile the withdrawal had begun. Everywhere the British pulled out, the NLF came out into the open and took control. The last British troops were helicoptered out on 29 November.


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Features
Tue 12 Jan 2010, 18:09 GMT
Issue No. 2184
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