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Aubrey Rickards:
winged pioneer

Wing Commander Aubrey Rickards (1898—1937) holds a distinctive place in the annals of British penetration of southern Arabia. But his role is not widely known; he did not live to tell the tale. In 1937 he was killed in an air crash in southern Oman. He was 39, and had already had an eventful career, winning the Air Force Cross for gallantry in Transjordan, and, as we shall see, the OBE. for services in Aden.

Rickards was the son of a Gloucestershire farmer, and was a student at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, when the First World War broke out. He enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps and, after training as a pilot, was sent to France in 1917; a fortnight later his plane was shot down and he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in Germany.

His post-war service in the Royal Air Force was spent mainly in the Middle East, including seven years in Aden, and three years in Iraq and the Gulf.

The Tiger Moth in which Rickards flew many sorties into the hinterland of Aden.
Photograph: A R M Rickards; courtesy James Offer

Rickards’ initial posting to Aden, as a Flight Lieutenant, was from 1922—23. It whetted his interest in Aden’s little known hinterland, and also in the Horn of Africa where he spent several weeks on safari in Somaliland. In 1922, Ras Tafari, later Emperor Haile Selassie, visited Aden, and it fell to Rickards to give him his first experience of flying. The young Prince Regent invited Rickards to visit Abyssinia. Three years later Rickards found the opportunity to do so, organising and leading a six month hunting and filming expedition through western Abyssinia to the Sudan. He wrote a lively account of this for The Sphere, which included a graphic description of his close and nearly fatal encounter with a bull elephant.

In March 1928 Rickards returned to Aden [see map] as RAF Intelligence Officer and was to remain there for the next five years. His arrival coincided with the assumption by the RAF of responsibility for the defence of Aden and its Protectorate. Since 1919, Imam Yahya, who claimed sovereignty over the whole area, had refused to recognise the boundary between Yemen and the Protectorate delimited by an Anglo-Turkish Commission in 1903—5, and his forces had steadily encroached on territory claimed by the British. In the Dhala area, Zaidi encroachment had reached a depth of 30 miles, bringing the nearest Zaidi post to within 50 miles of Aden. Without massive military reinforcements, the British in Aden were powerless to repel this intrusion. However, the air power provided by the increased RAF presence in 1928 (a squadron of 12 aircraft instead of a ‘flight’ of six) was soon to reverse the tide of Zaidi encroachment. In February that year, the commander of the Zaidi garrison in Qa’taba contrived the abduction of two shaikhs from within the Protectorate. The British retaliated by bombing Zaidi border garrisons until, in March, the two captives were released. A temporary truce with the Imam followed, and Major (later Sir Trenchard) Fowle, the Assistant British Resident, accompanied by Sultan Abdul Karim Fadhl of Lahej, travelled overland to Taiz to discuss a possible basis for a political settlement. Rickards went with them as far as Musaimir on the border; Fowle had wanted to take him all the way but thought that the presence of an RAF officer might prove unwelcome to the Taiz garrison commander, Ali al-Wazir. Later, the Imam asked for the truce to be extended until the middle of July, to which the British agreed on condition that the Imam’s forces evacuated Dhala by 20 June. The deadline passed, and warning leaflets dropped by the RAF over Yemeni towns went unheeded. Bombing of Zaidi border garrisons was resumed, and later extended to include military targets in Taiz, Dhamar, Ibb and Yarim. This activity spurred Qutaibi tribesmen to attack and expel the Zaidi post at Sulaik, south of Dhala. Their success raised morale within the Protectorate where previously panic had reigned due to rumours of an imminent Zaidi advance on Lahej.

On 7 July Rickards was instructed to proceed to Sulaik to set up a forward intelligence post and make contact with the Amir of Dhala, Nasr bin Shaif. The latter had spent the past eight years in exile in Lahej but was now mobilising a force of Amiri and Radfani tribesmen to advance on Dhala under cover of the RAF. On 14 July the Amir, at the head of his improvised and turbulent army of some thousand tribesmen, accompanied by Rickards with an escort of fifty Lahej troops under the command of Ahmad Fadhl Al-Abdali, succeeded in capturing Dhala. 

Rickards and his W/T operator, Aircraftman Smith, installed themselves in Dhala fort, where they were later joined by Hassan Muhammad, a Residency interpreter sent up by Fowle to assist Rickards in his intelligence and liaison role. By the end of August. following the fall of Awabil to a mixed force of Shaibi and Yafai irregulars, Zaidi forces had withdrawn from almost all territory in and adjacent to Dhala. They had fought with tenacity and resource, but could do little against the force majeure of British air power.

Major Fowle (in his acting capacity as Resident) wrote to the RAF Commander in Aden, Group-Captain Mitchell, on 15 July to record his appreciation of Rickards’ services. Fowle noted that ‘in addition to the Intelligence duties which he performed for you, his W/T messages have been of great assistance to me in keeping in touch with the political situation, while his presence with the tribes, and his driving power in getting them forward, have been very material factors in their taking the town’. And in a letter to the Colonial Secretary dated 8 September 1928, Sir Stewart Symes, the newly arrived Resident, referred to the ‘remarkable daring and discernment’ which Rickards had displayed during the Dhala campaign, ‘ably helped’ by Hassan Muhammad. Rickards was awarded the OBE, and among the few papers surviving from his years in Aden are letters of congratulation from two leading Adeni merchants: Karim Hasanali and F [Cowasjee] Dinshaw, both of whom had interests on either side of the disputed border.

Right to left: Aubrey Rickards, Aircraftman A Smith, Hassan Muhamma and local tribesman, Dhala Fort, 1928.
Courtesy: James Offer

The air defence of Aden, and the strategic need for an air link between Aden and Iraq, created a requirement for a multiplicity of landing grounds to serve the comparatively short range aircraft of those days. It was a requirement which Rickards, harnessing his professional skills to his innate love of travel and exploration, was well equipped to fulfil. He had constructed a landing ground in Dhala in July 1928, and during the next few years, travelling by air and overland to different parts of the Protectorate, he surveyed and constructed most of the 35 landing grounds used, or required for future use, by the RAF. An allied objective of his surveys was to fill in blank spaces on the map. As George Rentz wrote in The Middle East Journal in 1951, ‘he sketched maps of what he saw from the cockpit and quietly made notable contributions to geography’. One of several sketch maps which Rickards made during his time in Aden appeared in The Geographical Journal of March 1931, as an appendix to Squadron-Leader R. A. Cochrane’s account of an air reconnaissance of Hadhramaut which he and Rickards had undertaken in November 1929. Cochrane’s paper was illustrated with photographs, taken by Rickards, of the region’s striking lunar landscape. The Dutch traveller, Van Der Meulen, acknowledged the help — air photographs, sketches and other data — which he and Von Wissman had received from Rickards during their first visit to southern Arabia in 1931, and Von Wissman drew on this material in preparing his own celebrated map of the region.

Towards the end of 1929, Rickards travelled by dhow from Mukalla along the Mahra coast to Dhofar, and he is believed to have made a further voyage along the coast the following year, this time from Aden, to deliver a cargo of aviation fuel to Salalah. In an article on Soqotra published in The Field in May 1937, he refers to a journey which he had made to that island on board a Sun badan; he revealed neither the date nor other details of the voyage, but the article illuminates his interest in local history and ethnography. In 1932 he travelled from the coast of Hadhramaut to the interior to construct a landing ground at Shibam; his film of this journey was later shown at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) but has yet to be traced. The new landing ground at Shibam enabled the Resident in Aden, Sir Bernard Reilly, to make an historic first visit to Wadi Hadhramaut in 1933. Freya Stark also had reason to be grateful to Rickards, for it was from Shibam that the RAF flew her to hospital in Aden, after she had fallen seriously ill during her travels in 1935. These were the subject of her lecture to the RGS in December that year, which Rickards attended, joining Cochrane and others in congratulating her during the discussion afterwards.

According to Philby, who visited the region in 1936, Rickards also explored Wadi Duhr and Wadi ‘Irma, at the western end of Wadi Hadhramaut, before proceeding south of Shabwa and westwards to Nisab. Philby added that Rickards’ death in 1937 had left ‘a regrettable gap in the ranks of Arabian exploration: the airman has but slender opportunities of constructive work in Arabia, but he [Rickards] was certainly one who made the most of such chances as came his way and fully earned a place on the roll of those who have contributed to our knowledge of a still little-known country’.

The Amir of Dhala (centre, front row), HH Sultan Abdul Karim Fadhl between him and the British Resident, Sir Stewart Symes, Lahej, 1930.
Courtesy: James Offer

In 1931 Rickards accompanied Lord Belhaven and Colonel M. C. Lake on a Journey from Nisab to Beihan. This was Belhaven’s first meeting ‘with a remarkable personality.., his knowledge of the country and of its customs was encyclopaedic ...’ Belhaven reproduced several of Rickards’ photographic studies of Beihani tribesmen in his Kingdom of Melehior (1949), and in this and his later memoir, The Uneven Road (1955), he has left us with a vivid portrait of a man he greatly admired:

‘he was of medium height and capable of great physical endurance. I shall not forget his reddish hair and bright blue eyes, his sharp sense of humour, and the easy confident carriage of his shoulders ... he had the trust of the Arabs to a degree which I have not seen surpassed, despite his lack of Arabic, which he spoke with a minute vocabulary and a confusing disregard for grammar. It was hard to tell which, between him and Lake, had a better knowledge of the country. Rickards had method in finding and retaining information, while Lake was unmethodical and reluctant to impart what he had learned ... With Rickards all was shared. He never failed to visit me on his return from his many expeditions, bringing with him maps and photographs and all his official reports ... When Rickards died in an air accident, what fire and light perished!’

The poignant story of the death of Rickards and his two companions, Pilot Officer McClatchey and Aircraftman O’Leary, when their RAF Vincent crashed at Khor Gharim in October 1937; of their makeshift burial beside that desolate creek on the southern coast of Oman; of their reburial in Muscat some sixty years later, has been told in detail by Cohn Richardson in his book Masirah: Tales from a Desert Island (2001). The accident occurred during Rickards’ second posting to Iraq after leaving Aden, this time attached to RAF, Basra, but based in Bahrain, with liaison duties covering the Gulf. Suffice it to say here that Rickards’ two daughters, who had lost their father in childhood, his nephew, niece and grandson were able to attend the reburial service held at the Christian Cemetery, Muscat, in May 1998.

When news of Rickards’ death reached Sultan Abdul Karim Fadhl of Lahej, ruler of the most influential state in the western half of the Protectorate, he wrote to the Governor of Aden asking for his condolences to be conveyed to Rickards’ family. These were gratefully acknowledged by Rickards’ widow, Anna, and his father, Robert. The Sultan’s regard for Rickards, and regret at his passing, will have been shared by many others in southern Arabia and beyond.


The Editor is grateful to Mr James Offer, nephew of the late Wing Commander Rickards and trustee of his papers, for his invaluable assistance, and for permitting publication of the photographs.

Rickards with HH Sultan Umar bin Awadh al-Qu-aiti, ruler of the Hadhrami State of Shihr and Mukalla, c 1930.
Courtesy: James Offer

July 2002