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  Book review

The War that Never Was: The True Story of the Men who fought Britain's most secret battle 

by Duff Hart-Davis, Century (Random House), 2011. Pp.xviii 382. Select Bibliog. Notes. Index. Illus. Map. Hb. 14.99. ISBN 978-1846058257.

This is a story from another age, when mercenaries fought for patriotism not million dollar contracts, when explosives could travel in airline baggage unimpeded, and when there were Tory MPs in Scotland. A story it is, though, rather than an academic tome; and as such it is accessible to the general reader, whether a Middle East amateur or a military history buff. It tells the tale of a small group of soldiers "some on furlough, most retired " predominately British, but with a scattering of Frenchmen, who helped the Yemeni Royalists tie Gamal Abdul-Nasser down in what became his Vietnam. As well as being an historical curio, the subject has contemporary relevance given current operations in Afghanistan/Pakistan "and potentially even in Yemen itself.

Mr Hart-Davis is not the sole author, as he mentions in his Note; and regrettably this shows. While differences in style have been smoothed over for the most part, there remain issues of continuity and repetition presumably because Hart-Davis was working from Tony Boyle's draft. There is also a decided limpness to the last few chapters, as if the tale had run out of steam.

There are errors of fact, unimportant for the general reader, but worth mentioning if this is to add to the understanding of an important if largely forgotten campaign: 

  • 'A British Crown Colony since 1838, Aden' (p.5) Aden was captured by the East India Company in 1839, and became a Crown Colony in 1937;
  • 'King Saud's air adviser, Squadron Leader Bennett' (p.30); Sqn Ldr Bennett was Air Adviser to King Hussein of Jordan;
  • 'Ronald Bailey, until 1962 the British Consul in Taiz' (p.40) Bailey was Head of Mission (videBYSJ 1994);
  • 'the pass 6 miles from Hodeidah' (p.58); the town is Manakha. (W.B. Harris notes the same pass in his 1893 account);
  • Chapter 4, Note 9: while siasiwas used for 'intelligence', it is Arabic for 'political'. The Swahili description of a snake's movement is keenie-meenie;
  • 'Egyptian outposts near Amran, a few miles north west of Sana'a' (p.127) Amran is 28 miles away "a day's journey for reinforcements, given the going.
  • 'Sultan Saleh al-Qu'aiti in the Federal Supreme Council' (p.248) should read 'Sultan Saleh bin Hussain al-Audhali ...';
  • The 'Hamid ud-Din family' did not rule Yemen for 8 centuries (ps.
    5 & 340); Hashemite Imams ruled Yemen for much of that time, but the Hamid al-Din were only one of several families to do so.

The endnotes comprise a mixture of vague primary documentary references, some useful explanatory information, but far too many superfluous bon mots which the author(s) could not bear to omit. The notes are so poorly edited as to be confusing: Chapter 4, Note 9 precedes Note 3.
Chapter 2, Note 30 is detailed and interesting, but seems unconnected to the point it is trying to explain, as is Chapter 4, Note 13.

Errors in the text are as nothing compared to the mistakes in the pre-publicity. Had the marketing department bothered to read the book, they would never have described the BFLF as being 'at the head of a ragtag force of tribal warriors'. Had they dipped into the brief bibliography and seen David Smiley's Arabian Assignment, or Clive Jones's magisterial Britain and the Yemen Civil War, 1962"1965 (which mysteriously loses its subtitle Ministers, Mercenaries and Mandarins: Foreign Policy and the Limits of Covert Action) they would not have written 'For the very first time, 'The War That Never Was' tells the fascinating story of a secret war fought by British mercenaries in the Yemen in the early 1960s'.

All stories have heroes, and Lt Col (Jim) Johnson is clearly the author's " probably Tony Boyle's. Many stories have villains, and Nasser should fulfil this role. Yet the subplot running through most of this book is attempted score settling in regard to David Smiley. Incidences of this are too numerous to mention, but broadly, where Smiley's action can be meanly interpreted or disparaged, it is. By contrast, Johnson's own significant lapses, such as his lack of grip resulting in near-mutinies by the deployed BFLF personnel (pp. 197, 267 and 277.), and his human failings (particularly in his dealings with the Sa'udis) are mostly glossed over.

Two passages explain much about the tenor of the book: that relating a generational schism, between Stirling/McLean/Smiley vs Johnson/Boyle (p.130/131); and the unusually revealing paragraph remarking on McLean's and Smiley's extensive travels within Yemen, and their long experience of diplomacy outside Europe. 'Compared with them, Jim was a beginner at diplomacy, and perhaps was a little jealous of the comfortable relationship that the other two enjoyed with Feisal, Sultan, and various prominent Sa'udis' (pp.319/320.) While two charismatic and gallant men naturally attract partisans, in such a posthumous work they both deserve to rest in honoured peace.

The cover illustration is striking, with a cinematic feel reminiscent of Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai', but is spoilt by the inclusion of a spatter of blood/sealing wax. When this device is unnecessarily repeated in black and white on the title pages, it looks merely like a printing error. For the rest, the book is well laid-out and easily readable, with illustrative photographs (although none of Smiley and the French mercenaries.) There is what might have been a useful Dramatis Personae, yet it lacks logical order and omits many of the BFLF, particularly those from the later stages. With the exceptions cited above, the notes are relatively clear, but fall off dramatically in quality and quantity in the later chapters. Indeed, many of the most interesting snippets of information are unreferenced throughout; for example, it would be particularly useful to know where Col Woodhouse's POR could be found. The bibliography is accurately described as select: while the omission of Salah al-Din al-Hadidi's Shahid 'ala Harb al-Yamanis understandable, the exclusion of Somerville-Large's and O'Balance's works is less so. (Hinchcliffe et al's book on the retreat from Aden in 1967 was published in 2006, not 1966!). The index is adequate.

The sole map is of even worse quality than usual: while the BFLF may not have had access to good maps in the 1960s, that is not the case now. A reasonable map might help those who have not visited Yemen understand how complex terrain 'favours the defender sitting back on a steep hill' (p.114.) If Dresch, an anthropologist writing in 1993, can produce not only better maps but even a revealing cross-section, there is no excuse for failing to do so in a book where Ground forms such a key element. Similarly, the inclusion of an overlay denoting the sectarian geography of the country (Zaydi, Shafa'i and Isma'ili) would have been helpful.

There are other niggling features that detract from the enjoyment of the book: for example the mention of paddy fields (p.115), but more especially the recurrent lack of consistency and accuracy in transliterating Arabic (p.337).

The extract from Col Woodhouse's POR (p.341"3) comprises the best military analysis in the book, and more of the same would have been welcome. Strategically, Sudairi's remarks (p.244) that the Sa'udis wished to rule Yemen through the tribal shaikhs (bypassing the Imam) goes little analysed, yet explains perfectly their infuriating balancing act over support to the Royalists. The Sa'udis' scorned use of money over more kinetic means (p.337) predates General Petraeus's articulation of this as a 'weapon system' by 40 years.

If Mr Hart-Davis had written 'The War That Never Was' from scratch, then many of the errors identified above would never have occurred to detract from it, in particular the score-settling. However the chief fault lies with the editor: had the red pen been wielded with more gusto, a much better book might have emerged. As it stands, it advances only a little our understanding of a previous (and, sadly, perhaps future) battleground.

James Spencer