A personal memory by OLIVER MILES
This article was published in the British Yemeni Society's journal, 1997
Although I was an outsider, from the Foreign Office and not from the Aden Service, I had an insider’s view of the last six months of British rule in Aden thirty years ago. This was because the last High Commissioner, Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, decided that he wanted a private secretary from the Foreign Service, to which he himself had belonged. I was already in the country because the Foreign Office wanted one of their people to have some knowledge of it in readiness for the Embassy which would be accredited to the independent government.
Up to that point I had been serving in the so called Eastern Aden Protectorate (not that we ever gave it much protection) as assistant to the British Resident in Mukalla. The President, Jim Ellis, was in the fine Harold Ingrams tradition and had done his utmost to bring peace and prosperity to the area, without too much success. Although I heard the praises of Harold Ingrams as peacemaker sung around a camp fire on the plateau in what was then the tribal area, the fact is that the EAP remained in pretty much the state of tribal anarchy which had existed in Arabia since the beginning of history and earlier. For me, a young Arabist, it was a unique opportunity - rather as if an American diplomat coming to Europe was able to spend a little time with Robin Hood in the greenwood. The tribal game was still being played according to the old rules: you scored by killing a male member of the other tribe, and if you killed so many that the other side could not level the score even by wiping your side out, you could draw stumps. It was perhaps only later when I served in Saudi Arabia that I realised how astonishing it was that Ibn Saud had created a more or less unified and pacified Kingdom in what had been, as recently as the days of Doughty, "the fanatic Arabia".
Aden was another story, a Crown Colony and not a mere protectorate, and therefore equipped with at least the beginnings of institutions such as courts, unions and even at one time a Legislative Council, to say nothing of hotels, buses and drains. Mukalla had some outsiders, including the Sultan and his hangers on, but in Aden one sometimes wondered whether there were many indigenous Arabs among the races who came to create the modern city - for when the British arrived Aden was scarcely a village.
I do not know if Trevelyan grasped from the beginning that his real task would be just to get the British army and civilian officials out with the minimum bloodshed. I suspect he did, because he was extraordinarily acute and the minister who appointed him, George Brown, was of the school that saw no future at all in Britain’s presence in Arabia. At first, however, we had a wider agenda, seeking to provide a framework in which relatively democratic forces in Aden and our traditional friends in the upcountry states could work together in peace. Especially in Aden and the Western protectorate, officials had struggled long to build the Federation of South Arabia, and were extremely reluctant to accept that it was still-born. In addition, we continued to be preoccupied with the familiar forgotten tasks of colonial government; justice, health, economic development, and so on.
We both understood and to some extent sympathised with the wish to see the British gone, but it was hard for me not to feel bitter as the various groups and individuals committed to liberation, known as terrorists for short, continued to kill people largely because of the colour of their skins, such as my friend and contemporary Derek Rose who was murdered in an Aden street when his old car broke down. The decision that we were leaving had been taken and announced, so one might ask why our political and military problems remained as acute as they did. There were, I think, a number of answers to this question. One was that we were not believed; surely Aden was too precious for us to give it up? Another was that a record of violence against the British might turn out to be a valuable thing to have in one’s CV. Some of the "terrorists" were indeed terrorists, who believed in bloodshed as a necessary condition of political change. But the most important point was that the forces aligned against us, which we assumed to be more or less coherent, were in reality deeply divided, and we were caught in the cross fire between them. This became increasingly obvious towards the end, as we shall see.
Our position was a difficult one. Quite literally, the world was against us, as was demonstrated by the farcical and disgraceful visit of a United Nations Commission sent out to tell us how to solve our problems - it was scant consolation that an African and a Latin American, devout believers in the anti-imperialism which was the religion of the day, were nevertheless unable to adopt a sufficiently anti-British posture to avoid being run out of town by the "terrorists". Across the border in North Yemen the Egyptian Intelligence Service, involved along with the Egyptian army in the Yemen civil war, still had its tail up and was taking every opportunity to make life dangerous for us - again, scant consolation that they were seen off by the Yemenis only a few weeks later than ourselves. Within the territory, the levers of influence were melting away in our hands. For example, if a "terrorist" was arrested, we could only lock him up for a period which would end with our own departure, thus ever decreasing; in any case, detention by the British, with that valuable point on one’s CV, might be the best way to survive the desperate final struggle between the liberation organisations.
In desperation we resorted to some disreputable methods. Pressure was applied to detainees to get information, until the practice was busted by the International Red Cross. I was disgusted by the continuation of the practice of giving rifles to our friends up-country, which had once been a matter of honour, but had become a cheap bribe - neither moral nor prudent, dragons’ teeth indeed. Were rough tactics used by the army? Certainly the reputation of the Argylls for dealing on the spot with anyone who hurt one of their soldiers - whether or not the reputation was based in fact - was understood in a tribal society and seemed to contribute to much lower casualty figures, both Arab and British, wherever the Argylls happened to be. Just after the Argylls retook Crater from the "terrorists" - apparently more by the power of the bagpipe than the gun - I was invited by their Adjutant to make a tour with him, I must admit with an armoured car in close attendance behind us. It was not as I expected, particularly when small Arab children came up to my friend the Major and offered him sweets. Surely he could not have stage managed it, only twenty-four hours after retaking the city?
Trevelyan, a veteran of the Indian Political Service and a former Ambassador in Moscow (and avid reader of Pushkin), was a truly great man, shrewd and kind, leader, manager and tactician. Some examples: relations between Government House and the military were traditionally tense, so on his second day in Aden Trevelyan overrode protocol and insisted on visiting the Commander in Chief in his headquarters; so simple the gesture, so great the benefit! He seems to have been the only official in the Foreign Office who understood that a clear decision from George Brown at breakfast was worth any amount of fuddled discussion later in the drinking day. On a larger issue, he successfully fought against London’s determination to set a date for final withdrawal, arguing that it would leave control of the end game entirely in the opposition’s hands. He was right, and at final departure, to the strains of "Fings Ain’t Wot They Used to Be", not a shot was fired. Only once did I, as his private secretary, have to fight him and win, when he was to give a George Medal to a bomb disposal expert; it had to be early in the morning for timetable reasons, and he thought it would not be the thing to serve champagne.
The end was a mystery. The Front for the Liberation of South Yemen, absurdly known as FLOSY, the darling of Cairo, of the United Nations and of a great part of the British Labour party, with its leaders like Makkawi and Asnag all ready to step into their ministerial offices, was blown away in a few weeks by a mysterious organisation known to us as the National Liberation Front - the Qawmiyin. Who were they? How did they do it? How was it that, when we eventually sat down with them for our hasty handover negotiations in Geneva, we recognised more than one face we had known in the federal army or the armed police, people of whose true purpose we had known nothing? The quotation has become hackneyed, but Trevelyan and I found it singularly apt:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
...somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
...what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?