by Peter Hinchcliffe
The author served as a political officer in the Western Aden Protectorate, later the South Arabian Federation, from 1961-67 before joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. His postings as a diplomat included Dar es Salaam, Dubai, Zambia (High Commissioner), Kuwait (Ambassador) and Jordan (Ambassador). Since retirement he has held honorary fellowships at Queen’s University, Belfast, and Edinburgh. He gave the following talk to the British Yemeni Society, illustrated with slides and film, on 12 April, 2000.
I am going to try to tell you what it was like to be the senior (at the age of 28/29) British representative in Dhala’ for just over six months during the dying days of British rule in Aden and British influence in the ill-fated and short-lived South Arabian Federation.
When my wife, Archie, and I arrived in Dhala’ on 15 May 1966, it was her first visit but my second; I had spent three months between Dhala’ and Radfan in early 1964. My first impressions were unfavourable. I wrote to Archie on 8 March 1964 (I wrote every day during our year’s engagement): ‘The main drawback of Dhala’ is the very bad security situation. One has to take tremendous security precautions when moving anywhere outside one’s house, never telling anyone where you are going, so no one has the time to fix an ambush!’ There was a certain element of attempted flesh-creeping in this account, intended to impress my fiancee. But I was feeling vulnerable. A few days earlier I had had the unnerving experience of being involved in a serious ambush in Radfan.This was in the period immediately before the start of the Radfan insurgency and the sizable involvement of British troops on the ground. Accompanied by a Federal Regular Army (FRA) force, I had been escorting members of a court of enquiry investigating an ambush of an FRA patrol by Radfani rebels six weeks before. The ambush had left two soldiers killed and six wounded. The court of enquiry comprised Jim Ellis, then Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Internal Security, Colonel Chaplin from the Federal Ministry of Defence, and Richard Holmes, the Federal Attorney-General. Due to the carelessness of the officer commanding our ERA escort, who had ignored my suggestion that we should picket the high ground, we were ourselves ambushed at almost the same spot near the village of Danaba. We lay exposed to heavy fire from about eighty tribesmen for over two hours. Jim Ellis carried a wounded FRA soldier several hundred metres to a place of comparative safety, and then took over the duties of Forward Air Controller from a wounded RAF officer. Using the latter’s radio set, Jim successfully guided British Hawker Hunter fighter aircraft from Aden onto the rebel positions, and under their covering fire we were able to extricate ourselves, with the loss of one killed and three wounded. Jim’s gallantry undoubtedly saved the life of the FRA soldier and prevented other casualties.
In writing to my fiancee in 1964, I had confidently predicted that as a newly married couple we would not be posted to a ‘troublesome place like Dhala’. I was right to the extent that we spent our first tour as a married couple in the newly erected Federal capital ofAl Ittihad. One of my last duties there, in late 1965, had been to escort a British Labour Party Minister, Lord Beswick, around several states in the western part of the Federation. He had come to assure their rulers that the British Government intended to maintain its base in Aden for the foreseeable future and was committed to bringing the Federation, including Aden state, to independence; and that, following independence, HMG would be generous in its financial support and would continue to be responsible for the protection of the Federation via a formal Defence Treaty. In January 1966, Mr Denis Healey announced that Britain had no intention of reneging on her commitments in South Arabia. However, less than two months later, Lord Beswick returned to Aden to tell the same audience that HMG had reviewed its East of Suez policy in the light of its strategic defence objectives; that it had decided that the Federation should become independent in early 1968; that we would close our base and that there would be no defence treaty. With the wisdom of hindsight, this evidence of loss of British support and commitment was a death sentence for the Federation. But even from its inception — when its formation and survival were being proclaimed as a major British interest and the keystone of Britain’s East of Suez policy — the Federation had been a ramshackie and unconvincing edifice.
Nevertheless, it is clear from my diary and from the letters which I wrote at the time, that throughout our tour in Dhala’ I had no sense of impending disaster nor of the futility of what we were trying to do. However, some more senior people —and this I know from reading Robin Young’s journal — were well aware that the publication of the 1966 Defence White Paper would deprive the Federal enterprise of almost any chance of success. But a strong sense of duty and service, plus irrational bouts of unwarranted optimism, somehow kept a handful of people like Robin Young going to the bitter end. My own focus in 1966 was comparatively narrow and confined to Dhala’ and the other two tiny states within my area of responsibility, and day-to-day business was quite enough to keep me stimulated and occupied without worrying too much about the ‘bigger picture’.
The job of a political officer or assistant adviser was, by this late stage in Britain’s imperial decline, sui generis. Unlike colleagues serving in other overseas territories, such as in Africa, we had no formal executive authority. We did not run courts, nor manage administrations, nor command troops.The Federation of South Arabia had subsumed most of the former Western Aden Protectorate, and had partly, but only partly, taken over responsibility for running the colony of Aden, now a somewhat reluctant member state of the Federation. Assistant advisers reported to the British Government’s representative in the Assistant High Commissioner’s Office in the new Federal capital of Al Ittihad; they did not report to the Federal Government whose buildings were next door. Advisory treaties between HMG and the fifteen or so rulers in the former Western Aden Protectorate remained in force in 1966, despite the fact that most of these rulers had brought their states into the Federation. The Assistant High Commissioner (Federation), in 1966 RobinYoung, had not yet abandoned many of the former functions which he had in his preFederation capacity as British Agent, Western Aden Protectorate: he was still an important source of patronage and assistance — from HMG not Federal funds. He had been the principal adviser to the individual rulers and many of them, despite their formal adherence to a Federal Government in which a number served as ministers, still regarded him in this light. Meanwhile, the role of assistant advisers in the field, such as myself was to support the new constitutional set-up without being part of it. When I went up to Dhala’, there was a scheme afoot to convert assistant advisers into Federal Liaison Officers. This would have removed their chain of command from HMG to the Federal Government, but it did not happen until April 1967, and by then the change was meaningless as the Federation was in terminal decline.
The job of assistant adviser varied widely throughout South Arabia. I suppose my main responsibility was being friend and confidant to my three main ‘clients’: Amir Sha’aful, the ruler of Dhala’; Shaikh Qassim of the tiny shaikhdom of Muflahi; and Al-Haj Yahya al-Khulaqi, the ‘Naib’ or acting ruler of the fairly remote shaikhdom of Sha’ib. I acted as a liaison between them and HMG as represented by Robin Young. I was also involved in some aspects of the state administration. For example, I helped rulers to draft their state budgets, as most of the money came in the form of ‘grant-in aid’ from HMG, either directly or via the Federal Government. With serious money at last available for development (but much too late), I kept an eye on the two major Federal building projects in Dhala’: a hospital for the Ministry of Health and a new secondary school for the Ministry of Education. I also chivvied other ministries, such as Agriculture, to take an interest in the region. I had a small amount of independent funding at my disposal, which I used as best I could for small-scale projects: well digging, loans for the purchase of pumps and agricultural equipment such as tractors etc. But the unstable security situation made it difficult to get Ministry officials out of their offices and into the hinterland.
The most time-consuming preoccupation was assessing and countering threats to our security. It involved close contact with the Federal Guard — an interstate lightly armed police force which guarded my compound and manned forts throughout the area, and with the FRA, a more disciplined, better trained and armed force, and theoretically less tribalised, which still had a handful of British officers and was under the overall control of a British BrigadierWe usually had an FRA battalion in Dhala’, and another, forty miles south, at Thumair where Godfrey Meynell was assistant adviser. Dhala’ also had a separate British army camp containing a British company with supporting artillery and armoured car units. Local armed police and a force of so-called special guards, recruited more to provide employment than enhanced protection, supplemented the security forces.
I think we all tended to be a bit complacent about the threat, or rather the capabilities of the opposition. One major deficiency was our intelligence. I and the two other British officials in the compound — my assistant, Julian Paxton, and the Federal Intelligence Officer, Michael Butler, certainly used the same tiny handful of informers handed down from one political officer to another, who were triply rewarded for the same piece of usually inaccurate information. One of these informers was so grateful for our continued patronage that he named both himself and his son after one of my predecessors! It must have been widely known that they were feeding us with useless information, otherwise they would have been dealt with in the same way as Special Branch informers and agents were treated in Aden by the two main opposition groups, the National Liberation Front (NLF) and Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY).
The threat was real enough. The biggest danger was from Mark 7 anti-tank mines (British-made and left behind in Egypt’s Canal Zone in 1955) which made vehicular movement very hazardous. Anti-personnel mines were also in use. Movement on foot, unless in considerable force, was also risking ambush by organised groups of infiltrators from the nearby Yemen Arab Republic. In 1966,Yemen was largely under Egyptian military occupation, with Egyptian intelligence officers training and equipping guerrilla groups to operate inside the Federation. All my touring was by helicopter, so it took me only fifteen minutes to reach the capital of Sha’ib instead of the eight hours it would have taken some of my predecessors in happier times. At night when the moon was half full, we lived in anxious anticipation of attack. During our six months in Dhala’, our house was attacked five times; and the army camps and especially the gleaming confection of the Amir’s palace — an unmissable target — were targeted rather more often. The fact that most of these attacks — with rifles, machine guns, mortars and bazookas — were long range and ineffectual explained our complacency. They were reported as great successes by Sana’a radio and by Sawt al-Arab; on a number of occasions I was reported killed together with hundreds of imaginary British troops. But I became less complacent after a close range attack on that part of my house which I normally used as a lookout; luckily I didn’t have time to reach it before my chair and radio—set there were blown to pieces!
Even as late as 1966 when both the Nasserist FLOSY and the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ NLF were going strong, we tended to refer to the opposition as ‘dissidents’. We reckoned that the majority were disaffected locals, doing the minimum for their Egyptian paymasters to justify their mercenary calling. We now know that by that time both organisations — the NLF perhaps more than FLOSY — were generally well trained and equipped and, above all, were highly motivated with a sophisticated cell system. It was perhaps fortunate for us in Dhala’ that their most effective people seem to have concentrated their attention on Aden, although some NLF umts fought with great determination and to considerable effect in the Radfan mountains in 1964.
Despite our security concerns and other frustrations including a night time curfew, Archie and I look back on our six months in Dhala’ as the highlight of our time in the Federation. We enjoyed an intensive social life, particularly with the other resident British. We saw a lot of the Amir and his brothers, whilst Archie visited their womenfolk. We had frequent contact with the Arab officers in the Federal forces. We had many interesting, if very short-stay, visitors: during one three week period, according to my diary, a delegation from the Imperial Defence College; the Chief of the Defence Staff (and two days later his deputy); the Head of Military Intelligence; the Commander-in-Chief Middle East; a stream of lesser military figures; a cross-party group of MPs; two Japanese businessmen; three journalists, including the BBC correspondent; and, oddly, the French Madame of an Aden brothel who was found wandering around the town looking for transport to Yemen and, doubtless, ‘fresh fields and postures new’, as terrorism had dented her business in the Colony.
A frequent and welcome visitor was Godfrey Meynell from Thumair, who came to discuss Radfani affairs with Amir Sha’aful. Godfrey was in charge of the pacification and development of Radfan, following the military campaign there in 1964. Officially, Radfan lay within the domain of the Amir of Dhala’ but his pretensions to rule these fiercely independent tribesmen were not accepted by most Radfanis. Only once in my time did Amir Sha’aful feel able to go down there in person. In the absence of a credible Dhala’i representative, it was the British assistant adviser who headed the administration. Godfrey performed prodigious feats of development work in difficnlt and dangerous circumstances and with scarce resources. In fact his role was much more that of a traditional Colonial district officer than adviser like the rest of us. Despite the passage of many years his name is still fondly remembered in Radfan.
We left Dhala’ in mid-December 1966, never to return. Seven months later Dhala’ was taken over by Ali Antar. The Amir went into exile and the British Adviser was withdrawn. By that stage the Federation was dead, and it was finally buried on 22 November 1967 when the last British High Commissioner left Aden.