x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The War That Never Was: Death of a previous 'Arab spring'

Duff Hart-Davis's fascinating book charts the story of a covert operation cooked up in Sixties London and designed to shore up Britain's faltering interests in Yemen and the region at large.

The War That Never Was by Duff Hart-Davis (Century)
The War That Never Was by Duff Hart-Davis (Century)

Jay, Tea, Grin, Baptist, Franco, Mac, Dandy and Fathom ... a roll-call of just some of the shadowy characters who populate the pages of this extraordinary story of the ultimate old-boys' network - a clubland-based cabal of former British Special Air Service (SAS) men and others who, between 1963 and 1967, waged a bloody and ultimately futile secret war in Yemen on behalf of their country's interests.

Although Duff Hart-Davis wrote this book before the outbreak of the current upheavals in Yemen and the wider region, and so makes no comment upon them, it nevertheless serves as a cautionary tale - a timely reminder of an earlier "Arab spring" and the lengths to which various vested interests, in the region and beyond, were prepared to go to nip it in the bud.

In September 1962, Col Abdullah al-Sallal, commander of the Yemeni royal guard, led a republican uprising against the ancient monarchy of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of the Yemen, driving the imam-king Mohamed al-Badr into the mountains and triggering a bloody six-year civil war.

Al-Sallal, who styled himself president of the newly born Yemen Arab Republic (which in 1990 would merge with the neighbouring People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, to form today's Republic of Yemen), was inspired and bankrolled by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Soviet-backed Egyptian leader.

Having helped to overthrow Egypt's own monarchy in 1952, Nasser was now determined to foment republican revolution throughout the region and in Yemen saw an opportunity to further his dream of an Arab world united under his leadership.

Britain, still smarting from the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Nasser in 1956 (and the subsequent political debacle of the joint French, British and Israeli attempt to take it back by force), now feared not only for the future of its colony of Aden, but also for its wider interests throughout Arabia.

The British had been entrenched in Aden since 1839, when - in another pre-echo of contemporary issues - it had seized the port as a base for military operations against piracy. Its importance, both militarily and as a bunkering port for British trading ships, only increased with the opening of the Suez Canal 30 years later, and by 1962 Aden was one of the busiest ports in the world.

Nasser's further ambitions, however, "were even more alarming", as Hart-Davis notes: "to infiltrate Saudi Arabia from its western and southern underbelly, seize the oilfields, gain control of the entire Persian Gulf and finally annihilate Israel".

The road to Tel Aviv, Nasser was reported to have remarked, "lies via the Gulf and Riyadh" - a prospect that created strange bedfellows. Israel, covertly reuniting over Yemen with its fellow Suez plotters Britain and France, now found itself also secretly in league with Saudi Arabia.

The British Conservative government was in a quandary. It had already recognised the need for constitutional reform in Aden and the surrounding British protectorate, to delay what it saw as the inevitable slide towards full independence and secure "the free use of our defence facilities in the Colony and Protectorate with the greatest practicable measure of consent for as long as possible".

Such considerations, however, were swept aside by the Yemen revolt.

To make matters worse, the British felt they were being hampered by pressure from what they saw as a politically naive America. The US, the foreign secretary told his cabinet colleagues two months after the rebellion, was "understood to favour early recognition of the republican regime in exchange for concessions or assurances from the Egyptian Government about the maintenance of stable conditions in Saudi Arabia".

If, however, "recent reports about the intention of the republican regime in the Yemen to declare war on Saudi Arabia were confirmed, concessions of this kind would not be easy to obtain."

Britain, according to Hart-Davis, was alarmed that President Kennedy, distracted by events in Vietnam, "was apparently unable to appreciate the depth of Nasser's mendacity or the risks that he posed" - especially for British interests.

In once-secret documents, the cabinet noted that "While it was distasteful to appear to be supporting the tyrannical dynasties which were common in this part of the world, any early recognition of the republican regime was likely to have serious repercussions on our position in Aden, which was to a large extent dependent on the continued loyalty and support of the Rulers of the Aden Protectorate and the neighbouring Sheikhs".

An underhand solution was at hand, in the form of Col Jim Johnson, an underwriter at Lloyd's of London, former commander of 21 SAS (Reserve) and, for "classified reasons", an appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

Hart-Davis, who interviewed Johnson at length before his death in 2008, at the age of 83, says "Jay" was approached by "influential people" in and out of the government and asked to put together a group of men prepared to get their hands very dirty on Britain's behalf.

Johnson's motives were "Purely patriotic", concludes Hart-Davis. "His aim was not to earn a fortune, but to remove a hostile power - the Soviet-backed Egyptians - from the Yemen ... he strongly believed Britain should safeguard its interests in the Middle East and keep communist influence out."

Spawned in the bars and billiards rooms of London's clubland, the black op was endorsed by none other than Col David Stirling, who had founded the SAS in North Africa during the Second World War. The cutting edge of what became known as the British Field Liaison Force would be formed chiefly of former members of 21 and 22 SAS, many of whom had recently seen action in neighbouring Oman, where they had ejected Saudi-backed rebels in the Jebel Akhdar war.

The money to fund the operation, which came at first from Yemen's royal coffers and then from the Saudis, flowed through the accounts of London's Hyde Park Hotel, where the managing director just happened to be a former wartime commander of the SAS. Also through the hotel flowed a stream of characters ranging from Mossad and MI6 agents to members of the ousted Yemeni royalist government.

Johnson directed events from his club, White's, and his home in Sloane Avenue, Chelsea, the basement of which soon came to resemble an arms bazaar.

It was a very British affair. On one occasion a Hoover salesman, mistaken by Johnson's wife Judy for one of the many mercenaries constantly coming and going, was directed to the basement, "where he was disconcerted to find several men servicing submachine guns".

In another episode, equally worthy of a scene in an Ealing Studios comedy, a suitcase belonging to a group of British mercenaries travelling to Aden via Libya burst open at the feet of security officers in Tripoli. Out fell several rolls of plastic explosive, wrapped in paper. Despite the telltale smell of almonds the guards helped to repack the case after one of the men breezily explained that he was a marzipan salesman taking samples to various Arab potentates.

In Yemen the British, living in caves and sustained by Israeli air drops of essentials ranging from mines, rifles and ammunition to cans of baked beans, corned beef and pineapple, set about training royalist forces and launching a series of attacks reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia's role in the Arab Revolt half a century earlier.

It proved an especially brutal war. Captured Egyptian troops had their noses, ears and lips sliced off by the Yemeni fighters, while Egypt's air force took to dropping qunbula sahriya - "magic bombs" full of poison gas which killed men, women and children in the most appalling fashion. One estimate puts the number of loyalist casualties at 100,000, while as many as 20,000 Egyptians may have also died. Only one French and three British mercenaries were killed in the four years they spent in Yemen.

Was it all worth it? That depends on who you are, but one clear winner was Israel, which was happy to see perhaps a third of the Egyptian army bogged down in Yemen for as long as possible. It may be no exaggeration to suggest, as American historian Eugene Rogan has, that "Egypt lost the '67 war in the Yemen".

Certainly, after the Arab-Israeli War in June 1967, Johnson and a colleague were invited to Tel Aviv, where Moshe Dayan, Israel's defence minister, reportedly thanked them: "Every prisoner we've taken has been so terrified by what you did to their army in the Yemen that the whole lot surrendered."

The war also defused the republican threat to the Saudi regime and bought it enough time to beef up its defences (not least with the purchase of a squadron of British-made Lightning fighter jets, manned by British pilots).

It all ended that November, when Egyptian troops finally limped out of Yemen. "Terminate" was the prearranged one-word BFLF signal that also sent the British mercenaries heading home. They had helped to see off Nasser, but within 70 days the royalists were ultimately defeated by the rebels. Worse, the mercenaries had failed to achieve the primary objective of protecting British interests.

Between 1964 and 1967, as the war had dragged on, terrorist attacks in Aden by the National Liberation Front (NLF) and other Nasser-sponsored organisations had increased from three a month to more than 240.

Britain, by now under Harold Wilson's Labour government and pursuing its policy of regional withdrawal, had lost its stomach for hanging on in Aden and that November, as Egyptian troops left Yemen, so Britain formally recognised the NLF as the new administration of Aden and the last British forces withdrew from the former colony. With them went the imam, to die in exile in England in 1996.

Johnson, however, in a pragmatic realignment of allegiances, would be back. In the Seventies he formed KMS, a private military company which landed the contract to train the bodyguard of the Yemeni president.

Jonathan Gornall is a features writer at The National.