Tale of a fighter pilot's last sortie
More than 50 years after the British put down an uprising in Oman by rebels and the fierce tribes who live on Jebel Akhdar, only the grave of a young RAF pilot who crashed on the mountain and the debris of his aircraft remain as reminders of the conflict, writes Jonathan Gornall It is one of the least remembered of the many "small wars" fought by Britain, and the unclaimed human remains that lie walled up on the slopes of a mountain in Oman are those of one of its all-but-forgotten victims.
On August 30, 1958, Flight Lt Owen Watkinson, a young British fighter pilot in his early twenties, took off from RAF Sharjah at the controls of his Venom fighter-bomber. His mission was part of Operation Black Magic, the protracted air blockade of rebel strongholds on top of Jebel Akhdar, the Green Mountain, in the heart of Oman. The Venom, fitted with extra fuel tanks to give it sufficient operating time over target after the 350km flight from Sharjah, carried a deadly payload: four 20mm cannon and four air-to-ground rockets packed with high explosive.
As the de Havilland Ghost jet engine behind him punched his aircraft into the hazy summer sky over Sharjah, the pilot may have taken comfort in the ejector seat with which this latest version of the Venom had been fitted. It would not, however, save him. His last flight, and his life, would end on the Green Mountain, where he and fragments of his aircraft, WR552, remain to this day. Flight Lt Watkinson's wife, Jill, was living in RAF married quarters in Aden when her young husband died. She returned to the UK and eventually remarried, moving with her American husband to New York, where she lives today.
The story of Flight Lt Watkinson's last mission was unearthed by Laurence Garey, professor of anatomy in the faculty of medicine at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain from 2000 until 2004. He now lives in Switzerland. While in the UAE, Prof Garey joined the Emirates Natural History Group, whose Al Ain members spent much time exploring over the border in Oman. A qualified pilot and a former RAF Reserve officer, he had heard about the remains of an RAF aircraft high in the mountains and, one weekend in October 2003, he and some of the other members of the group drove the 280km from Al Ain to Jebel Akhdar to find it.
The sight of the wreckage and Flight Lt Watkinson's grave inspired Prof Garey to dig deeper into the story. In the process, after trawling through records in Britain and the UAE, he unearthed only a few precious details about a fellow Englishman whose short life and violent death 50 years ago had left behind almost no official trace. The Venom, or what is left of it, "is literally lying by the side of the road", says Prof Garey, "and Watkinson's grave is still there. As far as I know, he is still in it."
Prof Garey researched the incident in RAF records and the British National Archives and, beyond one bald entry in the operational record books of 8 Squadron - "Owen Watkinson, flight lieutenant, deceased" - there was "no record whatsoever that I have been able to find of this crash". It seems, however, that the dead pilot was treated with dignity by the men at whom he had been shooting only moments before he crashed. He was buried by them under a cairn of stones. Later, after the conflict, he was re-entombed nearby in a ceremony attended by an RAF padre.
"Every day he and his friends were going up there shooting rockets at them so they would not have been very popular," says Prof Garey, "but they respected this man, not for what he was doing, but for who he was - a soldier, like they were." Prof Garey has been to the site several times. It is, he says, "a beautiful spot and as good a place to be buried as anywhere". In the nearby village of Sharaijah, "you can see these old men in their seventies, sitting on a wall in the evening as the sun goes down. Fifty years ago, they were probably the young men who in their twenties were on the receiving end of Watkinson's rockets."
It had all begun just over the border from Al Ain in Buraimi, which at the time was wrongly thought to be sitting on copious oil reserves. On August 31, 1952, Saudi Arabian forces occupied the town, to which Saudi tribes had laid claim since at least the 19th century. In 1955, after a long stand-off between the Saudis and the British-led Trucial Oman Scouts, the British lost patience and drove out the occupiers.
Two years later, however, they were back, fomenting revolt in Muscat and Oman against the rule of the Sultan, an ally of the British. In June 1957 exiled Omani rebels, backed by and trained in Saudi Arabia, landed by sea and marched into the mountains. There they were joined by the people of Jebel Akhdar, transforming the whole area into a rebel stronghold. Jebel Akhdar is a vast, mountainous plateau, stretching over more than 1,800 square miles, studded with peaks and dozens of villages nestling in the folds of the rugged landscape. "The tribes of the area," wrote Air Vice-Marshal Peter Dye in a paper about the conflict published last year in the RAF journal Air Power Review, "have always been fiercely independent and have successfully defied invaders for centuries."
This they did in July 1957, ambushing and badly mauling the Sultan's small army, which was led by British officers. The Sultan called for British help, and Flight Lt Watkinson's fate was sealed. For the sake of Britain's credibility throughout the Gulf, it was vital for the country to be seen to honour a treaty similar to those that for decades had promised protection to the rulers of the neighbouring Trucial States.
At first, RAF Shackleton bombers, flying from bases in Aden, Bahrain, Sharjah and on the island of Masirah, off the coast of Oman, were sent in, dropping 1,000lb bombs across the plateau. Next up were the Venoms of 8 Squadron, transferred to RAF Sharjah from their base at Khormaksar in Aden. Their job was to maintain an air blockade, destroying enemy positions, water systems, agriculture and livestock in an attempt to starve out the rebels.
The siege was not without its lighter moments. At one point the British sent aloft a transport aircraft, equipped with loudspeakers, in an attempt to "psych out" the defenders by broadcasting messages in English and Arabic - and a selection of hits from the 1956 Hollywood musical High Society. RAF records show that according to Air Vice-Marshal Dye the effort "was of questionable value ... the rebels sent a message complaining that they could not hear what was being broadcast". Irregular daily bombardment from the valley below by two 5.5-inch howitzers was substituted.
On the ground, about 200 British troops were deployed to stiffen the Sultan's army of about 300, but there was to be no quick victory. The rebels and Saudis were thought to number about 1,000, plus unknown hundreds of armed villagers. Well supplied with mines, which destroyed a number of British vehicles, they held out with determination, sheltering in caves from the bombers and the rockets of the Venoms.
By November 1958, three months after Flight Lt Watkinson's death, the British had had enough. Under close UN scrutiny following the Suez debacle two years earlier, the government was reluctant to launch a major operation and so it was decided to send in a squadron of 80 SAS men to do the job "discreetly". It was a tribute to the rebels that, according to Air Vice-Marshal Dye, "the quality and strength of the opposition led to the decision to fly in a second SAS squadron".
During December 1958, the SAS troopers infiltrated the enemy lines, in one raid killing more than 20 for the loss of just one of their own. The following month, silently climbing the mountain under cover of darkness, they led a major night attack on the stronghold. The defenders, battered and starving after 18 months of siege and aerial bombardment, melted away, their leaders escaping back to Saudi Arabia. The revolt was finally over.
The Venoms had left Sharjah three months earlier. They had flown 1,315 sorties, firing more than 3,000 rockets and 270,000 20mm cannon shells. No 8 Squadron survives to this day, based in Britain at RAF Waddington, near Lincoln, and flies Boeing Sentry Airborne Early Warning aircraft, which have seen service over Afghanistan and Iraq. The squadron's crest, approved by King George VI in 1943, is a sheathed Arabian dagger, which signifies its "long association with the Middle East". It is an association that, over the past half a century, has been at least matched by Flight Lt Watkinson's.
Much of his aircraft, including the weapons, control panel and ejector seat, has disappeared over the years, but parts of the wings, with a still-retracted wheel in place, and a sizeable chunk of the jet engine, remain. The Venom's fuselage was made partly from wood, and bits of ply and balsa can still be seen lying around. A trail of shattered pieces of aluminium and perspex from the cockpit canopy can be followed for 500 metres down the slope to the point where the aircraft appears to have struck the hillside.
One local version of the story has it that the young pilot failed to pull out of a dive after strafing a herd of goats - targeted by the British as a vital resource for the rebels; another that he was shot down with a rifle by a man whose son still tells the tale. "The cause of Owen Watkinson's crash was never fully determined," says Flight Sgt Barry Dobson, part of 8 Squadron's history team. "However, squadron opinion at the time was that he misjudged his climb out following a strafing run. Inspection of the wreckage after the conflict did show bullet holes in parts of the aircraft but there was no way of telling if this was done prior to the crash or, as suspected, after the incident."
Once inaccessible and hard to find, the crash site is now bisected by a recently built highway. "When I went up there last summer I started to get really worried," says Prof Garey. "I took photographs of these young men jumping up and down on top of the wreckage, having a great time. It's beginning to get bits of graffiti on it as well. It is going to be destroyed, which is a great shame. "I believe it should be in a museum and the full story told, but then the villagers seem to think it belongs to them and I don't think they would like the idea of our taking it away."
Over the years, a curious bond also seems to have formed between the people of the mountain and the pilot, who has lain among them for twice as many years as he lived. "I heard that there was certain reticence about disinterring his body and taking it off to a war grave somewhere," says Prof Garey. "They want to keep him." On August 30 last year, Prof Garey and six colleagues returned to the site to pay their respects on the 50th anniversary of the crash. It was, he says, a moving experience. "I'm glad we did it."
Updated: September 6, 2009 04:00 AM