Harib: the aftermath

The attack on Fort Harib on 28 March 1964 was arguably the highest profile incident involving the Hunter during its eight years of operational service in the Middle East. Three Khormaksar-based units, 8 and 43 Squadrons and 1417 Flight, carried out the attack and more details can be found in the respective squadron ORBs for that year and in several personal recollections among the Anecdote pages. The operation caused a political storm back in the UK and in the United Nations as can be seen from the following cuttings extracted from The Sunday Times of 5 April, 1964, by Peter Lewis.

Why we shot up the Yemen fort

Suddenly Suez passions were aroused again: should Britain have sent RAF jets, rather in the way we used to send gunboats, to shoot up the Yemeni fort at Harib? Britain was on the defensive in the UN. Arab opinion was inflamed. Why did we do it?

In the Middle East nothing has ever been simple. Britain’s commitment to defend the South Arabian Federation, and to preserve with it the strategically vital base at Aden, has meant trying to live with two often incompatible objectives: on the one hand to honour her treaties and on the other to do nothing to exacerbate Arab nationalism. This balancing act began to collapse just before Easter.

The Yemeni Nationalists, still, after 18 months, fighting their civil war with the remnants of the Royalists, had been making both open and covert attacks on the South Arabian Federation: on March 26 Britain listed to the United Nations three deliberate air attacks on the Federation between October 1962 and March this year. There had also been ‘subversive acts’ of penetration. But 24 hours earlier, on the Wednesday before Easter, Britain had already decided on retaliation to any further incursions. At 3 p.m. that day the Cabinet’s Defence Committee met at 10 Downing Street.

At the time it was assumed that Cyprus was the reason. But Yemen was first on the agenda. With the Prime Minister were the Foreign Secretary, Mr Butler, the Commonwealth Secretary, Mr Duncan Sandys, Lord Carrington, the link man between Butler and Sandys, Mr Thorneycroft, on the brink of taking over his new integrated Defence empire, Mr Amery, the Aviation Minister, General Sir Richard Hull, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Elworthy, who was not only Chief of the Air Staff but also an ex-Commander-in-Chief Middle East. It was this meeting which agreed to a retaliatory air strike against further Yemen attacks.

The military appraisal was difficult. The failure to retaliate against earlier incursions had badly hit the morale of the Federation troops, who felt the Arab sin of lost face. Orthodox reprisal over land was impossible because of the terrain. Harib fort was selected as the target because it was a centre for the distribution of arms across the frontier, and the headquarters for incursions.

Once provocation was established, there was the critical political and diplomatic decision about the manner and degree of retaliation. There was the obvious muscular difference between the British weapons and the Yemeni fort, virtually defenceless against 600 mph jets. Like Cyprus, this decision again introduced the tricky territorial balance between Butler and Sandys. Both agreed to the raid, and any idea of a clear divergence between a pacific Butler and a militant Sandys would be over­simplified. Nevertheless their relationship is clearly abrasive, and Butler couldn’t have been any happier than his department about the decision.

A fortnight before the Yemen affair it had seemed that Sandys was elbowing Butler out of the way by taking over the entire Cyprus show. This had happened because the Prime Minister decided that instead of having two senior Ministers on the Front Bench answering on the same crisis, Sandys should be the spokesman since Cyprus was a Commonwealth country.

This was the explanation, but it didn’t deter criticism that Butler was ‘contracting out’ and leaving a mucky situation to the unsubtle and strong-headed Sandys. A Foreign Secretary has a department to defend. And Butler was the glue holding together two otherwise centrifugally-inclined wings of the Cabinet. If he had decided against the raid his position would have been strong; Sir Alec could hardly risk a resignation on this issue, but then neither would Butler want to be seen as a Government wrecker. In that decisive Wednesday meeting of the Cabinet’s Defence Committee it was not only Sandys who favoured strong medicine. Thorneycroft and Amery joined him in a ginger group which wanted action.

Since Sir Alec came to power it has been easier for the ginger groupers to be heard; the Defence Committee, had, anyway, curiously polarised all the more aggressive spirits in the Cabinet and Butler was in immoderate company.

For the ginger group the security, of the Aden base was paramount. Although occasional Yemeni raids could offer no real threat to this, infiltration and sub­version obviously could. The raid was no doubt intended to be instructive not only to President Sallal in the Yemeni capital of Sana, but also to Cairo: about 25,000. Egyptian troops, plus money and supplies, were supporting the Republicans. But the case was further complicated by the fact that the Sultan of Beihan, across whose border the offending Harib fort lay, has been supporting the surviving Royalists in the Yemen.

The finger was, however, now on the trigger, and the safety catch was off. The decision had to be communicated to Washington, and on Good Friday the British Embassy informed the State Department. The Americans had objections, but were in diplomatically as tricky a position as the British: although they had been quick to recognise the Republican regime in the Yemen (Britain has not) they were committed to the preservation of the Aden, base, a vital link also in their strategy.

But as it turned out there was to be little time for further diplomatic exchanges. The whole plan was precipitated by a new Yemeni attack - some of their aircraft, Russian-built and flown by Egyptians, machine-gunned a Federal fort at Jabal Dulaiq. The only casualties were three camels. But the reprisal machinery was now automatically engaged.

The two key men on the spot were the British military commander, Lt-Gen Sir Charles Harrington, and the Aden High Commissioner, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis.

Clear orders

Trevaskis was the midwife of the Federation idea; had worked among the Aden tribes and their rulers since 1951 and in cementing them together had performed; a feat of diplomatic construction; not on a Lawrence scale but in that tradition. In some ways an archetypal Colonial civil servant, he is nevertheless no blimp - he went to Aden because he couldn’t live with the colour bar attitudes of Northern Rhodesia’s white minority (he was a District Officer there in 1950).

Harrington, born in Tunbridge! Wells, Malvern educated and Sandhurst-trained, is a thoroughly orthodox military man. His orders were quite clear.

Following the practice now standard in Borneo and Malaya, the RAF were to drop leaflets warning of impending attack so that the fort could either be evacuated or, at the least, civilians could be got out of the way (the town of Harib was a mile from the fort). The RAF crews were briefed and everything was set for an attack early on Saturday.

Back in Washington, the Yemeni attack and the British decision to go ahead with reprisal were reported personally to Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State, by the British Ambassador, Lord Harlech. Rusk was not happy but realised that he had to accept the British decision.

Eight jets made the attack, preceded by separate leaflet-dropping planes. The Yemenis claimed that twenty-five people, including : women and children had died. A Foreign Office spokesman said later: ‘If there were casualties they were probably military. If they were civilian casualties they were either put into the fort or not removed from it despite the leaflet warning.’ Fifteen minutes was allowed between warning and attack.

False reports

Meanwhile the Cabinet had dispersed for Easter. The holiday immobilised diplomatic reactions. There was no stir until early last Tuesday. What happened then was something of a canard. Stories started appearing in London that the Americans were livid about the raid, and that Dean Rusk had tried to stop it. This account, in fact, started with an Associated Press despatch from Washington. Correspondents who checked with the Foreign Office were told that no representations had been made; the British Embassy in Washington checked with Rusk and he confirmed that there was no formal objection. Indeed, he was so alarmed by the reports that he had a check made to see where they originated from. It was London.

The predictable attack was launched in the UN on Wednesday by the Yemen Republic, with Afro-Asian backing. Sir Patrick Dean put Britain’s position, stressing the provocative Yemeni attacks. And he suggested a de-militarised zone along the Yemeni-Federation border. He did this again on Friday night, but there was no Yemeni response.

And this, it seemed, could be the only effective damping action to a dangerous situation. The trouble was, as the case of the Harib fort amply showed, that the only military response we could make was bound to be a sledgehammer against a nut.

Backing up the Sheikhs: treaties that bring trouble

The RAF’s reprisal strafing of a Yemeni border fort at Harib eight days ago was in fulfilment of British engagements to support a minor Arab ruler against aggression. At the same time it was a reminder that the Arabian littoral from the north of the Persian Gulf down to Aden is studded with sheikhdoms, sultanates and emirates whom Britain is pledged, implicitly or explicitly, to defend.

Britain's involvement in the area goes back three centuries, when trade with Persia was being developed by the East India Company. British interests gradually changed from purely commercial affairs to moral issues such as suppression of piracy and slavery, and to Great Power status issues such as protection of the line of communications to the eastern Asian dependencies opened up by the Suez Canal, and the exclusion of European and other rivals from: the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

Piracy was virtually ended in the 1850s with the signing of a ‘perpetual maritime truce’ with the worst offenders; hence the name ‘Trucial Coast’ States, which has stuck to this day. Later came a series of so-called ‘exclusive’ treaties under which Arab rulers undertook not to ‘cede, mortgage or part with any part of their territories to anyone except Britain, nor to enter into a relationship with any other State without British consent.’ In return, Britain undertook to protect the Arab rulers from outside attack, sometimes implicitly (the seven Trucial States), sometimes explicitly (Qatar).

The complexities of British involvement in the area today, working from north to south, are summarised below:

Kuwait. Under agreement of 1899 Britain undertook explicitly: to go to the aid of the Ruler if he was attacked; that agreement lapsed as Kuwait became fully; independent, but in a new agreement with the present Ruler, Sheikh Abdullah as-Salem as Sabah, in 1961 it was confirmed that ‘the two countries’ relations should continue to be governed by a spirit of close friendship,’ and that ‘nothing shall affect the readiness of Her Majesty’s Government to assist the Government of Kuwait if the latter request such assistance.’

Bahrain. The Ruler, Sheikh Isa bin Salman, is protected by a Convention of 1861; under this the Ruler undertook to refrain from war, piracy and slavery by sea in return for British support against external aggression.

Qatar. The Ruler, Sheikh Ahmed bin Ali al Thani, is explicitly protected in a treaty by 1916, in which Britain ‘undertakes to protect the Ruler and his subjects from aggression by sea, and to grant them good offices if Qatar is assailed by land, provided the aggression is unprovoked.’

Trucial States. There are seven - Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Sharjah, Umm al Qaiwain, Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah - each ruled by a sheikh. With the exception of Fujairah all are protected by the ‘exclusive’ agreements of 1892; the British undertaking is also implicit in the Perpetual Maritime Treaty of 1853 which ended piracy. In 1903 the defence implications regarding the Trucial States were expressed by Lord Curzon as follows: ‘As long as the Rulers observe their exclusive agreements, there is no fear that anyone would be allowed to tamper with their rights and liberties.’ Fujairah was created in 1901, and is protected under a letter of 1952 in the same way as the others.

Muscat and Oman. This is not shown on the map as a protected State, because there is no specific defensive commitment; but the Ruler, Sultan Said Tin Taimur, relies on Britain to help him resist aggression (as he did in 1957-59) and Britain tacitly accepts this on the basis of ‘traditions of friendship.’

Protectorate States of South Arabia outside the Federation. These comprise the three Sultanates of Qish and Socotra, Shihr and Mukalla and Kathiri; each is protected under Advisory and Protectorate Treaties of 1954, 1937 and 1939 respectively; they state that ‘the gracious favour and protection of the British sovereign shall be extended to the Ruler concerned, who, for his part, undertakes to have no relations with any other foreign Power.’

South Arabian Federation. This comprises 14 States: Baihan, Audhali, Fadhli, Dhala, Upper Aulaqi, Lower Yafa, Lahej, Aqabi, Lower Aulaqi, Dathina, Wahidi, Haushabi, Sha’ib and Aden. They are protected by a series of treaties between 1959 and 1963. Section 1 of an Annex to the first Treaty in 1959 states: ‘The United Kingdom shall take such steps as may at any time in the opinion of the United Kingdom be necessary or desirable for the defence of the Federation and, after consultation with the Federation, for its internal security.’ Section 5 permits freedom of movement for British forces within the Federation.

Reactions to British raid on the Yemen please the Arabs

While indignantly condemning last week’s raid on the Yemeni border fort at Harib by British fighters, the United Arab Republic Government has several good reasons for quiet satisfaction with international repercussions of the incident.

In the first place, it has rallied all Arab Governments in condemning Britain’s position in Aden. Similar border incidents in 1957 when the Aden Government took retaliatory action against the Yemen, which was harbouring and encouraging dissident tribal leaders from the Aden Protectorate States, were also condemned by the Arab League and by the Saudi Government in the United Nations, but it was difficult to raise an anti-Imperialist cry on behalf of Imam Ahmed’s medieval tyranny and there was little support from the Afro-Asian countries. Today, although local conditions on the Aden-Yemeni frontier are almost unchanged, the international situation is very different.

The Yemeni Republicans regard the Ruler of Beihan State and his father, Sherif Hussain, who is Minister of the Interior in the Federal government, as their chief enemies in the Aden Federation. For the past 18 months, Beihan has been the headquarters of the Yemeni royalists on the Southern front in activities against the Republic while the Yemenis have been using every means to stir up trouble among the Beihanis.

Until last week Britain had consistently refused the Beihani ruler’s requests for British planes to attack across the frontier and more than once was publicly criticised for this by Sherif Hussain. The raid on Harib enables the Yemeni Republicans to claim, with of course vigorous backing from Cairo’s propaganda machine, that Britain has been behind the Yemeni Royalists all the time. But wider implications have already been eagerly seized upon here.

Slashing attack

The improbability of the Yemeni claims that 25 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in a military border fort over one mile from Harib Town is less relevant than the fact that the Hawker Hunters came from the Aden base. Already Egypt, backed by Iraq, is using this to strengthen the argument against the continued existence of foreign bases anywhere in the Arab world.

In a bitter slashing attack on Britain this morning ‘Al Ahram’ summarised Britain’s Middle East policy for the past 50 years as one of keeping the Arabs divided to protect her own interests. The article went as far as to imply that the Harib raid was Britain’s reply to the recent nationalisation of Shell, ‘Britain’s last commercial interest in Egypt’ and to the Libyan parliament’s request for a revision of the Anglo-Libyan base agreement. Such reasoning does not sound fanciful to Arabs who are now ready to equate Aden with Suez.

Among the Arab Governments, it is the Saudis who are most likely to be embarrassed by this affair. Prince Feisal is now in a stronger position internally than ever before since backing from the Saudi family and religious leaders has enabled him to force King Saud’s de facto abdication, but he is not strong enough to be able to approve Britain’s position in Aden.

When he visits Cairo later this month the Egyptians will point out that by backing Yemeni Royalists in the north he is allying himself with the Beihanis and so with Britain in the south.

Saudi Arabia’s internal stability has benefited considerably from the Press and radio truce between the Arab States, which has already lasted over three months, to many people’s astonishment. If Cairo’s Voice of Arabs were to return to the attack, Prince Feisal would not have the breathing space he badly needs to proceed with the country’s internal reforms. Aden could be his Achilles heel.

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