Wg Cdr John Severne

The author is indebted to AVM Sir John Severne for allowing him to use extracts from his excellent book ‘Silvered Wings’ in this website. Should you wish to purchase a copy, the Bibliography page contains details of the publisher and ordering particulars.

To HQ Middle East Command (MEC)

“Having arrived in Aden in early 1966, my job was to be ‘Ops 2’ in Headquarters Middle East Command (Steamer Point) which was a unified command with well-integrated staffs of the three services working very closely together. The Command covered a huge area from Kuwait to Botswana and Uganda to Madagascar. My job specification rather grandly said that I was to be ‘responsible for the policy and operation of the Fighter, Maritime Reconnaissance and Helicopter Force in the Command’. This involved working closely with the Army in order to provide day-to-day support from No. 78 Squadron flying the Wessex; the ground-attack aircraft from Nos. 8 and 43 Squadrons flying the Hunter Mark 9; Photographic Reconnaissance from No. 1417 Flight operating the Hunter Mark 10 and maritime reconnaissance from the Shackletons of 37 Squadron. I also looked after the RAF Marine Branch unit and the Search and Rescue Whirlwind helicopter flight at Khormaksar which provided the Air Sea Rescue cover.


Sitting at his ‘Ops 2’ desk in HQ MEC at Steamer Point, Wg Cdr Severne purveys the mountain of paperwork awaiting his attention.                                                          (John Severne)


A good demonstration of one of the difficulties faced by helicopter pilots in Aden, the obliteration of the landing zone by a cloud of sand. Here the AOC lands a 78 Sqn Wessex at Habilayn.                                                                        (John Severne)

The Hunters were, of course, fully converted for ground attack with four 30mm cannon and the ability to carry sixteen 3in Rocket Projectiles (RPs). They provided air defence, close support for the Army and also flew in the more traditional air policing role which included house demolitions, firepower demonstrations and ‘flag waves’ upcountry. The latter were sometimes effective by simply providing a presence overhead. One specialist form of this was to disrupt the dissidents rest patterns by planting sonic booms on the target areas to provide the illusion of operations at night. The RPs were Second World War weapons which were difficult to deliver accurately because they had a slow velocity with a consequent large gravity drop. They also required very accurate flying by the pilot for about four seconds before releasing the weapon, not an easy requirement in the turbulent conditions often found in the mountains.

The Shackletons were used in the theatre to provide a capability for maritime patrol and for search and rescue. The long endurance of the Shackleton gave it a good capability for providing top cover overland for troops or convoys moving through areas where there was an internal security threat. It could provide effective suppressive firepower using the nose turret’s twin 20mm cannon, and also by dropping bombs of various weights. In the press releases of the day these were euphemistically referred to as ‘aerial grenades’.

Flying in the Arabian peninsular at that time was serious aviation. During 1966 and 1967 no less that twenty-three aircraft were destroyed or damaged by hostile action in the air or on the ground, including a Hunter which caught fire in the air after being hit by a rifle bullet, and a Dakota of Aden Airways which was shot down.

Terrorist activity increases

The year 1966 saw a massive increase in terrorism and a difficult time with the NLF and the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY) trying to push us out of the Federation and the Crown Colony of Aden itself. The Arabs had never been particularly fond of us and once we said we were going anyway, there was little reason for them to remain loyal, either to us or the Federal rulers whom they were always being told were our stooges and puppet successors. This was driven home by a carefully planned programme of assassinations, and any Arabs who showed loyalty to Britain tended to be bumped off and left with a label tied to their necks saying ‘the fate of all traitors’. They naturally concentrated on the local intelligence staff, police and special branch. There were thirty-six such assassinations in 1964 and no less than 1,250 in 1967. There had also been a number of nasty murders of British personnel and a few small bombs, mostly hand grenades thrown around. The huge car bombs of today, thank goodness, had not come on the scene at that time. We all had to take reasonable precautions such as searching our quarters and our cars daily, never going downtown alone and never advertising parties by displaying invitation cards in our homes.

The military areas were well protected, but that did not stop a bomb exploding in the Officers’ Mess at Steamer Point, the home of the Headquarters. Our local staffs were mostly Arabs or Somalis who had worked for the British for years. They were excellent people whose loyalty was not normally questioned, but we knew they could be put under intolerable pressure from the terrorists who might threaten their families if they didn’t do the terrorists’ bidding. Our own bearer, Said, was a Yemeni and a delightful fellow. He had worked for the British for many years and found it difficult to believe that we really were going to leave. Even when he finally accepted that we would be leaving Aden he said he would continue to work for the British. After I explained that the nearest British presence would be in the Gulf he said that was no problem, he would walk there with his family and his goats. He could not get his head round the fact that he would have to walk 1,500 miles or so across the desert.

In May 1967 strikes closed the harbour to commercial shipping and the situation was compounded when in June the Arab-Israeli War resulted in the closure of the Suez Canal. Although the Arabs were badly defeated by the Israelis our locals managed to put the blame on Britain, so the slogan of the day became ‘a bullet against the British is a bullet against Israel’ – which increased the resentment against us.

The front-line - from a safe distance

The Army was busy controlling dissident tribesmen upcountry and providing us with security at the base. A typical task might be for me to arrange for helicopters to position urgently needed army support, or for the Hunters to carry out a rocket attack to destroy a known terrorist’s home. On one occasion I flew in a two-seat Hunter to witness the squadron carry out a rocket attack with eight aircraft targeting two houses and two arms caches belonging to a well-known dissident leader in a village near Wilan. The cockpit temperature was closer to that of the centre of the earth than to that of the sky we were flying in, but it was very exciting flying. On landing my pilot, Sqn Ldr Fred Trowern, said, ‘And to think we get paid for this as well!’

Ground-attack pilots are often directed to their targets by Forward Air Controllers (FACs), who are Army or RAF officers operating from the ground or in the air. On one extraordinary occasion, I was a passenger in a Beverley which carried an Army FAC to direct Hunters onto three separate targets. I found it almost bizarre to be slowly flying over hostile territory, relatively low, in such a huge lumbering transport aircraft. In fact, it was quite safe because, unlike today, the terrorists did not have hand-held surface-to-air missiles; we only had to keep out of range of their rifles.


As if flying into restricted airfields was not enough, RAF aircraft were subjected to forms of attack. This 84 Sqn Beverley, XM106, lost its starboard undercarriage at Habilayn when it was blown off by a mine. The driver of the Land Rover, Maj Neville Read, was injured by a grenade soon after this photograph was taken.         (John Severne)

The Beverleys of 84 Squadron did a marvellous job when the local workers went on strike at the oil refinery at Little Aden. In order to keep the Hunters flying the Beverleys ferried jet fuel in their own fuel tanks from Djibouti to Khormaksar. And talking of strikes, we witnessed a most amusing situation when the Aden bank workers went on a go-slow. We were drawing out some money from National Grindlays when we watched a bank clerk pushing a trolley full of files across the room. He was indeed going slow – literally. He gradually put one foot in front of the other, an inch at a time, and he must have moved fully six feet during the ten minutes that we were there.

The Army Air Corps

I worked closely with the Army Air Corps and enjoyed several interesting flights in their Scout helicopters. Low flying with the Army is always quite an experience and one particularly exciting flight took us up the narrow mountain road to Dhala, in the north of the Federation and close to the Yemen border. There is a rough strip at Dhala where I had previously landed in a Twin Pioneer and had witnessed a novel way of starting a reluctant engine. The ground crew wound a rope round the spinner of the propeller – rather like starting a toy top – and attached the end of the rope to a Land Rover which then drove off. The engine had little option but to start, which was a good thing because Dhala would not have been a sensible place in which to be stranded. Back in 1964, Claire Hollingworth, a well-known war correspondent, visited Dhala and subsequently wrote in the Guardian about an interview she had had with a tribesman from the Radfan. He said that the reason they attacked the road to Dhala was the fact that they hated roads because they hated wheeled vehicles. These were depriving the tribesmen of their trade in camels and all sorts of other things associated with travel by four-footed animals. But he went on to say that they considered aircraft to be all right because, after all, the Prophet travelled on a carpet. However, that didn’t seem to stop them from shooting at every aircraft they saw.

I subsequently accompanied our AOC, Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Humphrey, to witness the first landing of a Hunter at Beihan to see if it was a safe strip for them to use. There had been several incursions by MiG-17s from the Yemen and the local ruler had asked for our protection. The MiGs were operated by Egyptian pilots flying from San’a, the capital of the Yemen, the aircraft and the finance also being provided by the Egyptians. The Hunter, piloted by the Officer Commanding Strike Wing, Wg Cdr Martin Chandler, landed and departed safely, but it was decided not to let the Hunters use the strip after all. It would have been too dangerous to leave the aircraft on the ground at Dhala, but if they were scrambled from Khormaksar, about 100 miles away, the MiGs would have departed long before the Hunters could have arrived. So there was not much we could do about it, much to the annoyance of the ruler.

The RAF has always run survival courses for aircrew likely to fly over water, arctic, jungle or desert terrain. Since I was responsible for the Desert Survival Course at Aden I thought I had better see what goes on. I therefore joined a course which began when one of our Air Sea Rescue launches dumped us on the remote island of Perim at the foot of the Red Sea. We had emergency rations and kit to distil water from the dew – not very much, but enough for survival. It was a relief to be picked up several days later and to be able to quench one’s thirst. I learned several good lessons from that short course, one of which was that I had not realized how incredibly unpleasant it is to be really thirsty.

Planning for the South Arabian Air Force (SAAF)

Not long after I arrived in Aden I was appointed Air Adviser to the South Arabian Government, the Federal Government set up by us at Al Ittihad, just outside Aden, to run the country after we left – at least that was the intention. I was told to form a South Arabian Air Force (SAAF), by independence, consisting of a balanced force of transport, communications, helicopters and ground-attack aircraft – all for £2m. Although I already had a heavy workload I had no staff to assist me in this extra commitment, presumably because this was deemed to be just a secondary duty.

The MOD contracted Airwork Services Ltd who had considerable experience in this field and they found the aircraft for us. The Crown Agents on behalf of the British Government bought four Dakotas with new engine life and fully refurbished for a mere £25,000 each. The Dakota, although an old aircraft, was ideal for rough up-country transport work. New and much smaller Skyvans were offered at £500,000 which we could not possibly afford. I wanted to buy six Alouette helicopters from France, but since all purchases had to be made in sterling we had to buy the only option available, the Westland-Bell 47 Sioux, despite its pathetic performance in hot conditions and at high altitude. Although our first choice for strike aircraft was the Strikemaster, none were available, so BAC refurbished and modified four ex-RAF Mk.4 Jet Provosts to Mark 52 standard capable of carrying weapons. One of these aircraft, serial No 104, was sold to the Singapore Air Force in 1975 where it served until 1980. It is now owned and flown in its original SAAF colours by Swords Aviation of North Weald. Finally six Canadian-built Beavers were purchased, the Beaver being a rugged single-engine aircraft designed for bush operations. I was responsible for approving the design of the aircraft markings and also the uniforms. Wg Cdr Barry Atkinson MBE DFC RAF was seconded as the Commanding Officer and Airwork recruited the pilots and civilian engineers.

Former RAF Jet Provost T.4, 101 was converted to Mark 52 standard before being issued to the SAAF in 1967 (author's collection)

101 (nearest) and 102 being re-assembled at Ksar prior to entering service with the SAAF (author's collection)

Jet Provost Mk.52, 102, depicts the markings designed by Wg Cdr Severne for the SAAF and is seen at Ksar during re-assembly (author's collection)

The first of the four Jet Provost Mark 52s, 101, flies low over an up country village. (John Severne)

Choosing the right weapons was a problem because the requirement was to put a missile through the front door of a terrorist’s house. The old 3-inch Rocket Projectile still being used by the RAF was not exactly a precision weapon and I therefore looked around for something better. The RAF at that time was introducing rockets called SNEB, but they were too expensive a weapon for us because, to be sure of hitting a small target, you had to release the whole pod of 16 rockets in a ripple. Airwork then came up with the SURA rocket, a remarkable weapon made by Hispano Suiza of Switzerland which Boscombe Down tested for me. Boscombe confirmed that SURA was so accurate that if there were any target errors, they were the pilot’s. I subsequently learnt that the neighbouring Sultan of Oman’s Air Force (SOAF) was so impressed with the weapon when they saw us using it that they also bought it – so at least I suppose I did SOAF a good turn. This was a period when a number of cases of corruption concerning the sale of aircraft had been exposed, although I did not expect them to offer me a cash handout because I like to think that they knew it would not be accepted by a Brit. I was, however, delighted when Hispano Suiza offered me a small Swiss Army knife as a thank you for buying their weapon. A gift which, I hasten to add, I gladly accepted.

Britain gave South Arabia £5m for the running of their armed forces and by Independence all the aircraft except two of the Dakotas were in place, as were the eighteen pilots who were all British except for a Belgian, a German and a Czech. The engineers were British civilians and all were under contract to the South Arabian Government. Sqn Ldr ‘Rags’ Barlow, an RAF navigator who had taken early retirement from the service, was appointed as the Operations/Intelligence Officer; he also acted as Adjutant to the CO.

Nearly forty years were to pass before I was able to find out what happened to the SAAF after independence. I was recently giving a lecture to the Taunton and Tiverton Branch of the Aircrew Association when one of the members attending the meeting happened to be ‘Rags’ Barlow and he was able to tell me about their unpleasant experience in the hands of their new masters.

On the granting of independence on 30 November 1967, the Federation of South Arabia was immediately renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (commonly known as South Yemen). The Air Force was renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen Air Force (PDRYAF) and within days the old South Arabian markings were removed and replaced with the new markings of the Republic. At the end of February 1968 the South Yemen Defence Minister, after visiting Moscow to seek financial aid for their armed forces, gave a distinctly anti-British broadcast in which the South Yemen Air Force was accused of passing information concerning every move of the Government to the British Embassy. The British Government had previously instructed the South Yemen Government that the Air Force was not to operate outside its own border. British pilots were flying for Saudi Arabia and our government wanted to avoid the possibility of Brits fighting Brits. This was considered by the South Yemen Government as intolerable interference. On 27 February all the British personnel of the Air Force were ordered to assemble in their crew room for an address by the Minister of Defence. Speaking through an interpreter he said that the Air Force had been controlled by the British Embassy and not by himself. He therefore had no further use for their services. During the address the building, hangars and aircraft had been surrounded by Arabs with machine guns, some being pointed through the crew room window. They were promptly arrested. Two buses took them to the British Embassy, but they were later allowed to go to the Officers’ Mess, under armed guard, to collect their belongings. ‘Rags Barlow’ had the uncomfortable experience of having to open all the safes with a gun in his back. Some of the families had arrived the month before and they were given one hour to pack and to be prepared to leave. The following night was spent in a compound at the airport before they were all flown back to the UK early the next day, their contracts terminated without compensation. Subsequent protracted discussions with the Foreign Office failed to result in reasonable compensation for the breaking of the contracts and the financial penalties suffered by our personnel. To this day they still feel they were badly let down by our government. Soon after the dismissal the first Russians arrived with some MiG-15s and they were subsequently to form the mainstay of the South Yemen Air Force. 

While the Foreign Office had announced that we were to give the Federation independence in 1968, the date was being kept secret for security reasons. When George Brown finally announced to the House of Commons, some two weeks beforehand, that the date would 29 November 1967, the shooting stopped immediately, indicating that the terrorists were well controlled by NLF and FLOSY. This was just as well because plans had been made for us to make a fighting withdrawal if needs be.

Final departure

The plan was for the heavy and bulky items to go by sea and that people, including the families, would go by air together with the smaller valuable items. Equipment not needed elsewhere was to be sold locally. Since Khormaksar had already suffered several terrorist attacks it was thought that it might be too dangerous to operate a large number of troop-carrying flights out of the airfield. If necessary we would therefore be evacuated by sea to Masirah Island and flown home from there, a withdrawal that would be executed by a task force of the Far East Fleet. Shortly before Withdrawal Day (W-Day) the impressive task force assembled. It included the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, which would provide air defence after the Hunters left, the two commando carriers and the assault ship HMS Fearless from which the final withdrawal would be controlled and where I was allocated a position in its operations room. In the event, when the shooting stopped, we were able to carry out an orderly withdrawal by air from Khormaksar.

The first phase of the withdrawal, Operation Relative, took place about six months before independence when the families were sent home. This meant that, at the same time, all the associated support such as schools, hospital and so on could be closed together with most of the married quarters. Many families, particularly those who lived in the Ma’alla Straight, had been through a very harrowing time – one of the Khormaksar aircrew had a rocket fired through his bedroom window when his wife and small baby were in the room. It was therefore somewhat of a relief to us when the families left. I accompanied my wife Kath on the military bus to the airfield, a journey of 5 or 6 miles. On the way, going through the built-up area of the Ma’alla Straight, we were stopped by an Army patrol when a young subaltern came on board and said, ‘There is a little shooting going on so we will be held up for a few minutes, but don’t worry everyone, we will look after you.’ He had an air of confidence about him and we consequently felt very reassured. The flight home for the families was a bit tedious because it got held up in Teheran when the aircrew ran out of their crew duty time.

After the families had left there were several visits from well-known entertainers who gave performances in the open-air theatre. Two of the concerts stick in my memory because of their starkly contrasting characteristics. One well-known comedian gave a quite unnecessarily blue show which I personally found offensive, but this was followed a few weeks later by Harry Secombe. I was told that he asked what sort of programme he should give and that he was advised to ‘play it straight’. He gave a stunning performance which included many operatic arias. The troops loved it – so did I – and it just goes to show that comedians don’t need to get cheap laughs from blue jokes in order to please their audiences.

The High Commissioner, Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, left the day before independence and so did I, although I hasten to add that there was no connection. The final aircraft left on the last day with the few remaining personnel, the last two passengers to board being Air Cdre Freddie Sowrey (the Senior Air Staff Officer) and Brigadier Charles Dunbar (the Brigadier General Staff), with the airfield protected by a company of Royal Marines who left by sea.


The ceremonial parade marking the departure of the last High Commissioner of Aden, Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, captured as he climbs the steps leading to Britannia, XM518, on 28 November, 1967, the day before Independence.                      (John Severne)

The morale of the Aden base was extremely high during our time there. Conditions were not ideal with a difficult security situation to deal with and a tiresome climate, but there was a strong feeling of everyone being in the same boat and co-operation between the three services could not have been better. I think it was a typically British approach – it seems that we are at our best when under pressure. It was certainly a memorable experience for me and my family and we are grateful for it.

Thus ended 128 years of British rule on 29 November 1967, a very interesting chapter in our colonial history. For the very small part I played during that time I was awarded the OBE.”