The author is indebted to Peter Taylor for allowing him to use in this website his excellent article ‘Unforgettable years’ which was published in the July 2001 edition of Flypast magazine.
Following a ground tour as Station Adjutant at RAF Chivenor, Flt Lt Peter Taylor arrived in Aden on 7 September, 1965 and succeeded Graham Williams as a Flight Commander on 8 Squadron. Two years later, to the day, and on promotion to Sqn Ldr, Peter was posted to HQ Transport Command as Squadron Leader Harrier Policy.
At about 13:30 local time on 29 November, 1967, the last British forces in Aden leapt into Westland Wasp helicopters and took off from the 12th brown of the golf course. In doing so, they left behind one of Britain’s most influential bases in the hands of the local Arabs. Thus ended a British presence in that extraordinary part of the world which had lasted for 129 years.
From my point of view (and that of many others), I did not feel good about our departure. I felt I was deserting a large number of local people from all walks of life who had supported us, and then depended on us for their safety and future prosperity. It didn’t happen, and after our departure some terrible things were done to anyone who had served the British in virtually any capacity. It has to be said that President Nasser’s pledge that he ‘would kick the British right out of the Arab world’ came about in Aden as a result of the failure of political rather than military will.
This is very much a personal story of what it was like to live and operate in the Aden Protectorate in the last two years of its existence. I’m glad to be able to write about it now, some 42 years after the events which left an indelible mark on those who were there. We, the military and our families, the politicians and officials and, of course, the local people, were all caught up in the maelstrom caused by an end-of-empire struggle and a vicious nationalist movement.
The political situation in Aden affected just about every part of our lives. Until about 1963, despite the rise of Arab nationalism, Britain seemed determined to retain a strong presence in Southern Arabia. Indeed, an uprising in 1964 in the Radfan was put down very firmly by combined British forces. However, a change of government at the end of 1963 had brought about a review of Britain’s role in the Middle East and the consequent need for large military bases. And Aden was a large base, containing great numbers of soldiers and sailors, and the huge RAF base at Khormaksar.
By 1965, it became clear that the British Government had it in mind to withdraw all British forces from Aden and the surrounding territories, probably within two years. This was all the encouragement the various tribal and political factions needed. By early 1965, terrorist incidents in the Protectorate were a daily occurrence and casualties began to mount on both sides. The Army was reinforced, internal security tasks were greatly increased, so that patrolling the streets, security walls and barbed wire, and ‘stop and search’ became a familiar scene. It was against this background that I arrived as a Flight Commander on 8 Squadron in September 1965.
During my tour in Aden, we were led by some exceptional people, many of whom went on to the highest posts in the land. Our governor for the last, difficult months was Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, while the commander-in-chief was the charismatic and much-admired Admiral Sir Michael le Fanu. He was often seen, dressed in his blue issue navy shorts, pushing Lady le Fanu in her wheelchair on the streets or to the beach. He would occasionally put on his driver’s hat, and drive his own car, with the driver in the back! He would also wave to all and sundry if he saw that we had recognised him.
There were two Air Officers Commanding in my time, the fighter ace AVM J.E. ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, being the first. On his departure from Aden back to England we were required to escort him out of the area and provided him will a formation in the shape of a ‘J’. He was followed by a great man, AVM Andrew Humphrey, who later became Chief of the Air Staff and then Chief of Defence Staff before dying tragically young. We also got to know the marvellous Lady Humphrey who seemed to know then and still does, remember so many of our names. Our two Senior Air Staff Officers were Air Commodores Mike le Bas and Freddie Sowrey.
In 1965, Khormaksar was probably the biggest operational base in the RAF, serving the whole of Southern Arabia. Just about every type of transport, support and strike aircraft operated from Khormaksar. It was a tough station from which to operate – and it needed someone tough to run it. No problem there! Our Station Commander was Air Cdre Michael Beetham, who became Marshal of the RAF, Sir Michael Beetham, one of our longest ever serving Chiefs of the Air Staff (CAS).
Strike Wing, Khormaksar consisted of 37 Squadron with Avro Shackleton MR.2s; 8 and 43 Squadrons with Hawker Hunter FGA.9s and T.7s, and 1417 Flight with FR.10s. The Wing Commander was E.S. (Martin) Chandler. I once asked him why he was called ‘Martin’ when his initials were ‘E.S’. Martin gave a typical answer: “If your names were Ernest Sydney, wouldn’t you change your name?” Wg Cdr Chandler’s Squadron Leaders Operations, were firstly Roy Bowie and then Fred Trowern. They were both great characters; Roy a former 20 Squadron CO and a very good rugby referee, and Fred, who was a hugely experienced pilot and was subsequently chosen as a member of the HS Kestrel FGA.1 (Harrier precursor) Tri-Partite Evaluation Squadron at West Raynham, Norfolk.
No. 8 Squadron was commanded by Sqn Ldr Des Melaniphy, No. 43 firstly by Phil Champniss and then Harry Davidson, while 1417 Flight was commanded by Dickie Barraclough. Also on 1417 was Flt Lt Richard Johns, who later became CAS and later, Chairman of the RAF Museum.
All three Hunter units were full of characters and in the main got on together extremely well, especially considering that the two ground-attack squadrons had to share aircraft through the imposition of ‘Centralised Servicing’. This meant that the units had to pool all their assets in second-line servicing. None of us liked this much because as we worked a 24-hour shift starting and finishing at midday on alternate days, the incoming squadron was unlikely to inherit a large number of serviceable aircraft. There wasn’t much incentive to repair aircraft just to hand them over to the next mob! However, we all managed affairs well, and squadron life, operational and training flying, combined with a great social life, meant that this was one of the best tours of my service career.
I cannot imagine that anyone who saw and flew the Hunter did not cherish the experience (probably even those who flew the Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire-powered F.5). In all her guises, she maintained the original graceful lines of the Hawker design team. By the time the FGA.9 arrived on the scene, the aircraft was good to fly, maintained reasonable serviceability, and was powered by the superb Rolls-Royce Avon 200 series. Weapons and weapon-aiming were still fairly rudimentary, but good training and plenty of practice enabled us to get the 30mm cannon rounds and the 3in rockets close to the targets. We didn’t do much 1,000 lb (453kg) bombing in the Protectorate, and the SNEB rocket had not yet reached us.
Ever since I had been in Fighter Command and met a few people who had served in Aden, I had wanted to go there. I heard about operations in the de Havilland Venom with its centrifugal flow Ghost. I knew also that when the Hunter superseded the Venom, there were one or two doubts that the axial flow Avon might not cope so well with the large quantities of sand which were inevitably ingested. Nothing could have been further from the truth; we all felt the greatest confidence operating deep in the interior at high or low level with this remarkable engine behind us. The memories all come flooding back — 7,850 rpm, 680 degrees Centigrade jet pipe temperature, 35 psi oil pressure! The Hunter wing design was superb, especially after the introduction of the dog-tooth leading edge. The aircraft had virtually no vices and enabled us to concentrate on operating, which was just as well, because operating in Aden could be demanding.
Operations and daily life
So what were these operations in Aden during the last two years of the British presence? The main operational tasks were in support of our army colleagues and the local government. There was some post Radfan activity, which intensified as terrorist incidents in the region increased.
Nos. 8 and 43 Squadrons would be tasked either to attack specific, pre-planned targets or under close control of both British and Arab Forward Air Controllers. These attacks were almost always preceded by either leaflet dropping to warn of impending attack, followed by pre- and post-reconnaissance by 1417 Flight’s Hunter FR.10s. One such attack took place in the Radfan at a place called Khuraybah, a very rugged area and the scene of one of my first operational sorties. My logbook tells me that on 30 December, 1965, I led a four-ship formation to attack a single house which we had been told was harbouring weapons for dissident tribesmen. In classic air control style, a leaflet drop by Frank Grimshaw (who a year earlier had been my best man) warned the villagers of the proposed attack and advised them to leave the area. As Frank circled overhead, one-by-one our four FGA.9s fired four unguided rockets each at the now deserted house, while the tribesmen sat in the hills taking pot shots at us with a variety of hand-held weapons. During and after the attack, Frank took the pictures and we certainly gave it a hammering, although one would have to admit a small amount of collateral damage to next door!
While writing about up-country operations, let me tell you about the incredible community at Wilan, located about 50 miles (80km) north of Aden, almost 7,000 ft (2,133 m) above sea level. It was a rugged place with virtually no water. The tribesmen who lived there were very fiercely independent and lived a primitive existence. The women had to walk down a steep track to bring in water when it was scarce, which must have been most of the time. I was also told, but I cannot confirm, that the inhabitants believed that their calendar was some 1,000 years behind ours. I don’t know how many Europeans have ever been there, but none of us ever wanted to upset them in case we came down nearby.
Another memorable location was Shabwah, some 150 miles (241km) north-east of Aden and on the western edge of the great Wadi Hadramaut. Shabwah, now in ruins, was reputed to be on the old spice route where the Queen of Sheba maintained a palace. Such were the places over which we flew our day-to-day operations — it was truly breathtaking.
However, to move to more mundane matters – as I have already described, 8 and 43 Squadrons operated a 24-hour shift, which began and ended at about 13:00 on alternate days. A standby of two fully-armed FGA.9s with rockets and guns was the absolute priority between dawn and dusk, ready to give immediate support to the ground forces anywhere in the Protectorate. Morning standby meant being ready to take-off in the dark, if required, so that when dawn broke at about 05:15-05:30 attacks could be made.
Training encompassed the whole gamut of ground-attack and air defence operations. Our staple diet was four- and six-ship simulated attacks with ‘bounces’; air combat in simulated small and large formations; practice interceptions under radar control; army and naval co-operation; and, of course, a great deal of weapons training, both at the excellent range just north of Khormaksar and at selected ranges up country. All this was interspersed with operational sorties of every kind, not only to assist in maintaining the security of the Protectorate but also to continue to advertise the strength and determination of the British presence.
Detachments in Southern Arabia
There were also some interesting detachments to be had in the general area of Southern Arabia. For example, 8 and 43 Squadrons undertook regular 10-12 day detachments to the island of Masirah in the Oman. Masirah had a large runway and was staffed by a small number of RAF personnel on one-year, unaccompanied tours. Other than superb beaches, an unsophisticated weapons range, thousands of turtles, good sporting facilities and the ‘Golden Flip-Flop’ bar, Masirah did not have much to offer. However, we always seemed to have a marvellous time when there. The permanent staff seemed to like us because we were a different lot against which to compete at cricket and football. And there were always lots of memorable incidents.
On my first trip to Masirah in October 1965, over the first weekend, I flew to Beit Al Falaj on the north coast of Muscat where my flying instructor on DH Vampires, Brian Entwisle, was the squadron commander of the seconded British presence. The Omani Air Force in the area consisted mainly of Percival Provost T.52s (the piston-engined trainer) and DH Canada Beavers. While with Brian over the weekend, we flew eight sorties together, firing 3in rockets, low flying and landing at some extraordinary strips. The names were so romantic; Lonetree, Sayq, Hazam – but, nowhere near so romantic when you were trying to find them and discovered the words on the map, ‘Position approximate’, ‘Abandoned’, ‘Disused’, ‘Existence reported’, ‘Elevation unknown’.
I had enormous respect for the skill and knowledge of Brian’s squadron, one of whom was the almost legendary ‘Puddy’ Catt, who flew with me on one of my Provost weapons sorties, for which I had to offer him a reciprocal sortie in a Hunter T.7 some months later. That sortie was the lowest I have ever flown over sand because I swear ‘Puddy’ thought he was still in a Provost flying at 100 knots!
Back at Masirah, the usual round of flying, sports and evening entertainment was often enlivened by a late night trip to the beach to see the turtles lay their eggs in the sand. And they say aircrew have no soul! But, by the end of our stay at Masirah, we certainly had moustaches, since growing them seemed to be one of the obligatory competitions on all detachments. After one such sojourn, on our return to Aden we were met by our wives who normally seemed quite pleased to see us. However, on seeing Andrew Bell’s ginger monstrosity, his delightful wife Victoria gave him an ultimatum: “Andrew, I shall not shave under my arms until you remove that awful thing!” It was off that night!
In Aden, we enjoyed a great social life. The Officers’ Mess was well run, with plenty of good entertainment. Regular film shows outside, formal dinners, excellent swimming pools and many squadron activities made for a good morale. For those of us who were married, we lived mainly either in the Maala flats or in slightly bigger premises at Khormaksar Beach. Beaches and swimming pools were, of course, plentiful. The main areas used by the majority of us were at the Tarshyne beaches at Steamer Point. Occasionally we would take the 8 mile (13km) trip to the oil refinery beaches at Little Aden, nicknamed the ‘Costa Bremner’, after a Brigadier of the same name, one of our Army senior officers.
Also en-route to Little Aden was the British Cemetery at Silent Valley, where many British servicemen were laid to rest over the final few months of our presence in Aden. It was a solitary, but rather beautiful place and I believe that it was well cared for long after our departure. Let’s hope it still is.
There were also good eating places in the area and until the end of 1966, it was reasonably safe to go to them. Air Conditioning was not plentiful and except for the squadron crew rooms and one bedroom, we all made do with acclimatisation and the ubiquitous fan. The fan not only provided some air movement and cooling, but was a source of endless entertainment. For example, winding the fan up to full speed and throwing in empty beer cans could produce unpredictable results. Full cans were, of course, silly in all respects, and when one just missed the Station Commander, there was a bit of a fuss and the practice was officially discouraged. I also saw Fred Trowern stop a spinning fan with his head. There is a technique to this and if you don’t know it, I don’t recommend it!
The food we ate was interesting. Before terrorism really took hold, it was possible to get fresh meat (sheep, goat) from the old town of Crater. Other meat came frozen from Australia and the eggs locally apparently came from China. We seemed to eat quite well, and whenever I went back to RAF Chivenor, Devon, on one of our yearly Hunter Simulator and Emergency (HSE) refresher courses, I always brought back a leg of lamb which we shared with some of our friends (imagine trying that now!).
The weather was generally very good. The Cool Season (low 80s and low humidity) lasted from October to May. The Hot Season (high 90s and high humidity) was with us for the other months. As April and May approached, we all watched the forecasts as the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone moved inexorably south, bringing with it the extremes of temperature and humidity, and the worry of severe sandstorms. These stopped everything in their tracks and as there were few close diversion airfields, flying operations were carefully monitored. Even without sandstorms, visibility in the Hot Season was seldom good, even up to 20,000 ft (6,000 m).
By the middle of 1966, as the political situation deteriorated, terrorism both in Aden and up country was growing. This affected all our lives both for us and our families. Murders of British and Arab people in the shopping and eating areas were increasing. Generally, we were not armed, although duty wardens were introduced in the areas where the families were concentrated. The wardens were temporarily issued with pistols.
At this point, I shall admit something now after all these years. When my wife flew out to join me in December 1965, I had purchased a small automatic 0.25 Browning through a London store and had it placed aboard her BOAC flight in custody of the crew. When she left the aircraft, the crew handed her the package which she thought was some jewellery that I had bought to welcome her to the Middle East. I think she was just a bit disappointed when she discovered it was a gun! I tried to teach her how to use it at Khormaksar beach, but having fired it once, she yelled and dropped it in the seawater. I managed to recover it and I carried it with me for the rest of my time in Aden whenever I went shopping or eating.
As 1966 drew to a close, terrorism reached a peak and it was clear that if we, the British, were to leave Aden in 1967, evacuation of families would have to begin soon. My abiding memory of the back end of 1966 and early 1967 is of increased street patrols, grenade throwing, the odd bomb explosion and more trouble in the hinterland. The latter generated an interesting situation in the Beihan region, which led to some demanding flying for all the Hunter units.
If memory serves me correctly, in June or July 1966, the Egyptian Air Force mounted an attack on a fort or palace of one of the local sultans in the Beihan region. I think the attacks were carried out by MiG-17 Frescos and some physical damage was done to the fort, which was situated on the border area of Saudi Arabia, North Yemen and the Protectorate, All this was some 100 miles (160km) north of Khormaksar airfield.
To deter further attacks, the RAF was tasked to fly armed patrols in the Beihan area. However, we all know how expensive and generally inefficient it is to maintain airborne patrols. It so happened that there was a tarmac runway at Beihan which was used by RAF Beverleys, among others, to re-supply forward troops. As the runway was only about 1,500 yards (1,371 m) long, at about 4,000 ft (1,219 m) above mean sea level, and it was the Hot Season, Hunter operations were not feasible. Very quickly the decision was taken to lengthen the runway by about 300 yards. In no time at all, the Royal Engineers built the extension so that 8 and 43 Squadron Hunters could complete a Beihan patrol, land at the airstrip and carry out an armed daylight standby, though getting in and out was always a demanding affair. I believe that someone on 43 Squadron was the first to land a Hunter at Beihan, but Wg Cdr Chandler and I were the first under 8 Squadron colours to land there on 15 August in the early morning.
Later that week, on 19 August, I returned to Beihan with a great friend from 43 Squadron, Neil Hayward. Again, we went at first light in the relative cool, remained on standby in the tent, and took off at last light, landing back at Aden in the dusk. During the day, the heat and dust were intense. I was never sure how we would receive enough warning to get airborne, or if indeed we could have taken off at all in the middle of the day. As I have indicated, Beihan operations were somewhat problematical and after one more landing on 22 September, air patrols once more became the preferred method of making our presence felt.
All through the end of 1966 and early 1967 the emphasis was more and more on operational flying. Patrols, flagwaves, and the occasional strike were our regular diet. On 1 May, 1967, the evacuation of families began in earnest. My wife and recently born son were on the first aircraft to leave. From this time onwards, life changed greatly for all of us.
From May until the final withdrawal in November, the pace of life quickened considerably. Once the families had gone, the flats and the beaches were practically empty. The Officers’ Mess at Khormaksar could not cope with the large numbers previously living off the base and some of the nearer family housing had to be used instead. It was an eerie experience to drive through Maala and see row upon row of deserted flats, many with empty holes in the walls where air conditioners had either been stolen or requisitioned to replace unserviceable equipment. It became commonplace to see squatters and animals in all areas previously occupied by British servicemen and their families.
As the families and eventually the servicemen began to withdraw, it was also becoming common to see abandoned cars in ever stranger places. Rather than leave the cars to the terrorists, some people had driven their cars off cliffs, left them on the edges of the desert, and towards the end, some intrepid person had managed to get his car to the top of Shamsan, the extinct volcano which encompassed the old town of Crater.
On 8 Squadron, Sqn Ldr Des Melaniphy left for home in March. He was replaced, much to our delight, by Sqn Ldr Fred Trowern from Strike Wing.
In June, much happened in the Middle East, not all of it in Aden. With the Hot Season well and truly established, we were all astonished at the ferocity and efficiency of the Israeli Air Force in destroying Arab air resources in the Six Day War. In the air-conditioned Operations Centre, we were able to follow the progress of that great air campaign. The lessons were not lost on any of us. Shortly after the war ended, the Adenis called a fuel strike which had a significant effect on our capacity to continue flying. As one result of this, it was decided that 8 Squadron should detach the majority of its aircraft to Sharjah.
Typical of Fred Trowern, he let me take six aircraft and about ten pilots with supporting ground crew for just over six weeks. We were able to maintain normal flying training, while he and the others remained on short rations in Aden. Once the fuel strike was over, the Sharjah detachment returned to Aden. Flying operations in support of the ground forces intensified by day, and also by night. Up till now, only the Shackletons had operated in Radfan country at night, and from what I saw they were effective. Nobody likes a lot of thousand-pounders dropped on their heads, even in the mountains of the Radfan.
However, the AOC, AVM Humphrey, thought that it would be an even better idea if the FGA.9s could fire a few rockets and guns at rebel positions and road communications. Accordingly, a few of us were selected to train to fire weapons at night. It was not too bad firing on the range, because horizons and the various lights gave reasonable definition. In the mountains, with no lights, lots of haze and black as pitch, it was not a lot of fun. Add to this an artificial horizon which tended to be unreliable after a hefty (panic-stricken?) pull-out from a 30º dive, and temporary blindness caused by the rocket motors, and you can imagine that this was quite a sporting endeavour! I don’t know if we frightened any tribesmen, but...
The last months
Our time in Aden, and mine in particular, was now coming to a close. Withdrawal was becoming a reality, with some units returning to the UK and others re-deploying to other parts of the Middle East. We had a new Station Commander, Gp Capt D.F.M. Browne, and Martin Chandler had been replaced by Bob Ramirez.
There was little opportunity to get off-base and we tended to spend a lot of our evenings in the flats we were now all sharing. I think we were about six to a flat, and I’m glad to say I could not think of better people to be with. We had an enormous amount of fun, much of which seems a bit irresponsible now, although we were all suffering slightly from siege mentality.
I remember one evening when much damage was done to the brain and body by the six of us imbibing large quantities of Drambuie shandy. This led to long periods of fans at full speed, using the odd head in an attempt to slow them down, beer cans being spat out, and finally pillows being thrown in by the pair. Next day, we were knee deep in feathers which could only be cleared by throwing lots of water on them, before sweeping them through the windows on to the sand below.
Talking of water, I should have mentioned ‘The Big Flood’. On 1 April, 1967, John Hill was due to get married. For two unprecedented days, it poured with rain and there was a huge flood, turning Khormaksar into a swimming pool and most of the rest of Aden into a quagmire of mud. Huge quantities of water built up behind security walls, which then broke and poured gallons of mud on to the roads and into the flats. Some people were even drowned, and cemeteries were washed away with some very unfortunate results. However, John still got married. A week or two after the flood, the desert bloomed and for a while, there were great areas of green. It really was miraculous.
It was also in the last few months that the Northumberland Fusiliers, led by Lt Col Richard Blenkinsop, suffered appalling casualties when some of the Arab Police and Security Forces mutinied. On 20 June, 1967, 23 British soldiers and one civilian were killed. It was a dreadful time and from that day, I have always had the greatest admiration for the way Lt Col Blenkinsop and his men conducted themselves in the immediate aftermath. Not only did they not seek wholesale revenge, but continued to show great courage in the face of further provocation. Their last parade was at Silent Valley, where they said their farewells to their friends before flying home.
The Northumberlands were succeeded by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, commanded by the aggressive Lt Col Colin Mitchell, or as he later became known, ‘Mad Mitch’. He and his troops carried out a much-publicised attack on Crater, the area from which the mutiny probably sprang.
My last weeks
During my last few weeks in Aden, life was much the same; terrorist attacks in town, rebel activity up country, flying in support, and sharing the good times and the bad with some very good people. Perhaps there should be one last anecdote. Once the families had gone, we were left pretty much to find our own entertainment, and I’ve explained what that added up to. However, the Daily Express, which had been prominent in reporting what went on in Aden, realised that the troops were not getting much entertainment from the stars at home. To be fair, there was a problem of insurance because clearly Aden was a dangerous place. Nevertheless, the Express stuck at it and in a few weeks we were entertained by Hughie Green, Bob Monkhouse, Tony Hancock and Samantha Jones. I don’t know if they knew how much their visits meant to us, but they were quite marvellous, often putting on four or more shows each day for three or four days. I felt sorry for Tony Hancock, who was clearly at the end of his tether and died a few months later in Australia.
On 1 September, 1967, I flew my last operational sortie in Aden – an armed border patrol – with ‘Daz’ James. Six days later, I packed my kit, said my farewells to the few who were left on 8 and 43 Squadrons, gave my car, I think, to Sid Morris and left Khormaksar by Vickers VC-10 bound for Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
As you can see, Aden was an unforgettable tour for me. The politicians and officials, the, commanders, the men and women, the families and friends, together forged an unbreakable; bond. Nor can I forget the many Arabs who served with us and for us, and to this day I still don’t feel good about some of those left behind. Finally, there was the Hunter – a masterpiece if ever there was one. She was beautiful, she could be deadly, and with that great Avon engine, she was reliable. Who could ask for more?”