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Yemen – The War that Never Was

March 24, 2011

The regime of President Saleh of the Yemen appears to be in its death throes. By coincidence, I’ve just read The War that Never Was, a book about the Yemen civil war by Duff Hart Davis.

In 1963, the thousand-year-old Yemeni Imanate was deposed in a coup engineered by the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser. Nasser’s agenda was to unite the Arabian Peninsula into a pan-Arab federation led, of course, by Egypt.

The coup did not drive the Imam and his forces out of the Yemen. In a four-year civil war, the new republic held the plains, with massive Egyptian military assistance, while the Imam fought a guerilla war against the Egyptian forces from the mountainous regions of the country. He and his commanders spent most of that period living in caves, bribing tribes and sallying forth against Egyptian incursions.

The War That Never Was describes the campaign by a group of British and French mercenaries to assist the Imam’s forces. The British group never numbered more than forty. They were recruited by a former SAS soldier, Jim Johnson, with the tacit support of the British Government, but under conditions of complete deniability.

Johnson recruited the team from various sources. People he knew from his club, recommendations from former comrades and people he met on trains who seemed the “right sorts”. Most of them were former SAS members. Funding came from Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia, subsequently to become King Faisal. Various British luminaries were in the know, including the founder of the SAS, David Sterling, Duncan Sandys, the Foreign Secretary and Alec Douglas Home, the Prime Minister. The UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, provided deniable support. Johnson led the operation from a pokey little office in London, and the operational base was in Aden, then the capital of the British Protectorate of South Arabia.

If we think that the political landscape of the Middle East today is bewilderingly complex, this book reminds us that things were no less byzantine in 1963. Prince Faisal backed the mercenaries because for good reason he feared Nasser’s designs on his country. America recognised the newly-proclaimed republic because it wanted to cozy up to Nasser in order to reduce his reliance on the Soviet Union, who themselves had designs, using Egypt as its proxy, on the mineral resources of the Middle East. Britain supported the intervention because it, with good reason, was afraid that Nasser had designs on Aden. But it could not admit to its tacit support of the mercenaries because it did not wish to fall out with the Americans. The Shah of Iran supported them because he was also afraid of Nasser’s burgeoning empire. The Israelis provided covert airdrops of weapons and ammunition, unknown to the Saudis, who would have withdrawn support for the operation if they had discovered Israel’s involvement.

Many of the mercenaries did not see themselves as such. They justified their actions on the grounds that they were acting in the national interests of Britain. That didn’t stop them from accepting handsome monthly paycheques for their efforts.

Their brief was to provide training, logistic support and tactical guidance to the Royal armies. The “armies” – under the command of relatives of the Imam and a rag-tag band of tribal sheikhs – were tribesmen bound together by a desire for weapons and gold. Over the four years of the insurgency, Johnson’s men inserted themselves into caves and villages, and set about organising the Royalist attacks on the Egyptian army. Hart-Davis estimates that 20,000 Egyptians were killed during the campaign. At one stage there were up to 60,000 Egyptian Military personnel in the Yemen, supported by MiG fighters and Ilyushin bombers piloted by Russians. Nasser later described the campaign as “my Vietnam”.

The fighting was brutal. The Egyptians used poison gas bombs on Yemeni villages, killing indiscriminately – something of a revelation to me at least, since I was under the impression that gassing civilians in the Middle East was Saddam Hussain’s exclusive domain. The mercenaries organised ambushes with extensive use of landmines, and sent regular dispatches to base reporting thirty killed here, fifty there. They lived in caves with their Yemeni comrades for months on end, and were constantly bombed and strafed. Amazingly, there were only three British deaths and one French casualty in the whole campaign.

Hostilities finally ended after the Six-Day War in 1967, in which Israel destroyed the Egyptian army and air force – as well as the Jordanian and Syrian air forces – and annexed the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.

The insurgency – or counter-revolution, depending on how one looks at it – had two effects that are not often remembered today. By tying down such a huge part of the Egyptian armed forces for four years, the Royalists and their foreign assistants made it impossible for Nasser to push on into the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Also the effect on the morale of the Egyptian army seems to have played a large part in their poor performance in the Six-Day War.

The extent to which the subsequent failings of the Egyptian army can be blamed on the Yemen experience is debatable – as Hart-Davies points out, they were poorly led. The fact that the “poor bloody infantry” were buried in the Yemen – while the bodies of officers were flown back to Egypt – tells its own story.

The War That Never Was is a chronicle of cynicism, intrigue, brutality, greed and courage. It’s well worth reading if, like me, you’re a student of Middle East politics or military history. It’s also a reminder that the Yemen is in for a tough time whether President Saleh stays or goes. Although the country has a more advanced infrastructure today, it has a host of problems that in a sense are even worse than those facing the country forty years ago – acute shortages of water, the same old tribal divisions, a separatist movement in the South and Al Qaeda training camps in the mountains.

Most of the protagonists are now dead. But I happened upon a personal connection in the most unlikely place. I recognised one of them as an elderly member of my golf club – a quiet and unassuming gentleman who never breathed a word about his military past.

One should never make assumptions about the elderly.

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