In late April 1964, British Army Trucks were rumbling up the Dhala road towards the village of the Thumier, situated in the foothills of the Radfan mountains north of Aden. By the end of the month the strike force was assembled. The men of 45 Commando, Royal Marines, already based in Aden under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Paddy Stevens, had established a camp just east of the road, and on the eve of the operation they were joined by the paras of B Company, 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA). Four rifle platoons with a section of 3in mortars, all under Major Peter Walter, were also brought up in support.
The operational plan formulated by Brigadier Louis Hargroves, overall commander of the force, had called for a paratroop drop on the night of 30 April. The paras were to drop onto a key feature codenamed Cap Badge, occupying it until 45 Commando completed a sweep towards it from Wadi Boran. Unfortunately, the troop from 22 SAS which was detailed to mark the drop zone in the boulder strewn landscape became embroiled in a fight for survival and was forced to withdraw. Also, the intensity of fire attracted by low flying British aircraft in the area showed that the paras would be embattled immediately upon landing. The drop was therefore cancelled; instead, it was decided to undertake the operation entirely by night march.
On the night of 30 April, the marines and paras set out into the darkness. All were heavily laden, principally with ammunition and water. It was one of those marches which demand much of the infantryman.
For the officers navigating, there was the problem of maintaining direction across steep and broken country. For every hundred yards of advance they were forced to climb or descend three hundred. Bearings were lost in the darkness and had to be rediscovered. If one of the heavily laden men fell, there was a constant fear that he had broken a limb, raising the question of whether he should be carried, which would entail abandoning important loads, or be left behind, perhaps to be found by a band of merciless tribesmen. They knew that they were marching against the clock, and that daylight would expose them to fire from all around.
As the sun rose, Major Walter saw that they were still far from their objective. Skirting crest and resting in shadows, he avoided an encounter on the line of march and at last he saw the village and the stone watch-towers which were his target. He had hoped to surprise the towers’ garrisons by night, but now he had to close on them in daylight. Still half a mile distant, Radfani tribesmen began firing, and as bullets ricocheted among the rocks the paratroopers were forced down.
Under cover, the men were neither safe nor pursuing their objective, so Major Walter led a dash with the majority of the leading platoon to clear the positions surrounding the central watch-towers. Two other platoons were deployed to clear the village. No sooner had the leading parties moved off than a group of tribesmen, believing them to be the entire force, came in to attack them from behind. The fourth platoon with supporting elements had yet to close up and its commander, Captain Barry Jewkes, saw what was happening. He quickly laid an ambush and the Radfani were killed.
The noise of this action, combined with that of clearing the watch-towers and the village, drew the entire weight of the local forces down on the paratroopers. A prolonged struggle ensued for possession of the battleground. The British force had the valuable support of two mortars, but ammunition for these weapons was limited. Although the artillery at Thumier was out of range, the radio was used to bring RAF Hawker Hunters in to strike at Radfanis positioned in caves and sangars in the rocks. The aircraft were also able to suppress the fire from snipers spread out on the overhanging heights.
Late in the afternoon the paras were relieved to see the marines of 45 Commando driving the Radfani snipers from the heights. Soon 3 PARA’s padre appeared in a Belvedere helicopter, and the wounded were airlifted to the military hospital in Aden. The area was then secured by an infantry battalion and the marines and paratroopers withdrew to Aden.
Still, no-one in Aden believed that a day of warm skirmishing had conquered the Radfani, and a brigade headquarters was brought from Northern Ireland to continue the campaign of pacification. It was commanded by Brigadier CH Blacker. The rest of 3 PARA, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel. AH Farrar-Hockley, was brought to Aden from the Persian Gulf to lend its strength to the campaign, leaving only the regimental band at their station to show the flag, the men taking up rifles in place of their musical instruments. Major WaIter's B Company returned to the Gulf to support them.
The group which assembled in the Wadi Rabwa close to Thumier comprised 3 PARA less B Company, 1 Parachute Light Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, with its four 105mm guns, 3 PARA Engineer Troop, transport and medical elements and a rifle platoon formed by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps detachment which normally looked after the platforms on which the paras dropped their heavy equipment. This force was to clear the ridge on which the Bakri villages lay. None of the big Belvedere helicopters of the RAF was available to carry heavy loads forward, at best there would be two Scout helicopters of 653 Squadron, Army Air Corps, to carry a few light loads and make reconnaissance flights. There was just a chance that Land Rovers might be able to crawl up the track leading out of the Wadi Rabwa. Otherwise, everything had to be backpacked from the start. The 105s had to remain in the wadi, considerably shortening any cover they might be able to offer forward.
On the night of 16/17 May, Farrar-Hockley advanced the anti-tank platoon, armed with rifles and machine guns, to the deserted village of Shab Tem, and from this outpost he took forward three patrols in bright moonlight to seek routes up to the far ridge. They discovered only one, and even this involved crossing several ravines with steep sides. Next day it became evident that the track out of the Wadi Rabwa was so poor that it could not be used by laden vehicles moving up to Shab Tem. The quartermaster and the mechanical transport officers, therefore, sent several empty vehicles across the worst break in the track and organised the manhandling of loads over to them: ammunition, water and food. If there should be a severe battle, these would be their sole source of replenishment.
On the night of 17/18 May, with the stocking up of supplies still in process, the column set off. A Company led, supported by the machine-gun and mortar platoons. C Company and the Royal Engineers were deployed as fighting porters, each officer and soldier carrying about 180lb and a personal weapon for self-defence. It was very hot, and progress was slow, only about half-a-mile an hour, up and down the precipitous slopes. Just before dawn, Farrar-Hockley halted on a knoll surmounted by two deserted houses. The porters shed their loads and returned to Shab Tem. As the remainder made camp, there was a brief flurry of fire from a flank, sending bullets
whistling over them. Two of the battalion's mortars fired a random response onto the flashes and, as the moon came up, all fell quiet.
Next day, the Army Air Corps Scout helicopters flew a series of loads forward from Shab Tem, while the paras watched the silent and apparently deserted landscape from five concealed observation posts. At nightfall, C Company reappeared to take on the role of an advanced guard, while A Company and the engineers humped the loads. A fighting patrol was despatched, and then the column set off, wending its way through the deep ravines, and finally securing its objective on the top of Hajib escarpment as dawn approached.
The Bakri fighting bands were uncertain as to what to do next. They did not like operating at night, preferring to use darkness to regroup and rest. All of them crack marksmen, they preferred to wage guerrilla war by day among the rocks and caverns with which they were familiar, sniping and closing in when any British position looked vulnerable. They had now lost a good deal of territory. Moreover, less than two miles from 3 PARA's position was the Wadi Dhubsan, an area never previously penetrated by government forces, in which lay the Radfanis' principal grain stores. When the battalion group began to expand their positions, at first on the flank and then towards the height overlooking the Wadi Dhubsan, the Radfani resistance hardened.
When A Company began to advance towards this height, its left protected by the anti-tank platoon, groups of tribesmen opened fire from two villages ahead. C Company was drawn in, and the British artillery, firing at extreme range, dropped shells onto the Radfanis as the two companies advanced.
Beyond the villages and a little to one side lay a saddle of ground, beyond which stood stone watch-towers. They were beyond the guns’ range, and too robustly constructed to be destroyed by mortars. The RAF Hunters were called down, and they ran in on the structures with bombs and 30mm Aden guns. The watch-towers fell silent; when the paras checked later on, they found a 12ft bloodstain in one room.
The British force now looked down into the Wadi Dhubsan. This area, hitherto a safe base for Radfani operations, was to be entered as a demonstration of power, and the grain stocks held there were to be destroyed. Brigadier Blacker told Lieutenant-Colonel Farrar-Hockley, ‘The aim is not to slaughter tribesmen, but to teach them that we will come wherever we need to if they misbehave.’ In the event, the final assault was delayed by rainstorms. Stores remaining in the Wadi Rabwa were forwarded to a new dump on the Hajib escarpment, and the engineers worked round the clock to extend the track from Shab Tem in order to bring forward the guns of 1 Parachute Light Battery.
There were two tracks into the Wadi Dhubsan, one fair and one poor, which wound 3200ft down the mountain into the valley. Reckoning that there would be ambushes laid on both tracks, Farrar-Hockley decided to make a direct descent from the heights. Reconnoitring, he found a route which led down a 30ft rock face, along a boulder-strewn stream bed, and ended up directly in the rear of the village of Bayn Al Gidr. On the night of 25 May, while C Company picqueted the Jebel Haqla to the right, the main column used ropes to abseil down the rock face and it descended in the darkness, to the village. Sentries posted by the tribesmen around the village rapidly woke the garrison and it promptly fled. By 0600 hours, the upper wadi had been cleared without a shot being fired.
X Company of 45 Commando, under Farrar-Hockley's command for this operation, was now advanced down the right side of the wadi, while A Company of 3 PARA pushed along the heights to the left. Very quickly, small groups of tribesmen were seen hurrying into positions ahead. They were coming from an ambush position on the better of the two approaches in the upper slopes. Fire opened between the forces, the shots echoing along the sides of the wadi. Meanwhile, Farrar-Hockley, who was talking to Brigadier Blacker, himself just arrived in Bayn AI Gidr, was given map co-ordinates of the marines' position, and he elected to take a Scout to check their progress,
Taking off, Farrar-Hockley's Scout flew towards the map reference given him on the radio. Major Jackson, the pilot, sought the shelter of the cliffs as they skimmed the Wadi Dhubsan, over the battalion headquarters and support elements on the valley floor. They crossed a deserted tract and, suddenly, approaching the map reference point, the ground and cliffs on either side were milling with turbanned tribesmen, shaking their fists and firing their rifles. The noise of the engine obscured the sound of their shots, but then the men in the Scout heard a sound like the opening of beer cans. Fuel began to spray over the forward observation perspex.
'Can you keep flying?' asked Farrar-Hockley. 'This is the last place to put her down.' 'I've got power,' said Major Jackson. Coolly, he turned the Scout towards the head of the wadi, but then the engine or the rotors started making a clattering noise. As they swept forward, the advanced element of battalion headquarters on the valley floor swung into sight. 'Down there,' said Farrar-Hockley. They landed safely and Major Jackson switched off the power. Around them a firefight was in progress; a further 50 tribesmen had moved into position and more waited behind them, no doubt those seen by the Scout earlier on. There were now some casualties to be evacuated, including Lieutenant lan McLeod who had been shot through the wrist in the Scout. The regimental sergeant-major led a party from the main element of the headquarters to the damaged helicopter, but was wounded on the way. The Bakri riflemen were shooting with accuracy at 800yds range. Even as the padre helped carry the wounded back, the heels of his boots were clipped by bullets.
It was a tiresome morning and afternoon. In the end, the difficulty of breaching the tribesmen’s well-concealed defences was overcome by C Company. Ordered to outflank them by marching round from the Jebel Haqla, they did so rapidly, surprising the Radfanis' left flank and forcing them to abandon their positions. The battalion then formed a defensive perimeter for the night, within which lay the crippled Scout. By torchlight, two aircraft technicians from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers worked through the hours of darkness, trying to repair the helicopter before dawn.
Next morning, as the Radfani grain stores were set alight, Major Jackson climbed into the Scout and tried the starter motor. The engine fired, the rotors turned, and when the helicopter lifted, hovered and then rose rapidly into the air, there was a hearty cheer. Major Jackson disappeared through the smoke billowing up from the grain stores and 3 PARA, with the marines, began the long climb out of the wadi to the heights. From there, they were airlifted by Wessex helicopters of the Royal Navy to the heart of Aden and the delight of a cold beer.
Authored by Gen Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley, this article was first published in The Elite, Volume 5, Issue 53, 1986.
Courtesy of Maj Gen Dair Farrar-HockleyRead More