Radfan 1964



The early 1960s was the time when cheap transistor radios first became available. This new medium was used to great effect by Nasser, who promoted his nationalist message over the airwaves via the Egyptian wireless station, “Voice of the Arabs.” This message reached all parts of South Arabia, so that even the most primitive and isolated tribesman now had access to anti-British propaganda. The Radfan again became the focus of dissident attacks and in April 1964, the British High Commissioner had to admit that “The Aden-Dhala Road is again unusable as the area is now under guerrilla control.” In an attempt to crush the dissidents and drive them out of the Radfan, the Commander Aden Garrison, Brigadier Louis Hargroves, swiftly put together a brigade-size force. However, within Middle East Command (MEC) there was some disagreement as to the extent of the objectives, because the size of the rebel threat could not be accurately assessed. The overall objective was to draw out the dissidents and kill them with superior firepower, and then destroy their crops and means of subsistence; there was certainly no talk of “hearts and minds.” Whereas in Malaya there had been a campaign of forced resettlement in some areas, with the creation of new villages free of Communist influence, in South Arabia this was not possible. Tribal loyalty was too strong and ingrained to move communities, while new land meant new cultivation, and in most areas the soil was simply too arid. These limitations were further compounded by the inertia of the Colonial Service administration, which failed to foster civic action programs in the hinterland. Despite the best efforts of British political officers who worked up-country, support for projects was minimal:

Generally speaking, the non-Arabist, frequently changing and largely administrative Colonial Service in Aden did not match the limited but active intelligence and drive of most of the Service up-country. There was practically no interchange between the Colonial Service in the field and the Colonial Service at home, and little or no first-hand knowledge of the area among politicians and public here [in London].

The Abyan Cotton Scheme, which capitalized on an extremely fertile band of land running through the Fadhli and Lower Yafa’i tribal areas, was one exception. Equipped with a number of engineers, researchers, and agricultural and water specialists, the scheme grew cotton in fields fed by the rich floodwater from Wadi Bana. But this project owed more to the individual zeal of its managers than to any government direction.

This lack of investment, and indeed interest, by the British Foreign Office in the hinterland hardly created an affinity between the Radfan tribes and the new Federal government. The tribes had their own rulers, customs, and justice systems without, they felt, the need for outside interference, and members of the Federal government often had little sway over events in the tribal lands. However, one area that the British government had always indulged was the creation of local military formations. The four battalions of Aden Protectorate Levies (APL), firstly under army and later Royal Air Force (RAF) control, were the forerunners of the Federal Regular Army (FRA), which was created for the new Federation in 1961. The FRA was originally officered by British regulars but over the next few years there was a move to “Arabize” the 4,000-strong force. While the individual Arab soldier could be trained, and a certain esprit de corps evolved, tribal ties remained stronger than loyalty to the Federation. The NLF methodically infiltrated the FRA and the Arab Army’s British Commander, Brigadier Gordon Viner, even found that the first FRA student he sent to Staff College, Camberley, turned out to be an NLF member. Yet at the time, few of the remaining British officers in the FRA voiced concerns about the loyalty of their Arab troops.

Brigadier Hargroves’ “Radforce” comprised units from 45 Commando, Royal Marines (45 Cdo RM); 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA); 1st Battalion, The East Anglian Regiment; D Squadron, 4th Royal Tank Regiment (4 RTR); and J Battery, 3rd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (3 RHA), together with two battalions of FRA. In order to occupy the Radfan heights, the initial objective was to capture the 3,700-foot mountain known as “Cap Badge.”

To do this, three companies of 45 Cdo RM would secure the Danaba basin surrounding the mountain, while B Company, 3 PARA would be parachuted onto “Cap Badge,” both operations starting during the night of April 30/May 1, 1964. But disaster struck. A troop from A Squadron, 22 Special Air Service Regiment (22 SAS), who were to mark the drop zone for 3 PARA, were attacked by rebels, and the parachute drop had to be canceled. Instead, 3 PARA marched by night to take “Cap Badge” from the southeast, as 45 Cdo RM scaled the southwest side of the mountain. Because of the lower temperatures during night operations, water consumption was less, but the route for both units was hard going and as dawn broke on May 5, 3 PARA found themselves in front of the rebel-held village of Al Naqil. A fierce fight ensued, in which they suffered two killed and eight wounded, but eventually they took the village and joined 45 Cdo RM on the summit of “Cap Badge.”

The first objectives in the Radfan campaign having been achieved, MEC was able to reflect on the problems encountered:

Almost invariably the time taken to get from one point to another was underestimated, even after air reconnaissance and the study of air photographs. Initially, the maps available were of poor quality, inaccurate and with few details. Eventually Commanders were considerably more cautious in their estimation of time and space problems.

This admission highlighted the fact that there were still too few helicopters available. The Belvedere, while having a good capacity, needed a large, clear landing zone and was too high off the ground for quick loading and unloading, often in view of enemy snipers. And British units invariably found that the enemy kept their distance; they knew the crags, rocks, and valleys, were as light on their feet as mountain goats, and once contact was made, regularly changed positions. Consequently, British infantry units rarely captured any rebels alive, which hardly helped their already meager intelligence on enemy deployments; and the enemy left little evidence of their casualties, carting them swiftly away for burial according to Islamic custom. Frustrated by this lack of close encounter, British troops often called in air support from Hawker Hunters. This required ground-based Forward Air Controllers (FAC) and Forward Observation Officers (FOO) to mark the intended strike, but they too faced inaccessible terrain. Hunters from 43(F) or 208 Squadron would attack ground targets in pairs, diving from 3,000 feet at 500mph and releasing 3-inch rockets or short bursts of cannon fire. From that height and speed, scurrying tribesmen, already obscured by dust and rocks from previous rocket salvoes, were very difficult to hit. Consequently ammunition and rocket expenditure was increasing at an alarming rate and was cause for concern. For British units trapped by ambush or fighting in remote wadis, there was great incentive to call in artillery strikes. This in turn created logistical problems, as the 105mm pack howitzers manned by the horse gunners often had to be dismantled and moved over passes by camel train. Should the elusive helicopters not appear, much of the ammunition also had to be brought forward in this way.

The rebel threat remained. Although the northern end of the Radfan Mountains was temporarily under British control, the southern heights of the Bakri Ridge and Jebel Huriyah remained in enemy hands. As “Radforce” was only temporary, a new brigade had to be found to complete the objectives. Finding a suitable brigade from a British Army already heavily committed to emergencies in Borneo, Cyprus, and East Africa was none too easy. However, Headquarters 39 Brigade, normally based in Northern Ireland, was brought in to take command of operations in the Radfan.

On May 18, the fresh C Company, 3 PARA, led by Major Tony Ward-Booth, scaled the heights of Bakri – each man with an 80-lb pack – and as they moved forward, encountered fire from rebel positions. This time the enemy was in entrenched positions, with a network of forts and underground caves. As RAF Hunters flew in from Khormaksar airfield, they streamed rockets onto the defenders in their sangars. The tribesmen continued to hold out, while those in the caves fought 3 PARA to the last man. Meanwhile, 3 miles to the west, 1 East Anglian, together with 2 FRA, moved along the Wadi Misrah to close the approach to the final objective, the 5,500-foot peak of Jebel Huriyah. Once the Bakri Ridge was quelled, units from 3 PARA and 45 Cdo RM abseiled down the sheer sides of the mountain into Wadi Dhubsan, a basin below Huriyah. There they encountered further resistance before they could finally control this heart of the Radfan on May 28. With the capture by the East Anglians of Jebel Huriyah on June 12 and the occupation of nearby Jebel Widina on June 27, 1964, the Radfan campaign came to a close.

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