Farewell to Aden

Roger Hudson details the tense situation leading up to the evacuation of British troops from Aden in 1967.

Men of the Parachute Regiment conduct a house-to-house search in the last months before Britain's final departure from Aden in November 1967. The local military and police forces have recently mutinied and there are regular attacks on the British, quite apart from a civil war between two rival factions looking to take the place over when independence arrives. Everyone knows of the intention of the British to leave within a year, so why the violence directed at them? Because their word is not trusted, because the Arab peoples have been humiliated in June's Six-Day War by Israel, because a freedom fighter stands a better chance of a prominent position once independence comes.

Aden had been a British Colony since 1839 and over time the emirate states surrounding it had been given protectorate status. In the early 1950s it was clear that independence was on its way, but equally that Aden and the emirates were too small to survive on their own and so must form a federation. After the arrival of Nasser and the Suez débâcle of 1956 there should have been a new urgency, but it was not until 1959 that the South Arabian Federation of Arab Emirates was established, which Aden only joined in 1963, held back by Colonial Office foot-dragging. By then there was a dangerous complication to the north, in Yemen, where the new Imam had been ousted and replaced by the Yemen Arab Republic (the YAR), backed by Nasser. The western assessment of the situation was naïve, unaware that most of Yemen remained in royalist hands and that Egyptian troops were there for one reason only: to take over the rest of the Arabian peninsula and its oil. The US recognised the YAR and the Foreign Office wanted to, but a hawkish côterie within the Conservative Party was alerted to the true state of affairs. A secret operation began to send a limited number of ex-military to maintain radio communication with and among the loyal tribes, give medical aid and supervise the supply of stores and arms. Air drops were carried out by Israel and finance came from Saudi Arabia. The latter had no knowledge of the former's involvement.

The Israelis reaped their reward in June 1967, when there were still 50,000 Egyptian troops tied down in Yemen, who could have been used against them in the war. The operation, however, could not prevent Nasser stirring up trouble in Aden, spreading his propaganda via the new cheap transistor radios and backing the formation of trade unions there, who later formed a socialist party. There were riots and intimidation when Aden joined the federation and at the airport in December 1963 a grenade was thrown at the governor. He survived but one of his staff was killed. A conference at Lancaster House in June 1964 finally agreed to independence by 1968 at the latest, but then the election in October was won by Labour and any interest in a post-colonial legacy was replaced by a preoccupation with technology and ambitions to join the EEC. In 1966, against the background of Britain's balance-of-payments crisis, a Defence White Paper announced that the Aden base was to close and that there would be no more support for the federation. In Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus the military situation was under control and a coherent successor authority in place before exit, but not here.

The shootings and bombings went on through 1966 and 1967 and the number of British dead went past the 100 mark, but the army kept the initiative. When the last troops left for the 25 warships anchored offshore, the band played 'Fings Ain't What They Used To Be'. To the surprise of Nasser, the UN and the British government, it was not the group known by the initials FLOSY (Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen), whom they had been supporting, that took over, but their rivals the Marxist National Liberation Front. The federation soon vanished and in its place the communist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) emerged in 1970. It was a violent country, home to Palestinian and European extremists. In 1986 civil war broke out, ending, after 10,000 deaths, in the PDRY joining with the YAR to the north in 1990.

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