Operation Stirling Castle

When the British government announced their intention of withdrawing from their Aden Protectorate, a number of guerrilla groups emerged to hasten the British departure. The uprising was brought to an abrupt halt by the arrival of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Aden has been in British hands since 1836 when Sultan Muhsin bin Fadl ceded the territory to them, British marines were stationed there from 1839 to prevent pirate attacks on British ships on passage to India. The territory, being about equidistant from the British possessions of Suez Canal, Bombay and Zanzibar, became an important resupply and coaling base for the British navy engaged in protecting the empire.

By the 1960s, the British government were in the process of granting independence to much of its empire and in 1963, announced that it would withdraw from Aden within five years. This was a signal to stake their claim by various anti British factions backed by hostile neighbouring states such as the Communist led North Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Both countries laid claim to Aden and the rebels were further supported with weapons and equipment by Colonel Nasser’s Egypt.

Recognising this threat, Britain began to unite the various states in the region in preparation for independence and in 1963, incorporated the colony into the Federation of Arab Emirates of the South, renaming the area The Federation of South Arabia a year later and forming various militias into a Federal Army and a Federal Guard, commanded by British officers. In May 1967, an advance party of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, led by Lt Col Mitchell, arrived to take over guard duties from the Northumberland Fusiliers who were finishing their tour. The rest of the battalion were due to arrive on the 23rd of June. Mitchell was a charismatic and forceful leader who did not suffer fools gladly and believed that the softly softly approach of the British government in their handling of events in the region put soldiers lives at risk. He was also fighting for the existence of his beloved Argyll and Sutherland Highland Regiment which was under threat of disbandment in the upcoming defence review. He understood the value of good publicity and had frequently used the press to further the Regiment’s cause which did not endear him to his superiors. His men loved him.

On arrival the Highlanders were billeted with the Fusiliers in barracks known as Waterloo Lines and began working with them to learn all they could about the area and its problems. The Fusiliers had been highly successful in putting down civil disturbances during their nine month tour in Aden and Mitchell was keen to capitalise on this knowledge. Around noon on the 20th of June, the Argyll’s D Company commander Major Bryan Malcolm requested permission from Mitchell to accompany a Fusilier patrol into the Crater area of Aden where a “State Red” shooting incident was being reported. Mitchell agreed and Malcolm, plus Privates Hunter and Moores prepared to go out with the patrol.

The trouble proved to be more than a local disturbance; some units of the South Arabian Army; (SAA) had mutinied and burnt down their barracks. The force had been formed by combining the old Federal militias and was commanded by mainly Arab officers. The force was known to harbour elements of two dissident groups, the National Liberation Front, (NLF) and the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen, (FLOSY) and the British were unsure where SAA loyalties lay. The mutiny was quickly put down, but the unrest spread to other barracks where Arab soldiers broke into the armoury and started fighting each other in tribal groups. Discipline broke down and British and Arab officers locked themselves in the camp guardroom. The mutineers then started firing on the British Waterloo Lines. Just then, a British 3 ton truck containing troops returning from weapons training at a nearby shooting range passed the SAA barracks and came under heavy machine gun fire killing eight British soldiers. A company of the Kings Own Royal Border Regiment, accompanied by a troop of The Queens Dragoon Guards, was sent out to put down the mutiny and on entering the area, came under more machine gun fire killing one and wounding eight others.

Despite their anger at the cowardly acts of the mutineers, the troops remained calm and disciplined even though they could see the bodies of British soldiers lying on the ground. Under fire they collected the dead and wounded and rescued the officers trapped in the guardroom.

While this was taking place, the Arab Police in their barracks in Crater started to get nervous. Hearing the shooting and fearing that the British would be out for revenge they emptied their armoury and took up positions on the roofs of the police buildings The Fusiliers commander, Major Moncur, sent Lt Davis and his section into Crater in a Humber armoured car (known as a “Pig”) but noting nothing unusual, Davis returned to the barracks. They were sent out again a short while later and this time noticed that the locals had erected a series of road blocks. As the patrol headed towards the police barracks they found that some buses had been parked to block the main Awa road. Davis and three of his patrol dismounted the vehicle and immediately came under heavy fire. He ordered the Pig to return to base and moved to engage the attackers, but when his signaller was killed, he was unable to contact base and alert them to the situation.

Not having heard from Davis since he left for the Crater district, Major Moncur was concerned and together with his escort of Sergeant Major Hoare, Fusiliers Hoult and Storey and two others, set off in search in a Land Rover. It was this “State Red” patrol that was joined by Major Malcolm and his two Highlanders, Privates Moores and Hunter, who followed in a second Land Rover, neither realising that they were heading into an ambush.

As the two vehicles passed the police barracks they were caught in a hail of crossfire, those not hit in the first fusillade jumped out and attempted to return fire, but having nowhere to take cover, were quickly cut down. Fusilier Storey managed to escape death by running into some nearby flats. He held off his attackers for three hours until he was captured but later released unharmed. All his companions were killed.

Travelling in a Pig and accompanied by two armoured cars, a Saladin and a Ferret of the Queens Dragoon Guards, Lt John Shaw of the Fusiliers volunteered to take his section into Crater to support Major Moncur and when they arrived at the scene of the ambush they found the two burning Land Rovers surrounded by the bodies of eight British soldiers. The three vehicles came under intense fire and the Saladin commander radioed for permission to use his 76mm gun against the police barracks. This was refused and the beleaguered troops had to rely solely on their rifles and machine guns whereas, if they had been given permission to use heavier weapons, they could have suppressed the enemy fire and retrieved the bodies of their dead comrades. Many more attempts were made to advance on the barracks and each time, permission to use heavy weapons was refused.

At the end of the day 22 British soldiers lay dead and Crater was in the hands of some 500 terrorists and Arab police. To rub salt into the wounds, the bodies of the British soldiers were given a public trial by the terrorists.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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