Operation Stirling Castle

The decision was made by Brigade HQ to seal off the area and marine snipers from 45 Commando were posted on the high ground overlooking the area. Over the next days the marines identified and shot 10 armed terrorists while in Crater groups of NLF and FLOSY took to the streets and started fighting each other while the Arab police stood by and did nothing. Colonel Mitchell of the Highlanders, together with Colonel Blemkinsop of the Northumberland’s requested permission from Brigade HQ to enter Crater and retrieve the bodies of their men. This was refused by Major General Philip Tower, GOC in the area on the grounds that the act might result in a general uprising in the Colony and endanger the many British civilians up country. Tower, whose combat experience was in the artillery, understood little of the issues involved in infantry action against terrorists and did not want a major confrontation at a time when Britain was preparing to leave the area. Mitchell and Blenkinsop recognised and shared the anger felt by the men under their command at leaving their dead comrades behind.

After three frustrating days of inaction, permission was given for Colonel Mitchell to send a probe patrol into the area to assess the situation. He stretched the remit of his orders and began planning for the reoccupation of Crater. This decision was to alienate himself even further from Tower. He decided to mount the operation in three phases with troops entering simultaneously from the eastern and seaward sides and converging on the police barracks which would then be surrounded and attacked. He began by sending reconnaissance patrols into the area at night to obtain accurate locations of enemy positions and movements, shutting down all street lighting to minimise the danger of sniper fire on his patrols. The civic authorities complained to Mitchell’s superiors and he was ordered to turn the lights back on. This he did, but righted the situation by ensuring that his Jocks removed all street lighting bulbs in their patrol areas.

On the 2nd of July, an increasingly frustrated Mitchell decided to make a daylight recce of the area and with his Adjutant manning a machine gun mounted on his Land Rover and with a second vehicle as escort, headed out to what he hoped observers would think was a normal patrol into Aden town. He headed for the Supreme Court building and at the last moment veered off onto the road through Crater. The gunmen in the area were caught off guard and were too startled to open fire. Mitchell later noted, “Somebody shouted a warning. I looked round and noticed a low trolley about eight feet long and loaded with coca-cola bottles was being pulled into the road behind us, cutting off our escape. Once trapped in the road we would be shot to pieces. Instant action was essential, I swung the Land Rover around in a tight U turn and headed at full speed towards the trailer and we struck it side on, smashing through, showering coca cola bottles in all directions. The second Land Rover followed, bursting both rear tyres on the broken glass. A few moments later we were back in our own positions”. It is interesting to note that, one month after Mitchell’s foray, the British authorities were presented with an official claim for 800 coca cola bottles!

On the 3rd of July, Mitchell was given the go ahead to retake Crater. The mission, codenamed “Operation Stirling Castle” was to be carried out by the Argylls with the support of the Queens Dragoon Guards in their Saladin armoured cars. The Guards had struck up an affinity with the Northumberland Fusiliers from whom the Argylls had taken over and taped the regiment’s red and white hackles to the aerials of the Saladin’s to ensure that the Fusiliers were symbolically represented in the retaking of Crater. The Saladin commander radioed the Fusilier Colonel Blenkinsop, “Your hackle flies again in Crater”.

At H hour, a platoon of Highlanders was landed on the seaward side by RN helicopter and took up positions guarding the South Gate. At 1800 hours the main part of the Battalion moved in from the east and joined with the patrol at the gate. Leading them was Pipe Major Kenneth Robson playing “Scotland the Brave” and the regimental march “Monymusk”. Mitchell later remarked, “To me that single moment in Crater was worth all my quarter century of soldiering”.

The troops came under sniper and machine gun fire as they advanced, but this was soon suppressed by the Saladin’s machine guns. One patrol came across a group of Arabs and ordered them to halt; one Arab attempted to run away and was shot, the only man killed in the operation.

By 11 pm the first phase of the assault was completed and a company of Argylls climbed the steep sides of the old Turkish fort only to find that the defenders had fled leaving their flag behind. This was quickly replaced by the Argylls flag. Others took over the Chartered Bank and Treasury building.

The inhabitants of Crater were woken at dawn by the sound of “Long Reveille” and “Johnny Cope” played by the Argyll’s Pipes and Drums from the roof of the Legislative building. Surrounded by riflemen, the band made it clear that the British were back.

Mitchell could now turn his attention to the police barracks and early the next day held a meeting with the Arab Police Commander, Superintendant Ibrahim who told him that the police were “very scared” of Scots retaliation because of the events of the 20th.  Mitchell assured him that they would be properly treated if they lay down their arms and handed over the ringleaders of the mutiny, if they resisted they would be “Wiped out”.

The Argylls now made their final advance into the main part of the Crater district, this time with no resistance. Negotiations were conducted with the Arab police and the bodies of the dead British soldiers removed. Some of these bodies had been mutilated by the police. The Argylls quickly established themselves as the new armed force in Crater and reached an uneasy truce with the Arab police although the soldiers couldn’t understand why the mutineers had not been arrested and patrols remained very alert in case the police turned treacherous again.

The Argylls established some 30 observation posts in Crater, sited on tall buildings and fortified with concrete and sand bags. Machine guns were set up in the posts to cover all main roads with interlocking arcs of fire and every post, patrol and vehicle was linked by radio to the Battalion net. Mitchell wanted to ensure that the locals knew that there was a “new sheriff in the area” and patrolled aggressively in company with the armoured cars of the Queens Dragoon Guards. He did not impose a curfew, but advised the Arab Police to tell local inhabitants that it would be “safer” if they kept off the streets after 7pm. Mitchell would often join patrols and would insist that his officers led by example and show no fear, reprimanding one of his junior officers for taking cover in a doorway, “What the hell are you doing? Get out in the middle of the street where people can see you”.

He had the regiment’s Land Rovers stripped of their roofs and side panels and had heavy machine guns mounted to show that they were ready for anything. He also ordered his troops to wear the Argyll Regimental Cap Badge on their Glengarries in place of the Highland Brigade Badge which was a stag’s head on a St Andrew’s cross. The Jocks called it “The Crucified Moose”! All main entrances into Crater had been sealed off and checkpoints established, but on the 5th of July, Mitchell was ordered to take them down. The Jocks could still search civilian vehicles, but were forbidden to search vehicles of the Arab Police or Arab Militia. This made it easy for terrorists to smuggle weapons into Crater which did not please Mitchell. He was determined that there would be no repetition of the murder of British troops in June and told his officers that if ever the situation arose they were to counter attack without waiting for permission from himself. His orders stated that, “If you are out of ammunition you are to go in with the bayonet, it’s better that the whole battalion dies in Crater to rescue one Jock than any one of us come out alive”.

Pretty soon Mitchell’s tough stance was bringing a sense of order in Crater with shops beginning to reopen and the return of some refugees. As Mitchell said, “They know if they start trouble we’ll blow their bloody heads off”. He let it be known that “Argyll Law” now operated and his Jocks would keep the peace if there was no further trouble on the streets. If trouble broke out however, he would give the order “Portcullis”.

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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