In 1839 Britain captured the town of Aden (now part of Yemen) in the south of the Arabian Peninsula. Like the later seizure of Cyprus (1878) and of Egypt (1882), the occupation of Aden was a strategic rather than commercial undertaking, guarding the lines of communication with India. With British Somaliland on the ‘horn of Africa’, Aden provided control of the entrance to the Red Sea. Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Britain established protectorates in the hinterland of South Arabia to act as a buffer against the Ottomans who occupied Yemen. In 1937 Aden became a Crown Colony.
Following her humiliation in the Suez Crisis of 1956, Britain granted independence in February 1959 to the Federation of South Arabia, which was formed from the Aden colony and the surrounding protectorates, in order to stabilise the region, which had been dogged by years of unrest fuelled by Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism. Having replaced Cyprus as the base of Middle East Land Forces, Aden was of even greater strategic importance to Britain, maintaining with Far East Land Forces in Singapore its global presence. In 1962 the British government announced that a permanent British garrison would be maintained in Aden. Yet in 1967, the British were forced to withdraw from the colony.
A Blackburn Buccaneer aircraft of 800 Naval Air Squadron from HMS EAGLE on patrol over Aden and Khormaksar airfield, during the withdrawal of British troops on 29 November 1967.
Throughout the mid-1960s, the new Federation faced grave threats. Internally the rival National Liberation Front (NLF) and Federation for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) sought to expel Britain from what they called South Yemen. Externally the republican government of Yemen, which overthrew the royalist regime in the coup of September 1962, provided the rebels with sanctuaries and support from Egypt and the Soviet Union.
Between late 1963 and the British withdrawal in 1967, the NLF and FLOSY employed a combination of classic hit-and-run guerrilla tactics in the protectorates notably the Radfan and urban terrorism in Aden that was marked by a series of bombings, shootings and grenade attacks on the civil administration, military personnel and civilians.
British retribution for attacks was swift, harsh and often indiscriminate, causing resentment in the local community and providing recruits for the insurgents. Lacking intelligence about their foes, British forces resorted to stop and search operations and regular patrols of Aden, initially on foot but later in armoured cars, to identify the rebels and their supporters.
Vesels of the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary in the Gulf of Aden as part of Task Force 945 during the British withdrawal from the Aden colony. With civilian government gone, a massive task force was assembled in the Gulf of Aden for the final withdrawal. This task force included Sea Vixen and Buccaneer-equipped aircraft carriers, commando carriers, several destroyers, frigates and a submarine.
Aden was defended by the locally raised Federal Regular Army (FRA) and Federal National Guard (FNG), which were later merged into a single force, the South Arabian Army (SAA). These forces were increasingly distrusted by the British, owing to heavy infiltration by the insurgents. In June 1967, joined by the police, who had also been badly infiltrated, the SAA mutinied and attacked the British, forcing a temporary withdrawal from the Crater area of Aden.
Britain realised that its presence in Aden would end sooner rather than later. In February 1966 Britain announced that the Aden bases would not be retained after independence was gained in 1968. By June 1967, British forces had lost control and, though British troops re-occupied the Crater, the insurgents intensified their attacks. The Federal government collapsed in September 1967 and was replaced by a Marxist regime. Following negotiations with nationalist groups over Britain's withdrawal, the last British troops left Aden in November 1967.
RPG-7V rocket launcher
RPG-7V rocket launcher
A Soviet RPG 7V Rocket Launcher used by the NLF in Aden. Although a local campaign, Arab nationalism in Aden can be seen to be a part of the wider Cold War. At the same time as Britain was withdrawing from empire in the Middle East, the Soviet Union was looking to expand its influence in the region and heavily supplied arms and finances to Egypt for their support of the NLF.