Northern Mahra, Yemen, 1964
The Shackleton was the Brits’ ultimate weapon, and they really hated having to employ it. Its arrival signalled Aden’s belated recognition that we had a major problem on our collective hands – not this particular little contretemps, but the wider issue of who actually controlled the northern desert. At Wadi Ma’abur, the British had finally drawn their line in the sand. To be fair to the Mahris, they hadn’t actually stepped over it. The Brits, in their infinite wisdom, had drawn it behind them. They would come to regret it.
The British were rapt with this unexpectedly positive outcome. Maybe, they reckoned, force just might work after all. They quickly had a policy re-think that revolutionised our life in the field. Suddenly our military cup ran over. Our escorts were beefed up and we were pretty much turned loose on the hapless Mahri. Shackleton bombers made regular flights over the desert – just to remind the Bedu of their existence – and each field party was assigned a Scorpion armoured car and at least 100 HBL jundies. The Scorpion was wonderful – a nimble all-terrain vehicle, with the profile of a shark and a heavy machine gun in its turret, it could cruise at 50 mph and climb 45 degree slopes.
Suddenly we could go anywhere and do anything. Not that it was all peaches and cream – it was still tough going – the Bedu continued to mount ambushes almost every day. More than a dozen of our soldiers were killed and several vehicles were disabled over the next six months. But we got the job done, and we never faced organised opposition in northern Mahra again – at least not until our whole operation began to unravel right at the end – but that’s another story.
Early in the New Year, the Brits encouraged us to go for broke. Assembling a force of 1500 HBL troops, a dozen Scorpions and more than 100 other vehicles at Thamud, we launched a full-scale invasion of southern Mahra without any warning. A pair of Shackletons alternating overhead, gave us 16-hour a day air support.
It was a piece of cake. The Mahris never had a chance. This time, instead of talking and arguing for weeks beforehand, we just suddenly appeared. Coming in from the west, below the cliffs of Jebel Fahrt, and bursting out onto the plains of Wadi Foueif, we caught them entirely by surprise. Since we were motorised and the Mahris fought on foot, we advanced ahead of the news of our arrival, and caught them flat-footed nearly everywhere. The astonished Mahris didn’t have time to set up a single ambush, and there was hardly any actual fighting. Within three days our armoured column had occupied Mur’ayt. It wasn’t much of a place – 20 or 30 thatched mud huts – but it was what passed for a capital city. It had to – it was the only town in Mahra.
Mur’ayt lay on the flood plain at the mouth of Wadi Markha, a huge dry watercourse which drained about half of the interior of Mahra. The flood plain of the wadi was 15 or 20 miles wide, with dozens of little gravel-bottomed channels distributing the runoff across the flats. A couple of dozen long straight dykes – each five or six feet high – had been constructed right across the flood plain. Six or eight miles long, and laid out in an inverted chevron pattern, they funneled floodwater from a dozen or more distributaries inward toward a mud-walled enclosure next to the town. It contained a few acres of ploughed fields – the only cultivated land in the whole of Mahra.
A few days after a rain anywhere in the interior, parts of the wadi would flow briefly, some of its distributaries spreading the water thinly across the plains. The dyke system would divert much of this water toward – and ultimately into – the enclosure. Rain was infrequent in South Arabia – statistically, it rained only one year in seven – but most rains were local, and there were actually substantial falls of rain somewhere in the interior at least once a year, sometimes twice. The runoff from half of those rains – those that fell into the south-flowing drainage system – would come down Wadi Markha and some of it would reach the dyke system. In a good year – maybe one in three – the enclosure would be flooded with enough water for the Mahris to plant and harvest a meagre crop.
It was damned impressive, that irrigation scheme. It had been all made by hand and must have required more-or-less continuous maintenance. Its very existence showed just how tough it was to wring a living from this dreadful lunar landscape. I reckoned that anyone who would work that hard for a few acres of intermittently arable land deserved to live somewhere better than Mur’ayt.
Two days later we were in command of the ancient stone watchtower on the coast at Al Gheida – a sort of port where dhows could sometimes unload along the beach. The Mahris had made a desperate last stand there, finally daring to fire the ancient cannon left by the Portuguese 200 years before. It exploded on firing, blowing off half the upper two storeys of the tower and killing about a dozen Mahris – more than half the total casualties of the whole invasion.
The Brits decided to treat southern Mahra as occupied territory. Mur’ayt had been abandoned by the Mahris, and the HBL constructed a rammed-earth fort right in the middle of town. The tower at Al Gheida was repaired and a stone-built barracks added to it. Both forts were garrisoned by small HBL contingents. As our convoy returned to Thamud, we improved the track by which we’d come so as to have a supply route for our garrisons. For the first time ever, the British actually controlled the whole of South Arabia.
But it was not to last. We had lost what made our campaign work – the element of surprise. Six weeks later – by the time of my first field trip into southern Mahra – things had already started to unravel. We spent nine days pinned down behind some gravel mounds near the well at Bir Maksa. Neither our Scorpion nor a Shackleton bomber could dig us out. The Bedu vanished ahead of both and returned to the attack the moment they were gone. We called in support from Al Gheida and Mur’ayt, leaving both garrisons dangerously over-stretched. When we finally extricated ourselves – amidst a hail of bullets in the dead of night – we had to leave two of our five vehicles behind.
This shattered the myth of our invincibility. The Mahris began to gather in the hills and on the cliffs overlooking the road. Shooting at everything that moved, they were invisible from the air except when on attack. Every supply convoy had to run a 200 mile gauntlet of more-or-less continuous ambushes. Eventually, less than half of the supply trucks were making it through to the embattled forts. With their relentless attacks, the Mahris simply wore the British down. The Mahris, I think, had psychology on their side. The British, who had won the campaign, had everything to lose: the Mahris, who had lost it, had everything to gain. At the end of the year, the Brits sued for peace. Despite a negotiated withdrawal agreement, their garrisons had to fight their way out.
In our hubris, we’d thought it was all over. But the Mahris had had other ideas. They, too, had drawn a line in the sand. They’d drawn it months ago – amongst the dunes of Wadi Armah, where first we met them – and they had said to us: