Chapter 3

Active Service in Aden


 
Aden, located at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, became part of the British Empire in 1839 and had been a British Protectorate since 1874 and remained so until 1967. As the British decolonised following World War II, Aden grew in importance due to their loss of other territories and the fact that it was a strategically placed port. It became the headquarters for both the Colonial Office and the British military in the Middle East.

In the early 1960s, resentment grew against the British as its troops tried to put down tribal warfare, something that produced resistance from Arab nationalists both in and outside Aden. 45 Commando was sent to Aden in 1960 and were stationed at the BP Camp in Little Aden. On December 10th, 1963, a terrorist tried to kill the British High Commissioner. A state of emergency was declared, and the British raised their efforts to retain control.

I flew out to Aden at the end of May 1965. The thing I remember most about my arrival was, that when the plane doors opened at RAF Khormaksar, a blast of scorching heat hit me as if an oven door had just been opened. The other stand-out memory from those first hours was that everyone was carrying a weapon. I had seen it in films, but this was real, and I was to become part of it.

We were quickly ushered though the reception process and onto the waiting transport. 45 Commando was based in Little Aden, which was across the causeway several miles away. On arrival, we were allocated our companies and troops. I was allocated 2 Troop, “X” Company along with Dave Long, Pete Kelly and Howard Marshal, my friends from training.  We were briefed and then shown to our huts.

The first few days were about getting acclimatised to both the heat and the political situation. We were sent on long runs and educated on what we could and couldn’t do. After that, we joined our Troop and headed off on Internal Security duties in Crater.

The name Crater speaks for itself. It’s a town built in the crater of an ancient volcano. Temperatures in the summer months went over 100oF and touching the metal of your rifle could easily result in a burn.

We were housed outside of Crater and went into the town each day. Our base was the police station, from where we went out on patrol or did whatever else we were required to do. As for any Marine, my first patrol was memorable. Straight out of training and we came under a grenade attack. As soon as the word ‘grenade’ was shouted, the training kicked in and took over. I threw myself on the ground, as did everyone else in the patrol. After the explosion, we got up and there was a scurrying around, but it was pointless as the person who had thrown it was long gone. The subsequent events have dimmed although I can still see one civilian, an old man, who had been caught in the blast and lay on the ground bleeding.

After several weeks in Crater, we returned to Little Aden and carried out security duties there. I established a routine and got to know the other people in my troop, who introduced me to folk music which was to become a life-long passion. It was in Aden that I was introduced to the music of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, Marianne Faithfull, and Joan Baez. One of the guys had a portable record player on which he played his limited selection of discs. When I returned home, I bought copies of all those records. In later years, I was to take over the running of the Folk Club in Lincoln.

Shortly thereafter we were informed that our troop was going up country to a place called Wadi Ayn to cover the withdrawal of British Forces from the most remote part of the British Empire.

We were expecting a rough time in Wadi Ayn but, in fact, it was the opposite and we had a great time.

George Hearn, Sandy, Robbo and me at Wadi Ayn

The camp consisted of an airfield with everything required to maintain and defend it, with RAF and Army personnel. Our job was to cover the withdrawal. The local headman was very pro-British, and he had placed his men around our camp so that if anyone wanted to get to us, they had to go through his men first. I often wondered what happen to him after the British left Aden.

During the preparation phase of the withdrawal from Wadi Ayn, our job was a bit of patrolling, escorting the medic to the villages, and keeping fit. The place resembled Butlins in the sun – with plenty of sun. There were also plenty of flies. We used to have competitions on the gate guard to see who could kill the most flies while sat at the table during the guard. The challenge was also to try to get your food into your mouth without any flies on it. 

 
Wadi Ayn camp. Looking out from our accommodation

Although the camp was only a few miles from the Yemen border on three sides, we were never attacked. We had PT every day, as one of the Troop Corporals was a PTI.  In fact, he was at Lympstone when we were going through training.  He was a big Welshman who had thrown the discus for Wales.  I was straight out of training, and he took me under his wing.  He taught me many tricks which would come in useful in my military life.  The first thing he did whenever he got to a new camp was to take some cans of beer to the cooks and introduce himself which, along with his friendly yet notable presence, always ensured that he got plenty of food.  Certainly, in my later years, I would always ensure that I had a good relationship with the cooks. In exchange for his lessons, I taught him to play the guitar.

Each day we would normally take out a patrol with the medic as part of the ‘hearts and minds’ operation endearing ourselves to the local headman and his people.

 
Leaving Wadi Ayn camp on patrol

Apart from guard duties we also had to assist with the preparation for the camp evacuation, getting the stores and equipment back down country.

The trip down country from Wadi Ayn was almost uneventful. We weren’t expecting any hostile problems due to the route that we were taking, which was via the Sea of Sands, a particularly desolate landscape. We did have a short patch of track where the ground created a problem for the vehicles to cross so they were taken across a couple at a time roped up with us pulling as needed. The Convoy Commander would call for the vehicles that he wanted. On one occasion, he called out, “I’ll have the Scammel and a 3 Tonna”, whereupon the sweat-soaked face of a marine looked up and enquired, “On toast, Sir?”

On return from Wadi Ayn, volunteers were being sought for attachment to Naval Security at HMS Sheba, which was at Steamer Point in the Port of Aden. It sounds grand, but basically, we were manning the main gate.

 
Me on gate guard at HMS Sheba

One of the other volunteers from my troop was George Hearn. George and I first met during training as he was in the squad behind me.  In fact, if he had arrived in Deal one day earlier we would have been in the same squad.

Although it was an important location, things at HMS Sheba were generally quiet. While I was there, I only saw two incidents. Once when George and I were on guard, he discovered a visitor with a handgun in a holster. On alerting me, I held the man and put my pistol to his head while George disarmed him. It turned out that he was an undercover policeman who had failed to identify himself prior to attempting entry. In the second incident, a grenade was thrown into the private roadway leading to the gates of the base. It was a busy time, but someone saw the grenade and gave the warning, so people were able to throw themselves onto the ground. As soon as the grenade exploded, George and I were up and running across all the people who were still laying prone on the ground. Fortunately, because of the warning, only one person was slightly injured.

I had to leave HMS Sheba prematurely as I had a disagreement with a very unpopular lance corporal.  Our disagreement ended in more than just words, with punches being thrown. In an amazing turn of events, no charges were filed against me.  While the incident happened in the mess block full of marines, it seems no one there saw me do a thing wrong. After the incident, I returned to my unit which was upcountry in the Radfan Mountains, so I was sent up there. In a strange twist of fate, within a week I was promoted to lance corporal myself and became a section commander.

Our return down country gave us a bit of time before our next hot spot, which was Sheikh Othman, where we were tasked with the provision of guards within Al Mansoura prison. While in Sheikh Othman, our patrol encountered mines and was fired upon. All in all, during my time in Aden I was grenaded, mortared, mined and shot at. When I got home to England if I heard a car backfire I very nearly dived onto the pavement. You still don’t find me sitting with my back to the door in cafes or restaurants.

Wadi Ayn wasn’t the only place upcountry where the Marines were required to support other British troops. 45 Commando was also based at Dhala Camp, which lies on a plateau at an altitude of some 5,000 feet, situated about eighty miles north of Aden and less than ten miles from the Yemen border. This was supplied by the Dhala convoy, which was susceptible to attack, consequently we would set-up observation posts (OPs) along the way to provide protection.  

 
OP overlooking the road used by the Dhala convoy

We would also be involved in operations to search out terrorists and that involved tramps across the rough, barren ground and in climbing some pretty steep rock faces.

 
Rocky terrain 

Another location upcountry where we were based was that of Habilayn. Habilayn was a permanent army base. It was large enough to accommodate a force of some 600 men, who were rotated every couple of months from Aden, plus a joint Army/RAF HQ element. It was a tented encampment, surrounded by stone walls up to 3 ft high. Incoming dissident fire at night was a frequent occurrence.

On one occasion while at Habilayn, our troop was told to set up camp on an exposed table-top “jebel”.

 
2 Troop, X Company, 45 Commando.  Dave Long is standing 2nd from left, George standing 4th from left, I'm standing 4th from right.
 
A jebel being a word in the Middle East to refer to mountains. We were going to be bait. Anyone who attacked us would be ambushed by the Special Air Service (SAS), either on their way in to attack or on their way back.  We knew that we were likely to come under fire, so we really went to town making our “sangar”, which is a temporary fortified position used to provide protection from enemy fire, these can be constructed of either sandbags or stone, ours was of thick walls of stone. We then sat back and waited. 

 

Our stone sangar 

We were there for several days but eventually, during the night of November 5th, the fireworks started. Some years later when I was with the Territorial Army, I was talking to a guy in the SAS and the subject of Aden came up. I mentioned that we had been the bait for them once and it turned out that he had been in that ambush group.

My time in Aden wasn’t all work.  In November we went to Kenya for six weeks of training. The training was split into two phases: three weeks on the plains of Hathanger and three weeks at Kathendeeny in the tropical rain forest below Mount Kenya where we learnt to survive in the jungle. 

Our departure to Kenya was delayed for a couple of days for operational reasons, as the aircraft to take us there were required elsewhere. The morning we were due to leave our camp we were given the news. For me it was exceptionally good news as the previous evening we were celebrating one of the guy's birthdays. I can remember the early part of the evening but the last thing I remembered was bringing a couple of gin and tonics back to our table and starting to sit down. I don’t actually remember sitting on the chair, nor do I remember anything else about the evening. The next thing I can remember was waking up in the morning in bed feeling decisively unwell and leaning over the side of my bed. To my amazement, some thoughtful person had placed a bucket there. 

Forcing myself to get up, I thought that a bit of breakfast might help, so off to the cookhouse I went. I helped myself to some bacon, eggs, fried bread and beans and sat down, cut the bacon and realised I wasn’t going to make this. Quickly I deposited my breakfast and made my way back towards my room. Some army personnel were staying with us overnight and two approached me to ask where the dining room was. At that moment, I could hold myself no longer and up came some more of my previous evenings drinking remnants as I was pointing to the building I had just exited. Not sure if they decided to have breakfast or give it a miss. I’ve never touched gin since, in fact I still can’t stand the smell of it. I should say that that was the only time I have ever been in that condition.

Much of the flight to Kenya is erased from my mind. I must still have been below par. When we got to Kenya, we were loaded onto three-tonners and set off to our first area at Hathanga. The trip seemed to take an eternity and eventually we were on dust tracks and our hopes rose that we would be nearing our destination, but the tracks seemed to last an age also.

When we did arrive, we found a camp site containing lines of “bivis”, which are two-man temporary shelters made of waterproof sheets secured together, that had been erected by the advance party. That day we settled in and got to know our surroundings. 

 
Our campsite with bivis, Hathanger, Kenya

The next day we started our training, which involved most of the skills that we were familiar with, although it was nice to get away from the heat and tension of Aden. We were hoping that there might be a social element but that wasn’t to be, as we really were out in the wilds of Africa. Our evenings consisted of gathering around the Troop campfire, telling stories and singing songs. Whenever I hear the folk song the ‘Wild Rover’, I remember those evenings.

One thing that we did need to cope with was animals, ones that we didn't come across in England. Once a lion took an interest in our section but kept its distance, and there was a rhino who decided to come a little closer to get a better look at us. By the time it got close, we were up in the trees. It looked around and then moved on. We stayed up our trees for a while before deciding it was safe to venture down.

After three weeks, we were to move up to the tropical rain forest of Kathendini. If you don’t like insects and creepy-crawlies, don’t book a holiday there. We were to learn about living and moving in jungle conditions, including how to erect our “basha” (shelter) on a platform to ensure that we were not sleeping on the ground. One guy left his pack underneath his basha and the next morning his food had gone, and it wasn’t any of us that took it.

The thing that sticks in my memory the most occurred when we were leaving our overnight camp and we came across an army of ants on the move. We had just struck camp in the morning and were moving along a track when we saw a column of ants crossing in front of us. We waited and waited but the column went on for ages. We had to cross but the column was too wide to step over it. In the end, we had to run and jump across.  We kept going hoping that we hadn’t upset them and that they didn’t decide to follow us. Fortunately, they didn’t.

Soon, our time in Kenya was up and it was time to return to Aden. We had all enjoyed the break and the change. When we completed training, we were given a form asking which was our preferred posting. I had a choice between Aden or Singapore. I chose Aden, as I knew that Britain was due to leave there in 1967, and I would most likely be able to get to Singapore at a later date. If I had gone to Singapore, I would have been operating in the jungles of Malaya and Borneo and, having done the Jungle Warfare training, I knew that I had made the right decision. 

Later in my tour of Aden, I had the option of returning to Kenya for two weeks’ leave there, or two weeks’ leave in England. I chose Kenya and spent two weeks in Mombasa, at a resort called Silversands, which was run especially for rest and recuperation for the military. My time there was spent on the beach during the day and in the bars in the evenings.  But no more gin!

 
 

Chapter 4 - Service in UK Commando


 
 
 
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