Aden had been a crucial part of the British Empire since 1839:
In 1963 a rebellion began. A nationalist group called the National Liberation Front started an armed revolt against the British army. The NLF were followers of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser who was the president of Egypt. Nasser was an extraordinary figure who inspired the whole of the Arab world. He wanted to unite all the Arab countries and use that power to force the western colonial powers out of the Middle East.
By the mid 60s the revolt had developed into a bitter and vicious insurgency as the NLF used terror against British civilians as well as attacking the soldiers.
As the insurgency continued both sides turned to terror. An Amnesty report in 1966 alleged that the British were torturing prisoners including beating them and burning them with cigarettes. The British soldiers were also stripping the Arab prisoners naked to humiliate them.
The terrorists meanwhile had resorted to throwing grenades into childrens’ parties and had blown up a DC3 civilian airliner over the Yemen killing everyone on board.
At the same time as the insurgency began in the south, in Aden, another revolution happened in the North Yemen. A group of republicans who were also followers of President Nasser overthrew the ruling royal family. Nasser then sent Egyptian troops to support the republicans.
Many in the British government wanted to recognise the new regime, but a small group in the security services, led by David Stirling, persuaded the Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, to let them organise a covert war in the deserts and mountains of Yemen in support of the royal family.
These men had a romantic and simplified view of the world. They did not see this war as a nationalist struggle but as part of a much wider fight against a communist takeover of the world. Engaging in this global conflict would be a way of recapturing Britain’s power and greatness.
Stirling also believed that selling arms and planes to the Saudis would not only help fight the war, but would also re-establish Britain’s influence in the Middle East in a new way – through the arms trade.
And he was right. Although the mecenaries failed to restore the royalists in Yemen, they did help defeat Nasser and destroy his anti-colonial project. But more than that, their secret war also helped re-establish western influence in the Arab world in a new way. In a post-imperial age the British returned to the Middle East by supporting and propping up regimes through selling arms and through mercenary armies. Just as Stirling had intended.
But it had a terrible price.
The regimes that Britain, and America, would support for the next forty years were mostly corrupt and despotic. The very regimes that Nasser had told the Arab world were a part of the past which the modern world would sweep away.
The Mayfair Set explores how “buccaneer capitalists” shaped world events: