Arabian Peninsula & Persian Gulf Database
In late 19th Century, the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula came under the British influence, and in 1937 the 5.000 years old port of Aden and surroundings was declared a Crown Colony. The British used Aden (and its old airfield at Sheikh Othman) as a basis from which they controlled a better part of the Indian Ocean, and the southern approaches to the Suez. Their control of the countryside around Aden was relatively weak, however (foremost due to the rugged terrain), and foremost exercised with the help of the RAF. To the north of Aden the Kingdom of Yemen developed, ruled by Imam Ahmad, in which the situation was relatively quiet.
After 1945, the British have built a new airfield at Khormaksar (still near Aden), and started spreading their influence deeper into the Arabian Peninsula, while their local forces were reinforced by more modern aircraft (the 8th Sqn RAF has got Tempest VIs), in order to be better capable of reacting against frequent local revolts. During the following years, the Tempests of the 8th Sqn were used during the fighting near Jebel Jihaf, and al-Hussein, where anti-British rebels were concentrating in order to attack local commercial routes - foremost around Thumier (N of Aden). In 1947, the 8th Sqn was reinforced by the arrival of Lincoln-bombers of the 101st Sqn. Sporadic fighting continued into 1952, when the 8th Sqn was re-equipped with Vampire FB.9s, and the 32nd Sqn was pulled out of RAF Deverosoir, in Egypt, and stationed at Khormaksar. Simultaneously, also several smaller landing strips were built, away from Aden, in order to enable ground troops to be supplied from the air.
But, the development of anti-British movement was not to be stopped, and the fighting spread, especially after in 1954 Yemen started supporting different fractions. A good example for the use of air power at the time was the situation that developed when in May 1954 a larger unit of the Aden Protectorate Levite troops ("APL"; Colonial troops responsible for the defense of Aden), were besieged at Robat. The British have built a forward control post for the RAF operations at the site, and used their Valetta transports to resupply the APL unit, while Vampires were bombing the rebels. Vampire pilots had apparently great problems during the fighting in this area, as the rebels would often hide in old forts, built high on mountain peaks, which had very thick walls: these could sometimes not be breached even if anti-tank unguided rockets or heavy bombs were used.
By 1955, the RAF established a whole series of such ground control posts, and the 8th Sqn was re-equipped again, this time to Venom FB.Mk.4 fighter-bombers. In July of the same year, these fighters were used extensively to support an operation in which Robat was re-captured by the British. At the same time, also some first Sycamore helicopters were deployed to Khormaksar, where they would be used to supply forward deployed units, and for CASEVAC.
In 1956, the RAF also started using Twin Pioneer light observation aircraft for monitoring the movements of the rebels, and in 1957 four Meteor FR.Mk.9 reconnaissance fighters were stationed at Khormaksar, while old Lincolns were replaced by Shackletons, which flew their first combat sorties against the dissidents at Ghaniyah. In the same area, the RAF also lost its first fighter, a Venom FB.Mk.4, that crashed during attacks against the Yemeni artillery, in July 1958. In the following month, the RAF was finally forced to add another unit to the wing in Khormaksar, namely the 2nd Sqn RRAF (Royal Rhodesian AF), equipped with Vampire F.Mk.9s. Subsequently, the RAF assets in situ came under the control of the newly established "Air Force Middle East" (AFME), in turn a part of the then Middle East Command, responsible for the defense of the East Africa, Aden, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean.
On the political scene, in 1959, the British organized a Federation of Aden Emirates, in a try to increase the power of loyal local authorities. The situation was not to improve the least, however, and in 1960 the RN's carriers were deployed off Aden for the first time as well. The first to arrive was HMS Centaur, which Sea Venoms of the NAS 891 deployed as fighter-bombers took part in the operation "Damen". The RAF meanwhile developed the small airfield at Riyan into an air base, and in July 1960 stationed some Hunters of the 208th Sqn for the first time there. These fighters saw extensive combat service during the fighting against the rebels in the Eastern parts of the Aden protectorate, already in the same month.
In 1962, the British also tried to build another air base at Hilvan. But, in that area a Shackleton was heavily damaged by ground fire, and a DHC Beaver caused to crash land, so the idea was dropped. The result of this was that RN's carriers were used even more.
Meanwhile, the Egyptians intervened in Yemen. Egypt was supporting the Adeni dissidents against the British already since the mid-1950s, and on 26 September 1962, a coup organized by the Egyptians overthrew the Imam al-Badr (the son of Imam Ahamad that died two weeks before) in Sana. This coup was supported by the landing of 150 Egyptian paras at the Hodeida AB: these established a bridgehead and then helped bring a republican al-Sallal into power by fighting down the royal guards. The Imam al-Badr meanwhile fled into the hills of eastern Yemen, and later to Saudi Arabia, from where he was to organize a rebellion against the new regime. In reaction al-Sallal - after declaring a new - "Republic of Yemen" - called the Egyptians for help, and these were more than happy to send a sizeable contingent - including combat and transport aircraft of the UARAF (the then designation for the EAF, dropped only in 1968) - to Yemen.
The UARAF was swift to start using even Asswan-based Tu-16 bombers for attacks against rebel bases in southern and eastern Yemen, and the rebel HQ at Saada. Also at least a squadron of Il-28 jet-bombers was stationed at Sana, where the airfield was enlargened and fortified by Egyptian engineers (that also built new air bases at Taiz and Hodeida). Meanwhile, Egyptian troops were landed at several points along the coast and started increasing their bridgeheads. With the Egyptians well deployed around the most important parts of the Yemeni Republic, al-Sallal felt strong enough to claim also the southern Saudi Arabia, and the whole southern Arabian Peninsula - including Aden - as a part of Yemen, and this in turn resulted in UARAF MiG-15s and MiG-17s flying support operations even for rebels fighting against the British in Aden.
The British reacted swiftly: the RAF deployed the Hunters of the 208th Sqn to Khormaksar, and the 8th Sqn was re-equipped with Hunters as well. The RAF Khormaksar was now so overloaded (one has to bear in mind, that here also all the British aircraft landed which were underway to the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and the Far East), that another main base had to be built, at Beihan.
Due to the poor radar coverage Hunters of the 8th and 208th Sqns had to fly constant CAPs along the border with Yemen, and then also some Canberra PR.7s of the 13th and 58th Sqns were deployed to Khormaksar: these flew a number of recce sorties over Yemen, in order to enable the AFME and the ME Command to track the Egyptian deployments. At the time, the Egyptians had 30.000 troops, with some 100 MiG-15s, MiG-17s, and Il-28s stationed on different airfields in Yemen. Together with the Egyptians, some first Soviet instructors arrived in Yemen too.
In November 1962 the Egyptians escalated the situation by landing 240 paras at Sirwah, in order to support republican forces in fighting the rebels in the area. Simultaneously, an Egyptian armored brigade moved along the road towards Sirwa, and the attack ended with the capture of Saada. Al-Badr and his supporters first fled towards east, but then recovered and came back to cut off the only road to Saada, thus isolating the Egyptian and the Republican garrison and putting Saada under a siege.
The British were reluctant to get directly involved: instead, a troop of former SAS reinforced by some French mercs was put together and sent to Beihan, from where they marched into Yemen, in order to establish a direct communication channel to al-Badr, and help support him with weapons and ammo. In their efforts to fight the way to Saada free, the Egyptians soon started to use the chemical weapons, including bombs filled with mustard. The first targets for such attacks, however, were exclusively civilian: the village of el-Kawna, for example, was heavily hit by chemical bombs dropped from MiG-17s and several hundred people were reportedly killed.
This outraged even the Shah Reza Pakhlavi so much, that the transport aircraft foremost DC-3/C-47 Dakotas but then also the first of the C-130B Hercules of the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) were used to fly supply missions for al-Badr forces, obviously using the Saudi airspace for this. The Iranian involvement in this part of the Arabian Peninsula was never very large: Iran will become far more active only after the British pull-out, in 1971, and then also only in Oman.
By 1963 the British were doing everything possible in order to improve the situation in Aden and the defence against the North Yemeni and Egyptian attacks. The Crown Colony of Aden was reorganized into the Federation of Southern Arabia (FSA), which was given a sort of autonomy and could establish own armed forces, but remained under the British rule. This was, however, not enough to quell the wish of the local population to gain independence, nor to solve the differences between the tribes in the Aden area and the Yemenis. Consequently, the British troops stationed in Aden increasingly under pressure, and were repeatedly hit by new terrorist attacks against their installations.
Under the given circumstances the RAF in Aden was further reinforced, foremost by Hunter FR.Mk.10 reconnaissance-fighters and Belvedere transports of the No. 26 Sqn, both of which were based in Khormaksar, which was meanwhile one of the busiest airfields world-wide. The RAF was surprisingly reinforced in December 1963, when a Yemeni Air Force Il-14 transport landed in Lodar due to a navigational mistake, and was captured. The British tested the aircraft for some time and then pressed it into service with the RAF.
Meanwhile, the Yemenis became ever more aggressive in turn forcing the British to increase their support for the dissidents against the regime in Sana. After additional groups of mercenaries and arms proved insufficient, and the newly-formed units of the FSA military proved unable to tackle the problems, the British prepared their own operations.
On 4 January 1963 they deployed three battalions, supported by artillery, armour, and the RAF, into the Operation Nutknacker. This force first advanced on Wadi Rabwa, the nearest terrorist stronghold, and then put the place under artillery fire. The Wessex HU.Mk.5 helicopters of the NAS 815 forward deployed from the commando-carrier HMS Centaur to Khormaksar were used to deploy one battalion into a nearby Wadi, and from there an attack was started, supported by Hunter fighter-bombers and Shackletons. Wadi Rabwa fell, and by February the British managed to even secure the road from there to Aden. However, the communication came under severe attacks and finally the British had to give up when it became clear that they could not secure Wadi Rabwa. Instead, they only reinforced the garrison in Thumier.
The Yemenis and the Egyptians have, however, already prepared their offenisve into FSA, attempting to ease the pressure on the local fighters. On 13 March 1963 they started a large attack against the border post at Beihan, with support from helicopters and MiG-17 fighters. In turn, on 28 March eight RAF Hunters bombed Fort Harib in Yemen, causing heavy damage. Just like the previous operation against Wadi Rabwa, however, the attack against Fort Harib brought only minimal results if any, and it became clear that a much larger operation was needed in order to change the situation.
Consequently, during April a new task-force was organized in Aden, consisting of the 45 Commando Royal Marines, a company of the 3 Para, two infantry battalions, several armoured cars, some artillery and combat engineers, as well as an SAS squadron, which was to be supported by several Scout and Sioux helicopters.
On 29 April a group of SAS operatives was deployed by helicopters on the Cap Badge Hill, where these were to mark a drop zone for 120 paras. As soon as the SAS landed, however, they were fiercely attacked by the terrorists, and had to request help from Hunters of the No. 43 and 208 Sqn RAF. In the following hours the RAF pilots fired more than 7.000 rounds from their 30mm cannons, finally enabling the SAS to pull back from their exposed position: the airborne attack by the paras was cancelled, and the SAS operatives still sat in a trap, however.
On the following day the Marine commandos advanced along Wadi Rabwa, but were stopped by several ambushes: lacking support from the paras that were to attack the enemy positions from the rear they could not continue their advance. Nevertheless, meanwhile the British managed to bring their artillery into a position from which it could hit Cap Badge. Severe shelling and additional Hunter-strikes finally enabled the Marines to capture the hill in the night to 5 May. Simultaneously a company of the 3 Para advanced on Thumier: without any artillery and moving along exceptionally problematic terrain, they were dependable solely on support of the RAF fighter-bombers and transports. The Belvederes, Scouts, and Beavers were therefore extremely busy in flying supplies, while the Hunters were destroying one enemy position after the other in their advance. Once Thumier was secured six Wessex helicopters of the NAS 815 were stationed there. It took the British several days, however, unless they lengthened the local runway so that Beverley transports could land there as well.
As the Royal Marines and the paras became entangled in a series of battles with the terrorists, the British also deployed the whole 39 Brigade with some Centurion MBTS from North Irland to Aden: together with Royal Marines, the SAS and the paras this unit was to take part in the next operation, proceeded by heavy strikes of Hunters and Shackletons against Mt. Bakri and Wadi Misrah. On 18 May the 3 Para advanced in this direction, reaching Qudishi in face of only minor resistance.
Given the situation the British decided to continue the advance further to the south. In repeated strikes the Hunters hit the rebels heavily, causing many losses, and then several task forces were formed, each consisting of three Scouts, several Wessex and up to 20 paras or Royal Marine commandos. Supported by Hunters and additional Scouts, in the following days such task forces were deployed to capture Wadi Misrah and Wadi Dhubsan, on 4 Juni. In the following days the British and the attached FSA units finally reached a position from which they could advance on Jebel Huriyah. The rebels counterattacked at Wadi Misrah, hitting one of FSA units in the flank, but the RAF Hunters once again saved the day by a number of very precise strikes, and by 8 June the area was finally secured.
In the face of heavy losses the rebels fell back, and, after deploying Centurion MBTs into the area, on the night to 11 June the British attacked Huriyah. The battlefield was effectively lightened by flares dropped from Shackletons and the attack was very effective. Huriyah fell on the following morning, but the surrounding area was not secured until November, when foremost due to the almost permanent RAF air strikes the local warlords offered cease-fire. By then, the RAF Hunter wing in Khormaksar flew over 1.000 combat sorties, and spent 2.508 rockets as well as 183.000 rounds 30mm calibre. Several dozens of combat sorties were flown also by Buccaneer fighter-bombers from the HMS Eagle, while the helicopters of the Royal Navy were indispensable in support of the troops on the battlefield. The RAF transports and helicopters were even more active, and no less but 20.000 sorties were recorded, most of which lasted barely 20 minutes. These figures illustrate the ferocity and intensity of the operations very clearly.
Meanwhile, the CIA learned about the British efforts to support dissidents in Yemen. The late President Kennedy attempted to bring London to stop this activity, but after his death the situation changed and soon enough the USA were indirectly involved as well, especially as by 1964 the Egyptians had no less but 40.000 troops in the country and Badr needed any help he could get. As the dissidents were now receiving large (even if clandestine) shipments of arms and supplies from the UK via Djibouti, in October 1964 the Egyptians and Yemeni military attempted an offensive against Haradh. This, however, was stopped cold with the Egyptian armoured units suffering extensive losses while advancing in a mountainous area.
In July 1964, however, the British announced their intention to pull back from all of their possessions east of Suez by 1968. This decision was to have severe repercussions for many countries in the following 30 years, but especially so for FSA and Aden, where the British intended to keep a small base operational nevertheless. The Egyptians and the rebels in FSA (mis)understood this announcement as a sign of British weakness, and in the following weeks and months the British troops and installations everywhere in FSA were repeatedly attacked. The situation improved only in Yemen, where the Royalists staged a counteroffensive in the Haradh area, putting several Egyptian garrisons under a siege. When the Egyptian Army attempted to break through to ist encircled troops it suffered heavy losses an several supply convoys were completely destroyed as well. Finally it fell on the UARAF to take care about supplying the besieged garrisons from the air.
By 1965 the Egyptians in Yemen were desperate: even if slowly learning many painful lessons of COIN warfare they could not bring the situation under control, while the war cost them too many men and too much equipment. In the end, President Nasser offered to sign a treaty with the Saudi King, according to which both sides would promise to quit supporting oppositional groups of each other. According to this treaty the Egyptians were also not any more to fly strikes against targets on the Saudi soil, while the Saudis would quit supporting Badr. In turn the Egyptians promised to pull out of Yemen by September 1966. In order to control the behaviour of both sides, the UN was requested to deploy observers into the border areas: these arrived in Yemen and Saudi Arabia aboard several DHC Caribou and Otter transport.
When, however, Nasser learned about the British decision to pull out from FSA, he changed his opinion. The agreement about a plebiscite in Yemen became null and void and all of a sudden the number of Egyptian troop in Yemen was increased, first to 50.000, and then to 70.000. The UARAF was reinforced as well and was now frequently using Tu-16 and Il-28 bombers to hit Jizan and Najrab. In one case a MiG-17 reportedly flown by a Russian pilots even attacked Khamis Mushayt airfield, deep inside Saudi Arabia, shooting up some isolated buildings which by bad luck included the guardhouse, where a number of Saudi Arabian Army personnel were killed.
Simultaneously with their large-scale operations in eastern and southern FSA, the British were also busy supporting the Yemeni dissidents. Weapons for these were purchased even in Bulgaria, and mainly transported to eastern Yemen by DC-4s of the Rhodesian Air Services Ltd. The deliveries of the arms and supplies for the dissidents were immensely important also for the defence of Saudi Arabia, then the huge country had no effective military at the time and would certainly not be able to defend from an Egyptian-supported invasion. The Egyptians were confirming this regularly, flying attacks against dissident bases on the Saudi soil: it did not take longer until the EAF MiG-17s and Il-28s also flew several strikes against small towns of Zahran and Najran, some 10nm (16km) from the Yemeni border, respectively. The Saudis had only one airfield in the area, that at Khamis Mushayt, which was some 54nm (87km) from the nearest point on the Yemen border, but no less but 54 and 90nm (87 and 145km) from the two endangered cities.
At the time Khamis was a very poor installation: built as an auxiliary strip at no less but 2.134m above the sea level, on the tip of an escarpment, it now had to be rapidly expanded despite volcanic and rough terrain and a complete isolation of the whole area. The runway was lengthened to 3.000m, but was at right angles to the prevailing wind direction, which lead to considerable lengthening of take-off and landing runs, and excessive tyre and brake wear and important factor that was later to cause immense problems in aircraft operations. On several places the runway was on an embankment, and elsewhere it ran through a shallow dip between heaps and boulders 15m high.
Despite these circumstances Khamis became the focus of the decision to reinforce the Royal Saudi Air Force and equip it with more capable fighter jets. At the time the RSAF was already equipped with some 12 North American F-86F Sabres, operated by the No.5 Squadron, and ten Lockheed T-33As, operated with the No.15 Squadron, both of which were based on the other side of the country at Dhahran. These aircraft were all in Saudi Arabia since late 1953, together with six Fairchild C-123 Providers, several C-47s (delivered already in the 1940s and early 1950s), and two C-54s, all of which were operated by the No.4 Squadron.
The RSAF at the time was despite considerable Saudi efforts still little more but an outsourced branch of the USAF and the RAF. Nevertheless, already in 1962, a study group led by Crown Prince Faisal, who was in overall authority over Saudi Arabias air force and himself a qualified pilot, identified the future needs of the RSAF, including major equipment and training requirements. The Saudis concluded that for the defence of their country they had to acquire supersonic, missile-armed and radar-equipped fighters, modern air defence radars, and fighters with ground-attack capability together with modern transport aircraft. After a thorough evaluation of Dassault Mirage III, Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter, and BAC Lightning, and some additional negotiations between the USA and the UK, an interim solution was hurriedly worked out. The contract signed in January 1966 between the Saudi Arabian Defence Consortium, the British Aircraft Corporation, the AEI and Airwork Limited (UK), worth $154 million, included a purchase of six BAC Lightnings (including four single-seaters and two two-seaters), and a battery of eight launchers for 37 Thunderbird I SAMs. In addition, a comprehensive air-defence network, including more aircraft (including 22 BAC Lightning F.Mk.53 interceptors and a similar number of Strikemasters), missiles, radar and all ancillary systems were to follow. The matter was agreed this way actually in order to enable the British to find money to finance their order for 50 General Dynamics F-111 fighter-bombers from the USA. The first aircraft to be delivered to the Saudis were al ex-RAF, the Thunderbirds ex-British Army, and this operation was code-named Magic Carpet.
Magic Carpet was run by the English businessman Geoffrey Edwards, who played a key role in negotiating the hardware contracts and recruiting personnel needed to run the operation. The Saudis, namely, had barely enough personnel to run the existing units of the Royal Saudi Air Force ("RSAF"), and had nobody qualified on British fighters; plus, until Magic Carpet could bear fruits and all the purchased systems were deployed and personnel for them trained, the Saudis needed some kind of deterrent against Yemen. Consequently, a decision was taken to add four ex-RAF Hunter F.Mk.6s all refurbished and brought up to a standard designated F.Mk.60 and two two-seat T.Mk.7s, were purchased as well. They were to be flown by contract personnel, and therefore a number of ex-RAF and British and Commonwealth pilots, air traffic controllers, and technicians were contracted, the pilots being initially offered GBP4.000 a year (a considerable sum of money in 1966), and later GBP10.000. Simultaneously, the first group of experienced RSAF-pilots were selected to convert onto Hunters and Lightnings in the UK.
First to arrive in Saudi Arabia, in May 1966, were four Hunter F.Mk.60s. Upon their arrival in Riyadh, the aircraft were first camouflaged in Dark Earth and Light Sand over, and Azure Blue underneath, and then have got full RSAF markings, including serial numbers. The first six contracted pilots and the aircraft were then moved from Riyadh to Taif, to the north of Khamis, for a final work-up period, prior to establishing themselves as No.6 Sqn RSAF at Khamis.
Living conditions on this forward airfield were spartanic, with a number of plywood terraced chalet/shanties that became known as Grots. Food and houseboys were provided by the Saudi Catering Company. Later on, much improved living quarters were established, including a prefabricated swimming pool. In addition also a forward radar warning station was set up at Usran, some 25nm (40km) closer to the border. Nevertheless, the personnel was spared of terrible heat in the Saudi desert, then the combination of the elevation of the airfield, low humidity and a salt-free atmosphere ascertained acceptable temperature ranges. Of course, the cockpit temperatures of aircraft exposed to the sun or even of those flown at low level would frequently be extremely high, and the pilots and personnel also had to take care to wear gloves, then the skin could easily be burned by contact with metal parts exposed to direct sunlight.
Soon after their arrival at Khamis, the Hunters flew over the area quite extensively for two reasons: the first was for pilots to gain knowledge of the topography (essential in the case of radar-failure as well as when flying low, as there were absolutely no navigational aids in this part of Saudi Arabia at the time, such like TACAN or an NDB beacon),, as well as to show themselves to the local population and give encouragement. The No.6 squadron crews had initially an almost free hand in respect of day-today activities, with only restrictions being imposed by shortage of spares. On average at least one Hunter was held on stand-by from dawn to dusk, while other aircraft and pilots were conducting practice interceptions, low-level strikes and tactical formation flying.
The problems with the lack of spares were soon to increase, then the supply of these was extremely frustrating: Khamis had only minimal storage facilities, and therefore almost everything had to be driven hundreds of kilometres across the desert tracks from Jeddah. The RSAF in general was extremely slow in response to any requests for spares and other supplies: in fact, its operations officers working at radar stations in Usran were also extremely slow in warning the No.6 squadron about Egyptian incursions into the Saudi airspace as well. Nevertheless, as soon as it became known that Hunters arrived in Khamis Saudi guards found traces that Yemeni reoconnaissance parties have visited the airfield by night the sporadic attacks of Egyptian MiGs and Il-28s deeper into Saudi Arabia were cancelled. Hunters were not the only reason for this: the deployment of Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft guns and Thunderbird SAMs were definitely at least as good reasons.
Unable to achieve any significant success in Yemen the Egyptians restarted using chemical weapons. Reportedly, this happened with some kind of agreement or even direct help from the USSR, which decided to use the opportunity for testing specific agents belonging to a new generation. It is therefore possible that some of the following missions were even flown by Soviet personnel, then the precision of these strikes was exceptionally good. The first attack with chemical weapons was flown on 5 January 1967 against the village of el-Kitaf. Two MiG-17s acted as target markers, dropping smoke bombs: the smoke was used to recognize the wind direction. No less but nine Il-28s then dropped 250kg bombs filled with VR-55 gas or something else belonging to the so-called III Generation. It is also possible that the biological T-Toxin was used, mixed with Phosgene or Mustard gas. Almost 200 civilians were killed in this strike.
In subsequent strikes which killed additional 195 civilians by February the Egyptian aircraft were regularly dropping napalm bombs in the aftermath of gas attacks, reportedly in order to burn down any evidence. In one case, on 10 May 1967, some of the chemical bombs failed to explode: when the Yemenis attempted to drag them away so to secure evidence, the Egyptians attacked again also by artillery and destroyed them all. Only seven days later the probably most fierce chemical attack was flown, killing 550.
Whatever type of chemical weapons were used it is certain that this development was enough to bring all the British and French mercenaries to leave the country. Neither the official London nor Washington did anything against these attacks especially because almost simultaneously the USA were using chemical weapons in Vietnam. Even if the Operation Magic Carpet was meanwhile gaining pace, with Hunters of the No.6 Sqn RSAF flying regular patrols along the border, they were never planned to operate over Yemen. Sure enough, their presence was sufficient, then few Egyptian intruders appeared interested in testing defences, even if the British and the Saudis had no effective radar coverage for low levels. Instead, the only aircraft that came to Khamis were RSAF C-130 Hercules transports, which brought in the major part of supplies and mail, and occasional PanAm or TWA DC-6s.
By the spring of 1967 London repeated its intention to vacate bases in Aden, and release the FSA into independence. That was the sign for even more problems, then all the remaining support for the British left in Aden disappeared completely. Nevertheless, in June 1967 the Egyptians also suffered a catastrophic defeat in the Six Day War against Israel: one of the first decisions in the aftermath was to pull all the remaining troops out of Yemen.
On 7 August 1967 the fist two Lightnings one F.Mk.2 and a two-seat T.Mk.4, arrived from Riyadh to Khamis. Two days later, two additional aircraft were ferried. The attempt to bring in the last two interceptors on 14 August failed, however, because of strong crosswinds over the airfield, but the aircraft arrived safely several days later. These six aircraft were not entirely the same that were originally slanted for Saudi Arabia, then one of the original examples crashed during a demonstration flight over the Kingdom, already in May or June 1966 - and actually all of them were refurbished ex-RAF F.Mk.2 examples, acquired by the RSAF as an interim solution until the purposedly-built F.Mk.53s could be delivered.
With Lightnings at Khamis the No.6 Squadron started to work up its second flight, but there was some delay in this, because the AVPIN-fuelled starters had to be adjusted to the airfield altitude. Eventually, the Lightnings finally became operational on 28 August, when two did a celebratory low pass over the airfield breaking several windows in the process, causing cement rendering to fall off the walls and even waking up the Saudi crash crew that was sleeping in their tent near the control tower.
The activation of RSAF Lightnings in Khamis, however, could not help the British in their efforts to push the dissidents out of northern Aden: even if time and again their troops were involved in additional firefights, sometimes supported by Wessex helicopters, by October 1967 the Squadrons No. 21, 37, and 30 were disbanded, while No. 8 and 105 were pulled out from Khormaksar. In fact, RAF transporters especially Beverleys were already actively involved in evacuating British troops from Aden and Khormaksar, together with VC.10s of the United Airways, that flew some 9.000 civilians out to London Gatwick. Final flights were done by Hercules C.1. Some 5.000 troops were flown out to Muharraq by aircraft of the No. 36 Sqn., as well as Britannians of the No. 99 and 511 Squadrons: from there they were flown directly to Lyneham. The last unit to leave Aden was the 42nd Commando, evacuated with the help of Wessex helicopters belonging to NAS 848 and based aboard HMS Albion. The Buccaneers and Sea Vixens of NAS 800 and NAS 899 from the carrier HMS Eagle covered them during this operation. The whole pull-out was completed without a single incident.
In 22 years of the emergency and war in Aden the British had despite countless skirmishes, fire-fights and whole battles, car bombs and all other sorts of terrorist attacks only 90 dead and 510 injured. Their experience from Aden showed the full extension of problems faced by a conventional force confronted by a guerrilla supported from the outside. Simultaneously, however, it showed what is possible to achieve under such circumstances even by small but excellently armed and trained security and military forces.
When the British presence in the Federation of South Arabia was to be terminated training of local military personnel was still very much underway. In late 1966 and early 1967 an embryo South Arabia Air Force (SAAF) was formed with the help of advisors recruited in the UK. The Crown Agents took care about the recruiting of aircraft and Airwork Services - already well-known for its activities in Saudi Arabia - covered the groundcrew and supply needs. By mid-1967 air and ground staff started arriving in Aden.
The British planned to supply the SAAF with four C-47s, six DHC-2 Beavers, six Westland-Bell 47G-B3 Sioux, eight Jet Provosts T.Mk.52s, four Strikemaster T.Mk.81s, and four Hunters. The last were to be left behind by the RAF, but this deal broke down when London and Aden could not agree about the amount of money to be given by the British for the initial operations of the SAAF. Eventually, the Hunters were pulled out in the last few days before the independence.
Originally, SAAF aircraft were serialled according to a very simple system:
- Jet Provost T.Mk.52: 101 - 108 (104 w/o already in 1968)
- C-47: 201 - 204 (203 w/o already in 1968)
- Beaver DHC-2: 301 - 306 (one w/o in 1968)
- Bell 47G-B3: 401 - 406 (three w/o in 1968)
The Jet Provosts were all ex-RAF aircraft, brought to T.Mk.52A standard. Beavers and Sioux were newly-built aircraft, while the C-47s were purchased from different civilian companies.
Sometimes in spring of 1967 the SAAF aircraft have got the national markings of the Federation of South Arabia applied. This consisted of a roundel with three fields, black, dark green, and light blue, with yellow strips between these fields, and a white star & crescent superimposed. These markings, however, lasted only until the final RAF Hercules C.1 took off from Khormaksar, in December 1967. By then, the Federation of South Arabia was already re-named South Yemen, and the air force became the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen Air Force (PDRYAF). Consequently, within only few days old markigns were removed (usually by being overpainted by dark olive green colour) and new markings were applied - some pretty crudely - in the same place.
The PDRYAF was soon to be involved in fighting inside the country, as there were still rebels operating in the mountains. The Sioux, C-47s and Beavers were doing daily "mail runs" up-country, carrying troops and supplies and returning on CASEVAC missions. At the time of independence only four Jet Provosts were delivered, but these were also used to support ground forces already before the last two examples were delivered as well - in late December. In fact, in early 1968 Provosts were repeatedly observed penetrating the Saudi Arabian airspace, and there were some tensions with the northern neighbour because of this: certainly, they stood no chance against RSAF Hunters and Lightnings, but as all the aircraft - RSAF and PDRYAF - were flown by British pilots London took great care not to permit any kind of hostilities. The government in Aden finally complained about this fact, and as no agreement could be reached the PDRYAF was finally ordered to cancel the contracts with its British crews. All of a sudden the PDRYAF was therefore left with only a single pilot!
The Yemeni national in question was previously trained by the IAF and had flown Harvards, as well as ten hours on C-47s - with an instructor at hand. The day after the contract crews were grounded, he took a place in the cockpit accompanied with a qualified C-47-pilot as instructor. Within few hours the Yemeni pilot qualified on the aircraft, even if he overboosted the engines during the flight. In the following days the same pilot converted himself to Jet Provost as well, and as the PDRYAF had no helicopter-pilots, then on Sioux too.
In the meantime, the Lightnings from Khamis Mushayt were not only operational, but in the nights of 16 and 17 September 1967, the radar Usran tracked a Yemeni aircraft that flew directly over the airfield at medium altitude. By sound it was identified as a twin, piston-engined type, that after passing overhead turned and flew towards the Red Sea before recrossing the border. A Thunderbird SAM was fired at it but without any results. Immediately, a total blackout of the airfield was ordered and one Lightning was ordered to be on the runway and manned the whole night and day. After a short negotiation it was concluded that the flight plan for a RSAF C-130 had been intercepted by Cairo and the Yemeni (or Egyptian) reconnaissance aircraft had made use of this expected arrival to achieve first complete and then a partial surprise for two consecutive nights.
The British were swift to react: a false flight plan for another RSAF C-130 was filled and in the following night the intruder arrived again but this time no interception was mounted, then after waiting for hours the crew of the interceptor decided to go for some night flying practice and the aircraft was middle through refuelling process when the Yemeni arrived. A Hunter was consequently scrambled instead, but this failed to make contact.
On 1 October 1967 the supplies of AVPIN run out and the Lightnings were grounded. The Hunters continued operating until 6 October 1967 when the No.6 Squadron had to cease flying for the same reason, but also because the supply of vital spares run out. After an urgent request for re-supply, the Hunters became operational again on the 9th, followed by Lightnings on 14 October, by when a small liquid oxygen plant was installed locally after repairs of damage caused in transit from the UK solving the AVPIN-supply problem once and for all.
There were meanwhile much more significant problems with the Operation Magic Carpet. Namely the RSAF personnel picked for flying and maintaining Lightnings proved to be need of even more training than originally believed.
Besides, the deliveries of the first Lightnings resulted in requirements for additional contract crews. Eventually, not only a considerable number of additional ex-RAF and Commonwealth pilots and technicians had to be recruited, but the British were finally forced to found another company, responsible for establishing and running the whole infrastructure for new equipment in Saudi Arabia. This was by no means an easy or cheap enterprise: in fact, what was promising to become a simple commercial deal, eventually resulted in such costs for the British that not only was the whole Operation Magic Carpet to yield no profit, but once they became qualified on their new Lightnings - the Saudis ended flying aircraft they could not really use, in order to enable the British to buy aircraft they could not afford: the RAF was not to get any F-111s from the USA.
Consequently, already in early November the AEI started recruiting Pakistani personnel, the first of which arrived in Khamis around 15th of the same month. Simultaneously, a Saudi Lieutenant was nominally made Commander No.6 Sqn RSAF, and a week later the Lightnings began regular stand-by duty, having reached a fully operational status. Still, the number of British pilots flying with the unit was increased by two by the end of the month as well.
After the pullout of the British from Aden, and the Egyptians from Yemen, the Federation of Southern Arabia stopped supporting Yemeni royalists: instead these began getting support from Iran and Saudi Arabia. To make matters more complicated, the republicans in Sana were disunited as well. In November 1967, during his visit in Cairo, the president was removed from his position: the new regime immediately turned directly to the USSR for help, simultaneously starting to support the new government in South Arabian Federation, meanwhile re-named Peoples Republic of Yemen (PDRY) but usually known as South Yemen. In recognition for the immense importance of the area for the purposes of the Cold War the Soviets were more than delighted to deploy a considerable number of instructors and some 30 tactical aircraft in Yemen.
The first group of Soviets arrived in what was now North Yemen already by the end of November 1967, and as they flew their first sector familiarisation flights in Yemeni MiG-17s there were several border infringements, resulting in RSAF Hunters from Khamis Mushayt being scrambled a number of times. Interestingly, it was only around these times that their pilots were finally granted permission to fire in anger: one of the early Saudi pilots that meanwhile joined the unit quickly took advantage of this situation, showing himself quite ready to spray the countryside immediately after take-off...it was a number of times that the first ridge behind the airfield and the nearby army camp were dosed with explosive 30mm shells without any previous warning before his British wingman cautioned him to stop this practice. The Allah apparently protected both, his own and the British infidels flying for RSAF, then nobody was injured...
The Royalists in North Yemen were meanwhile not inactive: with increased support from Saudi Arabia and Iran they were now better supplied with arms and ammunition than ever before; in December alone they shot down two Yemeni MiGs. One of the pilots was positively identified as Russian, finally delivering a proof that the Soviet advisers were now active with the Republic of Yemen Air Force, obviously replacing the Egyptians.
On 9 January 1968 a group of Saudi generals visited Khamis to inspect the airfield and local installations. They were flown in by a C-130 that was escorted by two Hunters over the last 160 kilometres, so tense was the situation meanwhile. After an inspection of the airfield and equipment, orders were given for a full stand-to at dawn on the following two days, because of increased tension along the border. This boasted the morale of the British and Pakistani pilots, then there was finally prospect of some action. On 13 January the pilots were again called to cockpit readiness, because a Yemeni aircraft flew over the port of Jizan, near the border. A Lightning was sent into a patrol over the area, and a Hunter followed, but without any results: around this time a possibility of strikes against nearby Yemeni airfields was discussed, but contrary to some rumours that appeared later in the press no such strikes were ever flown, even if the Saudis at one point offered the Royalists to support them with Lightning-strikes.
Nevertheless, the border activity caused the No.6 Squadron now to keep two plots from each the Hunter and the Lightning flights on stand-by in the ready-room from dawn to dusk each day until the end of January 1968. Eventually, late in the same month the Commander of the No.6 Squadron received a signal for the pilots to be even on a 24-hour stand-by: not in order to defend Khamis Mushayt, but to be ready to evacuate their aircraft should the area be threatened!
Because of this order there was no flying until 4 February, when tension relaxed to a degree that the routine flying programme was resumed for several days at least until the unit was again out of spares. By this point in time the pilots of the No.6 Squadron were not flying more than ten hours a month, which was only a third of the original rate and barely enough for them to remain operational. This did not matter much any more, then on 31 March 1968 the Magic Carpet contract ended, and Pakistani administrative and technical personnel arrived to take over from the British even if several transport pilots then signed on for further service by direct contract with the Saudi government with a pay of GBP12.000 a year, and moving into rented accommodation in the nearby own of Khamis Mushayt.
Maintaining elderly Hunters proved too much for the skills of present Pakistani engineers, consequently some Airwork Services technicians were retained to keep them operational until they were flown out to Jordan, helping replace the RJAFs losses from the Six Day War.
Meanwhile, in what was now the South Yemen, it was obvious that something had to be done swiftly in order to make the local air force operational again. The government in Aden asked for foreign aid, Egypt being the first country to respond. An EAF pilot invalided during the Six Day War was one of the first foreign advisors that arrived, but he also left very soon, after some "disagreements" with the commander of the PDRYAF. Algerians provided a single helicopter pilot, but this damaged two Sioux' and left soon too. Finally, Yugoslavia provided a group of pilots and only these enabled the PDRYAF to re-start normal operations.
The Yugoslavs were proficient on both US/British and Soviet aircraft, and soon after they arrived the young air force was back in the air fighting rebels and supporting ground troops. During these operations, in 1968, two Sioux are known to have crashed, one due to flying too high over the mountains north of Aden. A third was shot down, resulting in the death of a Yugoslav pilot. A single Beaver was damaged in forced landing caused by engine failure, and a C-47 is also known to have been shot down: the plane was actually badly damaged while on a supply sortie, and the Bulgarian crew crashed on approach to Ataq. Finally, one of the Jet Provosts was damaged by flying through own rocket debris - after straying below the safety height, while another was badly shot-up by ground fire.
In 1968 also the first Russians arrived, together with some MiG-15s, delivered aboard several An-12 transports: Soviet equipment was from now on to form the mainstay of the South Yemen Air Force.
Most of the fighting in North Yemen during 1968 and 1969, however, occurred on the ground and in the form of skirmishes many of which were fought on the border to Saudi Arabia. A series of these that began in August 1969 culminated in December, when the Lightnings of the No.6 Sqn RSAF flew a series of strikes against different Yemeni border positions. During these actions they were supported by F-86F Sabres; these were later returned to Dhahran, but the No.6 and its Lightnings remained at Khamis, which was subsequently developed into a large installation of strategic significance.
At least one Saudi fighter was claimed as shot down while participating in these missions: specific sources claim that this Lightning was destroyed in air combat with a Cuban-flown MiG-21. There is, however, not a trace of confirmation for such a claim.
The No.6 Squadron RSAF indeed suffered several losses during this period of time - but never to Yemenis. In 1968 a Lightning was destroyed when a Saudi pilot attempted to land it at Khamis on a single engine after a fuel system malfunction, and in crosswind: his approach became too low and slow with the usual results when gravity overcomes lift and thrust. Another RSAF Lightning from this unit was lost in the UK, when a newly-converted BAC test-pilot ejected on landing in strong crosswind: the pilot eventually found himself sliding down the runway in his seat, pursued by the burning aircraft from which he ejected.... Finally, a Hunter crashed after flying a series of spectacular low-level passes over Taif airfield at an unknown date. No other losses are known to have occurred at around this period of time in Saudi Arabia especially not within the No.6 Squadron.
On the contrary, despite almost permanent problems with spare-parts supply the pilots of this unit never complained about series of mechanical problems, even if the Saudis were not considered entirely qualified on Lightnings until well into the 1970s. A much better known reason for complaints was the local RSAF operations centre, which continued being too late to scramble fighters when they were needed.
On the other side, except Soviets, the Iraqis also started supporting the Republicans in Yemen, mainly by arms deliveries. An Iraqi An-12B underway with a shipment of arms was intercepted by Lightnings in January 1970 and forced to land in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were also supporting the exiles from southern Yemen, in turn causing a number of border incidents there. It was the Soviets who helped stabilize the situation and end the war in Yemen, however, then their interest was to establish a solid basis for their influence in the area. After two years of negotiations, in April 1970 the Republicans and the Royalists formed a coalition government and the country was reformed into Arab Republic of Yemen.
The original Yemen Arab Republic Air Force (YARAF) was a very small organization that received its first aircraft from Egypt. In 1957 the then Czechoslovakia supplied several old Il-10 Sturmovik fighter-bombers, but the YARAF was considerably boasted only after Yemen joined the United Arab Republic, in 1962. Ever since Egypt and Syria became the main suppliers unless replaced by the USSR, direct relations to which were established in 1967.
Little is known about the development of the YARAF in the following years, except that it operated a unit of MiG-17s and then also received a number of MiG-21PFs during the late 1960s. Additional MiG-21s were supplied in the early 1970s, but subsequently Sana approached Saudi Arabia and several Western countries for aid, resulting in a temporary break with Moscow. The USA and the Saudis were very careful about supplying arms to North Yemen: it was not before 1978 that the first four ex-RSAF F-5Bs were delivered.
Nevertheless, in the following years Saudi money and a new administration in Washington enabled a purchase of 12 F-5Es and two C-130Hs. Upon delivery these aircraft were serviced by a team of Taiwanese contract personnel, which was responsible also for training for YARAF pilots.
Meanwhile, the PDRYAF was slowly developing into a viable force, the efforts of its single original pilot and foreign advisors finally bearing fruits in the form of an increasing number of new pilots being qualified. During the late 1960s also the Soviets slowly increased the number of available MiG-17s, which were flown by Cuban pilots.
In 1970 the UK supplied four BAC Strikemaster Mk.81s to Yemen, but this was to prove the final acquizition of aircraft built in the west by the PDRYAF: from 1971 the USSR and Bulgaria started delivering a batch of MiG-21F-13s, and then also the first Su-20Ms. By the end of that year the PDRYAF consequently had a full squadron each of MiG-17s and MiG-21s, another unit with a flight of Su-20Ms and Il-28 bombers, and several Mi-4 helicopters stationed in Aden. Most of these, however, were still flown by Cubans and Soviets.
During the mid-1970s enough Su-20Ms and Su-22Ms were supplied to organize two squadrons, and then the Soviets started delivering a number of Mi-24 helicopters, as well as An-26 transports. In addition, Soviet MiG-23BNs and MiG-25Rs were based in Aden and on the Sokotra Island.
Interestingly, regardless of the fact that the USSR was influential in supporting the negotiations that ended the war in North Yemen, and then also started working on a process of unification of both the North and the South once they established presence in the South they became instrumental in supporting the rebellion in Dhofar, in western Oman. Both processes proved slightly too much even for the USSR of the time: the rebels in Dhofar were severely defeated and no significant factor already by 1977.
The differences between North and South Yemen were such that a short war broke out between the two countries on 25 February 1979. The South Yemen invaded North, and its troops captured Qatabah, but after Syrian and Iraqi meditation there was a cease-fire and the Southerners pulled back on 13 March.
Immediately after this negative experience Sana again requested help from Moscow and within months ten new MiG-21s and some 20 Su-22s were delivered to Sana. Due to the lack of funding, trained personnel and useful facilities, however, most of these were inoperational already by early 1980.
Despite a very negative experience from 1979 the Soviets would not give up their attempts to unit North and South Yemen: quite on the contrary, their renewed efforts resulted in a new agreement already in 1981. The situation at the time was such, however, that there were two times as many Soviet instructors in the North, but far more aid was delivered to the South, which was also considered strategically more important. This fact caused new quarrels between Sana and Aden, as well as Moscow, time and again, with the result that regardless of all the efforts to unite the two countries both continued to operate separate military forces and so also two different air forces.
The poor economic situation of the two Yemens finally forced Aden to approach Western powers for help in an attempt to improve the oil research and exploitation. The Soviets were not ready to tolerate such a development and on 13 January 1986 parts of the ruling Socialist Party of South Yemen attempted a coup. The Army and the police remained loyal to the old government and fought back, finally forcing the mutineers back into two bases in Aden and al-Halt. Eventually, even Moscow noticed it could only lose in this situation and ordered its locally based units to support the loyal forces, so it came that the Soviet MiG-23BNs were deployed in combat against a Soviet-backed coup. Eventually, almost 75% of the PDRYAF was destroyed in the ensuing fighting, including two MiG-21s shot down over Zinjibar while supporting the coup attempt, even if 15 Mi-25s, delivered only few months later, should have escaped undamaged, probably because they were timely hidden. Indeed, afterwards the regime in Aden was again a close Soviet ally, and this resulted in additional deliveries of arms and ammunition. Besides, now the Soviets started basing even their Il-38 ASW aircraft in Aden, and the number of Soviet, Cuban, North Korean, and East German instructors was increased to almost 40.000. The Soviets established a significant naval facility and an airfield at the Sokotra Island from where they attempted to control the whole western Indian Ocean, as well as the Red Sea with southern approaches to the Suez, and the US bases in southern Egypt and Oman.
The PDRYAF was completely rebuilt with the time; due to the loss of a significant number of trained pilots during the uprising in 1986 new crews had to be trained. As the small air force lacked training aircraft, however, most of ist future pilots had to be trained outside the country. In-country training was mainly organized by the Soviets and Cubans: the last were foremost responsible for flying and training of Yemeni pilots on Su-22M and Su-22M-3K fighter-bombers.
(to be continued...)
Except for own research, additional information for this article was kindly provided by Mr. Tom N. Following sources of reference were used as well:
- "AIR WARS AND AIRCRAFT; A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present", by Victor Flintham, Arms and Armour Press, 1989 (ISBN: 0-85368-779-X)
- Born in Battle Magazine No.3, 1979
- BRITAIN SMALL WARS website, with detailed description of some of the battles fought by the British security forces during the war in Aden
© Copyright 2002-3 by ACIG.org