Book review: Britain’s withdrawal from Aden

As British troops pulled out of Aden in 1967 the band of the Royal Marines struck up a tune to send them on their way — not Rule Britannia or Land of Hope and Glory but a Cockney song, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be. It was an ironic choice but, in the circumstances, probably the right one. “Fings” had certainly changed for Britain and they were about to change for Yemen too.

In London, Aden had long been viewed as the linchpin of British power projection east of Suez but now it was about to be abandoned, thus ending a presence that had lasted for well over a century. In Aden, meanwhile, Britain’s undignified exit would shortly be followed by the installation of a Marxist government.

The consequences of this retreat, and the developments leading up to it, are explored in Britain’s Departure from Aden and South Arabia, published by Gerlach Press and edited by Noel Brehony and Clive Jones.

Jones, a professor in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, sets the scene in an introductory chapter. Reviewing previous analyses of the withdrawal, he highlights unrest fuelled by external powers and failure to establish a collaborative relationship with the local Yemeni elite as its immediate causes. He also notes factors at play in Britain: changes in defence policy as a result of technological developments, an economic situation which cast doubt on the wisdom of maintaining bases east of Suez and challenges to Britain’s self-perception as a great power.

Recalling the words of Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, the last High Commissioner in Yemen, that the retreat from Aden was “without glory” but also “without disaster”, Jones ends his introduction by asking whether that assessment has stood the test of time.

The eleven chapters that follow are by a variety of authors, some with an academic focus, others writing from first-hand experience having served as British officials in Yemen during the 1960s. The latter provide a ground-level picture of Britain’s flawed efforts at colonial management — in particular policymakers’ failure to understand the differences between Aden itself and the tribal hinterland which in turn brought a failure to appreciate the growing influence of Nasser and Arab nationalism.

These personal accounts also enrich the historical analysis with a close-up view of everyday interactions between the British and Yemenis.

Having joined the Colonial Service in 1959, John Harding held a series of posts until 1965: as an adviser in the Eastern Protectorate, an administrator in Aden and a political officer in Lahej and Radfan. One picture that emerges from his account is of Britain’s misplaced sense of security, even when Nasser sent 30,000 Egyptian troops to join North Yemen’s civil war on the republican side. In the south, meanwhile, Aden’s vaunted prosperity came at a price, drawing in migrant workers whose makeshift camps became breeding grounds not only for disease but political disaffection.

Oliver Miles served as private secretary to the High Commissioner and later in the British Embassy following independence. In a chapter written shortly before his death, he gives a wry account of life in Aden at the time. Like others, he notes Britain’s attempt to grapple with differences between the Crown Colony of Aden and the surrounding Protectorates. One of the shadier aspects of this, he says, was the British habit of bribing “up country” Yemenis with boxes of surplus rifles — “which even I could see was going to add to our troubles”. Many of the tribesmen, he adds, would spend six months of the year living and fighting in their mountains and the other six driving forklift trucks in Cardiff docks.

In another chapter, Thanos Petouris presents substantial extracts from private correspondence by the late John Shipman (former editor of this Journal). Joining the Overseas Civil Service at the age of 23, Shipman worked in the Eastern Protectorate and sent letters home to his family which convey the atmosphere of uncertainy and frustration during the last five years of Britain’s presence.

While the Suez crisis of 1956 has entered British consciousness as the proverbial example of a foreign policy disaster, the subsequent Aden debacle is less remembered. In the book’s concluding chapter, though, Helen Lackner sees its reverberations continuing in Yemen today. Tracing the country’s political history since 1967, she suggests the current fragmentation in the south and the growth of separatism are partly the result of Britain’s reluctance to establish a single centralised state during the colonial period.

This review was first published in the British-Yemeni Society Journal, Volume 29 (2021)

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Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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Brian Whitaker

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.