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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Aden Emergency

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Aden Emergency conflict.

When did this conflict occur?

10th December, 1963^ – 30th November, 1967*

^ – An official state of emergency was declared on the 10th of December, 1963, following a grenade attack on British High Commissioner Sir Kennedy Trevaskis at Aden Airport which resulted in the death of Assistant High Commissioner George Henderson, who shielded Trevaskis from the blast with his body. [1]

* – Although British military forces only completed their withdrawal from Aden on the 30th of November, 1967, the collapse of the country’s federal government two months earlier had signalled the beginning of the end for the counterinsurgency effort. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

British involvement in Aden began in 1839, when a small expeditionary Royal Navy force secured Aden as the first colonial acquisition of Queen Victoria’s reign. Receiving Crown Colony status in 1937, the strategic significance of Aden continued to grow in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the colony forming one of three defensive centres of gravity for UK policy alongside Britain and Singapore [3] In an effort to preempt a growing demand for independence, the British government proposed the formation of the Federation of South Arabia, composed of Aden in addition to the sheikhdoms of the neighbouring Aden Protectorates. [4] The Federation’s creation, however, did little to assuage growing political tensions, and violence quickly broke out as two competing armed groups, the National Liberation Front and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen, engaged in a relentless insurgency against British security forces. The NLF and FLOSY campaign combined rural guerilla tactics, such as limited ambushes and the use of improvised explosive devices as well as Soviet-supplied rocket-propelled grenades against British vehicles, and urban terrorism, with bombings and targeted killings in Aden. In addition to an increasingly sophisticated NLF and FLOSY, British security forces were also forced to contend with an unreliable South Arabian Army which, prone to insurgent infiltrations, mutinied in June of 1967. [5] Though British troops succeeded in regaining territory lost as a result of the mutiny, NLF and FLOSY attacks, aided by the governments of neighbouring Yemen and Egypt, continued. The British response, oftentimes swift, imprecise, and directed against entire communities, only served to exacerbate popular support for the insurgency in a conflict where the provision of accurate local intelligence was vital to success. [6] In September of 1967, the situation had become untenable, and, two months after the collapse of the federal government, British troops withdrew from Aden.

What role did British military forces play?

The British military presence in Aden, known as British Forces Aden, was tasked with ensuring the protection of the Federation from external threats as well as maintaining internal stability. In the mountainous Radfan region located near the border with Yemen, British troops were forced to combat increasingly aggressive Yemeni-backed rebel forces in addition to hostile tribes allied with the NLF. Population control measures, in which civilians are physically separated from insurgent elements through the construction of guarded and isolated settlements, proved infeasible due to the rugged terrain as well as the high likelihood of local resistance; as a result, British forces embarked on a relentless aerial campaign targeting villages believed to be sheltering hostile combatants. [7] Large-scale ground operations soon followed, with Operation Cap badge, a night-time offensive consisting of 45 Commando Royal Marines, 3 PARA, and A Squadron of the 22nd Special Air Service, ending in failure following the deaths and beheading of two SAS patrol members. [8] Simultaneously, British troops operating in the Crater district of Aden confronted a growing urban insurgency which exploited the crowded environment to launch attacks with firearms and hand grenades before melting back into the civilian populace. Elements of 22 SAS in addition to reconnaissance platoons attached to conventional infantry regiments responded with plainclothes operations, conducting surveillance and close-in direct action against potential insurgents in a template that would come to be replicated in Northern Ireland. [9] British military efforts in Crater culminated in the response to the  June 1967 mutiny by the South Arabian Army and Aden Armed Police, which resulted in the deaths of 24 British servicemembers and civil servants, and saw 1st Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders recapture Crater and retain control of the city until the British withdrawal in November of that year. [10] By then, the British military’s final colonial counterinsurgency campaign had come to an end. 

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

Yes. Over the course of the Aden Emergency, there were 26 confirmed killings of civilians by British military forces. In contrast to these 25 civilian deaths, 173 British military personnel died in the conflict. [11]

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

The majority of confirmed noncombatant fatalities during the Aden Emergency occurred in a period known informally as ‘Argyll Law’, when 1st Battalion, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, launched an incursion into Crater to recapture the city following a mutiny by the South Arabian Army and Aden Armed Police in June of 1967. Over the next three months, the battalion, led by Lieutenant Colonel Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell, conducted a relentless cycle of internal security operations in the streets of Crater. Roving patrols sought to collect information, engage with the local populace, and maintain a constant pressure on insurgent elements still operating in the crowded streets and alleys of Crater; however, this aggressive posture also resulted in numerous civilian fatalities 

  • 3rd July, 1967: in response to the killings of 24 British service members and civil servants during a mutiny by the South Arabian Army and Aden Armed Police, 1st Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders launched an incursion into Crater to recapture the city. Encountering slight resistance and seeing a local Arab run into the street in front of the troops, elements of B Company opened fire on the man and fatally injured him. [12]
  • 18th July, 1967- 31st August, 1967: in a series of running engagements between armed insurgents and daily patrols from 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, five local nationals uninvolved in fighting were killed and an additional 27 wounded [13]
  • 23rd July, 1967: an element from 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders embarked on a morning patrol of Crater and conducted snap search and frisk operations to detect concealed weapons. When one civilian protested after being pushed against a wall by one Argyll, a confrontation erupted and resulted in the patrol’s commanding officer bayoneting the local. [14]
  • 23rd July, 1967: a patrol from 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders conducted a snap search and frisk operation in Crater. In two separate instances, two Arab men protested and attempted to break away during the search, resulting in the patrols opening fire and killing both men. [15]
  • 26th August, 1967: elements of 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders established a cordon in Crater to stop and frisk local nationals. In the process, one local attempted to flee from the cordon and was killed by the Argyll patrol. No weapon was recovered. [16]

Endnotes:

[1] ADEN (INCIDENT), UK Parliament, 1963, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1963/dec/11/aden-incident

[2] Why did British troops leave Aden?, Imperial War Museum, 2022, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/why-did-british-troops-leave-aden

[3] Abadi, Jacob, “BRITAIN’S ABANDONMENT OF SOUTH ARABIA—A REASSESSMENT,” Journal of Third World Studies 12, no. 1 (1995): 168. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45197412.

[4] British South Arabian Federation (1959-1967), University of Central Arkansas Political Science, 2022, https://uca.edu/politicalscience/dadm-project/middle-eastnorth-africapersian-gulf-region/british-south-arabian-federation-1959-1967/

[5] SOUTH ARABIA: MUTINY BY FEDERAL FORCES, UK Parliament, 1967, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1967/jun/21/south-arabia-mutiny-by-federal-forces

[6] A Short History Of The Aden Emergency, Imperial War Museum, 2022, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/a-short-history-of-the-aden-emergency

[7] French, David. The British Way in Counter-Insurgency, 1945-1967 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011): 127-128.

[8] Walker, Jonathan. Aden Insurgency: The Savage War in Yemen 1962-67 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2015): 331-335.

[9] Walker, Aden Insurgency, 535-536.

[10] Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Aden (Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell), UK Parliament, 1968, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/1968/jul/24/argyll-and-sutherland-highlanders-aden

[11] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972075/20210325_UK_armed_forces_Operational_deaths_post_World_War_II-O.pdf

[12] Edwards, Aaron. Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law: Aden and the End of the Empire (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 417.

[13] Edwards, Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law, 465.

[14] Edwards, Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law, 457.

[15] Edwards, Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law, 457.

[16] Edwards, Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law, 470.