An episode from the end of empire

Issue: 144

John Newsinger

Aaron Edwards, Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law: Aden and the End of Empire (Mainstream Publishing, 2014), £20

On 3 July 1967 the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, under the command of Colonel Colin “Mad” Mitchell, reoccupied the town of Crater in Aden. The town had been in the hands of the insurgent National Liberation Front since the mutiny and uprising of 20 June that had left 22 British soldiers dead and 31 wounded. The reoccupation was accompanied by a great press celebration of British prowess and the lionisation of Mitchell himself. He became a media favourite as the hero who had restored British prestige and pride and put the Arabs in their place. Once back in control, the Argylls set about dominating the town by a policy of “no-nonsense toughness” that once again had the enthusiastic support of the right wing press for whom Mitchell could do no wrong. Accusations of brutality were routinely dismissed.

Mitchell, however, was a loose cannon. Harold Wilson’s Labour government was absolutely committed to withdrawal from South Arabia whereas Mitchell clearly believed that his “robust” methods could have turned the tide against the insurgency and that this outpost of empire could have been held if the political will had been there. Elements within the military and the intelligence agencies were never to forgive Wilson for this retreat. At the time, however, Mitchell was a continual embarrassment for both his military and political superiors, particularly as the retreat from South Arabia turned into a humiliating rout. The scale of the disaster in Aden was not to be repeated until the British were driven out of Basra in 2007 and had to be rescued by the Americans in Helmand.

Despite the Aden fiasco, the British military had long boasted of its counter-insurgency prowess and this celebration was replicated in the academic literature. Malaya and Northern Ireland, in particular, were held up as models of how to fight insurgencies, showing other countries how such campaigns should be fought. This reputation was effectively demolished by the British performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. These defeats have prompted a reassessment of earlier campaigns by a number of historians and certainly the academic consensus today is that the British army’s reputation was undeserved, that its successes were exaggerated, its defeats minimised and its commitment to the use of minimum force and to “hearts and minds” a myth. An attempt to restore the army’s reputation was inevitable and leading the charge is Aaron Edwards, a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

His Mad Mitch is, however, fatally compromised by imperial nostalgia and hero worship. These faults distort its arguments and leave the reader somewhat unsure about the nature of the beast. One is left feeling that Edwards would have preferred writing a eulogistic biography of Colin Mitchell rather than attempting what must in the end be judged a failed effort at evaluating his part in the Aden fiasco. Edwards clearly regrets the passing of empire, of the days when Britain had an empire “over which the sun famously never set” and “Britannia really did rule the waves”. The loss of this empire, he blames, at least in part, on “the policies of post-war Labour governments that embraced decolonisation as a point of principle”. And he recommends his account of the Aden Emergency as chronicling “the last battles of a once-great empire”. Into the breach stepped the hero of his story, Colin Mitchell, who saved at least some of Britain’s honour by the manner of his retaking and holding of Crater in July 1967. What we have here is military history written very much from the perspective of the right of the Conservative Party. Views and opinions, that one thought were confined to the afternoon musings of particularly reactionary retired officers and very right wing Tory MPs, and even then only after they’d had a few drinks, regularly manifest themselves in Edwards’s pages.

Although he does not make it explicit, Edwards clearly believes in his heart that there was an alternative to the loss of the empire and that South Arabia could have been saved. This is the implicit assumption of the book. His reluctance to make this absolutely explicit suggests that, however reluctantly, he is actually aware that this is so much romantic wishful thinking. The reality is that after Suez, British retreat was inevitable, regardless of which party was in power and who was prime minister. Having “betrayed” the white settlers, their “kith and kin”, in Kenya, are we seriously expected to believe that even a Conservative government would have stood by the sheikhs of South Arabia? It might have been different if there had been oil there, but there wasn’t. His eyes blinded by the glare of the imperial sunset, Edwards refuses to recognise this. Instead he places the blame for this final retreat on, of all people, Denis Healey! We are seriously told that it is hard “to think of a Labour politician more decidedly anti-colonialist than Denis Healey”. He predictably mentions that Healey had once been a member of the Communist Party, but not that by the 1960s he was one of the stalwarts of the right wing of the Labour Party, a hard-nosed pragmatist, wholly committed to the NATO alliance. It is, of course, complete nonsense, indeed a right wing myth, to blame the loss of empire on post-war Labour governments. Indeed, Healey went on to preside over the early stages of British involvement in the suppression of the Dhofar insurgency against the Sultan of Oman, a conflict that saw a Labour government supporting an oil-rich slave-owning absolute monarch against popular rebellion, once again pitting Islamism against a secular revolutionary movement. Edwards fails even to acknowledge this campaign, presumably because it so starkly contradicts his particular right wing critique of a supposed Labour anti-colonialism.

What of his account of the actual conflict? Edwards does acknowledge that there were abuses: troops “kicking in doors, verbally abusing civilians and destroying the homes of the people they arrested”. This sort of behaviour was “a self-inflicted wound” that only strengthened the rebels. He even acknowledges the use of torture by the British: “A preferred technique was apparently to place the detainee in a chair…then slap both his eardrums.” Medical records “frequently noted” that detainees had burst eardrums. The Fort Morbut Interrogation Centre was apparently known to the Adenis as “the fingernail factory”. Such methods have been used in every British counter-insurgency campaign to a greater or lesser degree.

But what of the Argylls? In January 1981 a number of Argyll soldiers were convicted of involvement in the brutal killing of two Catholic civilians in Northern Ireland, the so-called “Pitchfork Murders”. This led to ex-soldiers coming forward to tell the Glasgow Sunday Mail of similar conduct in Crater. Eventually a dozen men signed statements detailing the shooting of unarmed civilians, the shooting of prisoners, the killing of wounded prisoners by morphine injection, the unprovoked bayoneting to death of a teenager and widespread theft and looting. When these revelations appeared in print, more ex-soldiers came forward to corroborate the stories, including some who had originally denied any such conduct. How does Edwards deal with this? He writes that none of these accusations were “ever substantiated”, there was a “lack of corroborating evidence” and there was nothing in “the regimental and public archives”, which is hardly surprising. His defence of the Argylls is somewhat undermined, it has to be said, when he goes on to conclude “that there are no grounds for suggesting that murders took place on anything like the scale alleged”.

One of Edwards’s complaints about the allegations is that they smeared Mitchell, creating the suspicion that he encouraged this sort of behaviour. But his own account of Mitchell’s proposed solution to the Northern Ireland conflict, which the latter advocated in 1972, when he was a Tory MP, rather undermines this complaint. In an interview Mitchell urged the introduction of capital punishment for the possession of firearms, selective assassination and inviting the IRA leadership to peace talks and then shooting them out of hand!

One last point: Edwards suggests that “the violence unleashed by Islamist terrorists has roots in Britain’s forgotten war on terror”. The implication is, of course, that if Britain had stood firm in Aden, today’s Islamist terrorists would not exist. This is impossible to take seriously. Indeed, if one wanted to make this sort of point, today’s Islamists surely owe less to the secular rebels Britain was fighting in Aden than to the royalist Islamist rebels that Britain, together with Saudi Arabia and Israel, were covertly aiding at this time against a secularist republican government in neighbouring Yemen. But, of course, the staunchest advocates of the Yemen intervention were various individuals on the far right of the Conservative Party, the likes of Julian Amery, whose strategic fantasies Edwards takes much too seriously. With the British army still licking its wounds after Basra and Helmand and reeling from the coalition’s cuts, it will take more than Edwards’s fantasy history to restore its reputation for waging counter-insurgency warfare.