This is the second part of a series, you can read part one here.
The Egyptian Air Force. That was the true menace. Soldiers and tanks, the royalists could manage. But against the enemy MiG 17 fighters and Ilyushin II-28 bombers they were helpless.
So, the mercenaries’ first task seemed simple: recce Sanaa, the Yemeni capital and main Egyptian base, and raid its airfield; a quick and clean operation.
Johnny Cooper led a six-man team, four SAS troopers “on leave” and two French intelligence service officers.
They infiltrated into Yemen with a royalist supply camel caravan. Dressed in local garments, each wearing a belt with thirty gold sovereigns as escape money stitched on to it, and carrying jambiyas — local daggers — they certainly blended in.
But there was a surprise waiting for them in Sanaa: The airfield was heavily guarded.
Not one to fuzz over minor details, Cooper proposed a change of plans. Seeing that the royalist forces were desperate not only for weapons, ammo, and, more importantly, communications (so far, the Imam had to rely on foot runners to coordinate his scattered tribes) but also for moral support, he recommended they become trainers, instead.
Back in London, Johnson approved, and the British Field Liaison Force (BFLF) was born.
What did that entail?
First a trip to the royalist heartland of Khowlan, a rocky region east of Sanaa. The area swam in precipitous mountains, often as 12,000 ft high, with ample choke points and potential ambush sites to turn it into the Egyptian soldiers’ nightmare. (It didn’t come as a surprise when, after a few patrols on the mountains, the invaders quickly developed a fancy for the walled safety of the cities and scattered bases.)
Once there, the mercs’ work began.
Over the next four years, successive teams of British, French, and Belgians trained the royalists in everything from guerilla warfare to basic fire and movement tactics (the Yemenis’ preferred method of attack so far had been screaming frontal assaults, whilst trusting in God that everything would be okay). They also developed quite an elaborate tank-disabling method: they would run alongside the Egyptian T-34s and stuff turbans in their exhaust pipes thus destroying their engine; the crewmembers, then, were easy targets for the superb royalist marksmen.
The British operated individually, attached to tribes, whereas their Francophone comrades fancied the safety of the team, with their base in Khanjar in the North.
On top of training the royalists, the mercenaries healed the locals (their standard SAS medical training proving useful), recced ambush sites, marked drop-zones (DZs), for later use, and more importantly, started an elaborate radio network.
When it came to weapons, their hands were full. The royalist arsenal had it all: Lee Enfield and Mauser bolt-action rifles, captured AK-47s, 57mm and 75mm recoilless rifles, 3-inch, 81mm, and 120mm mortars, bazookas, and mines (the staple and preferred method of attack). Keeping them in a working condition, considering all the sand, was a constant toil.
The mercs, however, didn’t fight; not if they could avoid it, that is.
Fear for the international ramifications, if they were to be discovered, restricted them only to self-defense. And anyway, their small numbers (never more than 12 at a time) and the fact that they were attached to different tribes ensured that they would be more valuable as a morale booster and authority enhancer to the Imam and his Sheikhs, the tribal leaders. The Yemenis, moreover, were extremely proud, and they accepted advise but not orders.
All the mercs were veterans of recent wars: Rhodesia, Malaya, Indochina, Oman, Algeria, to name a few. Their organization was loosely controlled and fluid. Faces changed constantly, and individuals enjoyed a lot of flexibility. The food was awful: circular loaves of Knub bread, canned fruits, onions, rotten potatoes, raisins, honey, and unlimited carafes of sweet tea. Occasionally, they would enjoy the odd lamb and goat stew. Water was scarce and of bad quality.
Tours lasted for about six months. The salary was good, the adrenaline ample, but the conditions harsh. Because of the constant air attack threat, they were forced to live in caves like troglodytes. They always had to be cautious of assassins, for the Egyptians often bribed tribesmen to kill them, and had to rely on their bodyguards and wits to survive. Although many were injured, during the four-year operation, only three mercenaries died. (That happened just before the operation ended in 1967: The trio was visiting an allegedly friendly village and, foolishly, was unarmed. They were ambushed and killed.)
As for the Yemenis, here the fun began.
They lived in complete ignorance of the outside world. They were religious fatalists, inefficient, avaricious, and constantly chewing khat, a narcotic leaf. Needless to say, they didn’t make for very promising trainees.
Except in a few cities, no roads, electricity, drained water, telephones, schools, and hospitals existed.
The royalist command structure was tribal and decentralized. Under their Sheikhs, tribes were the main military, political, and social groups. Depending on their size, their control extended from only a simple village to vast areas. Their relationship with the royal household depended as much on fidelity as on cash. And it wasn’t uncommon for tribes to support the highest bidder, with allegiances constantly shifting throughout the conflict.
In early 1964, Johnson was struggling to keep Saudi money flowing, and supplies in Yemen were draining fast. So, he turned to Israel. The Israelis needed Nasser engaged in Yemen for as long as possible. The more Egyptian casualties in Yemen, the less Egyptian soldiers in the unavoidable upcoming war — the upcoming war ended up being the 1967 Six-Days war, and the fact that one-third of the Egyptian army was detained in Yemen played its part in Israel’s victory.
Operation Leopard, as the operation in Yemen was named, included fourteen drops, and lasted until 1967. Needless to say, secrecy was paramount. Neither the Yemenis nor the Saudis were aware of the origin of the unmarked Boeing Stratocruisers, which dropped precious supplies in the dead of night. Although there was a constant fuzz about suitable, and secretive, DZs, not one flight was interdicted by the Egyptians, though not due to lack of effort.
In the autumn of 1964, the operation’s cover was blown. A Yemeni dispatcher carrying Cooper’s mail was caught by the Egyptians. The Sunday Times got hold of the letters. Names and addresses were published. Volleys of questions were asked. Political pressure to the Prime Minister increased. And yet, somehow, the operation survived.
By 1965, the Egyptians were bleeding white; thousands had died. Nasser sought and got a ceasefire. He agreed to withdraw. The royalists and republicans negotiated. Quite reasonably, the mercenaries worried that they would be soon out of business.
The Yemenis, however, couldn’t agree on post-war politics and the negotiations failed. In 1966, Egyptian troops, which had reached a low of 20,000, swelled to 60,000. The mercs still had a job.
But a year later, in 1967, the Six-Days war ended Nasser’s dream of empire and with it the Egyptian involvement in Yemen.
In November 1967, a final radio messaged whizzed through the mercenary radio sets: TERMINATE.