July 19, 1972

The small fishing village was still dozing under the monsoon’s early morning mist. A half mile to the north, behind a small hill, 250 adoo advanced in silence. No sound came from their cloth-muffled Chinese webbing. Their brand-new Russian AK-47s were well-oiled, their RPGs and 12.7mm heavy machine guns amply furnished with ammunition, their radios tuned to the correct frequencies, their recoilless artillery and mortars properly sighted. They were coming for revenge.

Last year’s defeat in Operation Jaguar had been nearly catastrophic to the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Arabian Gulf’s (PFLOAG) cause. The Dhofaris had begun to question their authority. Fear of punishment and promises for an equal society no longer carried the same weight. A credible victory was needed urgently.

Enter Mirbat.

Home to a firqat of around fifty men, its nine-man British Army Training Team (BATT) from B squadron SAS, and less than forty local gendarmeries, Mirbat’s sole attraction was its medieval fort. Already small, the garrison was further weakened by the absence of the firqat, which was patrolling on the nearby Jebel.

Even worse, what forces remained were divided. The gendarmeries, with their ancient .303 bolt-action rifles, were inside the fort, 700 yards to the northeast of the village, and in a small picket 1000 yards to the north of the perimeter. The SAS, with their two mortar tubes, two GPMGs, and 0.50 Browning heavy machine gun, were on the BATT house 200 yards north of the village. A gun-pit, with an obsolete 25-pound artillery piece, lay adjacent to the fort.

 

0530

Knives in hand, a group of hand-picked adoo approaches the gendarmes’ picket. They make quick work of the sleeping militiamen, but one manages to fire a warning shot before his throat is slashed.

A volley of RPGs and artillery shells signals the main attack. A deafening fusillade keeps the dazed defenders wondering, whilst barefooted adoo breach the perimeter wire on the north and northeast.

Captain Mike Kealy, the BATT commander, orders the GPMGs and .50-cal on the roof of the house to fire. He needn’t. His experienced troopers know their quick-action drills; they’ve practiced them countless times. Everyone is where they’re supposed to be, firing at the adoo.

Troopers Savesaki and Hussey fervently lob 81mm mortar bombs onto the enemy. Corporal Labalaba sprints to the gun-pit and begins firing the 25-pounder along with an Omani gunner. The Omani is soon laying on the ground, bleeding. Corporal Labalaba assumes control of the six-man crewed artillery piece on his own. He averages a round per minute until a bullet shatters his jaw. Dauntless, he radios the situation back to Captain Kealy and continues the fight with his rifle. Savesaki jumps to the help of his fellow Fijian. First, he must cover the 700 yards of open ground. He dashes into the fray. Miraculously unhurt, he reaches the gun-pit. He dresses Labalaba’s wound, and the two friends begin to fire 25-lb shells over open sights at the advancing adoo.

The 25 lb artillery piece, preserved in the Royal Artillery Museum.

In front of them lays carnage. Bodies of young fighters in unnatural positions dangle from the barbed wire like Christmas ornaments. Then a shot downs Savesaki, leaving the badly wounded Labalaba to fire the 25-pounder again on his own. He soon follows his friend to the ground, with another bullet wound. The adoo are almost on top of them. If they manage to take the gun, the feebly built BATT house is history.

Captain Kealy decides to act. He radios Salalah, the nearest British base, for reinforcements. He knows that the mist will probably restrict any flying, but he tries nonetheless. Changing the sandals that he’s been wearing until now for boots, he rushes along with SAS medic Tommy Tobin to the gun-pit. By some miracle, they make it unhurt. Blood and empty shells lay everywhere. Labalaba is dying. White from hemorrhaging, Savesaki is firing with his trusty rifle. Tobin dresses his wounds whilst Kealy covers him.

By some inhuman strength, Labalaba commences firing the 25-pounder. A shot smashes Tobin’ skull. As Kealy rushes to his help, a grenade lands on his lap. He braces for the end. It’s a dud. He can hear the adoo’s exultant voices, who are now almost on top of their position. He counts his bullets, making sure he’s one for himself—they won’t be taking him alive.

BAC 167 Strikemaster Mk 82A in the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force.

And right then, when everything seems lost, salvation comes from the sky. Like shrieking banshees, two Strikemaster jets from Salalah have come to their rescue. With their 20mm cannons and bombs, they strafe the adoo, forcing them to halt their advance. But the jets can’t stay forever. For thirty minutes, they give the defenders a much-needed respite, but then they leave to re-fuel and re-arm.

Three hours have already passed since the first shots, but the adoo are committed and relaunch their assault. Kealy radios back to the BATT house for mortar rounds on top of his position—they’ll be overrun otherwise. Trooper Hussey, the troop’s best mortarman, has to hug the mortar tube to comply with that range.

And then a foreign noise comes from the south. Choppers. Three Hueys carrying G squadron SAS have arrived at their rescue. By the slightest of chances, the squadron had arrived in Salalah from England the previous day. They were meant to relieve B squadron that very day. And so, that morning, the OIC, Major Alistair Bowie, the sergeant major, and their 21 men had gone to Salalah’s range to test-fire their weapons.

And they’re armed, all right: nine GPMGs and four M-79 grenade launchers, along with M-16 and SLR rifles. They aren’t short of grenades, either. Although 2/3 of a platoon’s manpower, they have a company’s firepower. The Hueys land them south of the village. They quickly spread into two ten-man assault elements and a three-man command element. Keeping an impressive rate of fire, they leap-frog towards their hard-pressed comrades, cutting down any adoo as they go.

A chopper tries to evacuate the wounded, but a volley of 12.7 rounds prevent it from landing. Then the firqat that had been patrolling the Jebel appears from the north. The adoo are caught in between the hammer of G Squadron and the anvil of the firqat. They began to crumble.

A whooshing sound signals the arrival of the Strikemasters. The adoo are routed. Under the jets’ reassuring presence, a Huey manages to pick up the wounded. But it’s too late for Corporal Labalaba. He’s dead. Tobin dies soon thereafter.

The BATT house is riddled with bullets, sand dripping from the sandbags on the roof. The gun-pit adjacent to the fort is swimming in gore and empty 25-lb shells. Inside the fort lies waste. But the walls, albeit seriously hit, are unbreached.

Thus ended the battle of Mirbat. Six hours of almost unrelenting assault by 250 well-equipped adoo failed to silence nine SAS men and a handful of gendarmeries. After the battle, intelligence gathered from adoo prisoners revealed that their aim had been to capture the Mirbat, hold it for a few days, executing the local governor and his advisers in the meantime, indoctrinate the townsfolk to their communist creed, and vanish on the Jebel. It would’ve been a huge propaganda victory. Had they achieved their aim, the government’s claim of power would’ve sounded like empty words to the Dhofaris; its hearts and minds campaign seriously frustrated. No Dhofari would dare to work for the Sultan again.

Mirbat should’ve been the adoo’s Tet Offensive. But they were counting without the SAS. The defeat and loss of almost 100 men sparked a fervor of kangaroo courts within the adoo ranks. Many leaders were executed. Younger fighters became disenchanted. It’s no wonder why August and September proved to be most fertile months for defecting to the government side and the joining firqats.

As for the SAS. They lost two brave men. Another was seriously wounded. Captain Kealy received the Distinguished Service Order, Britain’s second highest honor. Corporal Labalaba was just Mentioned in Dispatches. He should have gotten the Victoria Cross.

 

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.