Johnson in Yemen: having been proposed for the venture by Col David Stirling, he arrived there on a Canadian passport under the name of Cohen and with a pocketful of sovereigns.
Undercover: Liam McSweeny in Arab dress as former SAS men fought a desert war in Yemen.
The London circle was known as the Aden Group. Before that, it had been the Suez Group, political cheerleaders for the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal Zone, with Israeli complicity, in 1956. One of the group was Neil (“Billy”) McLean, a British Member of Parliament, wartime veteran of SOE in Albania and the Far East, and SIS “asset.” Another was Air Minister Julian Amery, son-in-law of the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Amery would later double, secretly, as “Minister For Yemen.” In September 1962, King Hussein of Jordan visited London, met Amery, and appealed for non-recognition of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). Amery asked McLean to visit the country to obtain ground truth about the war. Could the royalists hold out? Was the Egyptian Air Force using chemical weapons against civilians? Using journalistic cover, McLean took to the hills of Yemen with enthusiasm. In December, he returned to advise Macmillan that the Egyptians could be defeated. In January 1963, the British cabinet received an unsourced intelligence assessment, based on McLean’s report, suggesting that to recognize the YAR would be to surrender control over the Gulf to America. Diplomatic recognition of the Sana’a regime withheld, the movement toward a deniable military intervention began.
The operation had a slow start, possibly because McLean and others depended on the Secret Intelligence Service to handle recruitment, while the Saudis acted as banker for this enterprise. In mid-April, at White’s, a gentleman’s gambling club in London, Amery and Home (then Foreign Secretary) met SAS founder Colonel David Stirling, Brian Franks, by now Colonel-Commandant of the SAS, and McLean. By this time, McLean had visited Yemen again. British positions in the Aden Federation were coming under guerrilla assault from Yemen, confirming the worst fears of the U.K. government about recognizing the YAR. A delegation from the Yemeni royalists had visited Israel, which was now delivering arms into areas under royalist control.
One of those involved in the later operation recounts what happened. “McLean told the gathering, ‘Whatever the Egyptians are telling Washington, the coup in Yemen is not a success. Resistance continues. We have to get some sort of operation going.’ Home reported that SIS was having difficulties. Alec [Home] said, ‘I will talk to SIS but they say they have no agents in Yemen and it will take six months to set something up.’”
Stirling snorted: “Rubbish. I can produce a guy in London who has just given up command of 21 SAS [the reserve regiment ostensibly dedicated to stay-behind actions should the Warsaw Pact invade western Europe]. He could put something together.” The man Stirling had in mind was Jim Johnson, former Guards officer and a broker at the insurance market, Lloyds. Franks telephoned Johnson immediately and invited him to have a drink at the club. As they exchanged regimental small talk, Franks asked Johnson: “Do you fancy going into Yemen and burning the MiGs which are upsetting the tribes and bombing them? The tribes have no defense against them.” Johnson thought this was a good idea. At a later meeting in London, Johnson and McLean met the Imam’s foreign minister, Ahmed al-Shami. Johnson asked what funds were available. Al-Shami laid his checkbook in front of them and wrote a check for around $10,000. The money trail, which ultimately led back to Saudi Arabia, had to be concealed. Franks picked up the check and funneled it through the Hyde Park Hotel account, a process made easier by his role as chairman of the hotel board.
Johnson took leave of absence from Lloyds and opened a secret headquarters near the headquarters of 21 SAS. The commander of the regular, full-time 22 SAS Regiment obligingly provided unattributable weapons including Swedish submachine guns, which were stored in Johnson’s fashionable London home on Sloane Avenue. Stirling drummed up his wartime comrade and one-time driver, Major John Cooper, now working as a contract officer for the Sultan’s Armed Forces in Oman.
On 6 June, the anniversary of D-Day, Johnson, Stirling, and Cooper were at a mansion in Paris to meet two mercenaries nominated by the French Secret Service. These were Colonel Roger Faulques, a scarred veteran of a Vietnam prison camp and the Algerian war, and Robert Denard, a hulking freelance soldier from the French Atlantic coast. The gathering also included senior government officials from London and Paris. If Kennedy was mentioned, it was in less than reverent tones. The SIS also probably came in for its share of criticism. Much wine was drunk. Johnson later told the author: “We were entertained royally. The French side said they had a lot of ex-Foreign Legion Paras who had served in Algeria and spoke Arabic. But it was the wrong Arabic, Maghrib Arabic. They were unintelligible to everyone but themselves.”
What emerged from this gathering was a decision to send an advance party of four French and four British freelances on a reconnaissance mission to Yemen, led by Cooper, whose experience with the French Resistance during the Second World War would be useful in calling in Israeli supply drops. Back in London, the word was sent to Morse signals specialists serving with 21 SAS. On arrival, they were “invited” to join Johnson’s secret army. Three regular soldiers serving with 22 SAS—Geordie Dorman, a mortar expert; Corporal Chigley, a medical orderly; and Trooper Richardson, all-round firearms expert—were given leave of absence, or sheep-dipped (nominally discharged from the Army), to join the team.
The French volunteers drove from Paris in an official staff car, with a uniformed military driver and concealed weapons. One of them was Tony de Saint-Paul, alias Roger de Saint Prieux, a tall, sinister figure with deep-set eyes who went into battle dressed as an Arab, a curved dagger at his waist. He was to meet a painful death in Yemen soon afterward.
Shortly before they were to leave, Johnson received word that the U.K. government had taken fright. Scandals in high places, including the forced resignation of War Minister John Profumo, meant that there could be no other source of political embarrassment for the time being. Risky military adventures were not wanted. Nevertheless, Johnson hastily booked the team in ones and twos onto any flight available out of Britain, in the direction of Aden, before the British government could intervene. In a duplicitous farewell that night, Lord Home dined with Johnson and the team.
Cooper flew first to Tripoli, in Libya. He later recalled: “We had just collected our baggage from our various incoming flights when one of the cases broke open, spilling out rolls and rolls of plastic explosive.” Some of the Libyan security guards, he added, “actually helped us repack the stuff. I told them that stuff was marzipan, because of the smell, for various Arab heads of state.”
In Aden, the mercenaries and their dangerous cargo were able to bypass the usual formalities with the help of a young officer serving with British forces there: Captain (later Lieutenant-General) Peter de la Billiere. DLB, as he is known in SAS circles, arranged for the team to move by a Dakota of Aden Air to a border area controlled by an ally among local rulers, the Sharif of Beihan. Then the party of six, dressed as Arabs, with two guides, loaded their camels and joined a train of 150 camels carrying supplies to the royalists to cross the border. It was a hazardous journey, moving by night to avoid Egyptian aircraft, in single file through minefields.
From a mountain village called Gara, headquarters of Prince Abdullah bin Hassan, Taylor sent out reconnaissance patrols stiffened by his mercenaries in spite of continuous air raids in which attacks with iron bombs were followed with low strafing runs by Yak fighters using machine guns. Next, he set up an ambush for Egyptian infantry and tanks obliged to climb a gully to reach Hassan’s redoubt. Each gun position was camouflaged and sheltered by rocks, with additional shelter nearby in case of air attack. Cairns were built as markers, or orientation points for the defenders. Cooper wrote later: “As the enemy reached our markers, our men opened up with devastating effect, knocking down the closely packed infantry like ninepins. Panic broke out in the ranks behind and then the tanks started firing, not into our positions but among their own men. Then the light artillery opened up, causing further carnage.”
The mercenaries’ campaign ran for the next three years, during which the Egyptians were increasingly confined to paved roads. They hit back with air power and poison gas. For example, on 4 July 1963, McLean, back in Yemen, reported to the U.K. ambassador to Saudi Arabia on his visit to a village called Kowma. “I went to the exact spot where two bombs had landed…. Even after an interval of about…five weeks during which heavy rains fell…I was immediately aware of, from between twenty and thirty yards away, an unusual, unpleasant and pungent smell…rather like a sweet sour musty chloroform mixed with a strong odour of geranium plant…I was told that all of the 120 people in the village still have severe coughs, irritation of the skin and of the twenty-two people injured, many still vomit black blood after severe coughing.”
A gradual stalemate developed. The Egyptians placed a bounty on the heads of the mercenaries. Just before he was blown up by an enemy shell, the Frenchman Tony de Saint-Paul wrote: “The Egyptians’ price on my head has now grown from $500 to $10,000. I hope they increase it even more.” His companion, known only as “Peter,” blinded by poison gas, survived a two-week journey by camel to Aden, before being flown home to France. Though outgunned, the royalists enjoyed two powerful advantages thanks to the mercenary force. First was the use of tactical communications, which gave the Imam’s men flexibility the Egyptians usually lacked. Second, the supplies parachuted by Israel into drop zones controlled by Cooper gave the royalists an increasingly sophisticated edge. Jim Johnson, the political commander of the mercenary force, flew on some of these missions, using a new identity supplied by Israel with a Canadian passport and an escape kit including gold sovereigns. Serial numbers on the weapons Israel supplied had been filed off. Wood shavings in the containers were imported from Cyprus and the parachutes from Italy. A total of 50,000 British rifles was also dropped by civilian aircraft piloted by former Royal Air Force pilots, one of whom was now on Johnson’s team.
In 1965, 300 camels were used in the buildup for a royalist ambush on a road linking Sana’a and the Saudi border at a defile known as Wadi Humaidat. The ambush would need 81-mm mortars to destroy an Egyptian convoy and cut the road. The historian Clive Jones writes: “In what was perhaps the most efficient battle fought by the Royalists, 362 soldiers of the First Army, backed by 1,290 tribesmen…directed by two British and three French mercenaries cut this main supply route and, despite several days of determined Egyptian counter-attacks, held on to their positions.”
In 1966, the French mercenaries launched a barrage of covering fire to assist a royalist advance on Sana’a, but the Imam’s men did not move. The royalists’ lack of resolve went beyond the front line. Johnson, after conferring with the Saudis who bankrolled the operation, concluded that a stalemate that pinned down 70,000 Egyptian soldiers in a war of attrition suited the Saudis nicely. With a new, Socialist government in London, SIS was also lukewarm about the right-wingers’ Yemen adventure. So in October 1966, Johnson wrote a memorandum describing “the apparent lack of interest by HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] and the stated indifference to our activities by MI6 [SIS] coupled with the absolute disinterest…of HRH [Saudi Prince] Sultan we appear to have three courses open to us….” He nominated the first of these, “to withdraw as soon as possible from the Yemen before disaster overtakes us,” for “there is no indication that HMG wants us to continue now.”
On 6 October he confronted the Saudis and asked: “Do you want us to win this war or not? The British have announced the date to leave Aden. If I go before they leave, it will be a shambles.”
The stalemate became a political fact in 1970, recognized by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, backed with a $300 million bribe from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to compensate Egypt for lands lost to Israel during the 1967 war, the outcome of which was affected by the absence from that battlefield of Nasser’s lost army in Yemen. The timing of this event oozed with dramatic irony. It was the year in which Communist guerrillas, based in the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (formerly the British-controlled Aden Federation), launched an offensive on Oman, coming close to bringing that kingdom into Moscow’s orbit. The SAS were to spend the next six years defending this gateway to the Gulf. No one now sought to defend Kennedy’s idealistic, unquestioning support of newly independent former colonies with a taste for republican government. Such countries were now part of a global battlefield over which the Cold War was being fought for real.