Repression and torture: The British Labour Party and the liberation struggle in South Yemen

british troop yemen

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no 43 – October 1984

The People's Republic of South Yemen is a small Arab nation of 33,600 sq km on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, and has a population of two million. It was born 17 years ago on 29 and 30 November 1967, following a bloody four-year guerrilla war. 129 years of British colonial rule was ended after a heroic struggle by the people of Aden and the hinterland of South Yemen against the military might and terror of the British armed forces and a succession of British-imposed schemes and manoeuvres designed to deny the people their right to self-determination. The crucial phase of the armed struggle for independence (1963-1967) took place when the British Labour Party government headed by Harold Wilson was in power. It was under this government that the most sustained repression and torture of Adeni and Yemeni patriots fighting for independence took place.

British imperialism annexes Aden

In 1839 the British Crown annexed the territories initially for use as a military and trading post. The occupation was fiercely resisted by 1,000 local warriors, who were only subjugated after three days of fighting. Aden possessed a fine natural port and was also prized by the British for its unique strategic position — it was able to service British trade routes to India and the Far East and was valued for its role in developing British commercial interests in the Middle East. The economy of Aden became utterly dependent on the fortunes of the imperialist money and trading markets.

In the hinterland areas the British used the pre-existing tribal divisions to foster inter-tribal disputes. Literally hundreds of treaties were concluded with puppet Sheikhs, Amirs and Sultans who acted like tyrannical feudal barons. Up to 1940, the British spent not a penny on any development in the hinterland where disease and poverty were rife. Yet millions were spent arming and bribing the tribal 'leaders'. In the rural areas of the hinterland, the land and the meagre sources of irrigation were owned by these feudal leaders. The majority of peasants existed in a state of perpetual bondage to them, and were forced to hand over to these exploiters between one fifth and two thirds of the harvest.

When the British left in 1967 the country had 3 Yemeni doctors and 950 hospital beds for 1 million inhabitants. Abdul Fattah Ismail, a leader of the victorious National Liberation Front (NLF) commented in 1970:

'We have no schools in the rural areas in which to educate our children. We find no hospital to treat our sick. And when we ask ourselves why, we find that our enemy British imperialism wanted to keep our people underdeveloped, ignorant and diseased, so they could not resist or throw off the yoke of imperialism.'

If any resistance to the British colonialists did arise, the British resorted to 'aerial supervision' — the bombing of villages and homes as a brutal form of collective punishment.

After the Second World War, Aden assumed a new importance for British imperialism. After important bases were lost in Palestine and Egypt, the 1957 Defence White Paper envisaged both Aden and Singapore as major military bases. In 1960 Aden replaced Cyprus as the Headquarters of the British Middle East Command. Installations and military building in Aden expanded very rapidly — Khormaksar RAF station was soon the busiest in the world. In 1954 a huge oil refinery had been built by BP to replace the Abadan refinery nationalised by the Mosadeq government in Iran in 1951. Aden had become a massive military base protecting British imperialism's interests in the oil-rich Persian Gulf and throughout the Middle East.

As the British base grew, so did the Adeni working class who very quickly became radicalised. In March of 1956 alone, workers fought 33 strikes involving 7,000 workers. In the second half of 1956, 18,000 workers participated in 44 strikes. By 1959/60 strikes began to paralyse the operations of the BP refinery. The British responded by arresting and jailing labour leaders, deporting activists and eventually banning strikes. The Adeni working class while fighting for its own economic interests was also in the vanguard of the struggle against British colonialism. They mobilised a movement to boycott the 1955 and 1959 bogus and gerrymandered Legislative Assembly elections which disenfranchised the majority of workers in Aden. It was rightly seen as a stooge body imposed by the British against the will of the Yemeni people. The Legislative Assembly was used to ratify the formation of a puppet 'Federation of South Arabia' merging the hinterland, dominated by reactionary, pro-imperialist Sheikhs and Amirs, with Aden. This manoeuvre designed to isolate and encircle the nationalist movement in Aden sparked off massive anger and led to the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF).

The National Liberation Front

The nationalist movement gained further impetus from the September 1962 revolution in North Yemen which deposed the pro-British Imams. Militant nationalists from South Yemen launched the NLF in June 1963 to open a front in the south to combat British backed counter-revolution against the Yemen Arab Republic of the North. The NLF was composed of Adeni workers, activists of the Arab Nationalist Movement, army officers and revolutionary youth and students. As the most consistent fighters for national liberation, the NLF drew its support from and represented the interests of the Adeni workers and the mass of poor and downtrodden Yemeni peasantry.

On 14 October 1963, in the Radfan mountains, the NLF launched its first armed attacks against British imperialist forces in what was to be a four year long heroic struggle.

The British responded by encircling the Radfan area with huge numbers of troops who terrorised the Radfanis and burnt their crops. 1,000 pound bombs were dropped on villages in what became a six month counter insurgency campaign. Denis Healey, who was to become the Labour Minister of Defence the following year, commented that the 'troops have done their job magnificently'.

The Labour government in power

As the liberation struggle in Yemen entered its decisive phase, the Wilson Labour government was elected in October 1964. The Economist remarked at the time:

'Aden will be the first test by which the Arabs decide whether Mr. Wilson's Government is truly of a new colour.'

In a matter of days the intentions of the incoming Labour administration were clear. In November, Healey stated that the policy of the government was 'to retain the base (Aden), in agreement with the Government of South Arabia, for so long as it is required to serve the interests we have in common.'

The pre-election claims of the Labour Party to promote 'friendship with the Arab world', were only for the gullible. The Labour government had no intention whatsoever of departing from Aden – they were as committed to defending the interests of imperialism as they had always been. One of its first acts, in the words of new Prime Minister Harold Wilson, was: '… preparing for the inevitable martial take over, suspension of the constitution and a declaration of a state of emergency'.

The Labour government did not release the hundreds of political detainees, did not repeal the repressive labour laws banning strikes and did not allow the Adenis their rights to self-determination. The Labour government did step up repression to new frightening and brutal levels. Firstly the government appointed a new High Commissioner, Sir Richard Turnbull, who in the 1950s had led the repression against the Mau Mau revolution in Kenya. In 1965 the NLF was outlawed — suspected members could be detained without trial. Anyone convicted of assisting the NLF could receive ten years imprisonment. Finally, as was to happen in Ireland, trial by jury was abolished.

Whilst stepping up repression against the working class and peasant forces, the Labour government was prepared to collaborate with feudal and bourgeois forces which it hoped to use as agents of its rule. It tried to cultivate political links with FLOSY (Front for the Liberation of South Yemen). FLOSY represented the Adeni bourgeoisie and the Sultans and two of its leaders Al-Asnaj and Makawi were later to emerge as bitter opponents of the revolution in South Yemen.

Labour government directs torture

The NLF however rapidly increased its base of support and was now capable of mounting attacks in Aden itself which were devastating for the 17,000 British soldiers both in casualties and morale. The NLF increased the number of its armed operations from 36 in 1964, to 286 in 1965, 510 in 1966 and 2,900 in 1967! By 1966 the whole of the Arab Special Branch had been assassinated by revolutionaries. Faced with the complete hostility of the people, the British could only obtain information through interrogation and torture. Reports of brutality and torture emerged as early as January 1965 – this was only three months after the Labour government came into office! Suspects were interrogated at Fort Morbut, where violent beatings and torture through the use of electrodes, the injection of drugs and disorientation techniques also took place. The detainees were then sent on to the regular prison at al Mansoura.

A British soldier, Corporal George Lennox, who served in Aden in 1964 and 1965 has described what he witnessed at Fort Morbut Interrogation Centre:

'Nearly every night after the state of emergency was declared and after a lot of suspects were being taken in, we used to hear, sitting in our Corporal's Club drinking, a lot of screaming and shouting; really disturbing screaming, as if it was associated with someone being hurt ... it was a common thing for us just to laugh and joke about it. "There's another cunt getting fucking done in" ... I can remember one particular guy from the — Regiment — who was a boxer for them. And he used to come in and boast in the morning. He used to come in and say, "Yeah, we thumped this wog last night and he's really screaming."'

On another occasion Lennox witnessed a beating:

'… I watched three soldiers ... drag out an Adeni detainee from the exercise yard. There was blood coming from the man's mouth and he was dressed only in a loin cloth round his waist. The three soldiers, standing about five yards apart began, in turn, to hit the Adeni. The first soldier was using a five-foot-long broom handle and beating the man about the head and prodding him in his midriff and genitals. He was then passed to the second soldier who hit him with a tin mug commonly used by the infantry. The third used his fists. The unfortunate wretch fell unconscious twice. He was then revived with a fire hose only to be beaten again.'

Just as was to happen in Ireland, the charges that the British were routinely torturing detainees was at first pompously denied. Observers from the International Red Cross and Amnesty International were refused access to detainees, although the latter published a report in September 1966 detailing brutality by the British. When Corporal Lennox spoke to the Sunday Times newspaper about the atrocities he had witnessed, he was himself detained, tortured and expelled from the British Army. Finally the Labour government appointed its own 'inquiry' into the torture allegations. The subsequent Bowen Report, while mentioning 'irregularities', was essentially, as Fred Halliday has aptly written, 'an exemplary Whitehall cover-up operation'. George Brown, the then Labour Foreign Secretary, in his introduction to the Bowen report, justified the torture at Fort Morbut, writing that it:

'had operated with considerable success, having provided information leading to the discovery of numerous arms caches and to the arrest of a large number of terrorists.'

In February 1966 the government announced that they would be abandoning the Aden base, while hoping that a neo-colonial Federal Government would continue to look after imperialist interests. Yet the Labour government maintained the presence of 17,000 British soldiers in Aden for a further 21 months. Under Labour military expenditure in Aden had increased from £3.6 million in 1963/4 to almost £14 million in 1967/68. Life for most Arabs in Aden became one of constant street searches and house raids, frequently accompanied by cowardly acts of bullying or vicious beatings from the British soldiers. One British Battalion alone, in a period of six months, searched 35,000 Arabs and 8,000 vehicles in the course of which they captured only 12 grenades and 6 pistols. In the eleven months of 1967, when the British were still in Aden, British Forces killed 119 Arabs and wounded 123.

In June 1967 Labour Foreign Secretary George Brown announced that Britain would not now withdraw until January 1968, and that Britain would supply arms to the hoped for pro-imperialist Federal Government. Labour planned to station a military mission in Aden and provide air and naval support for a period after 'independence'. This move was applauded by the Tories. The Conservative ex-colonial Minister Duncan Sandys even said that while listening to George Brown he could have been listening to himself.

Soon, however, this plan by the Labour imperialists was in tatters. The Crater district of Aden was occupied by the NLF for thirteen days in an historic uprising on 20 June 1967. The NLF released hundreds of prisoners, gutted the Legislative Assembly building and handed villas belonging to British officers over to the people.

The armed struggle was successfully brought to a conclusion on 30 November 1967 when the British forces were driven out of Aden and South Yemen was declared independent.

The People's Republic of South Yemen, born out of such determined struggle against imperialism, immediately declared its support for the revolutionary movements of the Palestinian people and continues to this day to provide consistent material support for the Palestinian guerrilla organisations.

On winning independence, the NLF leadership immediately tackled the problems left by colonial rule. In the early years of independence foreign banks and capital were nationalised, the landlords were expropriated and the land distributed to the toilers. State and co-operative farms were established that today account for over half of Yemen's agricultural production. A new public health service was introduced and the provision of education at all levels was vastly expanded. The number of students has grown from 65,000 in 1967 to 400,000 today. The social and economic position of Yemeni women has also been radically improved since the revolution.

Even after being thrown out of Aden, the British Labour government continued its counter-revolutionary activity. Only £3m of a £60m aid package promised by the Labour government ever materialised while this same government sponsored armed attacks against the newly named Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen. Over the next 10 years British imperialism was to use and refine the lessons of repression and torture it learnt in South Yemen, and apply them against the nationalist minority in the Six Counties of Ireland. The Labour Party in government was to be the driving force in this process.

Bill Hughes


The recent appointment of ex-SAS commander Major-General John Watts as defence chief in Oman marks the end of General Timothy Creasey's three year stint at the post. Creasey has had a long history of defending British imperialism against liberation struggles, commanding troops in Kenya, Aden and most recently Ireland, where he was army chief from 1977-79. He was in charge of the brutal suppression of the liberation movement in Oman between 1972 and 1975, a campaign in which British soldiers burned down villages, shot animals and propped up corpses of rebels in market places. It was probably this that endeared Sir Timothy to the heart of Sultan Qaboos, who asked for his reappointment.

Oman is a British colony in all but name, with the Chief of Defence Staff and all three service commanders being serving British officers on loan to the Sultan. The country is of considerable strategic importance to British imperialism, being situated at the entrance to the oil rich Persian Gulf. There is also, of course, lots of profit to be made off the back of the Omani people by British money-grabbers. Not least by Mark Thatcher who caused quite a scandal by taking a lucrative 'consultancy fee' to get a £300m contract for Cementation International Ltd to build a university in Oman when his mum was in Oman on a state visit. General Creasey himself has done quite well out of Oman, installing himself in a £2m beach villa, refurbishing it at a cost of £170,000, then putting in a tennis court for £40,000 which soon, according to the General's exacting standards, needed a new surface at £18,000.

This sea of corruption has now brought a new scandal to the surface. This time it is to do with overpriced British military goods being bought by Sultan Qaboos, who spends 40% of his budget defending himself from his people, and whose chief adviser on military spending is none other than General Creasey. Already a senior British official in the Oman Ministry of Defence has fled the country fearing for his safety after bringing to the attention of General Creasey 'financial negligence', such as the purchase of Chieftain tanks for £1½m that Jordan gets for £1m.

Another British man, Robin Walsh, died two days after being taken to prison on the orders of General Creasey, reportedly from being forced to stand in the sun without water in a temperature of 120 degrees. Walsh was secretary of the Tenders Board in the Oman Defence Ministry, the body responsible for buying military equipment before Creasey took over the job. Despite the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, Home Secretary Leon Brittan invoked a rarely used power to personally sign a certificate exempting the body from an inquest when it returned to Britain. It was cremated two days later. Creasey's successor, with his background in the SAS, will no doubt know a few dirty tricks of his own to continue the cover-ups of British corruption and profiteering in Oman.

Colin Thorn



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