(First published in the August 2004 (Vol 92 No.3) issue of the Naval
In March 1989, HM
Ships Berkeley, Chiddingfold and Cottesmore and RFA Diligence
were the first RN ships to visit Aden since the People’s Democratic Republic
of Yemen (PDRY - otherwise known as South Yemen) achieved its independence in
1967 after 128 years as a British possession.
A year after this visit, South Yemen was reunited with its northern
neighbour to form the Yemeni Republic.
Aden - March
was commanding Berkeley at the time and our group was returning to the UK
from an 8-month deployment in the Gulf for Operations CIMNEL and ARMILLA
ACCOMPLICE. Our mission had been to
provide the world’s shipping community with confidence that the sea lanes
between the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ports as far as
Bahrain were clear of mines in the wake of the Iran/Iraq Tanker War.
By the time we returned home, our colleagues in Chiddingfold had
clocked up 268 days away from base and set a new deployment record for a minor
We had not originally planned to visit Aden but our programme was altered following
a whistle-stop tour of Arab nations by the then Foreign Secretary, Mr William
Waldegrave. Thus Defence Diplomacy
dictated we should visit Aden and Tunisia instead of sampling the delights of
Malta and Majorca.
In the event, Diligence anchored off Steamer Point without complication and
our Hunt Class MCMVs rafted up alongside her. This was where the USS Cole would be attacked by a suicide boat
in Oct 2000. Chiddingfold
was duty liaison ship for the visit so her CO went off to pay the arrival calls
while Berkeley and Cottesmore rigged their foc’sles for the
first night cocktail party.
The CO of Cottesmore, Lt Cdr (later Cdr) Brian Mansbridge MBE RN, and I took
the opportunity to stretch our legs ashore.
Aden was a living museum in which time seemed to have stood still since
the 1960s. We found a drab and
dusty city of near-derelict buildings and shops selling mostly second-hand
goods. The blocks of flats once
used as British married quarters were extremely shabby and had obviously not
seen a lick of paint or any other noticeable sign of maintenance since the
departure of their former tenants. The
few cars on the pot-holed roads mostly comprised battered Ford Anglias,
Prefects, Populars, Zodiacs and Zephyrs, legacies from the British forces who
had evacuated the place 20 years previously.
When entering harbour we had noticed several jelaba-clad townspeople literally
jumping for joy on the dockside. As we walked about the streets we were approached by locals, some with tears in
their eyes and all eager to recount their past employment as drivers,
electricians or mechanics for the Crown during the latter stages of the British
forces’ presence. "Russians
no good, no bloody good!" they whispered to us conspiratorially.
The Russians had occupied the vacuum left by the British departure and
had spent the previous 20 years constructing a new power station, airport and
hospital, mostly through their Cuban proxies. None of these projects had reached anything like completion.
Seeking the inevitable postcards, we entered a shop that sold everything from
second-hand bath plugs to electrical appliances and hearth rugs but specialised
in old British military insignia and accoutrements.
We noticed the owner had an ancient portable radio on a shelf behind the
counter and it was tuned to the BBC’s world service.
My companion asked him if he listened to the BBC very often.
"Every damn day for the past 20 years," he responded
After a quick recce, we returned on board and prepared ourselves for the cocktail party.
This was a truly international affair held on the adjacent canopied
forecastles of Berkeley and Chiddingfold.
If memory serves me right, there were diplomatic representatives from
over 50 countries including such intriguing combinations as Soviets (this was at
the height of Glasnost and Perestroika) and Cubans, Iranians and Iraqis, Greeks
and Turks, and Israelis and Syrians. The
Americans had no diplomatic mission in Aden and were conspicuous by their
innocuous-tasting punch prepared by the stewards worked its magic and soon all
of our guests were engaged in animated but entirely amicable discussion. I was buttonholed by members of the Cuban mission who were
keen to extol the improvement in social welfare and medical attention enjoyed by
the local population since Aden had ceased being a British Crown Colony.
Many of the Arab diplomats spoke knowledgably about Britain and a high
proportion seemed to have pieds-à-terre in London.
next day, a member of the British Embassy staff gave the COs a guided tour of
Aden, including Crater City, in a Japanese 4x4 jeep-type vehicle.
The suspension of this vehicle left much to be desired but this was
hardly surprising; Crater City is so called because it lies in the crater of a
dormant volcano but the description applied equally to the condition of its
roads. Despite our appeals for him
to take it easy, our driver regarded every obstacle and depression as a
challenge to be overcome with speed. In
the back of the vehicle, we bounced up and down with our heads smashing
painfully against the unpadded roof. I
am certain the odd recurring pang in my neck is a direct consequence of its
repeated compression during that bucking bronco of a ride.
the airport at Khormaksar we were shown the only hotel in town.
It still lay ruined and unused as the result of the ‘emergency’ and
the countless civil wars that followed it.
We were also shown where a busload of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
had been ambushed by rebels armed with machine guns and grenades and other
places where members of the British garrison had fought vicious street battles
during the uprising. At long last I
was able to put into context the nightly news stories describing Lt Col Colin
‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell and his men fighting their bloody rearguard action in
small European community consisted almost exclusively of diplomatic staff, all
of whom were endowed with a siege mentality.
They were extremely pleased to see us and our ships and gave us a
splendid welcome. Strangely, the
British Embassy had been re-occupied in an almost untouched state when
diplomatic relations had been restored a year or so previously.
Another privilege afforded the UK in Aden was the country designation
‘1’ on the CD plates of its diplomatic vehicles.
That evening, COs
(plus 1) were invited to an al fresco evening reception at the British Embassy
but, in the words of Sondheim’s musical, a funny thing happened on the way to
the forum. As we stepped ashore at
Steamer Point in our immaculate ice-cream suits, I noticed a black Zil with
local number plates parked on the jetty facing the harbour.
In the front sat two sinister-looking men in sunglasses, the driver
peering through binoculars at our ships while his passenger took notes. His
reply confirmed my suspicions. "They’re spooks from the Russian
was an opportunity too good to miss. Unnoticed
by its occupants, I strolled over to the car and knocked gently on the
driver’s window. The driver was
startled and looked up at me with embarrassment.
He wound down his window.
"Hello," I said amiably.A deliciously wicked reply came into my mind almost immediately instead of five
minutes too late as so often happens.
"Hello," he replied somewhat nervously. "Your ships... are they new?" he
asked in broken English.
"Do you know..." I said. "They're so new, we haven't had time to fill the
swimming pools yet."After a moment to digest this vital piece of intelligence, the driver gulped and
said, "Spasiba... thank you. Goodbye." He then started his engine and reversed quickly from the edge of the
jetty before driving off in a cloud of dust and an accompanying squeal of tyres.
Move over 007!
the Embassy, we sat at table in the pleasantly manicured grounds thankfully
devoid of marauding insects. As we
relaxed and were served by attentive staff, I reflected on my good fortune in
being privy to this example of fast-disappearing quasi-colonial life for one
last time before returning home.
I was seated next to the Italian Ambassador, a huge and jovial bearded man in the
same mould as Pavarotti.
"How long have you served here?" I asked him.
He boomed back at me,
"In my country, if you are a naughty boy they send you to Aden for two
years. Me…" he declared proudly, "...I’ve been here for three."
The rest of the dinner party passed in an exquisite haze of good food, fine wine and entertaining conversation followed by port and cigars.
The following day was our last in Aden as we were due to sail in the afternoon. During the forenoon, I accompanied my fellow COs to call on
the Yemeni Naval Commander. We had
noticed a motley collection of ex-Soviet Osa class FPBs, Natya class
minesweepers and Alligator class landing ships in the harbour.
Most were listing in the water and few looked seaworthy.
The old British naval base occupied by the Yemenis was also in a sad
state of repair.
like they haven’t had rounds since the Brits left," remarked one of
An aide ushered us
into the Commander’s office and he rose to greet us.
He wore the insignia of commodore on his crumpled fatigues and his office
was cluttered with dusty heavy metal busts and stylised pictures of Marxist
political leaders and patriotic heroes. No
two items of furniture matched each other.
For all that, he was most hospitable and offered us the Russian
equivalent of Tango with a straw protruding from the neck of each bottle.
Thankfully, it was chilled. The
conversation was amicable as we exchanged pleasantries and it was evident that
our host held the RN in particularly high esteem. We left with the feeling that we had made a favourable
impression on him.
sailed that afternoon without further incident but I wish I had kept a copy of
our collective visit report. According
to rumour, it had CINCFLEET in stitches at his morning brief and we received a
particularly appreciative reply.
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