Dhofar shared a southern border with what used to be the British protectorate of Aden and the Hadramount. This region had turned Communist on achieving independence in 1967 and was now known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or PDRY.
After the Communist take-over, they started taking an interest in their poor but strategically placed neighbour. There were no schools or universities and so there were very few educated people in Oman, and Sultan Said did not trust those that were. But he trusted the British, and so he turned to us to officer his army. T
he army was small and poorly equipped but it was able to contain the Dhofaris for a while. But the Dhofari rebellion was an ideal opportunity for the PDRY to make trouble and destabilise Yemen. The prize, of course, was domination of the entrance to the Gulf, through which 40% of the oil used by Western Europe passed.
They jumped on to the Dhofari bandwagon with a vengeance and things started to go badly for Sultan Said’s army. By 1970 things were so bad that the British government decided that Sultan Said would have to go. The root of all insurgency wars is bad government. Sultan Said was completely out of touch with the aspirations of his people, so a coup took place – inspired and engineered by the British government, I suspect – and the old man was moved out. The only casualty was Sultan Said himself who shot his own foot by accident with a pistol. His son, Qaboos bin Said, took his place as sultan.
I arrived in Oman in June 1973. There were four Omani infantry regiments, and they rotated through Dhofar every nine or ten months. When they were not in Dhofar, they were based in the Northern part of Oman, which was at peace. The Northern Frontier Regiment was half way through its time in the North, based at Bid Bid, and was due to go back to Dhofar in November. My Company Commander was an Irishman from County Wexford called Johnny Braddell Smith. He had had a short service commission in the British Army where he was probably too unconventional to be successful, which was why he gravitated to Oman as a contract officer. But being tough, understanding, tolerant and utterly unflappable, he was ideally suited to the country, the people, and the job in hand. At twenty-six, he was three years older than me…
The main activities in the north were training and recruiting, and on arrival I went on exercise almost immediately in the Wadi Mansah, a flat bowl near Bid Bid. I had thought that having served in the Far East, I might not find the heat so unusual, but never had I imagined heat like this. It wasn’t as if it involved hard physical labour; we tried to confine that to the dark cooler hours. Simply existing, even in the shade, in the still air at the heat of the day almost drove me to faint. One became accustomed to it, but I shall never forget the shock, and there is no other word for it, of discovering that one was disabled by the heat.
We also granted leave to soldiers when we were in the North. Many soldiers lived in the interior, and as there were no roads, it could take a man four or five days to get to his village, so we added this travelling time to their leave entitlement. The men usually walked, rode a donkey, or hitched a lift with a supply Landrover or lorry that used the unmetalled tracks. By way of getting to know the country better, I took some men in one of our lorries and set of for a school bus run to take them to their villages. Y
ou should not think, however, that this was like any normal school bus trip because it took me four days to get to the far end, and two to get back. It was a difficult journey along wadi bottoms and up and down tracks that were not recorded on any map. The ground would appear completely barren and uncompromising, until one rounded a corner and there would be some palm trees, a well and mud houses. Sometimes there would be terraced gardens with irrigation channels and perhaps an old mud fort or mosque.
An army truck turning up in a village such as this was not an everyday occurrence, and our arrival was invariably greeted by small boys running out and shouting and waving, followed by the men, and particularly the family of the man we were bringing on leave. He of course was especially welcome not only because he was safe and well, but he would possibly be carrying up to a year’s wages with him. Eventually the truck would come to a halt surrounded by the whole village, and much handshaking and greeting would take place, and I would be included in this. The instant I stepped out of the truck I would be surrounded by twenty or thirty men and boys – no females – all wanting me to shake hands with them. So I would start my way around the circle and keep on going until I’d finished. But no-one would tell me I’d finished, and because they all seemed to look the same, I’d carry on shaking until I’d shaken hands with the whole village about three times. They thought this was hilariously funny. It was so funny that after I had done it by mistake once or twice, I started doing it deliberately just to get a laugh.
The health and education services for these remote villages were pretty scarce. There was a hospital in Muscat and a number of clinics in the bigger towns, and our own military medical officers also spent much of their time serving the local population. But that was all. The village Muttawah or Mullah would be the only source of most education for boys: girls as a rule would receive no formal education at all. I always took a medical orderly with me to attend to any ailments that we might come across on our travels, and he was kept busy. On one occasion, a child of about eighteen months was brought to us for whom he could do nothing. He told me that the child would die within a week if it did not receive proper medical treatment.
The parents of the child – and it was most unusual for me to be exposed to the mother – were plainly in considerable distress, so that evening on our pre-arranged schedule, I had my signaller crank up our radio and send a Morse message requesting a helicopter to evacuate the child and mother to the hospital at Muscat. The next day the helicopter duly turned up with a rather surly British medical orderly who examined the child, and took him and his mother off. When I got back to base a few days later, it was pointed out to me, not unkindly, that scarce and expensive helicopters were not really meant to be used for such tasks. There simply were not enough resources to meet the needs of every sick child out in the remote parts of the country, and next time, would I perhaps try and exercise a little more judgement. This argument was sadly irrefutable, and was one of my first encounters with the moral maze … but regardless of the rights or wrongs of this individual case, I saw the gratitude and respect that this small niave cost-inefficient act generated for the Sultan’s Army, and felt sure that Qaboos sat just a fraction more firmly on his throne as a result of it.
The Hornbeam Line was a series of platoon or company positions starting at the sea at Mughsayl and stretching up into the mountains towards the desert about thirty miles away, and it was at right angles to the enemy’s lines of communications. It was used as a base for patrols and ambushes with the purpose of interdicting enemy movement on foot and by camel train into the central plains area. From each position, one could usually see the position on either side, but they could be as much as 10 kilometres apart. By day, we could see most movement, but at night, our line was pretty permeable. During my time there, we beefed up the line by building a barbed wire and minefield obstacle the whole length of it, and I was closely involved in the construction of this, and in the protection of the constructors. It was a major feat of military engineering, but it was worth it. It helped to focus things, it was a complication for the enemy, and we did not allow ourselves to sit around waiting for things to happen. Its strength depended upon vigorous patrolling and ambushing, and that was our job. In time, it played a major part in the defeat of the enemy.
I commanded two platoons high up on the Hornbeam Line for much of my time in Dhofar. At a height of about four thousand feet, near the edge of the escarpment, the views were spectacular. The next position to my south was only five kilometres away, but to get to it, one had to climb down three and a half thousand feet and then three thousand feet up again on the other side. This meant half a day’s strenuous effort and another half a day[‘s] even more strenuous effort to get back again, so we didn’t do it very often. But we could shout across and be heard if there was no wind. One time I did make the effort was Christmas Day 1973. Angus Ramsay, the commander of the neighbouring company and Charlie Daniel another Royal Marines batchmate, and I didn’t feel very Christmassy because the war had to continue. But it was quiet enough on the day itself, apart from our own mortars.
Intelligence suggested that there was a party of Adoo some five or eight kilometres out to our east waiting up as a reception party for a camel train about to come through the wire. We decided to try and move them on, and disrupt the resupply operation. I took half the company, together with a four man detachment of SAS and Johnny took the other half.
The idea was that we would move at night, laager up at first light in defensive positions, and lie in wait to see what happened. If the enemy had seen you, he would often attack. He rarely discovered all your positions, so one portion of the company was usually in a good position to give him a good pasting, especially since we always moved within range of our own mortars, and sometimes artillery … On this occasion, I was operating near the Wadi Sha’ath to the east of the Hornbeam Line. At dawn, there was no sight of anybody anywhere. By way of having a second cast, at Johnny’s request, I moved my two platoons a little further to the east, one on the ground, one moving. As I was crossing a low ridge, I came under machine gun fire from my front. I hit the ground and found myself next to an SAS trooper named Kent. He had a huge rucksack and was carrying a General Purpose Machine Gun – a GPMG.
As he got into position, I started calling on my hand held radio for mortar and gun support. I loaded his weapon for him, lying next to him on his left side. I couldn’t see exactly where the fire was coming from, but had a pretty good guess and directed him on to it. He fired a burst. Fire was returned. I redirected him to where this had come from and he fired a couple of burst in that direction, with me putting more bullets on to his belt as he did so. He fired another couple of bursts then his head slumped forward onto his machine gun and blood spurted out from his face, lying next to mine. He had been hit, but it seemed to me that if it had been a head wound, it may not have been fatal, because although there was a lot of blood, the head was not as damaged as it should have been if he head taken the full force of a bullet. But he definitely wasn’t conscious, so I heaved at him trying to pull and roll him backwards into cover.
His huge rucksack did not help. We were now under fire from at least two positions … I wasn’t doing very well with Kent on my own and was joined by four other brave men: Corporal Wildman and Trooper McLaren of the SAS detachment, one of my own men Corporal Hamid Khamis, and another Omani from his section. We tried to grab Kent and pull him back, but Corporal Hamid was hit and went down. Then Corporal Wildman was shot in the thigh so we scrambled back into what we thought was cover. Then Hamid’s man, Private Zayeed Khalifa was hit in the arm from a hitherto unseen position and we had to scramble again with our wounded to find more cover.
So out of the six men involved in this little skirmish, I was one of two who had not been hit. Hamid had gone down very hard … I thought he was dead. Kent was probably dead … The Northern Frontier Regiment had never left a body for the enemy, and the disgrace of being the first to do so was not something I wanted much for myself. Besides, they could be alive, and I felt we should go to almost any lengths to avoid leaving them to the Adoo’s tender mercies … with the help of the other platoon, we set about consolidating our position making it as safe as we could and fighting off attempts by the Addo to encircle us. I had by now managed to arrange supporting mortar fire.
The Adoo now made a concerted effort to surround us but by now I had been able to get through on another radio and call up aircraft. Two pairs of strikemasters supported us that day… I gave directions to one of the pairs who dropped a 500lb bomb about 400 yards to the west of where I wanted it. In the heat of the moment, in my next orders to him, I mixed up east and west and the following attack was on top of us. Fortunately he had no bombs left and he only machine gunned us, and no one was hit. But desperation is never far away in battle, and these things seem to happen very easily. ‘Own goals’ or ‘blue on blues’ are all to common and no soldier of any experience would deny it…
Johnny arrived with the rest of the company. In a rather agitated manner, I started explaining to him what had happened, but he wasn’t listening. He was fumbling around inside his equipment looking for his fags. He eventually produced a crumpled packet of Rothmans and passed one to me. I took it and lit up and drew very deeply. So we lay there, not speaking, while the enemy fire went over our heads and smoked a cigarette. I knew then that things were going to be alright. He then started to deploy his men and we at last got to a point to where we could set about recovering the bodies and their kit. John then got together a party of four men, briefed them, waited until an air attack came in and then ran out to grab Kent. The four men ran round the body and ran back again leaving John on his own. He too ran back, and ever patient, briefed them again, and this time succeeded in bringing Corporal Hamid in. Prodded by the example of my company commander, I pulled the same stunt with Kent, but while I was doing this, Johnny was also soon under fire, nipping about picking up bits of kit … The enemy soon seemed to think that the fun had gone out of this game because their fire subsided, and we were masters of the ground.
I was decorated with the Omani Distinguished Service Medal for Gallantry … a rough equivalent to the British Military Cross. Johnny got the Bravery Medal which we always assessed sits alongside the Distinguished Service Order. At first sight this action was a Complete Military Fuck Up, a CMFU, and it certainly felt like it at the time. For two men dead, and two men wounded, it seemed that we had achieved nothing but scare the pants off ourselves. But subsequent intelligence slowly revealed that we had killed five of the enemy and wounded at least as many more… We had also made it more difficult for them to resupply themselves through the Hornbeam Line, and that after all, is what we were trying to do in the first place.
It was only to be expected that the Adoo would use the tracks in their long treks from PDRY through our mountains to the central plains, and we tried to work out the most likely routes, and catch them out with land mines. Occasionally we were successful. One man went up on a mine laid by one of the other companies. We didn’t make any move to bury the body of this man, partly because we were afraid of our own mines, but also because it was felt that his corpse might be a disincentive for others. So he became something of a tourist attraction for patrols operating in that area. Photographs were taken. Soon the foxes had a go at him. He had once been an individual with his own name. Now he was the disarranged detritus of a sudden and desperate action in the night. He was rubbish. I had in the past been surprised when I had seen pictures in books on the First World War where soldiers were to be seen filing past corpses of their enemies with apparent indifference. Now I understood. During the battle compassion for one’s enemy can be fatal. After the battle, it is central to one’s humanity. The dividing line between the two has to be crossed at the appropriate moment and this is not always easily identified.
At midday on Friday 2 April 1982, 45 Commando was due to go on Easter leave. At 5 o’clock that morning, I was informed by telephone that the Unit had been recalled. It was as well the Argentinians had not invaded the day before. Nobody would have believed it. It was a pretty peculiar feeling being called to war by telephone from one’s bed. Time has not dimmed the memory of the sensation.
The next half hour was spent scarting around in torchlight in the garden shed trying to get some kit together. I was in camp ready to go almost anywhere by 0600. The fuss was cooling somewhat. Nevertheless, it was with some awe that we read the FLASH signal ordering us to prepare for amphibious operations in the South Atlantic.
We trained, we zeroed our weapons, we packed, we unpacked, and packed again. We listened to the news hourly and wondered if it was all real. The reality became easier to understand when I was dispatched to the parents of a marine in Glenrothes to tell them he had been last seen alive and well, fighting in South Giorgia. Although we thought he was safe as a prisoner, we could not be sure. They were steady, down to earth people who lived in a cleaner version of Ballymurphy. The father made my job easier by remarking that he had slogged his way through Burma for 4 years. Reality again appeared in the shape of a corporal who had fought and been captured on the Falklands. His quiet description of the battle and his experiences were listened to with great interest.
Preparations for landing went ahead. A number of plans were postulated and one was finally settled upon. Kit was packed and repacked and ways of carrying our ammunition tested. A surprise to most who had never been in action before was just how heavy the full scale of ammo is. I had serious doubts about the kit list that was produced. Not only was there kit in it that was wholly inappropriate for the Falkland environment, but we were told that we would carry only fighting order. Our bergans would be move by helicopter. I was convinced that in war there would never be enough spare helicopters to move our bergan packs around the countryside after us. My representations were overruled and into our bergans went a number of unnecessary items together with essential sleeping bags and spare rations. Thus, when we carried our packs, we were unnecessarily overloaded, and when we left them to be brought forward on completion of a march, we froze because they rarely materialised before dark. It was a lesson we could have avoided having to learn. Soon no man walked anywhere without the essentials on his back; and the essentials are all you need in any case. For the record, these are listed below:2 days rations in pockets plus the wherewithal to cook them. Torch, maps, spoon, water sterilising tablets. Weapon + ammunition + cleaning box
In fighting order:1 water bottle entrenching took [sic] pick or shovel waterproof trousers and jacket waterproof poncho (bivouac)
in pack on back:duvet suit, including boots sleeping bag spare socks, gloves 1 small tent pole and 6 pegs 3 rubber bungies straps
I fought the greater part of the campaign with this (and a hip flask) and nought else and by the time we had ironed out the wrinkles, my company and I could have gone on indefinitely.
It is not easy to describe one’s feelings before one is committed to battle. Fear, certainly, plays a part but it is not fear of death itself. It is more a sadness for the grief that will follow one’s death among one’s family. As a company commander responsible for the lives of some 150 men, I felt pretty lonely in that hour when our preparations were complete and before we moved off, but I am prepared to bet that each individual felt just as lonely in his own way. I found that I didn’t actually want anyone to speak to me. I spent my hour smoking a cigar and preparing myself to accept whatever disasters the night might bring – in a single word – praying. It was a mental exercise I would not care to have to repeat.
The march to the Forming-up Point from which we were to start our assault was a near nightmare. I had not appreciated how much the manpacking of the MILAN [anti-tank weapon] would slow us down. Instead of covering the relatively easy ground, which had been recce’d in about 3 hours, thus giving us an hour to spare, we took 6 hours. A piece of rock or a small stream that a man in normal fighting order would never have noticed, became a major obstacle to a man carrying his own kit plus a 30 pound weight round of MILAN ammunition.
We had something like 40 rounds and the company was constantly being split. To make matters worse, my route recce team manifestly failed to take us the easiest route. We eventually got there by cutting the Gordian knot and taking the most direct route, but not before we had stumbled and cursed our way over rocks and cliffs for half the night. I even managed to lose half the company on two occasions which meant further energy and time wasted going back to look for them. I lost one man, a key signaller, who became ill in the middle of it all … one man knocked himself out falling down a very steep slope. Phil Whitcombe, my second-in-command, managed to resuscitate him, and after some warm encouragement, he was persuaded to carry on! He had a lot of guts. It had been planned that radio silence would be imposed until the assault. I broke this almost immediately we left base … To Colonel Andrew Whitehead’s everlasting credit, he put me under no unreasonable pressure and said simply “carry on as planned, I will do nothing until I hear from you”. As a result of his patience and understanding, I was able to turn round to my commanders and say – “put the last 6 hours right behind you, and when you are completely ready, let me know and we will go”. Ten minutes later, 150 men were as good as new and the assault began.
I had given each rifle troop a portion of the company objective as their own objectives … 1 Troop had the lower end and were to lead the assault. When they were secure 3 Troop … would move through them and take the middle section and like wise … 2 Troop to clear the top. I had formed a heavy weapons section, and made the Company Sergeant Major … the commander. He had seven light machine guns and a number of 66mm anti-tank weapons. He was to move out parallel with the leading troop but 200 metres to the north and supprt all three troops in turn from the left flank. Company headquarters would be behind the leading troop at each stage … And that was essentially how it happened except it was a great deal easier that I feared it would be. Many of the enemy had gone.
The worst point of it all was the crossing of the open ground. We could see as we approached, the tracer from a heavy machine gun arching across towards a neighbouring hill from the top of our objective. However, I didn’t think that from where it seemed to be, it could depress sufficiently to hit us once we were in the rocks at the bottom of the objective. I watched the leading elements, the CSM and 1 Troop get to the river and then I lost them. It was with my heart in my mouth that I committed 3 Troop to the open ground, and followed close after them. That left only 2 Troop secure … and by then 1 Troop would almost be in the rocks the other side! James Kelly soon told me what I had begun to hope against hope for. He was secure in his objective and had met no opposition.
I dispatched David Stewart’s Troop through 1 Troop and followed him through the rocks myself. To my astonishment and relief, he eventually reported his objective was clear. He asked permission to exploit. I thought this was a good idea, as it would save time and if there were no enemy, well and good. If he met something, 2 Troop … could go through him. He was by now half way up the 1, 500 metre long feature. He soon ran into opposition. There were two machine guns on the top of the ridge which had seen him. Any attempts to close with them drew rifle fire from a few riflemen on the right hand side. He tried to move up the left hand side but found himself coming under fire from the northern feature which was now being attached [attacked) by Z and Y companies. I decided to pull them back, wallop the place with mortars and artillery and sent in 2 Troop. While 2 Troop were moving up, I decided to see what the MILAN could do and invited them to have a go. It would mean firing over our heads and we were nearer to the target than we were to him, but it would fill the gap before the artillery arrived. The round was fired. It is an extraordinary thing having a MILAN rocket fired over your head. We could see it coming towards us, quite slowly, it seemed, making a curious spluttering noise, quite unlike what I expected. It sounded almost friendly. We all involuntarily ducked but it must have passed about 30 feet above us, and when it hit, it produced a most satisfactory bang.
Soon 2 Troop were ready … but although mortars had given me one barrage of 8 rounds, I could not … get any artillery at all … I asked mortars to repeat their mission and ordered MILAN to fire another 2 rockets. The rockets came but the mortars then failed me too! Their base plates had disappeared into the soft ground and they were only able to support me with one solitary mortar. So we forgot about artillery and mortars and Chris Caroe took his men up the hill regardless.
It was an impressive performance. Not only were the enemy now using an anti-tank weapon, but they were lobbing the odd artillery shell over too. Caroe’s men picked and clambered their way round, up and over the rocks towards the enemy position. It was almost like fighting in a built up area. Two men cover while one man jumps over, leapfrog all the way. When I saw the ground the next day my heart missed a beat. It was much more rugged than I had envisaged and had I known what I was sending Caroe’s lot to go and do, I would have had serious doubts about their chances – but I would have had no alternative as there was only room for one group at a time.
By now he was involved in a right old ding dong battle at the top of the hill. They actually got on top but were forced off it by artillery. We then took our only casualty. Lance Corporal Montgomery and Marine Watson were both some 5 feet from the shell when it exploded. It picked them up and threw them several yards. Montgomery had broken or dislocated something in the shoulder and didn’t know if it was Tuesday or breakfast time. But he had no broken skin. Watson was unhurt, if just a trifle deaf…
The setback to the progress of 2 Troop was only temporary and they soon reapplied pressure on the machine gun posts. Eventually the leading section flushed the enemy out and we were secure on our objective. My headquarters was still being shot at in a desultory fashion by a half hearted rifleman on a flank. We ignored him. We were all safely tucked into the rocks and if he was going to be stupid enough to be around in the coming daylight, he deserved what was coming to him. But the shelling … was unpleasant. From now until 36 hours later we underwent intermittent shelling, and the intermittent nature of this shelling added greatly to the danger and uncertainty. They were only using two guns, but over the period, some 40 or 50 shells landed on the ridge among our positions, and the saddle between us and the rest of the unit became heavily cratered with many more … During a lull, I got out to have a pee. I hadn’t finished when I heard the dreaded whistle. The shell hit the ground at the same time I did. A healthy chunk of rock landed on my back. I measured the distance afterwards. It was nineteen paces.