The British Empire Library

Aden: The Curtain Falls:
The Memoirs of Dick Eberlie: Part 4, 1965 to 1967

by Dick Eberlie

John Ducker (HMOCS Aden 1960 - 1967)
This is the fourth of the volumes of the author's memoires and is partly an account of the author's private life, including the period during which he met and married his wife, and gives his impressions of the many people he met. Perhaps half of the book has this personal focus, set against the backdrop of the distinctive air-conditioned 'cocoon' which was life at Government House in Aden. This reviewer had some exposure to that in the early 1960s.

Aden was very different from most colonies in that it was also the busy locus of the Headquarters of the British Middle East Command (MECOM), with a complex inter-service command and control structure, senior officers of all three services, and associated specialised functions such as a Political Office, intelligence staff, large stores, fuel and explosive depots, an Aden Garrison command, operational units - several battalions of the army and the Royal Marines, several squadrons of the Air Force and various naval facilities. There was also a High Commission office providing policy advice and support services to the High Commissioner, which included a few Foreign Office personnel anticipating the eventual conversion of the office into an embassy, and bringing expertise and knowledge from around the Arab world. Aden was one of the busiest seaports in the world with a constant flow of ships in and out, including many passenger liners at a time when travel by sea was still normal, and travel by air a much smaller operation than today. There was much movement of both civilian and service personnel in and out of the Colony and anyone posted there was by no means isolated, as was the case in the district offices of the typical colony, and indeed in the up-country posts in the Eastern and Western Aden Protectorates.

In his position of Private Secretary to Sir Richard Turnbull, High Commissioner for Aden and South Arabia, Eberlie came into contact with the whole spectrum of people with whom the High Commissioner had official business, as well as those attending official or private events at Government House. As a consequence he came to know many of those engaged in running the country, both Arab and non-Arab. Within Aden Colony itself there was a Government comprising a Legislative Assembly, a Secretariat with various administrative, legal and other functions, ministries discharging technical functions, political parties and an active trade union movement. The Colony had since 1963 become a part of the nascent Federation of South Arabia, though its membership had only limited support within the Colony itself. The Federal Government was based at Al Ittihad, across the harbour from Steamer Point. It was intended that this would evolve into the State and government to which responsibility could be transferred at independence.

Within the Western Aden Protectorate, the British staff were seeking to foster the operation of the Federation in the 15 small states lying between Yemen to the north and the Indian Ocean. Within the Eastern Aden Protectorate, the British staff sought to strengthen the three larger and more remote states located there (Quaiti, Kathiri and Mahra) while they pondered the best way to approach independence - they were steadfastly opposed to joining the Federation.

Eberlie helped to facilitate an increasingly hectic series of consultations and negotiations under the leadership of Sir Richard Turnbull, addressing the local political and constitutional situation and the search for an amicable agreement for the future of the country. From 1963 onwards (especially during the period of Eberlie's service there) local opposition increased with international support; violence also increased steadily Latterly there was also much internal violence among the various contenders for power after independence. Apart from civil opposition among Aden politicians and the Trade Unions, these contenders included proscribed organisations operating outside the law, of which the National Liberation Front proved to be the most violent and effective in seizing power.

One insight Eberlie brings, of which officers on the ground may have been less aware than he was, is the extent to which the High Commissioner was constrained by policies and instructions emanating from HMG in London - more so than Turnbull had been used to when he was Governor of Tanganyika. This became inevitable when the decision was taken to close down the military base in Aden and the Foreign Office took over from the Colonial Office as the responsible ministry. Eberlie mentions no less than seven ministerial visits to Aden during his period in Aden, and numerous command-level military visitors. In addition Turnbull paid numerous visits to London.

Gradually, the increasing insecurity became the overwhelming preoccupation of the High Commissioner, the administration, and by 1965 of the armed forces too. Emergency powers were used, but they were in vain. Eberlie describes his increasingly frequent and depressing attendance, in a personal or official capacity, at funerals at the British cemetery in Silent Valley, Little Aden, of local civil servants, police officers, soldiers, civil officers posted from London and members of the public who had been killed, who included several of his colleagues and friends. Even children on holiday became casualties. This preoccupation with security frustrated all negotiations about the future of the country and increasingly the way in which the future of MECOM and the military base were perceived by the British Government. This has all been described and analysed elsewhere.

Eberlie reports on these developments but appears not to have been aware of the background to the Federation. In particular, he does not indicate that he was aware of the 1958 correspondence between Sir William Luce, when Governor of Aden, and the British Government in which Luce advised a radically different approach to the future of Aden, more in keeping, he asserted, "with modern trends and the realities of the situation". He had envisaged first a simple association of Colony and Protectorate on practical matters of government; second a firm constitutional arrangement for merger, the whole (including Aden Colony) to have protected status in treaty relationship with Britain, with provision for continuance of the military base; finally, independence of the new state within less than ten years. In making these proposals Luce forecast almost exactly what in the event did happen if measures such as these were not accepted. After prolonged consideration, HMG rejected Luce's proposals, largely to accommodate the Ministry of Defence which sought firm control of the land where its facilities would be situated. Doubtless Luce's proposals would have been hard argued also, but they did hold out the promise of a State with Aden at its core, giving nationalists something to aim for, as Malaya had done earlier. It might even have attracted the Eastern states to join it.

After the 1966 General Election, which it won, the Labour Government transferred responsibility for Aden Affairs from the Colonial Office to the Foreign Office and launched a new set of political and constitutional talks. The ministers leading these talks had not endeared themselves to any of the parties in Aden, but especially the traditional rulers of the Western states and their British advisers. The Government also launched a Defence Review resulting in a decision to close the Aden military base and circumscribe the defence commitment to the new state, to reduce costs. This was in clear breach of earlier undertakings, which demoralised supporters of the Federation. It was also inept to announce this decision at such a time as to induce Egypt to continue its military support to the Yemen and the contending parties, rather than withdraw from Yemen. In the absence of a political solution, efforts to limit the local conflict were unavailing.

When Sir Richard Turnbull was appointed High Commissioner, some of his former colleagues and friends muttered about a 'poisoned chalice'. Whether he considered it to be so, is not clear, but what perhaps he did not realise was how limited his discretion would be. It is not surprising therefore that many considered the manner of his removal from office in 1967 to have been brusque and ungracious. He laboured long and hard to achieve a better outcome, which was in the event unsuccessful, though the main responsibility lay elsewhere - with the decisions taken in London. Eberlie could not fail to have been touched by this outcome.

In summary, Eberlie has written a book which conveys much of the dynamic and tension of the time he was in Aden. For the general reader his depiction of the complexity and difficulty of the issues confronting Aden and its government, the circumstances of life in Aden at that time and his description of his part in the drama is vivid and convincing. It does not I think add a great deal to the literature on the official history of Aden Colony and the two Protectorates.

British Empire Book
Dick Eberlie
Read This Book


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe