The British Empire Library

Without Glory In Arabia: The British Retreat from Aden

by Peter Hinchcliffe, John Ducker and Maria Holt

Courtesy of OSPA

John G R Harding (HMOCS Aden Protectorate 1960-65)
Aden, Queen Victoria's first imperial acquisition in 1839 and Britain's only Arab Crown Colony, predated most of its African colonies by over fifty years and survived all save Swaziland. Yet, while Britain's African exit was generally ordered and harmonious, Aden's abandonment in 1967 was abrupt and inglorious. Why should this have been when by 1960 Aden, Britain's most important foreign base, was enjoying unmatched prosperity, sophisticated social services, the rule of law and the prospect of steady political evolution?

Two of this book's authors witnessed the final years of British rule and are well qualified to answer this question. John Ducker's meticulously researched analysis of the historical and constitutional background, HMG's policy overall, and the neglect of the Eastern Aden Protectorate opens fresh and important perspectives. Peter Hinchcliffe, the project's initiator, has woven together a collection of vignettes which vividly illustrate the vicissitudes and dangers of political and military life. Robin Young's diaries portray the dilemmas of a loyal senior officer whose idealistic vision turned to dust. Sir Richard Turnbull's memoire acidly summarises the overwhelming task that faced him as Aden's penultimate High Commissioner. Maria Holt's oral history, collated 36 years on from British and Arab sources, may fit less comfortably but reassures us that some aspects of British rule were appreciated. James Nash's poem Aden encapsulates the whole bittersweet experience.

Britain's retreat from Aden was not determined by Islamic radicalism but by Arab nationalism, Nasser's ambitions, the Yemen Revolution, worldwide anti-imperialism, lukewarm American support, successive sterling crises and ultimately a failure of will. Although successive 20th century British governments accepted imperial disengagement as inevitable, it became an article of faith that the Aden military base must be retained at almost any cost. By 1961, as HQ Middle East Command, it maintained 15,000 British servicemen with wide ranging strategic responsibilities - above all the Gulf's oil. Military expenditure took absolute priority. Little Aden's Falaise Camp (completed just as we left) cost thirty six times the entire 1964/67 Federal development budget. If Nasser was Britain's bugbear, Aden became its albatross.

Turnbull described the ill fated Federation (designed to unify and safeguard Aden and the tribal states) as a 'ramshackle contrivance'. But in principle the concept had long been supported by Arab nationalists and eventually became the catalyst for the modern Yemen Republic. Unfortunately, Britain's model was flawed due largely to its policy of cynical parsimony that had created an unbridgeable economic, political and social chasm between Aden and the Protectorate and an unworkable constitution that gave unelected tribal rulers excessive powers and over-representation.

Even so Without Glory poses some tantalizing 'What ifs?'. For example: If Governor Luce's radical proposals for early merger, independence and generous development aid had not been rejected in 1958 and then repudiated in 1964. If the Foreign and Colonial Offices and MOD had agreed a common policy. If Adeni politicians and Federal rulers had sunk their differences. If the military had been given freer rein to counter dissidence and terrorism. If Saudi Arabia had been brought into the loop earlier. If Britain's solemn treaty undertakings to defend the Federation had not been shredded by the 1966 Defence White Paper.

Six months before the British quit Aden, Nasser lost the Six Day War and withdrew his 50,000-strong Egyptian Army from the Yemen. But Britain, now cutting its losses, could only stand by while the revolutionaries took over. The NLF's anti-capitalist crack down and the Suez Canal's closure spelled the end of Aden's commercial prosperity and marked the start of two decades of Marxist mayhem, oppression and austerity.

Overall, I warmly commend this book with two major reservations. First, the vital contributions made by Aden's public servants, the Aden Port Trust, the BP Refinery and the many British, French, Indian, Arab and other foreign commercial firms that made the place hum, earn barely a mention. Secondly, little is recorded of the loyal Arab rulers and officials who plighted their troth and got nothing in return. Lord Trevelyan, Aden's last High Commissioner tasked to wind it all up, sourly concluded that "Our period of occupation did the country little permanent good, for all the selfless work of many devoted Englishmen". Yet it was Britain's promotion of the free movement of goods, capital and labour and its imposition of law, order and governance that lifted Aden from a mean fishing village to become the 'Hong Kong of the Middle East'. HMG might have rebuffed the Yemen Republic's 1997 overtures to join the Commonwealth but 90,000 British citizens of Yemeni origin have chosen to live here.

British Empire Book
Peter Hinchcliffe, John Ducker and Maria Holt
I B Tauris
1 84511 140 0


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