The Gaysh: A History of the Aden Protectorate Levies 1927–61 and the Federal Regular Army of South Arabia 1961–67

The Gaysh: A History of the Aden Protectorate Levies 1927–61 and the Federal Regular Army of South Arabia 1961–67 

by Frank Edwards, Helion & Co., Solihull, 2004. Pp. ix + 180. Illus. Maps. Bibliog. Index. Glossary. Append. Hb. £29.95. ISBN 1-874622-96-5.

In the foreword to his book Frank Edwards modestly denies any pretensions to scholarship; his account, he insists, is ‘a story told in a personal way and full of personal opinion.’ Personal it is, in that the author was an officer in the Federal Regular Army (FRA). Nevertheless, I, with my own South Arabian background, found it an extremely good read, giving a fresh and entertaining insight into the development of an important instrument of attempted colonial and, later, neo-colonial control over the ultimately doomed South Arabian Federation. This book is, in effect, a companion volume to Armed Forces of Aden 1839–1967 by Cliff Lord and (the late) David Birtles (Helion, 2000), which is a comprehensive account of all the military and paramilitary units which existed in Aden and the Protectorates throughout the British period.

Frank Edwards does not draw directly upon Lord and Birtles (but acknowledges the latter’s research), as his book was originally written in 1967/68 and has only now been published at a time of intense interest in the Middle East. Nor does he bring the story of the FRA right up to the time of British withdrawal in November 1967. As the Aden Protectorate Levies (APL) metamorphosed into the FRA, the latter, in its turn, was transformed in early 1967 into the South Arabian Army (SAA), incorporating the former Federal Guard 1 (a national gendarmerie) in preparation for the emergence of the South Arabian Federation as a sovereign, independent state. But the Federation collapsed, leaving control of the new state in the hands of the neo-Marxists of the National Liberation Front (NLF), as the British pulled out, precipitately abandoning their usual practice of ordered and measured de-colonisation. The book ends with the formation of the SAA, and in his preface Frank Edwards regrets that he never got round to narrating how the army fared in the tumultuous months of 1967 and what happened to it after independence. One man who is well-qualified for this task is Major-General Jack Dye, the first and only British Commander of the SAA. Frank Edwards sent Dye the manuscript of his work, but the latter, in his reply dated May 1969 (reproduced at the front of the book), felt that as a serving officer his lips should remain sealed.

The strength of this book is in its vivid, atmospheric account of the early days of the APL, the descendant of the 1st Yemen Infantry commanded by the legendary Lt. Col. M. C. Lake, an early Glubb Pasha-like personage. The Infantry, confined to Aden Colony, was subsequently replaced, on primarily financial grounds, by a smaller force of levies (still under Lake) deployed on mostly static guard duties in Aden Settlement and the two dependent islands of Perim and Kamaran. The wider defence of the Protectorates and the security of trade routes were covered from the air (in accordance with the Trenchard philosophy of Imperial Policing), with troops rarely committed on the ground. But as HMG became, however reluctantly, involved in a more informed approach to tribal affairs when these seemed to threaten the security of Aden itself, the APL was founded to deal with outbreaks of ‘dissidence’ where air power provided a blunt and inefficient remedy. As Political Officers began to operate in the hinterland, the APL provided the necessary muscle in the long arm of the Raj. But the RAF was always there in support. Later still, the APL was bloodied in a series of up-country engagements and other internal security operations (very few in Aden itself), which culminated in quite fierce fighting in the 1950s against well-armed tribesmen encouraged in their subversive activities by the Imam of Yemen; the latter, like his predecessors, never abandoned Yemeni claims to the whole of South-West Arabia.

The formation of the Federation saw the APL transformed into the FRA. Frank Edwards served as a seconded officer with the FRA in the 1960s, including in Radfan. Here British troops were in support of, and at times in command of, Federal forces facing Egyptian-funded and trained revolutionaries who in many cases bore arms more modern and more effective than those at the disposal of the FRA. Although the author records the murder of a British officer by a FRA soldier in 1965, there is little in his account about how he perceived the loyalty of the Arab soldiers. Faced with the raucous and persistent volume of anti-British and anti-Federal propaganda from Sana’a Radio and Nasser’s ‘Sawt al-Arab’, and given the generally unimpressive performance of the Federal rulers and of a Federal structure which, from the outset, had little sense of permanence, it is a wonder how loyal the FRA remained: the more so after the British announced that they would withdraw from Aden in 1968 – without a treaty of defence and abandoning their base. In the end the British dropped the mask of political neutrality and weighed in on the side of the NLF during the final showdown with its main rival for control of post-British South Arabia.

This is an important contribution to the history of those times. I agree with Frank Edwards that the story of the FRA needs to be completed, but his is an excellent and highly readable account on which future historians can build.

Peter Hinchcliffe

Frank Edwards