Red Wolves of Yemen: The Struggle for Independence
by Vitaly Naumkin, The Oleander Press Ltd, 2004. Pp. xix + 393. Illus. Notes. Bibliog. Index. Map. Hb. £30. ISBN 0-906672-70-8.
For someone who worked for the British government in the ill-fated South Arabian Federation this is an especially fascinating book. Professor Naumkin has produced an insider’s account of the last years of British Aden focusing on the activities of the main nationalist movements, particularly the National Liberation Front (NLF). It was this highly successful guerrilla group which, having defeated its main rival, The Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY), formed the first indigenous government in South Yemen following the British withdrawal on 30 November 1967. Naumkin also deals with the first two years of post independence rule by the government of the People’s Republic of South Yemen (PRSY) up to the so called ‘Corrective Move’ (Marxist-speak for extreme left wing internal coup) which put in place the Arab World’s only Marxist regime. Professor Naumkin should know. His own political credentials were impeccable. And he was there. He was director of Aden’s Lenin Institute in 1968 and was on seemingly close terms with many of the NLF leadership who had so successfully harried the Colonial administration and then indulged in (often bloody) state building after they had come to power.
Although the tale he tells of increasingly effective nationalist armed opposition to British and Federation of South Arabian rule is a familiar one, it is extensively sourced (more so than any other work in English) from the nationalist viewpoint. The great preponderance of his Arab source material is from the archives of the NLF, or NF as Naumkin insists. This has its fascinating aspects. Certainly the British authorities knew very little about this organisation. It was underestimated as far as its discipline, training and armaments were concerned as the SAS found to its cost in the early stages of the Radfan operation in April/May 1964. It was at this time that the Radfani rebels earned their tabloid epithet: ‘Red Wolves’ and they quickly earned the respect of British troops and were more than a match for the indigenous Federal Regular Army (FRA) whom they outgunned in terms of modern and sophisticated light weapons. The NLF was eventually defeated militarily in the Radfan Mountains but it needed British military involvement to achieve this. An unsatisfactory feature of this book is the over-reliance put on NLF sources for claims of military success. Casualty figures for the ‘Colonial Authorities’ are breathtakingly exaggerated when compared, for example, with my own personal records of the incidents described. A mine explosion in Dhala under a military vehicle in 1964 led to claims by the NLF of 14 soldiers (including 4 officers) killed. In fact, and I was in Dhala at the time, the true figures was one soldier (FRA) slightly injured!
The NLF and other guerrilla organisations such as FLOSY had greater success in Aden itself where they effectively neutralised the government counter-terrorist organisations by assassinating key officials and eliminating agents, making it too dangerous for would-be informants. Here there was no need for Naumkin to exaggerate the effectiveness of the NLF in particular, although some of his statistics are again a trifle suspect when compared with official British sources.
This book makes an important and fresh contribution to the detailed history of the ‘liberation’ of Aden and is particularly illuminating on the period immediately following the establishment of the NF government of Qahtan al-Sha’bi as Britain pulled out. The inter-factional manoeuvres, the battle for power between left and right culminating in success for the Marxists as Al-Sha’bi was forced to resign in 1969 are recounted in minute detail obviously with the benefit of close personal knowledge. What a treasure trove of original research for future historians.
It is a shame that Professor Naumkin felt obliged to write such an important book in his quaint, at times archaic and generally imperfect English. Or having done so, did not ask a native English speaker to edit it. Descriptions of the Radfan rebels as ‘mutineers’ grate, as do literal translations of nationalist political jargon. Marxist terminology: ‘internal contradictions’, ‘bourgeoisie’, ‘reactionary elements’ also detract from the flow of the narrative. It’s only when Naumkin is summarising from his many British sources (an impressive bibliography) that he seems comfortable in our tongue and therefore more readable. The photographs from both British and nationalist sources are well chosen and adorn the text.
Minor blemishes apart, I strongly recommend ‘Red Wolves’ as essential reading for any serious scholar of this period of great drama in the Arabian Peninsula. Anyone there at the time will have memories rekindled. But the more general reader looking for easily absorbed enlightenment might prefer to pass.