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Mapping the coast of Mahra

by COLIN RICHARDSON

Squadron-Leader Richardson served with the RAF in Aden and Oman in the late 1950s. After retiring from the RAF in 1973 he returned to Oman to serve as a ground attack pilot with the Sultan’s Air Force. Later, he was stationed for many years on Masirah, and is the author of ‘Masirah: Tales from a Desert Island’, Pentland Press, 2001 (reprinted 2004 by Midland Counties Publications, 4 Watling Drive, Hinckley, LE10 3EY).

Background

In 1957, Mahra country, although depicted on the map as part of the Eastern Aden Protectorate (EAP), was unadministered; and due to its harsh topography and the fiercely independent spirit of its people it was largely inaccessible to foreign visitors. The main townships were Saihut, Qishn and Ghaidha on the coast. Its economy depended on fishing (and the export of fish oil and dried shark), on the rearing of camels and goats, and on a little subsistence agriculture. The region was inhabited by a patchwork of scattered tribal entities: proud, predatory, and trigger-happy; united only in their hostility to outside interference. Their titular ruler, the Sultan of Qishn and Soqotra, was in treaty relations with the British but resided on the island of Soqotra, some 300 miles south of the Mahra mainland. A branch of his clan, the Bin Afrar, was settled in Qishn, exercising limited influence but no control over the local tribes. Following his accession in 1953, Sultan ‘Isa bin Ali bin Afrar, paid a brief visit to the mainland and returned there in 1955. During his second visit Mahra tribal leaders agreed to recognise him as suzerain in return for his undertaking not to bring the British into their territory. Although absolute ruler of his island kingdom, the Sultan lacked the will and resources to assert his position on the mainland. Until 1963, British penetration of Mahra was confined to the Northern Deserts, and was largely dictated by considerations of border security and the need to protect geological survey parties exploring for oil. By 1957, military posts had been established in the north at Sanau and Habarut. These were manned by the Hadhrami Bedouin Legion (HBL), a lightly armed force recruited from the EAP tribes and under British control. Modelled on Jordan’s Arab Legion, the HBL was initially trained and led by Jordanian officers. Between 1949–1958, the EAP was in the charge of Colonel (later Sir Hugh) Boustead who won renown as soldier and administrator in Sudan. In his capacity as Resident Adviser and British Agent, Mukalla (capital of the Qu’aiti Sultanate in Hadhramaut), Boustead devoted his paternalist energies to the welfare and development of the EAP states.1 His political staff included Major I.E. (Jock) Snell who was responsible for Mahra affairs until his appointment as Commandant of the HBL in 1957. Snell’s several visits by sea to the Mahra mainland (Saihut, Qishn and Ghaidha) in the early 1950s, his more extended trips to Soqotra, and his tribal contacts in the Northern Deserts gave him an unrivalled knowledge of the Mahra and their leading personalities. - Editor


In 1957 I was a pilot with the RAF’s Venom ground attack squadron based in Aden. We spent about a third of our time detached to Sharjah for the Jebel Akhdar Campaign, and another third doing forward air control (FAC) work up-country with the Aden Protectorate Levies.

One day I was told that I was required for a FAC assignment in the Eastern Aden Protectorate (EAP), and that I was to be put ashore there from the survey ship HMS Owen. I was to board the ship at Mukalla, together with a Royal Engineers (RE) survey team and a Hadhrami Bedouin Legion (HBL) escort. The landings were all to be done at night for ‘astro’ position fixes.

Astro-fixes had been carried out along much of the south Arabian coastline but not along the 200 miles immediately south-west of Dhofar: the coast of Mahra as far as the border with Hadhramaut. Detailed vertical photographs had been taken from a photo-reconnaissance aircraft, but identifiable features had to be determined in latitude and longitude. Mukalla, where the British Resident Adviser, Colonel Hugh Boustead, and his staff were based, was situated some 260 miles up the coast north-east of Aden. For the past eight years Boustead had advised that it was too dangerous to carry out landings on the Mahra coast, but he now judged it safe enough provided our survey party had appropriate air cover; he had asked for a Shackleton. I was told that no Shackleton would be available but that cover would be provided by a pair of Venom jets at RAF Salalah, the closest airfield to where the survey party would be put ashore.

I was instructed to fly to RAF Riyan, about 14 miles east of Mukalla, on the weekly Riyan/Salalah/Masirah resupply transport aircraft, and to take FAC equipment with me. Like Salalah, RAF Riyan was a small staging post with natural surface runways.

HMS Owen had sailed to Soqotra to obtain permission from the Mahra Sultan for the proposed survey landings. While waiting at Riyan for the ship to return, I happened to be in the air traffic control tower when I noticed a trail of dust on the track from Mukalla. A Land Rover was approaching. The vehicle stopped on the far side of the airfield, and through binoculars I saw several retainers jump out and set up two chairs and a table under a sun umbrella. The Land Rover then drove over to the camp with the message that Colonel Boustead would like to see Flying Officer Richardson. So I climbed in and was driven to where Colonel Boustead was sitting. He motioned to me to sit down. ‘Richardson’, he said, ‘Do I get my Shackleton?’

I had to explain that a Shackleton could only do pre-planned bombing from an altitude of 8000 feet above the target, a ponderous operation without any guarantee of an accurate strike. I told the Colonel that, instead, two Venom jets, which had more appropriate fire power than a Shackleton, would be on standby at Salalah. This seemed to satisfy him, and he generously invited me to stay at the Residency in Mukalla until HMS Owen arrived from Soqotra.

My FAC kit consisted of ground marker panels, a couple of small Pye VHF sets, and some flares which were extremely bright and emitted plenty of coloured smoke to show the FAC’s position. A day or two later HMS Owen 2 arrived and we all embarked; the RE survey team comprising four sappers and a sergeant was led by a Captain Mills. The Commandant of the HBL, Jock Snell, who had expert knowledge of the Mahra tribes, and Colonel Boustead’s Bedouin Affairs Assistant, Major Abdullah Sulaiman (a Jordanian), had gone with the ship to Soqotra and were already on board. We sailed east towards the Mahra coast on 10 December.

It was decided to do the first astro-fix at Jadhib, a village just west of Hauf, close to the Dhofar border. Colonel Snell and Major Abdullah Sulaiman were rowed ashore on 11 December to contact the local headman and village elders, and ask if we could land that evening. The headman told them that he himself had no objection but that he could not answer for the Bait Bra’afit tribe in the hills behind the village, and that he would first need to consult them. He requested Snell and Abdullah Suleiman to return the following morning for an answer. I was keen to go with them, and this was agreed. We were met on the beach by the headman and taken to his house. Dark passages and a flight of steps brought us to an upper room where some 30 Mahra were sitting on the carpeted floor, with their backs against the walls. In deference to their host, they had left their rifles outside. After removing our shoes we sat down opposite the headman. The first half hour was spent chatting about fishing and the weather over tiny glasses of syrupy tea and a communal bowl of camel’s milk. Colonel Snell told me that a few years previously a British frigate had tracked a pirate dhow to Jadhib and had arrested its owner, Shaikh Sa’ad bin Sa’id bin Ali Muqaddam. Sa’ad had been tried in Aden and sentenced to five years imprisonment. His appeal had been rejected and he had been imprisoned in Crater, Aden. This had caused a storm of protest in Mahra, where he was a prominent and respected figure. Both the Sultan and Colonel Boustead had taken up his case with the Aden authorities. Finally, in January 1955, the Governor of Aden had been persuaded to order Sa’ad’s release. Sa’ad had returned to Mahra that same month amid much local rejoicing. Snell added that Sa’ad was the village headman’s brother and was sitting next to him.

Snell had chosen Jadhib as the survey’s starting point because he was on friendly terms with the Bin Ali Muqaddam clan, and had a letter of recommendation from the Mahra Sultan. I knew no Arabic, let alone Mahri which no European then spoke, but it soon became apparent from the chorus of angry voices and the menacing gestures of some of the tribesmen present that the mood of the discussions was becoming increasingly tense. Snell told me to look unconcerned and to keep smiling. I later learnt that much of the anger was directed at Sultan ‘Isa for breaking his undertaking to the Mahra at Ghaidha in 1955 not to bring the British into their territory. They resented the fact that the British had recently established an HBL post in Habarut, and suspected that the mapping survey was a pretext for further intrusion into their affairs. Snell failed in his attempts to reassure the sceptics, and the Sultan’s letter was brushed aside. Finally, Snell was told that although the villagers did not object to the proposed survey, the Bait Bra’afit tribe, who were already manning the heights above the beach, would strongly oppose it. So we returned to the ship. It was now clear that we would need to select deserted sites for our survey landings, and that these should be carried out in as stealthy a manner as possible.

We now sailed south-west towards Ras Fartak, the prominent cape between Qishn and Ghaidha, where the ship took offshore depth soundings throughout the night. The following day (13 December) it was decided to do a landing on the rocky tip of Ras Fartak, but as we steamed close inshore we saw a village there which had not been noticed on the aerial photograph. So we proceeded north up the cliff-bound coast for seven miles until we spotted a small shingle beach at the mouth of a wadi, which looked deserted. A small reconnaissance party went ashore and judged it to be suitable for the survey. I signalled the Venoms at Salalah to stand by and went ashore at dusk with the RE and naval survey teams and our HBL escort. The next morning (14 December) we left shortly after dawn without incident, although very soon afterwards a dhow sailed into the cove. Back at the ship I sent a signal to the Venoms telling them to stand down. Meanwhile, the ship continued to take depth soundings. In the evening the RE and naval survey teams returned to the cove for the second night’s astro-fix. Unfortunately a dhow observed our landings, so we decided to pull out before dawn, immediately after the survey was completed. We left at 0300 hours helped by the light of a half moon. I again signalled the Venoms to stand down. This was the first signal that they had received from me. They thought it meant that the survey had ended, and, unbeknown to me, flew back to Aden. Thus, for the remainder of the survey, in the event of our being pinned down by hostile tribesmen, we had no air cover, but I was blissfully unaware of this until I returned to Aden.

On 15 December we sailed 70 miles west where between Saihut and Atab we spotted another isolated beach. Snell had first visited this area in 1953.3 We landed at dusk, this time without the naval survey team. As usual the HEL piqueted the nearby hills. The Royal Engineers completed their astro-fix by 2200 hours. The moon had not yet risen, so the surf boats were loaded by the strong orange light of the flares which I had brought with me.

We returned to the beach the following day (16 December), but that afternoon a party of tribesmen from Saihut arrived led by Sultan Sa’id bin Sa’ad bin Afrar who ordered us to leave. So we sailed on further west, stopping near the village of Musaina’a on the border between Mahra and the Qu’aiti state. Musaina’a was not on the original list of points to be surveyed but there was an HBL fort there and it was a safe haven. The survey team was landed shortly before midnight. We remained anchored off Musaina’a during 17 December. The ship’s doctor was taken ashore to treat, amongst other ailments, four cases of gunshot wounds which had occurred during a feu de joie at a wedding. At dusk we sailed east again and the following afternoon (18 December) we spotted a suitable beach to the immediate west of Damqut. As Damqut was not many miles distant from Jadhib, where we had been refused permission to land nearly a week earlier, it was sensible to assume that its inhabitants had heard about our visit and would be on the alert. So to disguise our intentions the ship turned and headed out to sea. At dusk the ship, having been completely blacked out, crept back towards the beach which we had selected. Everybody assembled on the offshore side of the ship with no light showing; not even the glow of cigarettes. There was no moon. Two surf boats were lowered into the sea, and despite the heavy swell and the need to operate in complete darkness, the crews managed to take safe delivery of the delicate equipment handed down to them. At last the two surf boats, heavily laden, rowed towards the coast, their oars creating pools of phosphorescence as they dipped in the water. It was nearly half an hour before we reached the line of breakers offshore. We now had to grapple with the worst surf that we had yet encountered. My boat nearly turned over; men and equipment were drenched. Once beached, the crews only just managed to hold the boats down and prevent them from being carried away by the pounding waves while we were unloading them.

Miraculously all the equipment worked, and the survey was finished by 0200 hours. The ship was informed by radio and the surf boats soon returned to collect us. This proved a difficult operation and a painful one for crew members who cut their feet and legs on the underwater coral. Everyone suffered total immersion as they floundered out to the boats with armfuls of expensive equipment. By the time we had got beyond the breakers, the boats were so full of water that only their buoyancy chambers kept us afloat. The steering oar of my boat had been broken on the rocks, and our course back to the ship was correspondingly erratic.

On 19 December the ship completed its depth soundings off Ras Fartak. That evening we once again blacked out before approaching the beach near Saihut where on 16 December we had been warned off by Sultan Sa’id bin Sa’ad. The swell was almost as heavy as it had been at Damqut the previous night. The survey team reached the shore completely soaked, and it was some time before the radio and timing apparatus could be made to work. We were all frozen to the marrow when the surf boats came to pick us up at 0200 hours. We suffered another drenching on the way back to the ship and were glad to change into dry clothes and get warm.

On 20 December a Shackleton arrived to drop the ship’s mail, and we then headed back to Musaina’a to carry out a second night’s astro-fix near the HBL fort there. This completed the survey, and the morning of 21 December found us anchored off Mukalla, our voyage over. For a young airman of twenty-three, it was an exhilarating experience, which I have enjoyed re-living in writing this account from the notes I recorded so long ago.


Notes

1 For an account of Sir Hugh Boustead’s remarkable life, see his autobiography, The Wind of Morning, Chatto & Windus, 1971, reprinted in paperback by Craven Street Books, 2002.

2 HMS Owen was commanded by Captain (later Rear Admiral) Geoffrey Hall. He gives an account of the vessel’s visit to Soqotra and survey of the Mahra coast in pp.137–140 of his book, Sailor’s Luck: At Sea & Ashore in Peace & War, The Memoir Club, Durham, 1999.

3 Harold and Doreen Ingrams made a pioneering journey from Hadhramaut to Saihut via Wadi Masila in 1934. In late 1946 Major T. (Tony) Altounyan, a British officer of Syrian/Armenian origin, made another pioneering trip through Mahra country, travelling by camel along the coast from Raidat Abdul Wadud to Saihut; by sea from Saihut to Qishn; thence by camel to Ghaidha, and inland via Mur’ait to Tarim. He travelled unarmed, with local guides and letters of introduction from Sultan Ahmad bin Abdullah bin Afrar of Qishn to the tribes through whose territory he planned to travel. This reconnaissance was commissioned by Petroleum Concessions Ltd (PCL), a subsidiary of the Iraq Petroleum Company. Altounyan returned to Mahra with a small PCL geological survey party in 1947.

August 2005