British and Polish Mercenaries in 1960s Yemen

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Taiz, Yemen

Whether “Soldiers of Fortune”, “Dogs of War”, or, as they like to call themselves, “Advisers”, the adventures of mercenaries have always been the stuff of good yarns. Until, that is, the present time, as reports of atrocities committed by foreign mercenaries in Libya circulate around the world.

Now that Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh has lost the support of important tribal leaders, reports from that country state that he is using foreign mercenaries to prop up his 32 years in power. As the threat of civil war looms over Yemen, an account of covert British activity in an earlier war in that country has become a surprising best seller in London.

“The War That Never Was” by the British writer Duff Hart-Davis, is the latest in what seems to be an annual production of memoirs or accounts of Britain’s involvement in Yemen between 1962 and 1967. The war was triggered by an Egyptian-inspired coup d’etat in Yemen which removed the ruling Imam, effectively the monarch. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, backed by the Soviet Union, wanted to gain control of the Arabian peninsula, and sent in 70,000 troops in support of the new “Republicans” against the ousted “Royalists”. Nasser also wanted to remove the British from the port and city of Aden, as well as ending British influence throughout Southern Arabia. Soviet military equipment and personnel accompanied the Egyptians.

Patriotic Duty

Superbly sourced, the book evokes a Britain that disappeared decades ago. Even after the 1956 Suez fiasco, this was a time when British politicians and their top military still thought they were masters of the universe. As Hart-Davis writes, they thought it was a “British patriotic duty to support the Royalists against those ghastly Egyptians”. All non-British trained soldiers were useless, especially those trained by the US. As for the Arabs with whom they were fighting, one character is quoted saying, “You know the Arabs: money, rifles, a little all-out war is their cup of tea”.

But what the British did not understand was what it means for someone to hate. This was view of Rafal Gan Ganowicz, a Polish exile living in Paris and veteran of the Katanga mercenary wars in the 1960s Congo, writing in his earlier memoir, “Kondotierzy”. The title is a derivation of the Italian “condottieri”, after the mercenary soldier leaders of the Italian city states. Like his British counterparts, Gan Ganowicz was a stickler for the correct epithet.

Hatred

Gan Ganowicz came from a Polish Tatar family – Gan is a polonized version of Khan – and lived in a comfortable middle class district of Warsaw before 1939. His mother was killed just after the Germans invaded that year, his father perished in the 1944 Warsaw uprising, and he watched with horror as the Soviet army murdered, raped and pillaged its way through his country in name of liberation. And he learnt to hate. Escaping from Poland under a train as the new communist authorities were murdering, imprisoning and deporting all opposition, he lived first in Germany and then in France where he received military training.

Driving a Lorry in Africa

Gan Ganowicz vowed the fight communism anywhere in the world, and his hatred of it became psychotic. For others who joined mercenary groups in Africa and later in Yemen, money, adventure and just something to do were the motivations. Compulsory national service in Britain only ended in 1960 and provided a source of trained manpower for the decade. Many veterans of the African and Yemeni wars were university graduates who recycled themselves around the oil, mining and insurance industries, often in London, and would recollect their adventures as, “driving a lorry in Africa, NOT in the army”.

The Yemen mercenaries were financed by Saudi Arabia. Those organised from London signed up for indeterminate periods. Some stayed an entire stretch of two years, living in primitive conditions like troglodytes in caves to shelter from aerial bombing. If the Royalists captured any Russian military personnel, these would be handed over the British, who in turn would send them back to Moscow.

Israel The Winner

Egypt lost 20,000 of its 70,000 men in Yemen to Royalists fighters organised into effective groups by about 300 British and European mercenaries. But the real winner was Israel. Israeli military aircraft dropped weapons, ammunitions and food supplies in some 18 sorties to Yemen. In the process, Israel learnt valuable intelligence about the Egyptian army and its tactics. One third of the Egyptian army was tied up in Yemen when the June 1967 Six-Day War broke out.

In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, Saudi Arabia seemed to the British mercenary organisers to have lost interest in Yemen. The British government also wanted to end the operations it had always denied publicly. British soldiers gradually withdrew from Yemen, and later from Aden.

Bombing

It was in 1968 in Paris when Gan Ganowicz signed a six-month renewable contract with the Saudis. Four and a half months of this would be spent in Yemen and the remainder on holiday in Europe. Arriving on the Saudi-Yemeni border at Najran the first spectacle he witnessed was British soldiers burning the corpses of some of their own number out in the open. The ashes would be sent back to relatives in England.

Lieutenant Colonel Neil McLean, known as “Billy”, an aristocratic Scottish Conservative MP for Inverness who had been involved in setting up the earlier British mercenary efforts, was still travelling around the Arabian peninsula in support of the Yemeni Royalists. Gan Ganowicz would chauffeur him in a jeep, sometimes together with the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Gan Ganowicz shared his earlier British counterparts’ views that Thesiger was a puny, mean-minded hypocrite.

Gan Ganowicz continued his private war against communism in Yemen blowing up a viaduct near the coastal port of Hodeidah. A three-man group comprising himself, one French and one Belgian mercenary shot down a Soviet-manned MIG-29 fighter plane. In the cockpit, the Russian pilot, who was killed, one Colonel Kozlov, had a list of Soviet pilots deployed in Yemen. This list was handed over to the Saudis.

Gan Ganowicz left Yemen when the war ended in 1970 and returned to a frustrating life in Paris. He lived to see the end of communism, returning to Poland where his greatest happiness, as he told friends, was to hug his beloved birch trees in a Polish forest. Many of the British mercenaries returned to comfortable lives in the British establishment.

And the sum total of their efforts? Yemen remains on the brink.

Sources:

  1. Duff Hart-Davis. The War That Never Was. The True Story of the Men Who Fought Britain’s Most Secret Battle. Randon House. 2011.
  2. Rafal Gan Ganowicz. Kondotierzy. Wydawnictwo Alfa. 1999. (In Polish).