Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law: Aden and the End of the Empire
Dr: Aaron Edwards
During the years of the conflict in Aden I was a schoolboy..moving from Primary to Grammar education in 1966. This was of course pre-conflict, as we in Northern Ireland know it,-although the fledgling UVF were making themselves known. On a worldwide stage the Vietnam War dominated the news and
Dr: Aaron Edwards
was broadcast live into our living rooms. No teatime was complete without the latest bulletin from Saigon or Hanoi. By 1966 the little known colonial outpost in the Middle East-Aden-was starting to creep into our vocabulary. Aden, an area of South Yemen had been a Crown Colony since 1937 when it became separated from British India and had always been occupied by British forces. Aden had long been one of the most important trading ports in the Middle East and its situation meant that it was invaluable to trading between Britain and the Far East. Since it’s inception in the late 30’s Aden had always had sporadic bouts of upheaval and violence-mainly due to the numerous factions co—habiting. During the War Years there was an upsurge in violence directed at Jewish settlers who eventually would leave when the new state of Israel emerged from the British mandate of Palestine.
By the early sixties again there were rumblings from the myriad of factions in Aden. There was by this time a growing number of anti-British guerrilla groups..all with varying political objectives. Out of this quagmire there basically emerged two main organisations. On the one hand you had the NLF—the national Liberation Front, and on the other FLOSY—Front for the Liberation of South Yemen. Both of these fanatical organisations not only fought the British but more often than not each other. Over the next couple of years both of these organisations waged a campaign of militancy ranging from street disorder and riots to shooting and grenade attacks against the British Forces. In December 1963 an attack occurred at Aden airport where a grenade was launched at troops injuring a number of them. This sparked the Aden Emergency..which would last until 1967. During that time the targets for the guerrillas were mainly off duty soldiers and policemen. Crater town was traditionally the old Arab quarter of Aden and it was here that most of the trouble and anti British activity occurred. By July the trouble had escalated and tension rose further during the Six Day War between Israel and Arab States in early June. In one incident 22 British soldiers were killed. By this stage it is estimated that there were at least 400 NLF and FLOSY guerrillas within Crater City. The escalating trouble became too much for the Police hence the introduction of British Troops to quell the unrest. On the 5th July 1967 the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders under the command of Lt. Colonel Colin Mitchell..who would later earn the sobriquet Mad Mitch because of his actions..marched into Crater..accompanied by fifteen regimental pipers, and took command of the area. By the next morning Mitchell had regained control of Crater and amazingly without loss of life. From then until the eventual withdrawal of British troops from Aden in November Mitchell managed to keep control. There were many stories of his hard line tactics—some allegations of atrocities but during his tenure as a “peacekeeper” in Crater there was only one fatality. After the withdrawal of British Forces from Aden the area was declared the Peoples Republic of South Yemen. Mitchell remained as a soldier for a few more years before entering politics in the early seventies and latterly taking up a position of a security expert in later years.
The author has produced a wonderful book. His research is overwhelming and he has managed to present a fantastic addition to the British Military tomes. Edwards must have felt an affinity towards Mitchell such is the in-depth research and certainly at times we could be forgiven for thinking that they may have been close friends. Again this is testimony to the extraordinary amount of investigative studies involved. For the reader the book perfectly encapsulates an era of the rapidly diminishing British Empire…and the extent to which Britain would go to in clinging on to the last vestiges of times gone by. Edwards doesn’t get bogged down in militaristic jargon—he sets the scene extremely competently and paints a picture of a man-Mitchell-who was a profoundly proficient soldier with an impeccable background. Aden, of course—apart from casting him in some quarters as a ruthless tyrant-was the catalyst for his notoriety/fame. If he hadn’t an ego, pre July 1967, Mitchell certainly developed one post Crater. He revelled in his new found eminence and the publicity that followed. It is interesting to find out that Mitchell was never decorated for his actions in quelling the situation in Crater. The notion is that despite orders to the contrary, he devised his own plan and carried it out disregarding the Top Brass. In normal circumstances he may have been awarded something like the OBE but an honourable mention is all he received. Within a very short period of leaving Aden Mitchell resigned from his officership within the British army. By mid 1968 he returned to civilian life. Two years later he was elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament for Aberdeenshire West. He served that constituency for four years before leaving politics.
Aaron Edwards gives us a unique and fascinating insight into a controversial and grossly interesting character. Mitchell was the epitome of the British attitude of those times. He seen himself as the guardian—both morally and literally—for all that Britain stood for in those twilight years of a crumbling Empire.