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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 December 2007, 12:12 GMT
Return to Aden, without Mad Mitch

British soldiers with civilians in Crater, Aden 1967

Exactly 40 years ago a British evacuation fleet was steaming away from the abandoned colony of Aden ending over 130 years of imperial control. An insurgency had been crushed under the leadership of a British soldier nicknamed Mad Mitch. As the last BBC Aden correspondent, Brian Barron reported on these seismic events - and has returned to take in the mood.

The best way I can describe the betrayal and melodrama that engulfed Britain's last post in Arabia is to say that a Falklands moment it was not.

Among the half-dozen or so end-of-empire sagas that I have witnessed, this was the saddest, the most abject.

But at least it marked the final act - for Her Majesty's forces and proconsuls - of a big mess in a very small place.

Each person is chewing a bunch of green leaves of Qat, a mild narcotic, which sedates millions across the nation every afternoon

Whoever chose Things Aren't What They Used to Be for the military band bidding farewell to the last governor - as I watched at the RAF [Royal Air Force] base in 1967 - evoked the right note of seediness and frayed national self-belief.

Once - and that word "once" encompasses well over a century of unchallenged British supremacy - Steamer Point was as famous as Piccadilly Circus.

Everyone came through heading east or west, from chroniclers of empire, like Kipling, to viceroys of India, to millions of migrants heading for white dominions at the bottom of the world.

Today Steamer Point looks unchanged from 1967, but the crescent of curio shops and watch dealers stands shuttered and silent, beneath a massive Rolex sign, weathered and rusting, that once enticed liner passengers ashore.

Britain's imperial stamp is everywhere, including Her Majesty's moribund pillar boxes

The only outlet open from colonial days is Aziz's bookshop. Aziz himself has long gone to some trinket-filled stall in paradise, but his grandson sits on the pavement at the threshold, playing cards with three friends.

Each person is chewing a bunch of green leaves of Qat, a mild narcotic, which sedates millions across the nation every afternoon.

The Aziz emporium is a cornucopia of vinyl records still in their sleeves, Christmas cards from the 1940s, photo panoramas of Aden as the world's third busiest port, and children's books printed before World War II.

Tourism hit

"Today not many tourists," says Aziz junior, gazing out at a port which has been undermined by al-Qaeda attacks on shipping.

Britain's imperial stamp is everywhere, including Her Majesty's moribund pillar boxes. What was Flagstaff House, the British commander's HQ overlooking the Gulf of Aden, is now the president's palace, when he is visiting from united Yemen's capital in the north.

Looking back we can see the magnitude of Britain's strategic blunder here

Above Steamer Point stand the ruins of the Naval Semaphore Station, from the heyday of the Victorian empire.

It was destroyed by missiles in the 1986 civil war that finally doomed the revolutionary regime in power since Britain left.

But the failure for two decades to repair one of Aden's most prominent, historic landmarks reveals the inertia today and the lack of entrepreneurial instincts.

Maybe that commercial spirit sailed away with the British - and whatever remained was destroyed by the revolutionary regime.


Colonial Aden expired under a state of emergency. British civilians like me were given revolvers because of the risk of assassination.

The heart of the insurgency was Crater, an Arab town nestling in the hot embrace of an extinct volcano.

It was here that a mutiny by the British-trained Aden armed police in mid-1967 led to a massacre of British troops.

British soldier with terrified civilian in Aden in 1967
British troops reacted forcibly to demonstrations in 1967

As the British high command and London government hesitated, a controversial colonel named Colin Mitchell seized the initiative.

He re-occupied Crater with his Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders - earning the nickname Mad Mitch - and in Fleet Street's judgment he restored British military honour.

A fearless soldier, he was born 100 years too late. His mouth often ran ahead of him.

Once we stood together in Crater watching the Argylls stacking, as in a butcher's shop, the bodies of four Arab militants they had just shot and Mad Mitch said: "It was like shooting grouse, a brace here and a brace there."

Today Crater is calm. Any Western veneer has gone. Women are veiled. Arab tea shops are thriving. The bank building used as Mad Mitch's headquarters, with his snipers on the roof, once again dispenses banknotes, not bullets.

Beside it, the old Anglican Church is no longer the secret police interrogation centre it became following the British retreat.

Battered and bruised

Looking back we can see the magnitude of Britain's strategic blunder here. The political, military and diplomatic establishment in the late 1950s and early 1960s misjudged the strength of Arab nationalism, completing a colossal military base despite local hostility.

There was an absence of reliable intelligence (doesn't that sound familiar?). As the insurgency turned deadlier, we withdrew - abandoning moderate allies.

Twenty-three years of police state thuggery followed, with the Soviet KGB replacing the British.

Even after Aden and the rest of the south merged with North Yemen, there was another civil war in the 1990s. No wonder Aden today seems battered and bruised, and its people frustrated by the follies of their rulers: a forgotten place anchored to a forgotten time.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 1 December, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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