The Dhofar War
9 June 1963 – 11 March 1976
by Nick Brazil
The Aden Protectorate
In 1962, the lush, green region of Dhofar in the far south of what was then The Sultanate of Muscat and Oman was very undeveloped. In those days of poor communications, it also had little connection with the capital of Muscat six hundred miles to the north.
Despite the bad fright of the Jebel Akhdar War that had ended three years previously, the autocratic Sultan Said Bin Taimur had not changed his despotic ways. The whole of Oman remained trapped in the aspic of his medieaval style rule. This was very much the case with Dhofar which he ruled as a private fiefdom from his palace in the southern city of Salalah.
However, Dhofar bordered on the mountainous country of Yemen which was undergoing revolutionary convulsions. In September 1962 a civil war erupted in the North Yemen between Royalists backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Britain (in a covert role) and Republicans backed by Egypt ruled by Gamal Abdul Nasser. In the background the Soviet Union also provided logistical support in the form of aircraft. It would be a long war lasting almost thirteen years and costing the lives of between 100,000 and 200,000 people.
During this upheaval, a crisis in the British colony of Aden and the surrounding area was thrown into the mix in 1963. At the time, Aden was an important seaport right on the route between India and Europe. On the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, it had been a British Colony since 1839. Originally used by the British as an anti-piracy port and coaling station it had become a strategic waystation for vessels passing through the Suez Canal. Through various treaties, British control grew across the surrounding area of South Yemen which became known as The Aden Protectorate.
Grenade Attack on the Governor
On 14th December 1963, members of the National Liberation Front, an Egyptian backed group violently opposed to British Colonial rule mounted a grenade attack on the British Governor. This occurred at the local airport as he was about to board a plane for London. He survived whilst his aide and a woman civilian were killed. A state of emergency was declared marking the beginning of the bloody struggle for control of Aden and Southern Yemen by local arab nationalists. Sooner or later neighbouring Dhofar and Oman were bound to be sucked in to this cauldron of violent unrest.
Musallam bin Nufl was an influential elder in the Al Kathri, one of the largest and most important tribes in Dhofar Province. As such, he was also a member of Sultan Said bin Taimur’s household. However, this did not prevent him from having independence of thought. By 1962, he had become increasingly frustrated by the autocratic rule of the out of touch Sultan. He was convinced that under the Sultan’s tenure, Dhofar would remain an underdeveloped backwater. Nufl felt that as a self-governing state, the province would do much better under his leadership.
After successfully seeking financial and logistical help from the Saudi Arabian Government, he founded The Dhofar Liberation Front. One of Bin Nufl’s first acts as its leader was to cross the Empty Quarter with his band of fighters back into Dhofar. This remarkable act of endurance was indeed reminiscent of T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt half a century previously.
The DLF guerrilla campaign
Once in Dhofar, the DLF embarked on a long running guerilla campaign of hit and run attacks against the Sultan’s Armed Forces. Many of the movement’s soldiers were disaffected former members of the SAF and Trucial Scouts and were well versed in the movements of Government forces. This dual element of surprise combined with intelligence gave the insurgents the upper hand.
In 1964, members of the Sultan’s own forces made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him. From then on, he disappeared inside his palace in Salalah rarely if ever to emerge in public again. He also ordered his forces to mount a heavy-handed counter insurgency campaign of burning villages and sealing water wells. His British advisors warned him against these tactics foreseeing correctly they would only increase support for the DLF.
The British pull out of Aden
Meanwhile the Saudis felt they had unfinished business following their unsuccessful attempt to capture the Buraimi Oasis and their support for the rebels in the Jebel Akhdar War. So, they were only too happy to supply the Dhofari rebels with plentiful supplies of arms. Ghalib bin Ali the exiled leader of the earlier insurrection also leant his influential support.
In 1967, a watershed event occurred when the British finally pulled out of Aden. The port city became the capital of The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen which included the old Aden Protectorate. The new government was not only Arab nationalist but also Marxist. There was heavy infiltration of personnel by both Communist China and the Soviet Union.
Guerilla training camps were set up close to neighbouring Dhofar. Arms and recruits also poured over the porous border to greatly strengthen the DLF. Once again, the regime of Sultan Bin Taimur found itself in a dangerous situation. In fact, the threat to the whole of Muscat and Oman was far greater than at any time during the Jebel Akhdar War.
With guidance and training from Egyptian and Communist Chinese instructors, the DLF rebels made drastic inroads into Dhofar. By 1968, they held most of its mountainous interior. In effect, the province was now cut off from the rest of Muscat and Oman. The rebels were well motivated and armed with modern automatic weapons such as Kalashnikov AK 47s, Russian Schpagin and DShK heavy machine guns and Katyusha rockets supplied by Russia and China. Members of this formidable guerilla army became known by the title adoo which means enemy in Arabic.
By contrast, the Sultan’s Forces were few and armed with less modern weaponry such as Browning general purpose machine guns. In the main, they were led by British contract officers. The Sultan’s air force was equally small consisting of two prop driven Provost fighter/trainers.
Influence of Chinese Communists
However, all this support from its Chinese and Soviet mentors came at a cost for the DLF. It fell increasingly under the control and influence of the Chinese Communists. Finally, in 1968, it changed its name to The People’s Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). It also became a Marxist/Leninist liberation movement with the wider aim of making the whole of Oman and Southern Arabia a communist state.
Not everyone was happy with this new state of affairs. Musallam bin Nufl, the tribal leader who originally started the revolt was basically a conservative, muslim. As such, he disliked the atheistic communist bent of PFLOAG. All he ever wanted was an independent Islamic Dhofari state, not a communist dictatorship. So, he split from the movement now led by Mohammad Ahmad al-Ghassani an Omani who espoused the new Marxist/Leninist doctrine of PFLOAG.
With one notable exception, this was not a war of set piece battles. The Sultan’s forces who were poorly motivated as well as poorly armed put up only token resistance when confronting the adoo. However, there were some initiatives at less conventional soldiery.
In his autobiography ‘Living Dangerously’ Sir Ranulf Fiennes describes how he commanded a ‘recce patrol’ when he was a contract officer in the Sultan’s army in the late 1960s. This consisted of thirty men with Land Rovers searching for adoo fighters in jebali villages. It was a cat and mouse campaign of ambush and counter ambush. The patrol also sought to interdict the adoo supply trains of camels carrying arms across the frontier from South Yemen.
In this harsh environment of desert and mountains littered with boulders and bushes with razor sharp thorns, the adoo were not the only enemy. Troops were plagued by voracious mosquitoes, flying ants and ticks whose bite left the skin raw with itching for hours if not days. As for the adoo, their campaign of hit and run attacks and mined roads meant they always had the advantage. The Jebel (mountains) was very much their environment where they knew every wadi, cave and valley. This enabled them to melt back into the scenery after an attack or ambush.
A new and enlightened leader
Like communist insurgencies the world over they also employed sinister and violent tactics to cow and terrify the local population. Night time executions or torture of those suspected of collaborating with the Sultan were not uncommon. Often these would be carried out by family members such as son against father or brother against brother.
By the end of 1969, the Sultan’s forces in Dhofar were both outgunned and outnumbered by the communist insurgents. The latter now controlled a large part of Dhofar Province particularly the mountains. It was at this point that the whole of Oman including the strategic Straits of Hormuz could have fallen to a communist regime. This seemed to come a step closer when a previously unknown guerilla group mounted two attacks six hundred miles north of Dhofar.
The National Democratic Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf had been founded by expatriate Omani students in Iraq in 1969. On 12th June 1970 it mounted mortar attacks on army posts at Nizwa and Izki. Whilst both attacks were defeated, they served as a wake-up call to the British officers who ran the Sultan’s armed forces.
The autocratic and repressive way Sultan Bin Taimur had been running Muscat and Oman had only served to make the insurgency worse. The thought that a new northern front could be opened up by rebels probably concentrated minds amongst the military brass. What the country needed was a new and enlightened leader. Fortunately, one was already waiting in the wings in the form of the Sultan’s 29 year-old son Qaboos bin Said. Having undergone military training at Sandhurst, Qaboos had close ties to the British military both in Oman and the UK. He also had some definite ideas about dragging his country into the twentieth century.
A virtually bloodless coup
No doubt because he feared his son’s ambitions, Said Bin Taimur had kept Qaboos under house arrest at his palace in Salalah for some time. For several weeks in 1970, he and British officers secretly planned the deposition of the old Sultan. The numerous visits that various high ranking British officers made to Qaboos’ quarters did not arouse Said Bin Taimur’s suspicions. He feared a coup from his own Omani troops. Never in his wildest dreams did he envisage a threat from his British officers.
On 23rd July 1970 Omani members of the Sultan’s Desert Regiment entered the Al Husn Palace in Salalah where Said Bin Taimur lived. They were unopposed by the five hundred local tribesmen who guarded the building. They had been brought “onside” earlier and persuaded to lay down their arms during the coup. Without this, it could have been a much bloodier and riskier affair than was actually the case.
In fact, the coup was virtually bloodless with the exception of one incident. When he was confronted by Sheikh Braik Al Ghafri, one of the coup participants, Said Bin Taimur shot him in the stomach. As he attempted to reload his gun, the Sultan accidentally shot himself in the foot. To disguise their involvement in the affair, the British military kept well in the background. Politically it was important this appeared to be a solely Omani operation without the ‘stigma’ of ‘colonial’ involvement.
By the end of the day, Said Bin Taimur had been deposed having signed away his rule to his son Qaboos. Without further ado, he was flown into exile on an RAF Bristol Britannia. He lived out the remaining two years of his life in The Dorchester, one of London’s leading luxury hotels. He had ruled The Sultanate of Muscat and Oman for thirty-eight years.
An amnesty is offered
Within hours of the coup d’etat several events happened. The new Sultan Qaboos Bin Said enacted a whole raft of reforms covering society, education and the structure of the Sultan’s armed forces. His father had treated the province of Dhofar as his own private feudal state. Qaboos ditched all that, incorporating it into Oman proper. Said Bin Taimur had also opposed education for most of his subjects and prevented the establishment of schools. Qaboos reversed this and took immediate steps to bring schooling to all Omani subjects.
To take the sting out of the Rebellion, he offered an amnesty to anyone who had opposed his father provided they lay down their arms and supported the new Sultan. This brought Musallam bin Nufl, the originator of the rebellion over to the side of Qaboos.
As for those hardliners in PFLOAG who refused the amnesty, he planned an effective military campaign to finally win the Dhofar War. This was a truly daunting prospect against such a well-armed and organized foe. As one former SAS officer who took part in this campaign put it to me “the adoo were the most heavily armed fighters we were up against since The Korean War.”
To achieve this the British Government provided immediate military support. Members of the SAS 22nd Regiment were flown in to Oman within hours of Said Bin Taimur being deposed. As experts in unconventional soldiery, they were tasked not only to confront the communist backed rebels but also wage a war for the hearts and minds of the Jebalis (mountain people). To have British soldiers fighting and dying in this desert war was politically very sensitive for the Heath Government. So officially, the SAS were described as a British Army Training Team (BATT), there to merely advise the local military.
Former adoo fighters began defecting from the rebels to the Sultan’s side in the early 1970s. By March 1971, 201 adoo had joined the Sultan’s forces. By the end of 1975, the figure had risen to over 800. Financial and material inducements such as watering rights, women and cattle played their part in this. However, there were other equally strong forces at play here. Many of the jebalis who fought for PFLOAG actually disliked the communist ideology that sought to stamp out Islam and tribal roots. This was often done in the most brutal way possible with night time executions and assassinations. Adoo would often find themselves forced to kill close family members.
Once on the government’s side, they were formed into irregular fighting units called firqats which is Arabic for unit. Being jebalis themselves, they knew the mountain landscape as well as the rebels. This and their ability to fight in the difficult terrain made them an equal match to the communist guerillas. The SAS also equipped them with two potent machine guns, the Belgian FN General Purpose Machine Gun which had a lethally rapid rate of fire and the Browning M2 heavy machine gun. Both of these weapons proved to be more than a match for the soviet made equivalents used by the PFLOAG fighters.
The rest of the Sultan’s Armed Forces were also being reformed and rearmed. Omanis were trained to become officers for the first time. The fledgling Omani air force was given greater power with the addition of BAC Strikemaster light attack aircraft and eight Augusta Bell helicopters along with some Westland Wessex helicopters. These helicopters would prove invaluable in providing supplies and support to the firqats and other military units when they were fighting in remote parts of the jebel.
Operation Jaguar in October 1971 was the first major operation for the newly reformed Sultan’s Forces. Led by the SAS under the command of Major Johnny Watts, a veteran of The Jebel Akhdar War, the firqats and other forces moved into the Dohfari jebel against the adoo. The objective of the operation was to wrest control of part of the Mountains from the rebels.
The guerillas had become used to fighting the forces under the old Sultan. The pattern then was for the SAF troops to fight against the adoo for a day or two before losing heart and retreating back to the comforts of their base in Salalah. With the SAS led force, the guerillas were up against a far more determined enemy.
Having fought in the earlier Jebel Akhdar War, Johnny Watts was under no illusion about the fighting qualities of his adversaries or the toughness of the terrain the SAS and the firqats were seeking to conquer. He knew it would be a hard task and he was right.
Jaguar got off to an inauspicious start when a significant number of their troops were laid low by hepatitis contracted from contaminated water. As a result, it was only possible to send 40 SAS soldiers into the field.
The Strikemasters intervene
On the third night and into the fourth day, the SAS and firqats encountered fierce enemy fire. During this, one of the SAS, Sgt Steve Moores was shot and seriously injured in the stomach. Although he was successfully evacuated, he would die of his injuries a few days later.
For four days, the Government force not only took a hilltop position but fought off numerous adoo attacks. The firepower of the rebels was fearsome with their Kalashnikov’s, mortars and soviet heavy machine guns. Nevertheless, the Sultan’s side prevailed.
In this, they were also greatly helped by air strikes performed by BAC Strikemasters of the Sultan’s Air Force. After four days heavy combat, the adoo admitted defeat and retreated. The SAS and firqat units had established a foothold in the Jebel. For the first time since the Dhofar War began eight years previously, the Sultan’s forces had established a base in the Jebel. From then on, the rebels could no longer call these mountains entirely their own.
Over the next eight months the two sides fought a war of fierce gun battles. During that time, the SAS forged a strong and close relationship with the Jebali Firqat units which helped turn the tide of the conflict. Casualties on both sides were significant. However, it was the communist rebels who suffered the most. Eventually, they stopped confronting the Sultan’s forces and conducted a campaign using long distance snipers.
The Leopard Line
Utilising his experience in the earlier Jebel Akhdar War, Watts set up a series of defensive lines across the southern part of the jebel. Their main purpose was to prevent the adoo from bringing heavy artillery down to shell Salalah and its RAF airfield, coastal towns and SAF positions. They were comprised of small bases known as sangars fortified by oil drums filled with sand. These were linked by barbed wire and minefields. Eventually there would be five of these lines known collectively as the Dianas
The first was called ‘The Leopard Line’. Unfortunately, this line had to be abandoned because its positions became impossible to re-supply during the Monsoon period. It was replaced by The Hornbeam line which ran from Mugshayl on the coast 64 kms northwards to the Yemeni border. It served a similar function but was less susceptible to the weather.
These defensive lines often came under heavy attack by the adoo, However, they proved effective, further blunting the enemy advance and pushing PFLOAG on the back foot. The SAS and Firqat forces were taking back the jebel for the Sultan.
The rebels descend on the SAS at Mirbat
Because of these reverses, the rebels decided on a big operation to show they were still in business. Their target was Mirbat, a little coastal port just up the coast from Salalah. It had a small garrison along with a British Army Training House manned by a detachment of nine SAS. The plan was to mount a dawn attack of overwhelming force on the town and kill as many of the residents and defenders as possible. Many members of Firqats lived in Mirbat, so if the adoo could capture the town it would be a big reverse for the Government. In fact, it could well turn the tide of war back in the rebels favour.
At 06:00 hours on the morning of 19th July 1972, a force of about 300 adoo guerillas advanced out of the Jebel mist on Mirbat. Their initial objective was to overwhelm the British Army Training House that protected the main town. As well as the nine SAS troops led by Captain Mike Kealy, the BATT houuse had a small number of Omani intelligence officers and thirty Pakistani troops.
Initially, Kealy thought the figures coming down the mountainside were members of the Dhofar Gendarmerie coming off night guard duty. They were situated on a hill above the BATT house as a lookout for adoo attackers. However, when shooting erupted he realized these were adoo on the attack. All members of the BATT house took up various positions around the building and opened fire with their SLR rifles, a Browning heavy machine gun and a mortar. The adoo responded with a hail of fire from their AK47s, mortars, machine guns and rockets. During this intense initial attack, a radio message was sent out from the BATT House to SAS headquarters requesting reinforcements.
Early on in the fight, a Fijian SAS officer Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba realised the SLRs at the BATT house were not fully effective against the adoo who were still too far away. He made a dash to an unmanned 25 pounder in a gun pit at the nearby fort. He then proceeded to fire the gun on his own. Normally this required a four man team. As the adoo fighters closed in on the position, he continued to fire at them at point blank range.
Fijian Troopers man the 25Pdr
Kealy then received a message from Labalaba that he had been injured and needed help. He sent a volunteer, another Fijian Trooper Sekonaia Takavesi to help him out. Under a hail of enemy fire Takavesi ran the 800 metres to the gun pit. Inside the fort were members of the Omani special forces. However, only one emerged when Sekonaia called for help. No sooner was the man in the gunpit than he was hit in the stomach by an adoo bullet. The two Fijians continued to fire the 25 pounder aiming at the adoo a few feet away down the barrel of the gun. By this time, Takavesi was also injured.
Seeing a 60 mm mortar in the gun pit Labalaba crawled to get the weapon, but he never made it. A bullet from the adoo hit him in the neck. He was killed instantly. Despite taking a further serious injury through his shoulder, Takavesi continued firing at the advancing adoo whilst propped up by a sandbag. Captain Kealy and Trooper Thomas Tobin made it through the intense fire to help the injured man. Sadly Tobin was shot in the face whilst rendering first aid to Takavesi and later died of his wounds. Kealy and Takavesi continued fighting with their personal weapons.
At one point two hand grenades were lobbed into the gun pit but failed to explode. It was thought they had been poorly maintained with their fuses made useless by the damp monsoon climate.
After holding off the enemy for hours, the hard-pressed force at Mirbat were relieved to see Strikemaster jets from the Sultan’s Air Force break through the low cloud to strafe the adoo. After a couple of strafing runs, one of the Strikemasters was hit in the tail by enemy fire forcing it to return to base at RAF Salalah. Not long afterwards, the second Strikemaster left the scene, its ammunition exhausted. Once again, the soldiers on the ground were on their own.
The battle continued with the adoo coming ever closer. Had they managed to capture the twenty-five pounder and turn it on the SAS and the town, it would have been game over. Then a second flight of two Strikemasters emerged from the clouds to strafe the adoo and drop a five hundred pound bomb for good measure. Whilst this forced some of the guerillas to retreat, others quickly regrouped and continued the attack.
Fortunately, the timely arrival of SAS reinforcements ended the battle with the adoo either surrendering or fleeing in defeat back into the Jebel. It was twelve thirty in the afternoon. The battle had lasted six and a half hours and cost the lives of two British and approximately eighty adoo communist guerillas.
Victory at Mirbat
Without doubt, Labalala’s action in single handedly firing the twenty-five pounder saved the day. Not only had he held the advancing adoo back, but it gave the Strikemasters and relief troops time to arrive and finally turn the battle. In view of this, his posthumous award of a Mention In Dispatches is viewed by many as totally inadequate for his great bravery and crucial role in The Battle of Mirbat. There are monuments to him, but his colleagues believe it is high time he received a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Captain Mike Kealey received the Distinguished Service Order, Takavesi the Distinguished Service Medal and two others the Military Medal. However, the awards hardly matched the bravery of these men’s actions, especially when it took the powers that be another three years to actually dish them out. The reason given for Labalaba not receiving a higher award was that ‘officially’ the SAS were not in Oman as combatants but trainers. The award of a VC would have shone media publicity on them revealing their true role.
The Battle of Mirbat was a remarkable feat of arms and bravery by British troops greatly outnumbered by a formidable foe. It is also considered to be the decisive point at which the Dhofar War was won. Once communist insurgents had been beaten on that July day, they were never able to fully regain the initiative in their struggle to take over Oman.
SAS battle for hearts and minds
The SAS were also fighting an equally important battle for the hearts and minds of the Jebalis during this war. This involved showing the Dhofaris they would be much better off under the Sultan’s rule than that of the communists. It was a campaign on various levels and similar to those that had helped win earlier insurgencies in Malaya and Borneo. On one level, the SAS sent medical field units out to the remoter areas of the jebel to treat the ailments of the villagers. To this end, the SAS set up a network of medical clinics throughout the villages on the jebel. An important indication of the respect and trust in which these medics were held by the locals was that they were permitted to treat local women.
They did the same with veterinary aid for their animals such as donkeys, sheep and goats. These animals represented the main wealth and livelihood for these impoverished jebalis. So, keeping them in good health was an important role in the ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.
The SAS soldiers also showed respect for the local customs and Islamic beliefs of the Jebali people. This compared favourably with the atheistic approach of the communist insurgents. The cadres of PFLOAG sought to stamp out any religion, particularly Islam amongst the local people often by violent means,
The Shah of Iran
In 1973, the Shah of Iran committed 1200 troops with helicopters to assist in the fight for Dhofar. The reason for this involvement was to prevent the Omani side of the strategically vital Straits of Hormuz from falling into communist hands.
The number of Iranian soldiers was later increased to 4000 men. Their first success was to secure the crucial road from Salalah to Thumrait. After several months, they also captured the ‘rebel capital’ of Rahkyut. However, these victories were hard fought with a high price. 719 Iranians were killed in the Dhofar campaign and 1404 injured.
During this time, the adoo were experiencing the tensions of being on the losing side. These manifested themselves as splits within the guerilla movement. From these emerged a much smaller movement calling itself The Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman. It was further diminished by another important loss. As a result of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Communist China and Iran, the PFLO no longer had the support of the Chinese.
The beginning of the end of this long, unconventional war was a major offensive launched in October 1975. By January of the following year, most of the rebels had either surrendered or retreated into the sanctuary of communist South Yemen. Officially, the victory was declared over the communist insurgents by the Qaboos Government on 11th March 1976.
In total, the Dhofar War had lasted twelve years, nine months and two days. It had cost the lives of nine hundred and thirty troops on the Omani Government side including 24 British service personnel. The communist rebels had lost approximately 1400 fighters. It has not been possible to obtain reliable figures of the number of civilian casualties. However, as is the way of all wars some civilians would have been killed and injured in crossfire between the two sides whilst others fell victim to reprisals and summary executions.
Today, Oman is a modern and prosperous arab state with high levels of health care and education throughout the country. With the reputation for being a safe and beautiful location, it also has a growing tourist industry. In comparison, Yemen is poverty stricken, riddled with disease and riven by the violence of at least three wars. In fact, the Omani Government has recently built a large health centre at its main road border into Yemeni province of Al Mahra. Its purpose is to provide medical treatment for Yemenis who are unable to find it in their own country whether through illness or war.
This could easily have also been Oman’s fate had the Sultan lost this war. That it did not, is largely thanks to the British soldiers who took part with some, like Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba paying the ultimate price.
© Nick Brazil 2022
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