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Britain’s brutal history of colonial conquest in Yemen

The RAF is no stranger to murdering Yemenis, writes John Newsinger, a historian of British Empire
Issue 2888
Protests with placards that read hands off yemen outside downing street

Hands off Yemen protest in central London last February (Picture: Steve Eason on Flickr)

There is nothing new about RAF aircraft bombing Yemen. Indeed, the people of Yemen have had almost a hundred years experience of being bombed by the British. 

The south of what’s today Yemen had effectively been under British control since 1839, with the port of Aden regarded as a vital strategic asset for the British Empire. What is now northern Yemen was once part of the Ottoman Empire and was then ruled by a local royal family after 1918. 

By the 1920s, air power was beginning to replace the use of troops throughout Britain’s Empire in the Middle East. Villages and tribes who refused to obey their colonial masters were bombed into submission. This was much cheaper than the use of troops and incurred virtually no British casualties.

The British did not only bomb targets in southern Yemen. They regularly bombed across what became the rest of the country, wherever British interests were felt to be under threat.

In 1928, for example, the RAF attacked targets on both sides of the border. They dropped 70 tons of bombs, 1,200 incendiaries and fired 33,000 machine gun rounds—much of it aimed at towns and villages, killing dozens of people.

Over a period of a week in March 1934, the Queteibis tribe were punished by RAF attacks that saw more than 28 tons of bombs dropped on them. British aircraft were dropping an average of 166 bombs an hour on wholly defenceless people. This method of colonial repression continued into the 1950s and 1960s.

The 1950s saw the British confronted by a powerful labour movement that was led by the Aden Trade Union Congress and the People’s Socialist Party. There were general strikes, a 48-day strike on the docks, demonstrations and protests. But the British were determined to hold on. The rebels turned to armed insurrection.

By the 1960s a powerful nationalist guerrilla movement was developing and the British faced an insurgency in the Radfan mountains. Once again, the RAF was unleashed to help defeat the National Liberation Front (NLF). 

In May and June 1964 British four engine bombers dropped 3,505 20 pound bombs, 14 1,000 pound bombs and fired some 20,000 cannon rounds. At the same time Hunter jets fired 2,508 rockets and nearly 200,000 cannon rounds. The Radfan insurgency was broken.

The Labour government that took office in October 1964 found itself fighting the NLF on two fronts. A guerrilla insurgency had broken out in the port of Aden and the resistance movement was spreading throughout much of the rest of the country. 

It was being supported by the secular nationalist movement that had taken power in the north of what is today Yemen. It had established the Yemen Arab Republic. 

The British responded by unleashing brutal repression on the streets of Aden, including the setting up of an interrogation centre that was charmingly known as “fingernail factory”. Torture, beatings and summary executions were routine. 

Indeed, the Parachute Regiment had to be warned that their methods were too brutal and were likely to cause the Labour government problems on the international stage.

Meanwhile, across the border in the Yemen Arab Republic, the British, the Saudis and the Israelis supported an Islamist revolt against the secular nationalist government. 

British mercenaries—ex-SAS special forces—helped train and sometimes fought alongside the Islamists. The Israelis provided the rebels with weapons and the Saudis paid for it all.

In the end, the level of resistance made it clear that the British position in South Yemen was no longer tenable. The cost of holding on to Aden was just too great. The British were forced to evacuate by the end of November 1967. 

The people of Yemen have years of experience of British rule. Their suffering at the hands of the British Imperialists must not be forgotten.

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