SAS in the Sultanate of Oman

(To Paolo Palumbo)

The conflicts resulting from the rapid disintegration of the colonial empires in the immediate post-war period, still represent a valid model for understanding the current war scenarios. From the 1949 onwards, the British Empire suffered more than all the upheaval of the fragile political balances that regulated its dominions: more or less peaceful rebellions imposed on the Parliament a further military engagement in Ireland, French Indochina, Eritrea, Palestine, Malaysia, China , Egypt, Oman and Aden.

The British strategy had to deal with very different situations according to the countries in which it sold the soldiers or strengthened existing garrisons. Local independent instances led to a different kind of war where the relationship between soldiers and the population was a fundamental part of achieving positive and effective long-term results. For this reason, the British army, but also the French army, has laid the foundations of the counterinsurgency, which implies a series of attitudes and rules useful to rupture people's consent to the enemy, depriving them of the support they need to conduct sabotage operations. On this subject, historiography underlines the importance of the conflict in Malaysia as the best example of application of counterinsurgency, however, what happened in Oman from 1962 to 1975 offers an equally interesting picture of the tactics employed by the British Army and its special forces.

The Oman Sultanate

Between Great Britain and the Sultanate of Oman there was always a privileged relationship, even dating back to the 1646 when the East India Company traced for the Empire a profitable merchant course. Officially, diplomatic relations only opened in the 1798 with a Treaty of Friendship initially signed in anti-piracy1. The trade relations between the Empire and Oman led to an interesting cultural exchange found in the education received by the three Sultans who from the 1913 forwarded the fortunes of the country: the first two were taught at Mayo College (nicknamed Eton of the 'India') and the third, Qabus idn Sa'id, rose to power in 1970 at the Sundhurst Military Academy2.

Oman's Sultanate remained thus at the top of Whitehall's foreign policy priorities, both for oil and for naval routes that slid the Hormuz Strait. From a political point of view, though, the Sultanate of Oman was poorly governed, and with the end of the war, things were getting worse. Between the 1954 and the 1959, for example, the succession of Imam caused a series of disorder (also called the war of Jebel Akhdar) supported by external actors such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq who pressed for an Arab supremacy in the region. At this juncture England engaged a military contingent by sending it Special Air Service, the Cameronian and Trucial Oman Scouts (paramilitary forces formed by the English in the 1951) with the aerial support of the Royal Air Force. The arrival of the soldiers brought the order, and from that moment onwards the Sultan entrusted the management of his army to Anglo-Saxon non-commissioners paid for "contract".

The 1950s were the prodrome for a new and most important rebellion in the next decade in the remote Dhofar region. The motivations that led to the riots were sought in the strong immigration that pushed men to work in the richer areas of the Gulf: here the dofhari met the ideas of socialism, ascertaining with their own eyes the agility in which the other regions lived3. Living conditions in the Sultanate of Oman were actually at the limit of the tolerable since the sultan maintained in poverty and ignorance most of the population: education was inadequate, few knew to read and every reformer was severely persecuted by the Oman military .

In 1965, the rival tribes of Sultan Said bin Taimur, gathered in the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF), supported by the nearby communist regime of the People's Democratic Republic of South Yemen. The DLF had as its main goals the removal of the Sultan and the cessation of any British political and military influence in Omani. Initially, the number of rebel reprisals remained fairly low until the two-year 1965 / 66, when there was a dangerous increase in sabotage actions, mainly against oil infrastructure and convoys. The 13 May 1966 fell the first victim among the English army - Captain Woodman serving in the indigenous department Northern Frontier Regiment of the Sultan Armed Forces (SAF).

From 1 on January 1968, the Dhofar's uprising came to its worst stage, conforming, moreover, to the typical Cold War conflicts. The majority of DLF members embraced the Marxist cause whose instances were supported - by pure calculation - from nearby Yemen and Iraq. The 12 June 1970 attack on Izki's military installations put the rebels in an advantageous situation, ensuring control of some oil fields near the Hormuz Strait. Sultan Sa'id was deported to his son Qabus idn Sa'id (Qaboo), while Parliament approved the sending of special forces.

The Watts Strategy

Once he came to Oman Special Air Service took control of military operations. Lieutenant Colonel John Watts - who had already gained experience during the War of the Jebel Akhdar - designed a new strategy that included the use of mixed units called BATT or British Army Training Team. The BATTs had to deal with the training of new locally recruited forces and the operational coordination of SAFs. As Colonel Tony Jeapes recalls in his memoirs, the place where the regiment was headquartered was not among the hospitable. The camp was surrounded by unspoilt hills - in Arabic jebel - difficult to cross in any season and inhabited by hostile tribes undergoing the presence of SAFs as an occupying army. "The population on the jeben - says Jeapes - were actively hostile, so that even if SAF managed to establish a position they would be surrounded by enemy territory"4. SAFs were mostly commanded by contracted British officers (not just mercenaries) and for this reason they never conquered the indigenous confidence. Jeams himself realized that in order to win the war in the Dhofar, it was essential to gain the confidence of the population, extirpating it from the negative influence of Marxist leaders. Lieutenant Colonel Watts outlined a five-point strategy, which - in general terms - represents the hubs of counterinsurgency: 1) Creating an Intelligence Cell; 2) a team of informants; 3) a medical healthcare support for SAS; 4) the use of a veterinarian and, finally, 5) whenever possible the formation of military units that included Dhofari.

Direct actions conducted by SAS were limited because most of the days went by instructing militias Firqa enlisted on the spot among those who had denied the subversive cause: the natives turned out to be soldiers not accustomed to discipline, however their use was concentrated in small groups with reconnaissance assignments. Unlike the Malay campaign, where the British army took a direct role in driving counter-insurgency, Oman preferred an "indirect approach". In the years spent in the Sultanate the theory that a foreign force was not able to bend a local insurrection without directly involving the indigenous forces was concretized: "As a form of intervention, the "advisory approach" implies other advantages: by putting local forces into the lead, it results in interventions that are more discreet and less politically problematic for both the intervening force and the host nation government"5.

- adoo (enemies) were a fearsome but not homogeneous opponent. The guerrillas were divided between the People Liberation Army educated by the Yemenis and communist countries, flanked by a simple local militia coming from the tribes, whose range of action never went beyond the borders of their respective villages. Substantial differences existed between the two groups, not only with respect to the use of weapons, but especially with regard to religious culture. The "professional" guerrillas, formed abroad in the shadow of Marxism, did not profess the same devotion as the village chiefs, and this created an insanable rift within the rebel front. The British and the Sultan's troops exploited the disagreements between the two groups in their favor, managing to separate the most observant population from the PLA guerrillas.

Commander Watts' winning strategy culminated in the success of operations Jaguar (October 1971) e Simba (1972) to establish and consolidate SAF presence in Dhofar and the Yemen border. The rebels - feeling hunted and in search of new consents - made the mistake of attacking - the 19 July 1972 - the small garrison of Mirbat where they waited for the Oman army and just nine men of SAS.

In the night between 18 and 19 on July 1972, 250 guerrillas began to approach Mirbat's BATT garrison to catch him by surprise. Fortunately the movements of the adoo were intercepted by the dhofari gendarmerie (commanded by a SAS officer) who promptly alerted the barracks. Despite the fact that the enemy had failed the surprise factor, SAS soldiers were aware that they were in numerical inferiority and their only hope was to request airplanes with urgency. The SAS men counted on the bitter support of North Oman militants 30 and 25 gendarmes6. Despite being armed with only one Browning cal.50, an old GPMG and a 25 pound gun - branded by the Fiji Labalaba giant - the British rejected one by one the assaults of the guerrillas until they got the aerial support who definitively deleted any hope of conquering the fort. For the adoo the defeat of Mirbat marked the end of any attempt to oppose the Sultan's government and for the British it was an important confirmation of the validity of their system. Essentially the British had succeeded by a coincidence of favorable factors such as the advent of the Sultan Qaboo and the start of more liberal reforms, including a substantial cash outlay to expand and equip the sultanate army. Civil and military authorities, moreover, worked in perfect coordination against a rebel company lacking a charismatic leadership and with many internal divisions.

Defining the campaign in Dhofar as a "model case" makes sense, especially with respect to military action supported by SAS: "There are both tactical and operational lessons to be learned from this campaign, especially about intelligence, propaganda, air support, psychological operations (psy-ops), role of special forces, use of coethnic troops and militias, civil aid, veterinary services , supply, embedding of expertise, division of territory, local knowledge, and operational planning"7. After the Dhofar, the "English" lesson was widely exported to all the other countries involved in the various "proxy" wars fought during the Cold War, (in primis) the United States in Vietnam. The SAS was certainly an outstanding interpreter of this philosophy and continues to be so today, although today's scenarios see in the opponents field much more fearsome and motivated.

 (photo: web)

1 Gregory Fremont-Barnes, A History of Counterinsurgency. From Cyprus to Afghanistan, 1955 to the 21 Century, vol. 2, Praeger, Santa Barbara, California-Denver, Colorado, 2015, p. 75.

2 JE Peterson, Britain and "The Oman War". An Arabian Entanglement, in "Asian Affaires, 1976, Vol. 7, Issue 3, p. 285.

3 History of Counterinsurgency, cit., p. 77.

4 Tony Jeapes, SAS: Operation Oman, London, 1980, p. 29.

5 David H. Ucko, Robert Egnell, Counterinsurgency in Crisis. Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare, New York, 2013, p. 156.

6 Peter Macdonald, The SAS in Action, London, 1990, p. 55.

7 Fremont-Barnes, cit. p. 90.