“The Special Air Service is superfluous. It doesn’t belong to our Cold War army.”
This was your conventional post-war British military thinking. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, the ‘anomaly’ of the SAS had been corrected and the Regiment disbanded. It had taken a communist insurgency in Malaya (1950-1960) to resurrect it. But its position remained precarious. The unit was in constant survival mode. The 1958 Jebel Akhdar Operation would alter that forever.
The Jebel Akhdar (the green mountain) dominates Oman’s interior. Eighty miles southwest from the capital Muscat, this sea of mountains, with peaks as 10,000ft high, covers an area of 135 square miles with plateaus of solid granite. Home to fifty-eight villages and over 700 wadis, in 1958, there were few roads—if you can call them that—and transportation meant donkey rides. Narrow passes and sheer cliffs made it a defender’s dream. And in November 1958, there were a lot of dreamers hidden within its rocky bosom.
The Imam of Oman proper, ruler of a semi-independent province in Oman’s interior, which the Jebel Akhdar was part of, along with the local Sheikh had begun a rebellion against the Sultan in 1957. Their motives were quite reasonable. After the discovery of oil in the region, the Sultan had repudiated a treaty, annexed Oman proper, and exiled the Imam and his family. With Saudi support, the rebellion defeated the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF). He requested help from Britain, who had considerable oil and military interests in the country.
British units deployed from neighboring Aden overwhelmed the rebels and forced their remnants into the Jebel Akhdar. But that’s where their success ended. They couldn’t assault the impregnable plateaus, and the rebels, in return, couldn’t defeat them on the plains below.
Artillery and air attacks were ineffective on the vast Jebel. And helicopters couldn’t land because of the altitude and the lack of landing spots. A two-year stalemate ensued. The British withdrew, leaving a token force to contain the remaining rebels. But with ample weapons and ammunition, and the discrete support of Saudi Arabia, the rebels persisted. (The irony of war: British US-made Jeeps were being destroyed by US-made mines given to the rebels by the Saudis). They raided villages outside the Jebel and ambushed SAF and British forces. Casualties began to spike. London decided to act. But a brigade would be required to flush them out. With the 1956 Suez fiasco only a year old, and an acute political fear of casualties, alternatives were sought. Enter the SAS.
At the time, the Regiment was fighting the communist insurgency in Malaya. And the conventional British army hierarchy questioned its ability to perform in such a different battlefield in so short notice. But some thought otherwise.
D Squadron was redeployed from the jungles of Malaya to the mountains of Oman in November 1958. Its four Troops and HQ element were undermanned, with 10 troopers each instead of the usual 16. Their arsenal, moreover, was also lacking. They hadn’t any heavy weapons and could rely only on their Bren light machine guns, Sten submachine guns, an FN SLR and Lee Enfield bolt-action rifles.
But the hardest part was the acclimatization. “We went from jungle with a visibility of 20 yards,” said Lt. Col. Deane-Drummond, the SAS commander, “to a mountain with visibility almost unlimited where by instead of moving by day and sleeping at night, at the Jebel we had to move by night, get ourselves up into observation posts, see where the rebels were and then launch as large an attack as we could on those rebel caves.”
An intensive marksmanship and fitness regime began. “We did a series of forced marches,” recalls an SAS corporal, “with backpacks, weapons, and ammunition, and after every march, we exercised whilst still wearing our gear.” The “pale from the shadows of the jungle” troopers were also issued with better footwear—their standard hobnailed boots being too noisy for the Jebel’s hard granite floor.
Then the order to advance came. A forward operations base was pitched inside the Jebel, a few miles from the main rebel strongholds. The Squadron was divided into two groups: the North group, consisting of 16 and 17 Troops, would infiltrate and assault the rear of the enemy position, whilst the South group, consisting of 18 and 19 Troops, would stage a diversionary attack from the front.
But then disaster struck. During a day recce patrol, an SAS corporal from the South group was killed by a sniper. Lesson learned: move only by night. The troops attacking from the rear, meanwhile, scaled the Jebel unopposed from the Persian Steps, an ancient path they had discovered with some help from their local donkey guides.
Similarly with Delta Force’s pattern whilst hunting Osama bin Laden in the 2001 battle of Tora Bora, once on top, some men secured the position, whilst others made the treacherous descent to fetch more supplies.
They were soon joined by their South group colleagues. Subsequent special reconnaissance patrols avoided contact because of their feeble numbers and precarious position—were they to be discovered, they would be trapped and vanquished. But a forward observation post established two miles in front of the main position was compromised and attacked. After a fierce fight, they overcame the rebels. But the men were puzzled—how did the rebels discover them despite all their precautions? They soon found out. The previous night, a patrol had upended some rocks on its way back, and the next morning a rebel noticed it. This was a worthy enemy.
As December followed November, the SAS continued to tighten the noose. They moved their base on higher ground, called Cassino, and received heavier weaponry (mortars, Carl Gustav antitank recoilless rifles, and Browning heavy machine guns). A night attack on a strong rebel position resulted in hand-to-hand fighting inside the maze of caves. Grenades and Carl Gustav rockets were used to silence resistance. And despite the defenders’ advantage, there were no SAS casualties.
Six weeks had passed since D Squadron landed in Oman. And now it was time for the final assault. The rebellion’s leadership and its remaining fighters were cornered in the villages of Kamah and Saiq. A plateau called Sabrina overlooked their positions from the North.
But the exhausted troopers of D Squadron couldn’t do it by themselves. Thus, A Squadron was also redeployed from Malaya in January 1959. Commanded by Major Johnny Cooper, one of Stirling’s originals and an SAS plank owner, the Squadron followed the same regimen of rapid acclimatization that its sister squadron had six weeks before.
The night of 25/26th January was chosen for the final assault. It was superbly planned. RAF planes had spent the two weeks previously, scouring the skies above Sabrina and the villages, photographing every known road and goat path. Local donkey-handlers were fed false information, knowing that it would slither its way to the rebels’ ears. The plan was simple: A Squadron would occupy Sabrina from the rear, whilst D Squadron would attack Kamah from the front. The two Squadrons would then meet and advance towards Saiq. D Squadron, meanwhile, would launch diversionary night attacks to keep the rebels wondering.
On the morning hours of 26th January, A Squadron troopers strapped with 120lb bergens began their climb to Sabrina. It was a cold night, and the men, who sweated profusely, began to shiver. They knew that once daylight came, the temperatures would spike, ensuring a perpetual trial of endurance. “We went up to the top,” recalls a trooper, “and it was so cold that the water froze in our canteens. But the sun was up at 0639, and it was boiling hot. The climate was extreme.” It was only because of their SAS fitness that they could still fight. The small rebel force on Sabrina didn’t expect company. And a short, violent firefight silenced them.
Despite an injured trooper, the SAS force was otherwise intact. A Troop was left behind to secure the position and direct air support, and the rest of A Squadron joined D Squadron’s attack on Kamah on the plain below.
Although it was getting dark, D Squadron attacked. The rebels were routed. Saiq, the rebellion’s last bastion, was now left. An 8000ft cliff, however, stood in between the SAS and the 1500 remaining rebels. “Nevermind that,” they thought. With virtually no rest since the operation began the previous night, the SAS, with D Squadron on the van, began the arduous climb. “It was tough climbing,” explains General de la Billière, who was a lieutenant at the time and later became Director of Special Forces and Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the Gulf War, “straight up the cliff above. Two soldiers went ahead to warn of potential enemies and to make sure that the squadron didn’t lose time by going wrong. It was a pretty daunting task. All wore very heavy packs, and we knew that we must continue the climb through the night, without the possibility of real rest and the chance of an invigorating cup of tea.”
Apparently, the rebels didn’t expect such superhuman endurance, for their sentries were asleep. A grave mistake as they were quickly killed.
But as A Squadron was following D Squadron’s climb, daylight caught them. By now the rebels were awake, and two troopers were killed when a sniper’s bullet ignited a grenade in one’s backpack. Breaking contact, they sped to their comrades’ position outside Saiq. There, they dug in and requested RAF air resupply. Three Valetta transports flying from Bahrain parachuted some containers. The rebels seeing parachutes dangling from the sky thought they were paratroopers and fled to Saudi Arabia. And in this rather anticlimactic way, the Jebel Akhdar Rebellion ended.
It had taken the SAS ten weeks to subdue the rebellion. At the cost of only three men killed and few wounded, they had succeeded where the British Army had failed for the previous two years.
“We were able to show to the army at large,” explained Lt. Col. Deane-Drummond, who received the DSO for his leadership, “that the professionalism of the SAS soldier can be applied anywhere, world-wide.” And with a rather small bill, as well. London was exultant.
The Special Air Service is superfluous.
Featured image of SAS in Malaya courtesy of Wikipedia