The Canberra Times, 1964.
“2 Soldiers’ Beheading Confirmed.”
“Earlier, Britain was shocked by the grisly report that the [SAS] men had been beheaded and their heads publicly displayed on sticks in Taiz, twin capital of Yemen.”
But how did it get to this?
For centuries, the Queteibi tribes have called the hills and mountains of the Radfan region, 60 miles to the north of Aden, home. These tribesmen were notorious for their martial skill, violent nature, and duplicity. Historically, Britain had made them a compliant partner by furnishing them with money and weapons. But now the British were leaving, and their cash and guns were going with them. Jumping at the opportunity to fill the power vacuum was the Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen, which had turned Communist in 1962 after an Egyptian-backed coup d’état.
Communist guerrillas infiltrating from the North supplied the Radfan tribesmen with heavy weapons and Marxist ideology alike. In January 1964, they combined forces and attacked government and British convoys driving on the Aden-Dhala highway, inflicting heavy casualties. The road was closed. A Joint Reaction Force (Radforce), composed of Royal Marine Commandos, Paratroopers, infantry and armour, was sent to crush the Rebellion. RAF planes and helicopters provided air and transport support.
Radfan’s conditions were harsh: Para engineers at work (Wikimedia.org).
This wouldn’t be a hearts and minds campaign. The tribesmen had gone far too rogue for that. Radforce’s goal was destruction. To achieve this, the rebel stronghold of ‘Cap Badge,’ a 3,700ft mountain, needed to be taken. Royal Marines from 45 Commando would secure the basin and surround the mountain, and paratroopers from B Company, 3 PARA, would parachute on the top. Lacking an integral pathfinder capability to mark the drop zone (DZ)—the famous Parachute Brigade’s Pathfinder Platoon was yet to be born—planners turned to the SAS.
When the codeword “Free Beer” came on 22 April, A Squadron, commanded by Major de la Billière, was in England, recuperating from a five-month tour in the jungles of Borneo. It was soon scheduled to go to Aden for desert warfare training, and an advanced recce team was already in country. Aden was familiar. The previous year, A Squadron along with C Squadron (Rhodesian) had again conducted desert warfare training there. So, the troopers were aware of the climatic condition. They weren’t, however, aware of the different circumstances.
They pitched their base at Thumier, a desert town 30 miles from North Yemen. Although the Squadron was at full strength, the ‘Cap Badge’ mission would only require a Troop. The nine men of 3 Troop, commanded by Captain Robin Edwards (who had overcome polio to join the SAS), were chosen. This was an experienced patrol: all nine men were trained signallers, each with his own speciality and cross-trained in another. The patrol was divided into two four-man teams each led by a Sergeant. Every man carried a 60lb Bergen and 40lb of weapons (an assortment of SLR and M16 rifles along with a Bren light machine gun and an L42 bolt-action sniper rifle) and ammo. Most had seen action in Malaya and Borneo.
On the night of 29 April, Scout helicopters dropped 3 Troop out of hearing range from the mountain. The plan was to patrol to their target during the night, hide the next day, and then mark the DZ when night fell.
Radfan’s mountains (Wikimedia.org).
A few miles into their six-mile march, Trooper Warburton, the Signaller, became violently ill. Edwards distributed his gear among the patrol and placed him in the middle of the formation so they were moving at his pace. It was then that they became suspicious of being watched. But they weren’t completely sure. A casevac, thus, became too risky. Informing HQ, Edwards decided to hide now and hope that Warburton’s condition would improve the next day so that they could mark the DZ on the night of the 30th, as planned.
They found a good defensive position on the slopes of a ridge. Then dawn came. And with it came a situation similar to Marcus Luttrell’s predicament—they were hiding a few meters below a house, and a goat-herd was herding his flock nearby. They hung tight, hoping that the Arab wouldn’t see them. Fat chance. He not only saw them, he began shouting. A sniper round silenced him but it was too late. The shot was still echoing in the valley.
It was on.
Within minutes, a rebel force approaches searching for the culprit. The troopers take aim and initiate contact, killing some rebels and scattering the others. A few tribesmen try to outflank their position but they are mowed down. Rebel reinforcements aching for a fight arrive. They occupy the ridges overlooking the patrol’s position. If the troopers try to break-out, they’ll be easy pickings in the broad daylight. Edwards radios base for urgent air support and then orders to conserve ammo—it’ll be a long day. A pair of Hawker Hunter jets arrives and strafes the ridges. But camouflaged men scattered behind boulders make for hard targets. The aircraft soon run out of ammo and leave to resupply. The volume of fire heightens. The rebels steadily advance. The jets reappear but the enemy is too close for them to fire effectively. A chopper sent to evacuate the patrol is raked with bullets and barely makes it back to base.
It’s late afternoon now, and the men are exhausted. As they exchange nods of encouragement, a .303 bullet smashes Trooper Baker’s kneecap, continuing on and killing Warburton. Trooper Hamilton is also hit, although lightly. Their radio is destroyed. A charge by 70 rebels is only just stopped by Sergeant Tasker’s Bren light machine gun.
As nightfall approaches, they decide to make a break for it. They plan leapfrog to safety in two groups. To their dismay, Warburton’s body has to be left behind—there’s simply no chance of making it whilst carrying their fallen comrade. As Edwards jumps forward, a bullet kills him. The rest vanish into the night under intense fire. Twice the rebels try to catch-up with them, and twice they are ambushed by the rearguard. With no water and caked in dust and sweat, the patrol reaches Thumier in the morning.
Although the parachute jump didn’t happen, Radforce did capture ‘Cap Badge’ after a month of heavy fighting.
The bodies of Captain Edwards and Trooper Warburton were vandalised in the most gruesome fashion—their heads chopped off and stuck on piles in Taiz, the twin capital of Aden. The headless corpses were, eventually, recovered by a British patrol.
For the rest of their Radfan deployment, the SAS focused on special reconnaissance and intelligence gathering operations. From small OPs high on the mountains, they reported rebel and North Yemeni movements to the conventional command, calling air and artillery fire when necessary.
The SAS had gotten a taste of Aden’s mountains and tribes. But their next operations would be completely different—urban counter-terrorism in Aden’s narrow backstreets.
Featured image courtesy of Twitter.