Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1322, (1 - 7 December 2016)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1322, (1 - 7 December 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Yemen in the 1960s

Nesmahar Sayed speaks to veteran Egyptian army officer Adel Massoud about his participation in the 1960s Yemen War and its implications for the present conflict in the country

Al-Ahram Weekly

Retired major-general Adel Massoud was born in Alexandria and graduated from the Egyptian Military Academy in 1958. He was promoted to leadership positions in the infantry and was appointed to posts including director of the National Defence College and of the High War College. He has received many accolades, including the Training Medal in 1972, the Courage Medal in 1974, the Duty Medal in 1988, the Long Service Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Order of the Republic First Degree and the Order of Merit.

He has taken part in many battles, including the 1956 War, the Yemen War of 1962-1963 and 1965-1966, the War of Attrition 1967-1970, the October War in 1973 and the Liberation of Kuwait War in 1991.

“When we went to Yemen in the 1960s, it was entirely different from what conditions are there now,” Massoud said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly when asked what memories came back to him when Egypt became involved in the current Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen. We should not judge what happened in Yemen in September 1962 with the benefit of hindsight, he said.

“Our relationship with Yemen and our realisation of its importance in terms of international and Arab relations did not begin with the Yemen Revolution in September 1962. It went back to the armed struggle in Aden against the British occupation. Yemen’s support for Egypt in 1956 during the Tripartite Aggression was also important, as Yemeni citizens prevented the British from using the military base in Yemen against Egypt. We sent them school supplies by the way of gratitude.”

There is a lesson to be learnt from Egypt’s separation from Syria in 1961, which Massoud believes was the key to the decision to support the Yemeni Revolution in 1962. By 1965, Egypt had helped three-quarters of Asian, African and Latin American countries to gain their independence from their former European colonial rulers.

What was the political atmosphere at the time? This is a frequently asked question at a time when Egypt has once again become involved in operations in Yemen. The then president, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, had “nationalised the Suez Canal Company in 1956 and dealt fairly with the situation by transferring ownership from the British government to the Egyptian government in return for compensation. Nationalisation continued to build Egypt, and when there were shortages of funds after 1957 there was a need to nationalise companies in the private sector in 1960 because businessmen at the time did not respond to Nasser’s requests to contribute to pushing the economy forward.”

“Nationalisation revived the economy and economic and social progress followed. The international reaction to the decision to nationalise the canal was that our people should not control their destiny because our then enemies saw us as ‘pharaohs’ and if we were enabled to do so no one could catch up with us.”

“In 1958, Egypt succeeded in its unification with Syria despite the hostility of regimes neighbouring Syria like in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. These regimes believed that Egypt’s unity with Syria was a threat to the Arab monarchies of the time, and thus began a camaraderie between these three parties even though they did not appear together [the monarchies, Israel and the West], until the unification ended in 1961.”

Even though nationalisation in Egypt contributed to an economic revival on several levels, it was the reason for the separation in Syria, according to Massoud. “The reaction to nationalisation in the 1960s was that all the business class rejected it, and there were differences in Egyptian and Syrian customs. We left Syria in September 1961, and until the following year Egypt was swimming against the current.”

In August 1962, Cairo was aware of the Free Officers group in Yemen led by colonel Ali Abdel-Ghani plotting a coup against the rule of Imam Ahmed bin Yehia Hamideddin – the “tyrant,” as they called him. The later president Anwar Al-Sadat was in contact with the Yemenis, and Egypt’s official assessment was that if a revolution occurred against Imam Ahmed, Saudi Arabia in the North and the British in Aden in the South would stand against it and support him.

The Arab monarchies began to clash with the new republican regime in Yemen after it was announced on 26 September, 1962, that colonel Abdullah Al-Sallal had led a coup against Mohamed Al-Badr – the new Imam of Yemen – and the Yemeni army had seized power after a battle in which Al-Badr was reported killed. Egypt then recognised the republican regime in Yemen.

HOSTILITIES IN YEMEN: “The hostilities were between Saudi Arabia and Iran, just like today but from a different perspective,” said Massoud. “Both agreed in 1962 to overthrow the republic in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and Iran opposed a republic that might act to topple the monarchies in these countries.”

“We prayed that the revolution in Yemen would succeed to increase Aden’s independence from the British. As a first lieutenant at the time, I was not aware of the importance of the Bab Al-Mandab [the Red Sea Straits] to our strategy, but our commanders understood it.”

“There were many parties to the confrontation between the Yemeni monarchy and the British, and Israel did not want to see Egypt’s army become stronger. As young officers, we believed we were aiding Al-Sallal in taking power in Yemen. On 28 September, I was the officer on duty in Dahshur, and suddenly I received orders from central command to prepare a battalion to go to Yemen. I telephoned the brigade commander at home, and he told me he was on his way to prepare a battalion.”

“We gathered ammunition, vehicles, supplies and training equipment. The brigade was almost ready, the commander arrived after midnight, and together with the soldiers we began asking why we were going to Yemen. The answer was to train the Yemeni army. I was assigned to lead the battalion that would prepare for the arrival of the brigade going to Hodayyida in Yemen.”

Massoud explained that the intention was to send more infantry battalions. “I began to prepare for this, even though Nasser was presented with a plan to send a squadron of Egyptian fighter jets to protect the revolution in Yemen based on a visit by Al-Sadat to Sanaa who suggested that one company was enough. Analysing the situation in hindsight it is clear that this was a company supported by the entire Egyptian army.”

Massoud describes the day he went to Yemen. “The Egyptian fleet gathered in the Al-Adabeya port. I boarded from the port south of Suez. We were fewer than 30, and I was the commander of the brigade. On the second day, 29 September, we came across a British battleship that led us to the Saudi border after we left the Gulf of Suez. The commander of the vessel asked me what we were doing. I gathered our soldiers and distributed them along the side of the ship facing the battleship and told him not to respond.”

“We expected the British battleship to fire, but all it did was to inform us that we were in an area it did not want us in. We arrived in Hodayyida on 2 October, but had to wait offshore and use smaller boats to take the shipments on land. I was in the first boat and waited in the port for the others to arrive. I asked to meet with the head of the port, and he came and told me the area was secure. I was surprised to find there had been Egyptian troops in Sanaa since 30 September.”

“While we were preparing the brigade, another battalion was requested to descend on Sanaa. The group that reached Sanaa separated from us. We went to the palace of the Imam in Hodayyida. There was a terrible smell from two caged panthers, and we decided to clean out the palace of the man overthrown by the revolution. We found two broken-down Russian 4x4 armoured vehicles and realised then that the Russians had been giving the Yemenis advanced weapons.”  

Massoud was chosen to lead the brigade to go to Abbas. “We took one repaired armoured vehicle and a map and headed out. Every time I asked where the place was, the answer was ‘it is near.’ The journey to Abbas took 23 hours. The sun rose the next morning to reveal the outlines of a citadel. There were huts on a hill called Akmah where the local people lived. I had to deal with those around us as enemies to protect us from ambush.”

Along with a group of three others, he began moving in arrow-head formation “so we were not taken by surprise or killed. I was in charge at the front, and there was one man to the right and another to the left, and two were on the same line. A Yemeni man came to me, but I didn’t understand what he was saying except the word ‘Abbass’. I remembered I had heard about captain Abbass when I was in Hodayyida and that captain Abbass was in ‘Abbas’. The closer we got to the citadel, the more isolated we felt.”

“The stairs in the citadel were narrow, and there was a foul smell. I found captain Abbass and prepared for the arrival of the rest of the brigade. He told me I was in the town of Antara bin Shadad. Once the brigade arrived, we headed out. After ‘Abass, the landscape began to change, and our mission took a different turn. The first company was ambushed and the bodies of the dead soldiers were horribly mutilated, which quite changed my outlook. We fought on and reached Maydan, a port. In another ten days we reached the border with Saudi Arabia and our troops began to go up into the mountains to secure the area.”

“Ground warfare in Yemen was very difficult. The battleground was very different from anything we had been trained for. We had come to train the Yemeni army, but now began to fight against soldiers from Ethiopia. This was when I changed my mind about Yemen. We had heard it was called ‘Happy Yemen’ because the people there did not have a care in the world. The Imam painted himself in bright colours such that local people called him a kind of god. The Imam was very cruel and had even killed his own cousin.”

HIT AND RUN: “The monarchists in Yemen were former officers in the Imam’s army, and to our east and north was an enemy which was unknown, meaning that when we moved we had to look in all directions and did not know where the shooting would begin.”

 “We found the mountains had names, most importantly Al-Qaher [the vanquisher], which was higher than anything else around and could not be conquered. Our enemies were strong because of the funds they received from Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the weapons they got from Britain or bought from Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

“We took control of the situation by cutting our human losses resulting from landmines exploding under the armoured vehicles. We put sandbags on their floors, having learned the hard way how blood was spilled. General Abdel-Mohsen Kamel Mortagi, the commander of the forces in Yemen in 1965, drew up a plan called a Patience Strategy that involved the brigade being stationed in one location in order not to be attacked. After that, our losses began to decline.”

“Leave began in 1963, and after I returned in 1965. Since I had served in Yemen before 1965, I would take a 10-day leave after one month of service, whereas those who had not took leave every two months. We would return to Egypt by plane, and the Yemenis called the helicopters ‘tattle tellers’ because after flying overhead they would fire at their locations. We were defending the Yemen Republic against the monarchists, and despite the losses we believed the Republic was worth supporting.”

“Before the war started in Yemen, Egypt seemed sad. It had been pained by the separation from Syria, and the general sense was that we were fighting back against imperialism in order to fight for our right to exist. During an entire year without leave, the only form of communication was the letters taken to Hodayyida and then by boat to Egypt.”

Eventually there were 11 battalions, the first under the command of Massoud and called the Red Brigade. “We would wake up at dawn because the temperature on the coast was 45 to 50 degrees Celsius in the shade. We wore shorts and hats similar to sombreros, and directed battles from our location or from the front. There were no tents and we slept in the shade until the battle had ended.”

Entertainment came in the form of a movie caravan that arrived five months later showing films starring Hussein Sidki and so on. “We would set up screens on the streets and our Yemeni allies would watch from the other side. Chickens cost one riyal for ten, and a tin of pineapples or apricots cost six boksha. Some Egyptian soldiers would pour out the liquid, add salt to the pineapple, and eat it as if it were a kind of pickle. The local income came from animals and fish, and imported goods came from Hodayyida.”

“The troops were also issued with processed cheese and juice. There were tins of fuul, lentils, corned beef and sardines. In 1963, olive paste was a new addition. Five months later, they sent us tins like ghee containers with whole cooked courgettes.”

Speaking about how the people of Yemen received the Egyptian troops, Massoud says that “in 1965, they would pray for us and say ‘God help you in your war.’ But when I returned in 1967, the women in the streets would chant ‘Get out, get out, the occupation.’ Egypt spent a lot of money on the war. The losses were relative, though it was used as a justification for the 1967 Defeat.”

SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES: “In Yemen today the enemy is more brazen – it overthrew the regime. In the past when the regime was ousted we were happy and supportive of the Yemeni Revolution and the army against oppression. Today, we are trying to correct the coup though there is a perception that the conflict is one of Shiites against Sunnis, which is not correct.”

“Instead, the conflict in Yemen is a proxy war between Iranian interests and Saudi interests. Operation Decisive Storm should be viewed within the context of the overthrow of legitimacy, and Egypt’s participation in it is to support legitimacy in Yemen. Iraq is another example. This is not a matter of Shiites or Sunnis or Kurds, but instead is one of the interests of the US with Iran against the Syrians and Libyans to destabilise the Arab world.”

It was not the mountainous landscape that made Yemen so difficult, but rather the tribal allegiances that routinely changed. “The troops were stationed on top of a mountain that took seven hours to reach. The first third of the mountain was in the light, the second third was in low clouds, and the last third was in thick clouds. I arrived at around seven or eight in the evening, and a Yemeni colonel told me to come down immediately because I had been made a target for 45,000 riyals. He was warning me so I could get away.”

“I told the soldiers to plant mines, to destroy our mortars so the enemy did not benefit from them, and to booby trap the ammunition. I took the troops down the mountain on the most difficult path. I sent a Morse code message to our command, and the orders were to evacuate. When we had reached ground level, I dressed like a Yemeni and went to a café and heard them arguing about how they had the paid money but had not received the goods. It was a Yemeni colonel making the deal, but I can’t remember his name.”

“We went back eventually and won the battle. Instead of weekly skirmishes, they declined to once a month. The Egyptian pound at the time was worth 30 riyals. We weighed our salaries: 1,000 riyals was 28 kg. I was married with one daughter at the time, and I had left to go to Yemen when she was two years old. She did not recognise me because I had spent an entire year in Yemen without leave. We returned on 23 December 1963 and were received by Nasser in Port Said. The president pinned a medal on the flag of the brigade. The impact of the war also soon manifested itself. The Egyptian pound dropped to the equivalent of one Yemeni riyal because the economy was failing, giving rise to inflation.”

“In the second year, the pound was worth three riyals, then one riyal, then 30 piastres. We imported everything which negatively impacted the economy.”

Massoud’s response to a question on the impact of the war on the 1967 Defeat comes as a surprise. “The Yemen War was not the cause of our defeat in 1967, contrary to what people say. It was an excuse for it. When a position falls after four attacks, this means the soldiers fought hard and did not surrender. In 1956, we had seven battalions in Sinai, and in 1967 there were nine squadrons, but the goal of the 1967 War was to totally annihilate the Egyptian army. Unfortunately, ten countries conspired against us.”

Massoud believes that Egypt’s participation in the war in Yemen now is a matter of life or death. Since the Revolutions in 2011 and 2013, there have been large amounts of support from overseas, including more than $20 billion in the form of aid and assistance from the Gulf countries. The Islamic State (IS) group has emerged, and the Bab Al-Mandab Straits are blocked in the south, which affects the New Suez Canal.

“Just as the Nile water is an existential battle for us, so is blocking the Bab Al-Mandab. Europe needs the Bab Al-Mandab for trade, but the US no longer needs the canal because it is extending pipelines from Saudi Arabia across Sudan and Chad to West Africa, and it will load its petroleum on the Atlantic Ocean. We must remember that what strangled Israel in the October 1973 War was the closure of the Bab Al-Mandab.”

“Neither the East nor the West want our country to stand on its own two feet today, and this is why we have to pull ourselves up by our boot straps. Egyptians have incredible capabilities, but they need wise leadership. I would like to see everyone stand by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi because the domestic front needs to see a light at the end of the tunnel and feel real progress.”

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