The Somerset & Cornwall Light Infantry
6 October 1959 - 10 July 1968
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SCLI Memoir by - Duncan Drake - SCLI
Whispered conversation circa 1965, winter, far away north of the arctic circle……..
The passing of the years has clouded my memory of the exact wording, but it went something like that anyway! I do remember we were crouched, shivering fiercely in an icy slit-trench at that particular moment and that it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a billiard table. Alan and I were wondering whether to watch to our front for possible exercise enemy movement, or to watch the northern lights displaying so vividly overhead. Looking back, I’m pretty sure the light show would have won easily.
To be honest, although I had heard of Aden and could just about pinpoint it on a world map, I had no idea of the politics of the region. I knew it was hot. I also knew that the locals appeared to be a bit piqued with the British troops for some reason, and that they had started taking the odd potshot and rolling the occasional grenade at us to reinforce their point of view – whatever that point of view was. I guess in those days life was like that for all of us squaddies – “Ours is not to reason why……and etc,” (carefully omitting the ‘do or die’ bit!) and I never thought for even a moment to look up or inquire about the history of the place, or even find out what we were trying to achieve. We all just knew it was a bit hairy out there, and that we had to go. Our ambition was to simply to survive for the six month tour without disgracing oneself, one’s comrades, or the regiment.
We had a few weeks to prepare ourselves and our kit, but it wasn’t a full tactical move thank goodness. Our own vehicles and stuff was stored in the barracks in Gravesend, and we travelled only with our personal equipment and belongings. We moved in buses to RAF Lyneham, and boarded the aircraft in “chalks”. Some were lucky and had a direct journey by the bright and gleaming spanking new new VC10s, but others like me were herded into dowdy and slow ancient Bristol Britannias for a 16 hour flight, with stops in Istanbul and Bahrain. We arrived at Radfan Camp eventually at just after mid-day, the temperature was 98 degrees, it was humid, sandy, smelly and every fly in the place was right there to welcome us – made a good job of it too. They never left us alone for the whole six months.
I was a private soldier in the Signals Platoon, and for my past sins had been given the job of C.O.’s driver/operator for the duration of our tour of duty in the protectorate. The CO at the time was Lt/Col. I. G. Mathews. He was a very ‘hands on’ type commander and took a constant upfront attitude, out with the patrols and checkpoints at all hours of the day or night and he was jolly good company too, judging by the number of people he winked at every day! I thought it odd in the beginning that not too many winked back!
Our temporary “home”, Radfan Camp never really ‘grew’ on us. It started off as ‘the absolute pits’, and I’m sure we all agreed it went steeply downhill after that until we willingly left it all to the 3rd Royal Anglian Regiment six months later. Mostly it was an arrangement of large tents with a sandbag sangar around each one, and a long perimeter defensive trench around the whole camp. Every tent had a large fan in the roof which didn’t so much cool the place as constantly raise and circulate vast quantities of red dust. We might as well have been on Mars. The daily weapon cleaning and accommodation inspections were almost impossible to complete without every surface being smothered in this magnetic grit. We were constantly getting some bollocking or other from the NCOs. These fans also had voices of their own, and for six months they royally entertained us with a concert of squeaks, pings, buzzes and thumps that would make a jazz band proud!
There were a few ‘real’ buildings. The cookhouse
and NAAFI weren’t too bad, and the fact that they had no doors
and patterned ventilation holes in the walls was a positive boon to
our own friendly flies and larger insects, giving them unrestricted
access to our food. The camp cinema had no roof and I was sure we’d
fallen victim to one of those legendary arab thievings, but they assured
me that that the lack of roof was deliberate!!
The duties consisted of two main activities. Manning the various road checkpoints in and out of the area that we controlled, and providing vehicle and foot patrols around the whole of the Al Mansoura and Sheikh Othman districts. Trust us to have the “Dodge City” of the middle east, the legendary “grenade corner” right there on our patch!! I lost count of the number of ‘incidents’ that took place there – but mostly we took the corner so fast in our open Land Rovers that the terrorists were hard pressed to unpin a grenade and throw it before all that was left of the patrol was a cloud of swirling dust, the whiff of a hot engine and some tyre smoke! Our very own ‘keeni-meeni’ group, more properly known as Recce Platoon or “Bogan’s Heroes”, were prone to hanging around this corner in their civvies, lying doggo up on a roof or perhaps lurking in a dark alley in order to catch some amateur arab grenadier in the act. I’m not sure exactly how many of these bad guys we actually caught, but I know it worked well for a while.
Days were long and hot, and the nights even longer and
hotter. We were able to get away occasionally down to Little Aden,
stronghold of 45 Marine Commando, where there was a spectacular beach
and club. To this day I’m not sure if I got there only as a
perk of being the CO’s driver/operator, or whether the club
was available to others in the battalion, but it sure was a rare but
relaxing way to spend an afternoon. We got lots of news from the UK
and the rest of the world via two radio stations, the ever-present
BFBS, and a smaller unit, the Aden Forces Broadcasting Association
(AFBA). I remember that Cpl. Ian Woodman from our own legendary signals
platoon was DJ of a programme featuring Latin American music and was
actually very good at it. I got to drive him to his studio on most
Sundays instead of going on church parade and helped him select his
music from the station record library. I’d have done almost
anything to get away from the constant round of patrols, patrols and
It was scratchy and full of atmospherics, but it seemed to be the only live coverage that anyone could find. I dared to rebroadcast just a little bit of the commentary from the world service across onto the battalion VHF command net just as a joke, and immediately had a flood of calls asking for more from every patrol, checkpoint and operator on the net!! So I just flicked a few switches and left the second half broadcasting away, quite illegally, including the now famous extra time. All this from my parked vehicle safe within the confines of the Mansoura Prison compound. I guess it was well appreciated because I never officially heard any complaints, but please don’t tell Roger Wigram (the RSO) that it was me – he’s probably still kept the charge sheet ready to use to this day! If that’s the case, may I mention that I couldn’t have done it without the assistance of my ol’ mate Vic Vaughan keeping an eye out for me, I’d hate to have to face the music alone.
Most of the COs patrol activity took place after dark and consisted of visiting checkpoints and chatting with the guys on duty. Occasionally we were nearby when an ‘incident’ took place against a mobile patrol and actually I got to do some real soldiering on the follow-up activities. This sometimes got quite exciting, culminating one night after a hand grenade had been rolled out of a doorway and timed so that it would explode between the two vehicles of a mobile patrol from ‘B’ Company. The grenadier timed it to perfection, apparently there was a splendid flash and bang, but luckily none of the schrapnel hit anyone or anything important. The guys dismounted from the vehicles and took up all round defence as per Bn SOPs and called for assistance. We, in the CO’s landrover, arrived within seconds and drove in to park next to one of the patrol trucks. Col. Mathews, 9mm Luger in hand and glory in his mind winked wildly, vaulted into the action leaving me to man the radios and send a sitrep to the ops room. Halfway through the radio message I heard the by now familiar “ting…pop……..thump” of another grenade landing, and very close to me!! In desperately diving round to the other side of the vehicle I forgot just how short the cable on a radio headset is, and ended up flat on my back, staring at the stars, deaf as the proverbial post and being strangled by that same cable. The exploding grenade simultaneously punctured our drinking water tank and three of the four Land Rover tyres.
I found myself being covered simultaneously by a lot of water plus the thick dust being blown around by the rapidly deflating wheels. The result was, of course, that my head was covered in sandy mud and nicely camouflaged in the darkness. I forget who got to me first (and I wouldn’t tell you anyway!!) because he let out the most heart stopping of screams before shouting that there was a headless body down by the COs Landrover and to send for an ambulance bloody quick. It took a fair bit of time and reassurance to calm him down, even after I had washed off the dust and explained what had happened, but meanwhile both the grenadiers had escaped into the night in the confusion. Can’t win them all.
There are so many stories that come out of this time spent in Aden, and for most of us it was the first time we had been in any sort of hostile action. Not all of it was pleasant, we lost two popular guys, Corporal Roy Collings and young Private Oakley, but under the circumstances I think we can count ourselves fortunate not to have lost more. I can remember that morale always seemed high and people did their various patrols and duties as cheerfully as possible considering that we were mostly young and very far from home. I can’t say that I have fond memories of the place, but I do have plenty of them to savour in my old age. I did manage to climb Mount Shamsan late one afternoon, and a local legend says that if you reach the very summit and look all around the view, it is assured that you will never return to Aden. I’d have climbed it ten times a day on that promise alone.
Five years ago, after another blighty holiday I was
due to fly back to Australia on Royal Brunei Airlines from Heathrow.
Due to unexpected traffic on the M4 and my own incompetence I missed
my flight by a good hour. I was rescheduled by the airline to fly
the next day albeit by a different route, and discovered it was the
airline’s sort of ‘milk-run’ stopping just about
everywhere before finally getting to Bandar Seri Begawan a day later.
One of the stops was Aden – so much for climbing Shamsan all
those years ago – what a waste of effort! I had an enforced
4 hour stopover there, and filled the time by leaving the airport
complex and taking a taxi ride around the place. It looked, felt and
smelled just the same to me as it had done 33 years previously. In
fact it looked like exactly the same old yellow cab that I had seen
outside the airport the night I left in October 1966. The driver spoke
English but he didn’t seem to remember me at all. He did remember
the British being there, and stated that after we had left times got
much harder for them and they had no love at all for our mostly Russian
replacements. How very sad, I thought with a satisfied smile……….!
Copyright Text and Images: Duncan Drake.
Webmasters note (Keith)
My grateful thanks to Duncan for this article, Duncan has supported this site from the outset and wrote much of the original pages text, he was in the SCLI after I was demobbed but we are in touch regularly by Email and hope to meet on one of his return trips to UK.