The Cemetry at Mina Al Fahal

May 2008 (English only)

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Remembering those that paid the ultimate price in an almost forgotten war.


A different story, but one that needs to be told and told again as history sadly keeps repeating itself in each generation in different places. The story also becomes very much alive under the shade of the Casuarina trees at the Cemetry of Mina Al Fahal where partly faded gravestones with names and dates link us directly to Oman's Dhofar Insurgency.

The Dhofar Insurgency

 To appreciate this story we have to go back to the beginnings of modern Oman in the late 1960's and early 1970's. This was a politically unstable period in the whole Gulf region. The increasing income of oil threw traditional tribal societies in the maelstrom of world economics and politics.  This was also the time of increasing Arab Nationalism and radical Marxism. The British departed from the Gulf region in 1971 and following the collapse of the British presence from Aden a Marxist oriented People's Democratic Republic of  Yemen (PDRY) was founded. The new Yemeni government, backed by the Soviet Union and China tried to subsequently spread its revolution throughout the region. Oman particularly was vulnerable with a traditionally divided country weakened by a recent struggle for dominance (The Green rebellion). This in turn could jeopardize Western access to the Gulf Oil as Oman held the strategically important Musandam Peninsular overlooking the Straits of Hormuz.  An insurgency against the Sultan was hijacked by Marxists forces resulting in a direct war. With its debacle at the Suez Canal Britain was not keen to fight a full fledge war in the Middle East, but too much was at stake. From 1964 to 1975 a small group of British officers, advisors and trainers joined the Sultan's armed forces to help. That war is now almost forgotten. A number of books have been written about it (see references) revealing a story that is in many ways comparable to the more recent wars of Afghanistan and Iraq and therefore worthwhile reflecting on.

Dhofar

Dhofar had always been a very different part of Oman, separated from the rest of Oman by almost 800km of inhospitable desert. The fertile coastal plain between Salalah and Mirbat is at one side bounded by the sea and the other side is surrounded by the inaccessible Qara Mountains (the "Jebels"), inhabited by the fiercely independent Jebali tribes with little regard for Oman or its Sultan. An area ideally suited for guerilla warfare, with few roads, inaccessible terrain and part of the year thick fog of the monsoons just touching this tip of the Arabian Peninsular.

Small groups of lightly armed adoos (guerilla fighters) could cover vast areas, locking down the numerically superior Sultan's armed forces for many years. The fight was not won by military strength alone. Just as important as was the backing of military action by a dedicated programme of economic reforms introduced by Sultan Qaboos, removing the root cause and gradually reducing the popular support of the insurgency.


Location Map from Google Earth:
http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=23.632337,58.503871&spn=0.013761,0.019999&t=h&z=16
The graveyard can be found by driving along the Ras Al Hamra Street in the direction of the PDO recreation club from the junction with the Fohoud street. Take the first sideroad to the right. This tarmac road leads to a valley between two ridges. The entrance of the road has a barrier which is mostly open. Drive to the end of the tarmac road.

From the earliest graves at Mina Al Fahal one can conclude that the graveyard was first used in 1972, which is at the end of the Dhofar Insurgency in a period that witnessed fierce battles.

 

Even in the heat of May the dense shade of the Casuarinas is somehow inviting.

I have tried to find the stories connected to the military graves by checking names in books and on the internet and could find details for three of them. That does not mean the stories of their fellows is less important. I am sure they would be just as intense as the ones listed below.

It appears that most of these men had seen active service in Britain's difficult wars, such as Ireland. One is tempted to think that they must have been a special breed. But were they?

Captain P.A. Mann of the Queen's Dragoon Guards was second in command of "B" Company Frontier Force, a Baluchi Battalion in the Sultan Of Oman Force. His company was involved in an operation deep in enemy territory. It was subject to repeated attacks from three sides. Captain Mann moved about the company, without regard for his own safety encouraging his soldiers. During one of these attacks he was wounded but continued to exhort his men. He showed a degree of bravery, leadership and example under fire that inspired his soldiers to capture their final objective and to resist enemy attempts to dislodge them. Subsequently his actions were indispensable to the success of the operation. Captain Mann was killed in action a month later on the 13th April 1975.  Campaign Service Medal clasps Northern Ireland, Dhofar EII Sultan of Oman's Bravery Award (Awarded Posthumously) Oman Dhofar Campaign medal Clasp Dhofar in Arabic Oman Victory Medal

Major J. Braddell Smith

Taken from Ian Gardiner http://scotsatwar.co.uk/veteransreminiscences/igardiner.htm

My Company Commander was an Irishman from County Wexford called Johnny Braddell Smith. He had had a short service commission in the British Army where he was probably too unconventional to be successful, which was why he gravitated to Oman as a contract officer. But being tough, understanding, tolerant and utterly unflappable, he was ideally suited to the country, the people, and the job in hand. At twenty-six, he was three years older than me.

Others of his fellow British officers weren't so lucky in Dhofar, and one of his reasons for writing his book "in Service of the Sultan" was to preserve the memory of comrades who paid the ultimate price for their involvement: "I realised that if I didn't write this down, it would all evaporate".

"There were men doing things in your name and mine over there, in the name of this country, some of them making the ultimate sacrifice, and people here just haven't a clue." as he cites his commander and friend, Johnny Braddell-Smith, killed on Christmas morning of 1974 after trying to retrieve the body of his Omani sergeant major under fire, for which he was posthumously awarded the Omani equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

Captain N.C.T. Loring was commanding 2 Company of the Jebel Regiment on the operation against the enemy at Sherishitti on 6 January 1975. At 13.30 hrs his company came under fire whilst crossing an area of open ground to the West of the Wadi Sherishitti.

He was leading the advance with the leading platoon. During the contact most of the soldiers in the leading platoon were pinned down in the open ground and many were either killed or wounded. Captain Loring despite himself being wounded re-organised those who were still alive and within a few minutes was personally leading the advance towards the known enemy positions.

As the party led by Captain Loring reached the high ground to the west of the Wadi they came under heavy fire from an enemy group hidden in the Wadi. Captain Loring was killed instantly at point blank range.

Captain Loring had been extremely brave in previous contacts in the Central area and had on many occasions shown complete disregard for personal safety.

The action of getting the point platoon on their feet whilst under fire and advancing across open ground was a most gallant action, and he showed leadership and bravery of the highest order. Nigel's body was never recovered and in his memory a small plaque had been fixed to one of the gateposts of the Christian Cemetery in Muscat.

This plaque has since been removed and replaced by a memorial stone in the middle of the graveyard.

There are four Christian cemeteries in Muscat where the 53 British servicemen who have died in Oman are buried, dating back to 1871.

These are only three of the stories of many more. Stories that resemble only too much of what is going on in Afghanistan and Iraq. A relatively unknown war in Dhofar, but with many learning for the wars of today. Without that war there would not be the safe and friendly Oman as we know it now and that should not be forgotten.

After posting this page on the WWW I was contacted by some of the soldiers that fought there. 

Nick Ofield (SAF 1970-1978): "The Dhofar war is relatively unknown.  Even during the fighting (up to 1976), many western expats in North Oman were unaware  that there was a war in the south. The graves at Mina Al Fahal serve as a reminder that these brave men gave their lives in order that Oman can be free for you all to live and explore it in freedom and safety"


Overlooking the Wadi Darbat March 72, photograph courtesy Nick Ofield

Patrol leaving Mughsayl April 72 (note the donkeys to carry food & ammunition etc. Photograph courtesy Nick Ofield

References

  • Alfree, P.S.,  1967. Warlords of Oman
  • Fiennes, R., 'Where Soldiers fear to Tread'  and 'The Feathermen'
  • Gardiner, I., 2006, In the Service of the Sultan; a first hand account of the Dhofar Insurgency
  • Ladwig, W.C., 2007, Supporting Allies in Counterinsurgencies: lessons from Dhofar. Paper presented at the 2007 Political Studies Association Annual Conference. April 2007, University of Bath.
  • Jeapes, Colonel T.,  1980. SAS Operation Oman.

 

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@ J. Schreurs May 2008