Everyone who was there talks about the sun – and the smell. “It was a good posting, apart from the heat,” remembers Chris Bridle, who served for two years in Aden, one of Britain’s last outposts of empire, as a driver with 24 Field Ambulance in the Royal Army Medical Corps. “But it smelt like nowhere else I’ve ever been. Hot, smelly and twitchy, I’d call it. We were young and invincible, but walking down the main road in Maala or Steamer Point you never knew if someone was going to throw a grenade, because of the local factions fighting us.”
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Now 75, Bridle was 23 when he arrived in Aden, a tiny patch of the Arabian peninsula, barely 75 square miles in total, in what is modern-day Yemen. It was mid-1965 – exactly when the first episode of The Last Post begins, the BBC’s new primetime drama starring Jessica Raine, which revolves around the lives and loves of a group of military police and their families, negotiating not only the end of the British Empire but also the rise of the 1960s.
Another man who remembers Aden is Bafta-winning writer Peter Moffat. The Last Post is based on his childhood memories: his father served in the Royal Military Police in Aden, while his mother struggled to reconcile life as a service wife with the freedoms of the Swinging Sixties. Grenade attacks and roadside mines are depicted alongside polka-dot bikinis and fish and chips at the BP Beach Club – and gin and tonics, most of which seem to be downed by Raine’s character Alison Laithwaite, whose appetite for a G&T is matched only by her enthusiasm for other women’s husbands.
It’s a world – and a lifetime – away from a blustery late summer’s lunchtime in Portsmouth, where Bridle has joined seven other ex-servicemen in their 70s in the bar of the Royal Marines Association Club, to reminisce. Once a month they convene here for a branch meeting of the Aden Veterans Association.
This is a landmark year for them – on 30 November 2017, it will be 50 years since Crown Forces withdrew from Aden. All eight men served there in the 1960s and the memories are still vivid.
“The social life was fun, although it could get a bit hectic,” smiles Bridle. “Lots of punch-ups, but a huge sense of camaraderie. We were there to protect the trade routes, but I suppose it was going nowhere because of the factions fighting us. Having us there was a good thing for the locals. They had employment. All they’ve had since is civil war.”
When did the British army first intervene in Aden?
Royal Marines first landed at Aden in 1839 to stop attacks by pirates against British shipping to India. It became a strategic transit stop between Britain, India and the Far East and by the late 1950s it was the second-busiest port in the world after New York, with the BP oil refinery in Aden a crucial asset.
What brought the Royal Military Police there so many years later?
Yemeni-armed rebel tribes were in revolt, and in 1955 the British Army resumed control from the RAF “to preserve internal security”, only for the garrison’s existence to increase anti-British feeling. The last Governor stepped down in 1963, after which events escalated until November 1967, when British rule ended in an ignominious withdrawal.
What happened after the British left Aden?
The years since led to Yemen’s ongoing civil war, which has now killed 10,000 people, and left 70 per cent of the 28 million population in need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.
“Aden was very poorly managed indeed from London by the Harold Wilson government [elected in October 1964],” explains Dr Simon Anglim, from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. “The Wilson government starved British forces in the Middle East of resources. The British Army did a reasonable job of containing the insurgency. But these were undone by the government’s policy.”
It’s the policy of today’s government that bewilders Bridle and his fellow veterans. To a man they cannot understand why there are no government-planned events to mark the 50th anniversary of the British withdrawal. Four hundred veterans are expected to attend a service at York Minster in November organised entirely by the AVA, but their invitation to Prince Andrew has, as yet, gone unanswered.
The AVA Roll of Honour lists 443 servicemen killed in Aden, yet the Ministry of Defence confirms it has no events scheduled to commemorate the anniversary. “Our service there is forgotten,” says Bridle. “Always they ignore us – government, brass, even military sites with ‘in memory’, there’s no Aden. I don’t know why. It makes me angry. They don’t want to know. We’re forgotten.”
By Kate Battersby