Many people claim to have unearthed secrets from the near past. Some of those secrets were never a secret; most are nothing more than conspiracy theories. It was therefore nice to find a book about a secret war that really was carefully kept under wraps. At the least, for various reasons, it escaped wider scrutiny so far.
The War That Never Was by Duff Hart-Davis was published by Century. The author has done his homework. He has produced a book that is not only enlightening but also diverting and at times amusing despite its subject matter. Let him take us back to the year 1962.
Egypt was held under the iron fist of pseudo-communist president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser, with the help of his Russian allies, was dreaming dreams of a great Arabian communist state. The new superstate would flourish under his benign leadership, obviously. To this end, he instigated a coup in Yemen which was governed by its hereditary leader the Imam of Yemen. To help the rebels, he poured in Egyptian troops by the ten thousands.
The news were annoying the British government. Britain needed the strategic port of Aden for its fleet. But the government in London was enacting its own soap opera called the Profumo Affair. It would eventually lead to the downfall of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The Imam therefore received no help from London, at least not officially.
Unofficially, a network of old boys started to give assistance to the Yemeni Royalists. This allowed the government to stay officially neutral in the internal affairs of Yemen (a concept of international law that nowadays has become completely obsolete as Americans and British troops just bomb their way to oil resources under the mask of bringing democracy) while bored old age pensioners who had been active in World War II were coordinating the loyalist troops from their comfortable armchairs.
The book abounds with details about the people involved, and if it reminds you of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Bright Young Things at times, then that is no coincidence. Not that Hart-Davis has copied from Waugh, but that was the way Britain had run wars for a couple of centuries. It had run World War II that way as well. Nasser’s secret service was fully aware of the people working behind the scenes in London; the Egyptian president sent them Christmas cards every year.
Young British officers were sent to Yemen as private citizens to train the loyalist troops. They found a rag tag band of medieval warriors armed with Victorian rifles. Their equipment only picked up once Israel started to airdrop guns and ammunition to help their conservative Muslim archenemy on the Yemenite throne. Politics can be deliciously murky, don’t you agree? And the most modern way of communication within Yemen available was using runners.
The Egyptians on the other hand were almost on the height of modern warfare. They used German Enigma machines retired from World War II. They were either ignorant of the fact that the British had deciphered that code 20 years earlier or they just did not care. Nasser came to call the war in Yemen his Vietnam; he didn't achieve what he had set out to do and weakened his position in Egypt and within the Arab world dangerously.
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