Operation Stirling Castle

This order was to be given in the event of trouble and would result in the district being sealed off and all males between 15 and 35 in the area of the incident being held for interrogation plus photographing and finger printing. When the next incident did occur, a grenade thrown at a foot patrol, Portcullis was ordered and Crater was sealed off and the thrower pursued. The Jocks went in hard and their methods prompted a series of complaints to the British High Commission and a smear campaign against the Argylls and Mitchell, led by dissidents and prompted by the Egyptian Intelligence Service. Once again the timidity of the GOC in Aden, Major General Tower and the British government's desire to "play down" any trouble, led to Mitchell being ordered to take a softer line and that in future, all searches and interrogations had to be made with the Arab Police present. Recognising this mood, the Arab Police became less intimidated by the soldiers and the terrorists felt that they could restart their bombing campaign. Brigade HQ also insisted that the battalion attended a ceremonial parade at the Arab Police barracks which left a very bad taste in the mouths of the Argylls.

Mitchell ordered that kilts should be worn at the parade and added, an order to “shoot at anything not wearing a kilt that stepped out of line". On the 18th July a terrorist was shot by a patrol and on the 21st Lance Corporal William Orr was shot dead by a sniper while inspecting an observation post above the market place.  The Argylls immediately surrounded the building from where the shots were fired and searched for the sniper and his weapon neither was found. One Arab tried to break out from the cordon around the building and was shot dead.

The next day a patrol from D Company was moving down a side alley and stopped to question an Arab who was acting suspiciously. The Arab panicked and tried to grab one of the Argyll's rifles and both men fell to the floor in the struggle. The Argyll could not fire his weapon in the confined space and killed the Arab with his bayonet. This was seen by the British authorities as an uncalled for act of brutality and new orders were issued to the Argylls stating that bayonets were no longer to be taken on patrol, infuriating the soldiers who felt that their hands were being tied.

This timidity by the British High Command was again seen as weakness by the terrorists who embarked on yet more attacks. On the 23rd, an armed terrorist was shot dead and the next day a grenade was thrown at an Argyll patrol. Grenades were now being thrown at patrols regularly and the terrorists would hide in mosques before and after the attacks knowing that troops were forbidden from entering places of worship. If they suspected that a terrorist was hiding in a mosque, the soldiers would have to call the Arab Police to carry out the search. This was seen as useless as the police would turn up many hours later and find nothing. Mitchell came up with the idea of stationing snipers on the roofs of buildings overlooking the entrances to the mosques, but this meant that he had to reduce the number of men in the various observation posts throughout the area. To overcome this he had dummies made complete with glengarries to occupy the vacant positions and fool the watchers as to the actual strength of the posts.

At 9.49 on the morning of the 24th, the first grenade of the day was thrown and another at 9.58. At 9.59 two terrorists were shot dead by snipers as they ran back into the mosques and a third was killed following another incident later in the day. The mosques were no longer a safe haven. The attacks increased in intensity with grenade, mortar and rocket attacks becoming more and more frequent. By the end of August the Argylls had suffered five killed and eighteen wounded, they in turn had killed twenty terrorists and wounded five. Indiscriminate bombing by the terrorists had resulted in twenty five civilian deaths and many more injured.

Suddenly the attacks stopped. From September to the middle of October the area was quiet with no incidents reported. Mitchell believed that this was "because our finds of ammunition and explosives have finally taken the wind out of their sails".

It was not to last however, on the 14th October the terrorists started firing mortars into Crater and the ceasefire was over. On the 20th a grenade was thrown at an Argylls patrol, wounding a soldier and a number of civilians. The Jocks chased the two terrorists involved, killing one and wounding the other who escaped in a taxi. The taxi was stopped at an Argyll road block and the driver and passenger tried to run away. Both were shot and killed.
With the British now withdrawing their forces from Aden, the NLF and FLOSY began fighting for control of the country and groups of gunmen roamed the streets shooting and kidnapping, preferring to take on each other rather than face the Argylls. In just two days over 50 bodies were discovered in the streets, but not in Crater where the Union and Argylls flags still flew and to where many Arabs from surrounding areas moved to seek shelter from the killings.

On the 6th of November Mitchell was leading a patrol past the walls of the Arab Police barracks when a grenade was lobbed over the wall and exploded behind them the vehicle and wounding two Jocks. Mitchell was furious and radioed D Company to come down and surround the barracks. He demanded to see the Arab Superintendant Ali Gabir who expressed horror and surprise at the attack. Mitchell had the entire force paraded and told them what a lucky escape they had just had, if it wasn't for the discipline of the Jocks there would have been a total bloodbath.
The next day a patrol noticed a car driving suspiciously and filled with young men. The vehicle was ordered to stop and as it did so, the men jumped out and started firing at the patrol but were quickly cut down by the more experienced Jocks.

With preparations for withdrawal complete, the various British forces began to hand over positions to the South Arabian Army. Senior Arab officers toured the Argylls bases and observation posts but seemed mainly interested in what would be left behind such as fridges, carpets, air conditioning etc. British forces were scheduled to leave Aden on the 25/26th November. Mitchell codenamed the Argylls withdrawal from Crater, "Operation Highland Clearance".

Early on the morning of the 26th the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders lowered their flag in Crater while the regimental piper played "The Barren Rocks of Aden". Mitchell placed himself outside his old Battalion HQ at the Chartered Bank building in Crater and made sure that all his beloved Jocks left safely. When all had passed through with the exception of a small section of B Company, Mitchell made a quick tour of Crater before returning to the bank and handing over the keys to officers of the South Arabian Army.

Mitchell sent a radio message to Brigade HQ stating that there were no longer British forces in Aden town and ended the message, "Up the Argylls".

It would be normal for a Battalion Commander to be awarded a DSO after such a successful tour. Mitchell had however upset too many senior officers and politicians with his outspoken comments on the timidity of his superiors and also by his seeking publicity in his efforts to save the Argylls from disbandment. In this endeavour he was successful however and the regiment still forms part of the British Army today.

Mitchell, realising that he stood little chance of further promotion, left the army in 1968.

About The Author

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan. Read more about Jim »