Aerial strafing permanently subdued menacing marauders in Yemen, in 1940

During my first visit to a public library in Dubai, I browsed and was attracted by a glossy dark green encyclopedia set that in gold lettering on its bindings announced itself irresitably and romantically as The Gazeteer of Arabian Tribes.

Thinking I might look up a familiar family name or two, I selected volume ‘S,’ but fell upon another, the ‘Subeihi’ tribe, and finding it a much quicker read, read about it, instead.

The section was written in the form of a letter written about relevant goings on in the desert region 1940 by British army lieutenant Sd. Stewart Perowne to his home office in England. As I read, I imagined a tall, pale, sandy-haired, knobby-kneed, short-pants-wearing young officer in sweat-soaked khaki shirt seated at a simple wooden table inside a barren hut on a harsh desert outpost tapping away on a Remington typewriter.

Officer Perowne describes in his letter a vast tribe of more than 60,000 notorious marauders who thrived by robbing nomadic traders of goods in their caravans. In their deep frustration, the traders approached the British regiment – who were strictly in the area for observation – for help. Initially they refused to provide any sort of aid, until one day the proverbial straw broke the camel’s back.

Among details he shared – provided below – I found most poignant and utterly unforgettable those capturing the shameful poverty – shameful because it needn’t have been the case – of the area, the ruthless character of this particular tribe, and most significantly Mr. Perowne’s firm conclusion about the only way to put a stop to endemic human savagery of this sort.

As I believe others might find his observations interesting in a historical sense and enlightening in a social sense, I present Officer Perowne’s letter herewith. So, put your imagination in Officer Perowne’s desert office and enjoy this rare opportunity to see how a band of 60,000 – not 40,000 – lawless thieves were brought under control.


I have the honour to forward to you hereunder a few observations and reflections which suggested themselves to me after my recent visits to Abyan and the Subeihi country.

2. My first acquaintance with these two districts was in the summer of 1937. It seemed strange then that two areas, neither of which lies more than a few hours’ drive from Aden should be given over to anarchy and violence, for not only do the main approaches to Aden from the east and the west pass through them, but they are both regions of great potential fertility. It was only on examination of the past history of each territory that showed how deep-rooted were the insecurity and chaos which possessed them. The Subeihis, as the archives recorded, had given trouble since 1841. Their habitations are widely scattered in remote mountain valleys, to which it is easy for them to deny access. Most of them lack any tribal organization and resemble the locusts which moved King Solomon to wonder: they “have no king, yet they go forth all by their bands,” and, like locusts, they destroyed.

3. In Abyan the issues of the trouble were different but the insecurity was the same. Two sultans, each jealous of the other, neither mentally sound, maintained their ancestral blood-feud with obstinate fanaticism. Their tribesmen suffered; their fields lay uncultivated, and time and strength which should have been employed in supporting life were devoted to its destruction.

4. In neither area was it safe to travel. Exaction was the rule, murder was by no means rare. With agriculture and commerce at a standstill, it was little wonder that the inhabitants fell victim to hunger, disease, and apathy, from which they were only aroused by the commission of some crime against them or the opportunity to commit crimes against their neighbors.

5. Among the many recollections of that period which will always remain with me, I may perhaps be allowed to recall two. The first concerns the Subeihi country. On a stifling afternoon in July 1937, a little more than a month after my arrival in Aden, I was motoring in a rickety taxi to the Sha’b valley. The road was a dune-strewn rack, and the car, quite unfitted for such a journey, sank again and again in the sands. A dust-laden wind added to our discomfort. At last we reached Riga. the inhabitants crowded round the car demanding cigarettes and money. When these were refused, they became abusive, and it was with difficulty that we obtained water and went on our way. Further on, in the Wadi Ma’adin, we found the track blocked with stones and wood. When we stopped to remove the obstruction, children rushed out to levy blackmail as at Um Riga; as as failing to obtain it they threw stones, urged on by their elders who skulked under the palm trees which fringe the valley. Finally the car stuck deep in the wade bed. My servent called upon a man lying beneath a tree to come and help us. He refused.

“But this is a representative of the Government!”

“We recognize no government here.”

I said that I should come back. It was all I could say. And back I went, six weeks later, with a detachment of the sultan of Lahej’s army and a squadron of aircraft in support.

6. The other memory is of my first view of Dirjaj, the village of the Al Haidara Mansur, in November 1937. These people had been in opposition to their nominal sultan for many years, and had therefore incurred the displeasure of Government, who had from time to time attempted to discipline them. On this occasion their “Aqils, on their way into Aden to put their case before Government had had an affray with their sultan’s frontier guards, in which one of the Aqil’s companions had been wounded in the foot. We returned together to Abyan, though not to Dirjaj, to conduct negotiations, in the course of which we became friends. Finally it was decided that we should all move to Dirjaj. No member of the Political staff had been suffered to enter the village for many years, so that it would be interesting to learn at first hand of conditions there. We were formally received, and on the morrow their sultan himself was able to join us. But never have I found myself in a sadder and more suspicious atmosphere. The villagers were divided into two rival parties which hated each other fiercely. the only emotions which from time to time united them were loathing of their sultan, who oppressed them with sadistic spite, and distrust of the protecting power who allowed them to be so maltreated. The men were famished and feckless, their children emaciated. No one seemed to have any initiative; their homes were falling into ruin; and, worst of all, their once fertile fields on which their life must depend, were a dusty desert, owing to the diversion of the water channel which irrigated them by the neighbouring tribe with which they carried on a guerilla almost within sight of the village. They were a people without hope in a land that was desolate.

7. Within the last few days I have re-visited both Dirjaj and the Subeihi country, in neither of which had I been (with the exception of a few hours spent on Bir Uzia aerodrome) for more than twenty months. The contrast was remarkable in both cases. As we neared Dirjaj last Saturday, we passed through a belt of cultivation. On the outskirts of the village we were surrounded by a swarm of merry, well-fed children, every one of whom was determined to shake hands with each several occupant of the car. The villagers, headed by their Aqils, then approached with banners. A hollow square was formed, an ox was ceremonially slaughtered, and antiphons of welcome were chanted as the tribesmen moved slowly round the square, while at intervals shots were fired in salute. Later we were conducted to the roof of the Aqil’s ‘dar’ – that same roof from which I had surveyed the surrounded desolation on my first visit – and looked out over the village. Every house seemed to have been rebuilt. the strong simple lines of the ‘dars,’ with their graceful batter, stood out bravely against a background not of dust, but of cultivation. The corn is green once more and the sesame grows again. The Aqil pointed out his own fields with pride – with pride and gratitude. Administrators are apt to quote with resignation the dictum of the Crown Prince Wilhelm that ‘history knows no gratitude.’ Gratitude is not a common sentiment. but all the more touching when it is encountered. And these poor folk are really grateful for what has been done for them. They ask only that the protecting hand may not be removed – and also that perhaps one of their children may be allowed to enter the Aden Protectorate College. It so happens that I have seen them in many vicisssitudes – as rebels, as fugitives, their village forsaken and n flames, as returning exiles, excluded by the fifles of that same mad sultan who had insisted on their return, and as a broken remnant on the ashes of their looted homes, raising as if in defiance of fate their melancholy tribal chant, the prelude to a new hope. Last Saturday I saw them happy, vigorous, and grateful. Where before was fear, there was now confidence, where drought, water, where famine, abundance, and where danger, peaceful commerce. What had brought this change?

8. The same question presented itself in the Subeihi country, which I visited next day. No longer do the people of Um Riga surround your car to beg. They come about you to exchange greetings and jokes, to be told that they are rogues and to admit it, to assure you that they no longer shoot their neighbours nor their neighbors them, and to ask you for the honour of the Government, to send them a new bladder for their fotball. In Wadi Ma’adin the track is clear, the fields are tilled, and the water course, disputes about which are believed to have caused within living memory no less than seventy deaths, is now distributed according to rule. The channel has been cleaned and deepened and the area of cultivation enlarged. No longer do the inhabitants hide among their palm trees, but come forward to greet you and to thank that Government, which but three years ago they did not recognize, for giving them peace. At Um Faraha a little school which was started two years ago in a rude hut is now housed in a stone building; it has sixty pupils and two masters. The worst and vilest of the Subeihi blood-feuds, which had devastated two tribes for several generations and had culminated a few years ago in a savage assassination, seems to be well on the way to honourable settlement. In a country where formerly Macbeth’s bitter cry “It will have blood – they say blood will have blood” seemed the epitome of local philosophy, the arts of peace are at long last cultivated and the blessings of security appreciated.

9. Abyan and the Subeihi country together cover an area of over two thousand square miles. They are among the most fertile districts in the whole Protectorate. In such territory, to be sure, the ‘mission civilisatrice’ has but just begun; but to have brought security to so wide a country, and to have infused hope into the breasts of its inhabitants in less than three years, surely justifies the policy which produced such results. Moreover, apart from the advantages which have accrued to these districts themselves, their position gives itself pacification an additional importance. They lie one on either side of the ‘loyal backbone,’ consisting of the Abdali and Amiri countries; so that, together with them, Abyan and the Subeihi constitute a viable organism which, growing from within, can absorb other territories into a healthy body politic.

10. How has it been done? In each case the pattern has been the same. There have been false starts, undue optimisms, disappointments, vagaries of rulers and ruled, but the sequence has been:

first, political contact

second, air action

third, reconstruction.

11. Contact has been established by Political Officers of your staff who have made friends with those members of the tribes who were ready to reciprocate their friendship. Their efforts were obstructed by a small but powerful group to whom any alteration of the status quo would mean a loss of profit and prestige. How as this opposition to be overcome? Virgil, however much as we may regret it, was right: if you are resolved to “parcere subiectis,” [spare the vanquished] you must be prepared to “debellare superbos” [subdue the arrogant]. In the short year during which I served as a politcal officer in the Protectorate, I visited the scene of two air actions shortly after their occurrence and was a witness of four others. I hated them all. But, against my will, I was forced to admit that their effect was salutary. They achieved their object of breaking the resistance of those opposed to the general welfare; they did so with hardly any casualties on either side; they left no rancour in the hearts of those against whom they were directed; and they left behind the bracing memory of an iron frame within the velvet umbrella.

12. It has been argued that air action is brutal and opressive. I cannot, from my experience, agree, much as I should like to agree. I have seen the Al Haiders Mansur, within a few weeks of their village being bombed, greeting with cordiality and pride the very men who had bombed them. The folk of Wadi Ma’adin, when once the bombs had fallen, rallied as one man to Government, and I learned last week that our most loyal supporter in the valley is a man whose house had been destroyed by aircraft. After the first Mansuri operation, on the morrow of the destruction of their principal fort, their Sheikh was my guest, and that afternoon I rode unescorted with him through the mountains to his own village, where I was hospitably received. I could say the same of the Humumi, the Shaari and the Qutaibi operations. I only recall these incidents because, being by nature and conviction pacific, I am nevertheless bound in honesty to declare what I have seen and known.

13. Air action is not by itself enough. It must not only be preceded by political action – which will limit it to the smallest possible compass – but it should clear the way for further political action. A bomb is a weapon of destruction: construction must come from other sources. If the object of Government is to hold a frontier or to repel invaders, air action is in itself sufficient; but it cannot by its very nature discharge any of the normal functions of administration. Once therefore the merely punitive stage is passed and the constructive stage begins, ground forces become necessary. (They are sometimes useful at an earlier stage, as was demonstrated during the Wadi Ma’adin operations and also during the first Mansuri campaign. If, after the bombing of the fort, ground forces had been at hand to occupy it, with a political officer to maintain contact with the tribe, the necessity for the second protracted, costly and undignified campaign might not have arisen. Now fortunately we have the Government Guards, a force whose effectiveness is continually increasing. their post at Dirjaj is regarded by the Al Haidara Mansur as a protection against the morbid tyranny of their sultan and hiscreatures. The same is true at Um Riga, Um Faraha, and the Wadi Ma’adin. It is Government Guards that guarantee the peace. Nor is this strange. The Government Guards are a police force, not an army; and even London relies on its police.

14. What of the future? If progress is to be maintained, it can only be by cooperation between the Royal Air Force, your political staff, and its police force. Even so we must mnot go too fast or too far. You cannot among these primitive people employ the westernising methods that have been applied in the Hadhramaut. Our tribesmen are far less pliable – they are more like the Humumi, who at this moment are once again showing their dislike of progress in the only manner known to them. You have always laid stress on that point and I hope that it will continue to be regarded as cardinal. The quick trick, the showy success, always despicable, are here dangerous. Change cannot be imposed from without; it must spring from within. It must be organic, and a generation may be needful for its development.

15. Moreover we must look ahead. If we attempt any kind of westernisation or direct administration in this Protectorate, we are laying up trouble for our successors. A generation will arise which has nto known the old evil days, and we shall be confronted by the situation which has arisen sooner or later in more than one of the countries which we govern. It is well described in the words of Sir Herbert Edwards writing to Lord Lawrence a few years after the annexation of the Punjab, quoted by Lord Cromer in relation to Egypt: “We are not liked anywhere … The people hailed us as deliverers from Sikh maladministration and we were popular so long as we were plaistering wounds. But the patient is well now and he finds the doctor a bore.” At present we are still plaistering wounds and there are plenty more to plaster. Our best medicine is security. Let us give that its plenty and allow the patient to develop in his own way. He will then be less likely to ‘find the doctor a bore’ and more inclined to feel rather kindly to those who, when he was ailing, restored him to health by methods which, though perhaps sometimes drastic, were eventually efficacious.

I have etc.

Sd. Stewart Perowne


The Honourable Lieut.-Colonel W.C. Lake, C.M.G., Political Secretary,

ADEN, Yemen, 27th January, 1940

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