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The Dhofar Campaign - Britain's Secret Support to the Sultan of Oman

The Dhofar Campaign - Britain's Secret Support to the Sultan of Oman

Among its most recent acquisitions the museum has received the medal set of L/Corporal Armstrong RAMC. These include the General Service Medal with Dhofar clasp. This is one of the more unusual decorations awarded, since British support to the Sultanate of Oman during the years 1963 to 1976 was both limited and kept quiet about for many years.

The Dhofar War

The United Kingdom has had a keen interest in Oman, or Muscat and Oman as it was originally known, ever since a treaty was signed between the two countries in 1798. At that time the Sultanate wanted protection from Napoleon Bonaparte’s advances. Great Britain has continued to provide financial and military support to the country ever since.

Oman is on the Arabian Peninsula and covers an area roughly the size of England and Wales. It has borders with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) and Saudi Arabia. In the 1960s the population was about 800,000. Dhofar is the southern province, bordering Yemen. Its capital Salalah lays on the coast and has in front of it the Jebel, rising to 10,000 metres in places. It was a poor province compared with Muscat. The Dhofaris were a tribal people and they had little love for Sultan Taimur. As such, in the 1960s the Dhofar Liberation Movement aimed to separate the province from the rest of Oman. The Movement, renamed the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF) acquired arms from Saudi Arabia and these were moved by camel trains into Dhofar. The Sultan’s armed forces were hard pressed to stop this movement. Attacks by the DLF continued, especially against oil exploration facilities and vehicles. It was in this province that the war mostly took place.

By late 1966 there could perhaps have been an end to the conflict had not the British pulled out of Aden in Yemen, and a communist revolution not followed. Yemen’s government started to support the Dhofaris with bases and arms, and, more importantly, training. Embracing this outside support, it was soon apparent that many had turned to the teachings of Marx, and in 1968 the struggle was re-named the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG).

Many members were initially sent to China for training. The armed element (known as Adoo) roamed almost unopposed on the jebel in Dhofar. As a Marxist organisation, PFLOAG was supported by both Russia and China, and it was rumoured Cuba too. Its Marxist ideals were reflected in various names given to the units such as the Ho Chi Min unit and the Lenin unit.

On 23 July 1970 Sultan Taimur’s son Qaboos overthrew his father. As the new Sultan, Qaboos implemented certain reforms and Britain’s support increased. The government sent the Special Air Service (SAS), initially in a training role to support the new Sultan. It was based at Um al Gwarif, a few miles from Salalah. The SAS raised Firqat, groups of former Surrendered Enemy Personnel (SEPs), totalling 38 in number, with the size of each group of between 30 to 160 fighters. They had SAS British Army Training Teams (BATT) assigned to them and also Civil Action Teams (CAT) went into the various coastal towns.

Other countries also supported the Sultan. Iran became involved from late 1972, sending helicopters then men and equipment to assist. In 1974 Jordan also sent equipment and aircraft, and for a short time a Special Forces battalion.

On 10 March 1976 there was a ceasefire with PDRY followed by an amnesty with PFLOAG with RAF Salalah handed over to the Omanis in April 1977.

Royal Air Force Salalah

RAF Salalah was located between Salalah town and the jebel. It was operated by the RAF in return for the use of Masirah island airfield to the north. The airfield was surrounded by wire, and guarded by watch towers. These were manned at night by the RAF Regiment. In between the airfield and the jebel were a group of Beau Gest style forts spread out on the plain. These were called Hedgehogs and known as Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta and occupied by the RAF Regiment.

The Field Surgical Team and Medical Support

The Sultan’s Armed Forces had very basic medical support and Salalah had a civilian hospital with very little equipment. An independent Field Surgical Team (FST) was rotated into Royal Airforce Salalah on a six-month tour. This was later reduced to four months.

The FST had 12 men:

Surgeon

Anesthetist

General Duties Medical Officer

State Registered Nurse

Enrolled Nurse

Operating Theatre Technicians x 4

Laboratory Technician

Radiographer

Clerk

They came from a mixture of British Army units from the United Kingdom and Germany but eventually the RAF supplied a FST. L/Corporal Armstrong was part of the second FST to arrive.

The FST comprised an operating theatre, X-Ray facility, basic pathological laboratory and a ward, initially all housed in tents. Power came from a generator and rudimentary air conditioning was provided by an aircraft a/c unit. It resulted in the operating theatre tent being like a sauna. Equipment was very basic, not like anything that you would expect in a modern FST such as ventilators, autoclaves and ECG machines. In April 1972 the Royal Engineers erected huts with mains power and air conditioning to house the FST.

The role of the FST was to treat the Sultan’s Armed Forces personnel as well as any British civilians working in the Sultan’s palace in Salalah. If necessary enemy wounded were also treated. The team also performed surgery at the local hospital in Salalah.

Casualties arrived mainly by helicopter, Huey or Bell Jet Ranger on to a landing pad next to the FST but occasionally by fixed wing aircraft, such as Skyvan or Beaver but rarely by road. The days followed a regular pattern with cases at the civilian hospital and battle casualties and those injured in accidents being brought into the FST.

Afterword

In the four months of one tour the FST carried out 285 operations, took 274 X-Rays, gave 169 units of blood and treated 1,064 sick.

L/Corporal Armstrong’s medals can be viewed at the Museum of Military Medicine.

Images

Local Omanis who have suffered the loss of a leg due to mine explosions with artificial legs made in the airfield workshops.

Inside the new FST ward.

Anaesthesia was very basic using a Haloxair draw over machine

Casualties mainly arrived by helicopter such as this Bell Jetranger

The new operating theatre. The ‘Burmoils’ are filled with water or sand to give protection against enemy incoming fire

The entrance to the old tented operating theatre

Inside the old tented operating theatre

The result of a blast from an enemy Recoilless Rifle round – June 1972

Inside the new operating theatre. Instruments on the shelves awaiting chemical sterilisation

Alternative view of the old tented operating theatre

The FST mortuary in a refrigerated container. The generator provided power to the FST

Entrance to the FST and Station Medical Centre. Note the protection.

General Service Medal with clasp Dhofar and Long Service and Good Conduct


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