1960-1969 | Martial law | Torture | Yemen

Britain suspends the Aden constitution and imposes direct rule

Official portrait of Sir Richard Turnbull with his wife (National Archives) and British troops on patrol in the South Arabian Federation © IWM (TR 24800)

25 September 1965

On 25 September 1965, the British government suspended the constitution in its colony of  Aden, officially known as the South Arabian Federation. All governing powers were placed in the hands of Sir Richard Turnbull, the high commissioner. The state legislature was dismissed and a dusk to dawn curfew imposed.1 A Downing Street spokesman declared that the purpose was to ‘restore stability in the area and facilitate political progress.’2 However, the former Chief Minister, Abdul Makkawi, responded that he and his fellow ministers had only rejected cooperation because it was ‘demanded of us as between master and servant.’3

Lionel Crane, the Daily Mirror‘s Aden correspondent, explained that Aden’s nationalists ‘want Britain to leave her Aden base and they want elections now.’ He also described the tension on the capital’s streets.   ‘Go round any corner now and you are likely to be looking down a gun muzzle. Patrolling soldiers search in the dark alleys. They keep their eyes on the rooftops. And in the shadows they are taking no chances.’4 The British army in Aden had a notorious reputation for extra-judicial killings and torture.  There was intense rivalry between platoons as to who could score the most ‘kills’ and one officer in the Argylls offered soldiers a Roberton’s Jam Golliwog sticker for every terminated Arab.  Such death squad tactics were not just confined to the streets. The number of Yemenis in detention who died while ‘trying to escape’ or ‘falling downstairs’ was so high that Aden Brigade HQ felt it had to issue a warning of investigations, following which the army relied increasingly on threatening murder and other techniques of mental torture.5

The military clamp down had a highly negative impact on the country’s stability.  The immediate reaction was a general strike called on 2 October and several days of street protests.  The British backlash was equally predictable. They refused to consider any compromise, arresting seven hundred demonstrators and activists. This led one of the most powerful of the anti-British nationalist movements, the People’s Socialist Party, which until then had been committed to peaceful change, to reluctantly embrace the idea of armed struggle.6


  1. ‘Strict Security Moves in Aden,’ The Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 September 1965, p. 1.
  2. ‘Aden: Queen’s Order in Council: Constitution Suspended,’ The Liverpool Echo, 25 September 1965 p. 1.
  3. Cited in ‘Strict Security Moves in Aden,’ The Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 September 1965, p. 1.
  4. Lionel Crane, ‘Aden Troops in Clamp Down,’ The Daily Mirror, 27 September 1965 p. 1.
  5. Edwarde Burke, An Army of Tribes British Army Cohension, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool 2018 p. 57.
  6. John Newsinger, British Counterinsurgency, Palgrave Macmillan 2015 p. 125.

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