Oman again

Oman is a beautiful country with many contrasting and absorbing biomes. The north has a semi-desert coastline fronting a mountain range, the Hajjar, which can get quite wet. The centre holds the Jiddat Al-Harasis, a large stony desert strewn with meteorites and home to oryx and gazelle. The south is Dhofar, and it’s green! Very green – on the coast east of Salalah you could be forgiven for thinking you are on the Isle of Skye – verdant, green hills starting abruptly behind the long, sweeping golden beaches. The giveaways are the grazing camels and Bedouin camps – but their tents are not the traditional black woollen tents of Bedu elsewhere – they are instead made of the weatherproof tarpaulins of long-distance trucks. Southern Oman catches the tail-end of the monsoon, locally called the ‘Khareef’, through until late September – and the lush vegetation is the gift of the rains, rains that mean the Bedu need waterproof tents!

So over the last few days I made a long trip down through the whole length of Oman. Crossing over from the UAE at Khatmat Milahah I drove down as far as Muscat and stayed at the Pioneer Hotel Apartments in Wadi Kabir – a friendly little set-up where an apartment with kitchen and whatnot costs about 35 quid a night. It’s a great staging post for exploration of the Hajjar. From here Salalah is an eleven hour drive south if you do it in one swoop, even cruising at 70mph. You pass along and through the Hajjar range – great fangs of rock rearing like talons, but then the hills fall away as you enter the Jiddat al Harasis desert. This is very flat and, at first impression, quite featureless. Such dunes as there are seem quite low and infrequent – though this is based on what’s visible from the road. It’s very like the gravel plain west of Cairo as you head for Bahareya – the serir of the Sahara. To me it was a very familiar (and much-missed) sight and I was more than tempted to turn the little Ford Escape off at ninety degrees and head into the blue….

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The drive through the desert seemed endless, but eventually greenery hove into view as I entered the province of Dhofar. The landscape ends in a great crest of a hill overlooking the Salalah Plain and the road drops down 1000m in height in a series of steep bends. Surreally there are herds of feral camels crazing amidst greenery that looks like the Yorkshire Dales.

Salalah is a bustling and expanding town, as you would expect from Oman’s second city. Historically the ruler lived here, but Sultan Qaboos has moved his residence to the capital, Muscat. It is a long, thin settlement centred on the airport and nestling on the coast of the Gulf of Oman, and has pleasant amounts of greenery. I stayed at the Jawharet Al Kheir apartment hotel, a new concern which tries very hard to please its guests. They have no catering but a nearby Indian restaurant delivers whatever is ordered very quickly, including local Omani Indian curries such as Chicken Nizwa – highly recommended, all in all!

Salalah, ‘Where the Frankincense Trail Meets the Sea’, is where you will find the Frankincense Land museum – a very interesting presentation of the history and culture of Oman (with, of course, a load of material about Frankincense, grown here since time immemorial). Also here is the archaeological site of Al Baleed, an ancient trading port known to traders and travellers the world over – until it sadly silted up and fell into decline and decay.

For me however, a huge point of visiting the region was to go to Mirbat, a small coastal town about forty miles east of Salalah. As a kid my Mum filled me stories of mythical heroes – Perseus, Siegfried, Theseus, Arthur and so on. Growing up it was a natural development that I should value the heroic in life, and so stories of real-life heroism have always moved me. As a child it was soldiers and explorers rather than footballers and celebrities who inspired me, and that’s still the case! However as a kid in the Seventies and Eighties there were few stories that gripped me more than the epic defence of the fort at Mirbat, near Salalah, in 1972, by the British SAS.

In the early 1970s the progressive young ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, was enduring a Communist rebellion that had been dragging on for some eleven years, a legacy of a tribal quarrel of his father. Concerned at the Communists’ rising tally of victories and conquest of areas of Oman, the Sultan called on his strongest ally for help – the British.

Realising that not only did they want to help their ally in the region but also they wanted to ensure the unhindered movement of oil exports through Omani waters, the British responded immediately with assistance. The British intent was to provide medical and veterinary help to outlying tribal populations, wage a ‘hearts and minds campaign’ to persuade Omanis that their new ruler was just and fair and concerned for their welfare, to gather intelligence on Communist activities and to help train the Omani Army in ways to counter this insurgency. The British sent several types of service personnel, not least of which was a training team from the Special Air Service,  the UK’s multitalented and arguably premier Special Forces unit.

In July 1972 the small fort at Mirbat was the core of operations of the British Army Training Team, BATT. This was a small SAS unit tasked with training Omani troops in counter-insurgency operations, and with typical Army humour they were referred to by all and sundry as the BATTmen. The SAS were actually based nearby in a small local house (the BATThouse). History does not record the almost-certain existence of a team Land Rover which would inevitably have been dubbed the BATTmobile! The Fort was (is) a small building, stone-built with a tower and staffed with some Omani and Pakistani clerks who dealt with admin tasks. Standing at the front of the structure was a relic of World War Two, a 25-pounder field gun in a low stone-walled pit. The 9-man SAS team, commanded by Captain Mike Kealy, used the BATThouse and Fort (together ringed by sandbags and barbed wire) as an operations base and also to keep an eye on the local seaways around the Port of Mirbat.

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The Fort at Mirbat, from what would have been the forward enemy positions. The Gun Pit is to the right of the big square gatehouse.

Early on July 19th 1972 around 500 Communist rebels overwhelmed the Omani Army lookout post on the nearby hilltop and then advanced on the Fort and BATThouse, intent on wiping out the British position. Heavy firing began as the British replied to bursts of rebel AK-47 fire with their own SLRs and a single .50 machine gun on the BATThouse.

It quickly became apparent that numbers were on the side of the rebels, and the small British position was rapidly surrounded. Omani and Pakistani clerks and auxillaries in the Fort only fought back reluctantly and the SAS team firing 8 rifles and the single machine gun from the BATThouse could only make limited headway into the waves of attackers. Sure enough, before long the rebels broke through the perimeter wire of the base and advanced on the Fort. Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba, a Fijian SAS trooper, realised the 25 pounder gun was unmanned and made a heroic run under heavy fire through the 700m or so of open ground to the gun pit. A 25 pounder usually has a crew of from 4 to 6 men but ‘Laba’ lowered the barrel of the big gun and began firing it over open sights and at point blank range at the advancing waves of enemy troops.

The fierce fighting continued. ‘Laba’ was hit in the face by enemy fire and radioed back to the BATThouse for support. Another Fijian SAS trooper, Sekonaia Takavesi, ran across the open, bullet-riddled ground, to relieve Laba on the 25 pounder. Realising the enemy were drawing very near, ‘Sek’ ran into the Fort to get help on the big gun. One Omani soldier, Walid Khamis, came out to help but was immediately shot through the stomach. Laba tried to crawl to a nearby 60mm mortar to increase the fire against the enemy but fell dead, shot through the neck. Sek kept firing at the enemy with his rifle, though badly wounded himself.

By now the enemy troops were very close, in some cases less than 50 metres away, and fierce fighting raged round both the BATThouse and the Fort. Mike Kealy and Tommy Tobin then made the run from the BATThouse to the Fort to relieve the 25 pounder crew. At the gun pit they resumed firing the big field gun whilst Sek and Walid Khamis fired at the enemy with their rifles. The rest of the SAS in the BATThouse fought against the enemy troops surrounding their position whilst the embattled Fort took the brunt of the enemy assault. Tommy Tobin tried to crawl to the dying Laba but was himself shot in the jaw and back. In some cases the enemy were now bare metres away.

It was then that Mike Kealy heard the whine of jets. A flight of British Strikemaster attack aircraft, in Omani markings but flown by British pilots, came in low over the battlefield and made several strafing runs with cannon and rockets. However when the jets exhausted their ammunition, the resolute enemy troops rallied and attacked the Fort again. Kealy made the brave decision to call in mortar fire from the BATThouse to targets directly in front of his position in the Gun Pit. One badly aimed shell from his team in the BATThouse would have killed him and the rest of the lads round the 25 pounder.

Finally, however, after the mortar fire, the enemy forces broke. Helicopter rotors beating over the nearby dunes announced the arrival of G Squadron SAS to reinforce the beleaguered team, and these troops finally drove the remnants of the enemy off.

The action at Mirbat broke the back of the rebellion and gradually the Sultan’s forces gained the upper hand in the war. The SAS mourned their dead – Laba and Tommy Tobin, who died in the helicopter taking him to medical care. The British Government kept very quiet about the whole conflict – British soldiers weren’t supposed to be fighting there. This is why, although Mike Kealy was awarded the DSO for his actions in the battle, neither he nor Laba were awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy.

Today Mirbat is a quiet place – a steadily-growing fishing port which was hosting three weddings in huge tents when I arrived. The Fort has been repaired and quietly allowed to fall decrepit. The Gun Pit is still there however, and there are still bulletholes in the Fort. The BATThouse seems to be long gone – replaced by modern housing. There is very little left to pay testament to the epic battle of 44 years ago. The vanquished enemy eventually settled in the area and many of them now live as loyal subjects of the Sultan in Mirbat itself. The battle has been endlessly written about in the lore of the SAS and the history of the British Army, and the ‘Mirbat Gun’ is preserved in the Museum of Firepower at the Rotunda in Woolwich.

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Mirbat had one last surprise for me – a live 7.62mm round from a British SLR rifle, presumably left over from the battle.

I had to take my leave of the battlefield after only an hour or so, with the eleven-hour drive to Muscat looming large in my mind. However a return trip is very much on the cards!

So before long it was time for the long drive back, starting with a return to Salalah across the Plain, and then the long winding climb up to the thousand-metre escarpment behind the city. Camels grazed amongst grasslands that looked to be lifted straight from the hillsides of Britain as I drove past. Eventually the green ran out and once again the little Ford confronted the huge Jiddat El Harasis desert.

That Ford may be small but she has a huge heart – a 3 litre V6 heart, the same engine as used in the Jaguar S-Type. She fairly flew across the desert, clocking a steady 70mph (legal maximum) and didn’t balk at the high temperatures, or even when we hit a sandstorm as night was falling. The sandstorm was a pretty enthusiastic one, and blew steadily from the south for about sixty miles.

However all went to plan and after a long long slog I pulled into Muscat, and once again the Pioneer Apartment Hotel. The next day saw another long drive, five hours back to Fujeirah.

In summary – a great trip to a fascinating country. The mountainous north, the desert centre and the green south of Oman all conspire to mix up an absorbing and diverse landscape full of friendly people and hugely interesting history. Definitely planning more visits!

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