This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: COI 747).


Portrait of the British forces helping to defend Aden.

Behind the tranquillity of the Aden coast (sunbathing on beach) are the "jagged dangerous mountains where Federal Arab Troops stand guard against rebels" (hill fort), aided by RAF and British Army who fly in by helicopter every day (Whirlwind in flight, overseeing road convoy). Tented camp is erected; water trailer (inscribed "3 INDEPT FIELD SQN RE") and sausages provide sustenance. At base airfield, Belvederes start "the grocery run", delivering supplies. Airstrip in mountains is lengthened by bulldozers; injured man is stretchered to helicopter. Runway completed - Beverley lands with supplies and takes away sentries going off duty. Forward Patrol HQ: armed Shackleton takes off on recce, trouble reported - heavy artillery brought in by Belvedere and deployed. At base, Hunters are armed. RAF Regiment keeps rebels at bay while Hunters launch air strike on rebel targets, then artillery takes over. Montage reprises some earlier scenes and stresses that the job goes on, there will be more tomorrow.



‘Operation Nutcracker’, launched on 4 January 1964, was by no means the first British military action against the peoples of the Radfan mountains in what was then the Western Aden Protectorate (now the Republic of Yemen). A perpetually autarchic thorn in the side of authorities both native and imperial, British expeditions had been planned against the Radfani tribes as far back as 1888, and the colonial authorities in Aden had intermittent resort to force in the Radfan throughout the period of imperial rule (Gavin 1975: 208 and, for instance, 227 or 299; Dresch 2000: 37-8).

The peoples of the Radfan constituted a number of independent tribes and families (groups both large and small, some feudally linked, others wholly autonomous). Most of these groups subsisted through a combination of agriculture and the (often forcible) collection of tithes and ‘tolls’ from travellers on the important north-south Dhala road, which had thus always been rather dangerous for travellers. Historically this road was one of the main arteries of South Arabian trade, running from Aden to Dhala, and onwards through the mountains to Yemen and Arabia; it had also been a main route of pilgrimage for Indians and South Asians making hajj. British air power had frequently been used to open the road and suppress the people of the area when their traditional depredations became too serious to tolerate.    

Many of the Radfani tribes – for instance the Qutaybis – effectively owed broader allegiance to no-one, and this made the standard British pacification policy of treaty-making problematic, particularly when the social structure of their societies did not provide any obvious or stable ‘headman’ figure. (Of the non-feudal Yafi tribes, bordering with the Radfani, Dresch writes that their ‘sultans’ were often of obscure kinds – ‘the Lower Yafi sultan was associated primarily with a sacred drum and the ability to make rain. To describe the importance of these persons in British terms of sovereignty was not possible’; ibid.: 38.)

The extension of administrative authority into the Protectorates had placed Radfan under the nominal control of the Amir of Dhala, who in fact had extremely limited influence, and whose supposed authority was felt as an insult, particularly by the populous Qutaybis. The Amir – ‘an ardent supporter of the British’ (Halliday 2002:195) – had been an early convert to the British-conceived ‘Federation of Arab Amirates of the South’: Dhala had joined immediately in 1959. As nationalist sentiment in South Arabia and Aden became more militant, the NLF (National Liberation Front for Occupied South Yemen) evidently saw a possible flashpoint developing which could be successfully exploited. The Qutaybis visited republican Yemen during 1963 and returned with arms; the NLF declared the beginning of armed struggle against the British in October, and the Qutaybi insurrection which began in the Radfan mountains during that month doubled as the first front of the NLF’s insurgency campaign (ibid; see also Dresch op. cit.: 97; Mawby 2005: 102).

‘Nutcracker’, launched from the forward airstrip at Thumier, aimed to put down the Qutaybis using a combination of Federal and British troops. It was initially conceived of as a ground operation. Under Brigadier J. D. Lunt, Commander of the Federal Regular Army, the initial aims were to assert Government control of Radfan, cow the Qutaybis, and open a road into the area at Wadi Rabwa. These aims appeared to be mostly achieved by the end of January 1964, at which point the Federal army partially withdrew to Thumier, and the clearly uncowed Qutaybi/NLF guerrillas immediately reoccupied all the vacated positions, renewed their attacks on the Dhala road and the remaining Federal forces, and destroyed the newly made road at Rabwa (Paget 1969:38-50)

A further ground attack was attempted in April, and a hastily assembled force (‘Radforce’) was tasked to ‘end the operations of dissidents in the defined area’ – a  vague aim, given the largely unknown forces at work and the poorly defined ‘area’ in question (ibid.: 55). The political directive that accompanied this military instruction was clearer, but could have been issued in identical form a hundred years previously:

'To bring sufficient pressure to bear on the Radfan tribes:

a) to prevent the tribal revolt from spreading

b) to reassert our authority

c) to stop attacks on the Dhala road' (ibid.).

These ground operations were also of dubious success, and suffered from poor logistical planning. They also included several notable disasters, including the decapitation of two SAS men (and possibly the display of their heads in the Yemen; ibid: 62-75). The British quickly fell back on air power, deployed from the Khormaksar airfield at Aden – helicopters to shuttle men and equipment back and forth from forward positions, and Hawker Hunter jets in support of ground troops.

From May, air power was used in a manner redolent of traditional colonial air policing. After obtaining Cabinet-level authorisation, Aden’s High Commissioner Sir Gerald Kennedy Trevaskis ordered that a severely punitive campaign be waged against the inhabitants of Radfan. Villages in ‘proscribed areas’ (i.e. areas which had not surrendered) were leafleted from the air with instructions that the population should leave: after this measure had been taken, Federal troops were to attack the villages and anyone remaining in them (similar methods – leaflets advising evacuation, followed by bombing raids on civilian areas – had been used in the Protectorate areas back in the 1930s, and air policing in general had been used in Aden’s hinterland as far back as the early 1920s; Omissi writes that in September 1937, ‘some villages were bombed after their inhabitants had levied blackmail from traffic on the Aden to Yemen motor road’, i.e. almost certainly the Qutaybi tribes of the Dhala road/Radfan area. See Omissi 1990: 50-2, and 159-60). Troops were ordered to destroy grain, crops, fodder and livestock (this during the spring crop-sowing season). By mid-May the campaign had been stepped up, and the RAF had been ordered to ‘attack all signs of movement in proscribed areas, shoot up settlements and cause damage to property’ (Mawby op. cit. 104). Much of the initially targeted area was suppressed by August, but unrest in the mountains was widespread, and NLF activity and mobilisation was increasing. The British would remain fighting in Aden’s hinterland almost until the final withdrawal from the colony; Paget records that British and Federal troops were still being attacked in the Dhala road area at the start of 1967 (Paget op. cit. 187-8).



A loosely narrative ‘day in the life’ tale, Routine Adventure takes the viewer from the leisurely ex-pat life of Aden’s beaches out to the frontlines in the Radfan mountains and back again with the servicemen of the RAF. Commissioned from Wyvern Films by the COI in October 1964 with the working title ‘Radfan – M. of D. (AIR)’, it was licensed for theatrical, non-theatrical and television distribution at the end of March 1965, and distribution began in July. The Air Force had particular responsibility for showing the film in schools (NA: INF 6887).

In keeping with the first half of the title, emphasis throughout the film is placed on the campaign as a kind of work: the war in the Radfan is presented as a difficult – indeed, tedious and interminable – job, one which simply needs doing. It is an inevitable slog against ‘rebel tribesmen’: ‘There has been trouble in these hills more or less since we first came here a hundred and thirty years ago to build a coaling station for our new steam ships. Treaties have been signed but it goes on… As long as there’s trouble there must be troops.’ The RAF servicemen are just knuckling down to this permanent fixture of life in Aden, and early scenes liken the regular helicopter trips from Khormaksar to a daily journey into central London. The RAF are described as ‘commuters’, and a crewman hanging his legs from the open hatch on a Westland Whirlwind as it travels over the parched and broken mountain terrain is said to be as ‘casual as the conductor of a number 9 bus’ (an iconic, cross-London bus route – Aden presumably plays the leafy and suburban Mortlake terminus to the Radfan’s busy Liverpool Street: an interesting inversion of the true relation between the colony and its hinterland). Later, a supply trip to a forward airfield is referred to as ‘the grocery run’. At the close, the voiceover tells us that the ‘unending job of protecting the Protectorate’ will go on: tomorrow will be just like today.

However, a tense dramatic current runs alongside the commentary’s emphasis on the routine, and the narration switches at crucial moments from being descriptive to being immersed in the action. This occurs most notably at the film’s dramatic highpoint, a rocket attack by Hunter aircraft on a rebel position (this attack sequence was later used by the ITN news programme Roving Report for a September 1965 despatch from Aden; see IWM film cat. no. ITN 126): ‘The Hunters will streak across the sky and be where they are needed before the rebels can take up position. One quick blow can save months of tracking and sniping. Target in sight… NOW!’ This last phrase is delivered with a flourish, as though it was actually part of the action, rather than a description, and this has the not insignificant effect of recasting this key sequence as fiction, as though it were a moment in a dramatic action adventure film.

This is important, particularly considering the intention of the RAF to show it within schools. A significant underlying intention of the film appears to be subtly link it to the popular culture of the mid-1960s, and in particular to well-known action adventures and crypto-Cold War themed television and film dramas. This is perhaps most obvious in the final montage of shots, which are accompanied somewhat incongruously by a piece of upbeat orchestral jazz very much in the John Barry James Bond-theme mould. It is also noteworthy that the narrator, John Rollason, had starred in several episodes of The Avengers prior to voicing Routine Adventure. The film’s title itself evokes the popular series of Adventure books for young people by author Willard Price (e.g. Undersea Adventure, Gorilla Adventure, Amazon Adventure – 1963 saw the publication of African Adventure, 1964 Elephant Adventure), replacing the exciting worldwide zoological collecting of Price’s teenage protagonists with the drama of war and the glamour of military hardware (‘Target in sight … NOW!’), and summoning a world where adventure is so ever-present that it is as a routine as a bus trip across London (that the capital of empire was also the epicentre of Swinging Sixties cool may also be a factor).

Other similar points of reference seem to emerge. US TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was screened in the UK from 1965 (it began in the USA in 1964), while evil organisation S.P.E.C.T.R.E. had first appeared in Fleming’s 1961 James Bond book Thunderball (the film adaptation would appear in 1965) and the 1962 film version of Dr. No. With such fictional acronyms in the air, perhaps it is no surprise to hear Rollason pick up one of the film’s other running themes – the opposition between hot and cold – in similar terms. Throughout the film the heat of the mountains is linked with the rough and basic conditions of the frontline, while the comforts of Aden are described in terms of air-conditioning and coolness (the dichotomy is clearly intended to signify civilisation versus barbarism). At the close of the film, as the helicopters are seen returning to Khormaksar, the narrator informs us they are heading ‘back to civilisation – spelt C-O-O-L’. The groovy jazz number that plays as the men from cool civilisation head back to base at the end of another action-packed day might best indicate the target audience that the COI/MOD envisaged for their film – a Southern Music Library production composed by one J. Scott, the licensing paperwork reveals it to be entitled ‘Teenage Turmoil’ (MCPS documents; INF 6887).

Francis Gooding October 2009


Works Cited

Gavin, R. J. Aden Under British Rule 1839-1967 (London: C. Hurst 1975)

Dresch, Paul A History of Modern Yemen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000)

Halliday, Fred Arabia Without Sultans (London: Saqi 2002 [1974])

Mawby, Spencer British policy in Aden and the Protectorates 1955-67 (London: Routledge 2005)

NA: INF 6887

Omissi, David E. Air Power and colonial control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1990)




Technical Data

Running Time:
21 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
494 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
commentary spoken
Rollason, John
film editor
Hayden, Chris
Gregory, John





Production Organisations