This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: MGH 6520).


Reel of rushes of 1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on patrol in Aden during the Emergency (with live sound during rough searching of Arab suspects), and of mute rushes of British soldiers on patrol, unarmed, in the peaceful British colony of Hong Kong.



As the British presence in Aden wound down in the summer of 1967, the security situation became extremely confused. Not only was Aden convulsed by intense factional and anti-British violence, but the transfer of security powers to Federal forces throughout the Protectorates had produced a patchwork quilt of separate and newly formed groups. A new Federal South Arabian Army (SAA) had been created out of the old Federal Regular Army (formerly Aden Protectorate Levies), and a new South Arabian Police force (SAP) was also formed. Present within Aden alongside this latter force there were also the Aden Armed Police and the civil Aden Colony Police, as well as a very large contingent of British services personnel. To varying degrees, most of the ostensibly Federal organisations appear to have been in contact, if not outright collaboration, with one or other of the various armed nationalist groups.

Internal strife and rivalry within the SAA sparked a serious incident on 20 June 1967: a dispute both tribal (perceived British favouritism toward the ’Awlaqis) and political (concerning a potential strike), escalated from demonstrations in the SAA barracks in Lake Lines to a major incident near the SAP base at Champion Lines which resulted in nine British soldiers being killed. The overall situation, stoked to a dangerous heat by Cairo-propagated rumours that the British had actively aided the Israelis in the Six-Day War, seemed close to provoking a general mutiny of SAA forces. Rumours began to spread in Aden that the British had attacked the SAA, and when British soldiers in two Land Rovers in the ancient Crater district approached the Armed Police barracks, they came under sustained fire. Twelve men were killed and one escaped. A further four British servicemen were also killed in unclear circumstances later in the day, and it was some time before the numerous bodies, two of which had been mutilated and subjected to a mock execution and others of which had been badly burned, were recovered. The district was abandoned by British forces there and then, and sealed off by the Army. NLF (National Liberation Front for South Yemen), FLOSY (Front for the Liberation of South Yemen), PORF (Popular Organisation of Revolutionary Forces – an elite FLOSY paramilitary wing) and possibly SAL (South Arabian League) militias began a series of internecine gun battles and assassinations in the area over the days that followed, resulting in the NLF taking effective control. Mobs attempted to burn down banks and council buildings. Many civilians fled (NA: DEFE 24/1793; DEFE 24/1873; DEFE 24/1896; FCO 8/257. For detail on the police mutiny, see Harper 1978: 94-9; Mawby 2005: 168-9, and Paget 1969: 213-223).

On 26 June a decision was taken to re-occupy the Crater, but the area was left alone by the British until early July, in part because it was thought that any attempt to re-take it would result in major loss of life, and provoke a full-scale mutiny of the SAA. Rather surprisingly the Aden Armed Police, restored to order after the mutiny, were not disciplined for the incident, as they and the Aden civil police were regarded as essential for keeping any order whatsoever.

The task of retaking the district fell to the recently arrived 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders under the command of Lt-Col. Colin Mitchell, a soldier described (perhaps a touch hyperbolically) by Halliday as ‘an extraordinary figure…a crazed fusion of Celtic madman, belligerent imperialist and cantankerous military commander’ (Halliday 2002: 226). Mitchell, who would go on to be a Conservative MP, was certainly unusual, not least in that he invited several journalists along for the ride in Crater (ITN’s News at Ten would have its first major scoop accompanying Mitchell’s forces as they retook the district). His reckless streak, charismatic intensity and forthright straight talk to the press made him a well known figure in Britain, earning him both the newspaper epithet ‘Mad Mitch’ and a certain amount of disapproval in military and political circles – an FCO letter mentions the fact that telegrams had been sent to Aden requesting Mitchell be asked to ‘speak more softly’ (FCO letter from B. L. Crowe to J E Pestell [MOD] 17 June 1968: FCO 8/257, item 75). Nevertheless, officials in Aden, up to and including High Commissioner Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, were impressed by his action in retaking Crater.

Mitchell’s Argylls – ­accompanied by journalists from ITN, the Daily Telegraph, the Sun, the Daily Mirro­r, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, and unencumbered by any Army PR officers – moved into Crater with a flourish at 1900 hours on 3 July (Mitchell 1970: 176-8). The brigade was lead in by a bagpiper playing the regimental charge, ‘Monymusk’. They encountered very little resistance, and over the next 48 hours they occupied the entire district. The lack of opposition was a surprise to them: some resistance was certainly expected, although Mitchell recalls that ‘nobody on the British side knew how much opposition we would have to face’ (ibid.: 177). This may not be completely true: a classified document prepared for a Cabinet figure (identified only as ‘Minister(A)’) during the controversy surrounding the disbandment of the Argylls in 1968 appears to indicate that in fact the Brigadier General Staff of Middle East Land Forces, Charles Whish Dunbar, had secretly negotiated the British re-entry into Crater with the NLF (DEFE 24/1793). It thus is perhaps unsurprising that it was Dunbar that Mitchell recalls as having given him final authorisation to re-enter the district (Mitchell op. cit.:175-6).

The Argylls would stay in Crater until the final withdrawal from Aden. The iron fist with which they controlled the area came to be known as ‘Argyll Law.’ By Mitchell’s own account, this was extremely ruthless (‘I wanted the Jocks to hunt and kill terrorists’), and involved lax firing protocols, an unofficial curfew at 7pm, intense house-searches and raids, and a system of instant roadblocks and mass round-ups in the wake of any incident: once the code-word ‘Portcullis’ was given, troops were to ‘spread out in the streets rounding up all terrorist suspects – usually males between the ages of 15-35’ within 300 yards. The detained men and boys were then taken to a ‘barbed wire compound’ to await an ‘interrogation’ in ‘specially constructed rooms.’ These interrogations ‘might last for hours' (ibid.: 189, 193). Whatever Argyll Law and its ‘interrogations’ really comprised, the procedures were deemed too extreme as early as 20 July, and Mitchell was ordered by Major General Philip Tower, the General Officer Commanding, to ‘throttle back’. Mitchell’s memoir recalls his dismay at being unable to order the ‘violent rounding-up of suspects’ (ibid.: 195). Other accounts depart significantly from Mitchell’s assertion that his tactics ‘were not bullying’: Mawby records testimony given by journalists and ex-Argylls that suggest random deadly violence, systematic brutality, and revenge attacks were common practice in the area that the Argylls could treat as, in Mitchell’s words, their ‘kingdom’ (ibid.: 193, 189; Mawby op. cit.: 169).



The brief film, which includes a short sequence with original indistinct live sound, is divided into two sections, the first of which appears to show the Argylls on active duty in Aden. It is thus very likely to show ‘Argyll Law’ in action during the occupation of Crater. (The second, being a sequence showing an unarmed patrol in Hong Kong, is not dealt with here).

Beginning with a shot taken next to a manned sandbag post at a T-junction, the film then shows shots of soldiers running down a sidestreet. The streets are largely empty of traffic and people. A sequence taken from a moving vehicle shows civilians at the side of the road: abundant FLOSY graffiti is clearly visible on the walls behind them. A car is halted at roadblock; the rather dapper driver is brusquely searched by armed soldiers of the Argylls, as is his car.

The most revealing sequence comes last: a gaggle of men, held up against a wall in what appears to be a car park or other open area, are roughly searched by armed soldiers. In the turban of one a grenade is discovered: he is crudely manhandled to the ground at gunpoint by a large soldier of the Argylls, and dragged forcibly across to a table at which sit a British soldier and an Adeni security official. The grenade is presented, and the camera focuses on it as it sits on the table. Here the film of Aden ends.

There is no major incident recorded here, only a record of what must have been a regular occurrence in Aden during the final months of the colony. What is shown, trivial in itself, gains in significance from the notoriety of the circumstances; it is a vignette from one of the more grimly colourful incidents of late imperial history. The peculiar brand of martial law instituted by ‘Mad Mitch’ and his Argylls in Crater was an anomaly, even in febrile Aden. Based at ‘Stirling Castle’ (the old Treasury building in Crater, occupied as his HQ), Mitchell was pushing at the very limits of what was considered permissible to his superiors. Although the correspondence and documentation illustrate the refusal of the civil and military administrations to admit in public to any disagreements over tactics, the volume of material on what is effectively Mitchell’s public profile indicates that he was evidently regarded as a near liability (see, for instance, the marked-up newspaper clippings of articles both by and on Mitchell, marked in pen with notations that are keyed as ‘trouble’ and ‘trouble for FO’ in FCO 8/257). This is not surprising: Mitchell was a symptom of the lack of central control in Aden, and he was being rather indiscreet about his actions.

The situation in Crater can be defined as an aberrant system of arbitrary and extremely rough justice evolved by a very effective but highly eccentric soldier, administered without any detailed authorisation, observation or regulation. As such, it can be seen as an affliction suffered by a decaying imperial power that had lost any definite grip and lacked even the will to hold on properly until the end. Vacuums of power had appeared in Aden and the Protectorates; Mad Mitch’s ‘Argyll Law’ was a strange outgrowth of British colonial soldiering that momentarily flourished in one such lacuna. This little film, with its tension and understated violence, is a modest record of it.

Francis Gooding October 2009


Works Cited

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

Harper, Stephen Last Sunset (London: Collins 1978)

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

Mitchell, Colin Having Been a Soldier (London: Mayflower 1970 [1969])

NA: DEFE 24/1793; DEFE 24/1873; DEFE 24/1896; FCO 8/257

Paget, Julian Last Post: Aden 1964-67 (London: Faber and Faber 1969)




Technical Data

Running Time:
3 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
120 ft ca

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Production company