This is another break from my usual run of essays on colour and paint in decoration – a far cry indeed. As several will know, I spent a few years in the Army and have an interest in Military affairs. On the 19th July 2012 falls the 40th anniversary of one of the most significant actions fought by members of the British Army since the Second World War – the Battle of Mirbat. Not only should the anniversary be recorded, but the part played by a dozen men, two of whom were killed in the action, must not be forgotten. Indeed, many believe that it is time that a posthumous Victoria Cross should be awarded to the Fijian Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba who played a vital part in the events.
The Battle of Mirbat1
The Battle of Mirbat took place on 19th July 1972 during the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman, which was supported by Communist guerrillas from South Yemen. Britain assisted the Omani government by sending elements of its Special Air Service both to train soldiers and compete against the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) guerrillas for the “hearts and minds” of the Omani people. Their mission was to prevent this strategic land at the mouth of the Gulf from falling to PFLOAG.
At 6 am on 19th July 1972 the PFLOAG attacked the British Army Training Team (BATT) house, which housed the nine soldiers from B Squadron 22 SAS, based just outside the Port of Mirbat. The PFLOAG (known locally as the Adoo) attacked the SAS BATT house knowing that to be able to reach the Port of Mirbat they would first have to defeat the SAS guarding the approach to the town in Jebel Ali, a series of small desert slopes leading to the Port.
The Officer in Command, Captain Mike Kealy observed the enemy advancing on the fort, but did not order his men to open fire because he thought it was the “Night Picket” coming back from night shift. This was a loyal group of the Omani Army positioned on the slopes to warn the BATT house of Adoo troop movements. Realising that the Night Picket must have been killed, due to them not warning the SAS of the assault, Mike Kealy ordered his men to open fire. Kealy along with other members of the team took up positions behind the sand-bag parapet on the roof of the BATT house, firing at the Adoo with SLR rifles, with one man firing the Browning -50 heavy machine gun, and a further two men on the ground operating and firing an infantry mortar surrounded by sand-bags. The Adoo were armed with AK-47 assault rifles, and were mortar bombing the area around the BATT house. Kealy ordered the signaller to establish communications with SAS Headquarters at Um al Quarif, to request reinforcements.
There were also a small number of Omani Intelligence Service personnel in the BATT house, a small contingent of Pakistani soldiers and a member of British Military Intelligence seconded to the OIS who joined the team on the roof and fired on the Adoo with SLRs and other small arms. Initially some of the Pakistani soldiers were reluctant to join the defence of the fort because their roles with the BATT were largely administrative, but they obeyed orders from Kealy and the British Military Intelligence Corporal.
Knowing that the SLRs would not be of full use until the Adoo were closer than the weapon’s range of 800 metres, and lacking more heavy firepower, Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba made a run for the 25-pounder Artillery Piece which was positioned next to a smaller fort in which were stationed nine Omani Army Special Forces soldiers, who had not played a part in the battle. Talaiasi Labalaba managed to operate the weapon, which is a six-man job, himself and fire a round a minute at the approaching Adoo, directing their attention away from the BATT house. Kealy received a radio message from Labalaba reporting that a bullet had skimmed his face, and was badly injured, and was struggling to operate the gun by himself. At the BATT house Kealy asked for a volunteer to run to Labalaba’s aid. Fellow Fijian Trooper Sekonaia Takavesi volunteered to go.
Sekonaia Takavesi ran from the BATT house, with the remaining men providing covering fire, in an attempt to distract the Adoo. Takavesi ran the 800 metres through heavy gunfire, and reached the gun emplacement. He tried to give aid to his injured friend, while firing at the approaching Adoo with his rifle. Realising that they needed help, Takavesi tried to raise the small number of Omani soldiers inside the smaller fort, and Walid Khamis emerged. The remaining Omani soldiers in the fort engaged the enemy with small arms fire from firing positions on the roof and through the windows of the fort. As the two men made it back to the emplacement, the Omani soldier fell wounded after being shot in the stomach with a 7.62 mm bullet. Adoo continued to advance upon the BATT house, and artillery emplacement. At one point, the Adoo were so close that Takavesi and Labalaba fired the weapon at point blank range, aiming down the barrel. Lalalaba crawled across a small space to reach a 60 mm Infantry Mortar, but fell dead after being shot in the neck. Takavesi, also shot through the shoulder and grazed by a bullet to the back of his head continued to fire at the approaching Adoo with his rifle. The team signaller sent messages through to the main Forward Operating Base, to request air support and medical evacuation for the men in the gun emplacement.
© Roger Cole and Richard Bellfield
Captain Kealy and Trooper Tobin made a run to the artillery piece. Upon reaching it, they dived in to avoid increasingly intense gunfire from the Adoo. Takavesi continued to fire on the attackers, propped up against sand bags after being shot through the stomach (the bullet narrowly missing his spine). The Adoo threw several hand grenades, but only one detonated, exploding behind the emplacement with no one injured. During the battle, Tobin attempted to reach over the body of Lalababa. In so doing, he was wounded when a bullet struck his face. By this time, BAC Strikemaster light-attack jets of the Royal Air Force of Oman had arrived, and began strafing the Adoo in the Jebel Ali. With a low cloud base making for low altitude attack runs, only machine-guns and light rockets were used. Reinforcements arrived from G Squadron of 22 SAS and, defeated, the PFLOAG withdrew at about 12:30. All wounded SAS soldiers were evacuated, and given medical treatment, Trooper Tobin eventually died in hospital not due to the multiple gunshot wounds but to an infection in his lung caused by his splintered tooth which he had swallowed when his bottom jaw was blown off by a AK-47 round.
The 25-pounder gun (now known as the “Mirbat gun”) used by Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba during the siege is now housed in the Firepower museum of the Royal Artillery at the former Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. Though killed in action, his heroism was a key factor in halting the Adoo’s assault on the emplacement, allowing time for reinforcements to arrive. Labalaba was awarded a posthumous Mention in Dispatches for his actions in the Battle of Mirbat, though some of his comrades have since campaigned for him to be awarded the more prestigious Victoria Cross.
© Roger Cole and Richard Bellfield
The following SAS soldiers were present at Mirbat on 19th July 1972:
Captain Mike Kealy
Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba (Killed in action)
Sergeant Bob Bennett
Corporal Roger Cole – See a film interview of Roger Cole
Corporal Jeff Taylor (Believed to be an alias)
Lance Corporal Pete Warne
Trooper Sekonaia Takavesi
Trooper Tommy Tobin (Died of wounds)
Austin “Fuzz” Hussey
Kealy received the Distinguished Service Order, Takavesi the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and Bennett the Military Medal. These were announced three years after the event. An Omani from the fort, Walid Khamis, was injured during the battle and received the Sultan’s Gallantry Medal – Oman’s highest award.
© Roger Cole and Richard Bellfield
The battle was under-reported, and many considered the SAS team deserving of further individual awards for gallantry. However, many in Oman at that time perceived a desire by HM Government and the MoD to downplay incidents of direct involvement of British service personnel in military action. The British Military Intelligence Corporal received a medal for gallantry from the Sultan (for this action and others) but was allegedly threatened with disciplinary action by the British Army for being directly involved in the action at Mirbat.
The significance of the Dhofar Campaign is explained as follows:
“In Dhofar, an insurgency campaign started by people with real grievances and legitimate aims was taken over by a Communist revolutionary movement which received the full range of support available from Russia and other Communist states. In a classic campaign, the Sultanate was helped to defeat the insurgency and is now a prosperous, stable and pro-Western country. Oman is in a most important location because of its proximity to vital supplies of oil and the routes necessary for its transport. The victory is therefore one for the West as a whole.”5
I never made it to the Oman, in spite of having been accepted for a posting there, but I have been privileged to meet two of those who took part in the Battle.
The following reconstruction shows very well the course of the Battle of Mirbat:
1 This has been lifted almost verbatim from the Wikipedia article on the Battle.
2 This photograph and many of the others here have been taken from this article.
3 This photograph has been taken from this article.
4 This photograph has been taken from this article.
5 Lt. Col. John McKeown. Britain and Oman: The Dhofar War and its Significance. MPhil Diss. University of Cambridge. 1981. 102.
An excellent book which sets the Battle in context and provides a very detailed account of the events of that day is Rowland White’s Storm Front.