Patrick's Writing

Jul 14th, 2012 | | Patrick's Writing | 28 Comments

Time for a Posthumous V.C. – The Battle of Mirbat

Mirbat Map

Oman – Mirbat is marked with an ‘X’

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 Fort at Mirbat
The Fort at Mirbat


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.

Hearts and Minds - SAS Medic
Hearts and minds: The SAS forged strong links with the local people through both formal and informal contact © Roger Cole and Richard Bellfield2


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.

Mike Kealy
Captain Mike Kealy – the Officer in Command


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.

Takavesi and Labalaba with 25-pounder
Labalaba and Takavesi with Omani gunners at the 25-pounder3


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.

Sgt. Talaiasi Labalaba
Sgt. Talaiasi Labalaba3


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.

Austin 'Fuzz' Hussey
Austin ‘Fuzz’ Hussey4


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.

Tommy Tobin
Trooper Tobin, who died from wounds received during the Battle
© 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 Mirbat 25-pounder
The 25-pounder Gun


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.

Pete Warne
Lance Corporal Pete Warne
© 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.

Whalid Khamis and the 25-pounder

Whalid Khamis and the 25-pounder
© 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:







Notes
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.

Further information on the Battle can be found here:
a) Daily Express.
b) This is Bristol.
c) Oldham News – interview with ‘Fuzz’ Hussey.


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Comments (28)

Reply
Mike PatersonNo Gravatar » 15. Jul, 2012

Thanks for that, Patrick. I watched the whole movie! Understand why the film-makers had to use blanks in the 25 pdr, bit of a shame though. Amazed how fellow used the barrel itself to sight the gun, obviously no direct fire telescope on the weapon, possibly nicked by locals, valuable piece of kit. I wonder if the SAS guy really was wearing a white teeshirt! Probably due to surprise attack – not the type of detail the producers would get wrong, one hopes. And what about the Omanis in the fortress (bar one)? Did they get the firing squad? Have shared this with Rhodesian Artillery group on Facebook, I’m sure they’ll enjoy reading and watching.

Reply
PatrickNo Gravatar » 15. Jul, 2012

Thanks Mike. From all the photos that I’ve seen I would guess that they were just wearing OG shorts and desert boots. Pete Warne (AKA Winner) often gives talks on Mirbat. I met him at the National Army Museum. He’d be the chap to ask.

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n perryNo Gravatar » 17. Jul, 2012

We lived in Salalah in early 80′s . Hung out with Firqa Officers. And back in early 70′s apparently my step dad Hamish Donald who ran a small construction company Qurum Contractors in Muscat used to allow the ones returning from Dhofar to rest at his mess. Apols for any typos but right side of text box vanishes from sight.

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PatrickNo Gravatar » 17. Jul, 2012

Excellent. I was so close to going there in the late 1970s. I was accepted for a job as a ‘Contract Officer’, but it was taken away from me.

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Jonathan BrunskillNo Gravatar » 25. Jul, 2012

A fascinating story. I was living in Oman 1977/78 when there were still restrictions on internal travel due instability in the south, and the contract officers I met had interesting stories to tell.

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PatrickNo Gravatar » 29. Jul, 2012

What a small world. I was interviewed for a post out there in 1978 and was beginning to learn basic Arabic before the plug was pulled.

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Jonathan BrunskillNo Gravatar » 31. Jul, 2012

What a shame. Oman today is well worth a visit. Radio 4 is featuring Sgt Labalaba in their New Elizabethans series today, should be interesting.

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PatrickNo Gravatar » 31. Jul, 2012

Yes. I still feel drawn to it. Here is the BBC link to that programme http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01l7sfk

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Veronica Gabarra TobinNo Gravatar » 28. Jan, 2013

Thank you for this article and the videos. Tommy Tobin was my uncle. It was an honor to read and listen to the story of these amazing men. Thank you.

Reply
PatrickNo Gravatar » 01. Feb, 2013

Veronica, many thanks for contacting me. Tommy was held in great respect and well liked by his colleagues. A very brave man indeed.

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Ray HollandNo Gravatar » 07. Feb, 2013

Fascinating Patrick. I was stationed at Salalah during 1975/6 and heard stories about Mirbat from BATT personnel. I was a very young 18 year old at the time but thoroughly enjoyed my Tour. The Sultan did an amazing job of bringing his country into the 20th century and we supported him in so doing – a worthy task. I do believe the Government wanted it kept quiet and therefore medals were not awarded as they should have been! It was an unknown campaign then and even more so now as many people who served there get older with the years.
Thanks for the memories.

Reply
PatrickNo Gravatar » 08. Feb, 2013

Thank you Ray. You’re quite right and one understands that many of these actions go unreported. Perhaps now, after nearly 40 years we might look back and acknowledge the bravery of these men.

Reply
Ray HollandNo Gravatar » 08. Feb, 2013

Too true. Did you know they are gathering together a display of RAF in Dhofar to show at the RAF Museum at Hendon?
Might be an interesting collection but I wouldn’t expect to see too much from the BATT and FST?
Thanks again.

Reply
PatrickNo Gravatar » 08. Feb, 2013

I didn’t, but will be sure to visit. Many thanks for that.

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DaveNo Gravatar » 15. Jun, 2013

Just saw the reconstruction documentary for the first time. Makes me feel tremendously proud to be British

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PatrickNo Gravatar » 15. Jun, 2013

It was a remarkable achievement.

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Glyn ScottNo Gravatar » 28. Aug, 2013

Having read the book Storm Front it is a disgrace the Labalaba was awarded just the MiD and not a higher order. His statue at the SAS HQ goes some way towards a proper recognition for his heroic action but he should be recognised publicly.

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PatrickNo Gravatar » 28. Aug, 2013

You’re quite right, but not being an official ‘war’ made it very difficult. I suspect that within the Regiment he is regarded as highly as if he had been awarded the VC.

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Chris PowerNo Gravatar » 02. Sep, 2013

Thanks for this page.

My father was in the 30th Signal Regiment and posted to Dhofar between 28th Janauary and 28th July 1972. On the day of the Battle of Mirbat he worked in the surgeons tent helping with emergency medical duties in Salalah where many of the injured were evacuated.

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PatrickNo Gravatar » 02. Sep, 2013

Thanks Chris. Indeed. There were a lot of brave deeds that went unrecognised during that campaign. How soon we all forget.

Reply
JordanNo Gravatar » 11. Jul, 2014

Bob bennet is my uncle

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JordanNo Gravatar » 11. Jul, 2014

My step dad’s uncle sorry

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PatrickNo Gravatar » 11. Jul, 2014

I take my hat off to him.

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Gordon MitchellNo Gravatar » 26. Aug, 2014

An amazing and inspiring event. I visit Oman yearly and have done since 2008. I drove all the way to Dhofar in May 14 and spent some time in Mirbat. Apart from the main fort the site is sadly deteriorating but I was able to wonder round the village and explore the 25lb gun position and the jebel. Having read the book by Roger Cole it was great to be able to see the location in person. Someone had left a solitary poppy stuck to one of the internal walls of the 25lb fort.
I am fortunate to be going back to Dhofar in November and will be exploring the site a bit more.

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PatrickNo Gravatar » 26. Aug, 2014

Thanks Gordon. Sad, but inevitable that the site should be deteriorating.

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Tim Gillard-StapletonNo Gravatar » 03. Jan, 2015

I read about this event many times in various books and journals. Totally agree that the the British MOD and Government under played the SAS involvement in Oman and the various individuals in the SAS and their support teams should be recognised for their devotion to duty and the some who died in the line of duty in Oman.

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Peter WatkinsNo Gravatar » 08. Oct, 2016

Spent 12 months at RAF Salalah in the mid-60s Used to travel on the road from Salalah to Khorrori, passing Taqa and Mirbat. But must say the castle at Mirbat was, as I remember, much smaller than in the picture!! At this time, the old Sultan, Said bin Taimur was in residence, making sure his subjects were kept in the 13th century!!

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PatrickNo Gravatar » 08. Oct, 2016

Thanks Peter.