Storm Front - Rowland White

Discussion in 'The Book Club' started by JohnNichol, Jun 13, 2011.

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  1. For those of you who are fans of "Vulcan 607" and "Phoenix Squadron", I've just seen some publicity for Rowland White's new book "STORM FRONT" - 'The epic true story of a secret war, the SAS's greatest battle, and the British pilots who saved them'.

    It's the story of the SAS' battle of Mirbat in Oman, 1972. It also brings in the lesser-known role of the Strikemasters and Hueys flown by Brit pilots.

    Have orderd my copy - sounds like a great yarn.

    John Nichol
  2. Andy_S

    Andy_S LE Book Reviewer

    One question about this battle to anyone familiar.

    Almost everything I have read on it describes a small(ish) team of SAS chaps taking on 200 plus crazed enemy chaps intent on overrunning them - a real, teeth-gritted, odds-against, back-against-the-wall, last-ditch (add desperate adjectival phrase here) stand.

    But hang on...

    I have read elsewhere that there was, in fact, an entire fortress full of friendlies also engaged in the battle, a force which would have considerably reduced the odds faced by the balaclava wearers, but which get no mention in the British/SAS accounts.

    And as we know, the overall SAS genre tends to be more faction than factual.

    Can anyone shed light?
  3. I’ll have a go.

    There was a real problem with literacy and numeracy in Oman. Even into the 1930’s the Sultan was limited in the number of ‘cabinet appointments’ he could make, because of the limited number of his relatives who could read and write. The current Sultan’s father was exceptionally well schooled for his time.

    I think I am right in saying that in the late 1960’s there was still only one high school in Muscat and Oman. Oman in 1970 was still very much a very tribal and essentially an illiterate society. Even without the East West game being played between the communists in Yemen, and the proto-capitalists in Oman. There was a huge political and religious divide between the ragged elite on the coast and the hinterland that was still for the most part governed by the Imam.

    The Pakistani troops who were present at Mirbat were there because they were the only ones capable of performing administrative functions. The Pakistanis in the fort could read and write, therefore they could perform administrative clerical duties and cook for Western palates where the Omani instructed could not. The Pakistani troops had the advantage of familiarity to both Omani and British mores and were a perfect fit for the task envisaged for them at the Mirbat Garrison. Only provided that they were never shot at. The Pakistani relationship with the British Instructors and the Omani Students, while familiar and civil, did not extend to risking life and limb for either party in a conflict that was no real concern of theirs. In some ways they could be considered similar to ‘Blackwater’ contractors, but in uniform. Sharp, pukka, well pressed uniform, I might add. They could also do drill like demons. Cheap too.

    The Omani’s in the camp were irregular, illiterate, pioneers of a new frontier whose limits in understanding what the BATT could teach them were met as soon as either party spoke.

    If the experiences of the Australian Army Training Team working in Vietnam at the same time are any guide, and I think that they are, they had a real job on their hands.

    In the Vietnam Special Forces border outposts which served the same function as the training camp at Mirbat, ‘Round Eyes’ or ethnic Chinese ‘Nungs’ had control of all the crew served weapons. Nungs fulfilled a similar function to the Pakistanis employed at Mirbat, but with one crucial difference. They were as mercenary as the Pakistanis, yet they could be absolutely relied upon to ‘hook in’ when needed. Perhaps the Pakistanis holed up inside the Mirbat forts had no particular fear of being ball gagged by their own balls, as the Nung did. There are positive and negative incentives and many of them of course revolve around culture.

    In all the defensive battles of that time, it was the crew served weapons that determined the outcome.

    The motivation to put your all into the fight is ultimately determined by culture, politics, religion and fear. The trainees stayed indoors because they were more fearful of what was occurring outside in the present, then fear of what might occur in the aftermath. I get that.

    Old mate Walid whatever who was the only Omani casualty, received the Omani equivalent of the Victoria Cross which was obviously intended as a future incentive for others. Well done that man.

    I’m interested in Mirbat because I think that there are interesting parallels with Vietnam, which also echo today in Afghanistan. I think sometimes that these get missed.

    I like too, that there is some debate over whether Talaiasi Labalaba deserved the award of the Victoria Cross. For mine, I think that he did. I think that the circumstances of his award of the MID really rival many of the Victoria Crosses awarded to Australians contemporaneously in Vietnam.

    The first Australian cited for a VC in Vietnam was Warrant Officer ‘Grumpy’ Conway who was killed at the Battle of Nam Dong in Vietnam in 1964. Conway’s VC fell by the wayside but the USSF commander, Roger Donlon, was awarded the Medal of Honor, for gallantry, in that battle that was absolutely in the same league as that displayed by Labalaba. Nam Dong and Mirbat were very similar circumstances – check it out.

    Three of the four Vietnam Victoria Crosses were awarded to Australian Warrant Officers leading and training indigenous troops whose motivation and loyalty were always regarded as variable. None of those awarded spoke any of the languages of their soldiers that they trained or led in combat.

    Always a difficult task, not just for the leaders, but also for the led.

    The huge mystery about Mirbat, given that the Adoo advisors were Chinese veterans of Korea, was why they didn’t try it on at night?

    Just guessing, that the indigenous protagonists don’t appear in Western accounts, for good or ill, is most likely due to the fact that the round eyes couldn’t remember their funny names. Publishers would not encourage it. You'd know more about that than me.

  4. Found this:

    The camp consisted of a barbed wire perimeter, two stone forts, a building known as the "bathouse" and the towns houses etc. The camp force numbered approximately 100 men composed of the 10 SAS, 30 Askaris troops with .303 rifles, 40 local counter guerrilla forces (Firqa's) and 25 gendamerie. At about 5:30am a patrol discovered the rebels on a hill to the North of the town, with the element of surprise gone the rebels opened fire killing four men, the rest managed to escape back to the camp.

    From here:

    The Battle of Mirbat, 19th July 1972 [Archive] - Military Photos
    • Like Like x 1
  5. Andy_S

    Andy_S LE Book Reviewer


    Excellent reply, many thanks. But how many of the friendlies were Pakistani REMFs? According to Johnboyzz's comments, most were local lads.

    Speaking of Aussie SF hard men in Vietnam and Oman:
    Did I mention I briefly met Keith Payne at Kapyong this year? He took part in the march past wearing a fluffy, white feathery ladies' hat in lieu of a beret or slouch hat, as well as a big bloody grin. For obvious reasons, nobody took the pish....

    None of the British accounts of Oman that I have read, however, mention that an Aussie Vietnam VC winner was part of the force.

    The Labalaba MiD has been debated on here before. Clearly he deserved more than an MiD, but in those pre-McNab days, UKSF were apparently averse to publicity. We now have a situation when the Aussie SAS have two VCs to their names and the UK regt has none. (Lassen was SBS, I believe....?)

    Speaking of which: One of the UK officers who advised the Aussies on the formation of their SAS Regt in the '50s turned up at my event in London tonight. Real gent: If you have any questions, email me and I will ask him when I have lunch with him.

    Never head of Conway, but Donlon's CMH seems merited, from what I have read. Donlon is still alive, I believe.

    RE: Local languages
    Can't speak for Firqats in Oman, but in Vietnam, Shriver spoke pretty good Vietnamese, I have recently been told. Not sure what his team consisted of - highland chaps or lowland Viets. And our mutual pal and novelist is quite the linguist.

    BTW, PM me or email me your snail address. I will have something to send you next week.

    Cheers and best regards.
    • Like Like x 1
  6. Hi Andy

    Speaking of British Officers.

    One of the first Ex British Army Officers to be decorated for their service with the Australian Task Force in Vietnam was Peter Isaacs who served as adjutant AND asst Ops Officer with 5th RAR in 1966. The very highly regarded Isaac’s went on to serve with the Sultan’s forces. In 1976 Isaac’s was severely injured in a land mine explosion in Oman.

    Untitled 1

    In spite of the loss of various parts that are generally issued in pairs, Isaac’s overcame his very serious injuries and subsequently served as a Land Mine Consultant, with the UN.

    Because it is the book club, the redoubtable Isaacs, gets a mention in Robert O’Neill’s Vietnam Task

    Vietnam Task

    Keith Payne’s service as an Officer with the Sultan’s forces is well covered in Mike Colman’s biography “Payne VC’.

    Payne VC - Paperback Book - ABC Shop

    Service in the Sultan’s Army in the seventies was organised by Major Rex Clark, who apparently did a stint in Oman himself during his long service leave. Rex qualified for the Sultan’s campaign medal which would have made Rex very happy because Rex liked medals. A lot. Perhaps too much. (If anyone ever comes across his citation for the OstJ circa 1963, I’d dearly love to see it) Service with the Sultan was probably tarnished a bit by Clark’s assosciation with it.

    Post war there a lot of DSO’s awarded but very few of these were to Officers for gallantry. I think there was only one for the Australian’s awarded for Korea, and that went to Major Joe Mann for a trench raid called ‘Operation Fauna’ in 1953. As luck would have it Keith Payne was also with Mann on ‘Fauna’.

    The only DSO awarded for service in Vietnam went to Pat Beale for his role in the Battle of Deak Seang. Dak Seang USSF camp served a very similar purpose to the BATT camp established at Mirbat.

    These USSF camps were attacked by the VC/NVA so often a standing relief force or Mobile Strike Force MIKE Force was established to go to the aid of outposts under attack. Beale, who had already been awarded the Military Cross for a sucessful ambush against Indons in Borneo, took 11 days, to fight his way into Dak Seang.

    There are many biographies that deal with soldiering in the 1960’s and Beale’s ‘Operation Orders’ is one of the best of these.
    Operation Orders - Australian Army History Unit - ARMY

    The fickle nature of the way awards and decorations are awarded is best demonstrated by what occurred to a mate of your novelist mate. Jed White, by all honest estimates, should have been awarded the second Vietnam DSO for Gallantry for his role in the Battle of Ngoc Tavak. The AFV Commander downgraded the award to an MID for the flimsiest of reasons.

    In spite of the overwhelming application of airpower, the USSF COULD be grubbed out of their camps, and it happened more often than might be apparent from reading US histories.

    Bruce Davies has written the definitive book,

    ‘The Battle at Ngok TavakA bloody defeat in South Vietnam, 1968’ The Battle at Ngok Tavak

    It makes a very interesting compare and contrast with the events at Mirbat

    The close connection between the British and Australian Armies in the 1950’s through to the 1970’s was established as you know, in Korea with the 28th Commonwealth Brigade. 28th Infantry Brigade (United Kingdom) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    A theme that is explored I believe in some new book! ‘Scorched Earth, Black Snow’ released

    At the time of the Qaboos coup in Oman in 1970, Jed White was serving with the 28th in Singapore and Joe Mann DSO, was Commandant of the UK/Oz weapons testing range at Woomera. A History Of Woomera

    There is a fascinating connection between the people and places.


  7. Looks great. Love his books. You know what this means though, countless 60 Year Olds in Bars claiming that they were there with SSgt Labalaba
  8. I just finished reading Storm Front and while the account of the Battle of Mirbat takes up significant space in the book White looks at the whole of the Oman war especially the first two years. The story is told to a large degree from the viewpoint of the Strikemaster, Huey and Skyvan pilots but also shows the actions of those in the SAS and British officers attached to Omani units.
  9. I think this is what makes his books so compelling because of the background and wider picture he gives based around the core story.

    To be fair Phoenix Squadron should be a rather boring story about a show of force but the written style, background and detail make it a book that's hard to put down.

    I will order Storm front as soon as I get home and can safely predict it will be finished by Tuesday latest.