In 1970, Soviet Planes Intervened to Save North Yemen
Events rendered victory pointless
September 2017 marks the second anniversary of the Russian military intervention in Syria. Foreign military observers are frequently drawing parallels between this operation and the deployment of Soviet air-defense troops and manned interceptors to Egypt in early 1970, pointing it out as the first Soviet – and thus Russian – experience in expeditionary warfare in the Middle East.
Actually, the first “Russian” military intervention in the Middle East was a little-known operation that launched in 1967 in what was then the Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen.
The YAR came into being in September 1962, when a group of military officers supported by Egypt toppled the last imam of what was then the backward Imamate of Yemen. Concerned by the spread of Egyptian influence, and curious to keep the new government in Yemeni capital Sana’a busy for a while, the British then convinced the Saudi royals to start supporting followers of the last Imam.
Thus an insurgency of royalists launched in northern Yemen against the republican regime in Sana’a. It ran for the next five years with help of a group of Saudi-sponsored British and French mercenaries, and arms deliveries from abroad — including from Israel.
Following catastrophic defeat in the June 1967 war with Israel, Egypt was left with no choice but to withdraw its troops from Yemen. In the course of negotiations with Saudi Arabia, an agreement was reached for such a withdrawal in exchange for a Saudi promise to stop supporting Yemeni royalists.
The last Egyptian troops withdrew from Yemen in October 1967, but the leader of the Yemeni republicans and the president of the YAR Brig. Gen. Abed Abdullah As Sallal opposed the Egyptian withdrawal. He was toppled in a bloodless coup — with consent from Cairo — while he was visiting the Egyptian capital.
Exploiting the ensuing chaos, the military commander of the royalists ordered an all-out attack on Sana’a. By Dec. 1 1967, the capital of the YAR was effectively under siege.
It was under these circumstances that the new government of the YAR requested help from the USSR, and Moscow launched its military intervention. On Nov. 17, 1967, the first of 18 Antonov An-12 transports landed at the Egyptian-constructed Hodeida air base on the coast of the Red Sea.
At top — one of 13 MiG-17s delivered to the YARAF from Soviet Union in November 1967. All wore Soviet-style, two-digit serials on their front fuselage, applied in Arabic. Maj. Gen. Abdullah Saleh Collection. Above — the wreckage of the Yak-11 flown by Captain Zharinov, shot down and killed while attacking a large convoy of British- and Saudi-supported Yemeni Royalists on Nov. 30, 1967. Pit Weinert Collection
They unloaded nine MiG-17s, spare parts and weapons. Another 18 An-12s arrived a day later, bringing at least one additional MiG-15UTI. By the end of the month, the Soviets had delivered two Il-28s and three Antonov An-2 utility transports. With help of these aircraft and few Yakovlev Yak-11 trainers armed with machine-guns and rocket launchers that the Egyptians had left behind, the Yemen Arab Republic Air Force officially established as an independent branch of the nation’s armed forces, on Nov. 20, 1967.
Early on, the YARAF was Yemeni only in designation. As of Nov. 20, 1967, it had only two crews qualified to operate Egypt-donated Ilyushin Il-14 transports, while around 50 others were undergoing training in the USSR. Correspondingly, nearly all of its active personnel were some 40 Soviet advisors, and a group of eight volunteer-pilots from Syria.
Meanwhile, the situation in Sana’a had become critical. The entire city – including both of local airports – was continuously mortared and assaulted by the royalists. The sole connection between the capital and the outside world were transport aircraft of the YARAF. Flown by a mix of Yemeni and Soviet crews, the transports managed between five and seven supply flights to Sana’a per day.
The first combat sorties by YARAF’s MiGs were flown by Soviet instructors on Nov. 30, 1967, and targeted royalist mortar teams that – supported by a team of British and French mercenaries – were blocking the road connecting Yemeni capital with what was then called Sana’a Rawdah air base.
Much to dismay of Moscow, the direct involvement of its pilots in this conflict ended as soon as it began. During the afternoon of Nov. 30, 1967, the YARAF Yak-11 flown by Soviet pilot Captain Zharinov was shot down while attacking a large royalist convoy in the Havlan area. The aircraft crashed deep inside insurgent-controlled territory, instantly killing its pilot.
This offered an opportunity for Yemeni royalists – who neither enjoyed as widespread support as often claimed, nor ever had a serious chance of winning their war against Republicans in Sana’a – to bring in several Western journalists and show them the wreckage of the aircraft and the body of the Soviet pilot.
Two royalist insurgents posing with the fin of one of two YARAF MiG-17s shot down during the 70-day siege of Sana’a. Albert Grandolini Collection
Their reports caused an international scandal, which not only resulted in even Yemeni republicans demanding a Soviet withdrawal, but indeed prompted Moscow to curtail further involvement of its instructors in YARAF’s combat operations.
With Soviets out of action, all the burden of flying and fighting for the YARAF fell on the Syrians. Although still supported by Soviet instructors, they were too few in numbers to maintain the same pace of operations like run in previous days. Unsurprisingly, the royalist insurgents breached the first line of defenses around Sana’a, on Dec. 4, 1967, and captured two dominating peaks only three kilometers from the city center.
In reaction to this dramatic development, a large group of Yemeni personnel hurriedly returned from their training in the USSR on the morning of Dec. 10, 1967. They rushed into action the afternoon of the same day. On Dec. 12, YARAF’s Il-28s achieved a major feat when they destroyed a large portion of Royalist mortars. Combined with counterattacks by ground forces, this action not only stopped the insurgent advance, but significantly lessened the pressure upon the city.
Subsequent combat operations of the YARAF reached such proportions that novice Yemeni pilots became seasoned veterans in a matter of weeks. By early January 1968, their air strikes silenced all the remaining royalist mortars and forced insurgents to move only by night. The Yemeni MiG pilots then went a step farther and – under Soviet supervision – began flying night attacks, with help of flash-bombs released by Il-28 bombers.
After nearly a thousand combat sorties, the siege of Sana’a lifted on Feb. 8, 1968. The YARAF suffered only two losses. The second of these saw the MiG-17 flown by Maj. Mohammed Ad Daylami being hit while attacking royalist positions west of the capital. Daylami ejected safely but was killed on the ground while attempting to evade the enemy. It was in memory of this pilot that the Egyptian-built Sana’a Rawdah was renamed Daylami air base.
Zharinov’s sacrifice in defense of Sana’a was made entirely pointless only months later, when top political leaders in Moscow decided to stop supporting the YAR. Instead, they withdrew nearly all of their advisors from Sana’a and concentrated their efforts on supporting the Marxist-controlled People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
Also known as South Yemen, the new country came into being in late 1967 after the British withdrew from their former Protectorate of Aden. Correspondingly, the Soviets not only began delivering MiGs to Aden, but also deployed a large advisory team that helped establish what became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen Air Force
With special thanks to Maj. Gen. Abdullah Saleh and Pit Weinert for their help in preparation of this article. The full version of this story will appear in the book Hot Skies over Yemen, Volume 1 by Helion & Co., in December 2017.