The Trucial Oman Scouts Was the British Army’s Last Desert Romance
Scouts vet Hugh Nicklin recalls 1960s service
by BERND DEBUSMANN
For most people, the United Arab Emirates conjures up images of lavish, oil-funded lifestyles, luxury cars and oddly shaped skyscrapers. But fewer than 50 years ago, the country — then known as the Trucial States — was a harsh, undeveloped desert outpost of the British Empire, with few roads, no telephones.
It was a place where disagreements could rapidly escalate into blood feuds.
Keeping the peace in this far-flung land was the responsibility of the Trucial Oman Scouts, a paramilitary force raised by the British in 1951, initially making use of recruits from the Jordanian Arab Legion — from which the Scouts adopted its trademark red and white shemaghs. The unit, headquartered at a Royal Air Force camp in Sharjah was initially staffed by 30 people, mostly British officers but also local recruits.
By the time the UAE gained its independence in 1971, the force had swelled to 2,500.
The Trucial Oman Scouts was armed much like any British infantry battalion of the time was, with .303 SMLE rifles, .38 Webley revolvers, Bren LMGs and small, three-inch mortars, as well as Land Rovers, Dodge Power Wagons and Ferret armored cars. Just as important, the British core of the Scouts was armed with an adventurous spirit and a desire to be a part of one of the British Army’s last opportunities for Lawrence of Arabia-type soldiering.
Among these men was Hugh Nicklin — a self-described “Child of the Raj” born in British India — who volunteered for the Scouts after a sleepy stint with the British Army of the Rhine.
“Germany was pretty dull,” Nicklin said. “I had already served in Borneo in ’63, and that was active service, with a shooting war going on. I was posted to Germany, and had been there about a year, and I was thinking that the winters were pretty cold and we’re just playing pretend war, that the Russians were going to come over the horizon in their tanks and blast us with tactical nuclear weapons.”
“It was all pretend and I thought it wasn’t real soldiering, so a couple of us wondered what else we could do,” Nicklin added. “It would be nice to go somewhere a bit warmer, a bit more exciting. We’d all seen Lawrence of Arabia, which had recently come out, and was quite romantic and very inspiring. There was a chance in the British Army to get that kind of experience through the Trucial Oman Scouts. We volunteered, were accepted, and flew out to Sharjah, and that was the start of my TOS adventure.”
Nicklin, a member of the Royal Corps of Signals, explained that his unit provided the only 24/7 communications system available in the Emirates at the time.
“There were no telephones in the country. There were no roads. You had to cross the sand, or the rocks up in the mountains. Traveling was fairly rugged. The only network of comms between our various outposts scattered throughout Trucial Oman were little radio sets, with which they would communicate with Sharjah, all in Morse code.”
Despite not speaking English, the Arab troops — many of whom were trained at a boy’s school operated by the TOS — became extremely proficient at using signals equipment, Nicklin said.
“Some of the brightest lads became signalers,” he added. “They really took to it. We taught them to that when they hear a certain sound, it would correspond to a symbol, the entire Morse code alphabet. They’d hear it and write down that particular symbol.”
“It was actually beneficial, as one of the problems with writing down Morse code is that you anticipate what the word would be, and you’re invariably wrong. You lose the plot. It’s an advantage not to know exactly what you’re writing down.”
Despite being a peacetime posting, the Scouts was not without its dangers. In November 1952, two British soldiers were shot dead while investigating illegal ammunition sales to Saudi Arabia. Three years later in October 1955, two Arab Scouts troopers were killed during an operation to expel Saudi forces from Buraimi Oasis, which the Saudis had occupied since 1952. Additionally, Scouts detachments deployed to Oman to fight local insurgencies there.
For the most part, though, Nicklin said the Trucial Oman Scouts was protected by the respect it had garnered among the locals — and by its well-developed intelligence network.
“You had to be just a little bit aware, but generally speaking the Trucial Oman Scouts were highly respected among the locals, as we were considered above bribery, fair, and people who always tried to come up with a workable solution,” Nicklin said. “This was quite unlike if you were in somewhere like Aden, where you really were worried about everybody, as there was a dangerous insurrection at the time.”
One of the most common Scouts missions was to quickly deploy to prevent disputes — over a well, for example — from spilling into violence and protracted blood feuds between tribes.
“We’d try and get there as soon as possible once the trouble started, before shooting started. We’d sit down and chat with all the people involved, spending a lot of time talking it all over.”
Nicklin added that the Scouts adapted the “hearts and minds” techniques learned by the British Army in Malaya and Borneo to the deserts of the Trucial States.
“You don’t go in there guns blazing. You sit down and chat. It was important for the TOS to understand what was going on. We had district intelligence officers stationed in Fujairah [another emirate] and places, just to listen to the gossip. People would say when they knew if there was a bunch of people running guns near the border, or if there was a camel train coming through with some suspect stuff on it. Our information was pretty good and it was all relayed to the political agent.”
Nicklin, who left the Army in 1970 after a nine-year career, has recently put together a collection of memories of the Scouts entitled Are You the Man? to preserve the memories of what he said was a special time in the history of the British Army.
“That was a unique time, and there will never be the like of that again. The world has all moved on too much.”