Three: Staff Sergeant D. L. Howerski, 7 Troop, ‘B’ Squadron, 22 Special Air Service Regiment, formerly Royal Horse Artillery, who completed five operational tours of duty in Oman, including Operation jaguar and whose unpublished account of this campaign provides a rare insight into the ‘Secret War’ in Dhofar
General Service 1962-2007, 2 clasps, Northern Ireland, Dhofar (24138196 Tpr. D. L. Howerski, RHA); Oman General Service Medal, clasp, Dhofar; Oman As Samood Medal; together with corresponding miniatures, both sets mounted as worn, good very fine (6) £3000-3500
Sold with several photographs of the recipient on active service and a superb typed account by the recipient (67 pages) written and profusely illustrated detailing various incidents in which he was involved whilst serving with the Special Air Service during the Dhofar Rebellion.
Dave Howerski originally joined 7th Royal Horse Artillery, the artillery support regiment for 16th Parachute Brigade at the age of 18, with whom he did one tour of duty in Northern Ireland. After completing the minimum three years regular army service required for military entrants to the Special Air Service he took selection for the SAS and passed in 1971, aged 21. He served in 7 Troop, B Squadron (later made famous by Andy McNab) from 1971-1978, becoming regimental permanent cadre in 1974 and reaching the rank of Staff Sergeant. During his ten years of military service he completed nine operational tours of duty, four in Northern Ireland and five in Dhofar, Oman. He left the army in 1978, aged 28. He is now retired, but remains very active teaching sky diving and working at sky diving events across the world, with over 13,000 jumps to his credit.
The following in relation to his service in Dhofar, Oman is extracted from his typed account, a copy of which is included with the lot:
Operation Jaguar October 1971 – January 1972
‘I joined B Sqn on operation jaguar in Oct/Nov 1971. The BATT teams had already marched onto the jebal and established two separate lines of advance. They had been in constant contact with the enemy for a few weeks and had taken quite a few casualties. One Regt Soldier died from his wounds whilst being casevaced back to UK from Oman in the week before I was deployed.
Our presence on the jebal was officially denied by MOD and men killed were described by the BBC World Service as having been killed on “realistic training exercises.” (WAR). The medical officer in Cyprus sent a famous signal to the Field Surgical Team in Salalah reading, “Thank you for your recent malaria cases, they are all doing well, and their shrapnel wounds will soon be healed“.
Despite one tour in Northern Ireland I had never been under effective enemy fire and nor had I experienced a full on enemy contact and fire fight. This virgin soldier status did not last long as operation jaguar was a continuous spate of contacts for much of the time. On our arrival at White City, the position was attacked the same evening with mortars, RCLs and machine guns. We soon got used to evening and morning “stand to’s” and the daily 2 to 3 hour expeditions and fire fights at the local water hole.
At White City, Major Duke P. was the squadron commander and his daily orders groups were known as “prayers”. We soon adjusted to the notion of persons going to ”prayers” on the jebel. The squadron contained some very experienced professional infantry soldiers and the Duke ran an extremely democratic process. Planning groups often allowed everyone to input with ideas, regardless of rank or experience. These were then discussed, analysed and either accepted or rejected. There was great trust and regard between officers and men, I had never seen anything like it in the British Army before. It was not classless, but there was great mutual respect between officers and men. This was the uniqueness of regimental service and the bonded camaraderie of the fighting men in it…
Shahait: The Night March
It was a very dark night. I remember jumping up and down to check if I had anything loose rattling in my kit. Keeping noise to an absolute minimum at night was essential. But how do you move a formation of 200 men tactically at night? This is a difficult task. It took quite a while for the whole formation to form up at White City. We were in a single file column led by firqua guides with good knowledge of the ground in the Shahait area.
Myself, Mel .P Connie F. And Robbie S. were all close to the front of the column. The 7 troop sergeant Mick H. was at the front with the local firqua and a small contingent of jaysh soldiers. Mick H had the one and only “shufti scope” (image intensifier) night viewing device that we possessed at that time. This was the reason for his presence at the front of the column with the firquat guides. We were his GPMG team and we were right behind him.
The firqua were often very relaxed when on the move and would stroll along with their AK 47s casually draped over their right shoulder in a relaxed manner. The first clue we would get, that indicated we were moving into a dangerous area was when the firqua brought their AK’s off their shoulder and forward into their left hands in a combat ready carry. This was a Batt Man’s heads up call for potential enemy presence. No other communication was necessary. This would happen periodically during the march as we moved through potential ambush areas.
It was a warm balmy night and the activity of the gentle march kept us fairly warm. The ground was a bit like Salisbury plain, but covered in bone dry grassland and peppered with rocky outcrops. So a night march meant that essentially stumbling along on rocky pathways was most people’s experience.
One tends to be in a very high state of alertness on a march like this. All ones senses are operating at hyper sensitivity, sight, sound, smell, touch and your general emotional state and gut feeling for the situation all come into play. We relied heavily on each other for silent signals and quiet communication of any threats or alterations of speed and direction of travel. The main night navigation task was being done at the front of the column.
From my perspective after around a 4 to 5 hour march we eventually stopped. The column changed direction with a 90 degree shift to the left, as the lead element started to move up onto high ground. This direction change may not have been accurately communicated throughout the whole column, and I believe that rear elements did not know that the front of the column had done a 90 degree left turn and was climbing the high ground to their left. We stopped again about half way up the hill. Troop Sergeant Mick H. was sure that he had detected some enemy in front and wanted to stop and check the area with the night scope.
The stop signal was passed along the column and we all went to ground adopting firing positions generally aimed up hill and awaiting the outcome of Mick H.’s further detailed surveillance. I remember feeling very tense and apprehensive at this point. After a few minutes which seemed like a lifetime, the all clear signal was passed back and we were just getting up to move again when all hell broke loose. We came under immediate fire directly from our front from around 4 to 5 AK 47s at no more than 25 metres. We had hit the adoo picket at Shahait head on at night.
The Baluchi anti ambush drill at night was to throw white phosphorous grenades and then return fire. The initial burst of fire from the adoo was a tremendous shock and was very effective and had us pinned down immediately. The white phosphorous grenades did two things. One they set the jebal on fire, and two they illuminated us as silhouettes to our own friendly forces down behind us and to our left. From their perspective they had just come under fire from 4 to 5 AK47s and saw these silhouette figures on the skyline in exactly the position from which the incoming fire was emanating. The whole column including BATT GPMG gunners now opened up on us. The weight of fire from around 200 soldiers was incredibly intense.
On the top of the hill there was immediate carnage. The man on my left was hit and went down as did the man on my right who was also hit. The incoming fire was so intense that the only survival option was to crawl and slide backward down the hill a few metres to get out of the beaten zone of effective fire now enveloping the lead element of the column. Robbie S. and myself communicated and did this. All the time we were being hit constantly on our heads and backs and shoulders in a nonstop manner by pieces of rock splintering under the weight of the incoming fire. It was impossible to do anything except to try and edge down and out of the beaten zone. I remember feeling all these splinters of rock hitting me one after another, and thinking to myself, any minute now and I am going to get hit. It is only a matter of time. The intensity of this weight of fire left two bullet holes in the bottom of my OG trousers, which I discovered the following morning. Robbie was carrying an A 41 radio as he was Mick H’s radio man. Robbie had a sharp intellect and quick mind and realised immediately what had happened. Using his own initiative he got on the radio and gave the cease firing command. He continued to do this for several minutes. It took around 10 minutes for the firing to subside as the word permeated through 5 different languages and 200 adrenalin charged soldiers who had just been shot at by the enemy.
The situation on the hill was not good. Several firqua had been wounded some badly. Our own GPMG gunner Connie F. was also very badly wounded, and was laying out in the open ground illuminated by the burning jebal. There was a degree of disorganisation as the immediate after effect of this intense fire fight kicked in.
Mel P. was the troop medic and a Welshman with a strong Viking warrior spirit. He was an incredibly brave man. Seeing Connie‘s predicament he just got up moved out of cover into the light of the burning jebal, completely exposing himself to the enemy and started assessing Connie’s injuries. Given the intensity of the fire fight and the close proximity of the enemy, this was bordering on sheer lunacy. I could see Mel P. needed help. So I just got up and did the same. I felt really exposed and expected the enemy to open up on us again. I do not know why they did not. Maybe they too were in a state of shock.
In a well recorded jungle incident in Malaya a wounded SAS man was separated from his patrol and struggled on his own to survive in hostile enemy territory for several days. Early long range desert operations by the regiment had a policy of shooting their own wounded as they could not adequately care for them. Thankfully by the time I did selection this had changed and tremendous emphasis was put on taking care of our wounded. Whatever the risks, whatever had to be done, must be done to extricate and care for a wounded comrade. No wounded man was ever to be left behind. This was instilled into us as a doctrine.
Connie had a large hole in his lower back, and was bleeding heavily. We just used shell dressings and packed the wound as tight as we could. We jammed three shell dressings into the wound and bound it tightly to stem the blood loss. I think Mel also gave Connie some morphine. During this time I put my rifle down to use both hands in dressing Connie’s wound. There was one horrible moment when we had finished when I could not find my rifle I was so preoccupied with the first aid task. It is an absolute anathema and unforgivable sin for an SF soldier to get separated from his weapon. It is the stuff of recurring nightmares. Mel P. kindly and quietly reunited me with my weapon after the medic work was completed. Around this time Jimmy J. Ex parachute regiment, and a corporal in B Squadron, and a first class infantry soldier took immediate command and control of the situation on the hill.
He organised everyone who was within earshot into an extended line, told them to fix bayonets (I remember this because I did not have one, I only carried a commando fighting knife), and he then proceeded to lead us up the hill a distance of around 50 metres to take the position. I remember also helping some wounded firqua up the hill once we had consolidated the position. Some were able to walk, others we carried up the hill in blankets. I was struck by the quiet Stoicism of these jebali men. All had been shot and some were badly wounded but there was no show of pain, and no complaints. They just bore their wounds with a quiet acceptance within the fatalistic stance of Islamic culture. They were courageous men…
The Squadron OC Duke P. was concerned that the adoo would occupy the high ground as soon as we vacated it, and then shoot us up from behind as we pulled off. To counter this likely threat The Duke had a Jet Provost Strike master circling out to sea waiting to be called in. The Duke was operating on his own personal safety margins known as ”the Duke’s 200 yard rule”.
At the precise moment we were 200 yards off our objective the jet roared in low level over our heads and just took out the ridge behind us which we had only just vacated. It was a scary experience to be that close to high explosive rocket attack, we could hear and almost feel the blasts. Any Adoo trying to occupy the ridge did not live to tell the tale. It was a fearsome demonstration of air power and close air support, frightening us as much as it did the enemy.
In Oman most of the contacts were long range between 250 and 350 metres or further, this being the natures of desert and mountain warfare. 81 mm mortars and GPMG SF (sustained fire role on tripods) were a tiger team’s staple support. The GPMG teams inevitably attracted a tremendous amount of enemy fire once contact was initiated. Many of the wounded and killed soldiers were those working in GPMG teams. Just a simple thing like firing from a dusty location, where the dust cloud gave away your position to the enemy, could be enough to get you fatally wounded.
The GPMG gun which Connie was carrying had already had two of its operators wounded. None of us were particularly keen to step into this “bullet magnet” position. Except of course Johnny P. Johnny P. was a very fit PTI who was badged regiment personnel, having taken selection and passed it. He epitomised the aggression required for successful infantry work. So this is how on the withdrawal phase from Shahait, I now found myself teamed up as Johnny P’s number two on one of 7 troops GPMGs.
As we moved off the high ground the company’s movements were co-ordinated in to leap frogging groups with one or two platoons going firm on the ground to support the movement through them of other platoons. The adoo very cleverly used dead ground to get themselves right into the middle of our formations and then opened up on us from inside our own combat group. This caused considerable confusion and the control of the withdrawal then required some additional commander skills.
At section level perspective we were just engaging the enemy and trying to stay alive. The adoo group who opened fire on Johnny P got a very unfamiliar response. Instead of the usual procedural section attack with the gun group supporting attacking infantry, Johnny just got up with the GPMG and ran forward to close with the enemy. He was very fit and he just dragged the whole troop with him. He was leading and attacking the enemy totally oblivious to the rest of 7 troop. He was an exceptionally brave and aggressive soldier.
As we ran forward from one firing position to another, I became aware of regular accurate single shot Simonov rounds coming close to my head. An adoo sniper with a siminov rifle had a bead on me and was following my movements. This was an intensely personal feeling. This person was on me, was following me and was trying his best to kill me. On the next move as we went down into a small wadi I deliberately moved off to one side before re-emerging on the other side of the wadi. This tactic helped, and eventually I lost the dogged zipping noise of the single shots trailing my movements.
Johnny had now dragged us all to within 250 yards of a group of three enemy. The fire fight continued. Sgt Mick H. and the rest of the troop were now catching up with us and arrived about 20 meters behind. I ran back to collect more GPMG ammunition from them and took it forward to Johnny P.
In a surreal moment a local jebali woman dressed in full length black hijab appeared from nowhere with two camels and wandered into the middle of the contact between us and the enemy. Johnny P. kept up his rate of fire. The woman disappeared from view unhurt but the camels remained obscuring our line of fire to the enemy. I remember seeing tracer rounds repeatedly go into one camel which very slowly dropped to its knees but only after taking three or four bursts of GPMG fire. The other creature meandered on in oblivion.
Johnny’s persistence paid off as our field of fire cleared and he was able to put a very accurate burst of GPMG in amongst the three enemy. We saw the tracer hitting them and we saw them fall down at the edge of a wadi. This particular fire fight now drew to a close. The sporadic contacts started to diminish as the day wore on, and as we slowly continued to move out of the area. The Adoo eventually disengaged and returned to the safety of the Wadi Darbat.
When we eventually made it back to the safety of White City, I checked my 7.62mm rifle ammunition. Out of my starting total of around 200 rounds I only had about 48 rounds left. This was a pretty serious fighting patrol. This experience prompted me to change weapons. On later ops I carried an AR15 with 500 rounds of .55mm and a clip on bipod, allowing the ability for successful engagement of running targets with automatic fire at ranges up to 300-400 metres. The ammunition weight was the same but there was more versatility and endurance in firepower terms.
Some years later at a regimental reunion Mel P. confided in me that both our names had been put forward by the Duke for decorations. But nothing came of it.
Connie F. survived surgery at the FST in Salalah. His wounds were life changing. He was looked after within the regimental family for the remainder of his military career and continued to supply valuable military service. His funeral in April 2013 was well attended by his regimental Comrades.
Shershitti January 1975: The Battle of The Caves
In life we train and prepare for future events. Often we do not know what the outcome will be. There may be some short time periods where all our experiences and training come together for a few minutes or hours or even days, enabling us to perform at our highest level in achieving our aim in that precise moment in time. When these things happen we are often not fully aware of their significance. In retrospect and hindsight their importance and value can sometimes be more fully understood…
The opening contact was a gentle classic “come – on” routine. With just single Simonov rifle engaging us at around 300 yards. The GPMG team came into action and we returned fire into the general area, after a few minutes the Simonov was joined by an AK 47 and the incoming fire was slightly increased.
The advance ground to a halt as the GPMG team engaged the enemy. The nature of the terrain was such that the GMPG team was just on the lip of some elevated ground in a forward location, in surrounding scrub and in contact with the adoo. The rest of the squadron was in a slight shallow dip of dead ground about 200 yards behind us and they were moving up to our position. We could still not locate the exact position of the enemy on the ridge line in front. The incoming fire was now getting slightly more intense as a second AK 47 started to open up from roughly the same area.
The use of a Simonov was significant. As intelligence sources suggest that this was a weapon normally given to rear echelon defenders or low grade local militia. So this meant that we had most likely bumped a 3 or 4 man picket guarding the high ground at .980 and the approach route to the Shershitti cave complex. Now the firing picked up and became fairly intense. It was around this time that one of the “overs” from this contact hit a G Squadron Mortar man and wounded him at the Defa lines behind us.
My job was to direct effective fire from our GPMG onto the enemy, the first difficulty was to find the enemy location.
The sporadic firing continued, single shots from the Siminov and automatic bursts of fire from the two AK 47s. The enemy group were maintaining engagement with us, this continued for around 10 to 15 minutes. Battle School tactics for finding an unidentified position is to use a “search by fire” technique, and measure the response.
Mac M. was on the GPMG . I directed him to put short bursts into the ridge line in front, working from left to right, moving locations around 50 – 100 metres each time, and then waiting a short period of time, to see what the response was in terms of enemy fire. The first five bursts did not produce much response, but on our 6th location all hell broke loose, the return fire was absolutely intense. We had found them. Mac M. now set to work on this location delivering short and accurate burst of fire into the enemy position. The number two on the gun Watty G. was working flat out to keep the ammunition supply connected to the hard working GPMG.
The return fire now started to affect us. Mac M. was hit and he was bleeding profusely from his head. I pulled him off the gun and got his number two Watty G. to take his place. A round had hit the GPMG rear sight area ricocheted off the gun and had taken a piece out of Mac
M.s ear. Hence all the blood, as a head wound bleeds profusely.
As I checked him out he recovered from the initial shock and let me know that he was okay. Watty G. kept the GPMG engaged with the enemy. Within a few minutes Mac M. was back on the gun and giving the adoo plenty of incoming fire. At this point there was a huge whooshing sound followed by a large explosion somewhere behind us and above. So now we were being targeted by a separate enemy RPG7 team. This weapon when fired will deliver a rocket which will automatically self-detonate in an airbursts mode at 900 metres if it has not hit a target. The Adoo often used this capability in an anti -personnel role on defended positions from long ranges. None of us were hit but the squadron personnel behind us were now also feeling the heat of the contact.
As team commander taking stock of our current situation, I felt that we were slightly too exposed on a forward slope, and our position was now identified by the enemy. I gave the order to withdraw to behind the ridge line and working in pairs we pepper potted back. Around then came a small squeal of significant volume. A cry for help, from Trooper Rhett B. part of our team. He was still stuck in a forward location. In the heat of the moment I had forgotten about him. I knew what we had to do. So I gave the order to go forward again, we gained the ridge line and started to engage the enemy position with all we had to provide suppressive cover fire for Rhett’s withdrawal over the ridge line. This worked and we recovered Rhett B. We now adjusted our GPMG team position off to one side of our previous location but further behind the protection of the ridge, this time on the back slope, but still in contact with the enemy.
The contact continued. At this time the B Squadron Sgt Major arrived to get a situation report. Taff T. was a well-liked SSM and respected soldier and veteran of the Malaya Campaign. I told him that we were engaged with around 2 to 3 enemy, one Simonov and around 2 AK 47s. He knew there was a RPG7 team because he was on the receiving end of it. I assessed the contact as a small group of enemy and not one that presented any real difficulty to our Battalion advance. I also told him we had identified the enemy location and told him where it was. This information was relayed to Major Arish T. the OC.
Arish T. liked to use the Jets. In Oman when the SOAF Strike Master came out to play, it usually meant you could get a rest. Roll off the gun and have a cigarette. This was because normally, the enemy did not return fire when the jets came into action. They stopped firing and went for a concealment option. But not at Shershitii, these troops were very different.
We watched as the jets came in low from our right and flew up the ridge line strafing as they went by and pulling up and banking left as they finished. Sound travels slower than light so you see the action and then, only later after a short delay here the noise. Watching this it became apparent that as they were banking left another group of enemy was engaging the aircraft with small arms fire. We relayed this information to the FAC.
7 troop’s contact with the enemy at this location was effective. Intelligence reports received later indicated that 4/6 enemy were killed in the contacts and fire fights that formed part of the advance to .980.
Once the jets had finished Arish decided to preclude our further advance with some mortar fire. This was a common tactic during the Dhofar Campaign. Once the element of surprise was gone, it was a good option to have a point of reference on the ground that all friendly forces could reference from. So when you did advance again, and the enemy engaged, anyone could give a correction to the last seen mortar fire, and adjust fire onto the new enemy location.
We pulled back slightly from the ridge top and watched as the fire for effect mortar rounds went down. We waited a short while for the dust to settle from the mortar fire and then we again started our advance. Everyone slowly getting to their feet and again shuffling out in formation and moving forward. So now there was no element of surprise. We were here at the door to the caves, and those protecting the caves, knew that we had arrived…’