Showdown At Mirbat: A Castle, Some Desert, Rebels, and the S.A.S.

By 1972, Oman’s Dhofar Rebellion was entering its tenth year. The rebellion was originally begun by a frustrated tribal leader who wanted to overthrow the repressive Sultan, Said bin Taimur. First known as the Dhofar Liberation Front, the rebellion had grown and progressed into an insurgency with strong communist ties by the late 1960s, and renamed itself the Popular Front for the liberation of Occupied Arabian Gulf, or PFLOAG.

Surprisingly, the movement found a main part of its goals realized on July 23, 1970 when, in an almost bloodless coup, the Sultan’s son, Qaboos, deposed him and offered numerous modernization programs and amnesty to all who had opposed his father.  PFLOAG refused, still wanting to install a communist government and to keep territory it had already conquered. In other words, the rebellion would continue until victory, and gave Oman’s new ruler, knowing that his army was weak, little recourse except to call upon the country’s strongest ally, Great Britain.

Both countries knew PFLOAG was a threat, not only to Oman’s stability, but also to its flow of oil to the rest of the world. So, within hours of the coup, British forces, including members of the elite Special Air Service, were touching down – not to fight, but to provide support in four key areas essential in hopes to quell the insurgency.

1. Wage a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.

2. Gather intelligence

3. Provide medical assistance

4. Provide veterinary assistance (Crucial to Oman’s primitive society, which was still largely dependent on animals not only for food, but transportation.)

As is so often the case in insurgencies were countries send personnel to train allies, shortly thereafter, the British found themselves fighting, with the S.A.S. leading many of the operations.

Away from the headlines, Great Britain assisted Oman for the next two years in holding back the tide of insurgency by using the S.A.S. in small and quick operations, along with Oman’s army, to bleed PFLOAG (known locally as Adoo) as much as possible without committing conventional forces. Such a course kept the war off the front page of the British papers for the most part, keeping public opinion apathetic and focused on other issues.

That was, until July 19, 1972, when almost two years to the day that the Sultan was overthrown, Britain’s elite found themselves in a situation most of the combatants had only read about in history books. It would involve a castle, a handful of S.A.S., some allied soldiers, and hundreds of rebels determined to turn it into the Alamo of the Persian Gulf.

Mirbat Castle is a square multi-story structure which, in 1972, sat adjacent to and was part of a series of sandbagged trenches, firepits, barracks, latrine and a team room known as the British Army Training Team (BATT) house. The BATT house was run by nine S.A.S., with Captain Mike Kealy in charge. The entire base covered several hundred meters and was girded by barbed wire, which reached to the nearby Mirbat bay. For support, they counted on an additional 40 Omani and Pakistani soldiers, and used the base to conduct operations and guard the approach to the Port of Mirbat, vital to Oman’s economy and an important objective of PFLOAG.

In the early morning hours of July 19, approximately 400 PFLOAG rebels, intending to push toward the port, quietly approached the wire in several “V” formations and prepared to attack. Once spotted, the alarm sounded. The eight resident S.A.S. and the Omani/Pakistani forces ran to their positions. Weapons locked and loaded, the call came to hold fire.  Captain Kealy first thought it was Omani soldiers stationed on the nearby slopes returning from night patrol. But a closer look through the binoculars revealed that none wore uniforms and most were armed with AK-47s – a gift from the communists.

Map of the Battle of Mirbat

Kealy ordered the men to open fire. Self Loading Rifles (British version of the FN FAL) barked and a lone .50 caliber added its much deeper chug to the din. Staff Sergeant Bob Bennett coordinated the mortars, which coughed as fast as rounds could be dropped. Somehow, the fire which felled many did little to break the waves of rebels. They were still beyond the SLR’s range, and the .50 and mortar weren’t bleeding them much. As the range closed, Kealy and others moved to the roof of the BATT house and watched the ineffectiveness of their response with grave concern, as the rebels spread out to surround them and try to breach the wire.

Enemy mortar shells then started landing near the BATT house. While the SLRs continued to pick at the rebels in return, they began firing their AKs. The base became almost circled by a ring of blazing small arms. Kealy requested communications with S.A.S. headquarters and urged reinforcements sent immediately. He knew that, until they arrived, there was going to be one hell of a battle.

Amid the firing, S.A.S. Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba, of Fijian descent, saw the rebels breach near the castle and a World War II 25 pounder howitzer sitting unused nearby. He instantly made a mad dash for the weapon as bullets nipped around him. Reaching it, he sighted on the coming waves, loaded a round and began firing. Normally, it takes six men to operate such a gun, but the tough Sergeant did it solo, cranking off at least one shell per minute, which smashed and felled droves of rebels when his accurate fire impacted.

A few minutes later, the Sergeant was nicked in the face by a bullet, found a radio and notified Kealy of his injury. Another trooper, Fijian Sekonaia Takavesi, volunteered to go help and ran 800 meters through whizzing bullets to reach the gun. He fired back at the rolling wave of rebels with his rifle, then realizing the enemy was moving ‘danger close,’ ran to the castle to get more help.

Inside, Omanis fired their small arms furiously while Takavesi managed to find one man, Whalid Khamis, to come with him. Both ran under fire for the howitzer, only to have Khamis fall to the ground wounded, an AK bullet in his belly. But the man got up again and moved alongside, firing his rifle.

The wounded Labalaba and Takavesi sighted down the barrel of the howitzer again and fired it point blank into an oncoming gaggle of rebels. It slowed them a few seconds and Labalaba ran for an unmanned 60mm mortar sitting in a pit. Another AK round found its mark and the brave man fell dead, blood spurting from the neck. Takavesi then took a round through the stomach but propped his rifle on a sandbag and continued to return fire.

As the whole base fought desperately to kill the waves, now less than 50 meters away in some areas, a request for air support was sent, while Kealy and S.A.S. trooper Tommy Tobin made a run for the howitzer. After they, too, narrowly avoided getting hit, they reached the gun when several grenades were hurled toward them. One rolled to a stop at Kealy’s feet but failed to detonate. Another went off in a trench and injured no one. The remainder failed to go off as well.

Kealy and Tobin stood unfazed firing the howitzer while Takavesi and Khamis fired with rifles, the combined fire driving more back as the waves appeared to stall and the fight became almost pointblank to within a few meters from the sandbags. In a brief respite, Tobin tried to reach Labalaba, but a bullet blasted through his jaw and another hit near his spine, causing him to fall to the ground cupping his mouth in pain as blood spurted between his fingers.

Dhofar BATT House

The rebels were even worse off. Beyond the sandbags, dozens lay dead and even more writhed from wounds. Kealy was too busy for numbers, because in just a few moments he heard the most wonderful sound. Jet engines. The sounds grew louder as three Omani StrikeMaster light attack jets flown by British pilots swooped under an overcast sky and began strafing and rocketing the broken lines of rebels that lay prone, still firing at the base. Brown spurts of sand erupted around the perimeter for the next thirty minutes until they departed, out of ammo.

Sensing a last opportunity, the rebel commander ordered what was left of his force near the howitzer to rush. The remaining S.A.S watched in horror hundreds of meters away as another “V” formation of rebels got up and ran towards Kealy’s position.

Then came the Captain’s voice over the radio. He wanted mortars to drop rounds just outside his position, fully aware that if they were off by a little, he and the others would be obliterated and the rebels would enter the trenches.

Under Bennett’s guidance, several rounds shot from the tubes exploded just outside the sandbags, bowling several enemy over and disrupting the charge. So close were the hits that dirt showered Kealy and the others. He rose to see the rebels falling back, most running in ones and twos to disappear over the dunes.

Soon the S.A.S. G Squadron arrived by helicopter to reinforce and began driving off the remainder of the PFLOAG, now just a ragged remnant, which joined what was left of their group still running over the dunes. Behind them lay over a hundred of their dead and a similar number wounded. Their only consolation was that PFLOAG had managed to press the attack for nearly six hours.

A call came to cease fire and Kealy tended his two wounded until help arrived, when he headed back to check on other casualties. He knew that Labalaba was dead and Tobin and Takavesi were badly wounded, with one Omani killed and one wounded. That was the extent. They had successfully repulsed what many of the S.A.S. vets who survived it would call the “Twentieth Century’s Rorke’s Drift,” in reference to a famous battle where a small number of Brits overcame staggering odds to triumph in the end.

Kealy saw Tobin lift off in the chopper, still alive, only to die a few days later in England from his wounds. Despite the mourning to come, the S.A.S. had saved their base and the port. Never would either be taken by the rebels who ultimately were defeated a few years later.

Recognition came for the heroes of Mirbat three years later. Kealy was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions, and Takavesi was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Staff Sergeant Bob Bennett was awarded the Military Medal, while Labalaba received an honorary Mention in the Dispatches. Whalid Khamis received the Sultan’s Gallantry Medal, Oman’s highest award.

The event was initially downplayed by the British government, who did not want to reveal the extent of the nation’s involvement. Later years have seen survivors speaking out and campaigning to get Kealy and Labalaba awarded the nation’s highest decoration, the Victoria Cross.

Corporal Roger Cole is one of those. He was in the battle, and said without mincing words and in true gritty fashion, “If the rebels had reached that howitzer, we were fucked.”

It’s time Kealy and Labalaba get their due.