THE former SAS colonel Jim Johnson ran Britain’s clandestine war against Egyptian forces in Yemen during the mid-1960s, an experience that inspired him to set up KMS, Britain’s first postwar private military company. Proud of his Australian blood, he ran a private guerilla army with style and success in a war that indirectly protected British interests in the Gulf and Suez.
Henry James Johnson OBE, who has died at 84, was the son of a Sri Lanka tea planter who worked on the Enigma project to crack German codes during World War II. A forebear guarded Napoleon on St Helena. Jim’s mother, Dorothy Bird, was of the H. S. Bird & Co provisioners, based in The Rocks, Sydney. She met Paul Johnson on a voyage back to Australia and married him in Colombo, where the couple settled and ran their own tea plantation.
Jim Johnson went to Sandhurst and fought with the Welsh Guards to liberate Brussels in World War II.
Six years after the allied withdrawal from Suez in 1956, the Yemeni monarchy was overturned in a military coup by Egyptian-trained officers, an event that threatened the British protectorates of Aden and Oman. The British government was divided between those ready to recognise the new Yemeni regime and those favouring a guerilla campaign on behalf of the displaced ruler, Imam al Badr.
Egyptian aircraft bombed tribal villages with phosgene poison gas while MI6 dithered. Colonel David Stirling, founder of the Special Air Service, suggested that Johnson could “put something together” to redress the balance of forces. Johnson, then commanding 21 SAS, arranged for volunteers to join his mercenary force, along with former French Foreign Legion men.
A cheque for £5000, signed by al Badr’s foreign minister, was paid through the bank account of the Hyde Park Hotel, where the SAS Colonel Commandant, Brian Franks, was chairman of the board. Johnson resigned his official military command and took leave from his job as a Lloyd’s underwriter.
When the British War Minister, John Profumo, resigned because he had lied to the House of Commons about his affair with Christine Keeler, the Foreign Office took fright that any hint of freelance military activity would add to the fuss. But it was too late to stop Johnson’s team. As a reconnaissance team, led by Major John Cooper, changed planes in Libya, plastic explosive spilled from one of Cooper’s suitcases. He coolly explained that it was marzipan; Libyan officials helped with the repacking.
Johnson and his men conducted a three-year resistance campaign, wearing down Egyptian forces sent by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Saudi Arabian government funded the Yemeni royalists and dictated overall strategy. The conflict became a war of attrition and stalemate; Egypt lost 10,000 men.
The Israelis were grateful for the impact on Egyptian military strength as they planned their pre-emptive 1967 blitzkrieg on Egypt. During his final audience with one of the Saudi royal family, Johnson requested the orderly disposal of the heavy weapons, and for his men to receive an enhanced month’s severance pay, warning: “French mercenaries have a habit of blowing up the aircraft of national airlines if they don’t get paid properly.” The payments were made.
In 1975 Johnson and David Walker, a former officer in 22 SAS, set up their firm to operate in the grey area “between the politically acceptable and the officially deniable”.
Johnson’s first wife was Judith Lyttleton, with whom he had a son, Rupert, and daughter, Lottie. They survive him, with his widow, nee Jan Gay, whom he married in 1982.