The Cairo Conference Aftermath: Redefining Aden's Military Role

In the aftermath of the Cairo Conference in 1921, significant changes were proposed for the military presence in Aden, a key strategic location in the British Empire's defence network. This came to the forefront during a crucial meeting of the Middle East Committee at the Colonial Office on 21st October 1922. The primary focus was Major General Scott's proposals for reducing the garrison at Aden. Scott, serving as the Resident in Aden, was tasked with formulating these reductions in response to broader strategic shifts discussed at the Cairo Conference.

In March 1921, the winds of change were blowing through the Middle East, courtesy of the Cairo Conference, a pivotal gathering steered by Winston Churchill, the then British Colonial Secretary. This meeting was more than just a routine assembly; it was a decisive moment set to reshape the very fabric of British policy in the Middle East following the tumultuous events of World War I. The conference's decisions would deeply influence the region's future, including the fate of territories under British influence like Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, and notably, Aden.

The Cairo Conference had a clear agenda: to streamline and redefine the management of British colonial and mandate territories. It was a time of drawing new lines, both literally and metaphorically, as the conference attendees deliberated over the boundaries, governance, and administration of these territories. One of the significant outcomes was the appointment of key British officials to oversee these areas, with notable figures like Sir Percy Cox being confirmed as the High Commissioner in Iraq and Sir Herbert Samuel taking up the reins as the High Commissioner in Palestine.

However, it wasn't just about administrative reshuffling. The conference was also underscored by a pressing need to reduce costs. The aftermath of World War I had left Britain economically strained, and the Cairo Conference aimed to cut down on military expenditures across the British territories in the Middle East. This focus on cost-cutting had direct implications for Aden, a vital port and a strategic refueling station for naval operations.

In the context of Aden, the conference's decision to trim military expenses meant proposals to downsize the garrison. This included plans for reorganizing and possibly withdrawing various military units stationed in the region. Despite these reductions, the conference members were acutely aware of Aden's strategic significance. As such, while there were calls for cost-cutting, Aden’s role as a crucial naval outpost was not overlooked.

The Cairo Conference's influence extended beyond immediate military and administrative rearrangements. It set in motion a series of long-term implications for Aden. These decisions affected the region's military, political, and economic landscape well into the 20th century, marking a new chapter in Aden's history under British influence.

In essence, the Cairo Conference was a cornerstone event that shaped not just the immediate years following World War I, but also the decades that followed, particularly for regions like Aden, which found themselves at the crossroads of strategic importance and economic considerations.

One of Scott's significant proposals involved the withdrawal of the headquarters of the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA), the unit responsible for manning Aden's coastal artillery defences against seaward attacks. This proposition was a matter of concern, considering Aden's role as a critical refuelling base for the Royal Navy, requiring around 100,000 tons of oil storage – a substantial logistical operation. The Army Council, however, raised objections to this idea, emphasizing that the removal of the RGA headquarters would lead to organisational degradation and complicate reinforcement in emergencies.

Scott also suggested withdrawing the Brigade Signal Section. The Army Council, while agreeing to a reduction, insisted it be proportional to other cutbacks. These included the repatriation of an Indian infantry battalion to India and the withdrawal of the British Pack Battery from Aden. In place of the Pack Battery, Scott verbally proposed a camel-mounted section of mobile artillery during the meeting, which was accepted.

The acceptance of these amended proposals by the Army Council was contingent on two key conditions: the retention of the RAF flight at Aden and the successful negotiation of a treaty with the Imam of Sanaa. By February 1923, the decision was made for the 3rd/17th (late 41st) Dogras to be the battalion returning to India. This decision was part of the broader strategic adjustments following the Cairo Conference. However, it's crucial to note that despite these changes, a substantial British military presence, including infantry units, was maintained in Aden. The assurance that the incoming 2nd Battalion The Norfolk Regiment was at full strength brought some relief to those concerned about maintaining a robust defence posture in Aden.

The strategic importance of Aden, particularly as a staging post and refuelling station, escalated with the onset of World War II in 1939. This led to a reinforced British and Indian military presence in the region, which continued through the war and in the post-war years. The presence of British and Indian infantry in Aden remained significant until the eventual British withdrawal in 1967, marking a prolonged period of military engagement in the region.