Op Haven: 30 Years Since 'A Very Special Operation'

Former Royal Marine Maj Gen (Ret'd) Andy Salmon has been recalling his time protecting Kurdish refugees in Iraq during Operation Haven.

Operation Haven was a relief effort aimed at protecting and re-settling hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees who had fled towards the Turkish mountains after Iraq's President Saddam Hussein crushed their rebellion in March 1991.

At its peak, there were 20,000 troops from at least 10 nations in northern Iraq for what the former Royal Marine described as "a really special operation".

Thirty years after Operation Haven, one of the Royal Marines involved has said he still looks on it as "the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my life".

The mission was the UK's contribution to the wider Operation Provide Comfort being carried out by the United States and allies soon after the end of the First Gulf War.

Major General (Retired) Andy Salmon was in 45 Commando when they joined 3 Commando Brigade, 40 Commando and 400 Dutch Marines for their part of the operation.

British forces worked in small groups and Maj Gen Salmon's role was to "move ahead" and take on tasks such as liaising with the Peshmerga and Kurdish leaders, and visiting refugee camps to "see what they were like".

Maj Gen Salmon told Forces News that the operation "ended up contributing to the salvation of the Iraq Kurds and literally saved hundreds of thousands of lives".

Colonel Jonathon Thomson with Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq during Operation Haven 270491 CREDIT PA ALAMY
UK personnel were also tasked with building "pit-stops" for refugees during Op Haven (Picture: PA/Alamy).

"When I look back at Haven, it was the most satisfying thing I've ever done in my life, never mind my career," he added.

Even three decades later, Maj Gen Salmon remembered how special it felt to be in the region and to be part of the operation, describing it as feeling "like a biblical experience".

He said: "It was extraordinarily spectacular."

Among his memories were entering the "amazing" mountaintop town of Al Amadiya, recalling: "You got into the top of Al Amadiya and there was a mosque, there was a synagogue that had been destroyed – sadly – and there was an Aramaic church, with services still in the ancient tongue."

He also remembered being with a colleague, "a fireman from Birmingham", when they saw a lorry full of Iranian refugees being "sort of dumped on the road" nearby.

The two men had decided to relocate the refugees to a derelict hut to make camp.

A week later, Maj Gen Salmon returned to the camp and was invited to the hut where the refugees had settled.

"The patriarch of the family came out and, smiling very grateful and this old derelict hut.

American airmen and Kurdish refugees unload food supplies from a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter during Operation Provide Comfort in Iraq 270491 CREDIT ALAMY
The later phase of the wider Operation Provide Comfort continued until the mid-1990s (Picture: Alamy).

"It was immaculate, it was clean, there were rugs on the floor, there was a feast laid out on the table in the middle of it.

"Despite the fact that they had nothing, they'd managed to pull some things together and make some food.

"The daughters were dressed in very colourful garments and looking radiant.

"Despite the fact that they absolutely had nothing, they were willing to give us everything," he said.

Operation Haven also taught Maj Gen Salmon a very important lesson about intervening in other parts of the world: "People have long memories".

He said: "People never forget anything, so when we go and intervene in other parts of the world, you've got to remember that people - right or wrong - have a perception of what has happened and what you’re doing on the back of your historical involvement with them.

"When the Kurds look back at Operation Haven, they view it as one of the seminal moments in their long history of 2,000 years as a nation and if that operation hadn’t taken place, they feel that they would have died out in the mountains – the only friends that they had."