Mirbat Fort was the scene of perhaps the most important single conflict of the entire Dhofar Rebellion, and what is also frequently claimed to be the finest moment in the history of the British SAS. The Battle of Mirbat began early in the morning of July 19, 1972, when around 300 heavily armed fighters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLOAG) attacked the town’s small garrison, based in the fort and surrounding buildings, guarded by just nine SAS soldiers and thirty-odd Omani troops, all under the command of Captain Mike Kealy, aged just 23.
The aim of the rebels was simple: to disrupt Sultan Qaboos’s new policy of rapprochement; to demonstrate the weakness of the government’s control even over towns close to Salalah itself; and to execute as many local government supporters as they could find in Mirbat itself once they had overwhelmed the garrison. The fact that this major political setback, and the potential murder of innocent civilians, was averted is mainly down to the skill and courage of the soldiers defending the garrison. The bravery of Fijian sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba in particular – who somehow succeeded in holding large numbers of PFLOAG fighters at bay by single-handedly operating an old World War II 25-pound artillery piece (a job normally requiring three men) despite severe injuries – has become the stuff of military legend. After hours of bitter fighting, but with the loss of just two men (including Labalaba), air support and SAS reinforcements arrived from Salalah, after which the rebel forces were driven back into the hills.
The battle was a major setback for the rebels, who lost perhaps as many as 200 fighters. Their failure to seize Mirbat, even with vastly superior forces, also boosted the morale and standing of government forces, and the peace effort in general. Sadly, the UK government’s anxiety to keep the fact that British fighters were involved in Dhofar secret meant that the battle received little attention overseas, and those involved largely failed to receive the recognition many people feel they deserve. Campaigns to have Sergeant Labalaba awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross have so far come to nothing.