WWII weapons in Yemen’s civil war

The country of Yemen, currently (2018) in the midst of yet another civil war, has had a long involvement with guns of the WWII era. While the AK-47 is king of the battlefield, some old WWII weapons are still in use.


(The now somewhat-famous Yemeni “ripcord T-34” in November 2016.)


(Houthi fighters brandishing weapons in 2015, including to the left a WWII British Enfield No4 Mk.I rifle.)

Yemen at a glance

What is today Yemen was once the historical kingdom of Sheba, seated at the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula. It’s capital is Sanaa, while it’s commercial centre and ‘second city’ is Aden.


For much of the twentieth century after WWII, Yemen was split into two countries, North Yemen and South Yemen.


Relations between the two Yemens varied from open borders to minor military skirmishes. However unlike other countries bisected after WWII (Germany, Vietnam, Korea), neither of the two Yemens regarded itself as the ‘only legitimate’ entity, nor strove to conquer the other.

North Yemen

North Yemen was originally called the Mutawakkilite Kingdom, which gained independence in 1918 as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The country was not involved in WWII, but was recognized diplomatically during the conflict and joined the U.N. in 1947.

On 27 September 1962 army officers inspired by Egypt’s Abdel Nasser attempted a coup against the king. Only partially successful, this coup began to falter. In Egypt, Nasser saw an opportunity to establish a bridgehead of arab socialism on the Arabian peninsula, which was entirely ruled by monarchies at the time. Nasser dispatched troops to the capital Sanaa to bolster the coup.

Thus began Yemen’s first civil war. This turned into a quagmire for the Egyptians, who dominated North Yemen’s cities, but were totally unable to quell the countryside. Egypt’s involvement escalated out of control. Eventually strategic bombing missions were being flown across the Red Sea and nearly a quarter of Egypt’s infantry was bogged down in North Yemen. Egypt even made limited use of chemical weapons against the royalist forces, to no avail. The Egyptians also infused their Yemeni republican proxy army with free arms, including some WWII-vintage gear.

The conflict became a stalemate after the Six Day War in 1967, when the Israelis inflicted devastating losses on the Egyptian army which could then no longer afford an overseas adventure. In 1968 a compromise was worked out and the country was renamed Yemen Arab Republic.


(Flag of North Yemen)

South Yemen

This country’s history started with the Royal Navy establishing control of Aden in 1874, which then expanded to one of Britain’s most important overseas military bases. Indeed, for the timeframe of the two world wars and some years thereafter, the phrase “west of Aden” or “east of Aden” was used to delineate the British Empire.

The territory itself was divided into the tiny coastal Aden Crown Colony, and the barely-civilized interior which was loosely aligned with the UK as protectorates.


(British soldiers on patrol in 1957. British forces in Europe had adopted the L1A1 three years previous, but colonial outposts like Aden still retained WWII guns like these Enfields.) (photo by Bert Hardy)


In 1928, the British formed a locally-recruited force called the Levy. Trained and commanded by British officers, the Levy was initially a poorly-equipped force however by the late 1930s was only a generation or so behind the regular British garrison at Aden.


(The Levy’s boot camp in Aden.)


(A Levy in the 1950s with a WWII British SMLE Mk.III. This version of the Enfield had a distinctive ‘snubby’ appearance, with the P.07 bayonet’s mount on the furniture rather than the barrel. It was the first Enfield version designed from the outset to fire the Mk.VII version of the .303 cartridge, with spitzer bullet.) (photo by Chris Ware)


(A Highlander escorts a local sultan as he inspects the Levy. Native troops could initially not rise above lower enlisted ranks.)


(Local members parade during the 1950s with WWII SMLEs.)

After WWII, the British placed more of the burden of defending Aden’s oil tank farms, airfields, etc onto the Levy and expanded it, both in size and equipment.


(The ML 3″ Mortar was the standard infantry support weapon of the British army through all of WWII. It weighed 116 lbs and fired a 10 lbs shell out to 2,800 yards. Here, local troops drill with one in the 1960s.)


(The Bren was the most famous British machine gun of WWII. It fired the .303 British cartridge at 500rpm from a 30 round overhead banana. Local forces in Aden received these after WWII as seen here.)

As India, Burma, Pakistan, and Ceylon all became independent after WWII, Aden’s strategic importance to Britain declined – all the more so after the 1956 Suez campaign failed to achieve any of it’s political goals. Faced with Aden’s military irrelevance and a severe early-1960s insurgency by the local Yemenis, Great Britain opted to trim it’s involvement.


(An anti-British fighter in the mid-1960s, armed with an Enfield No4 Mk.I ready to use against it’s makers.)

A new 17-state entity called the Federation of South Arabia was formed with it’s capital at Aden. It was planned that this would serve as a gradual stepping stone to a fully independent, but western-aligned, nation eventually.


(Flag of the short-lived Federation of South Arabia.)

Predictably, the new Federation’s legitimacy was rejected by it’s inhabitants and the insurgency continued. On 30 November 1967 the UK washed it’s hands of the mess and the last British forces departed Aden, ending a 93-year tenure.

Civil War In Yemen In 1962

(Part of the rebel strategy was to sack local sheikhs and sultans ruling under British control. Here tribesmen celebrate one such overthrow in the mid-1960s. Everything under the sun is represented as far as WWII guns – a M1 Garand, a 98k, an Enfield No4 Mk.I – along with a Cold War era Egyptian Hakim.)


(A similar mid-1960s scene as another local sheikh was toppled. Here a Cold War era AK-47 in the center stands out amongst WWII Enfields and at least one 98k.)


(The flag of Aden Crown Colony is lowered for the final time.)


(The NLF was the main anti-British faction and by the time the UK departed Aden in 1967, was heavily equipped with pilfered, captured, or black market WWII-era British arms, such as these Enfield No4 Mk.I rifles.)

In June 1969, a communist faction of the Federation’s government gained control and declared the country marxist, renamed People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Huge quantities of Soviet weapons began to flow in. In return, the Soviet navy took over the former British facilities in Aden.


(1982 postage stamp from South Yemen.)

While both North and South Yemen were officially socialist, the USA maintained normal relations with North Yemen but regarded the PDRY as an illegitimate entity. There was no American embassy and it was regarded as hostile.


(Flag of South Yemen.)


(The defunct PDRY’s Cold War-era flag has made a surprising return in southern Yemen of symbol of resistance against the Houthi-dominated north, as seen here in June 2018.) (photo via France24 news)

In 1986, the second Yemeni civil war was fought in the south. Called “The Events” it was somewhat curious in that it was fought between two different communist cliques.


On 22 May 1990, the two countries united. The capital was Sanaa, formerly North Yemen’s capital. The merger of the two armies was an odd arrangement, with the former North and South armies continuing to exist as separate organizations. This was a framework for future problems which quickly came to a head.


(The current flag of Yemen.)

In 1994, the third Yemeni civil war was fought. This was a brief, but extremely violent, conflict that saw ballistic missile exchanges and mass tank battles. It was certainly not a war in which WWII-era weapons fit in. The war ended with southern Yemen’s attempted re-secession failing and the former North emerging as a dominant force in the country, which remained united.

recent history

Like many of the middle east’s current woes, the fourth Yemeni civil war came about from the 2011 “Arab spring” movements. Popular protests demanding democracy ended the two-decade rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh. The interim government proved incapable of fending off a islamist group called the Houthis who had been fighting a low-scale insurgency in the country’s northern interior for years. The resulting instability invited other groups into the conflict: AQAP (an al-Queda affiliated force); a southern separatist faction; a branch of ISIS; and most recently foreign intervention by Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E..

the current war

Without a doubt, the AK-47 and even newer guns are the main weapons of the current conflict. The leftover WWII arms are merely a sideshow.

As of late 2018, the Houthi movement controls an area roughly corresponding to the old North Yemen. About a fifth of what remains is under AQAP control; with the rest governed by the resistance or Saudi forces.

other causes of strife

Khat is a narcotic leaf chewed as a wad inside the mouth; this accounts for the bulging cheek which many Yemeni fighters in the current 2010s conflict are seen with in news footage of the war.


By 1999, Yemen’s out-of-control population growth left it with insufficient water to meet farming needs. None the less, in 2017 a full ¼ of the country’s irrigation capacity was diverted to khat cultivation, which is one of the few profitable endeavors available in Yemen. Just like cocaine in South America, Yemen’s khat trade is intertwined with violence.

Guns in Yemen

One of the reasons old WWII weapons remain in use in Yemen in 2018 has to do with the cost and prevalence of guns in the country. There are many misconceptions about firearms in Yemeni society.


(Yemeni men receive a jambiya (dagger) on their 14th birthday. Typically this is also when they obtain their first firearm. The jambiya has a curved blade and a hilt of either hardwood, ivory, or rhino stag. In this 2018 photo, a Yemeni civilian shows his jambiya and rifle – a  Spanish M-43, Generalissimo Franco’s 98k version.)

In 2000, the U.N. estimated the number of firearms in Yemen (population 21 million) at 50 million. It is unclear how they arrived at this gargantuan sum, which was discredited in the military journalism community. None the less, this figure continues to be quoted in the media eighteen years later.

The Yemeni government itself estimated in 2001 that between 15 – 16 million guns (including the army’s) were in the country.

In 2003, the Small Arms Survey group calculated that there were 7,291,597 guns in Yemen: 1.5 million in Yemen’s military, 184,000 under recognized control of rural sheikhs or other authority, 300,000 “in market” (available, but not in a personal possession), and 5.578 million in private hands. This was probably the most accurate figure. Ten years later, with the civil war in full swing, the 2013 estimate upped the private hands figure to 11.5 million, accounting for the partial disintegration of the Yemeni army and a flood of new modern weapons from abroad.


(An Armalite AR-10 in Yemen during 2017. This gun was stolen from the Sudanese army and migrated across the Red Sea to where demand is booming.)

Yemen’s weaponry is sold at “gun souqs”. In Arabic, souq actually means an outdoor market so the usage is technically incorrect, but is repeated here as convenience. There are 300 known gun souqs in Yemen, which is roughly the area of Nebraska and Iowa combined. There are five clusters, four in the former North and one in the former South, plus other lone souqs scattered around. They range in size from tiny market stalls to buildings about the size of an American drug store. The Small Arms Survey calculated in 2001 an average of 100 guns each, bearing in mind this is balanced by small gun souqs with only two or three dozen and larger operations with several hundred. Additionally many corner grocers, etc often have two or three guns available if the price is right.


(A typical gun souq in Sanaa.)

Judging by photos and videos of Yemeni gun souqs (of which, it should be mentioned, are unwise to film) the merchandise is roughly split about 85% Cold War-era and modern-era vs 15% WWII-era guns.

Before 2003 “gun control” was an alien concept to Yemenis. During the 2000s, several laws were passed: a ban on open carry of full-auto weapons (specifically, AK-47s) in urban areas and a ban on transporting AK-47s in the passenger compartment of cars. In 2007 an effort was briefly made to throttle down on gun souqs by banning private sale of machine guns, mortars, and RPG-7s which held the biggest profit margins. All these efforts were flagrantly flouted by Yemenis, and police did not even attempt to enforce them in rural areas. With the start of the civil war, these efforts were abandoned.

A falsehood is that guns in Yemen are “cheaper than bread”. Far from this, the exact opposite is true. In 2018 a good-condition used full-auto AK-47 cost 81,467 Rials ($326) in a Yemeni gun souq. The same year, a decent used semi-auto AK-type rifle cost about the same in the United States. The difference of course is that average annual income in the USA is $44,560 and rising while Yemen’s is $600 and falling. Thus for a young Yemeni man, buying an assault rifle is akin to his American counterpart paying cash upfront for a new car.

This is compounded by Yemen’s demographics which skew heavily young. Deducting guns of the deceased which are inherited by heirs, there is an annual demand deficit of roughly 220,000 guns every year.

Compared to AK-47s the price of WWII-era rifles is much lower, sometimes by 66%. Prices of Enfields or Mausers often fluctuate wildly, typically in regard to how much ammunition is available locally at the time. So it is difficult to pinpoint an exact average.


(At a gun souq in Sanaa in 2009, customers seem more interested in the folding-stock Kalishnikov than the WWII Enfields and 98k on the wall.)

The end result of all this is that WWII weapons – Germany’s 98k, Great Britain’s Enfield, and the USA’s M1 Garand – remain in use not because they have “cultural significance” or “traditional esteem” as is sometimes lazily reported, but rather because there is no other financial option for many Yemenis.


the 98k

This was Germany’s battle rifle throughout all of WWII. A total of 14.6 million were made. The bolt-action 98k was 3’7″ long and weighed 9 lbs. It fired the 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge from an internal stripper-loaded 5-round magazine. This round had a muzzle velocity of 2,493fps. The 98k was accurate out to about 550 yards and had a maximum range of 1,100 yards.


Yemen’s relationship with the 98k came from several sources over several decades, both before and after WWII.


(A street scene in Yemen circa 2009, a civilian with a German 98k walks behind a man with a British Enfield, the two opposing rifles of WWII in Europe.)

from Germany itself

In Germany, a consortium known by it’s German acronym RIAfK was chartered in 1936 to broker export sales of weapons, both obsolete ex-Reichswehr types like the long-length Gewehr 98 and older Gewehr 88; and new-production 98k rifles from Mauser Werke’s Oberndorf plant.

In 1937, RIAfK was licensed to sell up to 50,000 rifles (types unspecified) and 1,000 Mauser c/96 broomhandles to the Mutawakkilite Kingdom, along with an option on machine guns, German instructors, and several small warplanes.


(A Junkers F.13 transport at Sanaa in April 1955. Sold to the Mutawakkilite Kingdom as part of the RIAfK deal, this plane was the last of it’s type in military service worldwide, having outlasted the Third Reich by a decade when this photo was taken. Unfortunately it was destroyed in the ground during North Yemen’s civil war.)

Nazi Germany’s dealings with the Mutawakkilite Kingdom ended prematurely. By 1938, only 4,500 Mauser rifles and 55 broomhandles had been delivered, along with a handful of minor planes. At that point, sales were abandoned as Germany prepared for war.

Third Reich-era shipments were a mixed bag of 98ks and older Mauser rifles, so the number of direct-sale, 1930s factory-new production 98ks in Yemen today in 2018 is probably small.


(A Yemeni man with a 98k in 2015.) (photo via picture-alliance)


(Fighters pose with a destroyed armored car in Aden during early 2015. The man on the roof has a 98k.)

from Belgium

During the run-up to WWII, FN Herstal in Belgium offered an export rifle called the FN Model 24/30. Similar to the 98k across the border in Germany, the 24/30 could be chambered in 7x57mm, the common 7.92x57mm, or .30-06 depending on the customer.

The Yemeni Model 24/30 is almost identical to the version sold to Saudi Arabia. Most likely a small batch of these guns were purchased by the Mutawakkilite Kingdom prior to WWII and then supplemented by ex-Saudi rifles after the war.


During the current 2010s conflict, these rifles (sometimes called “Yemen Short Mausers”) are not common but not unheard of either.

operation “Porcupine”

This was a remarkable episode in the 98k story. During the Egyptian involvement in North Yemen, a joint British-Israeli covert operation codenamed “Porcupine” sought to arm the royalist rebels. The British hoped to outright see Egypt defeated, while the Israelis just wanted to prolong the war to bog down the Egyptian military somewhere other than their own border.


(The Wehrmacht’s 98k was Israel’s first standard-issue rifle. This one is preserved in an unusual permanent outdoor setting in Israel.)

The operation was a complex web of Jordanian and Saudi cash, Israeli guns of WWII German manufacture, Israeli and British logistics, and private British mercenaries on the ground in North Yemen. The weapons would be air-dropped into the Yemeni countryside.

"The War That Never Was" by Duff Hart-Davis

(Mercenary Liam McSweeny on the ground in North Yemen. The submachine gun is a Modello 38, an Italian WWII weapon, by then untraceable to anybody anywhere. The UK and Israel took every step to sanitize themselves of involvement.) (photo from Daily Mail newspaper)

In 1964, Israel was in the middle of it’s project to rechamber it’s remaining 98k stockpile to 7.62 NATO. At the same time, the IDF was already standardizing on the FN FAL so there were adequate numbers of un-rechambered 98ks to support the operation. Israel also had mountains of 7.92mm Mauser ammunition which it would now not need, and finally there were still old pre-independence WWII British guns and ammo in warehouses.

The aircraft used were of WWII design. Typically an Israeli C-97 flew south over the Red Sea, airdropped the cargo into North Yemen, then landed in France’s Afars & Issas Territory (today Djibouti) to refuel before flying back to Israel.


(The C-97 Stratofreighter was the transport sibling of the B-29 Superfortress bomber. The prototype was flown on 9 November 1944. As it shared engines and other components with the more important B-29, the USA decided to defer mass production until Japan surrendered. Along with Spain, Israel was later one of two export customers. This Israeli Stratofreighter was named Masada.)

A variation was to have the C-97 fly to Afars & Issas and transfer the load to an unregistered C-47 Skytrain, which would then perform the drop. Demilitarized C-47s were tremendously common in middle eastern skies and would attract less attention than a C-97.


(Many C-47s were made surplus after WWII and populated the world’s airline fleets during the late 1940s and early 1950s. This one was used in North Yemen.)

The Israelis took great care to sanitize the missions. All of the 98ks had any markings removed. The drops used old Italian parachutes and crates from a packaging supplier in Cyprus.

A typical manifest is one from a March 1964 mission where an Israeli C-97 dropped 180 98k rifles with 34,000 rounds of German ammunition, along with 17,000 rounds of .303 British to support the old Enfields which the royalists already had.

Over a two-year span there were fourteen C-97 missions and several C-47 drops. The operation was so successful that at one point it was suggested to rig the C-97 with bomb racks and also directly attack republican troops on the way out; however the Israeli government vetoed this.

During the current 2010s conflict, any 98k lacking markings is almost certainly a leftover from the “Porcupine” operation – quite an irony, given that most Yemenis in the 21st century are very anti-Israeli.

via Saudi Arabia

Along with the FN Model 24/30 mentioned above, Saudi Arabia’s National Guard (an independent force parallel to the Saudi army) used 98ks. Small batches were obtained from the victorious western allies after WWII, until the same sought to restrict arms sales to the middle east. Thereafter the Saudis simply switched to private arms dealers to buy 98k rifles, which were popular in service. The Saudis were still sending RFQs (requests for quotes) to arms dealers for ex-Wehrmacht 98k rifles as recently as the late 1960s, usually in batches of several hundred up to 1,000. These insignificant lot sizes may have meant they were not intended for actual home use….indeed, in the monarchial Saudi system, the line between military property, parastatal organizations, and private black marketeering is often blurred. For certain, the Saudis provided both 98ks and WWII-era 7.92x57mm ammo to the royalists fighting the Egyptians in North Yemen.

At the end of the 20th century, the Saudi National Guard underwent modernization and by one route or another, additional discarded 98k rifles might have made their way across the border.


(Probably the dumbest procurement project of the Desert Shield / Storm era (1990 – 1991) was the KCB-77 modern bayonet by Eickhorn-Solingen to an ’emergency’ Saudi National Guard custom order in 1990, for warehoused 98k and FN Model 24/30 rifles. They saw no combat. Forty-five years after WWII ended, this was the final new bayonet designed for the German rifle.) (photo via nirvi.fi website)

The kingdom of Hejaz was independent from 1918 – 1926 until the Saud dynasty conquered it and united Arabia into the present country. During it’s brief lifespan the Hejaz army imported 10,100 wz.29 rifles from Poland. This gun, produced between the world wars by Radom, was nearly identical to neighboring Germany’s 98k.


The Saudis absorbed whatever remained of Hejaz’s wz.29 inventory in 1926 and just like true 98ks, some of these migrated over the border into Yemen years later. At least one has been seen during the current 2010s fighting.

private dealers – Yugoslav and Spanish guns

Just like their Saudi neighbors, North Yemen (and later unified Yemen) enjoyed the services of private arms dealers.

Yugoslavia used several 98k variations after WWII, all of which were exported (sometimes directly, sometimes via a middleman) and examples of each ending up in Yemen. The designation M98/48 was actual Wehrmacht 98ks taken from the Germans during WWII. The designation M48 was applied to exact copies of the 98k run on German machinery after WWII in Yugoslavia.

The designation M48B was used on an export-only model. Generally true to the 98k, it has some changes to make production cheaper. The bolt handle’s turndown angle is opened up so the recess carved into the wood can be omitted. The furniture is of any stock lumber instead of walnut, and some parts are stamped instead of machined. None the less, M48Bs shoot just as well as true 98ks.


(A Houthi fighter with a M48B in 2016. The sticker on the butt translates “Allah is great, Death to America, Death to Israel”.) (Reuters News photo)


(A Houthi sniper with a M48B retrofitted with civilian hunting optics in 2018.)

During WWII, Generalissimo Francisco Franco sought to standardize neutral Spain’s army on the 98k. As the Third Reich’s war situation worsened, further imports became impossible. In 1943, Spain began producing the 98k locally and continued to do so after WWII, under the designation M-43.


(A fighter in northern Yemen with a Spanish M-43 in 2018.)

There are several small differences. On the M-43 the bolt handle’s turndown angle is almost nothing and the carved recess is eliminated. There are two sets of oval sling mounts, on the rifle’s underside and left side, both front and back. The bayonet attachment is different to accept post-WWII cutlery, and the furniture has longer finger grooves.

During the current 2010s fighting, the Spanish M-43s are probably the most commonly seen type. Most appear to be in very good shape, and almost certainly they were bought not from Spain but a private arms dealer. Interarms is often mentioned as their source.

a menagerie of Mausers

Besides WWII’s 98k and it’s offshoots, a number of other Mausers – WWII and even earlier – have been seen during the 2010s fighting.


Above is an Ottoman M-1903. Weighing 8½ lbs, this straight-pull, Mauser-action rifle fired the 7.65x53mm Argentine cartridge from a five-round box magazine. It was probably the best firearm of the decaying Ottoman Empire. The Mutawakkilite Kingdom absorbed abandoned Ottoman M-1903s upon independence.

Before and during WWII, neutral Turkey rechambered it’s remaining M-1903s to 7.92x57mm, converted the sights from kadems to meters, and switched to western numerals. After WWII, Turkey began selling these abroad and they proved a popular buy in Yemen. The original rifle was already popular, and the rechambered version all the more as they now shared ammunition with the 98k. Some were still seen as recently as the early 2010s.


The above photo, taken in Yemen during 2015, is a refurbished Ottoman M-1887. As designed in the 19th century, this gun fired a 9.5x60mm(R) blackpowder cartridge from a 8-round tube magazine. Inbetween the world wars, Turkey converted some to 7.92x57mm Mauser. This was smart from a logistics standpoint but the 7.92mm didn’t cycle well and most were used as single-shot training rifles before being sold abroad.


From a 2014 al-Hurra news report on Yemeni gun culture, the gun above is a Brno vz.98/22 rifle which Czechoslovakia made for a Turkish army order before WWII. It was similar in most respects to the 98k. How it ended up in 21st century Yemen is anybody’s guess.

the Sarem

On 23 August 2017, the Houthi movement announced eight “new” firearms, which it claimed were designed and built in Yemen. They were displayed on the al-Masirah TV channel. All eight appeared to be modifications or rip-offs of foreign guns.


The most curious was the Sarem, which appears to be a 98k modified with a folding bipod, modern Russian optics, and 12″ longer overall length. The Sarem (an arabic sword) weighs 9 lbs and is fed from a stripper-loaded 5-round internal magazine. The Houthis described it’s caliber as “8mm”; presumably they mean the original 7.92x57mm and not a new true 8mm cartridge. The photo showed the bolt handle on the left side, it is unclear why, or if the digital image was simply inverted.

The Houthis said Sarem was intended for anti-material missions (shooting radar dishes, destroying technicals, etc) rather than general infantry use. A range of 1,600 meters (1,749 yards) was suggested, which seems optimistic. Little has been said of the Sarem since then.

the MG3 (MG-42)

Several photos have been attributed as WWII-eta MG-42s. In fact, these are actually MG3s.


(MG3 on an armored car in Yemen.)


(A Saudi MG3 captured by Houthi fighters.)

After West Germany began rearming, WWII-era MG-42s were designated MG1 in the new Bundeswehr nomenclature system. In 1968, production of the MG3 began. This is the MG-42 chambered in 7.62 NATO and compatible with American ammunition belts. The MG3 is the standard GPMG of the 21st century Saudi army and some have been supplied to allied Yemeni forces.


Both North and South Yemen acquired substantial numbers of WWII British weapons, the former by purchase in the 1950s and the latter from the defunct Federation.


(The QF 6 Pounder was a British anti-tank gun during WWII. Royalist forces had a few and used them against Egyptian T-34s. Later, North Yemen had some on strength into the early 1970s. None have been seen in the current 2010s conflict.)

Machine Guns

The Lewis Mk.I served Great Britain well during both world wars. It was 4’3″ long weighing 28 lbs, and fired the .303 British cartridge from an overhead pan magazine at 550rpm.


This gun’s unmistakable shape was due to it’s barrel shroud, which had a vortex intake intended to suck in air to cool the barrel. Tests with modern lab gear have shown that the added cooling effect was negligible.


(A Lewis Mk.I for sale at a gun souq in Sanaa during 2015.)

Some Lewis guns were probably left behind by the British when they evacuated Aden; others may have come to Yemen via the international black market. In any case it is astonishing that any are still in use in Yemen during the late 2010s, but as seen above, a few apparently are.

The Vickers machine gun also served the UK during both world wars. Water-cooled, it fired the .303 British cartridge from 250 round fabric belts at 450rpm. This weapon weighed 51 lbs and as designed, had a 3-man team assigned to it.


During the Federation of South Arabia’s short life, it had it’s own military, called the Federal Army. It’s main medium machine gun was the Vickers.

For the UK itself, the 1960s Aden insurgency was the final time British troops used these trusty old machine guns in combat.


(Local soldiers of the Federal Army drill with a Vickers in the 1960s.)

After Soviet aid became available, these old machine guns were apparently flushed out of the PDRY’s inventory. None have been observed during the current 2010s conflict, which is not to say that for certain that there are still not a few Vickers around.


Any rifle used by Great Britain during WWII (and some even older) can be found in Yemen today.


(The P-14 served Britain during both world wars but is more commonly associated with the first. During WWII, many P-14 rifles in Raj India were sent to Aden to be swapped for more modern Enfields there. The UK obsoleted the P-14 in 1947 and they passed to the Levy and then to the populace. One was seen in action in 2017.)

the SMLE

While “Short Magazine Lee-Enfield” technically refers to a number of guns in the iconic Enfield family, many firearms experts use it as shorthand specific to the Mk.III version. This bolt-action rifle, which served Great Britain during both world wars, weighed 8¾ lbs and was 3’9″ long. It fired the .303 British cartridge (2,300fps muzzle velocity) from a 10-round magazine and had an effective range of 1,083 yards.


(A pair of WWII-era SMLEs at a gun souq in Sanaa in 2015, sharing wall space with a Cold War SKS and folding-stock AKMs.)

In Yemen, the SMLE has a long history. It was one of the Levy’s service rifles during WWII and the post-war period, and through tribal trade migrated north across the inter-Yemeni border.

These rifles were decently common in Yemen into the 1990s but have greatly faded from use since then, presumably due to difficulty in sourcing .303 British ammunition.

the Enfield No4 Mk.1

This was Great Britain’s standard service rifle throughout WWII, with over 4 million being made. Replacing the SMLE starting early in the conflict, it was regarded as the best of the Lee-Enfield family. The No4 Mk.1 weighed 9 lbs and was 3’8″ long. It fired the .303 British cartridge from a 10-round magazine. The rear sights were dual; there was a “battle sight” calibrated to 300yds and an optional flip up sight scaleable between 200 – 1,300yds, which was probably the longest an average soldier could accurately shoot without optics. The bolt cycled clean and crisp, and it was just a well-built rifle.


(A soldier of the short-lived Federal Army with a WWII Enfield No4 Mk.I during the 1960s.)

After WWII, British troops garrisoning Aden standardized on the No4 Mk.I, even as the rest of the British army moved to the No5 “jungle carbine” and then to the L1A1. During the 1950s, the Levy itself transitioned to this rifle, and it was the standard-issue infantry weapon of the Federal Army during it’s brief lifespan.

As the anti-British insurgency picked up, the Levy was rife with disgruntled members, thieves, and outright turncoats. Pilfering of Enfield rifles was out of control. At the height of the insurgency, the British tried an “Enfield buy-back” program. It failed, as it inadvertently encouraged more pilfering, as a Levy soldier’s stolen rifle would be given to an acquaintance for profitable sell-back. It was also unpopular politically in the UK after it was determined that the buy-back price exceeded the No4 Mk.I’s 1940s production cost, meaning British taxpayers were buying the WWII guns twice over.

In North Yemen, the No4 Mk.1 was common as well. Small lots were bought by the Mutawakkilite Kingdom via private arms dealers after WWII. Others came from the black market, others still from stolen Levy stock resold more profitably to the royalist forces in the north, and finally it’s likely the Israelis seeded some in along with the 98ks during the “Porcupine” drops. Further examples still were possibly dumped off by the Egyptians onto their republican proxy troops.

Picture released in the 60s of Yemeni fi

(Royalist guerillas fighting against the Egyptians, armed with a mixture of Enfield No4 Mk.I and 98k rifles.)

Other than the 98k and it’s offshoots, the Enfield No4 Mk.I is the most common WWII weapon observed during the current 2010s fighting in Yemen. They are readily available in most gun souqs across the country. Their prominence (and average resale value) seems to have taken a sharp decline in the mid-2010s, possibly as .303 British ammo becomes scarce.


(At this Yemeni gun souq in 2014, an Enfield No4 Mk.I is visible in the lower left, alongside a SMLE, also of WWII.)


A few WWII-era British revolvers linger on and are seen from time to time during the current 2010s conflict.


Above, this Yemeni merchant displays a Webley Mk.IV revolver. During WWII, Great Britain produced this double-action six-shooter as a backup to the Enfield No2 Mk.I which was experiencing production bottlenecks. About half a million were made. The Webley Mk.IV fired the .38 Service cartridge, similar to .38 Smith & Wesson but with a 200gr lead bullet.

After WWII, this revolver was finally obsoleted out of British inventory in the early 1960s. The Aden Crown Colony garrison was one of the last units still using Webley Mk.IVs. This one above undoubtedly came from there.

While no longer common, Webleys remain extremely popular in 21st century Yemen as they require minimal maintenance and perform well in sandy conditions which might foul semi-autos.

The other pistol is unknown but looks to be an early-1900s type. Above the merchant’s head, the butt and bolt handle of an Enfield No4 Mk.I rifle is visible.


WWII-era Soviet weapons came to Yemen via the Egyptian involvement in North Yemen’s civil war, then via aid to both North and South Yemen, and later via North Korean resale or the international black market.

"The War That Never Was" by Duff Hart-Davis

(The SG-43 was a Soviet 7.62x54mm(R) belt-fed machine gun of WWII. It weighed 90 lbs on it’s wheeled mount. During the 1950s the USSR transferred many to Egypt, which used them in the 1962 – 1967 North Yemen intervention. This one was captured by royalist troops.)

the T-34

The T-34 was the main Soviet tank of WWII and quite possibly the best all-around tank of any country in WWII. Weighing 32 tons, it was fitted with a ZiS-S-53 85mm main gun and two DT 7.62mm machine guns. Powered by a Kharkiv V-2-34 12-cylinder diesel, it had a maximum speed of 33mph.


(An abandoned T-34 in Yemen.)

The T-34 came to Yemen in several batches, several different ways. The first T-34s in the country were used by the Egyptians during their ill-fated involvement in North Yemen’s civil war. Rusting T-34 wrecks around the country are still a testament to Nasser’s adventure.


(Egyptian T-34 on parade. Many of these WWII-era tanks met their end in North Yemen.) (photo via Life magazine)

After the Suez Canal was closed following the Six Day War, Egypt’s already-limited ability to sealift heavy armor abroad was further diminished, and most of the surviving Egyptian T-34s, about 30, were handed over to the new government of North Yemen.


(North Yemeni T-34 near the end of the 1960s. This particular tank has “spiderweb” type roadhweels, which the Soviets used on T-34 production inbetween the Smolensk offensive in late 1943 and the end of WWII in 1945.)

When the PDRY (South Yemen) became independent in 1969, it lacked any tanks and in the very first infusion of Soviet aid, 50 T-34s were delivered. These were followed by another 50 in 1972.


(Socrata is an Indian Ocean island 200 miles from Africa and 600 miles from Aden. As a quirk of colonialism, it became part of South Yemen when the British departed Aden. During the 1970s and 1980s the PDRY transported some T-34s there and parked them in dugouts. The plan was that during a crisis, crewmen and 85mm ammo would be airlifted to Socrata to use the T-34s as coastal defense guns. The T-34s remain abandoned there in 2018, including this one with it’s transmission cover opened.)

Finally, North Yemen received another 70 T-34s from the USSR in 1980. This was one of the last Soviet exports of the T-34, 35 years after WWII.

By the 1980s, many of the T-34s in both North and South Yemen had been retrofitted with newer radios and some parts compatible with Cold War-era Soviet tanks. Around the turn of the millennium, now-united Yemen began phasing out it’s remaining T-34s, with scrapping to run from the late 2000s into the 2010s. When the current conflict started, this was abandoned and all sides began scrounging for discarded T-34s to reactivate.


(A T-34 reactivated by the national army early in the conflict.) (photo by Scharov Evgeny)

T-34s continue to be used in 2018. The Yemeni army (and now by extension, the Houthis) operate T-72s while the Saudis operate M60s and M1 Abrams, and all sides have wire-guided anti-tank missiles. Without question, the T-34s are thus unsuitable for traditional tank combat but they make useful “mobile pillboxes” for infantry support.


(T-34 of the national army in action. This tank has mixed & mismatched roadwheel styles, the “die cast” type of early-WWII production in the USSR, and the “starfish” style shared with the Cold War-era T-54/55 tank. This is common on Yemeni T-34s as WWII-era spare parts dwindle.)


(T-34 of an anti-Houthi militia in Yemen. Like the tank above it has mismatched roadwheel types.)


(A T-34 of the Houthis in combat during July 2018. This one still has it’s WWII external fuel tanks, which many others lack.)

“ripcord T-34s”

One of the most fascinating items of the current 2010s conflict is Yemeni T-34s having their main gun fired via a lanyard outside the tank.


(One of the “ripcord T-34s”. This tank is also remarkable in that it still has a full set of early-WWII “die cast” style roadwheels, Soviet M1942 track style, and external fuel tank.)

There have been for certain two, and maybe more, T-34s this modified in this fashion observed in combat in Yemen between 2015 – 2018.


(A “ripcord T-34” of the national army in combat. This is a different individual tank than the one above.)

The reason for this bizarre feature is a confluence of ammunition conditions and a desire of Yemeni tankers to remain amongst the living. In the 1950s and 1960s, WWII 85mm rounds for the T-34’s ZiS-S-53 were a dime a dozen in the middle east. Even as late as 1980, they were readily available on the world arms market. But as country after country eliminated T-34s from their reserves, this availability fell. Part of Yemen’s own stockpile was maybe discarded when it was thought the T-34 would be retired.

Now in the late 2010s, this ammunition is exceedingly rare. In 2015 Houthi bombmakers demonstrated a remarkable “achievement”: spent 85mm casings from T-34s were reloaded with propellant extracted from AK-47 ammo, then re-primed with a primer taken out of modern artillery rounds, and capped with a custom-cast lead slug.

The severe dangers therein are endless: an overpressure rupture of the 70 year-old breech, a squib in the barrel, and so on. It’s no wonder the Yemenis don’t want to be in the turret when these rounds are shot.

Reportedly both sides in the conflict are now doing this, and have further refined the idea. The solid lead slug would have to hit something to be effective, but supposedly now a crude explosive shell has also been developed.

Even with genuine 85mm rounds, any remaining ammunition is at least half a century old, maybe older, and nobody is probably keen on being a few inches away from it as it is fired.

the SU-100

This Soviet tank destroyer weighed 31½ tons and was armed with a 100mm D-10S anti-tank gun. It followed the general WWII tank destroyer concept; with most of it’s armor to the front. After WWII, an advantage was that it shared many parts with the T-34 tank still in service, and ammunition with the upcoming T-54/55 tank of the Cold War.


(A SU-100 which the Houthis captured near Sanaa during 2014. They were unable to return it to operational status.) (Reuters news photo)

The Mutawakkilite Kingdom made a non-political buy of 50 SU-100s from the Soviet Union in 1961, just before the North Yemeni civil war started. Only a handful of these survived the conflict to join the new North Yemeni army.

South Yemen received 30 of these tank destroyers between 1968 – 1970 from Czechoslovakia. These were actually post-WWII production in that country and in almost-new condition. They were very popular in PDRY army use.

When the two Yemens united in 1990, there were still three dozen SU-100s of the combined North/South inventories in usable condition. Some of these were destroyed in the brief 1994 conflict.


(A Yemeni SU-100 near Ma’rib lost during the 1994 fighting. In the current 2010s conflict, Ma’rib is a hub of AQAP, the al-Queda associated faction.)

By the late 1990s the SU-100 was obsolete in any role and the Yemeni army withdrew them from service. As the current conflict began, just like the T-34, any survivors in warehouses were returned to service if possible. The Yemenis have been quite creative in this, for example they found that the aluminum & plastic radiators of certain civilian trucks make a suitable substitute for the WWII Soviet originals.


(A SU-100 restored to running order by the national army early in the current conflict.)

Compared to the T-34, there have not been many of these vehicles seen. While the 100mm gun would make it at least marginally competitive against T-54/55s (which both sides use) it would be way out of it’s league against a T-72 or M1 Abrams.

the ZiS-2

This towed anti-tank gun served the Soviet army throughout WWII. It weighed 2,756 lbs and fired a 57x480mm(R) round. Over 10,000 were built.


The Soviet Union provided many of these guns to Egypt during the 1950s. During the intervention in the North Yemeni civil war, Egypt employed them as field guns.


(A royalist fighter loads a captured ZiS-2 for use against Egyptian armor. His bandolier has Mk.I .303 British cartridges, an early non-spitzer variant used in the Enfield family.)

Almost all of the ZiS-2 guns Egypt sent abroad stayed there; either destroyed in combat, captured by royalist guerillas, or abandoned when the Egyptian army departed. At least one is still in service in 2018 with Houthi forces, taken off it’s carriage and mounted on a Toyota pickup truck.


the DP-27

The Degtyaryov DP-27 was a standard light machine gun of the Soviet army during WWII. It fired the 7.62x54mm(R) cartridge from an overhead 60 round pan. Rate of fire was 550rpm and it was effective out to roughly 900 yards.


(A lonely Bren of WWII British use sits with a lineup of DP-27s inside a Yemeni police station in 2004. This was part of a largely-failed effort to remove machine guns from civilian use.)

The Egyptians used the DP-27 during their 1960s involvement in North Yemen, with many being captured or abandoned there, while South Yemen received some as Soviet military aid during the early 1970s. Unified 1990s Yemen imported a Chinese-produced clone third-hand from North Korea, as well.


(A Yemeni man loyal to president Saleh (who was later killed by the Houthis) with a DP-27 in October 2015.)

the Mosin-Nagant

The main Soviet rifle of WWII, the bolt-action Mosin-Nagant in its many versions was widely exported after WWII into the middle east, including Yemen. It fired the 7.62x54mm(R) cartridge from a 5-round internal magazine.


(An Egyptian DI trains recruits of the republican army on the Mosin-Nagant (here, the 91/30 variant) during the 1960s North Yemeni civil war.)


(A militia supporting the coup in North Yemen armed with Mosin-Nagants of various models donated by Egypt. On the extreme right is a sniper version fitted with the PU scope.)

Compared to other places in the developing world, the Mosin-Nagant never really caught on in Yemen, either with governmental forces or in private hands. None the less, some remain in circulation and in combat during the current 2010s fighting.


(A man in Yemen’s central highlands brandishes a Mosin-Nagant (here, a butchered M-1891 version) prior to a 2009 skirmish with a neighboring village. In the center is an ex-Wehrmacht 98k, the Mosin-Nagant’s WWII foe on the Ostfront, and finally a Cold War AKM.) (photo via Vice News)


Overshadowed by the Nagant M-1895 revolver, the Tokarev TT-33 was a service sidearm of the Soviet army during WWII, and then thereafter until replaced by the Cold War-era Makarov. The semi-automatic TT-33 was 7½” long and fired the 7.62x25mm cartridge (1,476fps muzzle velocity) from a 8-round box magazine.

The USSR exported TT-33s on a massive scale to South Yemen and these guns remain in widespread use today, both in governmental and private hands.


(Tokarev TT-33s for sale at a gun souq in Sanaa in 2015. These are original Soviet-production guns.)


(An officer of the gender-segregated Yemeni police drills with a Zastava M-57. This post-WWII Yugoslav clone of the TT-33 holds one extra round and was made to higher quality standards.)


(Apparently unconcerned for his hearing, a Yemeni civilian celebrates during a 2015 street battle against the Houthi. Pistol is a Soviet-made TT-33.)


American WWII weapons are rare in Yemen, but none the less, some are present including the most legendary of all, the M1 Garand rifle.


(The T-6 Texan was the US Army’s main trainer during WWII. After the war some were sold to Saudi Arabia, and in 1954 two were re-sold to the Mutawakkilite Kingdom as their first trainers.) (artwork by Clavework Graphics)

the M1 Garand

The M1 Garand was the USA’s standard battle rifle not only throughout WWII but the Korean War as well. This legendary gun was 3’8″ long and weighed 9½ lbs. It fired the .30-06 Springfield cartridge (2,800fps muzzle velocity) from a 8-round internal en bloc magazine.


After WWII, the Italian army adopted the M1 Garand and eventually established license production. With Italian demand satisfied, Beretta began production for export orders – first to NATO allies and then to anybody. One of the latter was the Mutawakkilite Kingdom which ordered 1,200 in 1955 and had them delivered in 1957.


(Yemeni soldier with M1 Garand in 2015.)

These guns are identical to the WWII original in all regards. They are marked with the old Mutawakkilite coat of arms, seen below, and an Arabic calligraphy property marking. Many later had an islamic inscription engraved onto the stock.



Despite the small number delivered, M1 Garands remain in surprising use in 21st century Yemen – both in private hands and even in active military use. For collectors, they are extremely desirable. There has been only one known legal importation into the USA. In 1986, Century Arms found twelve mixed in with a lot of Hakim rifles it was importing. Others may have snuck in since then.


(At a gun souq in al-Talh in 2009, a M1 Garand hangs on the left wall inbetween a pair of 98ks and an Enfield No4 Mk.I – all guns of WWII.)

M1 Garands are still regularly seen in Yemen. To date, no American-made Garand has been found there, so it appears Beretta production are the only examples present.



(The M1919 was an American machine gun of WWII. It fired the .30-06 Springfield cartridge at 500rpm from 250-round belts. How this one ended up in Yemen is anybody’s guess. This M1919 was at a gun souq in 2018.)


France never had involvement in Yemen but none the less, some French rifles ended up there. The Gras Mle.1874 was one of France’s last blackpowder rifles, a bolt-action weapon firing the 11x59mm(R) cartridge. By 1914, the Gras had already been superseded by the Lebel but some saw action early in the First World War. After that war, the Gras was gone from French service in Europe altogether but lingered in small numbers in French colonies during WWII.


(photo via Guns & Ammo magazine)

During the mid-1930s, with another world war on the horizon and guns back in England being in short supply, colonial authorities in Aden made an independent buy of some old Gras rifles to equip Levy units.

After South Yemen became independent these rifles still existed and were still on official inventory for a few years before they filtered down to local tribesmen and crossed the inter-Yemeni border. The French manufacturer Gevelot S.A. made a new run of 11x59mm(R) for a Yemeni customer in 1955, so apparently there were still many Mle.1874s in circulation then.

Quite unexpectedly, these have been seen during the current (2011 onwards) conflict, but never being fired. As of 2013 there were still enough Mle.1874s in circulation that they were for street sale in Sanaa.

The ammunition question

Just like the ongoing wars in Syria and Libya, the presence of these old WWII guns in Yemen raises the question of where ammunition is coming from.

In the case of the Syrian civil war, and to a lesser extent the Libyan conflict, there has been a headstamp census of obsolete calibers. This, along with common-sense deduction and past import records, can give at least a halfway decent answer.

In Yemen it is much more difficult. There has been no real effort to document headstamps. Part of this is probably simple lack of interest, part of it is probably self-preservation for journalists. Even before the conflict Yemen had restrictive press laws and now, it would be extremely unwise for a westerner to walk around photographing ammunition.


(A most remarkable sight: in January 2015, a SkyNews team filmed these two WWII rounds for the T-34 tank being openly sold at a civilian mart. The left is a BR-365K anti-tank round, clearly of Soviet manufacture as it still has legible labeling. The right appears to be a O-365K HE round with a broken-off fuze blanking plug in the nose. Pilfering from Yemeni army armories is rampant.)

For 7.92x57mm Mauser, Yugoslavia produced it in militarily-usable quantities into the 1980s, and before that millions of rounds of WWII German production were on the international arms market. Reportedly, Nicole Ceausescu’s Romania sold off it’s long-warehoused holdings of this caliber into Yemen in the 1980s. Beyond these, there is no clear source for sustained-usage levels of supply in the late 2010s. Apparently there is still enough to make carrying a 98k worthwhile, as it (and it’s clones) remains the most commonly seen WWII rifle in Yemen.

Judging by the dropoff in Enfields during the 2010s, .303 British is running out. Whatever was left behind by the UK in Aden is probably long gone. In 1963, Saudi Arabia bought 5,000,000 rounds of WWII-leftover .303 British from Pakistan. Almost undoubtedly, a lot of that went over the border to fight the Egyptians in North Yemen. The Egyptians themselves made .303 British and might have been another source at one point. During the 1950s, Sudan made an ill-advised buy of new .303 British from a commercial French manufacturer. Much of it went unused and some probably crossed the Red Sea into Yemen during the 1990s. Greece surplused its entire stockpile of 1940s-vintage .303 British in the 1980s; some of which ended up in Beirut (where there was much griping about dead primers and corroded casings). Some may have found it’s way to Yemen.


(A camel in Yemen laden with ammunition crates during the late 1960s. Pickup trucks have taken up a lot of the slack but this remains a viable option for transporting munitions in 2018.) (Associated Press photo)







9 thoughts on “WWII weapons in Yemen’s civil war

  1. An excellent article, as usual! One note though, the rifle identified as a “ butchered m1891 mosin nagant” under close inspection is actually some variety of No1 Enfield. Its the last photo under the mosin section


  2. As above, I agree and appreciate the excellent work here and yes, the third photo in the Mosin section has an Enfield on the far left mis-identified as an M1891.


  3. I have a thought on the Polish karabinek wz. 29s used in Yemen and if they are actually the wz. 29 model. You wrote the Kingdom of Hejaz existed until 1926, so they couldn’t have imported the wz. 29 carabine which was manufactured by FB Radom from 1930. Most likely the gun used in Yemen is the karabinek wz. 98, a previous model of a short rifle made for the Polish Army and manufactured from 1925. However, the wz. 29 might have arrived in Yemen from Saudi Arabia as the Saudis purchased 13000 of these guns.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent article. I’d like to make one correction though. The rifle displayed outside in Israel is not a K98k but rather a Gewehr 98 as evidenced by the Lange vizier rear sight and the lack of any sling cut out in the buttstock.

    Liked by 1 person

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