Lieutenant Gaddafi in Swinging London

The future Libyan dictator had already developed a powerful sense of destiny when he arrived for an army training course in 1966

Michael Cockerell

Forty-five years ago Lieutenant Muammar Gaddafi was photographed walking down Piccadilly on his only visit to Britain. It was April 1966 and Gaddafi, then aged 23, had come over to be trained by the British Army. “I put on my Al-Jird [Arab robes] and went to Piccadilly,” Gaddafi said later. “I was prompted by a feeling of challenge and a desire to assert myself.”

The young Libyan did not think much of swinging London. He resisted the blandishments all around him to eat at Charles Forte’s new Friar Tuck snack house, to buy trendy men’s gear from Smart and Weston or to see Michael Craig in Funny Girl at the Prince of Wales Theatre. “I did not explore the cultural life in London,” said Gaddafi who, according to his official biographer, “felt alienated by the people shoving past each other and scurrying in and out of endless rows of bars, restaurants and other places of entertainment.”

The photograph on the facing page of the young Gaddafi was taken by one of his fellow Libyan officers on the training course. I first saw it at the surrogate Libyan embassy in Washington DC in 1986. I was there filming for BBC Panorama in the aftermath of President Reagan’s bombing raid on Gaddafi’s Tripoli headquarters. Reagan had identified the Colonel, who had seized power in a coup in Libya 17 years earlier, as a prime sponsor of international terrorism-“the mad dog of the Middle East”.

The US had cut off diplomatic relations with Libya in 1980 and sent its diplomats packing. But Gaddafi had managed to set up an “information office”, guarded by hard-eyed men, close to the Capitol. Reagan’s bombing of Tripoli had been highly controversial in Britain, from where Mrs Thatcher had enthusiastically permitted the F-111s to take off. This, I felt, gave the Gaddafi-in-Piccadilly photograph a certain piquancy; and I acquired a copy from one of the officials at the information office, along with further and better particulars of the Brother Leader’s time in Britain.

In the London of 1966, an Arab wearing traditional robes was still a rare sight. His official biography published in Tripoli claimed that as Gaddafi walked from Piccadilly Circus, “eyebrows were raised and remarks exchanged by curious passers-by”. Gaddafi himself found Piccadilly “an anonymous, faceless place with the people going in all directions and not taking any single path”. 

The young lieutenant began to revise his opinion about Britain, “a country he had been taught during his elementary school days was so great”. 

At the time Libya was ruled by King Idris, an ally of the West. Gaddafi was sent here as a graduate from the Royal Benghazi Military Academy to be trained, not at Sandhurst-as is often reported-but on a five-month course at the Army School of Education at Wilton Park in Beaconsfield. During the Second World War, Wilton Park had been used as a top-secret interrogation centre for prisoners of war. Its main building, where Gaddafi was taught, was a three-storey Palladian mansion, known, ironically in view of later developments, as the White House.

Before arriving in England, Gaddafi had already aroused the suspicions of the British Military Mission in Libya. He had developed a strong sense of destiny and had cultivated a number of zealously Islamic young officers who shared his hero-worship of Colonel Nasser of Egypt. And he had indented for signals equipment considerably more powerful than his unit needed.

At Beaconsfield, Gaddafi resented being questioned by his military instructor about his opinion of Arab nationalism. He later said of the instructor: “He was a British Major of Norwegian origin. He represented to us the typical ugly British colonialist. It was obvious that he hated the Arabs. He asked many questions concerning our national feelings.” Gaddafi refused to incriminate himself, pretending he did not understand English to avoid answering.

Gaddafi and his fellow Libyan officers on the course were, according to his official biographer, subjected to “endless bitterness, hostility, scorn and mockery, and as if to rub salt into an already gaping wound, nobody seemed even remotely reluctant to make any secret of their prejudice against the Libyans.” His instructors from those days have different recollections. “Gaddafi was rather a nice chap,” says one. “He even sent me a Christmas card when he got back to Libya.” And a senior officer, who later served at the Ministry of Defence, said: “Gaddafi certainly wasn’t the most ghastly hooligan we’d seen at Beaconsfield.” He added with a rueful smile: “He gave us no reason to poison him while he was there.”

Gaddafi himself said in a later interview that while he hated the drabness and dirtiness of London, he fell for the scenic charms of the Home Counties: “Britain was the first foreign country I visited in my life. I had not even visited an Arab country. I loved the country life and the villages-Beaconsfield and High Wycombe. I also visited the Palace of Windsor. It was beautiful.” But he added: “After my stay in Britain, the idea I had about it changed. I had thought they were advanced while we were backward. But I returned more confident and proud of our values, ideals and social character.”

Three years after his walk down Piccadilly, Gaddafi followed a tradition of foreign officers trained by the British Army. He made use of his new-found knowledge of signals, communications and intelligence to seize political power in his own country. Along with another group of young officers, he overthrew the ailing King Idris in a bloodless coup and promoted himself to Colonel, the same rank as his Egyptian hero Nasser, and the one he held to his death.

The 1969 coup took the Foreign Office in London by surprise and it sought our man in Tripoli’s assessment of the new leader. The reply, in the National Archive, is to the point: “The simplest conclusion to draw would be that in his vision of himself as a new Arab Messiah, Gaddafi is bordering on the insane.”  

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