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The Nigeria-Biafra War (13) Revival of Biafra’s Airforce

Culled from “Nigeria
Too Hard to Hold,”
By Prof. Peter Okorie
(Copies available at Assumpta
Bookshop Owerri, OCS Building,
IMSU. Cost N3000. Contact:
07036465863, 08037061402)

Published

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The Nigeria-Biafra War (6) More Tough Fighting – Year 1968

As previously mentioned, the Biafran Airforce at the beginning of hostilities consisted of two old planes – one B.25 and one B.26 – as well as three new helicopters adapted for dropping bombs. One of the planes, the B.25, never really fought, being too old to fly. Later, a Biafran order for three fighter planes was successful but the planes had no wings, confirming that Biafra was depending on black market deals. No Government would donate a plane without a wing! Meanwhile, the Egyptian and North Korean pilots in their MiGs and Ilyushins were bombing civilian targets indiscriminately. The Commander of the 3rd Marine Commando Division (3MCDo), Col. Benjamin Adekunle, was reported to have said:

I do not want to see any Red Cross and Caritas, any World Council of Churches any Pope, any Mission, or any United Nation Delegation. I want to prevent even one Ibo (sic) having even one piece to eat before their capitulation…. We shoot at everything, even at things that don’t move.50 It was like these foreign pilots had this dictum as a motto. They even shot down a small aircraft, clearly marked ‘Red Cross’, as it was lifting relief materials from Sao Tome to Uli airport. There was no difference between military and civilian targets as far as the pilots were concerned. They just dropped their bombs whenever they detected or suspected human presence. In one such dastardly raid on 27 April, 1968 in Aba, a total of 148 civilians, mainly women and children died. Mr. Wallace Norris, in his report to Sunday Times, London of April 28, 1968, described the bombing scene as: ‘sights to scorch the mind and sicken the conscience’.

It was a similar air raid on civilian population on Christmas day 1968 in Umuahia that triggered the activities that revived Biafra’s Airforce. The attack itself on a Christmas day, the most celebrated Christian festival, exposed the religious bias of the pilots and their commanders. On that bloody Wednesday, 25 December, 1968 the Nigerian war planes flew over 50 sorties dropping bombs and firing rockets all over Umuahia. Incidentally a Swedish nobleman called Count Carl Gustaf von Rosen witnessed the carnage and, in fact, assisted in retrieving victims from the rubble. It turned out that the Count was himself a pilot with expertise in Mono-engine planes. So embittered, he offered his services to Biafra and successfully sold to Biafra the idea of fighting the Nigerian Airforce asymmetrically by the use of light mono-engine planes. According to Count Von Rosen, some of the excellent advantages of these mono-engine planes included their cheap cost (only about £5,000 a piece), low maintenance costs and easy maneuverability. Thus, they could land and take off anywhere and, because they could fly at tree top level, it was difficult to detect and target them from the ground. Thus Biafra acquired five light mono-engine planes called Minicon. Biafran engineers with the assistance of the manufacturers modified the planes for military use. First the fuel tanks had to be enlarged to extend the flight distance. Next, the wings were fitted with rocket pods. For a mono-plane initially not designed for military use, these adaptations needed top class expertise to reduce likely aerodynamic drag, if the planes were to remain agile in combat. Count von Rosen nicknamed this minicom fleet – the Biafran Babies.

The ‘Biafran Babies’ were highly effective in destroying enemy planes on the ground, disrupting shipping and inflicting very heavy casualties on Nigerian ground troops. They did pick their ground targets accurately as they flew very low, sometimes seen just a few metres above palm trees canopies. Their first surprise raid was on Port Harcourt airport vwhere they destroyed one Russian MiG fighter and two Ilyushin bombers on the tarmac. Count von Rosen himself led the attack in one of the minicons while Biafran crewmen piloted the supporting minicons. The Biafran pilots now took over operations, conducting similar raids in Enugu and Benin Airports, the Port Harcourt refinery and the Ughelli Power Station. In four days of operation, the asymmetric and surprising confrontation by the Biafran Airforce destroyed eleven enemy planes as well as control towers in Port Harcourt, Enugu and Benin. Port Harcourt refinery was set on fire while Ughelli Power Station was knocked out. Nigeria and her allies were in shock. It was like the Biafran Babies had hit more military targets in four days than the Nigerian airforce could do in two years.

The Biafran Babies were equally effective in giving close ground support for Biafran infantry. For instance, in an estimated brigade strength attack at Awlaw by Nigerian troops, the Biafran 53 Brigade under the command of Lt. Colonel Nsudoh was able to rout the Federal forces largely due to the role of the minicons. The only thing the minicons could not do was to challenge the Nigerian MiGs and Ilyushins in the sky or go beyond Benin, Port Harcourt and Enugu due to their limited fuel tank and flight distance. But they could sneak into an airport and knock out a ‘sleeping’ MiG or Ilyushin, akin to the infusion of malaria parasites by a mosquito on a sleeping man. Classical asymmetric confrontation! Countess von Rosen, the wife of Count von Rosen, would later recall: ‘He told me he was going to Biafra… but he didn’t say he would be bombing MiGs’.

The Invasion of Umuahia

In the early months of 1969 the usual debates in BBC resumed on another final push in Biafra to end the war. The BBC debates gave details on how the final push would proceed and even suggested that the Federal troops would capture Umuahia as a wedding gift to Gowon. Thus the visit of the Prime Minister of Great Britain himself, Mr. Harold Wilson, to Lagos was not taken lightly. Promptly the First Division of the Nigerian army started the Umuahia offensives on 27th March, 1969. The attack came from two points; this time in form of pincer movement that would culminate at Umuahia. One of the Federal armies came in from the Okigwe-Uturu axis while the other headed to take Uzuakoli. Uzuakoli was of strategic military importance, not just as a gateway to Umuahia, but as the site of the refinery constructed by Biafran engineers which had been providing diesel, petrol and kerosene for the war effort. There was a general feeling in Biafra that the battle of Umuahia would be the last: a victory at Umuahia would mark the turning point while a defeat would mark the end of the resistance. Thus every person wanted to be part of the epic battle. In the words of General Alexander Madiebo, Commander of the Biafran Army:

Hundreds of civilian leaders, both men and women, braved the dangers of the battlefield as they poured into my Tactical Headquarters to be given assignments. That was the Biafran spirit for the impending battle which, to many, was to be the last major battle of the war. Everyone wanted to be associated with that battle and this made control very difficult if not impossible.

By the end of March, the Federal forces were in full control of Uzuakoli. Expectedly, Biafra’s counter-attack was ferocious. The armoured car captured at Oguta, ‘Oguta Boy’ was around with the Biafran 8 Commando Brigade. Uzuakoli was recaptured and the Federal forces withdrew to Uzuakoli bridge. After a week they attacked Uzuakoli again.

‘Oguta Boy’ was destroyed but luckily the crew survived. This turned the scale in favour of the Federal forces. The movement of the Nigerian forces from Uzuakoli to Umuahia was again met by stiff resistance by the Biafran 8 Commando Brigade. In the ensuing battle the Commandos used ‘Ogbunigwe’ mine to demobilize an enemy ferret armoured car. The shock of the explosion killed the crew of the ferret car. Also a lone antitank gun with only two rounds was used to knock out an incoming armoured personnel carrier. These were later captured and commissioned into the Biafran Army. The armoured car was named ‘Uzuakoli Boy’ while the armoured personnel carrier was named ‘Ndidi’ (Igbo: Patience).

In desperation, the Nigerian Airforce stepped up massive and indiscriminate bombardment of Umuahia and environs with napalm, high explosive and demolition bombs.54 Napalm is an incendiary mixture of a gelling agent and a volatile petrochemical such as petrol or diesel fuel. The term Napalm is an acronym from naphthenic acid and palmitic acid, two of the constituents of the gelling agents. Seen as an excessively incendiary device, many countries feel strong moral compunction about use of napalm bombs. Those who witnessed these bombings in Biafra, especially on civilian populations, were therefore surprised that such bombs could be used in a war meant to re-unite fighting brothers. The Federal forces finally entered Umuahia on 22 April, albeit at a staggering human cost, estimated at over 10,000 dead and wounded. The Federal forces were never in full control of Umuahia till the end of the war, as the Biafran forces continued effective raids on their locations in the town. Predictions that the fall of Umuahia would mark end of Biafra again did not materialize. Ojukwu relocated the seat of government to Etiti, a few kilometers southwards, and the struggle continued.

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