Biafra: Killer Cessnas and Crazy Swedes

by Gary Brecher

The eXile asked me to do a special 200th column, something about old wars and new wars, so I thought I'd talk about the bush war building up right now in the Niger River delta in Nigeria. The TV's talking about how the locals are forming an army to make the Nigerian government give them a share of the income from all the oil they've found in the delta, but nobody mentions that this miserable maze of fever swamp was the focus of the biggest war in modern Africa -- the Biafra war.

Nigeria's a typical West African mess of a country, only bigger and meaner. It's divided up the usual way: the coastal tribes are Christianized from sucking up to the European colonists. The further inland you go, the drier, hungrier and more Islamic it gets. The Brits grabbed the Nigerian coastline from the Portuguese when they realized there was money to be made, and turned the two big coastal tribes, the Ibo and the Yoruba, into their overseers on the Nigerian plantations. That left a lot of the inland Muslim tribes, the Hausa-Fulani people of the Sahel, permanently pissed off, sharpening their knives and biding their time.

The Hausa-Faluni got their chance in 1963, when the last Brit in Nigeria hopped on a plane, yelling back to the Natives "Congratulations, chaps! You're independent!" As soon as the Brits bugged out, the tribal massacres got going. Muslims in the north hacked to death every Ibo they could find. They hated these smartasses from the coast -- and now the Redcoats weren't there to stop them from taking revenge. 30,000 Ibos were killed in a few days.

The massacres kind of soured the Ibo on the idea of Nigeria as one big happy intertribal family. In 1967 an Ibo General in the Nigerian Army declared that the Ibo region was now an independent country, "Biafra." The Nigerian Army, a big, sleazy outfit, begged to differ and invaded the Ibo region in SE Nigeria. The Army had 250,000 men. The Biafra/Ibo army had maybe a tenth that many, but they were brave and smart -- the Ibo had always been the brains of Nigeria.

Every time it was a question of real battle on anything like equal terms, the Biafran rebels won. They stopped the government troops cold, then grabbed tactical surprise by staging a long-range raid into Western Nigeria.

A risky advance like that by untrained civilian recruits (which is what most of the Ibo fighters were) is really impressive. But sad to say, courage doesn't count for much in West African warfare. It's ruthlessness that wins these wars, and the Nigerian junta had it.

Instead of facing the Ibo army man to man, the Nigerian troops grabbed the coastline around the Niger River delta, the supply route the Ibo needed. They stopped all food shipments heading for Ibo territory and sat back to let the Ibo starve.

The Biafrans were still winning every battle and losing the war like Lee in 1865 -- starved out, strangled from behind. They realized they needed to open the supply route and decided to take back the Niger delta. And they got some help from outside.

The best example, one of the few real heroes you'll get in this sleazy world, was a Swede, believe it or not. A Swedish aristocrat, no less. Count Carl Gustav von Rosen volunteered to do close air support for the Biafran army, hosing down government troops and raiding their bases, flying tiny civilian prop planes like little Swedish Cessnas.

Is that glorious or what?

The mismatch in the air war was total. The Nigerian AF had MiG-17 fighters and Il-28 bombers, DC 3 transports converted to bombers and a few choppers. Those Ilyushin and MiG designs were the high point of Soviet military aviation. Don't kid yourself -- the Soviets built some great planes. The Il-28 was a big, fast bomber with a bombload of 16,000 pounds and a three-man crew, including a tail gunner manning twin 23mm cannon. You wouldn't want to tailgate one of these.

The MiG-17 was even better. It might have been the best fighter in the world when it went into service in 1953, and even in the mid-sixties it was good enough to win against our Phantom F-4s in dogfights over North Vietnam. US pilots were way more scared of the MiG-17 than the follow-on model, the MiG-21. The slick moves and big cannon of the MiG-17 were one big reason the USAF stopped thinking of fighters as manned SAMs -- all speed and no finesse -- and went back to planes with nose cannon, maneuverability and started teaching air combat at Top Gun schools.

Up against all this big international hardware, the Biafrans had...nothing.

Then this crazy Swede von Rosen came up with the kind of idea that would only work in Africa. Since he couldn't get the Biafrans any jet aircraft, he'd just buy some prop-driven trainers and refit them for combat. Von Rosen is such a great character he almost makes me reconsider hating Swedes. He was a throwback to when the Swedish pikemen turned the tide of the Thirty Years War.

Von Rosen specialized in noble lost causes. Way back in 1938, when he was just a kid, he volunteered to fly for the Finns in their ultra-cool, hopeless fight against the Red Army. The Finns had no bombers so von Rosen just grabbed a civilian airliner, loaded it up with bombs and dropped them on the Reds from the passenger doors.

"Welcome, Comrade passengers! Coffee, tea or 500 pounds of HE?"

Thirty years later, in August 1968, von Rosen was working as a civilian pilot delivering aircraft to Africa. He ran into some priests who were trying to find somebody brave enough to fly medical supplies past the blockade into Biafra. The mercs they'd hired called it off as too dangerous.

Von Rosen volunteered to fly a DC 7 into Biafra with the supplies. The Biafrans were so grateful, and were fighting so bravely against all the odds, that von Rosen warmed to them like he had to the Finns. The Biafrans needed help to deal with the Nigerian AF, which was fighting a nasty war even by African standards. In the whole war, there"s not one case of the Nigerian AF attacking a military target.

That would've been dangerous -- and not nearly as much fun as bombing refugee camps, strafing hospitals, and napalming fleeing civilians.

Von Rosen tried to find the Ibo some modern military jets, but nobody wanted to sell to the Biafrans for fear of upsetting the Nigerian government, a much bigger customer. So von Rosen started thinking about small prop-driven aircraft. There's a long history of using slow prop planes in bush warfare. Even the USAF, which has a major hard-on for afterburners and chrome, was forced to adopt a slow, armored CAS plane, the A-10. They hated it at first but it proved itself in both Gulf Wars, when fancy toys like the Army's dog of an AH, the Apache, left the field with its tail between its legs. In Nam, the classic jungle air war, we used two planes that were slow as molasses but did the job. One of the best and ugliest was the A-1 Skyraider, a chunky WW II style plugger. The USAF hated it and was always trying to twist combat reports to make the F-4 look good and the Skyraider look bad, but pilots agreed: you were better off going in low and slow in a Skyraider than zooming by in an F-4.

Even the Skyraider was like an SR-71 compared to the little putt-putt plane von Rosen built his force around: the MFI-9, a tiny prop-driven Swedish trainer that looks like those ultralights people build in their garages. This plane could park in subcompact spaces at the Stockholm mall. It had a maximum payload of 500 pounds -- me plus a couple of medium sized dogs. Lucky those Swedes are so skinny.

Von Rosen bought five of these little "Fleas" down the coast in Gabon, slapped on a coat of green VW paint to make them look military, and installed wing pods for unguided 68mm unguided anti-armor rockets. Then he and his pilots -- three Swedes and three Ibo -- flew them back to Biafra and into combat.

They blew the Hell out of the Nigerian AF and army. These little Fleas were impossible to bring down. Not a single one was knocked out of the sky, although they"d buzz home riddled with holes. They flew three missions a day and their list of targets destroyed included Nigerian airfields, power plants, and troop concentrations.

The Fleas turned their weaknesses into advantages in true guerrilla style. They were so slow that they had to fly real low -- which made them almost impossible to hit in the jungle, since you never saw them till they were on top of you. The low speed made for better aim: almost half the 400 68mm rockets they fired hit their targets, which is an amazing score for unguided AS munitions. (There used to be a joke in the USAF that if it wasn't for the law of gravity, unguided AS rockets couldn"t even hit the ground.)

The Biafran AF managed to destroy three MiG-17s and an Il-28 on the ground. Killing enemy planes on the ground may not be as glorious as shooting them down in a dogfight, but they're just as destroyed. The Fleas also took out a couple of helicopters, an airport tower, a Canberra bomber and a half-dozen supply trucks. And they blew away at least 500 Nigerian troops. It was one of the few really glorious exploits you get in war these days. Why they haven"t made a movie of it, I don't know. Guess they think we"d rather see tennis pros fall in love or some shit like that.

Von Rosen's Fleas weren't enough to turn the tide of the war. The rest of the world turned their backs on the Ibo, let the Nigerians starve them into submission. The USSR sold the Nigerians every plane, tank and gun they could cram into their shopping cart, and the British loaned their pilots to fly as Nigerian AF mercs, bombing Biafran civvies and blowing up convoys bringing food and meds to the Ibo villages.

The famine in Biafra was the first time we saw pictures of African kids with skeleton arms and legs and big balloon bellies looking up at the camera. It was easy to get shots like that in Biafra, because the whole country was starving.

A year into the war, the Ibo had nothing left. No food, no ammo, not even fuel, which is ironic when they were sitting on the big Niger delta oilfiends.

Even the bravest troops can't fight when they're dying of starvation. So in 1969 the Nigerian Army sent 120,000 men pushing through the center of Biafra, dividing the Ibo zone in half. It was like Sherman"s march to the sea -- it broke the Biafrans' backs. Early in 1970 Biafra surrendered. Nobody knows how many people died. The low guess is a million, the high ones maybe three millions. Almost all were Ibo civilians.

The Nigerians punished the Ibo for their uppity behavior by freezing them out of the loot they got from oil revenues and other graft, the one industry in Nigeria. For 30 years the Ibo have been watching the oil pumped out of their land to buy more Mercedes for a bunch of sleazy generals and politicians. They've got a right to be pissed off -- but the Biafra war showed them that in Africa, right ain't got much to do with it. Like the greatest Swede of 'em all used to say, "God is on the side of the big battalions."



BIAFRA: The Fall of Aba

Evidence Of Anti-Igbo Pogrom And Eye Witness Accounts: Essays

Benjamin Adekunle Shooting at Everything

Fleas versus Falcons over Biafra