The Biafran War
|Locals in south east Nigeria in 1968 during the peak of the Biafra war. (AP-Photo/RJS/stf/Kurt Strumpf)
During the duration of the conflict, both side made use of mercenaries heavily but a more notable hired gun was Count Carl Gustaf Ericsson von Rosen a Swedish aviator and mercenary pilot. He flew relief missions in a number of conflicts as well as combat missions for Biafran rebels. He proposed a grand plan of using light aircraft like the MFI-9 to support ground troops and for other roles such as Reconnaissance and food aid drops. Lynn Garrison a lead Biafran pilot describes his experiences and hopes while fighting for the Biafran side.
Lynn Garrison (born April 1, 1937) is a Canadian pilot and political adviser. He was a Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot in the 403 City of Calgary Squadron, before holding jobs as a commercial pilot, film producer, director and mercenary. Later he became a political adviser in Haiti, and is now an author. With regard to flying, Garrison is known for his oft-repeated comment, “If it has fuel and noise, I can fly it.”
During the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970), Garrison joined a group of mercenaries fighting for the Biafrans in their effort to create an independent state. In May 1969, Carl Gustaf von Rosen formed a squadron of five Malmö MFI-9 MiniCOIN small piston-engined aircraft (armed with rocket pods and machine guns) known as the Babies of Biafra, which attacked and destroyed Nigerian jet aircraft on the ground and delivered food aid. Garrison coordinated the attacks, destroying an Ilyushin Il-28 bomber and a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 fighter aircraft. He also introduced a supply-dropping procedure (learned in northern Canada). A bag of grain was enclosed in a larger bag before dropping. When the load hit the ground the inner bag would rupture, while the outer bag contained the contents. Many lives were saved through air drops using this simple concept… (Wikipaedia)
- Tell us a little about yourself Sir.
At the moment, I am in Haiti where I have been involved, one way or another, since 1980 when I came here to do a film on Voodoo. I have been very active in this nation’s affairs, including the time when I lived with their military (1991 – 1994) as the bridge between the American embassy and Grande Quartier General during the embargo. I was strategic advisor to General Raoul Cedras, the COMCHIEF.
I have a number of projects that I would like to see work here. One is HARP – Haitian Aerial Reforestation Project -that would see tree seeds scattered with aircraft. The aircraft could also be used for malaria control.
- How did you meet Count Carl Gustaf von Rossen?
Since the age of 17, I have always been involved with aviation and still own the Fokker Triplane that starred in the 1965 film The Blue Max. My son has it in Oregon now.
JAMES BARING/LORD REVELSTOKE: One of my associates was James Baring, of the Baring Bank family. James was an ex-RAF pilot. His father was Lord Revelstoke. James would take the title upon his father’s death.
|Carl Gustaf von Rosen during the biafran war
James owned a 260 civil model that we flew off my grass field outsid of Dublin, Ireland. He and I saw the potential of the Marchetti SF-260 as a military COIN aircraft and convinced the manufacturer of this. The SF-260 Warrior was a result of our proposal. We were also pressing Marchetti for the development of a tandem-seated fighter version, but this did not advance.
We used his civil 260 to practice low-level attack missions around the Irish countryside.
Andre Dehlamende controlled Marchetti distribution from his facility in Gosselies, Belgium. Andre was deeply involved wit a variety of paramilitary projects in Africa. We delivered some SF-260s to Rhodesia during the Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Others went to Singapore.
The Barings owned the Island of Lambey, off the coast of Ireland and had an aviation company LAMBAIR which was the Marchetti dealer for Ireland. James and I used LAMBAIR to sell 12 Marchetti SF-260s to the Irish Air Corps.
James flew my film aircraft in productions when I needed him.
- How did you come to fly for the Biafran Air Force?
Lord Revelstoke was a friend of Ojukwu’s father. James and I met Ojukwu through friends who had attended Sandhurst with him.
My article will reveal some basic elements that have never been discussed. The idea of small aircraft, in small wars, was generated by me during the very early sixties in California and Biafra saw the elements fall together because of my exposure to Von Rosen.
There was a marked lack of combat skills, among the pilots. It is one thing to get up and down. It is an entirely different matter to fly and fire machine guns or rockets with any certainty of hitting anything, without a lot of training and experience. Same goes for dropping bombs. Anyone can salvo a bomb load, but hitting within a useful distance is something else.
Frederick Forsyth was in Biafra, during the conflict. He went on to write Dogs of War, plus The Biafra Story, from his experiences. We both trained in the RCAF, under the NATO Plan, at the same time. And, during the seventies, he lived off the end of my runway, in Ireland, when I was doing feature films.
- What was the true state of the Biafran and Nigerian Air Force then?
It was David against Goliath in Biafra. Unfortunately we had the slingshot and Nigeria had Shell/BP. As you get older you realize how naïve it is to believe in Justice, or simply fairness.
I don’t think people realize the timing of the conflict, so soon after Independence, or the fact that the Nigerian Air Forces was in its infancy. We trained some of the early pilots in Canada.
- What inspired the Biafran Baby concept? Arming light aircraft for attack missions.
It really doesn’t matter now, but history credits Count Gustav von Rosen as being the overall creator of the Biafra Babies concept. This was not the case. He was the final initiator for the acquisition of the 5 surplus MFI-9s in Sweden, after I had outlined our concept of armed light aircraft, operating off roads, unprepared fields…..etc. To Ojukwu. Von Rosen possessed the Swedish contacts through which to purchase the aircraft.
Von Rosen had no real concept of the dynamics involved with accurate, low-level rocket attacks or, for that matter, low-level navigation. It is one thing to fly with radio compasses and altitude and quite another to operate at 100 feet with nothing more than a map in your lap and a course in your mind. Things happen very fast and one small mistake can spoil everything.
John Fairey, of the Fairey Aircraft family, was also one of my film pilots. He had contacts within the French aviation industry and was instrumental in acquiring French government support for supply of MATRA rocket pods and rockets.
James Baring’s banking contacts helped with some funding, although this upset his father. The UK government/Shell/BP were firmly behind the Nigerian government and Lord Revelstoke almost had a stroke. Lord Revelstoke was in charge of a European commission to stamp out “barter deals.” He was also upset when I proposed Marchetti provide Ireland the SF-260s in exchange for potatoes, Irish whiskey, mutton and Aron knit sweaters, since the Irish government was short of funds.
The entire Biafran effort was a sort of “old boys network” with pilots from all over Europe and America lending a hand.
One of my directors, Bud Mahurin, got the USAF leadership interested. They offered the loan of 4 Boeing C-97 freighters to create an air bridge into Biafra. At the time Mahurin was a senior level executive in the Apollo Project with North American-Rockwell. Bud was a War Two/Korea fighter ace.
Russ O’Quinn would coordinate this project for them. Russ was an ex-USAF pilot who had gone into test work after getting out of the air force. Flew with Douglas for 10 years. He finally set up his own company FLIGHT TEST RESEARCH as the first civilian group of its type. I sold him a pair of Canadair F-86s MK6 for his operation.
I was asked to do an on-site survey to check the feasibility. Russ’s team would fly over 1000 sorties in support of the relief effort. He used a lot of pilots drawn from Air America. I think John Lear, Bill Lear’s son, an Air America pilot, flew some missions for Russ O’Quinn, and also Hank Warton, a questionable character who really took a lot of money and worked “against” the Biafrans.
I operated out of Ireland for 11 years and shared a semi-detached residence with their Prime Minister, Jack Lynch, during that period.
- Please tell us about the famous raids against the Nigerian Air Force air fields at Port Harcourt, Enugu, Benin and other small airports.
During the Biafran War a DC-6 operated from Shannon, Ireland to San Tome with food and relief supplies. It was flown by a guy named Lynch, who had a brother, Father Lynch with CONCERN. It would fly into ULI, or other spots, to drop of the load. Return to San Tome, pick up weapons, and fly these into Biafra. It would then return to Ireland for another load, sponsored by the Catholic group CONCERN.
I led the first 4 attacks at very low-level, with some success. The 5th attack was to be against troop concentrations and I declined this mission.We had some vocal debates about committing the aircraft against targets of low-value.
I mapped the tracks out for the team but the formation got lost and didn’t find the target.
I wanted to disrupt the Nigerian infrastructure along with that of the Shell installations. To this end, I targeted a number of petroleum facilities that effectively shut down a great deal of the productive capabilities. Having grown up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada’s oil centre, I was very familiar with refineries, pipeline, pumping stations, and their vulnerabilities.
SHELL/BP was largely responsible for Nigerian support and hitting them made SHELL reconsider is position when Nigeria had them cut off payments to Biafra for oil being exported.
The first 5 missions:
MAY 22 PORT HARCOURT
MAY 24 BENIN
MAY 26 ENUGU
MAY 28 UGHELLI DELTA 1 POWERPLANT
MAY 30 TROOPS – didn’t participate
Later in the year, I believe it was November, we attacked an airfield using some Harvards and the MFI-9s. One of the Harvards was a MK2 Armament trainer that I had flown with the RCAF. I will dig around for more information on this.
It must also be realized that Von Rosen, at that time, was what would be described as an “elderly transport pilot” who told me he was a year from retirement. Ground attack is not something you learn from a brochure. We were faced with an immediate requirement, for immediate action and I was pressed into service, on condition that they left my name out of the game.
The other pilots were not really much above “amateur” level, although keen to try. One has written a book in which he says we fired our rockets from 800 M. My goodness! That is very close to half a mile! At that range the target is a “fly speck” on the windscreen. A slight jiggle on the controls and your rockets would miss, miss, miss.
He also suggests we fired 2 rockets at a time, making sure we destroyed our targets.
Let’s say that saw us take 3 minutes, after firing 2 rockets, to make another decision, and fire another 2. Added up, that gives 18 to 20 minutes a couple of hundred feet above a dangerous place.
One mission like this and all 5 aircraft would be downed by ground fire!
Never this approach. It is the explanation of someone who knows nothing about ground attack, or its inherent dangers. The idea was to get as close as possible, pointing directly at your target, then salvoing all 12 missiles in level flight, about 5 feet above the ground.
I never missed and almost blew myself up a couple of times, but you never, never,never linger over a target at low level. And, the Cardinal Rule is – Never make a second pass! They will be waiting for you!
On several attacks, other pilots salvoed their missiles very early. I can remember being focused on my target ahead, waiting to get into range, and being surprised by clusters of rockets passing me on the left and right.
To prepare, I parked my aircraft, on the ramp, and paced off 300 yards. I then put 2 markers 40 feet apart. This represented the wingspan of a fighter, length of a fighter. On returning to my aircraft I looked through the windscreen, sitting myself in the position I would be in during the attacks, and placed 2 bandaids on the plexiglass, one covering each of the ground markers.
I learned this concept from Wing Commander Joe McCarthy, my OC in RCAF pilot training who few with the Dambusters.
Now, when I was running in on a target, I would know exactly – well almost exactly – when I was 300 yards away.
I never made an attack without destroying something of value. The rockets were expensive and couldn’t be wasted.
- Do you have any regrets fighting for the Biafran side?
The honor is mine. That was a sad period that should have ended differently. The cause was a just one. For that reason we volunteered our assistance. I wish the end had been a different one.
- What inspired the food dropping techniques?
- Can you give us your own true life accounts on the Biafran War.
- Sir, do you still fly currently?
- What challenges did you and your comrades faced during the war?