Blunders of the Nigerian Civil War-7


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Federal Nigerian Army Blunders of the Nigerian Civil War - Part 7

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Nowa Omoigui



OWERRI, 1969 [Part 7]




In his fine book “Epic Retreats – From 1776 to the Evacuation of Saigon” Stephen Tanner analyses retreat under pressure in seven military campaigns. They are General George Washington’s retreat from New York in 1776 during the American revolution, Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812, and the great retreat of the Nez Perce Indians of the American West in 1877.  Others are the evacuation of British expeditionary troops from Dunkirk in 1940, retrograde operations of the 1st Panzer army in the Caucasus in 1942, and the harrowing retreat of the American 8th Army from the Pusan perimeter in Korea in late 1950.  Lastly, he reviewed the chaotic evacuation of Saigon in 1975 by American forces retreating from Vietnam.  


However, the specific accounts of fighting withdrawals discussed in Tanner’s excellent book are by no means the only great examples from which serious students of military history can draw lessons.  In my humble opinion, two specific examples of breakouts from encirclement deserve particular emphasis.  They are:


1.  The breakout of General W. J. Slim’s Burma Corps from Japanese encirclement at Rangoon and 900 mile retreat to Imphal (in India) under pressure in 1942.


2.   The break out of the 1st US Marine Division under Brigadier General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller from Chinese encirclement at the Chosin reservoir, under sub-arctic conditions in mountainous terrain during the Korean War, between November 27th and December 9th, 1950.


It is with these accounts, among others at the back of my mind, that I now return to the subject of this essay.


Choices open to the 16th Brigade at Owerri


Faced with encirclement, the 16th Brigade had a number of choices. 


First, they could continue their attack northwards, deep along the original axes hoping to attain the initial grand objectives of ‘Operation OAU’ and relieve their sister Brigades in the process.  As noted previously, this option was briefly pursued and then terminated.


Secondly, they could hold their position in Owerri and environs and defend encircled, as they did for many months.  This was based not only on their original operational orders in September 1968 but also the direction of AHQ, confirmed by a “stand and fight” radio signal from the C-in-C, Major General Gowon himself in February 1969.   It did seem that higher national pride (not to mention the need to maintain the aura of the 3MCDO and protect Colonel Adekunle’s image) was involved in the decision not to allow Owerri to be abandoned.   Military factors in favor of this option included the built in advantage of defending an urban area, equipped with armored vehicles (which the besieging Biafrans did not have).    These vehicles included Saracen Armoured Personnel Carriers, Ferret and Saladin Armored cars, which gave Etuk a fire power and mobility advantage using “interior lines” for rapid support by force transfer from his core support area of all round front-line positions in the “hedgehog”. In any case, if and when he had to break out he could rupture the encirclement by sheer armored force.  In support of this optimistic thinking was the initial assumption that the Brigade could be supported by air, reinforced and relieved before certain destruction by the Biafran armed forces.   The absence of Biafran air power and the curious initial Biafran strategy of attacking with one infantry Brigade at a time from only one direction in a sequential manner rather than a simultaneous all round assault encouraged such thinking.  All Etuk had to do was “jab” with his front-line infantry positions and support artillery before delivering a powerful “counter-punch” using armored vehicles concentrated on the attacking force at the point of threatened penetration. The last factor that gave Etuk initial confidence was the federal effort to para-drop supplies, supported by occasional strafing and bombing of Biafran positions by NAF L-29, Mig-17 and Ilyushin fighter jets and bombers. 


However, the Biafrans soon settled in for an alternative strategy. In between infantry assaults, harassing artillery fire and long range snipers gradually reduced the 16th Brigade by continuous external pressure through attrition.  This approach enabled the besieging Biafran units to conserve men and perhaps redeploy them for emergencies in other fronts.  But it had the disadvantage of using up a lot of ammunition in an endless orgy of repeated bombardments, which, although murderous and highly effective, were ultimately insufficient to compel Etuk to surrender.  It also allowed the siege to drag on.  The “penetration” attempt by Colonel Achuzia failed because it used only one frontal axis.  Eventually, 14 Division Commander, Colonel Ogbugo Kalu, supported by Major General Madiebo, armed with intimate knowledge of Etuk’s hopeless situation, correctly chose to attack, penetrate and exploit along multiple converging axes with little fear that Etuk – desperately short of men and supplies - could inflict punishment in retaliation.  This combination of fire and maneuver eventually forced Etuk to choose between surrender, displacement, or complete destruction.  When that point was reached, then Lt. Col. EA Etuk, with the support of his second-in-command, Major AT Hamman, decided they would ignore the suicidal orders of the 3MCDO HQ and AHQ to “hold until relieved.”  They decided they would either break out or exfiltrate to the rear, in the direction of friendly 3MCDO forces.


Indeed, Biafran sources are of the opinion that Etuk considered this line of action at least three times. Two of these occurred in March when he first realized encirclement was total on or about March 7th, and then later in the month had to beat back ferocious efforts by the “S” Division to penetrate and divide his forces.   Russian and German forces often did this to encircled enemy units during WW2.   However, on each occasion impatient Biafran units rushed into the Owerri pocket in frontal pursuit to take advantage, only to be badly beaten back when Etuk suddenly reconfigured his armor for counter-attack.


There is some evidence that Biafran units used the technique of selective reduction of strong points.  On February 10th, for example, Ojukwu claims that 500 Russian automatic rifles and 100 boxes of ammunition were secured from one of the 16th Brigade’s defensive positions.  Madiebo does not, however, make any comment that such a vast haul of weapons was secured.  In any case, organized systematic selective reduction targeted at large groups of key battlefield assets did not occur.   This would have involved choosing one of Etuk’s main ‘teeth’ arm detachments, such as armor, for example, (or artillery) and then destroying that first (as a whole) before focusing on other combat and combat support elements. One reason was that Etuk usually withdrew his armored vehicles back into center of the Owerri pocket after using them for a counter-attack.  He never left them open.  The other reason was the shortage of appropriate anti-tank weaponry.  It does, however, seem that there were efforts at reduction by infiltration which involved penetrating the perimeter with small commando units designed to isolate small elements of the 16th brigade from their parent unit.  


During pauses between attacks, such as was the case when Ojukwu called off Achuzia’s penetration attack, Biafran Commanders supported their attrition strategy with continuous reconnaissance probes and psychological operations (psyops).  Examples of psyops include the case of the female Captain who regularly showed up in full view of federal troops to hail “Biafra Kwenu” and the choice of nighttime to do most of the shelling of federal positions in Owerri.  In addition, inadvertently routing the final approach to over-fly Owerri of early morning relief aircraft bringing ammunition to Uli-Ihiala airstrip before daybreak sent an unmistakable message to the besieged forces.   They also had to live with the knowledge that most of the federal para-dropped ammunition and food meant for them were going to their tormentors.   They even had to fight for the little they got!  Then there were the sniper shots, slowly but surely killing all the leadership figures in the Brigade.  All of this was backed up by electronic measures such as federal communications interception.   On the flip side, Ojukwu visited Biafran units besieging Owerri at least twice in the month of March, raising morale and getting involved in tactical decisions.


Relevant developments outside Owerri


On the federal side and international front, other developments ultimately impacted the Owerri situation.    At the February meeting in Lagos of divisional commanders mentioned earlier, a semblance of coordination was urged.  But deep mistrust and rivalry remained.  Colonel Adekunle, for example, did not tell his fellow divisional commanders (ie Colonels Shuwa and Ibrahim Haruna) in the 1st and 2nd divisions the full extent of his Owerri dilemma.  Instead, the meeting focused on resolving the question of which Division would be given the task of taking Umuahia, following Adekunle’s disaster in October 1968 when he tried doing so on his own to beat Shuwa to it and end the war.


Therefore, rather than instructing the 1st Division to relieve the 16th Brigade directly by attacking Owerri from Okigwe which is 30 miles away (as the crow flies) in the north-easterly direction, Shuwa was told to veer southwest to take Umuahia, then administrative capital of Biafra. This clarified an old dispute with Adekunle but did not directly address the Owerri situation.  In retrospect, although Umuahia was highly significant, if Shuwa had successfully attacked Owerri (rather than Umuahia) in early 1969, in coordination with a southern assault on Owerri from Port Harcourt by 3MCDO, both divisions would have relieved the beleaguered 16th Brigade. They would also have divided Biafra into two, separating the Biafran capital at Umuahia from its resupply airfield at Uli-Ihiala in the west.  Chances are that the war – with its horrendous losses - may have been shorter. 


The fall of Umuahia to the 1st Division will be discussed in detail in a future essay.  In summary, Colonel Shuwa tasked the commanders of 1 and 2 Sectors (later called Brigades) of the 1st Division to take Umuahia and Bende respectively.  Under the command of 1 Sector Commander, Lt. Col. ADS Wya, the plan for the fall of Umuahia – code-named Operation Leopard - was drawn up by his Brigade Major, Major Abdullahi Shelleng and the Sector Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General  (DAQMG), Major Mamman Jiya Vatsa. 


Meanwhile, the other brigades of Adekunle’s 3MCDO division had reorganized and recaptured Mkpom, Usung-Ubum, Ikot-Abia and Ikot Obom on February 3rd, followed on March 20th and 27th by the recapture of Umudike and Aba Ala earlier lost in the Biafran counter-offensive of 1968.  The Colonel General Staff at 3MCDO HQ at this time was Major George Innih while Lt. Col. Emmanuel Abisoye, a former 2 Sector Commander with the 1st Division, was in charge of 3MCDO (rear) in Lagos, securing supplies for front-line units “by any means necessary”.


On March 27, 1969, with the support of a squadron of armored vehicles under Captain Garba Duba, 11 Field Squadron of Nigerian Army Engineers under Captain Gida Inakusu, “Q” Battery of Nigerian Army Artillery under Captain AB Mamman, and 1 Field Ambulance, five infantry battalions launched the assault on Umuahia.  These battalions, namely the 4th, 21st, 25th, 44th, and 82nd were commanded by Major Ado Mohammed (later replaced by Lt. Steve Samaila Yombe), Major YY Kure, Lt. Balarabe Haladu, Major IB Babangida (later replaced by Major MJ Vatsa) and Major Ibrahim Bako respectively.  NAF fighter-bombers later assisted in close air-support although there were a few unfortunate incidents of deadly ‘NAF friendly fire’ at Abriba and Uzuakoli.


A Zambian delegation had visited Biafra from March 13 – 15 followed two weeks later by the British PM’s visit to Nigeria.  When the objective of ‘Operation Leopard’ became evident, Ojukwu started desperately mobilizing soldiers and resources from all corners of what remained of Biafra (including Owerri) to save Umuahia, eventually stalling but not stopping Col. ADS Wya’s advance in two weeks of fierce fighting.  During the time, nevertheless, Ezi Alayi, Ovim, Amoyi, Ndi Ihube, Uzuakoli, Isikwuato, Umuokorola and Bende fell to the 1st Division, while elements of the 3rd MCDO took back Umuomayi and Okuenyi on April 4th. This was followed by the recapture of Obetete on April 5th which had been lost only 24 hours earlier.  On April 13th, 3MCDO lost Obokwe again, typical of its extremely labile situation since October 1968. 


Biafra’s final offensive to retake Owerri


Beginning with his visit to Uzuakoli, followed by the precautionary evacuation of the Biafran government from Umuahia to Nkwerre, near Orlu on April 4th up until the fall of Bende on April 14th, Ojukwu became increasingly concerned about the fate of Umuahia, where his bunker was located.  According to Madiebo:


“By the 14th of April, it had become obvious judging from the situation on the ground, that Umuahia was going to be lost.   It was also clear that such an event would destroy completely the will of the Biafran people to continue the war.  It was then that Colonel Ojukwu told me of the need to revive the Owerri operation on the off-chance that we might score a victory there to counter-balance the loss of Umuahia.  The idea was to share the few resources available into two to try and clear what was left of Owerri before it was too late.  The whole idea was a calculated risk worth taking if the Head of State who alone knew what ammunition the nation had, thought so.


On the 18th of April, therefore, the Owerri operations were reopened.  As I was still at Umuahia, I did not know exactly what was available for the offensive.  However, the plan of the operation which was sent to me for approval, showed that the 60 Brigade was again to clear the right side of the town up to the Clock Tower and including the Holy Ghost College, the Catholic Cathedral and the Progress Hotel.  The 52 Brigade, now under Major Igweze, was to have another go at Orji and the northern part of the town, down to the Public Works Department and the Government Secondary School.  Elements of “S” Division under command of 14 Division in the absence of Onwuatuegwu, who was still at Umuahia, had the task of advancing through Egbu and Nekede into Owerri, as far as to the motor park.”


Far away in Monrovia, Liberia, the OAU consultative committee was meeting on April 17th.  No one knew that history was about to be made on an African battlefield.    Remnants of the 16th Brigade of the 3MCDO that had held Owerri since September 16, 1968 and was at least partially cut off for almost six months since November 1st, and totally besieged since March 14th, were about to break out.  Etuk was finally persuaded not just by Biafra’s equally historic final offensive to retake Owerri, an act that in turn had been prompted by the impending fall of Umuahia to federal units under Col. ADS Wya, but by what transpired inside Owerri on April 19th. 


April 19th, 1968: The Final DC-3 overflight and death of Major A Ted Hamman


On April 19th, Captain Francis Mokonogho and his DC-3 crew lifted off from Port Harcourt airport for yet another routine tactical airdrop over Owerri.  But, unknown to them, fate beckoned.  They flew right into a Biafran offensive.  Biafran anti-aircraft gunners were no longer in the mood to accept the free aerial gifts from the federal government, nor were they going to allow Etuk the luxury of any more ammunition or food, no matter how small.  Thus, they shot at the plane furiously, forcing Mokonogho to abort its final approach and turn around to Port Harcourt with its cargo.  He barely made it back.  The DC-3 was badly riddled with bullet holes.  It would be the last attempt by the 3MCDO to resupply its beleaguered brigade. 


Back in Owerri, Etuk, now at his wit’s end, was faced with the penetration of Biafran units, so close in one axis that they were nearly upon his HQ.  He called his trusted second in command and Brigade Major (Hamman) aside for urgent consultations.   They agreed – without reference to 3MCDO HQ or AHQ - that a last ditch effort to breakout towards the rear with all they had was only the only credible option.  Surrender was out of the question.


As of this time, the surviving troops of the 16th brigade had acquired the “thousand yard stare.”  As described by a survivor of the American break out from the Chosin reservoir in Korea, the stare results from a combination of tiredness, sleeplessness, and fear, combined, paradoxically, with a strong will to survive.  When men get into that condition, they are fighting for no one but themselves and their buddies, not any country or imaginary ideal.  For many months, the Brigade had endured chronic sleep deprivation, repeated mortar and 105mm artillery barrages, short, but repeated violent firefights back and forth in and out of foxholes and buildings with shot guns, rifles and machine guns.  Practically every building in the town had been destroyed.  Then there were the deaths of numerous colleagues, impromptu burials, personal injuries, near death experiences, rain, hunger, cold, heat, insect bites, separation from family, the emotional highs and lows of relief over-flights and DC-3 air drops, the stench, and worst of all, a suspicion that they had been abandoned. 


 According to Colonel Etuk (rtd),


“My decision to withdraw wasn’t proper. The Army Headquarters should [ordinarily] give me the go-ahead but I did [without authority] and said let me be court-martialled when I am out with my troops.  [If] I didn’t do that, it would have meant complete elimination of the whole troops and that was what Ojukwu was waiting to do. If not through hunger it would have been through torture by whatever means he chose to use. But the Army Headquarters did little or nothing to get me as a Brigade Commander out of that place. What sort of battle organization is that?  So I said to myself, ‘When I come out let them put me on trial.’  But they didn’t do it; maybe they knew that that was the only way to save the few lives I was able to…..”


“…..the rebels had penetrated into the town where my headquarters was situated and so the firing was so close; as we are sitting here you will just hear deafening sounds. One should not stay at a position for too long for the time may turn out to be enough for the enemy to kill you….”


“So one Sunday morning, when the rebels were almost at my headquarters and we were doing nothing because there was nothing we could do then – no ammunition, the men were gone, no weapons – I called the attention of others and said to them: 


“We have to pull out of this place to see what we can do next week to save a few lives remaining”


So we set out towards Emmanuel College.  We were all determined to get out of the place, be it a cook, a washerman; in fact, every one of us with or without a weapon.  As we left, within 30 minutes after the decision, I heard a cry,


“Oga, come oh! Oga come oh!  Dem don kill Oga oh!”


Behold, he was shot right there.  The man was gasping for breath. He had a very large wound. If the road had been opened and if we had immediate medical attention, possibly his life might have been saved.   There weren’t even drugs. The doctor I had was just sitting and watching while the man died. 


“…before the poor boy died, he [Major Hamman] said,


“Oga, Allah, Allah, if I see Adekunle I will finish him. Adekunle is the man that has caused this.”


I said, “Well, we cannot say, but all we should be thinking is to be able to leave this place if it is possible.”


Coming as it did at the tail end of the siege, after a preliminary decision had been made to plan a break out, the death of the competent and popular Major Ted Hamman was absolutely devastating for unit morale.  It stretched the cohesion of the unit to the limit and sorely tested the command and leadership skills of Etuk.  The next day, April 20, 1969, Ojukwu made an entry in his diary, documenting the Biafran interception of weak federal radio transmissions from Owerri alerting 3MCDO HQ of Major AT Hamman’s death.  However, 3MCDO HQ did not notify AHQ of the development.  For the Biafran side, Hamman’s death was a signal that before long the 16th brigade might simply collapse.


Meanwhile, according to Colonel Etuk (rtd):


“The death of that young man forced me to take a decision of praying to God that if He is the God that delivered the children of Israel from Egypt then He should deliver my troops.  Of course, God delivered us.”


The plan for the Breakout


Having left the decision to break out until so late in the game, the 16th Brigade was in the unenviable position of attempting it when already severely drained of its human and material resources. 


Then Lt. Col. Etuk’s first priority was to determine possible escape routes through weak points and gaps in Biafran lines while at the same continuing to give the impression that he was maintaining all round defence.  The timing would have to be precise to prevent the encircling forces from sealing off his escape route or launching a final all-out offensive against him before he had the time to escape.  The other potential problem was that since either 3MCDO HQ or AHQ had not actually ordered the breakout, there would be no coordinated assistance from friendly external forces outside the Owerri pocket.  Nor could prospective plans be made for a link-up at that stage of the game. To compound matters, it is not clear that Etuk was reliably informed while in isolation at Owerri, of ongoing federal military operations outside the Owerri area or the precise locations of federal units.  He knew that his sector commander – Colonel Godwin Ally – was based in Port Harcourt, but he also knew that all along the route to Port Harcourt, Biafran soldiers had the habit of wearing the Nigerian uniforms of dead Nigerian soldiers. 


Another big problem was what to do with enemy civilians and prisoners of war (POWs) as well as wounded and dead Nigerian soldiers - from recent skirmishes or sniper activity - who had not yet been buried.  To leave the civilians and POWs behind would simply create an opportunity for the betrayal of operational security.  To shoot them would be illegal and counter-productive, since they may well be useful as “human shields”. As for the dead body of his second-in-command, Major AT Hamman, unit morale and officer bond demanded that he take it along.   Thus, Etuk decided to take everyone along.  The corpse of the late Major Hamman was entrusted to one Captain Buhari, a former NCO who had served in Enugu before the war.


To mislead the Biafrans, Etuk aligned his vehicles in a manner that suggested a breakout along the main road.  Then he decided to launch the effort in the early morning hours before sunrise to exploit the limited visibility.


In the course of all the months of defensive fighting throwing back Biafran attacks from all directions, Etuk had made a number of important observations based on his early warning systems and reconnaissance reports.  Man being a creature of habit, he noticed that there was an axis from which the Biafrans had not attacked for a long time.   Along this bush track there was an old bridge – the only one leading to the town.  Although a retrograde assault river crossing is by no means an easy operation he elected to use it.   He reasoned that it would be an unexpected route – thus exploiting the principle of surprise – and if it succeeded it gave him the best chance of avoiding confrontation with strong Biafran units in the perimeter.


The first step, therefore, was to establish the feasibility of using the planned route.  Elements of the Engineer Squadron attached to the Brigade were sent to reconnoiter the bridge.   Not surprisingly, they discovered that it was heavily mined with explosives and returned to Etuk to report their finding.  He then ordered them back to the bridge under cover of darkness to disarm the explosives.   


According to Etuk:


“They came back sometime later saying they had a successful operation.  The news made me happy because it meant that I had boys who were ready to fight. They said that if we could just cross the river, then we could fight our way all through.” 


Once this was accomplished on April 24th, 1969, Etuk decided it was time to move.  Preoccupied with his own travails, he may have missed the big news that at 1500 hours on April 22nd, the 21 Battalion under Major YY Kure and 44 Battalion under Major MJ Vatsa, both of the 1st Division entered the abandoned town of Umuahia – Biafra’s erstwhile capital.


Late that night (24th/25th), Etuk called his boys and gave the formal order for the Owerri break out.  Excess ammunition that could not be taken along was buried.  Strict radio silence was to be maintained.  The force was organized with armor and artillery leading as the perimeter rupture or breakout force in front of the main body of the convoy. Meanwhile infantry elements folding back from their positions along the perimeter to join the convoy were instructed to fight rearguard and flank action to delay and frustrate any Biafran counter-attack.  An infantry and engineer detachment was told to secure the far end of the riverbank to protect the vital crossing site during the initial stage of breakout.  Because of the lack of resources there were no diversionary attacks.  It was all based on speed, momentum, surprise and stealth.


But the element of surprise was not total.  Biafran forward observers from besieging units knew something was up, although they failed to anticipate the precise route of breakout via a disused old road track.   Fate and luck also played a role.  Etuk may have been helped by a decision made by Madiebo not to attack the breakout force inside Owerri.  Madiebo was concerned that Etuk might suddenly reconfigure and use his armored vehicles with deadly effect – as he had done in the past.


According to Madiebo:


“Right from the very start of his operation, it was clear the enemy was beginning to feel the bite of his over four months of isolation inside Owerri town.  Everywhere his resistance was stiff but shortlived and mainly sustained with armoured vehicles.  From the four corners of Owerri, our troops gradually closed in, and even began to set up road blocks in parts of Owerri.  Yet in the part of the town the enemy occupied, it was still impossible to break through the armour barrier.  That was the situation when I returned to Owerri front in the evening of the  23rd of April, 1969, following the fall of Umuahia the previous day.  The first report I got on my arrival was that the enemy at Owerri had lined up all his vehicles facing southwards, in a manner suggesting a withdrawal.   After a very lengthy discussion of the situation with the Division Commander, I decided it would be better to allow the enemy to leave the town and then attack him somewhere out of Owerri, at a point where we still stood a chance of destroying him.  I thought that for us to put in everything we had against the enemy inside the town could result in our exhausting our limited resources without success, and then run a risk of losing a large part of the town which we already controlled.  For that reason, a battalion of 60 Brigade was despatched to Umuguma to wait for the enemy.  To encourage the enemy to start the move we began to shell his convoy at a very slow rate with the little quantity of bombs we had.  During the month of March, the enemy had on two occasions similarly lined up his vehicles to withdraw from Owerri.  On each of those occasions, we had attacked him and it had resulted in his redeploying to defend himself and successfully too.  This time we were not going to attack him and therefore hoped that he would not change his mind.

During the night of the 24th of April the enemy began to move out of Owerri to the uncontrollable joy of all.  Once out of town, a Biafran company was put on their trail to harass them and hasten the withdrawal.  At Umuguma, the major battle began on the morning of the 25th and the enemy suffered very heavy casualties indeed.  Many vehicles carrying women, children and enemy casualties were allowed to proceed on their journey southwards unmolested.  After 24 hours of heavy fighting the enemy shifted further down to Avu, only to face another biafran force waiting for them there.  After barely four hours encounter at Avu, the enemy moved again further south to Ohoba and there linked up with his counterparts advancing from the south.  Thereafter all attempts to move him again failed, in the same way as did all his attempts to move back from there into Owerri.”


Etuk recalls it differently.  According to him:


“I called my officers and told them, ‘This morning I am calling you, telling you, giving you directive as your Commander that we are leaving Owerri by 6 o’oclock. If you like follow me; if you like stay here;” they laughed and retorted, ‘Oga don come oh! Ah! Oga. Wey the men now to fight the rebels? Wey the weapon? Wey the ammunition?”  I said, ‘Don’t you worry, we are going.’”


So by 6 o’clock we decided to take off; all of us, men, women, rebel prisoners of war etc.  We all moved out of Owerri.  I said within my mind that this is what they call American wonder. Let them sit and wait for me at the tarred road while I use track. There was no time to waste and before long we linked up with [Colonel] Godwin Ally.”


The link-up was not without high drama, however.  After rupturing the encirclement, the main body of the convoy moved out in front of the original mechanized rupture force.   As noted previously, the main danger was determining how to distinguish Nigerian from Biafran troops wearing Nigerian uniforms.  While the women and children were out in front, Etuk and his troops were behind assessing the situation ready to fire if necessary.


According to him:


“…it became so nasty that you wouldn’t know who was who. With the assistance of my binoculars I was able to sight troops standing up there; soldiers moving around and it was difficult for me to know whether they were friendly troops or rebels…….


I had to send my intelligence officer to disguise himself as a hunter with a note to [Colonel] Ally that when I wave my hand he should wave and I would know it was a friendly force. Because at this time there was no question of saying there was connection in terms of radio, no!  We were all saying ‘life or death let us face whichever.’  So by the time this young man got there and gave him the note all I saw was a wave of hand as arranged….”


But there was one final surprise for the survivors of the 16th Brigade encirclement.  When they got back to their mother division in Port Harcourt, they discovered that their identity had been changed.  Colonel Adekunle had written off the 16 Brigade as totally lost and created a brand new unit called the ’16 Infantry Commando Brigade.’  Etuk and his boys were told that they were all presumed dead.  Needless to say, the men went berserk.




The exact date Owerri was lost was not reported to AHQ by the 3MCDO.    On April 26th 1969, the BBC announced the previous day’s recapture of Owerri by Biafran troops. That was how Major General Gowon and the AHQ in Lagos found out about it on radio in Lagos.


According to Major General Oluleye (rtd), it was only after a confrontation between then Colonels Shuwa and Adekunle of the 1st and 3rd divisions respectively, at an Army conference in Lagos, that the GOC 3MCDO admitted that Owerri had fallen. 


According to Major General Shuwa (rtd),


"When Adekunle heard that Umuahia was taken, instead of telling me, "Thank you, well done!” he now asked, "Why did you take Umuahia?"


Shuwa turned to the gathering of senior army officers and said,


"Here is the map, Adekunle should show us where his troops are in Owerri.” 


He was sitting down. 


“Show us where your troops are." 


General Hassan asked why I was demanding that.   I said:


'Sir, I have been trying to get these boys on their wireless; by now I don't think we have any boy left in that town. The last time I heard human talking was three days ago. I think these boys are gone. We have lost them." 


So Hassan said: "Please Adekunle, show us where the boys are." He said they were about 10-15 Kilometers outside the town.


I said, "Sir, there is no truth in that."


Hassan said:  " You are in Enugu. How do you know that these boys were gone."


I said, "Okay, find out."


Adekunle finished talking. So I went to the telephone and was ringing the Brigade Head [Commander] for Hassan."


Hassan commented, "I Division is telling us to tell the world that we lost." 


I said, "No Sir. You don’t do it like that oh!"


He had to announce on network that for tactical reasons the 3 Marine Commando pulled out of Owerri and actually we did.  There was a routing and 90% of our boys died... “


Lamenting then Colonel Adekunle’s lack of candidness about the conditions within his Division and unwillingness to seek assistance, Shuwa said:


“Now, if he was so pressed and he knew he was not going to be able to extricate himself by himself;  if he said, look, 1 Division, you must try as much as you can and push towards me so that you may relieve pressure on me, we could have, instead of going to Umuahia, pushed toward Owerri and could have relieved the pressure.  I [had] the troops. I [had] the ammunition.  I didn’t see the reason why I should sit down [doing nothing] and I was familiar with the ground." 


Then Colonel Adekunle on the other hand, may have been misguided by other considerations.  According to him, he often misinformed the Army HQ,


“Because in the first instance you [they] want the glory of the Civil War to go to the North alone.  That the North alone will say we saved this country.  That you [they] didn’t believe in any other person being able to do it”





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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.