A Noble Swede: From Relief to Raid
an initial Biafra-Nigeria infantry ratio of 30,000: 100,000, the war was a
hopeless mismatch. Even when Biafran troops ballooned to over 70,000, the
new nation had no serious air power. Nigeria had imported MiG-17s,
Ilyushins Il-28s, L-29 Delfins, DC-3s, and helicopters,. Biafra had a
well-known bomber—an unserviceable B-26 Marauder abandoned in Enugu.
There were also two B-25 Mitchells. But, unlike Nigeria, Biafra had some
indigenous airmen,* and at least one foreign friend with his wings hot: a
popular Israeli or Jewish pilot known simply as "Johnny." Later,
Biafra got another B-26, which was used briefly for night raids together
with the B-25s and a converted DC-3. The B-26 and DC-3 crashed; the B-25s
were lost on the ground when Nigerian soldiers moved in.
Nigeria attacked first. Enugu was the target. It was a lackluster attempt. Then came renegade Egyptian pilots licking their wounds from crushing defeats at the hands of Israeli pilots. They rained living hell on defenseless civilian targets. Awgu Market bombing was a crime against humanity. Nigeria used converted DC-3s to bomb airfields used for relief flights. Yet 5513 relief flights brought in 61,000 tons of foodstuffs. Nigeria never brought down any of the aircrafts. According to reports, the only relief plane shot down by a Nigerian fighter was a Red Cross flight which had its flight plan pre-approved by Nigeria! However, 11 aircrafts were destroyed and 21 pilots killed by attacks on the airfields.
Enter a Swedish nobleman and veteran pilot: Count Carl Gustaf von Rosen was one of the relief pilots in 1968. Probably frustrated by the harassment of relief pilots, he decided that air attacks must be stopped , if Biafrans are to receive relief aids. He took the idea of Minicon fighter-planes to General Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
Early 1969, five MFI-9Bs were assembled in Gabon, painted in two green colors with Volkswagen car paint. They were given simple sights and two pods for six 68 mm anti-armor rockets and an extra fuel tank in the fuselage. The mosquito-like planes were nicknamed "Biafran Babies." At first, the squadron had three Biafran and three Swedish pilots.
Biafran Babies normally attacked with 4 or 5 aircrafts at a time. The squadron stayed together on approaching the target, "with a separation of 50 m or less"; larger separation would have lead to the loss of visual contact. The pilots maintained radio silence except during the actual attack, when information had to be shared. They ensured that a chosen target was destroyed before taking on any impromptu targets. Anti-armor rockets were primary targets, and they attacked only military and strategic targets. Their avoidance of anti-aircraft rockets was legendary. They attacked at dawn or dusk to further minimize anti-aircraft attacks.
They planned attacks very meticulously. Only one attack occurred every second day. Later on, attacks with 1 or 2 aircraft were made with less planning against smaller targets and front-line troops. At most, three attacks per day were performed. To avoid striking own troops, metal sheets were placed on the ground near own troops. Signal flares from the ground were also used for various purposes. More than five minutes were never spent over a target.
Some Babes were hit by small caliber fire, but they managed to return with as many as 12 hits. Serviceability was close to 100% in spite of these hits. Biafra got a breathing space after this. The Swedish pilots returned to Sweden. Only one trained Biafran pilot remained, according to Gunnar Haglund (1988). In July 1969, another Swede joined the Biafran pilot in 21 daring attacks on Nigerian strategic positions. According to Ben Gbulie (1989) the squadron "surprisingly succeeded in striking the fear of God into our Nigerian adversaries."
In August, Count Carl Gustaf von Rosen and another Swede aviation instructor started training a new crop of Biafran pilots inside Biafra. In September, Biafran pilots training abroad were recalled to fly the Biafran Babies—since the aircraft they were training for were not to be delivered as initially proposed.+
The legend of this pilots is still toasted in Aviation circles. Recently, a SABENA pilot, J. M. Vidal^ wrote to the Biafra newsgroup:
"Artur Alves Pereira, squadron leader on T-6G and Minicon, left Uga on the 9th January 1970 and flew to Gabon. After his arrival in Lisbon, although the war was over and all the Biafran offices in Portugal were closed, when he never could expect, the ex-Biafran Government sent him the correct payment to the last penny for all the war missions he had flown. This small example shows how special a people the Igbo are. Which country in the world, let alone in Africa, would bother to fulfill its commitments to this extent? Which messenger wouldn't fill tempted to keep part or even all of the money (quite a lot at that time), mainly when the future seemed so uncertain to everybody involved and obviously there would be no court to complain to?
Need we say more. They were/are heroes.
* Chudi Sokie was the most popular Biafran airman.
+ Twelve T-6s had been purchased, but they were in bad condition. Only four could fly. During the transit to Biafra, two were lost. The remaining two were used with the MFI-9s, nine of which were still in service. During the later part of the war, two MFI-9s were lost.
^ Captain Vidal is writing a book on Biafra: The Portuguese Connectiion
Facts & Figures
The Miracle of the Minicons
First attack: Morning of May 22, 1969
Target: Port Harcourt.
Second Attack: Dawn of May 24, 1969:
Target: Benin-City Airport:
Third Attack: Dust of May 26, 1969;
Target: Enugu Airport [under firm Federal control]
Fourth attack: May 28, 1969
Target: Ughelli power plant [it took six months to fix the plant.]
Fifth attack: May 30, 1969 [2nd Independence Anniversary]
Target: Troop concentration at a village outside Owerri.
[Aborted due to the presence of Biafran civilians in the area; Nigerian or Biafran, the Babies did not attack civilian targets.]
FACTS: From the First 29 Air Raids
Statistics from the first 29 attacks [five missions were abandoned for different reasons] between May and August, 1969, show the following:
432 rockets fired
More than 50% hit targets
No aircraft or pilot lost
Substantial enemy losses, namely:—
MiG-17 3 2
Canberra 1 1
Helicopters 2 1
ATC tower 1 1
Terminal bldg. 2
Power plant 1
Amm. storage 1
Oil pump station 1
Losses in men: 300 men at airports
200 men in battle fronts
FIGURES: Technical description of the Babies
Span: 7.43 m Empty weight: 340 kg
Length: 5.85 m Max. t/o weight: 575 kg
Height: 2.00 m Payload: 235 kg
Wing area: 8.7 m2 Fuel: 56 kg
Max. altitude: 4500 m Max. speed: 240 km/h
T/o run: 150 m Vne: 305 km/h
Landing run: 130 m Cruising speed: 236 km/h
Range: 800 km Economy cruise: 210 km/h
Endurance: 4 h Stall speed: 80 km/h
Load factor: +4.4G/-1.76G
Armament: 12 x 68 mm Matra anti-armor rockets
Gunnar Haglund (1988). "Gerillapilot i Biafra," [With pictures and an English summary]