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Federal Nigerian Army Blunders of the Nigerian Civil War - Part 1


By Nowa Omoigui


OWERRI, 1969


All through recorded history, armies, small and great have not only recorded victories but also disasters.  Military History buffs will recall great examples from antiquity such as the loss of an entire 50,000 strong Army by Cambyses II, the First Persian Ruler of Egypt near the Siwa Oasis circa 523 BC , the Roman military disasters at Trebia (218 BC), Lake Trasimene (217 BC) and Cannae (216 BC),  the thrashing of British General Charles MacCarthy during the First Ashanti War in 1824, British General Elphinstone’s retreat from Kabul in 1842, the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854, General Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg in 1863, American 7th Cavalry Commander George Custer’s last stand at the battle of the Little BigHorn in 1876, and General Charles George Gordon's death in 1885 at the hands of the Mahdi in Sudan, among others.


In more recent history, major military disasters also abound, as was the case with Arab armies during the Six-Day war of 1967 or the American Ranger debacle of October 1993 in Somalia.


During the Nigerian civil war, many disasters occurred (from the point of view of both sides).  According to then Colonel Oluleye, who was GSO (I) at the AHQ, from the federal point of view, in 1967 they included early reversals at Eha Amufu, the Biafran Midwest invasion, various abortive and disastrous federal attempts to take Onitsha via an assault river crossing, and the loss of previously captured ground like Oguede and Abalambie Coconut estate.  In 1968, there were catastrophes like the loss of numerous logistic vehicles at Abagana, reversals at Onne, Arochukwu, Esukpai, Aletu, Amaseri, Afam, Enugu-Aku, Ikot-Ekpene, Oguta, Umuahia (Operation OAU), Adazi and Imu-Ikwu.  In 1969, reversals and/or disaster befell federal troops at Otoro, Uzuakoli, Owerri, Obetete, Obokwe, Omoko, Umuakpu, Ozuzu, Elelele, Omo Nwa Ami, Ovom, and Ipo.


Numerous factors at strategic, operational and tactical levels can lead to disaster, including inept decision making, poor intelligence, mediocre command and lack of detailed staff work, not to mention ill-trained and equipped troops, weather and bad luck.  In his Book, “Military Blunders”, Saul David focused on five such factors. They are, namely, incompetent command (as was the case in 1942 with General Percival at Singapore); failure to plan for trouble (as was the case in 1944 at Arnhem during Montgomery’s Operation Market-Garden); interference by political leadership (as occurred in 1942/43 with the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad); misplaced confidence (as afflicted the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu); and sheer failure to perform (as was the case in 1943 with the American II Corps at Kasserine Pass). 


However, one factor that has stood out most frequently in history is when an army or unit has its supply chain cut or threatened.  This is precisely what befell the beleaguered 16th Brigade under the valiant Lt. Col. E. A. Etuk of the 3rd Marine Commando Division under Colonel Benjamin A.M. Adekunle of the Nigerian Army at Owerri from January to April 1969 during the civil war.  More than any other, this single disastrous development directly led to the change of command of the 3rd Marine Commando. An Army HQ Operational Order to this effect was dated on May 9, 1969.  It was then publicly announced on May 12, 1969 that Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo had replaced Colonel Benjamin Adekunle as GOC 3 Marine Commando.   On May 16, 1969, Obasanjo physically took over the Division.

Crack Biafran troops of the 60th, 52nd, and 63rd Brigades, along with the 68th Commando Battalion detachment of the "S" Division, all under the 14 Infantry Division, led by Colonel Ogbugo Kalu carried out the Owerri pincer operation – which proved to be a huge boost to Biafran morale.  However, remnants of the badly mauled 16 Brigade of 3MCDO later miraculously slipped out of encirclement under the brilliant command and leadership in crisis of Col. Etuk – widely regarded by former Biafran commanders as the best Nigerian field commander of the war.  It was at Owerri that Major Ted Hamman, Etuk’s second-in-command, lost his life.





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