By Ralph Swift aka "Speedy"
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Prelude to a Civil War
Nigeria, on the west coast of Africa, had been part and parcel of Britain's Imperial Empire until independence. Even as late as 1967 British influence was tangible. It was to be seen in the valuable oil concessions held by Shell-BP in the southern part of the country. It was also to be seen in the countryside where the old 'Rest Houses' with their Victorian cutlery were dotted along most of the rural roads, each at a convenient driving distance between hostelries. It was a potentially wealthy country and therein lies part of its descent into civil war.
To the north and west dwelt the Hauser and Yoruba tribes and to the east and southeast the Ibo and River States tribes and the war was equal parts tribal, economic and secession.
The Federal Government under General Yakuba (Jack) Gowon dwelt mostly to the west in Lagos, the capital. Most of the wealth of the country, in the form of oil, was extracted in the south and east. A movement sprang up under Colonel Ojukwu demanding independence of the southeast, with its wealth, from the main body of Nigeria. The Ibo tribe felt that they were a cut above the more agrarian Hausers. They probably were, since the oil industry with all it's ancillary parts undoubtedly injected a large dose of modern industry into what was essentially an agricultural domain. This secessionist movement obviously could not be allowed to succeed for it would literally rob the rest of the country of its livelihood. As a result General Gowon and the federal government started to recruit forces in order to resist the secessionist movement and reclaim some authority in the southeast.
The British government maintained a low profile and kept out of the row until word began to get around that Colonel Ojukwu and the emerging Biafran State may have made an arrangement with the French state-owned SAFRAP to hand over the Shell-BP oil concessions to that French company in exchange for recognition of Biafra. At that point the British began to lend a bit of diplomatic support to the Federal Government. One thing is for sure; there were a large body of French and Portuguese speaking mercenaries and helpers in the southeast. It was these pilots flying the A26s and the French or Portuguese soldiers on the ground that were to be my main opponents. I am sure that the British government were fully aware that three English pilots and the attendant ground crews were involved in the melee. I felt that I was flying for the legal Federal Government of Nigeria against an opponent seeking to literally steal a part of Nigeria.
The Nigerian Dogs of War
(compliments of Frederick Forsyth)
In 1967 I was living in East Anglia, I had a good job as a pharmaceutical representative for a well known company and in addition I owned a popular and fairly remunerative country inn, all beamed and thatched and built in 1561. I was doing ok but I was still a pilot at heart and hoped one day to return to flying.
I had come out of the Royal Air Force in 1958 under the government white paper scheme. My last two postings had been miserable and the air force was running down due to lack of funding and with little hope of much improvement in the near future. Since I was on a short service commission my days were numbered anyway, so I got out slightly early in the hope of finding employment in civil aviation. Unfortunately, the flying market was depressed and there was a glut of pilots, and I had, therefore, been obliged to look for other means of support.
I had enjoyed living in East Anglia and although it was not the most desirable place to find work I had decided that, come what may, I would make it my home. I bought a little cottage about a mile and a half out of the nearest village and settled down to a rural existence. Truly rural. No mains water, no electricity and an 'Elsan' toilet. A tin bath dragged in on a Friday night took care of the bathing arrangements. It all sounds a bit crude, and I suppose it was, but the truth is that everyone who lived anywhere nearby was in the same boat so it did not seem all that bad. I was married by this time and had a couple of little ones so it was harder on the wife than myself. Luckily she adapted very well to it and we were happy. For the next nine years my resume reads, farm labourer, animal foods representative and pharmaceutical representative. I also kept some pigs and was heavily involved in motor racing, archaeology in the county, game shooting, and flying at the local club. There was also my country inn. That brings us back to 1967.
By 1967 I was a bit fed up with the never-ending requirement of the pharmaceutical company to increase sales by ten percent every year. I had established one of the largest hospital contracts in the country for one particular product only to be short-changed by the company. We had previously been on a very low salary but a high commission, in other words, if you wanted to live well you had to work for it and earn the commission. Having established the hospital contract my commission soared of course and this did not sit well with many in the company who thought I was being overpaid. The company solution was to change our method of payment on the rather thin excuse that since commission was not considered to be regular income by mortgage companies; it would be in our own interest to have a larger salary and a smaller commission. All contracts would become company business but we would get some sort of recognition for them. Weasel words of course, and the net effect was to put me back much where I had been prior to the contract. I already had a mortgage anyway so the higher salary meant nothing to me. I was ready for a change.
I had previously applied for, and been accepted by, the air force in Aden in south Yemen. I had been given a rank (Raiz or something similar), my passport was in order and I was ready to go but the political situation in Aden was getting tense and I had been kept on hold. Finally, word came out that the Marxists had gained control and that was the end of the story, so no job there!
It was August the Seventh 1967, my middle daughter's birthday, and she had a party on the lawn and there were kids all over the house. The telephone rang and the caller wished to speak to me. He understood that I had been on standby for Aden but that it had fallen through and he had a proposition for me. Would I be prepared to go down to Khartoum in Sudan, do an air test and acceptance on a couple of Jet Provosts that were to be delivered to Nigeria in West Africa. Furthermore, would I be prepared to carry out the delivery flight in company with another pilot? We negotiated a fairly substantial remuneration over the phone, some to be paid in advance when I got down to the embassy in London, where I would collect my air tickets and further instructions. I had pointed out to my mysterious caller that there was a civil war in progress in Nigeria and he assured me that it was well to the south of my destination and would not affect the delivery. I failed to inform him that I had not flown a jet for ten years and had never flown a Provost. What could be difficult about flying a Jet Provost anyway? Both my wife and I were a little taken aback by the suddenness of the offer; I had to be at the Embassy, packed and ready to go by about noon on the following day and without any indication of just when I would return. The embassy would take care of my visas, etc.
I made it to the embassy on time and was duly given my advance pay and introduced briefly to another pilot called 'PM' who was also on his way to Nigeria but at a later date and would not be accompanying me on the ferry trip. I would meet my opposite number in Khartoum. By four o'clock that afternoon I was on a commercial flight to the Sudan. I had been to Khartoum on a couple of occasions previously but was not that familiar with it. The last occasion had been in the middle of a locust plague and somewhat unpleasant. Locusts do not bother me unduly but it is not very pleasant to have them crawling all over you. They cannot be avoided, and are really quite large to keep picking off your clothes and out of your hair. I was quite surprised to see that the locals had small fires and were cooking and eating these creatures. Khartoum was pretty hot and steamy when I got there this time. I had met the other pilot, whom I shall call 'MT', and we were comfortably settled into a quite decent hotel complete with swimming pool and air conditioning.
As it happened, the aircraft would not be available for testing for some time. They were being prepared by Airworks engineers and mechanics, an English company, and I heaved a small sigh of relief upon learning this. At least they would be as airworthy as it was possible to get them considering they were probably quite old and well used (or misused). It turned out to be quite a wait; I see from my logbook that I finally got to fly with a Major Abdoun of the Sudanese Air Force on the 12th of August. It had given me breathing space to sit in a cockpit and go over my vital actions and emergency procedures and get to know my way around the Provost a little. It turned out that this first flight was also to be an acceptance flight. If the thing operated reasonably well and had no major faults then it was to be signed off to the Nigerian Air Force as being satisfactory and was to be considered sold and bought. I took the opportunity to get a bit of handling time in and kept him airborne for an hour and twenty minutes even though he wanted to do one quick circuit and landing.
The ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) was a little uncertain but I could not quite pin down the problem, as it could have been the instrument or perhaps intermittent signals from the ground. At times it seemed to work just fine and at times it would not point accurately. There was no real reason to put it unserviceable at that time but it was to plague us all across Africa subsequently. I asked the Airwork guys to check it out but they could find nothing wrong with it and I had to accept it.
The following day I flew the Provost around by myself just to get a bit of handling in and recheck the ADF, and everything appeared to be OK. We then sat on the ground for 12 days waiting for permission to go. The aircraft had been accepted and we were not allowed to fly them again. From here on we would be absolutely on our own, and with no servicing crew to accompany us we would have to do all our own oil, top ups, etc and keep our fingers crossed that the craft would stay reasonably serviceable on their trip across Africa. We were even uncertain if oxygen was going to be available to us so we had to use it as little as possible and it would certainly not be available at our first two stops in El Obeid and El Fasher.
Africa Calls !!
By the time we were due to set off on the 25th August, 'MT' and I could foresee all manner of problems facing us. First of all, it was the rainy season and the ITZ lay along our route, so we were going to get lousy weather most of the way. Most of the destination fields were semi-disused and it was not possible to send a flight plan ahead of us, so nobody would care that we had departed and nobody would really be expecting us to arrive. Apparently, some form of communication had been sent, but with few specific details; fuel would be available but we might have to pump it ourselves from drums. We carried our own oil in cans, but it was entirely up to us to do pre-flight inspections, etc and decide if the aircraft were fit for flight. If we should run into any major problems it might take us weeks to get out. Perhaps our biggest problem was that we had no compatible radio crystals and for the most part we would be unable to contact any of the airfield towers!
Our route was to take us from Khartoum to El Obeid and El Fasher in Sudan, From there to Geniena, Fort Archambault and Fort Lamy in what used to be Chad and thence to Maiduguri and Kaduna in Nigeria with a landing and refuelling at each place, topping up the oxygen if it was available. Because of the distances involved, we had no choice but to fly at high level, so we would be using oxygen in the hope that we could replace it. Fort Archambault and Fort Lamy appeared to be somewhat better airfields although they still had Laterite runways (dirt) and we were told that the local controllers, even if we could raise them on the radio, would probably be speaking French. As for Maiduguri and Kaduna these were unknown quantities. They should be expecting us sometime but the situation was fluid and there was a war on.
Our first two stops were relatively uneventful and our hopes began to rise, as we found some volunteers to hand pump the fuel and since the weather had not been too bad we had managed to save a bit of oxygen by descending early and more or less map reading our way in. It quickly became obvious that my ADF was unreliable and in fact downright confusing at times and could not be relied upon. We would have to use primary navigation, i.e. stopwatch and compass. MT's ADF did not seem too bad but we just did not trust either of them fully but we decided nonetheless that he should take the lead and I would stay in pretty close formation. Our next stop was Geniena and it was on this leg we began to run into bad weather, and we did not know for sure what the winds were doing. It was only possible to make estimates, as it was pretty bumpy and I clung on to the outline of MT's aircraft like grim death knowing that if I lost him in cloud and having no direction finder I would probably never find Geniena before I ran out of fuel. We just let down on time and kept our fingers crossed. MT said that he was getting an indication from the direction finder but we would not deviate from our flight plan until the time was almost up and then we would see if the pointer seemed reasonable. I just hoped that he was a decent instrument pilot and was in control, and I kept glancing at mine just to make sure we were the right way up!
We were at about twenty-five thousand feet and had been in cloud most of the way. Fortunately, we broke cloud at about five thousand feet and there, not too far off track, we could make out the westerly sun glinting off the tin roofs of Geniena. They had just had some rain and the buildings showed up well.
I really don't think they were expecting us at Geniena, as we had not had any radio contact, but there was somebody there to marshal us in. It could have been an airfield worker or perhaps just a passer-by trying his hand at marshalling. By the time we had climbed out he had gone so we began to tidy up and check the oil, etc and batten down for the night. I rather think that our marshaller had gone to tell somebody in authority that aircraft had arrived.
Like many of the small airfields across Africa, Geniena had been in use during WWII for transporting goods and aircraft to our troops in the Middle East, thus avoiding a crossing of Europe. At one time it had been a reasonable station, the structure was all there, but by the mid-sixties absolutely nothing worked. All the electrical fittings were installed and the sinks and taps and plumbing fixtures still existed. The remains of mosquito netting flapped in the breeze in the empty windows of what had once been a fully functioning RAF station.
The diesel engines that provided electricity had long since seized up due to lack of oil and maintenance, they had simply been run to a standstill. Light was now provided by a paraffin pressure lamp and water had to be fetched in a bucket. El Obeid and El Fasher had fared similarly. When the RAF moved out of these fully functioning and useable outposts they had been allowed to run down to nothing without a thought to preservation of the assets. Such is Africa.
Looking into the eye of the tiger
The weather was not good and prudence would have suggested a couple of day's layover to let things improve. However, this whole enterprise was behind schedule, not due to any tardiness on our part but simply the inability to get things to happen quickly in official circles. "Bukrah Inshalla" is an attitude of mind, "tomorrow, Allah willing", and it is almost impossible to stir African officialdom into action. We had been made aware that these aircraft were crucial to the Nigerian war effort. The opposition Biafrans had some aircraft flying and the situation was getting somewhat difficult. So we decided the following day to press on, a decision that very nearly cost us the aircraft and maybe even our lives.
Almost immediately after take off we entered cloud. I was flying formation on MT as usual since he had the only functioning (?) ADF. This leg was a long one and fuel would become a priority, so I could look forward to about an hour and forty minutes of close formation, and depending on how much I had to change my throttle settings would determine just how much fuel I would have remaining on arrival at Fort Archambault. We were still in cloud at thirty thousand feet and I knew then that it was going to be a long haul with little chance to relax.
We had no radio communication with Geniena or, at that time, with Fort Archambault and even if we raised our destination we were not expected, and the conversation was likely to be in French despite the rule that English is the international language of the air. Chad was French speaking and we were in the middle of Africa.
We were navigating on watch and compass, in cloud, and with a question mark hanging over the fuel situation. It was decided that we would do a long slow let down until we broke cloud. We had little choice but to hope that the ADF might at least put us somewhere close to Archambault, though neither of us trusted it entirely. We would stick to the flight plan until things became desperate. It was fortunate that we did not have any really high ground on route and our destination seemed to be pretty flat.
We finally broke cloud at about four hundred feet in a fine misty drizzle and with visibility of about a mile. Looking down one could see nothing but low bushes and what seemed to be swampland or perhaps the residue of a rainstorm. My fuel was getting really low and I was seriously thinking of the possibility of having to bale out. Our flight plan time had run out and there was still no sign of habitation of any sort. The radio had proved to be of no use since even if anyone could hear our transmissions they had not bothered to reply. MT said that the ADF was giving an indication that we should turn slightly right but he was unable to decipher the identification code. I said that it was all we had to go on and since things were now getting very serious we had no choice but to follow the needle, and at least we might see some sign of human habitation. I hated the thought of baling out in the middle of the bush and maybe into a swamp.
Suddenly, directly ahead of us, some open ground loomed out of the rain and mist and as we got closer we began to make out the outline of a dirt runway and some buildings. The Gods had smiled upon us once again, and a quick check of the wind direction and a low level circuit and we were on the ground. I did not care where we were or even if we were welcome. Even though we were in the middle of Africa, Fort Archambault proved to be fairly efficient. We managed to top up the oxygen at last, which was just as well since the next leg to Fort Lamy was also an hour and a half and we did not have the oxygen to make it.
The next two legs of the trip proved to be uneventful, although we ran into cloud as expected, the base was pretty high and we had no trouble locating either Fort Lamy or Maiduguri. Fort Lamy was memorable in that by using our schoolboy French we had managed to persuade a local restaurant to produce a meal of steak, eggs and chips (French fries for our American cousins). Although I always enjoyed curry, two weeks of unleavened bread and 'curry-like' concoctions cooked in somewhat primitive conditions and with doubtful ingredients had given us a longing for something a little closer to our normal diet. The French restaurant with a French chef had satisfied that desire royally. At Maiduguri we had finally arrived within the borders of Nigeria, where a Nigerian Air Force officer had been camped out there for more than two weeks awaiting our arrival. He had apparently been told to expect us any day once the acceptance flights had been completed at Khartoum, which was now about fourteen days previously. Without any further information he had begun to suspect that we had not made it and was preparing to pack up and return to his base at Kaduna in Nigeria.
We still had little or no radio contact with anyone, a situation that was to persist for the whole time we spent in Nigeria, but with just one more leg to complete from Maiduguri to Kaduna, apart from the search and rescue aspect, it was of no great worry. We felt that the Nigerian Army or Air Force would have sufficient communication facilities to monitor our progress from now on. The weather was clearing and the next leg was pretty straightforward. We arrived over Kaduna on time, and did a circuit with our wheels down to let them know we intended to land. At the end of the landing run we were met by a Land Rover with a 'Follow Me' sign and guided into the Nigerian Air Force dispersal at the far side of the airfield and were met by a grinning bunch of British lads from Airwork.
There was quite a 'hubbub' going on because apparently the somewhat trigger happy 'Ack-Ack' gunners on the airfield had not been made aware of our impending arrival and seeing a couple of strange jet fighters overhead had taken pot shots at us, fortunately without effect. I am not sure they fully understood the principle of 'aiming off' and the shells had burst to the rear of us. Both MT and I were blissfully unaware of all this going on and were floating slowly around with our wheels down. We were hardly expecting to be shot at on our 'own' airfield. So much for communications!
And so began my contract
flying for the Nigerian Government during the Civil War, but that's another