“I remember my dejected colleagues on wheelchairs who didn’t get over it … the GOC after his return from Ivory Coast did not stop to take our compliments. Emma, put it down in your book that most casualties suffered occurred in the next battle after he came to the battle field to address us … the gallant Biafran Soldiers. That is why I went after the Killer Saladins, Ferret cars, and all these severely wounded soldiers did impossible things with their bare hands. After, you are arrested and in frenzy you move into action by his words.
“At Oji, he never stopped by and when we battled to catch up with his motorcade he looked the other way. It is rather the man our boys call names, the Igbo elite delight in tormenting … Chief Emma Iwuanyanwu, who would take time to visit with his wife, bring enough food for us and pay all our children’s school fees…”
– The late Corporal Nwafor at Oji River, talking to Emma Okocha, Satellite, 1985.
Nigeria’s most celebrated Civil War commander was Brigadier Black Scorpion Benjamin Adekunle. His ever mobile Third Marine Codo Division gave the Biafran army the black eye. When he captured Port Harcourt after his record amphibian landing in Calabar, the Biafran eventual loss of the war was sealed. For Port Harcourt, the Third Marine paid with the death of Isaac Boro. There were others but it is on record that it was the 3rd Marine Division G.S.O.I, Col. Akinrinde, who marched into the Biafran heartland to conclude it with the mercurial Col. Achuzia.
On the Biafran side, Col. T.M. Onwuategwu, Commander of the S Brigade, the Achibong brothers, the late Major Ihemekwula, Col. Agbogu, Lambert Iheanacho, Simon Uwakwe, Majors Okoye and Asoya contributed a lot to the Biafrans’ stiff resistance.
One of these heroes who is the subject of today’s writing is a soldier who was wounded in the Biafran war and has bullet wounds in his head, neck and stomach down to the legs and hands. Hospitalised near the battle of Uzuakoli, and hearing the music sound of the machine guns, he asked his batsmen to loan his rifle. He had persuaded the doctor to tie up his shattered intestines and from the theatre he escaped towards the direction of the sound of the machine gun. With his face riddled again with bullets, Ojukwu for the first time had to order him back, to be flown to the US for complete surgery and bed rest.
During the invasion of Onitsha, Brigadier Conrad Nwawo, the commander of the Biafran 11th Army, wrote about Col. Nsudo in his classic war diary: “If anyone was wondering why the Federal invasion of Onitsha on the night of 9/10 October, 1967 failed, there were seven reasons.
“First, I anticipated it, even when the so-called 101 (BA) Division was still in the Mid-West. My only desire when I arrived in Onitsha on October 3 was that Col. Mohammed should not follow up his massive shelling immediately with a river-borne invasion.
If the invasion had been launched between October 6 and 7, the result might have been different. The morale of troops was very low then.
“Secondly, even though one of the aims of the invasion was to capture Onitsha and the strategic Niger Bridgehead there, though the tactics employed was bold, it was unfortunate frontal attack against defended positions. A frontal attack, even when accompanied by hard-hitting fire power, could be an expensive exercise. In this particular case, the attacking Federal forces pulled a surprise and actually landed with minimum casualties. But the counter-attack, on account of the position of the landing (being frontal), was particularly effective because other friendly troops closed in on the landed troops and enveloped them.
“Again, I expected Col. Murtala Muhammed, commander of Federal troops, to attack from the Niger from several points, so I had deployed my troops to several positions on the bank of the Niger in anticipation of several landings. The story may have been different if Col. Muhammed had attacked both Onitsha and further south towards Atani, but his option to land on just one beach cost him the battle and the loss of several of his men. Although the two phases of the war were not connected, he showed his genius about three months later in January 1968 when he attacked from Nsukka area and did a subsidiary thrust through Adani Omo-Ariakin to the River Ezu. The main thrust was aimed at Awka on the main Enugu-Oji-River-Awka road. But if the subsidiary one had succeeded he would have been in the Aguleri area long before the main force had reached Oji River. No doubt, he would have had to reinforce the subsidiary thrust. The first Onitsha invasion failed because the surprise element, which was achieved, was not exploited immediately. Barring any serious logistics problems, I could not foresee any reason why troops that had landed two or three hours earlier should be left sitting on the beach. Some were heard singing and chanting war songs instead of limbering forward, even beyond the marine.
“The out-and-out counter-attack by the reserve 18 Battalion and the coordinated action of flanking 11 and 12 Battalion in support of the counter-attack plan was deliberate and decisive. This action caught Federal troops off balance and instead of fighting inside at Onitsha they found themselves fighting at the water’s edge most of the time.
As soon as battle was joined, reinforcement from Asaba could not get to Onitsha. My prompt action in immobilising the suspected reinforcement logistics ship was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Again, artillery or mortar support to disengage the combatants when things were too hot for the Federal troops was impracticable. Hand to hand fighting soon became the order of the day. Federal troops fought gallantly but with their back to the River Niger scores drowned attempting to swim the mile-long river. Without pontificating, it is well known in military history that a sea or river-borne invasion requires special training, tactics, administration and logistic. In fact, the mental attitude of officers commanding such troops is usually orientated to suit this peculiar type of attack. The Biafran success at the first battle of Onitsha was remarkable in more than one respect. Firstly, it came soon after the fall of Enugu.
“It would certainly have been a tragedy if Onitsha had fallen too thus opening up so early in the war the possibility of the capture or neutralisation of Uli Airport or the attack into the so-called Igbo heartland. Morale generally was restored to both the military and civilians sectors of the war following the victory in Onitsha.”
“Secondly, for the first time in the history of the war, a major Federal attack had been successfully counter-attacked. The failure of the 2Divison in that Onitsha invasion was their first defeat in any battle worth mentioning. The magnitude of the casualties in men and equipment suffered must be regarded as a major disaster to that division.”
The earliest clashes between 11 Division and the Federal 1st Division: on the Oji River – Awka axis occurred in the third week of January 1968 near Ugwu Oba. They were bloody clashes indeed. At that time, 2nd Division had captured Oji River and was pressing on Christian Ude’s 53 Brigade on the Oji River – Achi – Awgu axis. As soon as Col. Murtala Mohammed’s 2nd Division was fully identified near Ugwuoba, I concluded right away that he had been assigned the mission of capturing Onitsha through the land route.”