Saturday 16 March 2024

The Bonny Landing: A Question & Answer Overview of Black Africa’s First Amphibious Operation

Naval ratings manning Vickers guns on NNS Penelope during the assault on Bonny, July 1967 (Photo credit: Archive of Captain James Rawe).


The following is an overview of the circumstances which led to the first ever amphibious operation mounted by a modern Black African state at Bonny, Nigeria in 1967 during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970).

What was the background to the Nigerian Civil War?

We can examine this from both a wide lens and a narrower lens.

The distant but ever present background cause can be found in the very nature of Nigeria’s founding, and that is the fact that it is a conglomerate nation. It is the creation of imperial draughtsmen. In 1914 when the British amalgamated its Northern and Southern Protectorates, it brought together numerous ethnicities and languages - over two hundred. The North was largely Islamic albeit with a significant Christian segment in what is known as the Middle Belt, while the South had become rapidly Christianized. Within this milieu were the traditions of three groups: In the North were the Hausa and Fulani, in the South, which was often divided into West and East, the Yoruba dominated the West and the Igbos the East.

The more immediate cause were the fractures and disputes which occurred after independence was achieved from the British in 1960. These included the production of disputed census figures in 1963, a general strike in 1964, fraudulent elections around the country notably in the Western Region where a split was engineered between two key leaders which resulted in one being tried and convicted of High Treason in 1963 while the region descended into violence.

This sparked a concatenation of violence beginning with an attempted coup in January 1966 which was followed by a reprisal coup in July of 1966. In between were episodes of intercommunal violence in April, September, and October 1966 during which ethnic Igbos were subjected to pogroms.

The earlier coup of 1966 which was primarily led by middle-ranking officers of Igbo origin involved the assassinations of political and military leaders from the Northern and Western Regions. Moreover, the senior officer who snuffed out the January coup, Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, himself an Igbo, was perceived to have surrounded himself with advisors from his ethnic group and to have made decisions favourable to the Igbo for instance in relation to promotions in the army and in his decision to change Nigeria’s Federal structure to one of a unitary state, a move which some perceived as designed to consolidate Igbo “hegemony” because by their educational advantages of those in the Northern region, they would be primed to dominate the Federal Civil Service. Also critically important was the fact that there was a delay in court martialing the officers who participated in the January coup.

The military governor of the Eastern Region, Lieutenant Colonel Emeka Ojukwu refused to accept the authority of Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, the officer who emerged as the Supreme Commander in place of Ironsi. Peace talks were held in the Ghanaian town of Aburi in January 1967 under the auspices of Lieutenant General Joseph Ankrah, himself the head of a military junta. The initial promise of peace dissipated in the weeks and months following this meeting leading first to the secession of the Eastern Region on May 30th, 1967, as a reconstituted nation named “Biafra” and the war officially began on July 6th, 1967.

Who was Commander James Rawe?

James Rawe was born in the city of Constantinople in1925. He was the son of a linguist in the service of British Naval Intelligence and his grandfather was a naval architect who became the Superintendent of the Ottoman Sultan’s arsenal. After finishing school, he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and as a teenage Midshipman navigated a Landing Craft which landed the first wave of American troops at Utah Beach on D-Day in June 1944. Specifically, he delivered the HQ Battalion of the US 12th Infantry Regiment. During the war he also trained as a commando at Fort William in the Western Highlands of Scotland as part of Combined Operations. The purpose of Combined Operations was to conduct raids and landings against the Nazi enemy on the European continent. All RNVR and Royal Navy landing craft officers and ratings, and their Royal Navy landing craft, were attached to the Combined Operations Command which was staffed by Royal Navy, Army, and Royal Air Force personnel.

After the war, he specialised as a hydrographer first around the British Isles and later in the Far East. It was while he was on duty in the Far East in the mid-1950s that he received a message from a Royal Navy officer enquiring whether he would be interested in starting a “Royal Navy type survey service and possibly a Nigerian Navy.” Being of the mindset that it is the things one does not do which one regrets, he took up the offer and became the first person, Nigerian or British to sign up for what became the Nigerian Naval Force and later the Nigerian Navy.

In Nigeria, he conducted hydrographic surveys, conducted recruitment drives, sat on court martials, and supported visits of foreign dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth II and Lord Louis Mountbatten when he was the Chief of Defence Staff. At the time of the first coup, Commander Rawe was the Commanding Officer of the Naval Base in Apapa, Lagos and after an Indian Navy Captain was ordered by his government to relinquish his post as Chief of Staff to the Navy Commander, Rawe succeeded to the post with the designation of Principal Staff Officer. Although Rawe had been told to leave the Nigerian Navy immediately, he refused to do this on the grounds that it would go against the good name of Britain, and it might undermine the fragile military government. Rawe also told the attaché that his work for the Nigerian Navy was based on a letter written by the last British Governor General on behalf of the Queen requesting that he remain in her service within the Nigerian Navy after the country became independent in October 1960. He proposed that if Her Majesty had changed her mind, he should be given a second letter which reflected her change of attitude. Rawe was on the verge of taking early retirement at the onset of the troubles and extended his service at the request of Gowon.

What was the Nigerian strategy?

The Federal Military Government understood that the tried and tested military manner of inflicting defeat lies in encirclement. Encirclement prohibits trade and supply routes by land. It fosters a siege mentality within the encircled territory among the political and military leadership as well as the population at large. So while the Nigerian Army consolidated the ‘Northern Sector’ and the government worked with its counterpart in Cameroon to seal Biafra’s eastern border, the idea therefore was for the Nigerian Navy to stage a series of amphibious landings on the Atlantic coast to create a ‘Southern Sector.’ This is why landings were made at Bonny in July 1967, Calabar in October 1967, and Oron in March 1968. However, because of the Biafran military invasion of the Nigerian Midwest region in August of 1967 - the Midwest Region had sought to be neutral in the conflict - additional landings had to be made first at Escravos in August 1967 and at Warri, Sapele and Koko in September 1967.

But the first part of the strategy to be implemented even before the start of the shooting war on July 6th, 1967, was the instituting of a naval blockade. This sought to prevent the loading of oil and other shipments from harbours on Biafra’s coast at the island of Bonny and the city of Port Harcourt. Foreign governments and shipping companies were warned that any ships attempting to break the blockade would be intercepted by the Nigerian Navy. This was highly effective despite the amount of coastline which had to be patrolled by a relatively small number of Nigerian naval vessels because governments obeyed the wishes of the functioning central government in Lagos.

What considerations played a part in determining Bonny as the site of Nigeria’s first amphibious landing?

Major General Yakubu Gowon, the Head of the Federal Military Government handed Rear Admiral Joseph Wey, the Chief of Naval Staff, a list of possible landing sites. Wey, who along with Commander Rawe devised an overall naval strategy, instructed Rawe to draft a paper which considered the merits and demerits of the navy landing at 3 alternative locations. One was Port Harcourt, another was Opobo and the third was Bonny.

Port Harcourt was a crucial centre of Nigeria’s burgeoning oil production. But it was located 40 miles up from the Bonny River once entered from the Atlantic Ocean and the naval vessels and the merchant ships following them would take 4 to 6 hours to get to Port Harcourt. This would give the enemy ample time to take up positions along the river and would have rendered naval ships and especially the merchant ships vulnerable to ambushes via mortars or rocket propelled short-ranged weapons. Such vulnerability would be particularly pronounced during the last 20 miles as the Bonny River becomes narrower. So Rawe logically concluded that from a “naval point of view, to embark on an attack on Port Harcourt, direct, would invite disaster.”

As for Opobo, while it ostensibly presented a better proposition than Port Harcourt in the sense of not being defended in high numbers, it was ultimately discounted because of the uncertainty of the depth of its waters and the presence of a river bar. Inadequate intelligence about the presence of marker buoys and a beacon added too much uncertainty and risk to an operation.

So Bonny was selected because the adjoining river had the necessary depth for naval vessels to manoeuvre. There were jetties available along with several points at which the navy’s Landing Craft Tank could beach and offload a first wave of troops, equipment, and military stores.

Commander Rawe noted three strategic advantages in taking Bonny. Firstly, it would release the navy from blockade duty off Bonny River and allow it to concentrate on other areas. Secondly, the navy would have an area close to the base of operations and would be in a better position to support the army. Thirdly, military forces could be built for an advance on Port Harcourt.

Finally, Bonny as an island, Rawe noted, would be easier to defend than an area of mainland.

What was the plan the Nigerian Navy devised to take Bonny?

The plan devised by Commander Rawe followed a conventional pattern of an Amphibious Assault, which is by having a naval task force land a concentration of troops who would force a landing in the presence of the enemy. The Command Direction authored by Rawe was designated as Naval Operation Number One of 1967. It identified the main commanding officers as well as the commanders of the ships. Captain Nelson Soroh, the heir apparent to Rear Admiral Wey, was designated as the Officer-in-Charge of the Operation, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, the General Officer Commanding the Third Infantry Division, was the Officer Commanding Land Forces and Commander Rawe would be the Forward Control Officer and the Naval Liaison Officer.

Having ascertained through intelligence channels that Bonny was garrisoned with around 300 men, the mission for the Nigerian navy was to “transport, land and afford the support of naval fire power to federal troops, in order to facilitate the capture of Bonny Town and the island.” In a nutshell, the invasion would occur in three waves. The first wave would consist of troops on the landing craft NNS Lokoja which would beach on the northern part of Bonny Town. The idea behind landing troops in the northern part of Bonny Island was to trap Biafran soldiers stationed in the south and to prevent any reinforcements coming from the north. The second wave of troops would be landed by NNS Nigeria when the situation permitted. And the third wave would be landed after Bonny Town was captured.

Sailing Orders commenced on July 22nd, 1967. The movement of the task force was staggered owing to the different speeds of the vessels and the need for the larger vessels including one merchant ship to collect soldiers from a location on the coast in the Midwest region which was still neutral and not yet overrun by Biafran forces. NNS Penelope, Rawe’s old survey ship, which was converted into an armed vessel, was the only ship to make its way directly to the rendezvous point at Bonny Fairway Buoy on the Atlantic Ocean. The others met up at some point at Escravos Fairway Buoy before proceeding to Bonny Fairway Buoy.

Once assembled Commander Rawe would lead them into battle at the first daylight on the designated D-Day, July 25, 1967, after Captain Soroh issued the formal execution order. The river and ocean adjacent to Bonny was split into areas with names such as “Tango,” “Uniform” and “Zulu.” NNS Ogoja, a patrol boat commanded by Lieutenant Commander Akin Aduwo, would move into “Area Sierra.” NNS Enugu and NNS Benin, two seaward defence boats, commanded respectively by Lieutenant Commander Huseini Abdulahi and Lieutenant Promise Fingesi, would advance further in “Area Tango.” Lokoja, the Landing Craft Tank commanded by Commander Apayi Joe, would position itself facing the northern part of Bonny Town where intelligence indicated Biafran troops were sparsely concentrated. Once Lokoja landed the first troops, both Enugu and Benin would proceed further up “Area Uniform” ready to engage any enemy aircraft or vessel coming down the Bonny River.

NNS Nigeria, would stay in the Atlantic in areas designated as “Osca” and “Papa.” From these areas, the naval ships could bombard targets on Bonny Island which was divided into sectors.” Nigeria, with its twin High Angle/Low Angle guns, had the greatest range and destructive power. Ogoja had a 3-inch gun and Ogoja and the two seaward defence boats used Bofors guns for bombardment and Oerlikon or Vickers guns to provide covering fire for advancing federal troops. Rawe in Penelope operated flexibly, moving between areas as he assessed the battle giving orders and acting as the centre of communication between the ships closest to the battle and Nigeria which relayed battle reports to Naval Headquarters in Lagos.

One interesting aspect of the operation was the use of pyrotechnic flares as signals to signify the beginning or ending of specific manoeuvres, as well as to indicate the position of troops. For instance, Lokoja was expected to fire what was described in naval jargon as “one red Very light” in the final stage of her beaching run, while the troops of the Third Division engaging the enemy in Bonny were expected to indicate their position to naval vessels by firing “one green Very light” in order to indicate their most southerly position so as to permit relevant naval vessels to fire ahead of them. It would in effect indicate the dividing line between “friendly troops” and “enemy troops.”

What obstacles did the Nigerian Navy envisage in attempting to land forces at Bonny?

Mounting an amphibious landing is unquestionably one of the most difficult of military manoeuvres to execute. It was a daunting operation for the Nigerian Navy to undertake from quite a number of perspectives. The navy was young and inexperienced given that it had no substantive traditions in actual warfare. There was no tradition of inter-service cooperation with the army, largely because joint manoeuvres were in fact discouraged by the political class over fears that it could lead to a coordinated coup by the two forces. The navy’s manpower and material resources had been diminished respectively by the defection of officers and ratings of Eastern region origin and their sabotage of equipment on vessels and onshore. There were also challenges to overcome regarding Bonny’s terrain and the physics of the sea, as well as potential challenges regarding the manner in which the defending forces could opt to prevent an invasion. Commander Rawe’s operational order addressed the geographical challenges, while in his civil war memoir, Colonel Adekunle placed great emphasis on the potential obstacles which the defenders could have used to frustrate an attack.

Rawe noted the importance of having knowledge of the tidal stream and the amount of rise and fall of tide. This would be crucial in determining the angle of approach which the landing craft would make to the beach and the length of time that the craft would be able to remain on the beach without being stranded. Another issue of concern to the navy would be the sea conditions. In other words, they needed to have an idea of the level of surf or volatility of waves once the landing craft had beached.

In the end, July 25th, 1967, was selected as the landing day because it would be preceded by a moonless night, a high tide was predicted at dawn, and it was determined that the sea would be relatively calm.

In his memoir, Adekunle recalled that the tidal information indicated that high tide would peak for 56 minutes. This could have been used by the Biafrans to predict the timing of a Federal invasion, as well as to determine where to concentrate coastal batteries. The entrance to the Bonny river could have been lined with sea mines or explosive-filled drums. Moreover, the defenders could have sowed confusion by shifting the buoys which marked the navigable areas of the entrance into the river and caused attacking vessels to be run aground. In short, the Biafran side had the capacity to turn the enterprise into a disastrous one.

But none of these measures were employed. It appears that they did not construct any watchtowers or coast guards tasked with watching the entrance to the Bonny River. They also failed to mine any beaches or jetties. This was surprising given Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu’s belligerent pronouncements that any Nigerian vessels approaching the Biafran controlled coast would be sunk to the bottom of the sea.

It was perhaps the case that the Biafran side felt that the Federal Navy would not recover from the defection of personnel and their sabotage of naval equipment. In any case the Federal side put a great deal of effort into navy-army preparation for the assault in the Tarkwa Bay area of Lagos where things such as gunnery, ship pitching, and embarkation and disembarkation in daylight and darkness were practised. Captain Soroh recalled that soldiers were taught how to handle dinghies and outboard engines because they would need them to move themselves across the creeks as soon as they were put ashore by the navy.

Finally, a crucial element towards ensuring the success of the operation would be that of surprise. Therefore the replenishment of sabotaged equipment and preparations for the assault were conducted in great secrecy. The Apapa naval base was out of bounds to all but essential personnel. There was strict censorship of mail and phones were tapped. Random roll calls were utilised to flush out potential intruders at the naval base and the relevant army cantonment.

How did the actual landing develop?

The first order Rawe gave on entering the Bonny River was to order one of the ships to take out the signal and telegraph station on Bonny so as to cut off communications with Port Harcourt. While the Nigerian ships were in the process of bombarding Bonny, they encountered what had been NNS Ibadan, a converted minesweeper which had been taken over by the Biafrans because it had been on patrol off the waters of the Eastern region during the crisis and commandeered after the declaration of secession. Rawe ordered Lieutenant Commander Akin Aduwo in Ogoja to engage Ibadan and after a brief encounter, Ibadan suffered a direct hit to its engine which caused an outbreak of a fire and heavy loss of life. The captain of Ibadan, Lieutenant Commander Pascal Odu managed to escape with a handful of crew. Rawe recalled that the opposition was much as was expected and that there were around 200 casualties, most of them Biafran defenders. There were some hairy moments such as Lokoja getting stranded while landing a second wave of troops and Benin running aground on the second day of operations, but the enemy was not equipped to exploit these mishaps. Bonny was taken within 2 hours. Additionally, the navy successfully landed troops on neighbouring Peterside and took advance positions up to Dawes Island which is 20 miles north of Bonny in the direction of Port Harcourt.

How important was the amphibious operation which took Bonny?

It was extremely important. It was the first landing conducted by naval and land forces of a modern Black African state. The White dominated Union of South Africa performed an amphibious invasion of German South West Africa in 1914, and the other amphibious assaults had been conducted by European and North American militaries. During World War 2, there was “Operation Menace” in 1940 which involved the Royal Navy and the Gaullist Free French Forces attempting to overthrow the Vichy government in Dakar, Senegal. Two years later, “Operation Ironclad,” another British and Free French endeavour successfully led to the Free French taking over the island of Madagascar, and of course there was “Operation Torch,” the Anglo-American landings which began the Allied effort of dismantling German and Italian armies in North Africa.

So the Bonny landing was a milestone as far as modern Black African militaries are concerned. It provided a psychological boost to the Federal side and by succeeding in securing a foothold on secessionist-held land, began the process of reclaiming territory and the process of encirclement which would ultimately lead to the capitulation of Biafra. Economically, it sent a message to the oil companies, most notably Shell which was responsible for over 80 per cent of oil production that it was Federal Nigeria which they would deal with and not the Biafrans.


Adeyinka Makinde is a Visiting Lecturer in Law at the University of Westminster in London, England. He is a barrister-at-law by training who has research interests in global security and military history. His interest in naval history and specifically naval warfare during the Nigerian Civil War has to do with the fact that his late father served as a Nigerian naval officer. He presented a lecture on the Bonny Landing to participant officers on the Naval Warfare Course at the Naval War College Nigeria in April 2023.



1. “The Nigerian Civil War: A New History of the Bonny Amphibious Operation, July-September 1967” by Adeyinka Makinde

2. “The Bonny Landing | Presentation to the Naval War College, Nigeria | Adeyinka Makinde | April 2023

© Adeyinka Makinde (2024).

Adeyinka Makinde is based in London, England.

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