Good morning gentlemen.
Today’s lecture is titled “Naval Campaigns of the Nigerian Civil War: The Bonny Landing”.
Slide 2. Biography
My name is Adeyinka Makinde, and I will be your guest lecturer for tonight. I am a Visiting Lecturer in Law at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom. One of my research interests is concerned with military history.
And as you can see, one of the prime motivations of why I have an interest in the history of the Nigerian Navy is that my Father, the Late Captain Emmanuel Makinde served as a naval officer between 1964 and 1982.
Slide 3. Objectives
What I propose to do over the next one hour and a quarter is to present an account of the preparation and execution of the amphibious assault on Bonny in July 1967 during the Nigerian Civil War.
And in doing so you will cover the relevant learning outcomes pertaining to Module 5 of the Naval Warfare Course on which you are currently embarked on, that is the package on Naval History.
So, what are our learning objectives?
In a broad sense, it will be an endeavour in elucidating on the anatomy of an amphibious operation and explaining the wider implications of the operation in terms of the military and political objectives envisaged by the Federal Government of Nigeria.
Specifically, I will take you through the planning considerations of what was designated as ‘Naval Operation (Order No.1) 1967.
Amphibious landings are inherently risky endeavours with the threat of the attacker sustaining a high level of loss of life if an enemy is dug into prepared positions.
Therefore the planning of the Bonny Landing included an assessment of enemy strength on the ground. It also considered the range of military and civilian vessels available to the Nigerian Navy, as well as the firepower which would need to be brought to bear on the enemy from the sea and in support of advancing Nigerian troops. I will take you through the carefully choreographed movement of vessels from the naval base in Apapa to the mouth of the Bonny River from where they moved into the area of operations and then performed specific functions during the landing operation.
I will explore the key factors which affect landing operations.
As we will find out, Bonny was one of several potential landing points to be considered by the Nigerian Navy, and its selection was tied to a variety of factors such as the access to suitable sites to beach the vessels, the physical terrain, tidal information, achieving the element of surprise, the concentration of enemy forces and so on.
In explaining and assessing these objectives, I will refer to previous amphibious landings. Incidentally, the largest, and indeed, the most famous of all landings, namely that which occurred on the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944, had one participant, who as fate would have it, was a serving officer in the Nigerian Navy at the time of the national crisis.
His name was James Rawe. Rawe incidentally was the first person, Nigerian or British, to sign up for the envisaged Nigerian Naval Force back in the mid-1950s. More about him later.
I will also be identifying the roles played by the relevant Commanding Officers of the ships involved. Among them were two future Chiefs of Naval Staff, Captain Nelson Soroh, Commander of NNS Nigeria, and Lieutenant Commander Akin Aduwo, who commanded NNS Ogoja.
By the end of the lecture I will have identified the significant contribution made by the Nigerian Navy to the effort in defeating secessionist forces and reuniting the country.
It will also, I hope, stimulate you all into drawing lessons for the conduct of future amphibious operations undertaken by the navy.
Just a brief note.
I will be referring to relevant naval and other military personnel by the ranks which they held at the time of the operation.
Also, most of the photo-images I will be displaying were taken at the time or near the time of the operation. Most of them, I was thankfully able to obtain from the private archive of Captain James Rawe, who was a commander at the time.
Slide 4. Chronology
This slide outlines the chronology of the lecture. Most of the time will be devoted to the preparation of the attack and its actual implementation, but note will be made of the remarkably rapid transformation of the navy into a state of military preparedness.
While it evaded the violent divisions which had ripped through the army, the Nigerian Navy endured episodes of sabotage and defection which left the leader of the secessionist region firmly convinced that its capacities had been effectively neutralised to the extent that it was not expected to play a prominent role in the overall effort of the federal government in attempting to crush the rebellion.
I will end the lecture by summing up the effect of all the successfully executed seaborne landings which were undertaken between 1967 and 1968. They were vitally important in putting into motion the eventual encirclement and defeat of the secessionist forces.
Slide 5. Overview of political events
During these upheavals caused by divisions in the army, the navy remained a stable organisation under the leadership of Commodore Joseph Wey.
Under Wey, the navy participated in the efforts aimed at stabilising the country and providing legitimacy to the two military governments which were formed in 1966.
Commodore Wey also attended the peace talks held under the auspices of the Ghanaian government in the town of Aburi in January 1967.
Slide 6. Commodore Wey Pen Portrait
This slide has a pen-portrait of Commodore Wey, who had been serving as the first indigenous Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) since 1964.
He was a marine engineer by background. As CNS, he would go on to supervise and approve the naval operations that involved the seaborne landings, as well as the instituting of a blockade against the secessionist state of Biafra.
During this period, the Nigerian Navy was also facing its own challenges.
Personnel from all regions continued to serve side-by-side but there was an unavoidable uneasiness given the prevailing circumstances in the country.
The drift towards an internal war and the fear that naval force would be used in such a war if it was waged against the Eastern region led to acts of sabotage.
In April 1967, the base was plunged into darkness by a power cut.
This was followed by the vandalising of electronic equipment on board many of the navy’s vessels. These included navigational aids and communication apparatus.
Armaments, gunfire pins and engine parts were either totally removed or disabled.
In the meantime there were defections of officers and men to the Eastern region before its secession on May 30th, 1967.
Slide 8. The Nigerian Navy Prepares for Battle
The photograph in this slide shows armed naval personnel at the Apapa base which was under emergency base defences in January 1966.
Slide 9. Prelude to Naval Action
The build-up to the first amphibious landing was preceded by important military tasks which were undertaken by the navy.
Prior to the declaration by the Federal Government of a “police action” on July 6th, 1967, the promulgation of the Territorial Waters Decree (No.5) of 1967 which extended the limit of Nigeria’s territorial sea from the customary 3 nautical miles to 12 nautical miles paved the way for the navy to mount an economic blockade against the seceded eastern region.
The objective was to blockade the littoral space where oil was exported; the prime targets being the harbours in Port Harcourt and Bonny.
The strategic dimension of this blockade was to prevent arms being smuggled into the secessionist state and the economic dimension related to stopping international trade with the former Eastern region. No ships were allowed to be loaded at any ports including the oil terminal.
The next step was to mount an amphibious landing of Federal troops, a move that would be orchestrated by the Nigerian Navy.
The newly promoted Rear Admiral Wey was handed a list of possible sites by Major General Yakubu Gowon, the head of the Federal Military Government.
I will go into the options given to the navy, but before this I would like to examine the concept of the amphibious operation.
Slide 10. Defining Amphibious Warfare
The authors Ian Speller and Christopher Tuck define amphibious warfare as follows:
“A type of offensive military operation that today uses naval ships to project ground and air power onto a hostile or potentially hostile shore at a designated landing beach.”
Now, in July 1967 the Nigerian armed forces were not able to project air power in its first landing.
However, the air force was able to provide this by the time the penultimate and final landings were undertaken respectively at Calabar and Oron.
Slide 11. Classification of Amphibious Operations
Amphibious operations are traditionally classified into four types namely the “amphibious assault”, “amphibious withdrawal”, “amphibious demonstration” and an “amphibious raid".
A fifth, namely that of “amphibious support" is often added these days.
The operation of Bonny was designed and executed as an amphibious assault.
It was not an exploratory exercise solely intended to inflict damage on the enemy, collect information or otherwise create a diversion. That is a “raid.”
Neither was the idea of “demonstration” involved. The Bonny operation was not a deception designed to divert attention from other landing sites. Nor was it a peacetime exercise with the objective of impressing a potential adversary.
It was also not a “withdrawal,” which is an operation designed to extract forces from a hostile shore.
And it certainly was not a mission designed to offer “support” on the basis of providing humanitarian aid or disaster relief.
The idea behind the Bonny operation was for a Nigerian naval task force to transport, land and establish soldiers of the newly created Third Infantry Division onto territory held by secessionist forces and begin the effort of regaining territory.
Slide 12. Commander James Rawe (Pen Portrait)
The starting point for any exploration of how the Bonny Landing was conceptualised and put into effect must be with the figure of Commander James Rawe who at the time of the crisis was serving as Principal Staff Officer and Commander of the Naval Base in Apapa.
Rawe was a veteran of the Second World War and was still a teenaged midshipman of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve when as a navigation officer of a landing craft, he landed the first wave of American troops on “Utah Beach”.
As the only officer serving in the Nigerian Navy who had faced gunfire while landing on a beach it was obvious that his knowledge and experience would be central to the planning and execution of the forthcoming operation.
The other handy bit of experience brought to the table by Rawe was that of his role as a hydrographer. His long-term experience of surveying the coastline of Nigeria including the rivers and creeks of the Niger Delta would be crucial because, quite frankly, he knew the coastal area better than any of his navigator colleagues.
And so he became the author of what would be known as Naval Operation (Order Number 1) of 1967 and the subsequent operational orders. Also, in conjunction with Rear Admiral Wey, he formulated an overall naval strategy.
Slide 13. Landing by sea of enemy-held territory
Rawe went on to produce a paper which would cover three things.
First, he outlined some general points related to the nature of seaborne operations.
Secondly, he scrutinised the viability of three potential landing sites prior to offering a justification of his choice as the most suitable one, and finally he assessed the capacities of the naval and merchant vessels which would be available to carry out a landing.
Before proceeding with a summary of Rawe’s paper, it is important to emphasise the point that Nigeria was a young nation which had not developed any substantive naval traditions in the modern sense. It did not have what one might describe as a “military intellectual complex” from which to draw from decades or even centuries of tried and tested naval operational concepts.
The Nigerian Navy had its small but increasing naval warfare personnel trained at foreign institutions most notably at the Britannia Naval College in Dartmouth, England but it lacked relevant indigenous institutions including that of a Naval War College and specialist departments in higher education organisations where the built-up intellectual resources of naval and civilian thinkers composed of analysts and strategists would have laid down the theoretical foundations of Nigerian sea power.
And even though it could be argued that national military doctrines would be focused on combating external threats rather than on an internal war, the fact remained that the Nigerian Navy had no experience whatsoever in planning and implementing a seaborne landing operation.
Although the possibility had existed in the past of an inter-service operation: one over political tension with Cameroon and another relating to a planned invasion of Togo to aid President Sylvanus Olympio in the event of a war with Nkrumaist Ghana, the Nigerian Navy and Nigerian Army had never performed a combined operation.
Apart from its deficiency in the aforementioned “military intellectual complex”, the Nigerian Navy did not have an indigenous “military industrial complex” from which it produced its own weapons including naval ships.
This was a crucial matter indirectly addressed by Commander Rawe who noted that if the navy’s only landing craft were to be damaged during an operation, there would be no landing.
The reliance on foreign manufacturers was also a problem given the widespread acts of sabotage on most of the navy’s ships committed in April of 1967.
The first segment of the top-secret paper produced by Commander Rawe which was titled “General information and remarks on landings” outlined the necessity of having intelligence on the physical terrain of the proposed landing site and the resistance that was likely to be met.
Among other considerations, he emphasised the absolute necessity of degrading any prepared enemy positions and examined the methods which would be employed in the battlefield.
The weaponry and manpower available to both adversaries also had to be considered.
Finally, he looked at failures in a select number of amphibious operations undertaken by combined forces during the Second World War.
Looking at his observations and assessments 56 years later, it is worth bearing in mind the words of Professor Toshi Yoshihara, a contemporary expert in the field of maritime strategy, who said that “while technologies change the logic remains the same”.
One constant and inexorable logic attendant to the preparation of an amphibious assault is the gathering of intelligence data.
The Nigerian Navy alongside the army needed in the first instance to gather clear and reliable intelligence on the physical geography of the area which would eventually function as a landing site, as well as on the concentrations of enemy forces in the vicinity of the targeted area.
So far as physical geography is concerned, one vital piece of information commanders need to be fully informed of should be the nature of the beach. From this, they will be able to assess whether vehicles will be able to move over it, as well as the chances of the landing craft being damaged.
Factors to be taken into account include the gradient of the beach and any natural and man-made obstructions on such a beach. Knowledge of the gradient of the beach allows commanders to assess the depth of water through which men and vehicles would have to wade through before reaching the shore.
Regarding potential obstructions, you will appreciate that the presence of a seawall or steep-rising land would be an encumbrance to landing equipment and enabling troops to break out from the beach.
Of particular concern to the naval command, Commander Rawe noted the importance of having knowledge of the tidal stream and the amount of rise and fall of tide. This would then determine 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.
The second major issue, namely that of dealing with enemy concentrations around the designated area of beaching, was of particular concern to Commander Rawe who stressed the need for enemy positions to be sufficiently weakened by initial bombardment. In the case of a first landing, the Nigerian Navy would have to accomplish this without the assistance of an air force.
The navy would of course be responsible for getting troops of the Third Infantry Division on land. The best method to begin the enterprise would be to first send a small craft “carrying few men and offering small targets.”
Once the beach is made secure, the larger landing craft would be brought in to build up the landing force. The navy would be intimately involved in the method of supplying the force once it is landed and facilitating the transporting of vehicles, stores and equipment from the point at which the craft beaches to firm land.
Commander Rawe’s paper assessed the relative strengths of both federal and secessionist forces and noted that while the enemy was limited in terms of the weaponry it would bring to the arena of battle, the Nigerian forces were also limited.
For one, the navy did not possess any small landing craft; dinghies would provide a substitute of sorts, and it only possessed one landing craft tank.
The stakes were high.
For as Commander Rawe noted, if Nigeria’s sole landing craft were damaged before landing the first wave of troops, there could be no landing.
Furthermore, if the landing craft was damaged after landing the first troops but before a jetty was captured, where ordinary vessels could berth, then the troops on shore would be unable to be reinforced or be supplied with additional stores.
Commander Rawe was able to offer practical insight into the question of landings given his experiences during World War 2, offering three painful lessons the Allied forces endured.
In so far as the prior knowledge of physical geography of the selected landing site was concerned, he offered the examples of the amphibious operations conducted at Dieppe in 1942 and at Omaha Beach in 1944.
Dieppe, an operation which incidentally was overseen by Admiral Louis Mountbatten, failed because no account had been taken during the planning of the seawall which prevented tanks and other vehicles from leaving the beach.
The element of surprise was thus lost.
In the case of the landing at Omaha Beach, American forces found themselves unable to break out from the beach area because the terrain behind the beach consisted of steep cliffs.
The failure of the amphibious raid at Dieppe and the near failure of the landing at Omaha Beach were also due to the failure to degrade enemy positions by bombardment.
This was also at the heart of the costly loss of life among Royal Navy personnel during the operation to capture the Belgian region of Walcheren, which controls access to the seaport of Antwerp.
Sorties carried out by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy bombardment did not successfully neutralise several potent German batteries one of which scored a direct hit on a landing craft which killed around 300 allied personnel.
This incident had a profound effect on the young James Rawe who knew many of the naval officers who took part in the operation and several friends of his died.
Although he did not participate in the operation as he had at Normandy, he learned lessons from the mistakes made by the operation commanders, one of which was relying too much on the element of surprise.
Slide 14. Map of Port Harcourt, Bonny and Opobo.
We now go on to the question of selecting the location for the first amphibious assault conducted by the Nigerian Navy during the civil war.
As I mentioned earlier, the head of state had given the naval command a list of possible landing sites among which were Port Harcourt, Opobo and Bonny.
Slide 15. Landing points considered
Port Harcourt was a strategically important town which featured high on the list of possible candidates. Its harbour facilities, as well as its connection with Nigeria’s then burgeoning oil production marked it out.
It was of critical importance that it come under Federal control as soon as possible to prevent the secessionist state from conducting a lucrative international trade which would economically empower it and therefore enable it to build up a more formidable arsenal.
But Port Harcourt was over 40 miles up from the Bonny fairway buoy, and it would take between 4 to 6 hours to get there, depending on the tide, after entering the Bonny River. The task force would surely be sighted which would give the enemy plenty of opportunity to prepare defensive positions.
Moreover, the approach to Port Harcourt for the last 20 miles becomes narrow which would enable the opposition, if armed with mortars or rocket-propelled short-range weapons, to inflict heavy damage on the convoy.
Even if the naval force successfully beached, the civilian vessels would make for large easy targets and the supply chain of ships would have to take enormous risks during a 40-mile journey until the banks of the Bonny River were cleared of the enemy.
“From a naval point of view”, concluded Commander Rawe, “to embark on an attack on Port Harcourt, direct, would invite disaster.”
Opobo ostensibly presented a more promising location.
There were suitable locations to beach and there was sufficient depth of water to enable vessels to manoeuvre once vessels passed the bar.
However, there were difficulties, the most critical of which was the river bar. There was great uncertainty about the depth of the waters in this area. The river was not used commercially, and the last survey had been conducted in 1961.
The lack of water on the bar would mean that only the landing craft would be able to enter the river and that the landing would have to take place without naval fire support.
Adding to the potential problems was the question of weather conditions. River bars are vulnerable to the effects of heavy rain, fierce winds and crashing waves.
If the weather was bad in the Opobo area, it would mean that even the navy’s landing craft would most likely be unable to enter the river.
It would be too much to risk the only landing craft ending up stranded on one of the sand spits on either side of the river channel.
Still another impediment was the lack of intelligence on the presence and visibility of marker buoys and the beacon; that is the lighthouse.
The marker buoys would of course enable the task force to negotiate the navigable parts of the river, while the beacon would aid the ships in fixing their positions prior to entering the river.
Slide 16. Map of Bonny Island
The elimination of Port Harcourt and Opobo left Bonny as the only site where from “a naval point of view”, as Commander Rawe put it, “a landing would have a fair chance of success.”
It ticked most of the boxes.
The water was deep all the way up to the town; the wideness of the river would give ships room for manoeuvre; there were several spots which were suitable for the landing craft to beach; there were jetties at which ships could berth and supply stores even if the landing craft was disabled; naval vessels would be able to provide fire support to the troops being landed; and enemy vessels intending to bring reinforcements down the river would be stopped.
Additionally, occupying Bonny would seal off Port Harcourt 40 miles up the river, and landing on an island and taking it had the added advantage of an island being easier to defend than an area of mainland.
Slide 17. Advantages of taking Bonny
As this slide shows, a successful landing and capture of Bonny would yield great benefits for the federal war effort.
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.
There was also the obvious political and Economic importance of capturing Bonny Town and the adjacent oil terminal. At the time, Shell BP was still mulling over whether to pay the secessionist state royalties when its chairman was arrested by secessionist troops while on a visit to Port Harcourt.
Capturing Bonny would make it quite clear to Shell BP that it was Federal Nigeria which would control the export of oil.
Slide 18. Available vessels
The third and final section of Commander Rawe’s paper set out the vessels which were available to serve as a task force. It is important to remind you of my previous statement regarding Nigeria’s not having a “military industrial complex”, the result of its not having developed an industrial base. None of the vessels, naval or merchant, had been built in the country.
This of course leads to issues pertaining to the dangers associated with over reliance on foreign suppliers, as well as the costs associated with maintenance.
It was an issue still exercising Nigerian naval personnel decades later when Captain O.A. Oladijeji wrote a piece for the U.S. Naval Institute in 1990 titled "Where Are the African Navies Going?"
At the start of the civil war, the Nigerian Navy owned ships which had once been in the service of the navies of the United States or Western European countries such as Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and France.
Still, the Navy had more vessels at its disposal than the secessionist side which had acquired NNS Ibadan, a minesweeper which had been on patrol off the Eastern region during the crisis.
Arraigned against that sole vessel would be a frigate, a patrol boat, three seaward defence boats (SDBs) and one landing craft. Merchant ships would also be available to serve as troop carriers and to transport stores.
Although he did not include it among “available vessels”, NNS Penelope, Commander Rawe’s old survey ship, was converted into a fighting vessel.
So, let us go through each ship to gauge their respective physical features and the firepower which they would bring to the theatre of war.
NNS Nigeria, a Dutch-made frigate, was 314 feet in length and had a maximum speed of 24 knots. It had one set of twin MK XVI “HA/LA” naval guns which were quick firing and used by the Royal Navy and other Commonwealth navies. It also had 4 Bofors anti-aircraft guns.
NNS Ogoja was an 185-foot-long corvette armed with a 3-inch gun, four 40mm Bofors guns and six 20mm Oerlikons. It was fitted with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) equipment and had a maximum speed of 18 knots.
The Nigerian Navy also had three seaward defence boats namely NNS Enugu, NNS Benin, and NNS Kaduna, all 110-foot long and armed with one 40mm Bofors and anti-submarine equipment. Each had a speed of 13 knots.
The landing craft NNS Lokoja was 188-foot in length and had two 20mm Oerlikons. It had a speed of 8 knots.
NNS Penelope was a 79-foot-long survey vessel which was converted into an armed ship possessing one 20mm Oerlikon and two Vickers machine guns.
The naval vessels would be accompanied by two merchant ships named MV Bode Thomas and the MV King Jaja.
Slide 19. Photograph of NNS Nigeria
This slide shows a photograph of NNS Nigeria soon after its commissioning in 1965.
After considering all the issues of the three sections it was up to the High Command of the Nigerian armed forces to determine whether the information and assessment were such that the military necessity of the landings outweighed the risks involved.
The decision to stage the landing in Bonny was soon confirmed and Commander Rawe drew up a mission plan which specified the role to be played by the Commanding Officer of each ship from the moment they were issued with sailing orders to the landing operation.
Command responsibilities were clearly delineated and issues such as communication procedures, logistics, medical and tidal information were dealt with.
Slide 20. Cover of Naval Operation No.1 of 1967
The preamble to Naval Operation (Order Number One) 1967 is straightforward as you can see on the slide.
The situation was that the “Bonny Town area is occupied by enemy forces approximately 300 strong in prepared positions.”
And the mission 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 on which it is situated.”
Slide 22. Command.
The three seniormost commanders of the mission were identified as Captain Nelson Soroh who 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 James Rawe was given the role of “naval liaison officer” and “forward control officer”.
Slide 23. Captain Nelson Soroh (Pen Portrait)
Here is a pen-portrait of Captain Soroh, the officer in charge of the mission. Like Wey, he was transferred from the Marine Department to the Royal Nigerian Navy where he became a pioneer naval warfare officer.
He commanded several ships including NNS Nigeria and was earmarked as the eventual successor to Rear Admiral Wey as the CNS.
Slide 24. Outline of operation (waves of landings)
The plan provided for the task force to land troops 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 second wave would be landed by NNS Nigeria when the situation permitted.
And the third wave would be landed after Bonny Town was captured.
Slide 25. Outline of operation (command)
The timeline regarding the commanding of the operation was that during the seaborne assault, the officer-in-charge of the mission, namely Captain Soroh, the Commanding Officer of NNS Nigeria, would exercise control through the forward control officer, Commander Rawe, the Commanding Officer of NNS Penelope.
Rawe would lead the task force into battle while NNS Nigeria, a prized asset which the navy would not place in unnecessary risk in shallower and more confined waters would bombard enemy placements within Bonny.
After completing the landing operations, sea and land commands would then divide.
Slide 26. Officers commanding ships
This slide shows the vessels taking part and their commanding officers. Note that although Lieutenant Commander Adegbite had been scheduled to command NNS Benin, one of the SDBs; his place was apparently later taken by Lieutenant Promise Fingesi.
Slide 27. Movement and Function of vessels during operation
The movement of vessels was also carefully choreographed for the three different stages of the operation.
First was the initial movement of vessels.
Second was the movement of vessels to the area of operations and third was the function of the vessels during the landing operation.
Slide 28. Initial movement of vessels
The movement of vessels from the naval base in Lagos had to be staggered as each of the types of ships had different capacities of speed.
NNS Lokoja, sailing at a speed of 8 knots, was scheduled to leave first. It was destined for Escravos but would rendezvous first with the MV Bode Thomas, a ship of the Nigerian Ports Authority, at Ogidigben and embark the assault troops.
After this it would sail to meet the main body of the task force at Escravos Fairway Buoy.
Penelope sailed after Lokoja moving at 7 knots and headed directly to Bonny Fairway Buoy.
Nigeria, alongside Ogoja, Enugu and Benin were scheduled to leave very shortly after Penelope at a speed of 12 knots and scheduled to rendezvous with Lokoja at Escravos Fairway Buoy. From Escravos, all ships would proceed to rendezvous with Penelope at Bonny Fairway Buoy.
Slide 29. Movement of vessels into area of operations (Sea areas)
After the ships assembled on the Atlantic Ocean, at the mouth of the Bonny River, the movement of the vessels into the area of operations would begin.
As is the tradition in military planning, a segment beginning from the Atlantic Ocean up to the waters of the Bonny River that is adjacent to Bonny Island was divided into separate named areas.
From south to north the areas were named “Osca”, “Papa”, “Quebec”, “Romeo”, “Sierra”, “Tango”, “Uniform”, “Victor”, “Whiskey” “X-ray”, “Yankee” and “Zulu”.
Slide 30. Movement of vessels into area of operations (Bonny Town sectors)
At the same time, Bonny town was divided into several sectors in which the ship commanders were assigned tasks relating to shore bombardment.
From south to north the sectors were “Mike” (Shell area), “India”, “Hotel”, “Golf”, “Foxtrot", “Echo”, “Delta", “Bravo” and “Alpha”.
Slide 31. (Areas of Sea)
Here you can see the different zones in a map which I based on the overlay to admiralty chart created by Commander Rawe.
NNS Ogoja under Lieutenant Commander Aduwo was scheduled to move northwards into “Area Sierra”, while NNS Enugu and NNS Benin to be commanded respectively by Lieutenant Commander Abdullahi and Lieutenant Commander Adegbite would advance further into “Area Tango”.
The landing craft NNS Lokoja commanded by Commander Joe and escorted by NNS Benin would then proceed into the next zone designated as “Area Uniform”.
NNS Penelope would operate flexibly with Commander Rawe communicating orders to the ships and simultaneously apprising NNS Nigeria of the combat situation while Nigeria remained in the southernmost areas in the Atlantic Ocean respectively named “Area Papa” and ”Area Osca”.
NNS Nigeria would use its large guns to bombard enemy positions with bombardment being supplemented by those ships carrying Bofors guns. The Oerlikon guns and the Vickers guns could be used to provide covering fire for advancing federal troops.
Let me embark on a more forensic look at the role of each vessel.
Captain Soroh in NNS Nigeria was to remain in either the “Papa” or “Osca” areas until it was safe for her to enter into the Bonny River. It is of course important to assess your vulnerabilities and NNS Nigeria was a case in point. There’s a saying that you “don’t risk your big ships as you will not get an equivalent amount of military value from it”.
Ships have always been vulnerable in a multiplicity of ways. The sinking of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales by Japanese land-based aircraft in 1941 was the first time that capital ships were sunk solely by air power while actively defending themselves. It ended the era of battleships.
And just three months after the landing at Bonny, INS Eilat, an Israeli Z-class destroyer which was formerly the Royal Navy’s HMS Zealous, was sunk by an Egyptian Komar-class missile boat positioned within the harbour at Port Said during the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition.
Thus, NNS Nigeria would not be put at risk to ensure that it provided effective support to the land forces.
Nigeria’s role at the commencement of the operation was to silence any artillery or gun positions in the theatre of war, waiting for an appropriate moment to enter the battle zone after the first wave of troops was landed by NNS Lokoja.
Captain Soroh had on board ten assault boats, and it would be up to him to decide whether to use them to disembark the troops who were onboard Nigeria or to transfer them to Commander Joe on Lokoja which was supposed to re-join Nigeria after it disembarked the first wave.
While operations were ongoing, war flares or star shells were to be utilised as a means of conveying military signals, so Lieutenant Commander Abdullahi on NNS Enugu was expected to communicate when the SDBs opened fire to Captain Soroh by sending up “one green Very light”.
Commander Rawe, the Forward Control Officer on Penelope, was to back this up verbally via radio channel.
Lieutenant Commander Aduwo on NNS Ogoja was to remain within “Area Sierra” to provide bombardment and cover fire in “Sector Golf” in Bonny.
Ogoja’s task was to engage enemy troops and prevent them from moving north where the landing was taking place.
It was also expected to engage any enemy troops if they retreated southwards. In order to avoid casualties caused by “friendly fire”, Aduwo and other ship commanders were advised of the procedure associated with indicating the position of friendly troops.
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 doing so, the troops would be indicating their most southerly position which would permit relevant naval vessels to fire ahead of them.
This is because the commanding officers on the vessels would presume that the troops to the north of the point from where the Very light was fired were “friendly” and those to the south were “enemy” troops unless the relevant vessel commander had strong reason to believe otherwise.
In “Area Tango”, Lieutenant Commander Abdullahi and Lieutenant Commander Adegbite, respectively on NNS Enugu and NNS Benin, were tasked with first firing at the jetties situated at the northern end of Bonny after which they would bombard the landing area situated between the two northernmost jetties.
Abdullahi was charged with arranging the bombardment so that the whole target area was covered. Both commanding officers were under instructions not to fire from north of their position in “Tango” unless necessary to prevent stray shells from landing in the high-density part of Bonny Town designated as “Sector Foxtrot”.
Abdullahi had the responsibility for firing “one green Very light” when firing commenced and both he and Adegbite were to cease firing on the landing area once Joe in Lokoja fired “one red Very light”.
Once Enugu and Benin completed their bombardment, they were to move north into the next zone, “Area Uniform” where they were expected to engage any enemy vessels or enemy aircraft coming down the Bonny River.
Lokoja was expected to land between the two northernmost jetties of Bonny Town with the exact position of the landing to be decided by Commander Joe.
Joe was as mentioned expected to fire “one red Very light” in the final stage of her beaching run. Throughout all of this, Commander Rawe in Penelope would act as the forward control for both sea and land forces until Captain Soroh entered the Bonny River in NNS Nigeria.
Slide 32. Miscellaneous.
To round off our look at the Operation Order, I’ll make a brief mention of miscellaneous matters. In his battle plan, Commander Rawe reminded all commanding officers that their ships were to be prepared to defend themselves against air attack and to post lookouts to give warning of approaching aircraft.
They were expected to engage with any enemy in their vicinity, and where this was not the case, they were to forward pertinent information to “control”, that is Commander Rawe’s ship.
Voice traffic was to be kept to a minimum and ship captains were reminded not to fire into the high density “Sector Foxtrot '' unless essential.
Logistics covered supplies of ammunition, fuel, and food. All vessels were told to stock up on their full outfit of ammunition before sailing and to cram in as much as possible if there was enough stowage space.
All vessels were to be fuelled to no less than 95% of their capacities and to have enough water which would be rationed.
So far as food was concerned, all vessels were to be stocked with as much fresh and dry rations as could be stowed. Vessels were instructed not to leave Lagos with less than seven days rations of food.
The ships were supposed to have first aid medical supplies with access to a doctor and other medical personnel on NNS Nigeria. Those wounded who required more than first aid would be transferred to NNS Nigeria as soon as it was expeditious. Nigeria would also be carrying additional personnel for replacement purposes.
Tidal information specific to the high water and lower water estimates regarding both Bonny Bar and Bonny Town was also given which covered four periods during the day on Monday, July 24th, Tuesday July 25th and Wednesday, July 26th.
Slide 33. Communications
Finally, Naval Operation (Order Number One) of 1967 laid out the command and communications structure of the mission.
As previously mentioned, the three key officers were Captain Soroh, Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle and Commander Rawe. Rawe would be at the centre of the communication network which on one side consisted of the ships Lokoja, Ogoja, Benin and Enugu and on the other Captain Soroh in Nigeria, who would provide communication to naval headquarters and the merchant ships.
This format would endure until circumstances permitted Nigeria to enter the Bonny River and take direct control of the operation. Nigeria would keep guard on circuit 201 and Captain Soroh would order each of the ships to keep guard when appropriate on designated frequencies in voice and morse code.
Each ship was given a call sign. NNS Nigeria was “Beauty,” Penelope was “Sparrow”, Kaduna was “Love” and so on. All ships shared the call sign “Loco”.
Slide 34. Rawe’s pen drawn “command network”.
Here you can see an excerpt of the naval order depicting the “command network” as drawn by Commander Rawe and as I have explained in the previous slide.
Slide 35. Preparations
Now we come to the preparations undertaken by the Nigerian Navy to accomplish the amphibious attack on Bonny.
This presented a challenge on many fronts.
There was a logistical aspect, an intelligence aspect, as well as the aspect concerned with the effort of harmonising two branches of the armed forces embarked on a first combined operation.
All of these needed to be attained within a short period of time.
As mentioned earlier, naval equipment on board vessels and on shore at the Apapa base had been vandalised by about-to-defect naval personnel from the Eastern region.
The gradual disappearance of personnel consisting of both officers and ratings who were clandestinely returning to their native region, as well as the interference with apparatus were setbacks.
The damage was so extensive as to convince the secessionist side that the Nigerian Navy would be rendered impotent for a considerable period of time.
In a conversation between the secessionist leader, Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, and the respective deputy high commissioners of the United Kingdom and the United States in Enugu, Ojukwu had expressed contempt when informed by both men of the rumours of a planned federal invasion from the sea.
Ojukwu insisted that the Nigerian Navy was not patrolling off the coast of the former Eastern region, and in a separate utterance he warned that his forces would line the bottom of the creeks of the Niger Delta with the ships of the Nigerian Navy if they ventured close to the coast.
But Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu was wrong.
In his 2004 memoir, Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle noted that due to “the excellent relationship between the navy personnel and their foreign suppliers,” the navy was able to replenish her stock “in a very short time”. The navy also competently organised second level maintenance by well-trained technical staff.
And in an intelligence triumph, the navy and her sister service undertook to carry out their preparations under the greatest level of secrecy. Adekunle recalled that all non-essential civilians from Ikeja cantonment were dismissed, and a regime of mail censorship and telephone tapping was imposed.
While the country lacked an industrial military complex, it was able to adapt and innovate solutions for a range of issues using local resources. For instance, it was clear that the troops would need life jackets. But the question arose as to the amount of buoyancy a soldier with full kit, steel helmet and rifle would need to stay afloat.
Commander Rawe therefore arranged for Major Tony Ochefu to bring a soldier to the naval base in full kit. The soldier was fitted with a canvas jacket with blocks of polystyrene and a rope was tied around him before he was dropped into the ocean from a harbour. It took four drops to calibrate the required amount of buoyancy by incremental additions of polystyrene.
Also, NNS Lokoja was provided with matting and expanded metal to cover any soft spots on the beach to help with the landing of vehicles.
The navy was also faced with the task of undertaking combat exercises, as well as building up the requisite esprit de corps with their counterparts in the army. On both accounts, the figure of Commander Rawe was influential.
Rawe had been part of “Combined Operations” during World War 2 and he completed the commando training course near Fort William in Scotland. Thus, his training and experiences had made him a great believer in the need for integrated operations and the need for the branches of the armed forces to work closely together and to know how the other arms operated.
It was also important to Rawe that the service branches trusted each other.
Both Soroh and Adekunle wrote about the combined exercises which took place around Tarkwa Bay.
Adekunle described the naval manoeuvres undertaken to have included “ship pitching, embarkation and disembarkation in daylight and darkness”, while Soroh recalled that the army was trained in handling dinghies and outboard engines because they needed boats for moving their men into the creeks as soon as they were put ashore by the naval ships.
And to solidify the sense of camaraderie between naval and army officers, a series of joint mass dinners was organised.
Slide 36. Photograph of sailors in action.
And so the Nigerian Navy was ready for war. You can see in the image two sailors manning a Vickers machine gun.
Slide 37. Rawe and Adekunle
This slide shows a photograph taken of Commander Rawe and Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle at the bridge of NNS Penelope, the converted survey ship commanded by Rawe. Both men built up a solid relationship during the joint service operations conducted in the Nigerian Civil War.
Both officers formulated their battle plans for each amphibious landing and met to coordinate their plans. As Rawe later recalled they both shared “danger and discomfort” and had “complete trust in each other when in the face of the enemy”.
Slide 38. The attack
Thorough preparedness for battle does not totally obviate the danger of having to cope with unexpected setbacks. Indeed, as Moltke the Elder, the German field marshal warned, “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength.” He believed in developing a series of options for battle instead of a single plan.
With its modest collection of ships including only one landing craft, the Nigerian naval task force did not have a multiplicity of options in so far as conducting the amphibious assault was concerned.
But as it set sail, they would have been comforted by the fact that the enemy had far fewer men and material to oppose them. Sailing orders were given on July 22nd, 1967, and the rendezvous of all participant vessels at Bonny Buoy happened without a hitch.
On July 25th, the order to execute was given on the first daylight by Captain Soroh who began pounding enemy positions from Nigeria as Commander Rawe led the force into the Bonny River.
As the ships sailed past the Bonny Oil Terminal, an expatriate manager was about to have his breakfast when his attention was drawn to the ships passing by. While he was doubtful of the ability of the secessionist side to have acquired the six grey ships, his Biafran steward felt that his leader, Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu had made good on his promise to assemble a naval force.
While this conversation was going on, Commander Rawe in NNS Penelope gave the order to fire on the signal station and telegraph office to cut off Bonny’s connections to Port Harcourt. Both men took cover and when they met under the table, they agreed that it was not the Biafran Navy after all.
Slide 39. Ogoja vs. Ibadan. (Aduwo vs. Odu)
As the flotilla proceeded it encountered the former NNS Ibadan which had been rechristened BNS Ibadan. The captain of the secessionist ship Lieutenant Commander P.J. Odu recalled that three ships were in the process of bombarding Bonny when contact was made.
Ibadan was retreating into the Bonny River in the direction of Port Harcourt when Rawe ordered Lieutenant Commander Aduwo to detach Ogoja from the convoy and give chase.
Ogoja opened fire with its 3-inch and 40mm guns and Odu, in his words, with his “comparatively puny Bofors anti-aircraft gun” responded.
But Ibadan’s gun kept jamming at intervals; “after every third or fourth round”, so Odu decided to turn his ship around whenever it jammed to keep its distance from Aduwo's ship.
But it eventually entered shallow waters and was unable to manoeuvre back to the open sea. It became a stationary target.
A cannon fired from Ogoja scored a direct hit on Ibadan's engine room. It created an intense fire which melted the ladder below deck, trapping the men not on deck to certain death. Above, the smoke billowed out through the funnel on the deck which was itself littered with bodies.
Surveying the wreckage from his bridge, Aduwo could see Odu clearly through his binoculars. He went on the megaphone to appeal to him to join him on Ogoja and was preparing to send a lifeboat to collect Odu and his surviving crew.
But Odu and his men escaped into an adjoining mangrove swamp. Aduwo re-joined the task force to report to Rawe that an enemy vessel had been sunk, adding “I hope the captain got away -he was a friend of mine”.
Slide 40. Ibadan wreck.
This slide shows a photograph of the wrecked Ibadan with the words “The Biafran Navy RIP” written on its side.
Slide 41. Photograph
Here we can see troops in the foreground and sailors in the background onboard NNS Penelope while the battle was still ongoing.
Slide 42. Photograph
And here is one of a gun crew on Penelope manning a Vickers machine gun during the attack.
Slide 43. The Landing
With Ibadan sunk, the bombardment of Bonny continued with suspected enemy positions being cannonaded by Nigeria, as well as by Benin and Enugu. It was effective enough to disorientate and dislodge the Biafran forces stationed there and according to Soroh, they “offered little or no resistance.”
Commander Joe beached Lokoja at a chosen site in the northern part of the town. According to Aduwo, this had been because of the intelligence revelation of the sparse concentrations of secessionist soldiers in the area. It was also to deny the Biafran side the possibility of being “reinforced from Port Harcourt.”
Rawe and Adekunle found a small jetty and disembarked with 40 troops to minor resistance. The other ships which all carried a quota of troops also found jetties at which they were disembarked.
Bonny was captured within 2 hours of the first salvo of cannon fired by the Nigerian warships. Resistance was roughly what had been expected. There were around 200 casualties, most of whom were secessionist soldiers.
Unable to contact Soroh by radio, Rawe made his way down the estuary to inform him that all was safe to enter the estuary with the merchant ships.
There had been some mishaps which the opposition had been unable to exploit. For instance, both Lokoja and Benin ran aground at different points during the operation, Lokoja while attempting to land a second batch of troops and could not get out until high tide, while Benin suffered the same fate on the second day of the operation.
These incidents would have been disastrous if the enemy had more formidable resources to have exploited them.
Slide 44. Photograph
This is NNS Lokoja landing troops on “D-Day” in Bonny.
Slide 45. Photograph
And here Commander Rawe poses with the crew of Penelope after the capture of Bonny Town.
Slide 46. Operational Gains
The landings executed by the navy and aided by naval firepower led to the capture of neighbouring Peterside and the advance position of Dawes Island, 20 miles north of Bonny. The Ocean Oil Terminal on Bonny was captured intact and although Commander Rawe and his crew did reach Port Harcourt oil refinery, they carried too few troops to permanently occupy the deserted complex.
Nonetheless, the operation was a success and after two weeks the navy could claim a successful landing and degrading of the enemy's manpower and resources.
Over 100 prisoners were taken to the naval base in Apapa, and the navy acquired material and equipment salvaged from the wreck of Ibadan.
Slide 47. Photograph
This slide shows Commander Rawe and some of his crew working to detach the Bofors 40 mm gun from Ibadan.
Slide 47. Letter from Adekunle to Rawe.
So the navy and army proved that they could work together and achieve set objectives. The relationship between the naval liaison officer, Commander Rawe and Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle developed into a close and fruitful one as this undated note from Adekunle to Rawe indicates:
Dear Jim, the unit Commander of the troops at Dawes Island saw me at 1 a.m. to report that it will be essential to locate a ship at the island even if it is for 24 hours.
The reasons are:
1. To scare away the helicopters.
2. To revive the low morale of the troops there.
I do endorse the plea and would graciously request you to send one of your SDBs for 24 hours only. Without being overbearing, may I suggest Ogoja? Thank you for your cooperation.
Slide 49. Signal from Gowon to Soroh
And on receiving the news that Bonny had been captured, the Head of State Major General Yakubu Gowon sent the following message of commendation to the officer-in-charge of the operation, Captain Soroh:
“…You have got all the right to feel proud, happy and contented with the result of the recent combined operations at Bonny which was your responsibility to see come off successfully. The Army Commander has sent me a signal saying how nobly well the Navy did in the conveying, landing and support fire role which the Navy gave to the Army at the operations in Bonny.”
Slide 50. Operation Sea Jack
Yet, the achievement at Bonny came perilously close to being undone in late September 1967 when the secessionist side launched “Operation Sea Jack”, a determined attempt to retake the town.
There were several reasons why the enemy had been emboldened to make this attack.
Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle claimed, not without reason, that the Navy had not been making aggressive patrols of the Bonny River and at one point he sent Captain Soroh an irate signal which asserted that if Soroh was not prepared to order aggressive patrols of the Bonny River that he had better go back to Lagos as naval ships were not supposed to adorn the area for their good looks only.
Adekunle felt that this lack of aggression had given the secessionist side the temerity to occasionally send boats down the river to shell Bonny.
But the fault did not reside only with the navy.
The rapid expansion of the Nigerian Army had meant that there was a problem of finding senior officers to command battalions.
This was compounded by the fact that the Third Infantry Division had withdrawn its best officers, first to stage a landing at Escravos to counter the secessionist invasion of the Mid-West in August 1967 and secondly, experienced officers and men were transferred from the Bonny theatre to prepare for the landings in Sapele, Warri and Koko.
Those who were left were mainly poorly trained and poorly led.
It should also be noted that the relationship between Captain Soroh and Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle was not the best as they had conflicting personalities and styles of leadership, and relations between sea and land commands in Bonny deteriorated while Commander Rawe was on leave during the latter half of August in 1967.
In late September 1967, when the federal side was expelling secessionist forces from the Mid-West, Bonny was attacked when left in the hands of the 7th battalion of the Third Infantry Division commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Abubakar, while neighbouring Peterside only had a company commanded by Captain Bello.
The federal side was vastly outnumbered by the secessionist attackers and in danger of being overwhelmed when naval headquarters was informed. NNS Nigeria was despatched and joined in the battle by Ogoja.
Soroh recalled that some federal combatants had been literally pushed into the water, while Aduwo had to refuse a request made by a Federal troop commander to take him onboard, compelling the officer to stand and fight.
The enemy was eventually driven back largely through the firepower provided by naval warships. According to Soroh’s memoir, Lieutenant Colonel Abubakar admitted that the timely intervention of the Nigerian Navy had spared the Federal army a defeat at the hands of the secessionist forces.
Bonny and Peterside were held on to, but the secessionists took over previous advance positions held by the Federal side including Dawes Island and they were able to construct a boom across the Bonny River. Secessionist forces would not be removed from the approaches to Bonny until January 1968, and Port Harcourt did not fall until May of that year.
Slide 51. Chronology of Nigerian navy Seaborne Assaults
This slide shows the chronology of amphibious assaults carried out by the Nigerian Navy during the civil war, each of which slowly but assuredly began the encirclement of Biafra.
Slide 52. Map
This map details the location of each of the landings.
Slide 53. Conclusion
So, we can conclude that the Nigerian Navy played a vital part in the defeat of the secessionist state through its amphibious operations and its mounting of a blockade. The navy’s capture (in combination with the Third Infantry Division) of oil industry installations, ports, and coastline was an important component in securing the defeat of the armed forces of the secessionist state of Biafra.
Slide 54. Nigerian Navy’s First Colours given by Maj. Gen. Gowon
And here in the final photograph is the Head of State awarding the navy its first colours at a ceremony held at the naval base, Apapa on Monday, October 21st, 1968.
Gentlemen, I trust that you will ponder on these points and leave you to ruminate over what we have covered in the planning and execution of the Bonny landing to draw lessons for the conduct of future amphibious operations undertaken by the navy.
Slide 55. Navy Ensign
It has been a pleasure delivering this lecture which I hope has made a small contribution to enrichment of the corporate memory of the Nigerian Navy.
I will now take any questions that you may have.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2023).