Tuesday 25 July 2023

The Nigerian Civil War: A New History of the Bonny Amphibious Operation, July-September 1967

Commander James Rawe and the crew of NNS Penelope during the amphibious operation in Bonny. Photo credit: Archive of Captain James Rawe.


The amphibious landing of troops belonging to the federal army of Nigeria at Bonny during the Nigerian Civil War is often described as a landmark feat accomplished by the military of a modern Black African state. It was the first of a total of five seaborne landings undertaken during the conflict which along with the instituting of a naval blockade formed the basis of the encirclement and eventual defeat of the secessionist state of Biafra. This paper captures the rapid transformation of the Nigerian Navy from what many may have perceived as a glorified civilian marine department into a battle-ready force which asserted itself during the tumultuous period of bloody divisions in the army before going on to orchestrate the first of a series of combined operations during which it successfully transported, landed, and afforded covering fire to troops of the Third Infantry Division. In elucidating on the anatomy of an amphibious operation, the paper will explain the wider implications of the endeavour in terms of its military and political objectives. It also reveals the pivotal role played by James Rawe, an expatriate British naval officer and veteran of the Normandy landings, in the planning and execution of what would become Naval Operation (No.1) of 1967.

The background

The Nigerian Navy was barely a decade old when it was called upon to perform the first amphibious landing of troops by a modern Black African armed force in July 1967. Nigeria did not have a maritime organisation dedicated to warfare until 1956.1 Although Nigeria’s 850-mile-long coastline lay adjacent to the strategically important sea lanes within the Gulf of Guinea,2 its British colonial ruler preferred the Royal Navy to provide an umbrella of military protection while it operated a civilian-orientated Marine Department for the country. The Marine Department of the Niger Coast Company which was formed in 1894 was succeeded in 1914 by a Marine Department which consisted of the merged Marine Departments of the Northern and Southern Protectorates.3 As independence dawned, pressure from segments of the native political class to create a conventional navy grew. Therefore the creation of the Nigerian Naval Force, was an effort to establish an armed institution dedicated to protecting the soon-to-be independent nation’s littoral borders from external aggression, along with miscellaneous duties including deterring and apprehending those involved in smuggling.4 The body was renamed the Royal Nigerian Navy in 19595 and it finally became the Nigerian Navy in 1963 after the country became a republic.6

Providing an overview of the Nigerian Navy during the period of crisis which commenced in 1966 and the organisation’s reaction to events is important for two reasons. First, the navy responded by embarking on a remarkably rapid transformation into a state of military preparedness. Secondly, while it had evaded the violent divisions which had ripped through the Nigerian Army, it would nonetheless endure episodes of sabotage, as well as the defection of personnel. The latter element left the leader of the secessionist region firmly convinced that the navy’s capacities had been 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.

Unlike the Nigerian Army whose predecessors had accumulated a good deal of experience in campaigns in various parts of the African continent and as far as Burma, the Nigerian Navy had no such tradition of campaigning save that of the limited activity of the old Marine Department against German Kamerun forces during the Great War fought by the European powers.7 And unlike the army, the Nigerian Navy was not required to perform peacekeeping duties during the upheavals in the Congo in the early 1960s.

A coup led by middle-ranking officers of the army in January 1966 was followed in July by a reprisal coup which caused even greater bloodshed than the first. During these upheavals, the navy remained a stable organisation under the leadership of Commodore Joseph Wey, the marine engineer who had become the first indigenous Chief of Naval Staff in 1964. 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 1967.8

The image of the navy as a glorified marine department began to change after it was put on alert as a reaction to the January 15th coup. For the first time, members of the public saw naval officers carrying service pistols and ratings wearing blue-shirted combat uniforms and steel helmets while armed with L1A1 Self-Loading Rifles. Armed naval ratings formed part of the defensive ring around the old Parliament building inside which Commodore Wey appeared alongside Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the head of the newly formed military government. Behind Wey was his aide-de-camp, a sub-lieutenant whose right hand appeared much of the time to be positioned above his gun-holster.9

The tense situation necessitated the imposition of emergency naval base defences at Apapa. In January, the navy asserted itself by refusing to hand over army coup suspects being held as prisoners at the base to army officers until this was done through the correct channels. The army provost marshal who had arrived with an escort of soldiers was first made to walk past a set of 20mm Oerlikon cannon and Vickers machine guns before continuing through layers of seamen who were armed with rifles and submachine guns. Ratings were also armed and dug in at various sectors of the base. Similarly, after the July coup, a request made by army officers to search the base for weapons was resolutely refused. It is worth noting that the navy provided shelter to senior army officers and the Inspector General of Police at the base. Coffins for two of the prominent officials assassinated in January 1966 were also prepared at the base and the navy oversaw the transporting of the body of the fallen Supreme Commander to his hometown in the Eastern region in January 1967 where Commodore Wey attended the funeral.10

During the crisis, naval 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, communication sets, 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 under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Emeka Ojukwu.11

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.12 The objective was to blockade the littoral space where oil was exported with 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. From the early part of July, no ships were allowed to be loaded at any ports including the oil terminal and the Federal Military Government warned oil companies against paying royalties into a suspense account when royalties became due in July. If they persisted in doing so, the government informed them that the Nigerian Navy would be used to prevent the departure of any tanker.13

The next step was to mount an amphibious landing of Federal troops, a move that would be orchestrated by the Nigerian Navy. Commodore Wey was handed a list of possible sites by Major General Yakubu Gowon, the head of the Federal Military Government.14

The authors Ian Speller and Christopher Tuck define amphibious warfare as:

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.15

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.16 

The operation at 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 as is the objective of a “raid.” It was also not an amphibious “demonstration,” that is, a deception designed to divert attention from other landing sites. Nor was it a mission designed to offer "support on the basis of providing humanitarian aid or disaster relief or a “withdrawal,” which is an operation designed to extract forces from a hostile shore.17

Orchestrating a landing that is not opposed is an inherently difficult endeavour, it is not surprising therefore that conducting an amphibious operation where the enemy is waiting is considered to be among the most onerous and dangerous military operations.

The conventional pattern of an amphibious assault would be to begin by bombarding the defensive positions of the enemy, which in the Nigerian case would be limited to naval bombardment. Once the opposition is “softened,” troops will be taken to the shore on transport vessels and landing craft in successive waves during which time beachheads are seized and a perimeter established to enable the introduction of heavy reinforcements composed of armaments and vehicles, along with stores. These accumulated efforts then provide the basis of the landed force advancing inland and transforming maritime warfare into a land campaign.18

Thus, the idea behind the Bonny operation was for a Nigerian naval task force to land and establish soldiers of the newly created Third Infantry Division onto territory held by secessionist forces and begin the effort of regaining territory.

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 might be described 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, strategists and senior officers would have laid down the theoretical foundations of Nigerian sea power.19

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.

Those operations which had taken place on the African continent had been conducted by European and North American militaries. “Operation Menace” in September 1940 was an attack jointly mounted by Free French and British naval forces on Vichy-held Dakar, Senegal,20 while “Operation Ironclad”, the first British amphibious assault since the disastrous landings at the Dardanelles in February 1915, was an Allied attack on Vichy-held Malagasy which was staged in May 1942.21 And in November 1942, “Operation Torch” was the Allied attack on French Morocco and French Algeria where German and Italian armies were in control.22

Although the possibility had existed prior to the Bonny assault of an inter-service operation of the Nigerian armed forces: one over political tension with Cameroon23 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 Army had never performed a combined operation.24

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.25 The reliance on foreign manufacturers and suppliers would be an issue which would hover over the navy for the duration of the war.

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.26 The son of a linguist in the service of British naval intelligence and grandson of a naval architect who became the superintendent of the Ottoman Sultan’s arsenal, Rawe was a veteran of the Second World War when as a teenaged midshipman of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), he served as the navigation officer of a landing craft and had landed the first wave of American troops on D-day at “Utah Beach”.27

As the only officer serving in the Nigerian Navy who had faced gunfire while landing on a beach it was quite 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 he came to know the coastal area better than any of his navigator colleagues.28

Thus, 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 the newly promoted Rear Admiral Wey, he formulated an overall naval strategy.29

Rawe went on to produce a paper which he divided into three segments. 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.30

The preparation

The first segment of the top-secret paper produced by Rawe which was titled “General information and remarks on landings” focused on pre-landing operations, which would in modern parlance be described as “shaping the littoral battlespace.” He 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 were also considered. Finally, he looked at failures in a select number of amphibious operations undertaken by combined forces during the Second World War.31

An essential component part of 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.32

As 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 which need to be considered 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. They will also need to be aware of any potential obstructions, such as the presence of a seawall or steep-rising land, either of which would be an encumbrance to landing equipment and enabling troops to break out from the beach.33

Of particular concern to the naval command, 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.34

The second major issue, namely that of dealing with enemy concentrations around the designated area of beaching, was of particular concern to 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.35

The navy would of course be responsible for getting troops of the Third Infantry Division onto 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.36

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 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.37

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. As 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 that 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 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.38

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.39

The city of 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.40

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.41

“From a naval point of view,” Rawe concluded, “to embark on an attack on Port Harcourt, direct, would invite disaster.”42

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 which had been done in 1961 recorded a depth of seven feet. 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.43

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 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. 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.44

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.45

A successful landing and the subsequent capture of Bonny would, Rawe noted, 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.46

There was also the obvious political and economic importance of capturing Bonny Town and the adjacent oil terminal. Shell-BP was still mulling over whether to pay the secessionist state royalties. Capturing Bonny would make it quite clear to Shell BP that it was Federal Nigeria that would control the export of oil.47

The third and final section of Rawe’s paper set out the vessels which were available to serve as a task force.

None of the vessels, naval or merchant, had been built in the country, the result of Nigeria having not developed an industrial base. 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. The lack of a manufacturing base invites the dangers associated with over reliance on foreign suppliers, as well as with the costs associated with maintenance.48

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. Arrayed against that sole vessel would be a frigate, a patrol boat, three seaward defence boats (SDBs) and one landing craft. Although he did not include it among “available vessels,” NNS Penelope, Rawe’s old survey ship, was converted into a fighting vessel. Merchant ships would also be available to serve as troop carriers and to transport stores.49

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 a U.S.-made patrol boat which was gifted to the Netherlands by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Second World War. It was a 185-foot-long corvette armed with a 3-inch gun, four 40mm Bofors guns and six 4mm Oerlikons and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) equipment. It had a maximum speed of 18 knots.50

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. They would be accompanied by two merchant ships named MV Bode Thomas and the MV King Jaja.51

After considering all the issues of the three sections it was up to the Federal Military Government to determine whether, as Rawe put it, the information and assessment “are such that the military necessity of the landings outweigh the risks involved.”52

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.53

The preamble to Naval Operation Order Number One of 1967 was succinct and straightforward.

The situation was that the Bonny Town area was “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”.54

The three seniormost commanders of the mission were identified as Captain Nelson Soroh, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Adekunle and Commander James Rawe. Soroh was designated as the “officer-in-charge” of the operation, Adekunle, the General Officer Commanding the Third Infantry Division was the “officer commanding land forces,” and Rawe was given the roles of “naval liaison officer” and “forward control officer.”55

Soroh, the officer in charge of the mission, had like Rear Admiral Wey been transferred from the Marine Department to the Royal Nigerian Navy where he became a pioneer naval warfare officer. He had commanded several ships including NNS Nigeria and was earmarked as the eventual successor to Wey as the Chief of Naval Staff. Trained in England at Mons Officer Cadet School and at the prestigious Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, Adekunle had on the eve of war been a commander at the small Lagos Garrison Organisation. But the onset of war meant that he had to build two battalions into the size of a division which would be assigned the formidable task of attacking the secessionist state large via the route of seaborne landings.56

Rawe’s 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 of troops would be landed by NNS Nigeria when the situation permitted. And the third wave would be landed after Bonny Town was captured.57

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.58 In doing this, Rawe was adhering to the naval maxim cautioning against risking big ships for which the protagonist will not get an equivalent amount of military value.59

Only when the enemy positions covering the Bonny River were silenced would Nigeria enter the river and command be transferred from the Forward Control Officer to the Officer in Charge of the Operation. After completing the landing operations, sea and land commands would then divide.60

Apart from Soroh and Rawe, the other commanders of the vessels taking part in the mission were designated as Commander Apayi Joe, NNS Lokoja; Lt. Commander Akin Aduwo, NNS Ogoja; Lt. Commander Huseni Abdullahi, NNS Enugu; and Lt. Commander Robert Adegbite, NNS Benin.61

The movement of vessels was also carefully choreographed for the three different stages of the operation. First was the initial movement of vessels from Lagos to the theatre of operations. Second was the movement of vessels to the area of operations and third was the function of the vessels during the landing operation.62

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 would rendezvous with the task force at 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, they would proceed to rendezvous with Penelope at Bonny Fairway Buoy.63

Left: Designated areas of operation on the Bonny River and the Atlantic Ocean, and right, sectors designated within Bonny Town by Naval Operation (No.1) of 1967

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, Rawe, converting a nautical chart created by the Nigerian Ports Authority into a theatre of operations mapdivided the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and that of the Bonny River that is adjacent to Bonny Island into separate designated areas. From south to north the areas were named “Osca,” “Papa,” “Quebec,” “Romeo,” “Sierra,” “Tango,” “Uniform,” “Victor,” “Whiskey” “X-ray,” “Yankee” and “Zulu.”64

At the same time, Bonny town was divided into a number of 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.”65

In summary the battleplan was that 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.66

A more detailed rendition of Rawe’s plan was as follows: 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. Its 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. 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 Joe on Lokoja which was supposed to re-join Nigeria after it disembarked the first wave.67

During this war flares or star shells were used as a means of conveying military signals, so Lieutenant Commander Adegbite on NNS Enugu was expected to communicate when the SDBs opened fire to Soroh by sending up “one green very light.” Rawe, the Forward Control Officer on Penelope, was to back this up verbally via radio channel.68

Aduwo on NNS Ogoja was to remain within “Area Sierra” in order 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.69

In “Area Tango,” Abdullahi and Adegbite, respectively on Enugu and 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 in order to prevent stray shells from landing in the high-density area of Bonny “Sector Foxtrot.” Abdullahi had the responsibility for issuing “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.70

Lokoja was expected to land between the two northernmost jetties of Bonny Town with the exact position of the landing to be decided by Joe. Joe was as mentioned expected to fire one “red Very light” in the final stage of her beaching run. Throughout all of this, Rawe in Penelope would function as the forward control for both sea and land forces until Soroh entered the Bonny River in Nigeria.71

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 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.72

In addressing the issue of logistics, which covered supplies of ammunition, fuel, and food, Rawe stated that all vessels were 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. Each vessel was to be fuelled to no less than 95% of its capacity 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. Further, they were instructed not to leave Lagos with less than seven days rations of food.73

The ships were supposed to have first aid medical supplies with access to a doctor and other medical personnel on Nigeria. Those wounded who required more than first aid would be transferred to 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, covering four periods during the day on Monday, July 24th, Tuesday July 25th and Wednesday, July 26th.74

Finally, Naval Operation (Order No. 1) 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 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. Nigeria was “Beauty,” Penelope was “Sparrow,” Kaduna was “Love” and so on. All ships shared the call sign “Loco.”75

The Nigerian armed forces faced a range of challenges in mounting its first combined operation. Apart from the logistical and intelligence aspects, there was the daunting task of harmonising the roles needed to be played by the navy and army, within a brief period of time. This of course needed to be achieved with the backdrop of the sabotage of naval equipment by about-to-defect naval personnel from the Eastern region. These setbacks were perceived to have been so extensive as to convince the secessionist side that the Nigerian Navy would be rendered impotent for a considerable period of time.76

In a conversation between the secessionist leader, Lieutenant Colonel Emeka 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.77

But Ojukwu was wrong.

In his 2004 memoir, 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 its service counterpart undertook to conduct 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.78

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. 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.79 Also, Lokoja was provided with matting and expanded metal to cover any soft spots on the beach to help with the landing of vehicles.80

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, Rawe would prove influential. He 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.81 This ethos was in keeping with the ideas set down by Julian Corbett, the British naval historian and geostrategist who lay stress on army-navy cooperation.82

The exercises which were conducted at Tarkwa Bay sought to go through drills in a practical manner and strove to create a cohesion between the navy and army. Both Soroh and Adekunle wrote about the exercises in their memoirs. Adekunle described the naval manoeuvres undertaken as having included “ship pitching, embarkation and disembarkation in daylight and darkness”,83 while Soroh recalled that the army was trained in handling dinghies and outboard engines because they needed boats for moving their men in the creeks as soon as they were put ashore by the naval ships.84 And to solidify the sense of camaraderie between naval and army officers, a series of joint mass dinners was organised.85

As the naval liaison officer, Rawe would succeed in building up a solid working relationship with Adekunle, a talented but decidedly mercurial figure, with whom many officers had difficult relations. Starting with the Bonny operation and continuing the pattern in subsequent ones, both men would formulate their battle plans after which they would meet to coordinate their operational orders. As Rawe later recalled they both shared “danger and discomfort” and had “complete trust in each other when in the face of the enemy.”86

However, Adekunle’s working relationship with Soroh would be less than stellar. He was taken aback by Soroh’s apparent contentment at leaving Rawe alone to draft the operational orders.87 The strained relations between both men would cause difficulties, notably in the aftermath of the capture of Bonny and later during the assault on Calabar when Adekunle stopped responding to signals from Nigeria which were expected to be relayed back to Supreme Headquarters.88

The battles

Thorough preparedness for battle does not totally obviate the danger of having to cope with unexpected setbacks. It was Moltke the Elder to whom the saying “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength.” Thus, the German field marshal believed in developing a series of options for battle instead of a single plan.89

But with its modest collection of ships including only one landing craft tank, the Nigerian naval task force did not have a multiplicity of options in so far as conducting the amphibious assault was concerned.90 Yet, as the task force began their staggered journeys, they would have been comforted by the fact that the enemy had far fewer men and material to oppose them.91 Each of the naval ships carried a quota of infantrymen. For instance in addition to Adekunle, Penelope carried 40 soldiers. The MV King Jaja carried 1500 troops.

Sailing orders were given on July 22nd of 1967, and the rendezvous of all participant vessels at Bonny Buoy happened without a hitch at dawn on the designated D-Day: July 25th. At first daylight the order to execute was given by Captain Soroh who began pounding enemy positions from Nigeria as Commander Rawe on Penelope led the landing force into the Bonny River.92

As the ships sailed past the Bonny Oil Terminal, an expatriate manager was preparing to have his breakfast when his steward drew his attention to the five grey “Biafran” war ships steaming upriver. While the manager was doubtful of the ability of the secessionist side to have acquired the vessels, 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 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 immediately took cover and when they met under the table, they agreed that it was not the Biafran Navy after all.93

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.94 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.95 Ogoja opened fire with its 3-inch and 40mm guns and Odu, in his words, with his “comparatively puny Bofors anti-aircraft gun” replied by firing a salvo.96 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.97

But it eventually entered shallow waters and was unable to manoeuvre back to the open sea. Now stranded, it became a stationary target.98 A cannon from Ogoja scored a direct hit on Ibadan's engine room, creating an intense fire which melted the ladder below deck and trapping the men there to certain death. Above, the smoke billowed out through the funnel on the deck which was itself littered with bodies.99 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.100 But Odu and his men escaped into an adjoining mangrove swamp.101 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”.102

With Ibadan sunk, the bombardment of Bonny continued with suspected enemy positions being cannonaded by Nigeria, as well as by Benin and Enugu.103 It was effective enough to disorientate and dislodge the Biafran forces stationed there and according to Soroh, they “offered little or no resistance.”104 Commander Joe beached Lokoja at a chosen site in the northern part of the town. According to Aduwo, this was because of the intelligence revelation of the sparse concentrations of secessionist soldiers in the area and also to deny the Biafran side the possibility of being “reinforced from Port Harcourt.”105

Rawe and Adekunle found a small jetty for Penelope and disembarked with 40 troops to minor resistance. The other ships which all carried a quota of troops also found jetties at which the soldiers were put ashore. Bonny was captured within 2 hours of the first salvo of cannon fired by the Nigerian warships.106 Resistance was roughly what Rawe had expected. There were around 200 casualties, most of whom were secessionist soldiers.107 Unable to contact Soroh by radio, Rawe made his way down the river to inform him that all was safe to enter the estuary with the merchant ships.108

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 became stranded 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 and could not extricate itself for six hours. These incidents would have been disastrous if the enemy had more formidable resources to have exploited them.109

On receiving the news that Bonny had been captured, 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.”110

Bonny island was not the only location taken. Peterside beach, which was opposite Bonny island, was captured by a party of troops who landed in rubber dinghies and small crafts. Dawes Island, 20 miles north of Bonny in the direction of Port Harcourt also came under federal control.111 The days after the landing were, as Rawe recalled, “full of activity”. Penelope landed small parties of troops on various knolls of dryland on the riverbank which was mostly mangrove swamp. These excursions up the Bonny River went as far as the oil refinery city of Port Harcourt.112

Odu’s war diary recorded on August 4th that Nigerian Navy SDBs came up the main channel and fired at the refinery jetty in Port Harcourt which caused negligible damage. The ships then withdrew to Bonny.113 But Rawe recalled a different scenario albeit that it also ended in a withdrawal. On one occasion, NNS Penelope, with Lt. Colonel Adekunle onboard, pushed closer to Port Harcourt where the Shell-BP Oil refinery was situated. It came under machine gun attack from the jetties to which Penelope made a spirited reply with all the weapons at their disposal including the use of revolvers when ammunition came low. The secessionists withdrew and the crew entered the refinery. But the complex was too large to hold onto with the little manpower they had left, which amounted to six soldiers.114

A central tenet of Julian Corbett’s theory on sea power was his insistence that the primary goal of naval warfare must always be to secure the command of the sea or to prevent the enemy from securing it, whether directly or indirectly.115 This reasoning is as applicable to the contested Bonny river area as it is to the high seas. Contrary to the inscription of “R.I.P. Biafran Navy” which Nigerian sailors had put on the sunken ship Ibadan, the secessionist navy was not yet toast. While cognisant that what passed as the Biafran navy could not compete symmetrically with them, they would find that they were dealing with a cunning and resourceful opponent which would soon come close to regaining Bonny. The Biafran Navy found a floating dock which, as Odu recalled, was to be used as a tool to slow down or deter the Nigerian Navy from capturing Port Harcourt by sea. The idea was to use the floating dock as a forward observation post or to anchor it in the main channel so that Nigerian Navy vessels could be run aground while trying to avoid it. Sub-Lieutenant Nicholas Ohaeri was placed in charge of the floating dock which had a small crew.116

During one of many forays up the Bonny River with Penelope, Commander Rawe in the company of Lt. Colonel Anthony Ochefu and some of Ochefu’s men, encountered a Biafran tug and the floating dock after rounding a bend in the river. Penelope proceeded towards the tug and dock at full speed but when the order to fire was given by Rawe, he was perplexed by the continuing silence. He discovered his conscientious gunner had dismantled the ship’s Oerlikon which he was about to clean.117

However, while Penelope evaded the machine gun fire from the floating dock, NNS Ogoja which had been accompanying Penelope scored a hit on the tug with its 3-inch gun. The tug let go of its tow and retreated to Port Harcourt. An exchange of gunfire followed, which ended with the surviving crew of the floating dock either jumping over or surrendering. Ohaeri was among those captured. The members of Penelope then boarded the floating dock and removed parts of its vital machinery before withdrawing after coming under a bomb attack from a helicopter.118

The presence of helicopters appropriated from oil companies and converted to bomb-carrying aircraft were a nuisance to Nigerian troops, and while vulnerable to Nigerian ships armed with anti-aircraft machine guns, they could contrive ways to menace lone vessels.119

While surveying the wrecked Ibadan and clearing the ship of debris and dead crew, Rawe and a group of his men came under attack from an enemy helicopter which dropped a bomb alongside the wreck. With great haste, they scrambled onto a dinghy and returned to Penelope which headed down river back to Bonny. The helicopter, which was manned by a French crew, gave chase, and positioned itself directly above Penelope; a tactic that meant that its Oerlikon machine gun could not aim at it. The helicopter began to release its payload of bombs while the Penelope zig-zagged to evade them. Rawe kept the helicopter at a higher distance than it would have wanted by firing at it with his FN FAL rifle. He knew that the helicopter carried a total of seven bombs and so it was a question of counting the number of explosions which created fountains of spray until it ceased its mission. Penelope returned to Bonny unscathed, but the incident provided the navy with the lesson that in order to counteract the menace of helicopters, its ships would have to operate in pairs.120

The continuing operations proved that the navy and army could work together as mutually supporting joint forces. The relationship between Rawe and Adekunle was germinating 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.


But the Nigerian forces also found themselves needing to cope with the physical and psychological traumas associated with war. As Rawe recalled field medical assistance was “non-existent” during the Bonny operation, and one occasion when the federal soldiers sustained casualties, he remembered that Adekunle “borrowed a bottle of brandy and went around the deck lifting the heads of the dying men saying there is nothing we can do for you but inviting them to have a drink before they left”. He also noted one disadvantage of giving the soldiers life belts. The bodies of “those who had been killed during the initial landing drifted up and down the river with the tide, often with the seagulls sitting on their heads, and this did nothing for the troop’s morale.”122

Two weeks after the start of the Bonny operation, the navy could claim a successful landing, the reclamation of Nigerian territory, as well as the degrading of the enemy's manpower and resources. Over one hundred prisoners were taken to the naval base in Apapa. Apart from equipment such as those taken out of the floating dock, Rawe and his crew salvaged the 40mm gun and engines found on Ibadan.123

Although the Nigerian navy and army had demonstrated an amphibious operations capability, the achievement at Bonny came perilously close to being undone two months later when secessionist forces launched “Operation Sea Jack”, a determined attempt to retake the town.124 One contributing factor for this malaise was arguably the breakdown in the relationship between Captain Soroh and Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle, while Rawe, the naval liaison officer, was away on leave. Adekunle claimed, not without merit, that the navy was not making aggressive patrols of the Bonny River and at one point sent 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 emboldened the Biafran navy to send boats on attack runs down the river to shell Bonny.125

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 3rd 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.126

Biafran intelligence on the number of naval ships operating on the Bonny river was used effectively. Shelling operations on Bonny via converted vessels were undertaken at night when the numbers of ships on patrol were reduced. The number of these missions was particularly pronounced when Ogoja, the most feared component of the Nigerian fleet, was absent from the area.127

In late September 1967 while 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 one Lieutenant Colonel Abubakar. Neighbouring Peterside only had a company commanded by Captain Bello. At Peterside, a battalion-strong group of secessionist soldiers had been landed after been conveyed there by barges and launches.128

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 was joined in the battle by Ogoja. Soroh recalled arriving in the midst of a furious gunbattle in which Peterside was ablaze and some federal combatants were being literally “pushed into the water”.129 In the frantic and desperate circumstances of the confrontation, Aduwo had to refuse a request made by a Federal troop commander to take him onboard Ogoja, compelling the officer to stand and fight.130 The enemy was eventually driven back largely through the firepower provided by naval warships.

According to Soroh’s memoir, Abubakar admitted that the timely intervention of the Nigerian Navy had spared the Federal army a defeat at the hands of the Biafran forces.131 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.132 Biafran forces would not be removed from the approaches to Bonny until January 1968, and Port Harcourt did not fall until May of that year.133


The operation in Bonny was a triumph of James Rawe’s ability to process prior experience into a practical plan of action which the officers and men of the Nigerian navy capably executed. The plan, which he had insisted be kept as “straightforward as possible,” successfully followed what at the time was the conventional approach to staging an amphibious assault, that is, by using a concentration of troops to force a landing in the presence of the enemy. While subsequent operations presented greater challenges related to unfavourable topography, the confined circumstances of riverine warfare, and enemy deceptive tactics, surmounting the hurdle of landing forces on enemy territory presented a tremendous psychological boost to the federal forces and a commensurate blow to the secessionist military.134

It demonstrated that the navy and the army could mount a successful combined operation and paved the way for further landings, all of which provided the basis for the encirclement and eventual defeat of the secessionist state.

The capture of oil installations at Bonny proved to the oil companies, most notably Shell-BP which controlled over 80 per cent of oil production, that the federal government and not the secessionist side would control access to petroleum in the Niger Delta. This prevented the Biafran side from being in a position to use monies garnered from oil revenues to pay for the import of arms and ammunition.135

The combination of landings and blockade were of inestimable importance. As Rawe would later opine: “If it were not for the Third Division and the navy capturing all the ports and coastline held by the rebels, the course of the war would have been very different. Ojukwu’s propaganda had moved world opinion on his side. If he had ports available for the import of heavy weapons, (supplied) by foreign powers such as France, and if the navy had not stopped his export of oil, the Federal government may have found the rebels very hard to beat.”136

Adeyinka Makinde is a Visiting Lecturer in Law at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom. He has a research interest in military history. He is the son of the Late Captain Emmanuel Makinde. F.S.S., who served as a Nigerian naval officer between 1964 and 1982.


1. Nigerian Navy Ordinance, 1956 (No.28 of 1956). This was followed by the Nigerian Navy (Establishment of Force) Notice, 1958 by which the Governor-General “established the Nigerian Navy with effect from the 1st day of May 1958.”

2. Excluding the coast of what was the British Southern Cameroons which is now part of southern Cameroon.

3. Stapleton, Timothy. “The Origins of the Nigerian and Ghana Navies (c.1930–1960)” in Stapleton, Timothy (Ed), African Navies: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, Routledge, 2022.

4. Ibid.

5. Correspondent. “Royal Nigerian Navy,” Daily Telegraph, Monday, August 10th, 1959.

Report that the Federal House of Representatives had passed a bill to give the Nigerian Navy the prefix “Royal” with the Queen’s permission.

6. Nigeria became a republic on October 1st, 1963.

7. It should be noted that the old marine departments did ferry British forces embarked on colonial campaigns of subjugation including those concerned with the conquest of the Benin Kingdom and the Aro Expedition.

Also see Osuntokun, Akinjide. “Anglo-French Occupation and the Provisional Partition of the Cameroons 1914-1916”, Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, Vol.7, No.4, June 1975.

8. “Nigerian Crisis 1966: The meeting of the Supreme Military Council, held at Aburi, Accra, Ghana, 4-5 January 1967”, Vol. Six, The Government Printer Enugu, 1967.

See newsreel “Ghana: Nigerian Military Governors Conclude Secret Talks on Constitutional Problems”, Reuters News, January 6th, 1967.

9. See newsreel “Nigeria After the Coup”, ITN News, January 19th, 1966.

See also the newsreel “Nigeria: Head of Military Government, Major-General Ironsi, Outlines How Country Will Be Governed”, Reuters News, January 18th, 1966.

10. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. Privately published memoir, 2021.

11. Soroh, Nelson. A Sailor's Dream: Autobiography of Rear Admiral Nelson Bossman Soroh, Crucible Publishers, Lagos, 2001.

12. The decree, which was issued in March 1967, modified section 18(1) of the Interpretation Act of 1964.

13. Commonwealth Correspondent. “Pay now or no oil, says Nigeria,” The Guardian, June 15th, 1967.

See also:

Meisler, Stanley. “Nigerians Shell Ship in Biafran Port Blockade,” The Los Angeles Times, July 5th, 1967.

The "Reigel", a Panamanian-registered vessel, was hit on its quarter-deck and the crew detained after it had left Bonny. It was later escorted back to the naval base in Apapa, Lagos. The incident occurred a few days before the formal start of the "Police Action" which would later become a full-blown civil war.

14. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

15. Speller, Ian and Tuck, Christopher. Amphibious Warfare: Strategy and Tactics: The Theory and Practice of Amphibious Operations in the 20th Century. The History Press Ltd, 2001.

16. Ibid.

Examples are the Normandy Landings of 1944 (“assault”), Dieppe and St Nazaire in 1942 (“raid”), the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 (“withdrawal”), and feints conducted by the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy between January and February prior to the Gulf War in 1991 (“demonstration”).

17. Ibid

18. Ishizu, Tomoyuki. "Amphibious Warfare: Theory and Practice." International Forum on War History, 2014.

19. The Naval War College Nigeria which is located in the city of Calabar was established in 2017.

20. Marder, Arthur. Operation Menace: The Dakar Expedition and the Dudley North Affair. Oxford University Press, 1976.

21. Lloyd, Cliff. Operation Ironclad: The British Invasion of Madagascar. History & Latte, 2017.

22. Gelb, Norman. Desperate Venture: The Story of Operation Torch, the Allied Invasion of North Africa. William Morrow & Co, 1992.

23. Commonwealth Correspondent. “Steam Up Over Man O’ War Bay: Nigerian objections to ‘base’,” The Guardian, Friday, April 1st, 1960.

24. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me, 2021.

Lieutenant Commander Rawe in command of the original NNS Nigeria an Algerine-class minesweeper which was formerly HMS Hare, ferried Nigerian troops to the British Cameroons on several trips.

Both Rawe and Navy Lieutenant Nelson Soroh recalled naval and army officers meeting onboard Nigeria. Rawe commended the “considerable esprit de corps” of the army officers, while Soroh noted that the officers shared their service experiences. There was a ship’s exercise off Victoria (now Limbe).

See Soroh, Nelson. A Sailor's Dream. 2001.

The Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah had a disagreement with his former ally Sylvio Olympio over the status of the former German Togoland which came under British control after the defeat of Germany in the Great War. The territory was absorbed into the Gold Coast and later Ghana after a plebiscite. While Olympio wanted the land returned to Togo, Nkrumah insisted that Togo should merge with Ghana. Nigeria pledged to help Olympio resist an invasion by Ghana, but since it was unlikely that Dahomey (now Benin) would allow Nigerian troops through its territory, the only means of aiding Togo would have been by orchestrating a seaborne landing. Lieutenant Commander James Rawe journeyed to England to order fresh supplies of ammunition and returned to Nigeria to plan a clandestine trip to Togo to survey the coastal area in order to determine suitable landing sites. However, his trip was aborted, and the planned operation cancelled when Olympio was assassinated in January 1963.

25. The issue, which persists, has been addressed by several former Nigerian Navy officers including Captain Ian Wright and Commodore Olatunde Oladimeji.

See: Wright, Ian. “Recent Developments in African Navies,” Naval Forces, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1988.

See also: Oladimeji, Olatunde A. "Where Are the African Navies Going?", Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute, Vol. 116/3/1,045, March 1990.

26. Makinde, Adeyinka. “Captain James Rawe - Obituary”, adeyinkamakindeblogspot dot com, April 17th, 2023.

With the backing of the British High Commissioner, Rawe was advised by the British military attaché to leave the Nigerian Navy immediately after the first coup. But he refused, arguing that his resignation would injure the good name of Britain and potentially undermine the fragile military government.

27. Telegraph Obituaries. “Captain James Rawe, naval officer who served on D-Day and later helped to develop the Nigerian navy – obituary,” Daily Telegraph, May 30th, 2023.

Rawe delayed his early retirement in 1967 at the request of Major General Yakubu Gowon. In 1974, he won damages against the author John de St. Jorre and the publishers of de St. Jorre’s book The Nigerian Civil War for implying that he had been a mercenary for the federal side, pointing out that he had served for many years in the Nigerian Navy prior to the outbreak of war and that his salary had been paid by Her Majesty’s overseas civil service. Rawe had been the first person, Nigerian or expatriate, to sign up for the Nigerian Naval Defence Force.

28. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

29. Captain James Rawe via e-mail communication with Timothy Rawe, February 20th, 2023.

30. Rawe, James. “Landing by sea on enemy-held territory.” Paper prepared for the Supreme Headquarters of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria, 1967.

31. Rawe, James. “Landing by sea on enemy-held territory,” 1967.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid

38. Ibid.

39. E-mail communication with Timothy Rawe, February 20th, 2023.

40. Rawe, James. “Landing by sea on enemy-held territory,” 1967.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid.

47. Prettie, Terence. “Britain still trying to keep up flow of oil from Nigeria,” The Guardian, July 11th, 1967.

The secessionist government demanded that Shell-BP, a British multinational company, pay oil revenues into the treasury of what had been Nigeria’s Eastern region and it agreed to make an interim payment scheduled for July 15th. The Nigerian government denounced the decision to pay dues as “ill-timed and unfortunate.” But payment was purportedly held up because of Biafra’s insistence that Shell-BP pay in a currency other than Sterling. When the company’s managing director, Stanley Gray travelled from Lagos to Port Harcourt on July 23rd, he was summoned to Enugu, the capital city of Biafra and promptly arrested. He was later released and returned to Lagos where he held a press conference to announce that Shell-BP would withhold payment until the following year or when “the situation becomes normal.”

For an assessment of the dilemma faced by Shell-BP see:

Raji, A.O.Y. and Abejide, T.S. “Oil and Biafra: An Assessment of Shell-BP’s Dilemma During the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970”. Kuwait Chapter of Arabian Journal of Business and Management Review Vol. 2, No.11. July 2013.

48. For instance, the official neutrality of the United States and its policy of imposing an arms embargo on both federal and secessionist sides posed a problem for obtaining supplies of the three-inch shells used by NNS Ogoja, an American-made patrol boat which Nigeria had obtained from the Netherlands as part of the deal to build the frigate which would be named NNS Nigeria. Rawe overcame the problem by getting the U.S. military attaché in Lagos to arrange for the required shells to be sent to the Netherlands, following up by liaising with the Dutch ambassador to Nigeria to ensure that the ammunition was delivered by air.

49. Rawe, James. “Landing by sea on enemy-held territory,” 1967.

In his memoir, Rawe recalled that during the crisis, Wey and he had initially decided not to aggravate the situation by recalling Ibadan from its station in Calabar. However, when they ordered it back to Lagos it conveniently broke down and was eventually coopted as a Biafran vessel after the declaration of secession.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid.

53. Naval Order (No.1) of 1967, Copy No.2.

54. Naval Order (No.1) of 1967.

55. Ibid

56. Both Soroh and Adekunle wrote memoirs.


Soroh, Nelson. A Sailor's Dream: Autobiography of Rear Admiral Nelson Bossman Soroh. Crucible Publishers. 2001.

Adekunle, Benjamin. The Nigeria-Biafra War Letters: A Soldier's Story (Vol. 1). Phoenix Publishing Group. 2004.

57. Naval Order (No.1) of 1967.

58. Ibid.

Nigeria had a high freeboard which made it impossible for her to depress her four-inch guns low enough to fire back at short range.

59. The vulnerability of large vessels engaged in naval combat was vividly illustrated three months after the landing at Bonny when 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 13 miles away within the harbour of Port Said during the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition.

For an appraisal of the sinking of INS Eilat see Colvin, Robert D. “Aftermath of the Elath”, Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute, Vol. 95/10/800, October 1969.

The captain of Eilat, Commander Yitzhak Shoshan wrote a book published in Hebrew:

Shoshan, Yitzhak. The Last Battle of the Destroyer INS Eilat Shoshan. Ma'ariv Publishing House, 1993.

60. Naval Order (No.1) of 1967.

61. Ibid.

62. Ibid.

63. Ibid.

64. Ibid.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid.

67. Ibid.

68. Ibid.

69. Ibid.

70. Ibid.

71. Ibid.

72. Ibid.

73. Ibid.

74. Ibid.

75. Ibid.

Lokoja was “Parrot,” Ogoja was “Dog,” Enugu was “Cat,” Kaduna was “Love,” and Benin was “Tiger.” Also, Beecroft, the operations base in Apapa, was “Ginger,” while naval headquarters, COMNAV (H.Q,) was “Uncle.”

76. Osakwe, Chukwuma C. C. and Udeagbala, Lawrence Okechukwu. "Naval Military Operations in Bonny during the Nigerian Civil War 1967-1970", Advances in Historical Studies Vol.04, No.3. 2015.

77. Ibid.

The Deputy High Commissioners were respectively the Briton James Parker and the American Bob Bernard.

78. Adekunle, Benjamin. The Nigeria-Biafra War Letters: A Soldier's Story (Vol. 1). Phoenix Publishing Group, Atlanta, 2004.

79. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

80. Naval Order (No.1) of 1967.

81. E-mail communication with Timothy Rawe, February 20th, 2023.

82. Corbett, Julian S. Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Longmans, Green & Co., 1918.

83. Adekunle, Benjamin. A Soldier's Story. 2004.

84. Soroh, Nelson. A Sailor's Dream. 2001.

85. Adekunle, Benjamin. A Soldier's Story. 2004.

86. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

87. Ibid.

88. Soroh, Nelson. A Sailor's Dream. 2001.

89. Von Moltke, Helmut (The Elder). “Second Part: Article from 1871 on Strategy,” Moltke’s Military Works: II. Activity as Chief of the Army General Staff in Peacetime, Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, 1900.

90. Rawe did not dwell on back up plans in his paper and operation order. He was clear about the circumstances in which a landing could not be made and insisted that the plan be a “straightforward” one.

91. “The side with the most ships almost always wins”. See Tangredi, Sam J. “Bigger Fleets Win.” Proceedings, Vol. 149/1/1,439, U.S. Naval Institute, January 2023.

92. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

93. Ibid.

94. Odu, P.J. The Future that Vanished: A Biafran Story. Xlibris, 2009.

While some sources provide that the sea battle occurred on the second day of the operation, that is, on July 26th, 1967, Rawe’s memoir places the confrontation as occurring shortly after the commencement of the invasion. This is corroborated by Odu who, having established a patrol routine “from Port Harcourt to Bonny and out to sea,” recorded that he encountered three Nigerian Navy ships and a troop ship in the process of assaulting Bonny during the morning of July 25th.

95. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

96. Odu, P.J. The Future that Vanished. 2009.

97. Ibid.

98. Ibid.

99. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

100.  Osakwe and Udeagbala. "Naval Military Operations in Bonny.” 2015.

101. Odu, P.J. The Future that Vanished. 2009.

102. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

Aduwo and Odu had been friends within the Nigerian navy. According to the authors Femi Omosefunmi and Foluso Akinlonu, when Odu was made ineligible to pursue his choice as a specialist naval navigator on account of his eyesight, Aduwo waived his nomination as a specialist in the area of communication in favour of Odu. Odu did not mention such an arrangement in his memoir. Noting that the “Long C” course is the most “most prestigious” course available to young executive (warfare) officers and is open only to “the brightest”, he was not certain as to how he came to be selected, speculating that his frequent benefactor Commodore Alexander Kennedy, the last British Chief of Naval Staff, may have engineered it, or that it might have been due to the fact that he had graduated at the top of the New Commonwealth class at Dartmouth.

See Omosefunmi, Femi and Akinlonu, Foluso. 30 Days in Power, 4 Years in Command the Story of Vice Admiral Akin Aduwo. Advent Communication Limited, 1997.

103. Ibid.

104. Soroh, Nelson. A Sailor's Dream. 2001.

105. Osakwe and Udeagbala. "Naval Military Operations in Bonny.” 2015.

106.  Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

107. James Rawe via e-mail communication with Timothy Rawe, February 20th, 2023.

108. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

109. Yusuf, Idris Uru. The Nigerian Navy: Development Amidst Contemporary Challenges. Daily Graphics Ltd, 2015.

110.  Soroh, Nelson. A Sailor's Dream. 2001.

111. Ibid.

112. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

113. Odu, P.J. The Future that Vanished. 2009.

On August 9th, Odu recorded another Nigerian mission towards the refinery jetty, identifying Ogoja and one SDB as the attackers. BNS Ikwerre, a former Nigerian Ports Authority tugboat, “attempted to block the enemy but was seriously damaged.” However, Ogoja, he wrote, came within the range of small arms fire and Biafran troops reportedly mowed down “up to 50 Nigerian soldiers” on the upper deck of the ship. Odu does not say if the Nigerian soldiers, who would presumably have been armed, were returning fire.

114. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

115. Corbett, Julian S. Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Longmans, Green & Co., 1918.

116. Odu, P.J. The Future that Vanished. 2009.

117. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

118. Ibid.

119. Ibid.

120. Ibid.

121. Archive of Captain James Rawe.

122. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

123. Ibid.

See newsreel “Second Group of War Prisoners Arrive in Lagos”, Reuters News, August 6th, 1967.

124. Odu, P.J. The Future that Vanished. 2009.

“Operation Sea Jack” commenced on September 25th, 1967. Wrote P.J. Odu: “It was designed to recapture Bonny from Nigerian troops.”

125. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

Adekunle went as far as to say that “it was only when Soroh was present that the Biafran boats had the guts to come down and shell Bonny.”

126. Ibid.

127. Odu, P.J. The Future that Vanished. 2009.

128. Udeagbala, Lawrence Okechukwu. “A Comparative Study of the Nigerian and Biafran Navies During the Nigerian Civil War” in Stapleton, Timothy (Ed), African Navies: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, Routledge, 2022.

129. Soroh, Nelson. A Sailor's Dream. 2001.

130. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

131. Soroh, Nelson. A Sailor's Dream. 2001.

132. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

133. Odu wrote of his pride in Port Harcourt not being “taken from the sea”.

134. The operation to capture Warri, Koko and Sapele in September 1967 involved the naval vessels navigating the 20-mile-long Nana creek. Rawe recalled in his memoir that “if the leading vessel sunk or the creek was blocked by rebels, there would be no room for the other ships to advance, and if a craft in the rear was disabled, the ships ahead, even if able to turn, would be unable to pass the disabled vessel.”

The Calabar operation in October 1967 was an assault against Biafran soldiers in well-dug positions on high ground overlooking the river where the landing would take place, while the final assault on Oron in March 1968, as with the aforementioned operations, was rife with the threat of ambushes, booby traps, river mines and recordings of intermittent machine gun fire that came from tape recorders which the Biafrans had placed in trees.

135. Duyile, William Abiodun. “Nature and Impact of Involvement of the Navy in the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970”. International Journal of Naval History, 2016.

136. Rawe, James. That Reminds Me. 2021.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2023).