Book serial: The war proper: 3MCDO’s 30-day march on Port Harcourt
Yesterday you read of Alabi-Isama’s recruits into the Army who were yesterday’s boys that are now today’s big men, as in David mark becoming Senate President, Ogbeha and Afakirya as senators after being state governors, and others. You also read of Biafra’s military blunders as in Alabi-Isama wondering what Biafra attacked the Mid-West for as he thought there were better military objectives. READ ON.
ON Monday 11th March 1968, Adekunle ordered that he would like to see my plan for the advance to PH in 48 hours. He gave me all the maps needed for the plan.
They were the 1965 colonial map of Eastern Nigeria; and that the debate was scheduled for 0900hours on 14th March 1968 in his office rather than at his house. Adekunle worked anywhere, even in his toilet, his work papers and map and reference books; pencils, crayons, erasers, blades, reams of papers and packets of cigarettes were everywhere. I felt that If there was any war anywhere in the world in which Adekunle would fight, he could count on me. Right or wrong I would be there with this man, I thought.
I have been deputy to many commanders all my military life – from Major Hoyle, a British officer in 1961/62, to Major Wakeman, another British officer in 1962/63, Company commander at 4th Battalion at Ibadan in 1963/64 with Lt Col. Abogo Largema, tactics instructor at NMTC (Nigeria Military Training College) at Kaduna in1965, with Lt Col. Ogbugo Kalu, deputy to Major Igboba in 1967 at 4th Area Command at Benin City, deputy to Adekunle 1968/69 at 3MCDO, deputy to Col Oluleye in 1971/72 at Ibadan 2Division, deputy to Obasanjo at 3MCDO and I was deputy to Danjuma in 1976/77.
Each one of them went on leave but never me. In my entire military career from 1960 to 1977, I went on leave only once in 1966, just before Major Nzeogwu’s coup. I know these people very well and how their minds work; but there was none like Adekunle. He has presence of mind, and more so today that he has also learnt the lessons of life.
Debating the Port Harcourt attack
On the morning of Thursday March 14th, 1968, the debate started and of course, Adekunle had made his own plans. My plan was different from his, and out of the way. Fair enough, he was ready to listen. He was not convinced at first, but as I continued, he sat up and got more interested in my points. Akinrinade, who was based at Bonny Island had given him all the intelligence reports of the area, and since he (Akinrinade) was on the ground, his facts and figures were correct. His maps were more accurate than mine and so was his appreciation of the situation from his point of view of being based at Bonny Island.
50 miles vs 300 miles
Adekunle‘s counter-option was to capture PH through Bonny Island which was only 50 miles away. My plan was to capture PH from Calabar, a distance of 300 miles which was termed the biblical Israelites journey. Well, the debate continued; and the more I explained the strategy rather than the tactics, the more Adekunle was convinced to accept my plan. However, he had some reservations, naturally, as to how the plan would work.
For example, he came up with questions about the food supply for about 40,000 men and women advancing over 300 miles. That took a whole day to debate. I had thought of everything including the terrain, inclement weather, the rivers overflowing their banks at that time of the year; with particular reference to the crossing of the Opobo river which was the biggest, longest, and widest in the area.
We discussed how the troops would be paid their allowances while their full salaries were to be paid to their families back home as allotments. Even little details like change of socks, supply of raincoats and “housewives” did not escape attention. “Housewives” in the army means needle and thread; should we have torn shorts or shirts or lost buttons.
Adekunle was still not fully convinced. He ordered that my final plan be discussed the next day as early as 7am. I was ready. Adekunle had given me 10 maps for my plan since Monday 11th March. I had always briefed him on one map. This time I came with all the maps fully prepared with crayons in different colours. I was more interested in discussing the strategy. Although I was also convinced that the 50 mile approach from Bonny Island could succeed, I presented the pros and cons of both options.
This meeting was at his house and at 1300hrs; we had to break for lunch. We resumed our discussions at 1500hrs. Adekunle had not had his lunch, but why?
He was going through our discussions and the pros and cons of the two plans. Then I asked if he needed more time and he said yes. I was happy about that, as I needed more time myself to put some finishing touches to my plan as well; especially that he had started to see my plan as feasible. However, I also understood his points about using Bonny Island as the base from where to launch the attack on Port-Harcourt.
How can anyone, especially a military person want to believe that a 300 mile journey across mangrove and swampy forest would be preferred to one of 50 miles, especially when we were not on picnic or sight-seeing exercise, but were pursuing the same objective and the same aim? It was a tough sell – I knew, more so because time was of the essence, especially when we needed to achieve all these in just 30 days.
Instead of attacking Port Harcourt town, with all troops getting lost inside the town, each brigade had its objectives. Shande was to hold blocking position at Obigbo. Eromobor would capture and defend Port Harcourt Airport for Adekunle’s flight to land at 1400 hours, on18th May, 1968.
One of his Battalions was to hold the Airport, while another Battalion was to take Igrita and hold it. Ola Oni would take Chokocho and hold it. Yemi Alabi, former deputy to Akinrinade was then commanding 15th Bde of Akinrinade and 19th Bde of Boro when Boro died. He was ordered to take Elele and Ahoada and hold both locations. Ayo Ariyo, Akinrinade and myself were to advance from the airport with the commander for eight kilometres towards Elele,
Thereafter, Ayo Ariyo would hold Port Harcourt. His responsibilities included the telephone company, water-works, radio, ECN (Electric Corporation of Nigeria), wharf, and Port Harcourt Airport. All sectors were to expect massive counter-attack thereafter. RV for commanders would be at the Presidential Hotel in Port Harcourt with Adekunle, the commander, at 1600hours, 18th May 1968, with the exception of the following officers: Ayo Ariyo, Eromobor, Shande and Aliyu, who were holding strategic positions.
How Boro, Fashola were killed
We lost one officer from the main body, Captain Fashola at Bori Ogoni. Captain Fashola was to arrange for security for the meeting of the main body commanders, after crossing Opobo River. He was also to arrange for breakfast. The meeting at Bori was attended by Lt Col Ayo Ariyo, Eromobor, Abubakar, Aliyu, and I. Just as we were seated for breakfast, there were some exchanges of shots fired between our troops and Biafran troops close to the conference centre. Fashola asked for, and obtained permission to see what was happening out there. In a few seconds, he was hit by a stray bullet and only his dead body was brought back. The breakfast was his last; may he rest in peace. Amen.
Our casualties so far were eight soldiers wounded and two dead, which occurred during the landing at Oron beach head; there were no officer casualties, either wounded or dead, before Fashola. We all had stories to tell. Then I organized a drinks party to toast our success so far. We then reorganized and regrouped the sectors into brigades for the final push into Port Harcourt. We issued ammunition mainly, and everyone was given his new objectives and tasks.
There were no questions as morale was sky high; and while I had it in my mind, that the Biafrans must have lured us into Port Harcourt as a killing ground, my fears were wrong. Akinrinade and Boro were to be in reserve, with their two brigades, having had a rough time with Biafran troops at Onne just a few days before.
The main body would take Port Harcourt not later than 1200 hours, on Saturday 18th May, 1968. Everyone got back to his station and reported “Battle Ready,” except Isaac Adaka Boro. On his way back from the meeting of “O Group” at Aletu Eleme, Boro was shot by one Biafran soldier who was hiding in an empty house by Okrika water side. The Biafran had only one rifle and only one round of ammunition. As Isaac Boro opened the door to look at what was in there, the man fired and right on the spot Boro was dead. We were all shocked and annoyed.
Everybody just went to their units and ordered immediate advance, which they did all night. That was why Port Harcourt was captured by 0600hours on Saturday 18th May 1968, instead of the scheduled 1200hours. Little did we know that the drinks party we had was a send-off party for Isaac Adaka Boro. May his soul rest in peace. Amen.
Adekunle arrived war front from Lagos
In Port Harcourt, since Biafran troops were routed, pursuit as occurred in Oron, Uyo and Opobo would not be necessary beyond Igrita, Elele, and Chokocho; as we were then frontally facing the Ibo heartland. We must, however, hold all grounds. We must have aggressive, offensive and defensive tactics by daily patrols with the aim of holding no man’s land but not beyond Ahoada, Igrita, Elele, and Chokocho axis, as assigned; no opportunity targets whatsoever; POWs were to be taken for interrogation.
All to regroup for next advance shortly, but not before 1400hours, May 25th, 1968, and the organogram and tactics must change away from our, Calabar/Port Harcourt mangrove and marshy land advance, tactics and strategy. By 1400hours on 25th May, all commanders reported all situations correct, holding their positions and digging in.
Adekunle in Port Harcourt
Adekunle landed in grand style with the world press, and inspected a Guard of Honour. The Air Force flew in with Capt Gbadamosi King, Dan Ato and some Egyptian fighter pilots, who flew their jets into Port Harcourt as part of the arranged Guard of Honour for the Commander. In seconds, the Russian MiG fighters went into action, strafing and bombing Igrita, Owerri and Ahoada.
The commander, who came in a civilian flight with the world press went straight into the attack for the mop-up of the airport area. It was a beautiful day, the troops were very proud, and morale was high. It was a day of joy indeed; we were all proud to be Marine Commandos. Lt Col Ayo Ariyo came and hugged me and said “Congratulations” many times, and so did all the officers. I had to brave it, as I was close to tears.
People trooped out as our troops marched past down town Port Harcourt, with three jet fighters roaring past in arrow head formation. I heard some of the troops saying proudly that the commander, Adekunle, had arrived. The Navy was not left behind, as they too with their two frigates came up from Bonny and started a rapid rate of fire as the Air Force gave a wonderful show and display of our air power.
The civilians had never seen anything like it before. In fact, most had never seen a jet fighter before. I looked at Akinrinade’s face, he had tears running down his cheeks; he did not know until I asked: “Jimmy, (that is the name we call each other) are you alright? You are crying!” He did not know that tears were running down his cheeks, as he was still looking up at the Air Force display. It was tears of joy. It was then that we hugged, held hands, and went to the RV at the Presidential Hotel.
In the meantime, Obigbo was already blocked by Shande. The main body of 3MCDO troops led by Lt Col Ayo Ariyo, advanced into Port Harcourt. We all knew that there will be no fighting inside the city; there will be no street-to-street or house-to-house fighting inside Port Harcourt either. The encirclement would be complete when all troops are in position at Ahoada, Igrita, Elele, Chokocho, and of course Shande was already in his blocking position at Obigbo.
Meanwhile, some Biafran troops that neither died nor drowned at Okrika, but were trapped facing Onne finally escaped, but they did not know that Aba road was blocked. They ran into Shande’s fire at Elelenwa junction; the casualties were heavy with dead bodies all over the place. Artillery was pounding all day and all night. It was the final battle for Port Harcourt, and there was no kidding.
After three days of resistance, Biafran defences capitulated. Their troops fled. The mop up was completed by morning of D+31=18th May 1968 when we had secured Port Harcourt and were within the 6-10 kilometers security zone around Port Harcourt Airport as planned. My heart and soul moved with joy. I had promised to be worthy of my Commander’s trust and we made it.
We went into the RV at the Presidential Hotel for the meeting with our GOC (General Officer Commanding) 3MCDO Division Col Benjamin Adekunle. It was a party indeed, rather than a meeting. We all had so much to talk about, and we had time. The party went on all day and all night, every officer came in turn to congratulate me, Adekunle himself shouted the nick name he called me several times, “Kokoro” we shook hands and hugged; troops waved proudly, and shouted with joy.
Emotional upheavals in 3MCDO
The end had justified the means; we had captured our objective and the aim of establishing the Rivers State Government on the ground with its HQ at Port Harcourt was also achieved. Akinrinade had cleared all the towns in the riverine areas of River State of Biafrans‘ presence. Papa Graham-Douglas, who later became the chief judge of Rivers State was brought back to Port Harcourt, as were Saro-Wiwa, Napo Douglas, the musician Rex Lawson and Mr. FineCountry.
Many more were brought out from their hiding places to Port Harcourt to start the new government of the Rivers State. Within days, Saro-Wiwa had started a civil defence organization for the defence of the towns and to ensure that Biafrans did not infiltrate Port Harcourt, and the riverine areas. That was helpful indeed, and I went to see some of his organizations on the ground. A joint patrol with our Military Police was set up at places. All hands were on deck, as people came out in hundreds to volunteer for one job or the other. Saro-Wiwa went to Bonny Island with two lady scouts, but their boat capsized and the two ladies drowned, while he swam back to Port Harcourt the same night.
What had happened was that, while Adekunle went back to Lagos on Tuesday 21st May, 1968 with the World Press, he granted interview to the press and he was asked that, having done so well with his Marine Commando Division that had almost captured everywhere; and having liberated two states (the South Eastern State and Rivers State) where next would be his target?
Adekunle‘s answer was that he would capture and give Owerri, Aba and Umuahia (OAU) as Independence Day, October 1st 1968 celebration gift to General Gowon and the people of Nigeria. That was how he ended the first meeting with his officers who advanced, fought, got shot, carried dead and dying comrades, had no food, drank blood-reddened water, had cold, dysentery, malaria and blisters on their feet on the way to Port Harcourt.
The meeting lasted only 15 minutes! The commander, Adekunle, then informed us that we would all hear from him shortly; and that we should all get back to our offices and stations. The shock was total. What a day that was! In the presence of all the officers, I was almost in tears when I turned to Adekunle and said, “These officers and men have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave us to do, and I pray that God in His mercy will reward you and us accordingly.” I was thinking of the words in the Holy Book, John 17v4.
Just as we were all so downcast from Adekunle’s bombshell, Kunle Elegbede reported from Calabar that Biafrans had broken through Ikot Okpora, captured it and were heading to Odukpani about 30 miles or so north of Calabar, the seat of the new government of the South Eastern State. The counter plan for that was for Lt. Col Obeya with 18Bde at Itu to counter attack while the battalion with Capt Ekpo at Ugep would attack from the rear of the Biafran forces in a double envelopment.
The usual thing was that, all the staff officers – including Alabi Isama and Akinrinade — would rush to such a place and get the job done, but in this case, nobody budged. Adekunle then called me for the last time as his Chief of Staff to brief Lt Col Godwin Ally who had just been transferred to 3MCDO and to hand over to him, and that I was transferred to 3 sector at Uyo with 12Bde, 13Bde, and 18Bde under my command stretching from Imo River to the west to Calabar River to the east. The reorganization had started.
OAU, Shande’s death and the unravelling of 3MCDO
How Shande died
While other officers were waiting for their postings, Akinrinade remained as GSO1 (General Staff Officer) at 3MCDO HQ at Port Harcourt, and Lt Col Philemon Shande was ordered to attack Aba within seven days; so, after studying his map and the conditions of his troops, he gave his shopping list to the commander, and requested to discuss the details with him. When Adekunle was not listening, he requested to discuss with Akinrinade and I at my new HQ at Uyo. He arrived at about 6pm; Akinrinade had arrived earlier at about 4pm. He did not tell me what the meeting was about as we spoke on the operational radio.
When Akinrinade arrived, he then briefed me on what was happening at the 3MCDO HQ and Shande’s orders to attack Aba. We discussed all night even without dinner. He did not have causalities during the advance to Port Harcourt, but many of his troops like the others were hospitalized for dysentery, cholera and malaria, not gunshot wounds.
In this map, 3MCDO positions as held at Ahoada, Igrita, and Ikot-Ineme before the OAU plan were about 100 miles equidistant. It would definitely be difficult to defend the whole area after capture, as we would then be in the core Ibo land, and every inch of the land must be occupied, or there would be many infiltrators between our positions. Adekunle did not see it that way, unfortunately.
All the same, Shande’s men of 17 Bde were battle-ready but definitely not enough for the attack into core Ibo heartland and also not enough to hold it; with Owerri to his left and Umuahia to the right. I therefore opted to advance for 5 miles to help with his right flank on Azumini River to enable him to enter Aba without having to bother about his right flank. All these were coordinated; he then went back to Port Harcourt to discuss his shopping list with Adekunle.
Well, Adekunle told him that he could do it, and capture Aba with the troops he had. When Shande continued to complain and his arguments became louder, Adekunle called him a coward. Shande then sent me a note that Adekunle called him a coward and that he would go ahead and attack and will not need 13 Bde at his right flank anymore as had been planned. The note was sent to Uyo at my HQ but I was at Azumini with my troops preparing to support his advance into Aba as I had promised to advance to Aba on his right flank as soon as he would let me have the details of his attack plan; so, I did not receive the note.
Shande just took his troops and advanced, capturing Aba on September 4th 1968; and did not coordinate with me anymore. I broke his radio silence and called him, he asked if I received his note to me which he sent to Uyo, “Negative” I said. Then he said that Adekunle called him a coward and he told him that he was not a coward and went for the attack. Just, only an hour or so after talking to me on the radio, he continued with the attack and was shot dead, with an enemy bullet straight to his forehead through his steel helmet and into his head. He was killed instantly.
3MCDO went into flames. Lt. Col. Philemon Shande was Tiv from Benue, and more than fifty per cent of our men were from Benue; but it was only then we realized that. Most of them had monitored his complaints and his command and control situation on the radio. There were protests everywhere; Lt. Col. Godwin Ally, the new Chief of Staff (from Ogoja) and Lt Col Obeya (from Benue) had to go round the units to talk to Benue troops.
3MCDO was in trouble and it took over two weeks to settle the situation. His troops of 17 Bde withdrew to Obigbo where they started from. Most of his troops from Benue deserted and so did the Benue troops from most of the other units. Shande was our friend and classmate of Akinrinade and I. We mourned him deeply and kept away from Adekunle as much as we could.
Then, as was usual whenever the Division was in trouble somewhere, Akinrinade and I would be sought out to solve the problem, but that was when we were the staff officers at the 3MCDO HQ. TOMORROW…..
IN the next take of this serial, read of how two soldiers who were jolly friends, then wearing the same rank — Lt Cols Akinrinade and Alabi-Isama cheated death and subsequently parted ways with the GOC of 3 MCDO, Col Benjamin Adekunle. Eventually, Adekunle was relieved of his command, and Col Olusegun Obasanjo took over as 3MCDO commander…