Biafra 1966

Biafra is coloured yellow Photo source

The Republic of Biafra came about when a secessionist state situated in south-eastern corner of the country broke away from Nigeria, and tried to go it alone. At that time Biafra was inhabited mostly by the Igbo people and was in existence from 30th May 1967 to 15th January 1970. The secession was declared due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various people of Nigeria, brought on by many complex causes during the Nigerian Civil War that later became known as the Nigerian-Biafra War.

During 1960, Nigeria gained its independence from the United Kingdom. However, its borders were not drawn up according to earlier accepted maps, but primarily along ethnic lines which meant that the northern desert region of the country was made up of the semi-autonomous feudal Muslim states containing the Hausa’s and Fulani tribes. While the southern part of the country’s population was predominantly Christian and Animist. To mix the country up even further the south western corner contained the Yoruba people, while the south eastern side of the country housed the Igbo tribes (sometimes referred to as the Ibo’s). To add to the country’s problems, Nigeria’s primary source of income at that time was oil, and it was only found in the southern part of the country.

In January 1966, a group consisting of eastern Igbo tribesmen led a military coup during which 30 political leaders including Nigeria’s Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and the Northern premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello were killed.

In retaliation Northern officers and army units staged a successful counter-coup. Surprisingly Muslim officers named a Christian from a small ethnic group (the Anga) in central Nigeria, Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu “Jack” Gowon, as the head of what they called Federal Military Government (FMG). The two coups worsened Nigeria’s ethnic tensions throughout the country. To the point that by September 1966, approximately 30,000 Igbo people living in the north had been killed.

In January 1967, the F.M.G. military leaders and senior police officials of each region met in Aburi, Ghana, and agreed on a loose confederation of regions. However, the northerners were at odds with the Aburi Accord, as it became known. While Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of the Western Region warned that if the Eastern Region seceded, then the Western Region would also, this persuaded the northerners to say the same. The end result was a stale mate.

However, after the federal and eastern governments failed to reconcile. On 26th May 1967 the Eastern region voted to secede from Nigeria. Then on the 30th May, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Eastern Region’s military governor, announced the Republic of Biafra, citing the Easterners killed in the post-coup violence. To make matters worse the large amount of oil in the region created conflict throughout the whole country, as oil was a major component of the Nigerian economy. Biafra was poorly equipped for war, being out manned, and out gunned by the F.M.G. However, they had the advantage of fighting in their homeland, and the support of most Easterners.

The following is the statement declaring the secession. I, Lieutenant-Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles, recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters shall henceforth be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of “The Republic of Biafra”.

In response to the declaration, on 6th July, 1967 the F.M.G. launched what they called “police measures” to annex the Eastern Region now calling its self Biafra. Their initial efforts were unsuccessful, as Biafra successfully launched their own counter offensive, and by August 1967 they had taken land in the Mid-Western Region of Nigeria. However, by October 1967 the Nigerians had regained the land after intense fighting.

Biafra was quick to realise that air power was to play a major part in the confrontation that lay ahead, and were secretly publicise to the world that they were looking for aircraft and mercenary pilots to fly them. Being isolated they had realised that they would need transportation to supply their new country with food as well as weapons. Word also went out that they were looking for high profile mercenary leaders to help the fighting on the ground and soldiers like Frenchman Bob Denard were approached, but with no luck. Mike Hoare is reported to have visited both sides, but was unable to offer assistance to either, As the famous 5th Commando that he had led successfully in the Congo a couple of years earlier had just been disbanded. Other names thrown around was Alister Wicks who was in Rhodesia at the time, Peters who was in London and Schroeder who was in South Africa, all three had been serving officers during the Congo Conflict.

Later Frenchman Captain Robert Faulques who had also served in the Congo arrived in Biafra as an advance party for a further 100 strong contingent of French mercenaries. It started to look like the old military rivalry between Britain and France was once again starting to rear its ugly head. Britain, although not openly acknowledging the fact, were supporting Nigeria, with both military hardware and political advice. While France was throwing its weight behind Biafra, by secretly supplying arms and trying to recruit a large mercenary army to fight against them, but the army never materialised. After many false starts and then with a samll group of mercenaries already signed up, for reasons unknown it was later cancelled.

From 1968 onward, the war fell into a lengthy stalemate, with Nigerian forces unable to make significant advances into the remaining areas of Biafran control. The blockade of surrounded Biafra led to a humanitarian and propaganda disaster when it emerged that there was widespread civilian hunger and starvation in the besieged Igbo areas. An over used tactic of the Nigerian forces had been the sabotage of farmland, and this was now beginning to affect Biafra’s population. Images of starving Biafran children went around the world. The Biafran government claimed that Nigeria was using hunger and genocide to win the war, and sought aid from the outside world.

Many world organised volunteer bodies organised blockade-breaking relief flights into Biafra, carrying food, medicines, and sometimes (it was claimed) weapons. Nigeria also claimed that the Biafran government was hiring foreign mercenaries to extend and lengthen the war.

In September 1968, the F.M.G. planned what General Gowon described as the “final offensive.” However, initially the final offensive was held back by the Biafran troops. Although in the latter stages, a Southern F.M.G. offensive managed to break through the fierce resistance.

The Biafrans were swift to understand the importance of air power and to start organizing a rag-tag air force, as well as using transport aircraft for brining supplies of weapons into the country. Regular flights of Air Trans Africa DC-7s from South Africa were undertaken already since the summer of 1966: other aircraft operated from Portugal, via Portuguese Guinea (today Guinea-Bissau), and Cameroon. In October 1966, for example, a Royal Air Burundi DC-4M Argonaut, flown by a mercenary Henry Wharton alias Heinrich Wartski, crash landed at Garoua, in Cameroun, while carrying a load of army equipment from Rotteerdam. The same pilot supposedly flew also the Transportes Aereos Portugueses (TAP) Super Constellation (5T-TAF), impounded with a load of weapons at Malta, in September 1967. More aircraft were to become involved subsequently, including time-expired Constellations (some wearing bogus Nigerian registrations like 5N83H, 5N84H, and 5N86H), DC-4s, DC-6s, and a AirTrans-Africa DC-7 (VP-WBO/ZP-WBO), flown by Ernest Koenig, Rhodesian Jack Malloch, and British mercenaries Alistair Wicks.

On 23 April 1967 a Nigerian Airways Fokker F.27 (5N-AAV) was hijacked while underway from Benin to Lagos, and forced to land in Enugu. The aircraft was later equipped as makeshift bomber. A second transport, a DC-3 (9G-AAD) of Ghana Airways, was added on 15th June, after being hijacked from Port Harcourt. From early July also an ex-French Douglas B-26R Invader (41-39531) was operational from Enugu, after being delivered to Biafra by Jean Zumbach (also known as Johnny Brown or Kamikaze Braun). A second B-26 (41-34531) was to follow in August. In July also a US-registered Riley Dove (N477PM) was delivered to Port Harcourt from Switzerland, by Andre Juillard/Girard/Gerard, carrying a load of 2.000 Hungarian-manufactured rifles.

By this time the Biafrans had managed to set up a small yet effective air force. The B.A.F. commanders were Chude Sokey and later Godwin Ezeilo, who had trained with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Early inventory included two B-25 Mitchells, one B-26 Invader (piloted by Polish pilot Jan Zumbach, known also as John Brown), a converted DC-3 and one Dove. In 1968 the Swedish pilot Carl Gustaf von Rosen suggested the MiniCOIN project to General Ojukwu. By the spring of 1969, Biafra had built five MFI-9Bs in Gabon, calling them “Biafra Babies”. They were coloured green, were able to carry six 68 mm anti-armour rockets and had simple sights. The six airplanes were flown by three Swedish pilots and three Biafran pilots. In September 1969, Biafra acquired four ex-Armee de l’Air North American T-6Gs, which were flown successfully to Biafra the following month, with another aircraft lost on the ferry flight. These aircraft flew missions until January 1970, flown by Portuguese ex-military pilots.

On 30 June 1969, the Nigerian government banned all Red Cross aid to Biafra; two weeks later it allowed medical supplies through the front line, but restricted food supplies. Later in October 1969, Ojukwu appealed to United Nations to mediate a cease-fire. The federal government then called for Biafra’s surrender.

By this time food was very short in Biafra and they were having major problems trying to save the starving civilian population. Many countries and church agencies were offering food, but the planes trying to fly it in had to run a gauntlet of fire usually during the night, which made it harder for the pilots to see where they were going. At one time each cargo plane had a fighter with it to try and mislead the troops below. Many flew at tree top level to evade being in the Nigerians line of fire, cutting down their exposure time to just a few seconds.

In December, the F.M.G. managed to cut the country of Biafra in half, primarily by the efforts of 3 Marine Commando Division of the Nigerian Army, led at that time by Colonel Benjamin Adekunle who was popularly called ‘The Black Scorpion’ and later Olusegun Obasanjo.

Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast, leaving his chief of staff, Philip Effiong, to act as the “officer administering the government”. On the 12th January Effiong called for a cease-fire and submitted it to the F.M.G. By this time more than one million people on both sides had died in battle or from starvation.

At the beginning of the war Biafra had started out with only 3,000 troops, but by the end their numbers had swelled to well over 30,000. There was no official support for the Biafran army by another nation throughout the war, although arms were clandestinely acquired. Because of the lack of official support, the Biafrans had manufactured many of their weapons locally.

Military wise Biafra was holding its own and was certainly a force to be reckoned with. They were dishing out as good as they got and when you consider that they had no military help or back up from the outside world this was quite an achievement. Especially when you realise that they were fighting against a Nigeria that was backed up very heavily by the British government. Most of the top Nigerian military officers had been trained in the UK, even the Soviet Union was backing Nigeria. While Biafra was being lead by a few very good black leader and just a small hand full of white mercenaries.

Mercenaries like the German born Rolf Steiner who was a Lt. Colonel and assigned to the 4th Commando Brigade, and Welshman Taffy Williams who served as a Major until the very end of the conflict. Marc Goosens who was Flemish and an ex Belgian Regular Army Officer.

While it’s not known if Nigeria actually employed mercenaries. What is now known is that  the British government sent out what they called military advisors to help train the Nigerian army, but at the time this was all hushed up.

With starvation becoming a worldwide publicity problem, the end was insight for Biafra. The final nail in the coffin was when the British advised the Nigerians to change their currency. Money was the one thing Biafra had plenty of, but if the currency was changed, then overnight they would be broke. There are several tales of how Biafra tried to beat the Nigerian plan, by flying plane loads of paper money out of the country, but as is human nature some people are always tempted to take an opportunity to become rich.

One flight to Switzerland where new bank accounts had been organises, never arrived and it can only be assumed that the pilot an ex Congo mercenary landed at another destination where the money went into his own account. While another flight piloted by Rhodesian Jack Mallock and accompanied by Alister Wicks landed in Togo to refuel. Where upon both were arrested and imprisoned for eighty four days. The bank notes were confiscated probably to Biafra’s benefit, as Mallock was working for the French secret service and although Togo was by then independent, the French were like a big brother watching over them.

Rolf Steiner

Rolf was born on the 3rd March 1933 in Munich, twenty-seven days before Hitler came to power. His father had been a flyer with the famous Richthofen squadron, during the First World War and shot down twenty-six enemy aircraft for which he was highly decorated. But he died before Rolf reached the age of four. He joined the Hitler youth at the age of 16 and was only 20 years old when World War II finished having seen active service in the last few months.

He joined the French Foreign Legion by signing on in the West German French zone obtaining the rank of Sergeant. He saw active service in Indo-China, but did not take part in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, his Battalion at that time was stationed in Hanoi. He was a member of the foreign Legion that Parachuted into the Suez in 1956 during the French, British and Israel attempted seizure of the Canal from Egyptian control. Later he went to Algeria with the Legion, fighting the unrest there. But he became involved in the anti-de Gaulle OAS terrorist movement. Becoming a member of the abortive Generals rebellion against the French President Charles de Gaulle.

He had twice been demoted from the rank of Sergeant in Indo-China because of unruly behaviour but was never the less, a first-class soldier. In 1959 he was found to be suffering from Pulmonary Tuberculosis. Having to have a quarter of one lung removed, but making a full recovery.

1961 not wanting to return to France in case of recriminations he went to the Congo and was a member of Robert Faulques 1st REP in Katanga, after a time he returned to France. Later he became Tshombe’s personal bodyguard after the latter’s exile to Spain. But lucky for him he was not on board the light aircraft with Tshombe, when it was hijacked to Algeria, where Tshombe was imprisoned.

Later Steiner fought in Biafra again under Robert Faulques and in 1968 leading some of the mercenaries and making a name for himself. He was made up to the rank of Major and later to Lt. Colonel, in charge of planning and in rank was above Taffy Williams who was the field Commander.

After 10 months he was suffering the symptoms of a nervous breakdown, and believing that all his close friends were against him. His fall from grace came when he was ordered to present himself at the State House in Umuahia to answer questions on why he had commandeered three Swedish Red Cross Land Rovers. He arrived drunk and belligerent. Refusing to hand over his weapon at the gate, he demanded a beer but rejected it when a glass was offered saying it was too warm. Cursing and swearing he got into an argument with General Ojuku’s body guards, assaulting one and sparking off a free for all brawl. Hearing the noise Ojukwu came rushing out and personally saved Steiner from being shot. Far from being grateful, Steiner turned round and directed his insults against his saviour. Together with five other Mercenaries he was arrested and bundled out of the country the following night. General Ojukwu the Biafrian Leader had been forced to expel him. However, far from being a mercenary, he had fought for the Biafrans without pay, serving long after most other European Soldiers of Fortune had left the cause.

After his ignominious hand cuffed expulsion from Biafra to Gabon. He next turned up in the Sudan in November 1969 (for 11months). Becoming a Field Commander of the Conventional Army of the Anya-Nya. But he was wounded and evacuated to Kampala. But his political views change very rapid in Africa, he was arrested and put on trial for being a mercenary and fighting in the Sudan, for waging war against the Sudanese people. On the 20th September he was given the death sentence later commuted to 20 years in prison, eventually after 3years in prison he was quietly released, after pressure from the German Government threatening to withdraw Aid to the Sudan. Steiner retired to West Germany where he wrote a book. “The Last Adventurer”. Well worth a read.

Taffy Williams

Taffy was born in Wales but later moved to South Africa before going to the Congo. Some people believe that Taffy Williams is thought to be the Mercenary that Frederick Forsyth based his character Carlo Channon on, in his now famous book “The Dogs of War”. Well worth a read if only for its detail in the setting up of the operation.

Noted for his bravery while under fire he served two tours of duty with the Biafran Army, rising to the rank of Major and was the last white mercenary to leave the country as Federal Troops closed in.

Williams found his Biafran troops to be completely different from those who he commanded in Katanga. “I’ve seen a lot of Africans at war” he was quoted as saying. “But there’s nobody to touch these people. Give me 10,000 Biafrans for six months, and we’ll build an army that would be invincible on this continent. I’ve seen men die in this war who would have won the Victoria Cross in another context”.

Williams was assigned one hundred Biafran commandos in early 1968, and managed to keep two battalions of black mercenaries from Chad serving with the Federal Army at bay for twelve weeks using only the crudest of weapons. After Williams redeployed his forces in early April, the mercenaries crossed the Cross River at two locations, and captured Afikpo, a main town on the western side.

Finishing his first contract and following a brief stay in the UK, Williams returned to Biafra on July 7, 1968. He was assigned to the 4th Commando Brigade led by Lt. Col Rolf Steiner. Steiner had command of 3000 men, and was assigned to the area around the Enugu to Onitsha road. Williams, who liked to joke that he was “half-mad” would personally lead his troops into battle, sometimes standing in a hail of Federal gunfire, just to prove to his troops that he was indeed “bullet-proof”. His resolve under fire would often unnerve the more superstitious of Federal troops and serve to rally his own.

On 24th August, 1968 Williams was drawn into a critical battle of the Nigerian Civil War. At this point he had 1000 soldiers under his command which threw themselves head first against two Federal Battalions which had crossed the Imo River Bridge along with Soviet advisers. For three days their light machine guns and repeater rifles did not stop. When Williams returned to Aba for additional ammunition to continue the fight, he was told that there was simply none to be had. The Nigerian Air Force had become quite successful in blocking supplies into the beleaguered state. Some of Williams’ men had but two bullets left in their magazines and they were eventually forced to withdraw.

Following the arrest and deportation of Lt. Col Steiner and four others, Major Williams was the only European still left serving with the Biafran army. He would leave the country shortly before its collapse. He was the only white Mercenary to stand by Biafra for the full duration of the conflict and spent over twelve months in combat.

It is thought that Williams, who had met author Frederick Forsyth who was in Biafra as a war correspondent, served as the inspiration for the character of Carlo Shannon in Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (novel), while others believe  it might have been Alexandra Gay.

Alexadra Gay

Born in Glasgow Scotland and Fought under Bob Denard at the Battle of Bakavu (Congo). After the town fell he crossed over the border into Rwanda. Where he was interned in a camp along with several 100 other Mercenaries, while the world courts decided what to do with them.

On the 4th April 1968 he was flown out of Rwanda along with all of the other white Mercenaries with their passports stamped “Not Valid in Africa.” Later that same year he appeared in Biafra, fighting under Frenchman Robert Faulques who he’d met up with in the Congo. During his stay in Biafra he met up with and made friends with Rolf Steiner and Frederick Forsyth, leaving the country in 1969.

He also spent a short time in the Sudan with the German Rolf Steiner. Getting out of the Sudan before Steiner’s arrest.

However, he became a house hold name in 1973 when he chartered the ‘Albatross’ and loaded it with mercenaries to sail to the island of Fernando Po from which Francisco Macias ran Equatorial Guinea as president for life.

The plot was foiled by a British Special Branch informant in Gibraltar. The boat and its invasion force were seized by Spanish police in the Canary Islands after a tip-off from the British embassy in Madrid.

While researching his latest book Adam Roberts came across a previously classified Foreign Office cable in the National Archives that described the 1973 coup attempt. “I took part in the plot in as much as I was chewing the fat and shooting the breeze with the others involved,” Forsyth told him. “But as far as I was concerned any money I gave was for information and I pulled out before the plan was put into practice. (The money he’s talking about was a cool quarter of a million US dollars). “Aerial photos of Fernando Po were brought to my flat. But I was not on the boat and did not know it had set sail. Luckily they never reached the island or they would have been slaughtered.” Forsyth has always maintained the money he paid was for information he required for a book he was writing at the time.

Forsyth’s role is confirmed in Robers new book, ‘The Wonga Coup’, a former Southern Africa correspondent for The Economist.

History does seem to repeat its self a many time over, as is evedent by the 2004 attempt coup by mercenaries to once again try and seize control of Equatorial Guinea. Only this time one of Britains earlier Prime ministers Margaret Thatchers son Mark was involved.

Some people believe that Frederick Forsyth based his character Channon, in his bestseller book “Dogs of War” on Alexandra Gay, but there are others who think that it might have been the Scotsman Taffy Williams whichever both had served in Biafra.

Marc Goosens

Was Flemish (born in Belgian) A Belgian Regular Army Officer. In 1964 he went to the Congo as Belgian’s Chief Adviser with the rank of Colonel assisting the ANC. In 1968 he went and fought in Biafra under the French Mercenary leader Robert Faulques, here he held the rank of Major. During an attack on Onitsha he was killed, his death being dramatically captured on film.

Fredrick Forsyth

What is not commonly known is that the English writer Frederick Forsyth was also in Biafra on two occasions as a reporter, although now its common knowledge that privatley he supported the Biafran’s.

Forsyth the son of a furrier was born in Ashford, Kent on 25th August 1938. He was educated at Tonbridge School and later attended the University of Granada in Spain. As a national service man he became one of the youngest pilots in the Royal Air Force at the tender age of just 19, Later becoming a journalist and in 1961 he joined Reuters. Then in 1965 once again he was on the move and joined the BBC news team, where he served as an assistant diplomatic correspondent.

From July to September 1967, he served as a war correspondent covering the Nigerian Biafran War. He left the BBC in 1968 after controversy arose over his alleged bias reporting towards the Biafran cause and accusations that he falsified segments of his reports. Returning to Biafra as a freelance reporter.
However, Forsyth did not write his first book until his final return to the UK. ‘The Biafra Story’ was not released until 1969, and was not the succsess Forsyth had exspected.

However, he also went on to write ‘Dogs of War’ (his third novel published in 1974), and many believe that he used his two visits to Biafra to gather information for this very successful book. The mercenaries Mike Hoare, Bob Denard, and “Black Jack” Schramme are all named in the novel. It was also known that Forsyth under the pretence of reasearch approached several people for mercenary informion, like what would it cost to mount sutch an opperation with a handful of men, to which he was told 240,000 U.S dollars. Later Forsyth admitted that arms dealers were the most frightening people he had ever met. And that at one time was frightened for his life, leaving a country with just his passport and the cloths on his.

Forsyth’s African activities of that time are an extremely controversial subject, and it is difficult to separate fact and fiction, however, as UK National Archives documents released in 2005 disclose, in early 1973 several people in Gibraltar were planning a coup d’état against Equatorial Guinea and President Francisco Macias Nguema, in the manner described in the Dogs of War. After a tip-off from the British Embassy inMadrid the Spanish authoriies boarded a boat called the  ‘Albatross’ and arrested Scottish Mercenary Alexander Ramsay Gay along with several other mercenaies in the Canary Islands on 23rd January 1973, thus foiling the plot. As a matter of interest Alexandra Gay had also  served in Biafra. Although it is difficult to separate what Forsyth pretended to do versus what he might have planned to do, it is now reasonably clear, in view of the released documents, that several people were planning a coup d’état as described by Forsyth, at the time he was researching for his novel.

In 1978 Forsyth’s research material became the subject of a feature story published in the London Times that suggested he had in fact commissioned the operation in real life back in 1973.

Fredirick Forsyth went on to write ‘The Day Of The Jackal’ and that book upset both Britain and France.


In 2004, an attempted coup d’état against Equatorial Guinea that involved Mark Thatcher, the son of the ex British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did take place. This attempt was so close to the original ideas put forward by Frederick Forsyth in his novel ‘Dogs of War’. its also reported that some of those captured even carried copies of the book in their back pockets.

Terry Aspinall 2010