Total Destruction of Enemy Troops at Oguta
All enemy attempts to cross the Ebocha bridge in his bid to invade Oguta proved abortive. The Biafran troops of 60 Brigade, stationed at the bridge, beat the enemy back as often as he attacked, until there was a stalemate. On the 9th of September, however, our troops there reported seeing what appeared to be enemy boats moving up the Orashi River towards Oguta. When this report was investigated with an Air Force helicopter the following day, it was discovered that there were six enemy boats already at Ezi-Orsu, less than four miles to Oguta town. The alarm was given, and the Biafran Navy went into action with its lone boat mounted with a six-pounder. This boat had been lying idle on the Oguta Lake for some time. In the subsequent battle the Biafran Navy destroyed two enemy boats before I received a hard hit and had to limp back to the Lake. By first light on the 11th of September, my mobile Headquarters moved to join the Navy Headquarters at Oguta. The town of Oguta appeared absolutely normal for the civilian population was not yet aware of the explosive situation.
My first rude shock on arrival at Oguta came with my discovery that the Navy had no troops at all stationed in Oguta except for a few administrative elements and, with all army units of 60 Brigade now by-passed by the enemy, there was no one to fight in defence of Oguta. When all of a sudden Oguta town came under heavy bombardment, which was quickly followed by massive air raids the few Naval ratings assembled by Captain Anuku found it difficult to stay in their locations along the Lake. No trenches had been dug because no one ever dreamt that Oguta could be threatened or was going to be threatened at such a short notice. It was now too late to dig trenches because, besides the heavy artillery and mortar bombardment going on, the Russian jets strafed and bombed individuals who dared to move around.
The situation was so hopeless that I had to brave a trip from Oguta to Owerri to try to get some troops from Nwajei’s 14 Division. Twice on the way a jet fighter attacked my car unsuccessfully. At 14 Division I wrenched from Ugokwe’s 52 Brigade a strong company of 250 armed men and the Brigade’s only anti-tank weapon, regardless of Ugokwe’s protests for losing so much. Unfortunately, by the time this reinforcement got to Oguta with me, the enemy had entered and occupied the town. The troops of the 52 Brigade were then used for establishing initial defences along Oguta-Mgbidi road. When the Biafran Air Force and the Navy eventually found some men and deployed them along Oguta-Uli road, the enemy was reasonably well contained inside Oguta town itself.
With Uli Airport six miles away, the only Biafran link with the outside world, the situation was so grave that unless it was rectified at once, the war could come to an abrupt end within a short time. In preparation for a counterattack, I ordered Amadi of the 11 Division to send up an infantry battalion. By first light on the 12th Amadi had brought up 300 armed men himself, being the best, he could do immediately while the rest were to follow when assembled. The Navy and the Air Force had about 100 armed men each and the 250 men of 14 Division were still there. All added up to a sizeable force for a counterattack. The Head of State made available more ammunition than we ever dreamt of for operations of that nature. The outline plan was to move in 14 Division troops assisted by the Navy on the Mgbirichi-Oguta road to take the left half of the town including the Lake. 11 Division force, assisted by the Air Force, would move along Uli road to clear right of the town. The H-hour was fixed at 1600 hours on the 12th of September to give the field commanders sufficient time to do their reconnaissance and issue detailed orders to their troops. I left the area of Oguta at 0700 hours to go and deal with other urgent matters and also to prepare for the operation.
Achuzia, who was also delegated to assist with the operation later came to see me at 1300 hours looking extremely worn out and dejected. He revealed that the counterattack I planned on Oguta for 1600 hours had already taken place and failed woefully. He narrated how Colonel Ojukwu came to the sector at 0900 hours shortly after my departure, and ordered an immediate counterattack to be controlled by him personally. Not only had the operation failed and the Head of State return to Umuahia, all the ammunition including 300 rounds of 105 mm artillery shells we had saved up for the operation had been exhausted. Colonel Nwajei and Captain Anuku who, together with Achuzia, had commanded the troops during this futile operation, were now re-organising what was left of their troops. Achuzia still maintained that we could clear Oguta.
At the end of his story, I ordered Achuzia to return to Oguta and inform all commanders to prepare to repeat the operation at 1700 hours, and this time properly. Shortly after Achuzia left I received the following signal message from Colonel Ojukwu:
“C-in-C for GOC. Oguta operations. Army efforts at Oguta appear fruitless. There is no basis for Achuzia’s optimism. Nwajei only hopes while Anuku is hopeless. You will take the situation personally in hand and report progress. Acknowledge”.
The second attempt to clear Oguta on the 12th started promptly at 1700 hours in accordance with the original plan. Achuzia, Anuku, and Nwajei displayed such determination and gallantry during the battle that by 1845 hours, all our troops had converged on the banks of Oguta Lake, having cleared the town completely. It was sad to watch enemy soldiers who had missed their boats jump into the lake rather than stay on and be captured. Much equipment and clothing were salvaged from the boats which we destroyed, including a 40mm Bofor anti-aircraft gun marked “Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers” (REME) and a Panhard armoured vehicle which was immediately christened “Oguta Boy.” When I telephoned Ojukwu at Umuahia later that night to give him the good news, he found it almost impossible to believe me.
During the 24 hours the enemy was in occupation of Oguta our defences around Ebocha bridge had disintegrated and our own troops had withdrawn completely, thus enabling the enemy to link-up all the way from Oguta to Port Harcourt. The clearing of the enemy from Oguta was therefore a small fraction of the task of removing the overall enemy to Uli Airport and the recovery of Egbema oil fields. The enemy was now at Ezi-Orsu only four miles away and not only was Uli Airport still threatened from there, but we were yet to recapture the Egbema oil fields which were the only remaining source of crude oil for the entire Biafra. There was pressure on the Army from all quarters to regain the oil fields, as the nation was already feeling the pinch of their loss. What people did not realise was that we did not even have enough ammunition with which to prevent the enemy from re-entering Oguta or making a possible successful move to Uli Airport.
When enemy threat increased together with the local pressure, Major Asoya, the commander of 60 Brigade came to see me to demand ammunition with which to clear Ezi-Orsu and Egbema. I gave him whatever I had, which was grossly insufficient, and told him to go to Defence Headquarters at Umuahia and ask for more if he thought he had a chance of succeeding. When he got to Umuahia, Ojukwu ordered him to return to his unit location without delay.
The Head of State discovered, shortly after his order to Asoya, that he was still in Umuahia and put him under close arrest for disobedience. Ojukwu then summoned me to Umuahia and after briefing me on Asoya’s obstinacy, asked me to look for a new Brigade Commander for 60 Brigade. But when Asoya, who was still around, explained that he was waiting for his vehicle which he had sent somewhere in town to collect brigade stores, I convinced Ojukwu to forgive him.
He subsequently got some ammunition for his operation. Asoya had a company of 200 men for the operation but both the Air Force and the Navy were kind enough to make available to him a Company of 150 armed men each. I took down with me “Corporal Nwafor,” and with my mobile Headquarters just outside Ezi-Orsu, Asoya and I launched the men into battle.
The men of 60 Brigade, fighting with an armoured vehicle for the first time, were by far too excited to think of danger. “Corporal Nwafor” was simply wonderful and so were the soldiers. Soon Ezi-Orsu fell and the push towards Egbema oil fields began. At the end of a five-hour continuous battle, we had recaptured Egbema oil fields and pushed the enemy down to Okwuzu. We could easily have continued to Ebocha, but we had to preserve some ammunition for possible counterattacks. Casualties were evacuated throughout the operation but it was worth it, for once again, oil was flowing in Biafra. I really wonder now how many people in Biafra realised how close we were to the end of the war when we lost Oguta and Egbema. For his bravery and determination, Major Asoya, who a few days before was about to go into detention, was promoted to the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel.
Excerpts from The Nigeria Revolution and the Biafra War by Alexandra A. Madiebo
Chibuike John Nebeokike