19 July 2011

Looking Back at Biafra, Part II

Continuing our look back at the war in Biafra 50 years ago, this article from Time Magazine details how a Swedish adventurer built an air force from scratch. There were some crazy dudes fighting for Biafra back then...

Von Rosen, 59, is a Swedish nobleman with a passion for airplanes and a penchant for underdogs. "Once I get into a plane," he says, "I feel that I can do just about anything as long as I believe in it." As a young man he flew a Heinkel air ambulance in Ethiopia, helping victims of Italian aggression. When Russia attacked Finland, he signed up as a lieutenant in the Finnish air force. In the Congo in 1960, Von Rosen flew supplies for Swedish troops on United Nations peace-keeping duty. Now a senior pilot for a charter flight service called Transair Sweden, Von Rosen last summer hauled relief supplies to Biafra.

The plight of the Biafrans rekindled his sympathies for the outgunned and inspired an improbable, wildly romantic scheme: to marshal pilots and planes and create an instant air force for the planeless Biafrans. Last week, as the Biafran rebellion against Nigeria neared its second anniversary, Von Rosen and his flyers attacked the Nigerian airport at Benin, reported damage to one MIG and several civilian planes sitting on the ground. That raid and two earlier forays, which damaged British- and Russian-made Nigerian planes at Enugu and Port Harcourt, eased the pressure on Biafra's landing strip at Uli. With no Nigerian bombers overhead for a change, transports were shuttling in.

Von Rosen's air corps, which includes two Biafran pilots, has also given a psychological lift to Biafran troops fighting on despite the loss of their capital. Soon after Umuahia fell in April, Biafrans retaliated by recapturing the junction town of Owerri following a lengthy siege. Last week Biafran units were moving slowly southward from Owerri toward the oilfields around Port Harcourt. The Biafran strategy is not so much to regain lost territory as to prolong the standoff and inflict federal casualties until the Nigerians agree to peace talks and grant them independence. Toward such a goal, Count von Rosen's air force, however Lilliputian, is a significant help. As soon as his squadron has effectively disabled Nigerian airpower on the ground, Von Rosen intends to use his planes in close-up tactical air support of the Biafran troops.

By: Brant

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