BY HABTOM TESFAMICHAEL | SHABAIT
The month of February takes a center stage in the heart of every Eritrean as we commemorate “Operation Fenkil”, which resulted in the liberation of the port city of Massawa following a three-day fierce battle, from 8th to 10th of February 1990.
Operation Fenkil, one of the most successful military operations, heralded the end of Ethiopian colonialism in Eritrea. It was carried out through the coordinated attack of the infantry, the mechanized and the then-nascent naval forces of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).
The port city of Massawa was crucial for the Ethiopian second division stationed in Eritrea. It had been a life-line for the shipment of its armaments and other logistics. Understanding the importance of the port city to the survival of its war machinery, the Dergue regime spent many years building strong fortifications that surrounded Massawa.
The prelude to Operation Fenkil was the demise of the Nadew Command in 1988 in Afabet. After the demise of the Nadew command, the collapse of the Ethiopian army in Operation Fenkil was another crucial turning point in the history of the armed struggle. It effectively sealed off the fate of the Ethiopian army in Eritrea and signaled the end of Ethiopia’s illegal occupation of Eritrea in the most vivid way. So vast was the endeavor and so far-reaching its consequences.
After the fall of Massawa into EPLF’s hands, instead of accepting defeat and pulling out along with the leftovers of their human and material resources, the Dergue chose to play a blindfolded game of hopelessness. The indiscriminate aerial bombardment of Napalm and Cluster bombs over innocent residents of Massawa, which left many dead, injured and traumatized, and infrastructure that was leveled to the ground attest to the regime’s utter desperation.
Watching footage from the Battle of Massawa one can easily tell that the breadth and scope of Operation Fenkil were gigantic. It was the largest tank battle fought in Sub- Saharan Africa. The sheer number of troops and tanks the EPLF assembled for the offensive was enormous. The logistical preparations it undertook were extraordinary.
Operation Fenkil was launched in the pre-dawn darkness on February 8, 1990. It was fought on multiple fronts. By the third day, it succeeded in completely routing the enemy out of its heavily-defended strongholds in the port city and the islands around it. The young EPLF navy operating a taskforce of speed boats provided critical support and firepower by destroying and sinking ships anchored around Massawa Harbor.
Every Eritrean who went to Massawa must have visited the tank monument established at Tualet. The three tanks stand as a memorial to the heavy sacrifice that was paid during the liberation of Massawa. One of these tanks is known by its code name Commander No.1.
As the Dergue army was pushed towards the port city of Massawa, a large number of soldiers gathered at the center of the port city where it is surrounded by water except the 1km causeway that connects it to the mainland. The commander of the sixth division of the Durgue regime, General Teshome, refused to surrender by keeping hostage hundreds of Massawa residents and using grain bags as a cover. EPLF fighters decided to attack through a coordinated sea and land attack.
Three tanks, named Jaguar, Tiger, and Commander, from the Mechanized unit of the EPLF were made ready for the assault. One of the tanks that were hit by the enemy at the event was the tank known by the name Commander No.1, now standing at the tank monument at Tualet.
Commander No.1 was captured from the enemy in late 1977 at a battle of the Southern Front around Selae Daero while Asmara was put under siege by freedom fighters. It was one of the first 100 mm-abled T-55 tanks provided to the Dergue by the USSR and entered the battle for the first time in Eritrea. It was also the first 100 mm tank to have been ever seized by the EPLF. The reason it was named Commander was that it had a different radio communication system designed for the commander of a tank unit.
Commander No.1 was taken to Sahel in the final phase of the strategic withdrawal in late 1978. It participated in a battle for the first time during the third offensive attacks of the Dergue at the battle of Algien, in February 1979. Then she took part in the sixth and seventh offensives of the Dergue in 1982 and 1983 along the North-Eastern Front of Sahel.
Commander No.1 participated in the assault carried on Barentu in 1985. At this battle, it pierced an enemy’s armored vehicle and in another event, she stopped another enemy armored vehicle by exposing its cabin. It was an event where a captured EPLF fighter was rescued.
Following the capture of Barentu, after participating in aborting a series of 13 attacks by the enemy to recapture Barentu, it returned to Sahel and played a significant role in aborting the 8th offensive of the Dergue regime along the North-Eastern Front of Sahel around Qebr Weet. In the second phase of the offensive, she went up to Nakfa and played its role in halting enemy attacks.
During the annihilation of the Nadew Command, Commander No. 1 was stationed along the eastern plains of Felket and encountered an engine problem and was stopped from the operation. Afterward, she returned to the garage center in Sahel and her engine was replaced. To continue her task, she was then stationed in the Eastern plains along the fronts of Welet Shekor and participated in a battle the EPLF carried out at the front in 1989.
In February 1990, Commander No.1 set off from the Eastern front, where she was positioned around Shiib, and marched towards Massawa. On 11th Feb, she crossed Sigalet Qetan and destroyed a Zu-23 armored vehicle before she was hit by an enemy bomb. Fighters who were inside the tank at the time were killed. Commander No.1 now rests at the heart of Massawa as a symbol of dedication and sacrifice for a just cause.