BY GHIRMAI WOLDEGIORGIS *
Entering from the southern part of Nakfa, four warplanes dived towards the north and started intensely bombing Tegadelties’ trenches. As the result, the vicinity was covered with dust and smolder. Passenger planes followed immediately dropping soldiers in parachutes in the flat area located in the eastern side of Nakfa.
To save the parachuting soldiers from attack, and from being taken in, the soldiers from the besieged town started running towards the trenches of the Tegadelties and open hell fire. The intense fire added blaze to the Tegadelties trench that is already covered with debris and smoke.
The mission of the airborne commandos was to provide support to the besieged soldiers in Nakfa. The goal was, when possible to break their encirclement if not save the soldiers from complete annihilation. This mission, however, was executed in a rush that lacked confidence and proper-planned coordination. This was evident considering the disagreement among the Air Force commanders and other Dergue military officers in Asmara at a meeting right before the Airborne commandos started to jump into Nakfa area.
The encircled army in Nakfa has suffered repeated attacks from the Tegadelties, and as a result its human resources was depleted. It had also food and ammunition shortages. The commander of this battalion 15 was Lt. Colonel Mamo Temteme. The officer in command was repeatedly sending telegram distress messages for help to the high command of the Derg’s army …
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“This messages include our telegram message of 6 October 1969 of the Geez calendar (1976) to the commander of 2nd division of the army and commander of the Air Force, and to the military committee of Provisional Military Government that we know now was not received.
As you are aware, as much as we can, we have been defending day and night against numerically larger rebel fighters for the entire month. Sixty soldiers from our army are badly injured and they are suffering from rotting wounds.
To defend the name and honor of our country, sacrificing ourselves, we are fighting to prevent the rebels from taking our equipment and the town. We repeatedly asked for backups support while we are held hostage.
So far we did not receive any help. We are beginning to doubt if there is a government we can trust. If there is a government that is concerned for the country and its side, we expect not only a written response but an expedited military response for our desperate request as soon as possible.“
The high commanders of the Ethiopian army knew that they have to address this serious desperate plea of support from the battalion 15 lest they fret the lack of confidence that this will ensue in the whole army.
Their immediate answer was to gather soldiers who were trained as airborne paratroopers that were distributed in different unit of the army. Ninety-nine such soldiers were gathered and were regimented in platoon and company.
The idea was to send these paratroopers to jump from planes to give support to the besieged army in Nakfa. This required a well-planned coordination between the Air Force and the airborne commandos.
To discuss to this end, the general, commander of the 2nd division called administration officers, commander of the Air Force, commander of campaign, security chief of the Air Force, political and security officers and a major from the para-commando unit to a meeting in a conference hall at the Air Force base. He opened the meeting by saying:
“We have seen many of our soldiers in various camps that didn’t withstand enemy attack. They are fleeing their trenches to the nearest government bases leaving their wounded soldiers and abandoning expensive military weaponry to the enemy. Battalion 15, however, despite suffering damaging attack from the enemy, has been fighting heroically for a month, continuously.
Different attempts to free this besieged soldiers were not successful. Still, we have not stopped our effort. We are now in a process of assembling a big army beefed by tanks, artilleries, anti-tanks, anti-aircraft and fighter planes.
However, this will take some times to organize. In the meantime, to save this besieged battalion, the government’s only choice is to send paratroopers to jump into Nakfa to strengthen the unit in the town. Therefore, you’re all gathered here to discuss on how to best coordinate and execute this operation. “
The man representing the Air Force was giving the floor and said ;
“According to the international law, if a passenger plane is to fly in an enemy area, the area should be free of anti aircraft guns or missiles but if it is forced to fly in that area, it has to fly at an altitude above the range of anti-air guns. Zu-23 anti-aircraft aimed at 90 degrees, for example, has a range of 2500 meters. If an aircraft is forced to fly in an area infested with such gun, it has to fly at 3000 meters adding 500 meters for safety, above the range of the Zu-23. If we fly it lower than this altitude, the aircraft will be shot and we loose the craft and the soldiers in it. Insurance coverage will also be lost for the passengers. “
He continued adding,
“To give relief to the besieged battalion that is encircled by Shabia, we have made several air attacks in to enemy’s positions. We witnessed from experience the challenge we have faced from the enemy’s anti-air guns. Therefore, the aircrafts that will be summoned to Nakfa must fly above 2500 meters. We can make an airplane ready if there is a Para commando that can and willing to jump to Nakfa from this altitude. If not, I like to remind that it is forbidden to fly a passenger plane at altitude lower than 2500 meters in such circumstance.”
The next officer to speak was the major of the Para commando unit assigned to jump into Nakfa. He said:
“For an Airborne commando fighter to jump into enemy area, the time between leaving the aircraft and reaching the ground should be very short. The risk of being hit by anti air gun is higher if the time is a bit longer. For this reason, the time he should be in the air should not exceed more than 2 minutes.
For better clarity, a soldier jumping from an aircraft carrying a weight of 60-70kg of weapons descends 300 meters in one minute after he spreads his parachute; it means it takes two minutes to descend 600 meters. Taking this calculation into account, if our aircraft can fly lower than this altitude, we will be ready to mobilize our soldiers for the task. We doubt if any soldier can survive from a jump higher than this altitude.
Considering the wind gust from high altitude, there is also a risk of a soldier being captured by the enemy. Our lose will be higher than our gain if we drop a soldier from more than an acceptable altitude.”
He concludes by saying
“Therefore, I like to remind the higher command to make its decision very carefully. “
The meeting started at 9:00 am but the participant could not come to agreement by noon. The summoning commander looked at his watch and decided to adjourn the meeting saying, “we end our meeting for now and we will start the meeting at 2:00 pm.” He concluded by adding “We expect you to come with an agreeable solution in our next meeting.”
The meeting started at 2:00 pm and all the attendees in the morning meeting were present. The commander started the meeting by the following suggestive, yet warning phrases:
“Much was said in the morning, in this meeting we need to focus in new ideas that were not raised in the morning. There is no value in repeating what has been said in the morning. We will only waste time by repeating. The nature of the task is technical and we expect workable ideas should originate from professionals. But I like to assure you there is a pressure from higher authorities for the execution of the operation by all means. Therefore, I or any one else cannot change this.”
In a stronger tone he continued. “In short, the order can not be canceled, ignored or deferred.”
This created more pressure to the primary participators of the operation. As such the commander of the Para-commando asked to speak and was granted the floor.
“Your excellency, believing this matter is handled maturely and by competence, I will add to what I said in the morning. If our commandos are to jump from 2500 meters as the Air Force required, they require the skill of navigation taking wind factor in that altitude. We have only few commandos with that skill. The rest will be at risk to drift and fall at enemy’s line. Jumping from 3000 meters by the commandos will cost us more and we will fail achieving the goal of breaking the encirclement of battalion 15.”
He sat making sure that his message was directed at the Air Force commander.
The Air Force commander with a touch of sarcasm,
“We are not merely speculating here. It is not our first time to help battalion 15. We are speaking from the experiences we had faced from Shaebia’s anti-aircraft. If we are forced to fly our planes below 2500 meters, enemy bullets will hit our aircrafts and our personnel, and our planes will tumble and crash to ashes. At the end, no one but only Shaebia and its cohorts will gain from the outcome. “
Noticing the tit for tat between the Air Force and the Airborne, and remembering the order form higher authorities that said “whatever the cost, the operation should be executed”, the 2nd division commander asked the other participants to give their input. He also reminded them that they would not be abrogated from responsibility by being quite. This was obvious pressure to the participants that have not spoken in the meeting.
No one dared speak except for some of them whispering among each other. “The question of who will be responsible in the event the operation fails is being forgotten.” Understanding their fear, the commander availed his plan and explained it as following:
“Today 18 October 1977, the campaign commander will give battle engagement instructions to the Air Force and the Airborne.” After saying this, he gave the floor to the campaign commander. Noticing the participants’ attention the campaign manager started talking.
“As you all know, and because of various causes we are locked in defense while Shaebia is on the attack. Shaebia is spreading its domain by attacking and swallowing all our stations that are isolated like islands. And now it plans to destroy battalion 15 to control Nakfa. To your surprise, it will not stop there. Control of Afabet and Keren are its next moves.
“When he said this, it shows that he properly followed the EPLF’s various communication outlets that said, “we will slowly free people and land until the whole Eritrea is free.” He continued,
“It is confirmed that Shaebia added a brigade to its force yesterday 17 October 1976. This positioning is a preparation to destroy Nakfa. Immediately after it controlled Karora, it gathered its forces to destroy battalion 15 in Nakfa. When it gathered it forces to destroy the battalion, we deployed using helicopters a battalion known as Nebelbal commando battalion in a place called Naro, 10 kilometers east of Nakfa. Due to some discrepancies, however, the battalion did not succeed.”
The excuse he used as “some discrepancies” are about the their failed campaign in Naro area.
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In a distance far enough to see from the defense potions of EPLF, a battalion named Nebeblab started to deploy its soldiers using Helicopter. Realizing the development, commanders of EPLF organized platoon and companies to approach the vicinity of the threatening force.
Their first task was to control the water sources in the area. They waited prepared for the advancing foe after they controlled, Mefegergelil, Ketarit and Gudn. These are the only water source in the vicinity.
The Nebelbal soldiers had to endure the hot climate of Naro area and fight piercing the EPLF trenches to save battalion 15 from its predicament. If it succeeds in this endeavor, its second task was to encircle the EPLF forces. To this end, the enemy battalion fiercely fought the EPLF forces. But it was soon realized by the enemy the fact in the ground was not as planned in their head quarters. After fighting for days without any progress, the Nebelbal suffering the heat, thirst and EPLF’s bullets, failed to meet its first objective. Suffering heavy lose, it retreated back to where it came from – to Afabet.
Being fully aware of their lose and failed past attempt, the campaign commander continued by starting,
“Learning from our past mistakes, we are now preparing a brigade enforced by full mechanized forces. A competent retired general will lead it. Until the preparation of this brigade is finalized, the general command has ordered to send battalion commando to parachute in to Nakfa to save the battalion 15 from complete annihilation and if it is possible to also liberate it from encirclement.”
He paused for reaction from the audience, but it was only a complete silence. Then he continued,
“… for this mission a C-119 plane is prepared to take the parachuting commandos to Nakfa. The order is given to this battalion to engage and save battalion 15 in Nakfa. The C-119 will be accompanied by two warplanes.”
He also said the preparation of the mission is left to the immediate responsible bodies of the mission. The meeting was adjourned and as they left the meeting, one can visibly see some that are happy and some that are not.
October 21, 1976 was cold in Asmara. The parachuting commandos in their full gears are observing their hauling plane and the accompanying warplanes warming their engines. After sometimes, however, the planes shutdown their engines.
Their immediate commander noticed that delay caused the excited commandos to showing fatigue and frustration. They required their officials for reason of the delay. They were told Nakfa is covered by fog, and that they are waiting the fog to clear but that it is late now. They told them to go to their camp and stay in attention for the order to board.
Some of the soldiers were heard saying, “ It would have been better for them to go than waiting in suspense”
The planes were waiting fully ready in October 22, 1976. The commandos boarded the C-119 and positioned themselves at the hatches of the plane. Escorted by two warplanes, the C-119 headed West towards Barentu and Teseney instead of North to Nakfa. This is to confuse EPLF guns. This flight normally takes 30 minutes to Nakfa but it took 40 minutes.
From Teseney, the planes oriented toward North, towards Nakfa, and soon they were sited in Nakfa skies. The parachuting commandos started jumping as soon as the warplanes started bombing Tegadeltie’s position. The besieged soldiers in Nakfa used the planes fire cover to attack by running towards EPLF’s trenches.
The commanding officer of the EPLF at that time was Martyred Alisaid Abdela.
Alisaid ordered the Tegadelties (freedom fighters) to ignore the parachuting commandos and to focus on the enemy ground force approaching instead. The commandos were already in trouble. While the anti aircraft guns were firing at the warplanes they inundated the parachuting commandos as well.
Following their order, Tegadelties were fiercely denying the Nakfa ground force that was attempting to prepare landing positions for the commandos. Tegadelties’ anti-air guns hammered the warplanes and the descending commandos in the air. Damaged parachutes accelerated the loud crashing death of some soldiers. Such loud crashes were heard in many area.
At the end, the approaching soldiers from Nakfa retreated to its dreaded banks with only few lucky survivors of the commandos. The attempt was a total failure.
The airborne commando could not save Battalion 15, instead what left of it became hostage joining the battalion it attempted to save. And worse, the joining commando’s exasperated food, water and medicine shortages. The condition of the battalion with few of its new guest has become worse. Their encirclement by Tegadelties tightened.
The soldiers were unable to move in daylight lest be picked by EPLF bullets. They were left to relive themselves in their metal helmet during daylight. Only the dark gave them cover to empty the content deposited during the daytime.
The soldiers at Nakfa continuously received “to not despair” radio messages. “Hold on for few moments, we are organizing a large army. Once this army is deployed, it will wipe Shaebia and you will be freed. Once you are free, your reward money, titles and decision to see your family is waiting for you…” were the messages. While these messages were giving a glimpse of hope, at the end hearing it bored the soldiers.
At last the day has arrived when the large army started to head towards Nakfa equipped with enough human resources and full mechanized equipment. Its first task was to bulldoze all potential resistance of the EPLF in the road from Keren to Nakfa.
The EPLF learned its arrival in Keren and it made its forces ready for engagement. As soon as the army started from Keren, it was met by fierce resisting forces of the EPLF units at the mountain range of Meshalit. The EPLF humiliatingly pushed this army back to Keren. This defeat was the last crash to the hope of Battalion 15 in Nakfa.
Soon after, the EPLF started to plan for the last blow to capture Nakfa. In March 23, 1977, EPLF launched a well-coordinated attack and finally captured the town of Nakfa.
This way the story of the Battalion 15 and the remaining airborne commandos’ end.
* Narrators of the story are Brig. Gen. Daniel Abraham and Tesfankeal Haile. Translated by Menghis Samuel, courtesy of Tesfaye Gebreab.