The “Biafran Babies”

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

When the colonial powers left Africa in the 1960s, many artificially-formed countries on the continent dissolved into civil strife, including the densely populated, oil-rich province of Biafra, which seceded from Nigeria in May 1967.

Nigeria – without inference from the west and with support of the Soviet Union – invaded Biafra in July 1967 and a fierce and bloody two-and-a-half year civil war ensued.

***image1***The Nigerian Army, well supplied with Communist bloc weapons, quickly captured the Biafran coastal ports and began to surround Biafran cities. Soon, agencies estimated that between 3,000 to 5,000 people every day were starving to death in Biafra – many of them children.

In late 1967, the suffering led to the largest cooperative air relief effort up to that time – known as “Operation Biafra Babies” and organized by the World Council of Churches. Soon, relief aircraft began to land on “airstrips” that were nothing more than a strip of road between two villages.

The Nigerian Air Force had no pilots but a number of Soviet MiG-17 fighters and, as the airlift continued, the government hired mercenary pilots to attack the relief air transports and their landing fields. One of the relief pilots was Swedish Count Carl-Gustaf Ericsson von Rosen, who had been flying humanitarian airlift missions all over the world since 1935. He began a bold effort to offset the Nigerian Air Force.

Early in 1969, with the help of the Tanzanian Embassy, von Rosen bought five MFI-9Bs, a tiny (18 feet long with a 25-foot wingspan), prop-driven Swedish trainer that was nimble; easy to handle and maintain with minimal resources; and could take off and land from short improvised runways.

Von Rosen flew the MFI-9s to France, where French armament experts installed simple sights and mounted a rocket pod with six French armor piercing MATRA SNEB 68-millimeter rockets on each wing – armor piercing because von Rosen wanted to avoid the collateral damage of explosive warheads.

The planes were dismantled and flown to Gabon where, using Volkswagen car paint, they were painted two shades of green. Then three Swedish pilots and two Biafrans, including the 27-year-old commander of the Biafran Air Force, flew the planes – dubbed “Biafran Babies” –  into a secret airfield inside Biafra, where the group carefully planned four missions against key Nigerian targets using all five aircraft.
The first of the daring raids was launched at noon May 22, 1969, on the airport at Port Harcourt. Skimming the tree tops and firing their rockets a few feet above the ground, the “Babies” knocked out two MiGs and damaged two more.

Two days later, a dawn attack against another airport knocked out two more MiGs and two days after that, a third airfield was attacked, knocking out three more MiGs. The fourth and final mass attack was against an important power plant, knocking it out for six months.

After the mass attacks, the MFI-9s – operating from several different primitive road bases and maintained by local blacksmiths – continued to harass the Nigerians. They flew 300 missions against vehicle columns, troop concentrations and river assault boats but were unable to stem the Nigerian tide. Biafra was overwhelmed in mid-January 1970; the death toll was estimated at 1 million men, women and children.

Von Rosen returned to Sweden to face a government inquiry, but was exonerated. He was killed in a plane crash in Ethiopia in 1977, flying in relief supplies under the auspices of the Swedish Red Cross.