The Biafra Story - Page 33

At 6.03 p.m. his voice was heard in the Fernando Poo control tower, and by other Red Cross pilots on the same run. He gave no call-sign, and the voice was high-pitched with alarm. He said: ‘I’m being attacked … I’m being attacked.’ His switch went dead, there was a moment’s silence, then a babble on the ether, with Fernando Poo asking for the identification of the caller. Thirty seconds later the voice came back on the air ‘My engine’s on fire … I’m going down …’. Then there was silence. Nothing was ever heard from Captain Brown again.

His plane crashed in flames in the marshes outside Opobo on the coast. At first it was said that three of the four men were alive, then that they were dead. The United States Government and the Swedish Government protested about the incident and asked for the bodies of their nationals back. The matter was not pressed, neither were the protests.

To every pilot along the coast one thing was patently clear, and their own quiet investigations confirmed it: the American, the two Swedes and the Norwegian had been murdered. The next question became that of finding the identity of the man who did it. At first it was thought it might be an East German, then rumour circulated that it was a Nigerian who had flown the MiG.

The world of flying is strange. It has its own laws, its own code and its own information network. There exists a kind of brotherhood between pilots, as between seamen. Pilots who have fought against each other can sit down years later and talk over old times without animus, in a manner unlikely in any other branch of fighting. It would be perfectly possible today for the relief pilots to have a beer at the bar with the mercenary pilot who flew the Nigerian night bomber over Uli; he was doing his job and they theirs. That is all there is to it. On the fringes of the air charter world, inhabited by men who have flown many strange cargoes and passengers into bizarre airfields for the right price, there is little animus over bygone ‘jobs’ when they may have been competing with each other. There is also little that is unknown. It is rare to stand in a group of such pilots and mention the name of another veteran of fly-for-hire without one of the company knowing the man.

Within a fortnight the Red Cross and JCA pilots had the name of the man who shot down Captain Brown. He was an Australian mercenary, and several of Brown’s colleagues swore that one day, somewhere, they would ‘get’ him. For the Australian had broken the last rule in a remarkably tolerant brotherhood. He had shot down a fellow pilot without giving him a chance, and that was unpardonable.

All this, of course, was going on inside the closed club of the fliers. In the outside world, observers watched and waited to see what would be the reaction to this last remarkable piece of brutality by the already heavily blood-stained Nigerian Air Force. Would the United States protest that this had gone too far, and further interference produce an American offer to give protective cover to the relief planes? This was not to be. Would the Swedes protest in similar terms? It was seriously mooted in Sweden, but the government in Stockholm was content to protest formally and let the matter drop.

None watched the world’s reaction more closely than the Nigerian Government. Like all bullies, they were trying something on to see how far they could go. They are Africans and the African, like many others, will watch with great interest to see how far a ‘tough guy’ can go. If he can get away with what he tries, there will be no demur. If, on the other hand, someone stands up to the tough guy and, being in a position of strength, makes it quite clear that so far as he is concerned a particular course of action has gone far enough, he will usually win his point. At that stage the African will come to respect the newcomer and repudiate the bully. In short, this is human reaction the world over, as the years 1935–39 in Europe so poignantly showed.

General Charles de Gaulle understood this, which was why he got on extremely well with Africans and was much respected by them. The British and American governments do not understand this, and that is why both are regarded with contempt throughout Africa. No amount of dollar or sterling aid will ever win the respect that the African will accord freely to a man who stands up for his own irreducible standards.

Within six days it became clear to the Nigerian Government that they had got away with the outrage of 5 June scot-free and would continue to do so. Thus emboldened, they proceeded to humiliate the International Red Cross and destroy its operation. In this they were assisted by the American Embassy in Lagos.

The day after the shooting down, the IRC, on orders from the Committee in Switzerland, suspended its operations, at least temporarily. What followed was a classic example of a psychological campaign intended to undermine the morale of a group of men trying to achieve a course of action. It succeeded perfectly.

In the aftermath of the shooting incident, the Red Cross in Geneva expected, and thought they had the right to expect, the moral support of the governments of the Western world. They got none. Down in Cotonou the co-ordinator of the Red Cross operation, Dr Lindt, urged that the airlift should start again. He pointed out that there was no need to fly in daylight as Captain Brown had done, that flights in darkness could continue just as before, and that Joint Church Aid was continuing its flights.

In fact JCA had restricted its flights to three or four a night in the aftermath of 5 June and its pilots were getting restive, not because of the shooting down of Captain Brown but because of the continuing activity of the MiGs in strafing Uli at night. What won the battle of indecision for Joint Church Aid was the iron will of Pastor Vigo Mollerup, the Danish pastor of a slum parish in Copenhagen who headed the Nord Church Aid scheme, which was responsible for the actual air bridge out of São Tomé, and the remarkable personality of Danish Air Force Colonel Denis Wiechmann, the operations chief of São Tomé. Pastor Mollerup, commuting between his own people in Copenhagen and his colleagues of Caritas and the World Council of Churches in Geneva, urged and wrangled that their air bridge should not be dismantled because of this one incident: in the pilots’ crew room at São Tomé, Colonel Wiechmann cajoled the pilots back into the air. By 10 June they were struggling back to their usual complement of two shuttles of eight or ten aircraft a night.

On 10 June Dr Lindt went back to Moscow, where he had formerly been Swiss ambassador, to pick up his effects and furniture which had lain there for eleven months, since his hasty departure to answer the call of the Red Cross the previous July. Behind him he left instructions with the Cotonou operations chief, Nils Wachtmeister, that after a series of proving flights by one or two aircraft, the Red Cross air bridge should be steadily built up again. He made several provisos: take-off times should be strictly after dark, even if that meant cutting out one of the shuttles, and the utmost precautions should be taken on landing and take-off from Uli to ke

ep the lit-up period to a minimum.

On 10 June the Icelandic pilot flying for the Red Cross from Cotonou in his own aircraft, Captain Lofto Johanssen, flew two missions into Uli in one night and returned safely from both. He had two more proving flights scheduled for the 12th, after which full flights would be resumed.

On the evening of 12 June a mysterious telephone message reached the chiefs of Joint Church Aid who were conferring in Lucerne, Switzerland. It came from the American Embassy in Geneva (a check-back call was made to make quite sure the message was no hoax) urging JCA with the utmost show of concern to call off all their flights for that night. The reason for this advice, said the message, was extremely serious but could not be revealed.

After a hasty consultation the four JCA chiefs in conference agreed to send a message to São Tomé cancelling all that night’s flights, but they also insisted on knowing from the Americans, within twelve hours, their reasons for this demand.

Nord Church Aid got off a top-priority telex through the International Aviation Control Tower Service. Inevitably, when Colonel Wiechmann got it, it looked like a panic call. Seven aircraft were in the air and a recall message was sent out from São Tomé to all of them. One had already landed at Uli, two others were overhead and decided it was too late to pull back, so they went in and landed. The other four turned back for base, and the second shuttle was abandoned. Few events more likely to shatter the already strained morale of the pilots could be imagined.

When the next morning the Americans vouchsafed an explanation of the previous evening’s panic, it was that ‘there was some political trouble in Cotonou’. Pastor Mollerup replied with some asperity that that had nothing to do with the JCA air bridge out of São Tomé.

Once again Colonel Wiechmann got the airlift re-started. Meanwhile, exactly the same panic message had been passed on the evening of 12 June by the US Embassy in Geneva to the Red Cross. They too ordered their flights for that night to be cancelled and Lofto Johanssen remained on the ground. The Red Cross never flew again, apart from a few planeloads of medicaments several months later.

In Geneva, in the wake of 12 June, more deliberations took place as to whether to restart the airlift or not. In later weeks, intrigued by the events of 12 June, both relief organizations made their own inquiries to ascertain where the phony messages of unspecified dangers for them if they continued to fly in relief had originated. Independently they tracked the messages down to the same source – the American embassy in Lagos.

Meanwhile the Red Cross had been hit by another blow. Returning to West Africa on 14 June to try and put back together the bits of the operation he had so sedulously built up over the preceding months, Dr Lindt was arrested at Lagos airport for allegedly flying into the airport in his private Beechcraft without the proper authorization. (In fact, his papers were perfectly in order.) After being held for several hours he was expelled and declared persona non grata.

It was the final humiliation, and it broke Geneva’s will to continue. From then on they decided to try to negotiate their way back into the relief operation, a futile exercise as any who knew the situation could have told them. Speaking to the author months later, one of the senior Red Cross men involved throughout said, ‘There is not a vestige of doubt in my mind that we were the butt of a deliberate conspiracy, hatched in Lagos between the Nigerians and the American embassy, and it worked perfectly.’

The same source added, however, that, even without the shooting down of the Red Cross plane on 5 June, the departure of Dr Lindt alone would have seen an end to the Red Cross operation in Nigeria–Biafra. This remarkable man had built it up, nursed it, argued and cajoled it though many troubles. His stern appearance and brusque manner concealed a deep and sincere concern for the suffering he witnessed on both sides of the firing line, and despite his late middle age he put in more energy than most younger men could have mustered. He also made bitter enemies in Nigeria. Refusing to tolerate the misappropriation of relief stores by private racketeers, the commandeering of relief transport of all kinds for military use, Dr Lindt cut out the rakeoff specialists and the bribery boys, ensuring that the absolute maximum of relief food got through to the hungry children and refugees on the Nigerian side of the line.

What is not so certain is that the Nigerian régime would have dared to humiliate and expel the International Red Cross chief and order the IRC to hand over the whole relief operation to their own corruption-riddled appointees, if they had not been able to get away with the shooting down of Captain Brown.

It has been said since that in packing up in Nigerian and Biafra the International Red Cross betrayed the two parties towards whom its true responsibility lay – the suffering on both sides, and the donors of the money who had hoped to see their donations help save lives rather than rotting in a warehouse. But it should be stressed that in its hour of need the International Red Cross was itself betrayed by the two Western governments from whom it had every reason to expect unswerving support as the world’s foremost and wholly neutral charitable organization – the British and American Governments.

Throughout the episode not a word of support for the IRC mission in Nigeria–Biafra emerged from Whitehall or Washington. Indeed, the British Government, which had not lifted a finger to secure the release from detention in Biafra of Miss Sally Goatcher (her release was obtained by the Churches and Red Cross), made vague and unspecified threats as to what might befall if anything should happen to her in Biafra, but was not able to issue one word of condemnation of the murder of Captain Brown and his three crewmen.

Perhaps the climax in tastelessness was left to the Daily Telegraph. On 8 July part of the editorial read: ‘The increasingly effective Federal Air Force, trying to stop arms flights, shot down what turned out to be a relief aircraft, a misfortune which Biafran propaganda duly exploited.’ One was left wondering who were the more unfortunate, the four airmen lying in their graves in the marshes or the mercenary who killed them.

On 17 June one last effort to halt the JCA air bridge was made. A very strong rumour reached Geneva from American sources that Nigeria had imported two Sukhoi-7 night fighters, fully equipped with radar, whose job was to intercept the relief planes in the darkness and shoot them down. This rumour was also widely reported in the Press. A quick check from JCA head-quarters in Geneva revealed that this titbit, also, was from the American embassy in Lagos. By this time Vigo Mollerup had had enough of American rumours and told Colonel Wiechmann to go right ahead. The rumour turned out to be false. There never were any Sukhoi night fighters in Nigeria, a fact of which the American embassy, with its enormous CIA operation in Nigeria, was certainly aware.

Inside Biafra the effect of the suspension of the airlift was quick and disastrous. The two main relief agencies had between them supplies for about ten days. They provided aid in one form or another to close on three million souls per day. At one stroke this had been cut by half with the Red Cross ceasing operations, and further reduced by the cut-back in JCA flights.

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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