Operation BLUENOSE

International Operation Name: not applicable

International Operation Dates:  not applicable

Mandating Organization: Government of Canada

Region Name:  Africa

Location:  Nigeria

Canadian Operation Name: Operation BLUENOSE

Canadian Operation Dates: 1968/10/12 – 1968/12/15

Mission Mandate: To deliver humanitarian relief to Lagos for refugees of the civil war.

Mission Notes:

In July 1967, a secessionist movement in eastern Nigeria (Biafra) declared its independence. The Nigerian Federal Military Government (FMG) quickly moved to bring the secessionist state back under Nigerian control. As a result, the nascent Biafran government found itself isolated and cut off from all food and basic necessities.

A relief flight was authorized and took place in early August 1968, but no further activity was forthcoming. At this point, no agreement had been reached between the three parties as to the use of airfields and permission to fly into specific areas. Despite the lack of agreement Norway, Sweden, Denmark Finland and Switzerland made aircraft and crews available to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in mid August and that organization actually undertook some relief flights before it had local approval to do so.

The ICRC continued its pressure on Canada to provide aircraft. Public pressure was also mounting for Canada to provide some assistance. On 2 September, the FMG agreed to allow the use of the Uli airstrip in Biafra in daylight hours for ten days. The FMG would ensure that the ICRC flights would not be attacked by FMG forces.

Securing FMG and Biafran approval had been a major success. Biafra relied upon the airfields in the territory it controlled in order to bring in military equipment and munitions and would therefore not allow some airfields to be used for humanitarian purposes. On the other hand, the FMG knew that arms smugglers had exploited relief flights to cover their activities, especially at night. That was the reason why it limited the Uli flights to the hours of daylight.

The Canadian Government approved giving support to the ICRC on 10 October, 1968 by means of an “Air Support Detachment, Canadian Armed Forces – Nigeria”. Given the atmosphere of mistrust that had grown up as the ICRC tried to persuade the FMG to co-operate, as well as the continuing violence of an on-going civil war, Ottawa agreed that Nigeria should be treated as a war zone for pension purposes.

Under operation BLUENOSE the first CC-130 Hercules left Canada on 12 October, arriving in Lagos on the 14th. This Hercules from 436 Squadron had two crews, support personnel and equipment to conduct shuttle flights within Nigeria. It was followed on 14 October by a second Hercules, from 435 Squadron. (This flight was Phase II, or Bluenose Phase II, and has therefore been mistakenly identified as Operation Bluenose II in some literature.) It was to operate from Santa Isabel, Equatorial Guinea; however, as the ICRC had not yet arranged landing rights in Santa Isabel, the aircraft and crew had to wait 11 days at Ascension Island until the proper clearances were received. A third Hercules, also from 435 Squadron, departed on 15 October with support personnel, equipment and the tent city in which the aircrew would be sleeping while in Santa Isabel. They waited at Recife for clearances to be received.

As things turned out, the 436 Squadron mission was still-born as the ICRC was never able to obtain approval for shuttle flights within Nigeria. Both 436 crews (the first 436 Hercules had to return to Canada in early November because of serviceability problems) therefore spent almost all their time in Lagos, the Nigerian capital, waiting for clearances to arrive. With nothing in the offing, the second 436 squadron Hercules was ordered home, departing on 11 November.

The situation at Santa Isabel was somewhat better. The first Hercules arrived on 27 October, followed by the support-carrying aircraft the next day. The intent was for the first of the Hercules to commence flying relief missions into Uli on the night of 28/29 October, despite concerns on the part of the Department of National Defence that Canada could be perceived as conducting clandestine operations, i.e. flying in arms under the guise of relief flights.

The mission for the 28/29th was scrubbed when it was learned that an FMG aircraft had attacked the airfield at Uli on the night of 26/27th. The Commanding Officer of the detachment conducted a reconnaissance flight to Uli in another Red Cross aircraft on the night of 29/30th. Assurances were sought from the FMG that they would not attack the CF aircraft, while the Biafrans insisted that flights arrive at night, as aircraft on the airfield during the day would likely be attacked by the FMG. Despite the potential threats, permission was granted to commence operations on the night of 30/31 October.

Over the next six nights, 11 flights were conducted into Uli, carrying over 395,000 lbs of dried fish, powdered milk and oatmeal, as well as six jeeps for the use of the ICRC. The 12th flight was cancelled while enroute to Uli, on orders from Air Transport Command Headquarters (ATCHQ). While ATCHQ had initially given the green light to conduct operations into Uli, this decision was reconsidered in light of the potential for embarrassment for Canada. The FMG had withdrawn their permission for night flights into Uli, and the Commander Air Transport Command was concerned about the perception of Canada’s neutrality, given that it was Biafran soldiers offloading the aircraft.

The aircraft at Santa Isabel was subsequently grounded. The FMG did not reinstate its permission for night flights into Uli, Biafra would not allow day-time flights, and Air Transport Command was not prepared to flaunt another nation’s sovereignty. The personnel at Santa Isabel returned to Canada on 15 November, replaced by another team. The replacement personnel undertook two operational flights. The first was to transfer some refugees from Santa Isabel to Dahomey on 19 November. The second was on 20 November when the Hercules departed for Geneva, Switzerland, to pick up relief supplies from Europe. With no authority to conduct relief flights, the personnel at Santa Isabel were ordered home, leaving on 15 December.

Despite the absence of Canadian aircraft in support of ICRC relief flights, the issue was not closed. In a report on the proceedings at Santa Isabel, the Detachment Commander had recommended air drops as a means of delivering supplies. His idea was given serious consideration within the Canadian Forces, but it was eventually dropped due to a lack of support from the FMG, Biafra and the ICRC.

Such was the state of deprivation in Biafra, however, that the Canadian cabinet approved aid drops in December 1969 should all interested parties agree, but neither the FMG nor the ICRC gave their assent. With the civil war still raging, in July 1969 Canada put forward a proposal to provide inspectors who would verify to the Nigerian authorities that relief flights were not carrying arms – and so perhaps facilitate the resumption of these missions.

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