The last flight

book cover 'The last flight'The Last Flight is the autobiography of Captain August Okpe, founding member of the Nigerian Air Force, active air combatant in the Biafran Air Force (BAF) and, later, chief pilot of Nigeria Airways and director of Air Accident Investigation at the Federal Ministry of Aviation. This recent library acquisition is the first book by a Nigerian author describing the Nigerian-Biafran air war. It is richly illustrated with more than a hundred photos, BAF operational maps, secret codes and a sample of a mercenary pilot contract. August Okpe deals with facts, figures and events affecting persons involved in military aviation. Humanitarian flights by NGOs attempting to help Biafran civilians fall outside of his memoirs' scope.


The Nigerian Civil War
The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War, was a fierce and bloody conflict lasting two-and-a-half years. It began with the secession of Nigeria's southeastern region on 30 May 1967, when it declared itself the independent Republic of Biafra. Less than two months later, on 6 July 1967, the federal government in Lagos launched a full-scale invasion into Biafra to retake the secessionist territory. The Nigerian army surrounded and buffeted Biafra with aerial and artillery bombardment that led to large-scale losses among Biafran civilians. The Nigerian Navy also established a sea blockade that denied food, medical supplies and weapons. Biafra stood firm, refusing to surrender in the face of overwhelming Nigerian military superiority. The Nigerian Army, however, continued to take territory and, on 12 January 1970, Biafra capitulated.

The Biafran Air Force (BAF)
At the declaration of its independence on 30 May 1967, the Biafran Air Force (BAF) had no more than two Alouette II, two Alouette III helicopters, one hijacked Fokker27(*1), a seized DC3 and a few pilots. August Okpe chronicles the genesis of BAF, its military operations, the exploits of Biafran combat pilots, their planes as well as the jungle airports of Udi, Uga, Uli, Okija and Gabon’s airports at Libreville and Nzomo Major that served them. He also gives a detailed report on Operation Biafra Babies in which he took part.

Operation Biafra Babies
Malmö MFI-9 Biafra Baby (Wikimedia Commons)The Swedish relief pilot Carl Gustaf von Rosen, disgusted by the suffering the Nigerian government was inflicting on the Biafrans and the continuous harassment of international relief flights by the Nigerian Air Force, hatched a plan to strike back at Nigerian air power. He acquired five, small civilian single-engine Malmö MFI-9 planes, produced by SAAB, which performed well and which he knew could easily be transformed into light attack planes. The aircrafts were assembled in Gabon, painted in two green colours with Volkswagen car paint and fitted with rockets with the support of the French army.  They were named Biafra Babies. The planes were operated by three Swedes (von Rosen, Gunnar Haglund and Martin Lang) and two Biafran pilots: Willy Murray-Bruce and the author of The Last Flight, Augustus Opke. From 22 May to 8 July 1969, this small unit attacked Nigerian military airfields in Port Harcourt, Enugu, Benin City and Ughelli, destroying or damaging several Nigerian Air Force jets used to attack relief flights as well as a number of Ilyushin Il-28 bombers that were used to bomb Biafran villages. The Biafran air attacks disrupted the combat operations of the Nigerian Air Force, albeit only for a few months.

The Last Flights
August Okpe's account ends with the last flights carried out by the BAF in January 1970. By then, it was clear that no direct air attacks by the BAF could significantly alter the Nigerian ground and air superiority. The collapse of Biafra was inevitable. All the European pilots and technicians had left. Nevertheless, BAF pilots were compelled to operate flights. The Biafran Babies “had, indeed become the consummate Flying Coffins."

The ASC Library holds about 150 publications on the Biafran conflict and several publications on African air forces.
For more information about operation Biafran Babies, read chapter 35 of Okpe’s Last Flight or see the articles written by  Flyvertosset (in English) and Christoph Gunkel & Robert Kluge (in German) or listen to a podcast of the Swedish radio (P3 dokumentär, in Swedish).

Ursula Oberst

*1 For a detailed description of the hijacking of the commercial Nigerian Airways Fokker 27 on 23 April 1967 see chapter 21.