The Ogaden War, 1977 – 1978
Somalia openly announced her intentions upon achieving independence in 1960: Somali enclaves in the Horn of Africa must become part of the new nation. These included the Ogaden, a Nebraska-sized desert region of Ethiopia that would flow with blood twice in the coming decades.
Somalia lost a war with neighboring Ethiopia over the area in 1964, but favorable circumstances encouraged a 1970s rematch. Ethiopia labored under the fallout from a 1974 communist revolution: the new government purged at least 30% of the officer corps, insurgents tied up much of Ethiopia’s army, and her primary arms supplier for decades, the United States, distanced itself over the government’s human rights violations.
Ethiopia’s first Russian military aid arrived in early 1977, a handful of World War II–vintage T-34 tanks. But the Ethiopia Army (EA) still relied upon American arms: seventy-five M-41 and M-60 tanks comprised its armor strength, rounded out with 90 M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs). The Ethiopian Air Force (EAF) flew nearly a dozen F-5A/Bs and eight F-5Es.
With only a tenth of Ethiopia’s people, Somalia created an army almost half the size of the former’s. Seven-hundred-man battalions constituted the primary unit of the Somali National Army (SNA). Russian arms equipped each of them. Armor consisted of 150 T-34/85 and 100 T-54 tanks. The mechanized (mech) battalions (bn) fielded 300 BTR-60s and BTR-152s. Field artillery relied upon towed 76- and 122-mm guns. The Somalis combined two to four Battalions into maneuver brigades (de) for the campaign.
The Air Force put up about 40 operational fighters, 30 MiG-21s and 10 MiG-17s based at Hargeisa. The Somali command, logistics, and maintenance also coalesced on the town as the capital city Mogadishu lay too far from the upcoming war.
Somalia kicked off the Ogaden War with an early 1976 insurgency. She created, trained, and equipped the light infantry of the Western Somalia Liberation Front (WSLF), and SNA officers often served as commanders within it. Somalis of the Ogaden welcomed the 2nd and 5th Divisions (about 6,000 men each) of the WSLF, which occupied the countryside in short order. The EA controlled only the towns by year’s end.
Somalia defined the Ogaden region liberally, taking in parts of the Ethiopian plateau in the north of the Ogaden, which included two of its largest cities, Harrar and Dire Dawa. The Somalia claim also included Ethiopia’s rail line running through Dire Dawa to Djibouti, Ethiopia’s primary sea link.
Somalia maintained a fiction that only the WSLF invaded the Ogaden, but the SNA crossed the frontier at several points on July 13, 1977. In the far south, the towns of Delo and Filtu fell by August 8th.
The Ethiopians garrisoned the airbase at Gobe with the 5th Infantry (Inf) Bde. A platoon from the counter-insurgency Nebelbal (Flame) Bde served as reinforcement.
With the strength of its regular army wanting, the Ethiopians organized peasants into militia units. Trained by a Cuban cadre in the capital Addis Ababa, the 79th Militia Bde rushed to Gobe. Although armed with AK-47s, the militia’s bright field-green uniforms stood out in the desert terrain, making them easy targets. The SNA seized the town on July 25th, inflicting heavy casualties in the process. Only about 20 percent of the militiamen retreated to Harrar on the plateau. The Ethiopians simply abandoned huge warehouses stocked with American arms and ammunition.
The 9th Inf Bde lost Kebridehar and also fled to Harrar in disarray, but the 11th Inf Bde conducted a more orderly retreat to the town of Jijiga. The Ethiopians lost the towns of the lower Ogaden in just a few weeks, and the rapid advance of the SNA impressed American military observers.
The WSLF/SNA pressed on to the plateau. Jijiga, Ethiopia’s main tank base, lay at the foot of the plateau with the Kara Marda pass over the Ahmar Mountains a few miles to the west. Harrar was west of the pass on the highway. Beyond it was Dire Dawa, sitting astride the rail line and home to a key air base. The SNA planned to take Dire Dawa, thereby cutting off the other two towns and making them untenable.
The WSLF raided Dire Dawa on July 14th. The EA’s 24th Inf Bde, the 4th Artillery Bn, and the 752nd Militia Bn held the town. They repulsed an SNA attack three days later.
The 2nd Militia Div, a unit with poor discipline, reinforced Dire Dawa. The 4th Mech Company (Co) with M113s and a couple of M41s rounded out the ground defenses. EAF F5s of the 3rd Fighter Squadron provided the air contingent of the defense.
The SNA attacked again on August 17th with 2,500 men. The 32 T-54s of the 16th Armored Bn led the attack. Elements of the 15th Motorized Bde made up the infantry. Artillery included a company with BM-13 rocket launchers.
They briefly captured the airport, but the Ethiopians threw them back. The SNA suffered 21 tanks lost; 10 bogged down in rough terrain, and EAF F-5s knocked the rest out.
The SNA shifted its focus to Jijiga. The dusty Ethiopian town of 20,000 consisted of one-story houses, nomads’ straw huts, and tin-roofed shacks. The EAF cemented its air superiority here as F-5s shot down Somali MiG after MiG with Sidewinder Air-to-Air Missiles. Israel admitted to aiding Ethiopia, perhaps with spare parts and technicians for its F-5s.
The 10th Mech Bde garrisoned the town. The Ethiopians flew in militia reinforcements. Jijiga changed hands a few times before finally falling on September 12th.
The Ethiopians had suffered their worst defeat, with 3,000 casualties. Units simply melted away. They abandoned tanks and APCs. As at Gobe, they abandoned warehouses full of ammunition and spare parts. The routed units retreated right through the strategic Kara Marda Pass, the capture of which by the British in 1941 had sealed Italian defeat here. The EAF lost the use of a fighter direction radar near the pass, and the SNA occupied both the pass and the town.
The SNA enveloped Harrar next, a 1,000-year old walled city with stone houses. To its northwest, an EA scratch infantry brigade and a 105-mm artillery battery failed to hold Jarson, which fell on October 16th. But the 1st Paracommando Bde held Kombolch. Fedis also held.
The fighting shifted to Harrar proper. The Ethiopians held the town with mechanized and armored forces. They flew in the 2nd Paracommando Bde. A few unusual units further reinforced the town: the 21st and 23rd Battalions consisted of old, recalled veterans. Militia armed with RPG-7s completed the defenses.
WSLF fighters infiltrated into Harrar and occupied part of it in late November. The SNA briefly took some hills overlooking the town before the EA pushed them back from both the town and the hills.
The tide began to turn against the Somalis. Advancing in the mountains was difficult. With Hargeisa over 200 kilometers away, months of war overwhelmed their logistics system and supplies were short.
The Ethiopians started receiving lots of help. Two South Yemeni tank Battalions with T-34s arrived in late September, and the Russians increased their aid.
The frustrated Somalis kicked Russian advisers out of their country. What a mistake—the same Russians immediately started advising the Ethiopians. One thousand Russians served as technicians and as communication and logistical specialists.
The Soviets initiated a massive airlift of equipment to strengthen the Eithiopian forces starting in December, and a simultaneous sealift brought in even more. Crated MiG-17s and 21s arrived; T-54 and T-55 tanks and BMP-1 APCs were unloaded; heavy lift helicopters such as Mi-6s and Mi-8s also showed up.
Thousands of Cubans, including many fresh from combat in Angola, came. Some trained the Ethiopians who were to comprise the 30,000-man 1st Revolutionary Liberation Army. Other Cubans planned to fight, including two mech brigades with T-54/55s. The Cubans flew also the MiGs. Additionally, Ethiopia equipped 60,000 militiamen.
The Somalis had only a fraction as many men. They lacked heavy artillery, were very short on armor, and their air force lost the air superiority battle. Ethiopian aircraft bombed as deep as Hargeisa, making SNA resupply difficult. The West condemned the Soviet/Cuban assistance but refused to provide Somalia with any aid.
The Somalis retained their pride. They assaulted Harrar one last time in January 1978. The attack failed, and they were spent. They lost the initiative. A command group led by Russian generals planned and executed the Ethiopian counterattack, which was preceded by heavy artillery barrages and airstrikes.
The Ethiopians pushed the SNA away from Dire Dawa first. Next, some 60 Cuban T-54/55s and the EA’s 11th Inf Div attacked the SNA at Harrar. The SNA fled, often abandoning their tanks.
Somalia still held the Kara Marda pass and Jijiga. The SNA concentrated its forces at the former, building entrenchments. The Russian generals decided to outflank the pass; how they accomplished that goal is still not entirely clear.
One version says the Cuban 102nd Mech Bde and Ethiopian 10th Inf Div headed northeast out of Harrar, crossed the Ahmar Mountains and then headed south. This put them northwest of Jijiga and behind the SNA/WSLF forces at the pass. Other opinions believe the flanking was carried out by helicopters carrying light tanks, such as PT-76s or ASU-57s. All agree that the recently supplied heavy lift helicopters dropped supplies and that some tanks and soldiers did move overland.
However this force got there, it struck at the rear of the Somalis in the pass while another Cuban brigade and EA infantry division pushed up the pass. The 75th Militia Bde and 1st Paracommando Bde occupied the pass in early March.
The SNA fell back to Jijiga for a last stand; they had nowhere else to go. They had no supplies, no real artillery and no real hope.
The 102nd Mech Bde and EA 10th Inf Div attacked from the north. Militia brigades attacked in human waves. The Somalis fought hard and lost badly, with perhaps as many as 6,000 dying at Jijiga.
The Ethiopians recaptured the Ogaden about as swiftly as the Somalis had captured it. The EA’s 3rd Inf Div and the 3rd Cuban Tank Bde took Degehabur on March 6th. The 9th Inf Bde supported by a Cuban artillery battalion took Filtu on March 8th; the 4th Inf Div took Delo on March 12th, and the 69th Militia Bde took Kelafo the following day.
Fearing an invasion, Somalis flooded recruiting stations. But the Soviets restrained the Ethiopians, and they stopped at the border. Ethiopia declared the war over on March 23rd. Her losses included over 6,000 killed, and about 400 Cubans and 100 South Yemenis also died. Some 160 Ethiopians were executed in the early stages of the war. One observer of the Ogaden War summed up the antagonists best, stating that Somali soldiers and Ethiopian pilots would make the best armed forces in Africa.
The Somalis tallied their losses. In addition to the troops, they lost most of their air force, 9 MiG-17s and 18 MiG-21s. Six Somali generals were blamed and executed. Somalia continued the conflict, using the WSLF and guerilla warfare.
Somalia fought hard against overwhelming odds and cannot be faulted for not factoring in the possibility of massive Soviet and Cuban intervention. Invading the Ogaden was a gamble but perhaps one worth taking. It might well have succeeded.
A big loser in the war was the United States. Hemming and hawing, the Carter Administration never made up its mind on what it wanted to do or not do. Such indecisiveness left allies guessing, and America lost Ethiopia as an ally but appeared reluctant to embrace Somalia. The tepid American response also emboldened the Soviets to invade Afghanistan the next year and encouraged the Cubans to remain in Angola for another decade.
The Cubans and Soviets scored a number of points, showing they had the capability to militarily support allies and would not hesitate to use it. They gained combat and logistical experience and traded a smaller ally for a much larger one.
The Ethiopians gained new benefactors. The war transformed their army from an American-trained and -equipped one to a Soviet one. Ethiopia hung on at places such as Harrar and Dire Dawa but did not defeat the Somalis. Rather, Cuban soldiers, Russian generals, and Soviet equipment did. Victors might not have all the luck, but they usually have the most luck. That certainly is the case of Ethiopia in the Ogaden War.
About the Author
Hans Johnson is a freelance writer living in Southwest Florida.