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Category: Conflicts/Others

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Somalia - Operation Iguana & Operation Solace

On 24 December 1992, A Company, 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment left Townsville on HMAS Jervis Bay bound for Somalia, as part of the first Australian battalion group deployed operationally since  4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) in the closing days of our involvement in the Vietnam War. 

Operation Solace, with involvement from all three armed services, saw Australian forces earn praise for their work in restoring law and order to troubled areas in Somalia and in bringing humanitarian aid to the Somali people. 

<<< The Australian Active Service Medal with Somalia Clasp

 Lance Corporal Shannon McAliney of 1RAR: Killed on patrol in Somalia. Lest we Forget

BACKGROUND. Somalia's joy at attaining independence in 1960 was short lived, for just nine years later a military coup installed Mohammed Siad Barre as president. Barre's presidential policy included jailing, torturing and summarily executing anyone who didn't like his radical socialist ideas. 

Armed resistance movements, already battle hardened by the Ogaden War with Ethiopia, sprouted up over the countryside, and for several decades there were pitched battles between various clans and the military.

 The conflict built to a crescendo in July 1989, in the city of Mogadishu, when Barre's death squads slaughtered 450 Muslims demonstrating against the arrest of their leaders. Barre's days were now numbered, and he was harried into the mountains of southern Somalia in 1991.

It transpired that this moment of clan unity was illusionary. 

As soon as Barre was sacked, the country disintegrated into factional fighting and civil war, despite repeated attempts by the UN to broker peace. 

One clan in the northern region, the Isaq, seceded from Somalia and declared itself the independent republic of Somaliland, instituting its own flag, currency and military force. Here and elsewhere, there continues to be mostly lawlessness, chaos and uncertainty; Somalia may be impoverished, but it has kidnappings, hijackings and young men with guns in abundance. A traveler to Somalia is spoilt for choice in the number of things that can go wrong. Apart from rebels and bandits, there is little food, water, infrastructure or medical aid. The currency was also decimated following a flood of counterfeit money. Support for Osama bin Laden is strong, leading the USA to view Somalia as a possible military target in its war against terrorism.

But there are some positive signs. Since the mid 1990s the incidence of violent conflict has lessened, and the economy has grown considerably over the same period. Although it has no government at present, a fledgling Peoples' Assembly was established in July 2000 under the supervision of the UN. However, the assembly is struggling to win the country's omni-factional support. In October 2001 President Abdul Kassim Salat Hassan and rival political factions agreed to meet to try to resolve the civil war. Key rebel groups that have combined under the banner of the Somali Reconciliation & Restoration Council, co-led by the infamous Hussein Aideed, responded by refusing to take part in the talks. Peace seems a long way off while the internal rot continues apace. (Courtesy of Lonely Planet)

The Mission. In December 1992, a UN peacekeeping force led by 2,000 United States Marines were sent to Somalia to restore order after months of Clan Fighting which had left thousands of people dying of starvation. This was the start of OPERATION RESTORE HOPE, an operation that designed to distribute food and other humanitarian aid to the people of Somalia. This intervention was unique in that, not only was it the first time the United Nations had ever intervened without permission in the affairs of an independent nation it was also the first time that a Battalion Group (Bn Gp) of Australian soldiers had deployed on active service since 4 RAR/NZ had commenced its tour of South Vietnam in 1971.
The Australian operation was called OPERATION SOLACE and involved the deployment of a Bn Gp of some 900 personnel, the majority from 1 RAR. Their mission was to provide a secure environment for the distribution of humanitarian aid, within the Humanitarian Relief sector (HRS), Baidoa, a total area of some 17000 square kilometers.
The Baidoa HRS was hot, dry and unrepenting land. Stories abound of the trips that the Bn Gp took to get to Somalia.  The plane trip and the long boat journey by members of Alpha Company on Christmas Eve.  Delta Company and attachments disembarked from their civilian charter plane to the sounds of gunfire. How could this be, when you are alighting from an Australian owned aircraft with a kangaroo on the tail and your weapons are still in bubble wrap in the hold.  The drive to Baidoa proved to be without incident, although the soldiers were probably looking in awe at the destruction and the open display of poverty and malnutrition that greeted them for over 150 kilometers.
The Commanding Officer of the 1 RAR Bn Gp took command of HRS Baidoa on the 19 January 1993, from 3/9 BN USMC.  The Battalion Group had all arrived in the HRS safely and soon found that life for the civilians was a battle to stay alive. By the time the Bn Gp had arrived many people had perished beyond help, their bodies withered, so that even children looked like old men. This took the young soldiers by surprise, no briefing could prepare them for what they would see over the next 5 months. The Bn Gp got on with the job and were soon escorting food and humanitarian aid convoys, local township security, patrolling in depth and the protection of the Australian assets at the airfield.


In the back of a track, in Baidoa, during Operation Solace

It's hard not to be impressed when you watch man and machine operating as one smooth unit. Like something out of Apocalypse Now, four Black Hawks materialize on the horizon until their dragonfly-like appearance is joined by the signature thump of helicopter rotor blades. Once landed, the infantrymen exit on cue, buffeted by the downward thrust of swirling blades. No sooner have the 'grunts' adopted firing positions and the four machines rise from the grass of High Range Training Area near Townsville and blend back into the horizon.

What these diggers are doing is training for war. Should these 1st Battalion the Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) soldiers ever have to put this training into practice their response will be instinctive. Just over 12 months ago, these same soldiers were patrolling the dusty Somali streets of Baidoa. One of the big lessons to come out that deployment is there aren't too many big lessons to learn.  

Baidoa, Somalia. 1993-03-22. Corporal T. R. Connor, in front, middle Pte Burger, and Lieutenant Bob Worswick, at rear, members of 2 Platoon, A Company, 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), on foot patrol through a narrow overgrown lane in the native quarter. They are serving with the Australian contingent to the Unified Task Force in Somalia (UNITAF). Note the Slouch Hat going back to war.

Logistic problems aside (more than one reliable source described the actual deployment of the battalion group as messy), our training doctrine for low-level conflict is sound. With minor adjustments in Somalia the intensive patrolling at section level made way for the distribution of humanitarian relief in the Australian sector.

"Nothing could go on in that city without us knowing about it" says Private Manvell Newton a section machine-gunner in Somalia. The reason things improved in our area of operations was because we absolutely saturated Baidoa in patrols. We patrolled 24 hours a day seven days a week and every hour of the day we had a patrol in that town - or three patrols - Baidoa was broken up into three areas and there were always patrols in those areas."

The intensity of the patrolling was remarked upon by practically everyone. In the initial stages, there was little time for rest. An official report states that had there been lesser sub-units available, flexibility and capability would have been severely curtailed. Defence artist, George Gittoes, also commented on the extreme conditions in which the Australians worked on his return from Somalia.  

Diggers trying to catch 40 winks before the next patrol. It sure as hell ain't like Nanna's place but it's home for the time being.

Because of the level of patrolling, contacts with bandits were frequent and fast, with little time for hesitation. Under these circumstances the instinctive spontaneity of military training came to the fore.

Pte Newton's section had two contacts early on. While the bandits usually fled, a quick response from sections was crucial for safety. While fighting in an urban environment posed some problems, as Pte Newton found out, the contact drills worked well.

"In our first real contact, a Somali walked up behind one of our guys and went to shoot him in the back of the head. A guy in our platoon saw it and shot the Somali. There was a bit of confusion as to what was going on - we were in the streets and we didn't know where the shots were coming from.

"The [Australian] guy that fired the shot was yelling that the Somali had bolted. We later found out that another Somali had picked up the pistol and ran down the road."

Pte Newton's section was tasked to chase after the bandit. Not having seen the actual incident, the section didn't know who they were looking for but took off down the road. Pie Newton says rather than run around something that would take him into the street he "just barreled through it".

"There was this bit of a fence coming out and I didn't want to run out into the fire lanes so I decided to run through the fence - they were usually made from little sticks about the size of your finger. What I didn't realize was there was a 1ft thick log behind it and I went to plough through it and bounced off it instead."

Unable to find the bandit, the platoon settled into fire positions and assumed the contact was finished. 1st Section then swept the area in a dry assault. When the bandits saw the section coming, they fired. The section returned fire and the bandits bolted.

"They [the bandits] ran through this camel herd and they were straight in front of us" says Pte Newton. "Baker (the section second in command) yelled out a target indication he heard from the boss and it was these two [running through the herd], so everyone started firing.

"I started firing at the last guy and he was hoofing it, he was moving pretty fast. At the time I was so high on adrenalin I wasn't watching where my rounds were going and I couldn't see the tracer so I walked the gun on to see the dust trail and walked the rounds onto the last guy and he dropped."

  • The success of the operations effectively ended the bandits' hold on Baidoa. The Australian presence allowed non-government aid organisations (NG0s) to deliver food relief in safety. During the deployment, the battalion group escorted over 400 convoys and delivered in excess of 8000 tonnes of grain to more than 137 villages within the Australian sector.

Come the time to go home, the NG0s did not want the Australians to leave. Senior UN commanders also expressed regret at the battalion group's departure. This is hardly surprising. Baidoa would not endear itself to most Western hearts. Under control of banditry it was even worse. The legacy of that banditry is everywhere.

An independent observer on return from Somalia remarked of the irony of keeping peace in a place too used to violence. 

  • On one day, a child with a badly gashed leg was given first aid and taken to a medical centre for treatment. The next day, the same child gouged out the eye of another child for apparently no reason.

Lance Corporal David Williams, B Squadron 3rd/4th Cavalry Regiment, remembers Somalia as hot, dry and smelly. It wasn't the best place on earth, that is for sure. A lot of starving kids, a lot of starving people.

"Not actually in Baidoa, that was probably one of the better places. When you got into the outlying regions - 50km outside of Baidoa, then it became very noticeable. Some of the little children had hospital bands, like UNICEF was helping them out. There were some cases like stick insects - they really were bad."

The Townsville-based squadron mainly escorted convoys, such as food distribution. By late March, however, the armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were escorting individual NGO workers. LCpl Williams says APCs also carried platoons to outlying regions to search for weapon caches and "bad guys".

"It was pretty disheartening at the start, how people could feud among themselves and get themselves into such a predicament - but in the end we saw we were doing good and the amount of food we distributed and the way people reacted to the Australians in particular.

Life in Baidoa quickly settled into routine. LCpl Williams also was impressed with the Australian approach to getting things done. Like most of the Australians, he found the old saying of operations being 90 per cent boredom was well founded but sometimes there "was quite an adrenalin rush".

"Another call sign [another APC] and myself had just been to a CARE compound about 3am where guards had stolen 50,000,000 Somali Shilling. All of a sudden we heard this firefight in town about 2 or 3km away. We heard the contact report over the radio and I rang up and asked if they needed assistance."

He says it took about five minutes to get to where the section was ambushed, though they didn't know by who. The APCs dropped their ramps, collected the infantry and quickly left the area. Later in the morning, the two APCs were contacted again when they took AK47 fire in the town.

Now 12 months on, LCpl Williams says it is the sights and sounds of Baidoa that linger on in his memory of the deployment.

They don't have a sewerage system or anything like that. There are carcasses of dead animals lying about and shallow graves all around the place. Baidoa is on top of an escarpment and you go down into the bush and there are just masses of shallow graves. That is probably one of the biggest things that sticks in my mind."

While the relief effort progressed smoothly, there were hiccups. Deploying at Christmas made things more difficult than normal. Virtually the whole Townsville-based brigade was on leave. As 1RAR operations officer, Major Mark Fairleigh, states: "It is 'the' worst time to deploy a battalion overseas".

Intelligence on the situation in Baidoa was scant. Information wasn't available through official channels. Before deployment, information was gleaned from non-defence people such as Phoebe Fraser, daughter of the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. The Commanding Officer 1RAR, Lieutenant Colonel David Hurley, got more information from a former ADF member in Baidoa by satellite telephone.

Equipment problems also occurred. Sorting out what to take and what to leave at home caused some heartache. In Baidoa, the Australians used US fuel to run equipment. Generators, for instance, had timing trouble until the machines seemingly adapted to the petrol.

Operationally, there were some problems working in an urban environment, as Pte Newton found out. Maj Fairleigh says we were not "well practiced" in urban patrolling. Something, he believes, more attention at home could rectify. He added that hopefully the army would devote more time to this sort of low level training with some sort of facility and increased training time.

  • Water, or the lack of it, hampered long-distance patrols. Jerry cans were left along patrol routes only to be happily snavelled by local Somalis.

Getting enough specialist equipment was another problem. Global positioning system (GPS) and night-vision equipment was used to advantage in Somalia - but some say there wasn't enough.

Corporal Bill Perkins, a section commander, says categorically: "We need more night‑vision gear - the section needs more than one pair of night-vision goggles". Given that Cpl Perkins' section was ambushed twice at night you can understand his concern.

Other problems that couldn't be expected cropped up as well. The reality of searching vehicles turned out to be much different from training. In Baidoa, a bus crammed with 90 people would turn up at a roadblock and would need to be searched a far cry from sterile exercises back home. Cpl Perkins says you had the problem where a truck full of bananas might come along.

"You just haven't got the time to take everything out. You could do it but it would take you all day, so you just had to do the best you could."

By and large, however, Cpl Perkins agrees the foundation of training in low-level operations met the demands of the situation, as physically and mentally taxing as they were.

He says contacts happen so fast but the mind seemed to slow things down to a manageable pace. On the other hand, training made responses quick and automatic: "It showed the blokes were well trained because everyone adopted fire positions and returned fire. There was not one bloke I saw who curled up in a ball or anything like that. Everyone returned fire and did their job."

His section was contacted in the process of doing an obstacle crossing at a crossroad. The forward scout was fired at with an AK47 and other small arms and the section carried out the contact drill.

The section was pinned down by fairly heavy fire coming from a building. Cpl Perkins asked his forward scout if he could engage the bandit's position with a 66min Short-Range Anti Armour Weapon but he was too close for the aiming distance of the weapon.

"So 1 deployed my other 66 from the No. 1 rifleman behind me. I gave the section the order for rapid fire, he stuck his head out and fired the 66 and it went high on the building but it caused rubble to come down on top of them and it injured four Somalis."

Cpl Perkins and his section was contacted again at the same crossroad on another occasion. Again, well-practiced drills and quick thinking avoided major casualties. The section stopped at the crossroad and the first scout crossed the road. The second scout took a couple of steps from his position and some Somalis began abusing him. He then heard an AK47 being cocked and saw the bandit.

"He knew his life was in danger and he initiated the contact," Cpl Perkins adds. "At the same time, one of my other soldiers on the other side of the road was wounded - this was all happening in a spilt second and we were under heavy fire.

  • I decided to withdraw the section and later on we found out the second scout, who initiated the contact, had four rounds hit him - two in the night-vision goggles around his neck, one into his rifle and one into his trouser leg. So he was a pretty lucky boy."

12 months down the track, Somalia is slowly drifting into memory. Soldiers already have been posted from the battalion, while others are taking discharge. Life goes on. It is hard, however, to picture all these fresh, young faces as our latest veterans. This is a problem more than one person has encountered.

  • One of the battalion's soldiers was on a course in a southern state. Baidoa and Townsville infantry battalions were a far cry from the topic of conversation. Sporting an Infantry Combat Badge and the Australian Active Service Badge on his uniform, the soldier was asked why he was wearing his 'father's' medals.

Oddly enough, people's opinions differ on the experience. There seems to be to schools of thought. A large majority believe it was the most rewarding episode in their professional career. Others, however, are disappointed.

Whatever the case, it showed that our army should be ready - with the right equipment to fight. It came as a shock when soldiers on leave heard the battalion was to deploy. As Pte Newton says: "My mother said she heard on the news that 1,000 combat troops were to deploy and I said 'no mum, its always cooks and medics that get sent'. Then I heard that the 1,000 troops were being deployed from the Townsville-based First Battalion and 1 said 'that's me' and I got a bit of a shock'."

I was very excited at first, I was going to be able to do my job and a lot of attention was focused on us at the time before we went and when we went. So I was very eager to go over. When we were over there it sort of hit you, - we've got some bad guys to play with."

  • Story by Sgt Graham McBean

    • Photos by Sgt Shane Wakley and Sgt Graham McBean  

    • Army Magazine June 1994


It is now over ten years ago that the Australian Defence Force became involved with the United Nations Operation in Somalia. You may remember that this was part of an international humanitarian effort to both provide security and feed the starving people of Somalia. Australia responded in October of 1992 by forming an Movement Control Group of 30 ADF personnel at Randwick Barracks under the command of Major Greg Jackson. 

This unit was Australia's contribution to UNOSOM 1 and was code named Operation IGUANA. The personnel who formed this unit came from all three services and a variety of units across Australia. Following pre-deployment training, Advance elements commenced deployment to Mogadishu, Somalia in late October and early November 1992. By early January 1993 the main body forming the complete contingent had arrived. Initially these personnel were unarmed, then later carried Pakistani AK47 rifles until the arrival of the main body. 

The Australian Movement Control Group or 'movers' worked with UN military and civil authorities and basically coordinated Somalia's air and sea operations. In December 1992 / January 1993, the Australian 'movers' saw the arrival of the US led Unified Task Force a coalition of approximately 22 countries and the commencement of Operation RESTORE HOPE. The 'movers' continued their UN role and also worked in with US and coalition forces throughout this period. 

The coalition included Australia's 1 RAR Battalion Group consisting of infantry, armour and other key arms and services arrived in January 1993, this contribution was code named Operation SOLACE. The Battalion Group deployed to Baidoa nicknamed the infamous ' City of Death' for a period of four months establishing law and order and ensuring that Somali's were fed. 

Units of the RAAF were involved in air support to this deployment as were HMA Ships Tobruk and Jervis Bay were on standby at various times off the coast of Somalia and Kenya. During early 1993, the original 'movers' were also joined by other ADF personnel who were posted to key positions in various operations and Intel roles at the UN Force Headquarters and remained after the raising of UNOSOM II in May 1993. 

The ADF personnel rotated back to Australia every six months and the Contingent remained with UNOSOM II in Somalia until 1994 . J.E. O'GRADY CAPT


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