The '''Ogaden War,''' also known as the '''Ethio-Somali War''' (Somali: ''Dagaalkii Xoraynta Soomaali Galbeed'', Amharic: የኢትዮጵያ ሶማሊያ ጦርነት, <small>romanized:</small> ''ye’ītiyop’iya somalīya t’orineti''), was a military conflict fought between Somalia and Ethiopia from July 1977 to March 1978 over the Ethiopian region of Ogaden. Somalia's invasion of the region, precursor to the wider war, met with the Soviet Union's disapproval, leading the superpower to end its support of Somalia and support Ethiopia instead.
Ethiopia was saved from defeat and permanent loss of territory through a massive airlift of military supplies worth $1 billion, the arrival of more than 12,000 Cuban soldiers and airmen sent by Fidel Castro to win a second African victory (after his first success in Angola in 1975–76), and 1,500 Soviet advisors, led by General Vasily Petrov. On 23 January 1978, Cuban armored brigades inflicted the worst losses the Somali forces had ever taken in a single action since the start of the war.
The Cubans (equipped with 300 tanks, 156 artillery pieces and 46 combat aircraft) prevailed at Harar, Dire Dawa and Jijiga, and began to push the Somalis systematically out of the Ogaden. By 23 March 1978, the Cuban backed Ethiopian army had recaptured more than two-thirds of the Ogaden, marking the official end of the war. Almost a third of the regular SNA soldiers, three-eighths of the armored units and half of the Somali Air Force had been lost during the war. The war left Somalia with a disorganized and demoralized army as well as a heavy disapproval from its population. These conditions led to a revolt in the army which eventually spiraled into the ongoing Somali Civil War.
Course of the war
The Somali National Army (SNA) committed to invade the Ogaden on July 12, 1977, according to Ethiopian Ministry of National Defense documents (other sources state July 13 or 23).
According to Ethiopian sources, the invaders numbered 70,000 troops, 40 fighter planes, 250 tanks, 350 armored personnel carriers (APCs), and 600 artillery pieces, amounting to nearly the entire Somali Army. Soviet officials put the number of attacking Somali forces at 23,000 servicemen, 150 T-34 and 50 T-54/55 tanks, and 250 APCs including BTR-50PKs, BTR-152s and BTR-60PBs. In addition to Somali regular troops, another 15,000 WSLF fighters were also present in the Ogaden.
By the end of July, 60% of the Ogaden had been taken by the SNA-WSLF force, including Gode on the Shebelle River. The attacking Somali forces did suffer some early setbacks; Ethiopian defenders at Dire Dawa and Jijiga inflicted heavy casualties on assaulting forces. The Ethiopian Air Force (ETAP) also began to establish air superiority using its Northrop F-5s, despite initially being outnumbered by Somali MiG-21s.
However, Somalia easily overpowered Ethiopian military hardware and technology. Soviet General Vasily Petrov had to report back to Moscow the "sorry state" of the Ethiopian Army. The 3rd and 4th Ethiopian Infantry Divisions that suffered the brunt of the Somali invasion had practically ceased to exist.
The USSR, finding itself supplying both sides of the war, attempted to mediate a ceasefire. When their efforts failed, the Soviets abandoned Somalia. All aid to Siad Barre's regime was halted, while arms shipments to Ethiopia were increased. A Soviet military airlift with advisors for Ethiopia took place (second in magnitude only to the colossal October 1973 resupplying of Syrian forces during the Yom Kippur War), alongside 15,000 Cuban combat troops in a military role.
Other communist countries like South Yemen and North Korea offered Ethiopia military assistance. East Germany offered training, engineering and support troops. Israel reportedly provided cluster bombs, napalm and were also allegedly flying combat aircraft for Ethiopia. In November 1977, Somalia broke diplomatic relations with the USSR, expelled all Soviet experts from the country, abrogated the 1974 treaty of friendship, and cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Not all communist states sided with Ethiopia. Because of the Sino-Soviet rivalry, China supported Somalia diplomatically and with token military aid. Romania under Nicolae Ceauşescu had a habit of breaking with Soviet policies and also maintained good diplomatic relations with Barre.
By 17 August 1977, elements of the Somali Army had reached the outskirts of Dire Dawa; the outcome of the battle for the strategic city would prove critical. Not only was Ethiopia's second largest air base located there, but the city represented both its crossroads into the Ogaden and rail lifeline to the Red Sea. If the Somalis took Dire Dawa, Ethiopia would be unable to export its crops or bring in equipment needed to continue the fight.
History Professor Gebru Tareke wrote that the Somalis advanced on the city with two motorized brigades, one tank battalion and one BM-13 battery. Facing these were the Ethiopian Second Militia Division, the 201 Nebelbal battalion, 781st battalion of the 78th Brigade, 4th Mechanized Company, and a tank platoon with two tanks.
Both sides were aware of the stakes; fighting was ferocious, but after two days, despite initially taking the airport, the Somalis were forced to withdraw. After the Ethiopians repulsed the assault, the city was never again at risk of attack.
Somali victories and siege of Harar (September–January)
The greatest single victory of the SNA-WSLF was the assault on Jijiga in mid-September 1977, in which demoralized Ethiopian troops withdrew from the town. The local defenders were no match for the assaulting Somalis, and the Ethiopian military was forced to withdraw past the strategic strongpoint of the Marda Pass, halfway between Jijiga and Harar. By September, Ethiopia was forced to admit that it controlled only about 10% of the Ogaden and that the Ethiopian defenders had been pushed back into the non-Somali areas of Harerge, Bale, and Sidamo.
However, the Somalis were unable to press their advantage because of the high attrition of its tank battalions, constant Ethiopian air attacks on their supply lines, and the onset of the rainy season which made dirt roads unusable. And in a few months, the Ethiopian government had managed to raise, train and integrate a 100,000-strong militia into its regular fighting force. In addition, although the Ethiopian Army was historically a client of U.S weapons, it was able to hastily adapt to new Warsaw Pact bloc weaponry.
Throughout the war, there were sharp tensions between the SNA and WSLF forces. The WSLF resented the fact that Somali political commissars insisted on direct Somali government control over conquered territory. Particularly bothersome to the WSLF were incidents in which Somali officials tore down WSLF battle flags raised over conquered areas and replaced them with the flag of Somalia.
Over a span of four months, spanning from the third week of September to the end of January, the Somalis exerted considerable effort to seize Harar. They nearly encircled the city from the north, south, and east. On two occasions, it appeared that the city, with its forty-eight thousand inhabitants and as the home of Ethiopia's foremost military academy, was on the brink of falling. However, Harar did not surrender, primarily due to the relatively slow and indecisive operational maneuvers of the Somalis and the unwavering tenacity of the Ethiopian defenders. Though Somali forces reached the outskirts of Harar by November, they were too exhausted to take the city and eventually had to withdraw to await the Ethiopian counterattack. At this point came the regular Cuban troops, starting with a few hundred in December, they grew to 3,000 in January to 16,000 in February, more than half of them ferried in from Angola. They came with full gear including armored cars and T-62 tanks, mainly of Soviet production. The Somalis had gambled by expelling the Soviet and Cubans; now they stood almost alone against an multinational colossus.
Ethiopian-Cuban counterattack (February–March)
The expected Ethiopian-Cuban counterattack occurred in early February; however, it was accompanied by a second attack the Somalis did not expect. A column of Ethiopian and Cuban troops crossed northeast into the highlands between Jijiga and the border with Somalia, bypassing the SNA-WSLF force defending the Marda Pass. Soviet Mil Mi-6 and Mil Mi-8 helicopters airlifted a Cuban battalion behind enemy lines.
The attackers were thus able to attack from two directions in a pincer movement, allowing the re-capture of Jijiga in only two days and inflicting 3,000–6,000 casualties on the Somalis. The Somali defense collapsed, and every major Somali-occupied town was recaptured in the following weeks. Cuban artillery and aerial assaults wreaked a terrible toll on Somali forces.
Recognizing that his position was untenable, Siad Barre ordered the SNA to retreat back into Somalia on 9 March 1978, although Rene LaFort claims that the Somalis, having foreseen the inevitable, had already withdrawn their heavy weapons. The last significant Somali unit left Ethiopia on 15 March 1978, marking the end of the war.