The decolonisation process of Africa was a slow and painful process that in many respects continues today. Borders agreed upon by the United Nations didn’t always conform to how the indigenous peoples viewed the land based on history, religion and tribal ancestry. Such was the case of the Igboo people of Southern Nigeria who during the 1950s and 60s felt repeatedly persecuted by the Northern Nigerian based federal government and so in 1967 under the leadership of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu the south broke away to create the Republic of Biafra. A bloody civil war between the Nigerian government and the Biafran rebels ensued for nearly three years during which time the Nigerian military surrounded Ojukwu’s Biafra and attempted to starve the breakaway nation in to submission.
Ojukuwu knew he would need arms to secure his nation’s survival and in particular he had aspirations for a powerful Biafran air force equipped with jet combat aircraft. With world opinion greatly divided on the subject of Biafran independence he knew that acquisitions through the regular channels would not be easy and so he had his people find alternative ways of acquiring military aircraft. The Biafrans experienced mixed success in gaining aircraft to equip their embryonic air force. A small number of disassembled ex-Austrian Fouga Magisters jet trainers were successfully smuggled out of Europe aboard a chartered Lockheed Constellation in 1968 only to have them destroyed in a suspicious fire during a stopover at Bissau airport in Guinea.
In Europe the Gloster Meteor, Britain’s first jet fighter, was serving out its final days before retirement. The aircraft was exported well across Europe and many had been retired to scrap yards or private companies who operated them for a variety of testing purposes. Ojukuwu’s people began to realize that given the sheer number of airframes and parts scattered across Europe that the Meteor might be a more practical acquisition prospect and began making contacts with less than truly legitimate businessmen in the UK, France, Germany, Portugal and Sweden who would be willing (or alternatively unknowingly) assist them in acquiring Meteors. Despite it being almost an archaic combat aircraft by European standards the Meteor was still a potent aircraft in Africa but as the plan was set in to motion the Biafran requirements became more specific.
They needed a Meteor that could fly and fight at night.
The Nigerian effort to starve Biafra in to submission had provoked an angry response from international aid organizations. In an act of courage and compassion the International Red Cross ignored warnings by the Nigerians and began flying in aid to Biafra’s biggest airport at Uli. As well as their own aircraft the Red Cross chartered American Hank Warton’s North American Aircraft Trading Corporation and their small fleet of Lockheed L.1049 Super Constellations. Based (on paper only) in Miami, Warton had built up a strong relationship with Ojukuwu’s government and his company had become known in aviation circles as “Biafran Airlines”. Warton had almost no scruples when it came to flying in weapons or even narcotics to Biafra and after the Nigerian army captured the last Biafran sea port in 1968 his company became almost the only means of getting supplies in to the breakaway republic. Humanitarian flights on behalf of the Red Cross gave an air of legitimacy to his operation but in reality a lot of the aid was traded in for weapons at Faro in Portugal. Of the aid that did get in via Warton’s airline most of it went to Ojukuwu’s government or his forces leaving thousands to starve.
From 1968 onwards the only available airstrip in Biafra that could handle the flights was at Uli. The airport effectively became Biafra’s lifeline and as such the Nigerian air force gave it special attention flying fighters around the airport during the daytime to intercept any flights. Therefore operations had to be flown exclusively at night when the Nigerian air force day fighter-only MiG-17s couldn’t locate them. The Nigerians therefore adopted a different tactic to stop the flow of supplies in to the airport. Douglas DC-3 and DC-4 airliners were flown around the airport at night waiting for an incoming flight to trigger the landing lights. The Nigerian aircraft would then try to either warn the flight away by calling out to it over the radio claiming to be a fighter or would shadow the aircraft until it landed and then attempt to bomb it on the runway by hurling explosives down upon it. The Nigerians met with mixed success but the very threat of these “night intruder” flights was enough to provoke Ojukuwu who now demanded nightfighters to combat them.
It was not long before Ojukuwu’s demands looked like they were about to be met when four ex-Danish Gloster Meteor NF.11s converted to target towing aircraft and operated by a Swedish company on behalf of the Danish government were put up for sale. The aircraft received some refurbishment work in Sweden by Svenska Flygverkstäderna although it is not known if the company realised the aircraft were destined for Biafra or whether they were told they would be used in Europe by another private company offering target towing services. In March 1969 two of these aircraft were secured by Danish merchant Keld Åge Mortensen who got the aircraft delivered to Gosselies in Belgium. There he planned to have more work carried out on them that would effectively re-militarise them and then ferry them down to Faro in Portugal before on to Biafra.
In order to operate the aircraft with an air of legitimacy over Europe, West German registrations were applied for them and reserved as D-CAKU and D-CAKY. Included in the application was a ferry plan to take the aircraft to Lisbon in Portugal. The plan fell through however when US authorities warned the West German Aviation Authority that they suspected the aircraft were destined for Biafra and the application was rejected leaving the aircraft stuck at Goselies. Ojukuwu’s European agents attempted to continue the plan by trying to hoodwink the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in to granting a registration but that plan failed when the CAA noticed that the cheque was dated two weeks after the requested start date of the application. They never flew again and remain in Belgium to this day albeit in a very poor state.
The next effort to acquire Meteor nightfighters was the most successful. Gloster Meteor NF.14 WS829 had been struck off charge with the Royal Air Force in 1963 and had entered the UK civil registry as G-ASLW working under the prestigious umbrella of Rolls-Royce Aviation. The aircraft was used by Rolls-Royce as a “hack” aircraft meaning that it was used to ferry important people who needed to be sent somewhere quickly or to simply keep test pilots’ hours up. The acquisition of a Hawker-Siddeley HS.125 in 1969 meant that the Meteor had become almost surplus to requirements and so Rolls-Royce approached Templewood aviation with the goal of valuing the aircraft for sale. Templewood however had supplied a number of aircraft to Biafra already through various means and was part of the aforementioned effort to deliver Fouga Magisters to the embattled country. A businessman who had close links with both the Biafra regime and Templewood, Tony Osborne, seized the opportunity to acquire the Meteor nightfighter for Biafra and on the 4th of July 1969 he purchased the aircraft through Templewood for £5,500.
Now Osborne had to get the aircraft from Rolls-Royce’s test field at Hucknell air field but when his own contracted pilot failed to turn up he politely asked Rolls-Royce themselves to spare a pilot who could fly the aircraft to Bordeaux, France. Rolls-Royce were willing to spare a pilot for a small fee to Osborne but refused to fly it out of the country since he lacked any paperwork permitting export. They therefore agreed to fly the Meteor to the airfield at Hurn in Bournemouth for Osbourne who in the meantime had worked through his contacts at Templewood to find a replacement pilot. He was successful but the pilot he found hadn’t any experience on this particular Meteor type and therefore travelled to Hucknell to fly with the Rolls-Royce pilot on its transfer from Hucknell to Hurn. The aircraft took off at 0930hrs on the morning of Sunday 6th of July 1969 and upon landing a little over an hour later it was formally handed over to Osborne still resplendent in its beautiful Rolls-Royce livery. The Rolls-Royce pilot left and Osborne quickly went about getting the aircraft refuelled. The refuelling team at Hurn operated by Shell began to refuel the aircraft after solving a problem with a nozzle attachment not knowing that the aircraft was no longer operated by Rolls-Royce who were later billed for the fuel – Osborne remained quiet about who the real owner was. While the aircraft was readied for its next flight to Bordeaux, Osborne went about gathering a temporary export license for the aircraft from the Civil Aviation Authority which was granted on the basis that it was to fly to France for use by Target Towing Aircraft Co Ltd on behalf of a German businessman who planned to use it for a Luftwaffe contract. The temporary license was passed and later that day the Meteor took off from Hurn and landed at Bordeaux over an hour later.
It was from this point that the as-yet wholly legal effort to get the aircraft out of the UK came to an end. It spent only a few hours at Bordeaux before it took off again and climbed to almost 41,000ft; far above commercial traffic and where its engines would have the maximum fuel efficiency in order to fly south-west through Spain and Portugal before landing at Faro airport on the southern tip of Portugal which was known for its pro-Biafran stance. Strangely, both the pilot and navigator sourced through Templewood aviation reportedly flew the entire flight in total radio silence until reaching Faro meaning Spanish and Portuguese authorities did nothing to stop the aircraft. Osborne flew his own private aircraft to the airport a short time later to inspect it and make sure it would be ready for the next phase; remilitarizing the aircraft and then flying it to Biafra. His aircraft carried a number of spares for the aircraft that was included in the deal with Rolls-Royce and these would be used to keep the aircraft flying.
More spares were to be flown out by another pilot, Dick Kingsmill, in a Cessna a short while after and it was here the plan ran the risk of being discovered when Kingsmill was asked to produce an export license for the equipment his aircraft was carrying at Hurn. Kingsmill claimed that the Meteor was still at Bordeaux and had been rendered unserviceable due to a malfunction in the braking system. He argued that the export license was irrelevant since the materials he was flying out would be returning to the UK when the Meteor returned at the end of its export license. The rouse worked and Kingsmill was permitted to fly out. A few hours later he landed at Faro where the Meteor was waiting ready for its flight to Africa.
In the meantime efforts were underway to acquire a second Meteor nightfighter. An acquaintance of Osborne, Tony Paris who worked for P.B. Export Sales Ltd but also had links to Templewood Aviation, had contacted the Ministry of Defence to enquire about any Meteors for sale. With the export license for the first Meteor about to expire which was expected to alert British authorities to what was going on a new cover story was created which was that Paris was working for a movie production company who wanted to use the aircraft for filming. It was not without precedent for in 1948 four Bristol Beaufighters were refurbished and sold to a film company for making a movie. In reality the “film crew” were working for the new state of Israel and once purchased Israeli pilots flew them out of the UK down to Israel where they became part of the embryonic Israeli Air Force.
The MoD told Paris of a Meteor being used as a “hack” by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Bedford. Incredibly it too was an NF.14 version carrying the military serial WS804 and Paris acquired it on behalf of Osborne on the 27th of August 1969. Acquiring this aircraft was not as easy as the previous aircraft however as the MoD put on a number of provisions to the sale including that it was not to be sold to Target Towing Co Ltd due to an outstanding fee the company had yet to pay. Osborne registered the aircraft as G-AXNE the following day and after a new Certificate of Airworthiness was acquired an RAE Bedford pilot flew the aircraft to Blackbushe for delivery. While the Rolls-Royce livery of the first aircraft had been an unexpected bonus for Osborne and his people the military markings of this aircraft were a problem and would no doubt create unnecessary attention when travelling abroad. Osborne therefore went about having the aircraft’s military markings removed and the civilian serial G-AXNE painted on the tail. To reinforce the cover story “Enterprise Films” titles were painted on the nose. The aircraft was flown to Exeter airport and then again to Bordeaux on the 7th of September 1969 after another temporary export license was agreed with the CAA. Unfortunately for Osborne’s plan the aircraft was damaged during the flight possibly due to the pilot’s unfamiliarity of the aircraft. Either way it would be another two days before the aircraft was repaired and flown to Faro where it was parked up next to the first aircraft while Tony Paris had sourced a third aircraft in the UK.
Biafra’s fleet of Meteor nightfighters was growing.
The third Meteor, an unusual NF.11/14 hybrid being used for radar trials by Ferranti in the UK, would prove a Meteor too far for Osborne and his associates. The MoD blocked the sale of the third Meteor which would have included an extensive stock of spares that would have been extremely useful when the aircraft arrived in Biafra after the MoD’s bureaucrats discovered that they had lost contact with two of their former Meteors. Osborne therefore had to settle for the two he had in Faro.
Before they could be delivered they needed to have their weapons restored. In RAF service they were armed with four 20mm Hispano V cannons (left) but upon decommissioning the weapons were removed by the MoD. The Hispano V was a common weapon in Europe especially with the number of British built aircraft operated on the continent that were armed with them such as the Gloster Meteor and the De Havilland Vampire. Eventually enough parts were collected to assemble eight guns (four per aircraft) from various sources and delivered to Faro including a selection of parts delivered by Dick Kingsmill who would later be arrested and tried for illegally exporting weapons. The Portuguese government knew what was going on and had largely turned a blind eye to what was happening at Faro but when efforts were made to fit ammunition to the newly installed guns they demanded that they stop and that the aircraft should depart for Biafra quickly.
Thus on the 20th of September 1969 the aircraft were made ready for their delivery flight which began the next day. The two aircraft took off from Faro and landed in Funchal, Portuguese Madeira. The plan was for them to then fly on to Dakar and then to Bissau in Portuguese Guinea before finally flying to Biafra. It was a well-known route as many aid flights flew this route as had previously delivered aircraft. The transit would prove frustrating however. Both aircraft made the initial flight to Funchal but were rendered unserviceable for a variety of reasons. G-AXNE was able to fly again shortly after landing and so it went on to Dakar and then a few days later landed in Bissau where it was again damaged by the poor conditions at the airfield thus rendering it unserviceable.
G-ASLW had taken longer to repair in Madeira and it would be several days after its compatriot had left that it finally got airborne again flown by a pilot working for Templewood Aviation. The aircraft flew some way out to sea to avoid detection by either friendly or pro-Nigerian pilots who might report the aircraft but for some reason the pilot felt it necessary to drop his plans to fly to Dakar and then on to Bissau and fly directly to Bissau. The pilot either had not grasped just how much range his aircraft had probably due to his unfamiliarity with the type or had unknowingly travelled too far out to sea before turning back in for Bissau but either way it was not long before he realized that he was not going to make it. His aircraft was running so low on fuel that any chance of making landfall became out of the question. He therefore descended and searched for a ship and upon finding one ejected in front of it allowing the ex-Rolls-Royce Meteor to go tumbling in to the sea. The passing ship picked him up and took him to Cape Verde where he boarded an airliner back to Lisbon, Portugal.
This just left the ex-RAE Bedford Meteor G-AXNE at Bissau. Plans were made to repair the aircraft quickly and get it to Biafra. The worry was that the aircraft would be sabotaged or destroyed by pro-Nigerians as had happened to the earlier Magisters at the airport but in the end it would be the British Foreign Office who would “destroy” the aircraft but with the pen rather than the sword. The full weight of British diplomacy was thrown behind efforts to impound the aircraft and the authorities at Bissau eventually caved in dragging the aircraft to a corner of the airfield where it was exposed to the African elements that ensured it never flew again. For many years it remained there (above) growing dilapidated before disintegrating.
Ojukwu never realised his dream of a jet nightfighter force and within four months his country would cease to exist as Nigeria finally crushed Biafra. British authorities were already investigating Osborne and his associates when G-AXNE was discovered in Bissau and Osborne, Paris, Kingsmill and several others were all arrested and heavily fined for their involvement thus bringing to a close the incredible story of the Biafran Meteor Caper.