Great Commanders Of The Biafran War Part X : Major Taffy Williams
War is a terrible thing. Anybody who has witnessed it will agree with the Latin saying that War is sweet to those who haven't experienced it. One such war was the Biafran conflict and while somethings are better left alone, others need to be revisited if not for any other reason, then for the mere fact that we should not try and repeat such an event.
Man must celebrate his humanity and not his inhumanity and learn from his mistakes.
Bearing this in mind the Awareness has gone back in time and picked 10 major players from the Biafran war and has attempted to review their performances and what made them such dominant characters in that vicious confrontation.
We have both villains to some and heroes to others on our list.
Our first was EA Etuk, our second was the German Born, but Biafran naturalised Lt. Col Rolf Steiner our third Major Timothy Onwuatuegwu and our fourth Major General Alexander A Madiebo, our fifth General Mohammed Shuwa, our sixth Major Achuzie, our seventh the American born Juan Correa aka Johnny (Onye) Ocha, next was Colonel Anthony Okoro Eze and then came Captain August Okpe. Today we will end our series with Major Taffy Williams but not without saying that there are quite a few more major players of Biafra that have been left unmentioned because of time and space. We aim to address this in the future.
Hugh "Taffy" Williams was a professional soldier of fortune who served in the Congo with Mike Hoare and the 5th Commando Congo as well as a Major in Biafra. Born in Wales, he grew up and received his military training in South Africa.
Noted for his bravery under fire he served two tours of duty with the Biafran Army, rising to the rank of Major and was the last white mercenary to leave the country as secession ended.
Willams in his tell-tale American Style helmet
On his arrival in Biafra, there is no doubt that William was a racist who considered the black African inferior to the European, especially so on the battlefield. Short-tempered, he cursed his black troops constantly, threatening to kill them if they don’t obey orders. “You rotten bastards! or You bloody, treacherous morons!” he would roar when things went wrong.
But just like with Rolf Steiner, he would be wooed over by the Biafrans and would soon realise that they were special and not like the Congolese making him declare:
"I've seen a lot of Africans at war but there's nobody to touch these people. Give me 10,000 Biafrans for six months, and we'll build an army that would be invincible on this continent. I've seen men die in this war who would have won the Victoria Cross in another context"
Initially, Williams was assigned just one hundred Biafran fighters in early 1968but still managed to keep two battalions of Chadian mercenaries serving with the Nigerian Federal Army at bay for twelve weeks with only antiquated weapons. These were the dreaded Sweepers (below), also deployed by Murtala Mohammed's second division, and used as the SS as killer squads who committed mass atrocities, such as in Asaba, in the name of war.
It was only after Williams was forced to redeploy his forces in early April, that the Chadians forded the Cross River at two locations, and captured Afikpo, on the western side
Completing his first contract and following a brief stay in the UK, Williams returned to Biafra on 7 July 1968. He was assigned to the 4th Kommando Brigade led by Lt. Col Rolf Steiner where the two men instantly bonded. Steiner had command of 3000 men and was assigned to the area around the Enugu - Onitsha road.
Williams, who liked to joke that he was "half-mad", would personally lead his troops into battle, sometimes standing in a hail of Federal gunfire, just to prove to his troops that he was indeed "bullet-proof". His resolve under fire would often unnerve the more superstitious of the Nigerian soldiers and serve to rally his own. In that encounter that Federals reported him dead at least five times only to confront him again and again. Eventually one of their snipers did hit him but he was saved when the round smashed into his binoculars cementing the myth that he was invincible.
On 24 August 1968 Williams was drawn into a critical battle of the conflict.
At this point, he had 1000 soldiers under his command which carried out counter-offensives against two battalion-sized enemy units attempting to cross the Imo River Bridge with Soviet military advisers. When Williams returned to Aba for additional ammunition to continue the fight, he was told that there was simply none to be had. The Nigerian Air Force had become quite successful in blocking supplies into the beleaguered state. Some of Williams' men had only two rounds left for their rifles and many were forced to withdraw and Adekunle to move forward literally unchecked with Operation OAU.
He narrowly escaped death again during Operation Hiroshima when the 4th Kommando assaulted Onitsha in an attempt to retake it and ran into a buzz saw. William's close buddy the Belgian Mark Goosens was not so lucky and was killed in the attack on the 12th of November 1968
Related: Money-making Rituals: Real Or Imaginary?
Williams giving directions to Goosens and his men before the attack on Onitsha
Minutes later Williams and his men carry Goosens' body back to their lines
Williams was deeply affected but he and his men, despite great peril to themselves, refused to leave Goosens' body behind and brought it back to be flown to his parents in Belgium. When the body arrived in the top pocket was almost $1700 which Goosen had been saving. In today's money that is $12,598.71 or almost N5m in Naira. Not one kobo had been removed -a fact that so impressed Goosen's parents that they donated it and more the very next day towards the Biafran war effort,
Following the arrest and expulsion of Steiner and four others, Major Williams was the only European still left serving with the Biafran army. He left the state shortly before its collapse. It is thought that Williams, who encountered author Frederick Forsyth there as a war correspondent, served as the inspiration for the character of Carlo Shannon in Forsyth's novel The Dogs of War.
Taffy Willams left an erasable mark in Biafra both among its people, the troops that fought under him, as well as the ones who fought against him. Till today survivors of the 4th Kommando gather on his birthday, as they do for Steiner, and share a gourd or two of Palm wine, a drink Willams liked ( shown below drinking with his troop), in celebration and fond absentia.