Major Douglas Bulukhu was leading a team of elite soldiers on the night of September 27, 2012 on a security mission to secure the beach at the port city of Kismayu in preparation for the landing of the rest of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) troops when the worst happened.
As the team approached the beach, a sea wave tossed the boat carrying 16 troops from Special Forces (SF) and 40 troops from the Rangers Strike Force (RSF). Major Bulukhu fell off while the rest of the team was pulled back to the sea by the strong resultant swash.
“I was all alone on the beaches of Kismayu, gazing at the rough Indian Ocean. The rest of my team was floating in the sea, being tossed towards the beach in the slowest speed I can ever imagine, or so it appeared,” Major Bulukhu recalls.
The Major had just landed on what is perhaps the most dangerous beach on earth, which was at the time the last bastion of al-Shabaab militants. Thousands of people were believed to be trapped inside the city, where they were used as human shields by the militants so as to prevent a possible takeover of the port by Amisom troops.
They had limited access to food and healthcare. Those who tried to flee were killed, and those who defied the militants were summarily executed – as were those suspected of collaborating with Somali and Kenyan security forces.
On the sandy beaches of Kismayu, Major Bulukhu’s heart raced. He felt the blood in his veins boil. His legs suddenly felt too weak to carry the weight of his body. Thoughts of his body being paraded on the streets of Kismayu flashed through his mind.
“I was all alone before the sea forced the rest of my team to join me on land. I had never imagined a time would come when I would lose my senses. I could not tell whether or not I had passed out or pissed on myself. In any case, I was already wet from head to toe,” he says in a new book by the Kenya Army that details, for the first time, the Kenya Defence Forces mission to Somalia.
The book, titled The Soldier’s Legacy, highlights the exponential growth of the Kenya Army from “a single infantry battalion to an ultra-modern, mission-capable force”, says General Samson Mwathethe, the Chief of Defence Forces.
But what it does most is bring out the heroic deeds of Kenyan troops who have participated in the Somalia mission, explaining the delay of the daring military incursion by over a day due to bad weather, and why an amphibious landing was considered unviable in the mission to liberate Kismayu.
Col William Kamoiro, the former Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battle Group (3BG), says in the book that the options for the capture of Kismayu included through the Kolbiyow-Hosingo-Bula Haji route, or through Kolbiyow-Badhadhe-Dalayet-Wadajir-Bula Haji.
“There was also the capture of Kismayu through the Indian Ocean using an amphibious landing at Jirole through Kolibiyow-Manda-Indian Ocean-Jirole-Bula Haji. We discarded this course after considering that resources to sealift the force were not available. So… considered, but not viable,” says Col Kamoiro.
The mission almost aborted before it started, delayed by incessant al-Shabaab attacks and a rough sea, which almost swallowed KDF troops.
“The sea became so rough that it was dangerous for troops to descend. The ship and boats were being tossed violently in all directions. In a short while, two of the boats were separated from the mother ship and disappeared into the night. Efforts to link up with them were futile. Radio communication between the crew of separated boats and mother ship failed, largely because of deteriorating weather conditions,” Major Bulukhu writes.
“The sudden change in sea state brought with it severe sickness. Previously affected team members were now experiencing a second day of starvation. The scope of sea sickness had escalated to about 80 per cent of the beachhead security party.” When the boats were recovered a day later, they had been punctured. That meant only 46 personnel out of the 56 who had been earmarked to make the landing at Kismayu would storm the beach due to diminished carrying capacity.
“The beach provided a span of about 200 metres of bare sand. Our profile was a complete contrast to such a background. Our wet combat gear appeared black against this white background that no amount of concealment and camouflage could help us cross the obstacle undetected by the enemy,” Major Bulukhu reveals.
To make matters worse, a Captain within the Kenyan troops fired mortar, thus inadvertently aiding the al-Shabaab militants to locate the KDF men.
The mission, dubbed ‘Operation Sledge Hammer’, involved the Kenya Army, Kenya Air Force and the Kenya Navy, and would have gone wrong in so many ways had the KDF men involved in the operation not gone the extra mile to salvage the situation.
On the other end, Brigadier (Rtd) Anthony Ngere, the former Commander Amisom Sector 2, recalls that the initial advance from Afmadhow to Kismayu consisted of two battle groups, while a third battle group was deployed to approach Kismayu from Hoosingo via Bula Haji.
“According to the plan, the movement of troops on the two fronts was staggered, with the southern approach scheduled to commence at a later date,” he says.
But things went haywire at a small town known as Miido, located about 25 kilometres south of Afmadhow, when a unit from Battle Group (9BG) troops comprising A, B, C and D Combat Teams (CTs) under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Adan Hassan was ambushed by al-Shabaab militants just as the advance started on August 31, 2012.
“My reconnaissance group led the way to the general area on-board an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC), but barely a kilometre away in Miido, our APC hit an IED which was reinforced with an ambush spanning more than a kilometre astride the road. The blast shredded the APC’s tyres, causing the vehicle to stall in the middle of the al-Shabaab killer group’s position,” recalls Lt Col Meshack Kishoiyan, the former Officer Commanding D Combat Team, 9BG.
With the APC down, the al-Shabaab began their assault, raining fire on the vulnerable Kenyan soldiers from every possible angle. Rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, mortars, a recoilless rifle, men firing from “technicals”, and anti-aircraft weapons battered the scrambling soldiers.
Within minutes the first two KDF soldiers had been killed, and by the end of that first day of the advance to Kismayu, KDF had lost one officer and four soldiers.
“We conducted fire and manoeuvre to retrieve the bodies of our fallen comrades from the battleground but the al-Shabaab had taken away two of them and later paraded them in Kismayu, in the glare of cameras,” Lt Col Kishoiyan recalls.
The attack, one of the deadliest in the now eight-year war in Somalia, exemplified KDF’s valour as a rapid counter-attack from the rest of the troops allowed Lt Col Kishoiyan’s team to get off the ambush site.
Perhaps one of the greatest heroes of the battle of Miido was Sgt Abdullahi Issa, who daringly charged at the al-Shabaab strongpoints. Unfortunately, Sgt Issa has been missing in action since the El-Adde incident of January 2016.
Brigadier (Rtd) Ngere recalls that going past the ambush site proved challenging for the next few days. Later on, two attack helicopters were sent to destroy two stalled KDF vehicles in order to deny Al-Shaabab use of the same. Eventually, the KDF troops, after a sustained offensive, made a breakthrough and resumed the march towards Kismayu.
It is the siege at Miido that necessitated a complementary strategy entailing an amphibious landing, which had never been carried out by any troops in Africa. The new plan resulted in the deployment of the 3rd Battle Group (3BG), under the command of Col Kamoiro, as the main force in the capture of Kismayu.
Troops from 3BG conducted pre-deployment training in Loruk, Baringo County, followed by a special mission training in Manda and Mkunumbi within Lamu County. Here, the soldiers were given two-day food rations that were to last through the four days they expected to take to capture Kismayu.
“From the outset, I recognised that the first virtue in a soldier is endurance of fatigue; courage is only the second virtue,” Col Kamoiro writes, adding the old warrior mantra that says it is better to sweat in training than bleed in actual battle.
With the mishaps at Miido, the National Military Authority approved an amphibious assault on the port city of Kismayu at a meeting held on September 12, 2012.
“The planning was kept secret and information was only released on need-to-know basis. Allied forces of Somali National Army were brought into Manda Bay from Dhobley and integrated into the amphibious attack forces on the day of departure. Mobile phones were confiscated from troops taking part, including those remaining at Manda,” Col Kamoiro recalls.
Navy vessel KNS Jasiri was to be the command ship with Special Forces on Board, KNS Tana was to carry the bulk of the landing force, while KNS Galana sealifted part of the landing force, logistics vehicles and general stores.
The Fire Support Group comprised naval combatants to support landing and included KNS Umoja, KNS Shujaa and KNS Nyayo, while the Special Boats Units (SBU) were tasked with escorting Special Forces to the beach land. Air support comprised Army attack helicopters, transport helicopters and fighter jets.
“The embarkation phase began on September 23, 2012 at Mkunguni, Mombasa, and was completed on September 25, 2012 when 3BG troops, vehicles, weapons and logistics loaded onto landing craft logistics ships. A total of 33 officers, 934 service members and 53 assorted vehicles were loaded,” Col Kamoiro writes.
The movement was marked with uncertainties as no single officer had sealifted as many people in the history of Kenya Navy. The captain of KNS Tana confessed to have only earlier sealifted a maximum of 70 troops, from Mombasa to Manda.
“My worry was the 900-plus troops and how they were cramped up, with vehicles on deck abroad KNS Tana. However, the senior-most naval officer on board reassured me, saying he had lifted more than 300 people who were rescued from vagaries of drought in one of the islands of the Lamu archipelago,” Col Kamoiro recalls.
When the KDF troops arrived in Kismayu on the morning of September 27, the landing was delayed till the following day as the sea was too rough. Things got worse as the assault began and the boats were thrown off by the strong surf, leaving one of the divers injured and a number of boats damaged.
Due to the powerful surf and rocky nature of the landing area, the Special Forces Commander was concerned about the troops’ safety and contemplated calling off the mission. KNS Tana, which was expected to land first, was shoved by a strong surf and eventually stopped about 20 metres to the shoreline, forcing KNS Galana to beach by KNS Tana’s side so as to enable disembarkation.
“Armoured fighting vehicles and personnel carriers took two days to offload from ships because the ground was sandy and loose,” Col Kamoiro recalls.
On October 2, 2012 ‘Operation Sledge Hammer’ was terminated when the seaport was captured by the D Combat Team of 3 Battle Group in conjunction with Special Forces. The new Kismayu Airport was captured by 9 Battle Group.
In what was expected to be a deadly battle, KDF lost no single troop in the operation.