How Hermann Goering’s Swedish nephew became a humanitarian hero in Africa

One of the worst of the many atrocities of the Twentieth Century, not in terms of total body count, but in terms of concentrated horror and misery, was the Biafran War in 1967-1970.

The southeast portion of Nigeria on the west coast of Africa is the home of the Igbo people. Because the Igbos most eagerly embraced education and modernism, they have been extraordinarily successful in business, the professions, the military, and government, so it should be no surprise they are unpopular with the rest of Nigeria. In 1966, several Igbo army officers were involved in a coup and assassination of Nigerian government officials, and this made the Igbos even more unpopular. The result was a series of massacres of Igbos who had the misfortune to live in other areas of the country. Seeing no hope as part of Nigeria, the Igbos declared themselves the independent Republic of Biafra in 1967.  Fearing this was a really bad precedent in a country made up of scores of different ethnic groups, not to mention the fact that Igboland was where most of Nigeria’s oil was pumped, the Nigerian government sent its army to bring the new country back into the fold. The Biafrans fought bravely and well, and the Nigerians were having a rough time of things, so the next step was a blockade to cut off all aid and food supplies to Biafra.

abiafra

If you think this is sounding like our own civil war, you are right.

Soon, the Biafrans were starving to death and world newspapers were full of pictures of starving children with spindly arms and legs and swollen bellies. The Nigerians helped things along by bombing hospitals and marketplaces, as well as interdicting international relief supplies

afleeingbiafrans2

Which brings us to Hermann Goering’s nephew.

Goering was a WW1 German flying ace who became the head of the Nazi Luftwaffe, and  one of Hitler’s confidants. Gustav Von Rosen was a Swede whose mother’s sister had married Goering, a source of some friction in the family, as you can imagine.  Like his uncle, Gustav was a flier, but unlike his uncle, Gustav was always on the side of the underdog. During the invasion of Finland by Russia, Von Rosen had modified an old DC-3 and singlehandedly bombed the Russians. Later he flew medical relief for the Eithiopeans during the Italian invasion. During WW2, he volunteered for the RAF, but was turned down because of his relationship to Goering.

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Von Rosen

When the Biafran War got going, Von Rosen just had to help out. Risking his own life, Von Rosen flew relief supplies into Biafra under the constant harassment of Nigerian planes. He got tired of being a target, and brimming with righteous indignation, decided to take matters into his own hands. Von Rosen gathered two more Swedish  and two Biafran pilots and modified several tiny single engine Swedish airplanes that resembled Piper Cubs. He was able to mount rudimentary rocket launchers from these unlikely airplanes and conducted a series of daring raids on Nigerian airfields. To approach undetected, his squadron would fly at treetop level and shut off their engines to glide to the attack. The results were devastating. The Biafra Babies, as they called themselves, after the starving children, destroyed at least three modern MIG-17 fighters and four Ilyushin bombers on the ground and damaged even more.

Angriffsplanung im Sand

“Biafra Babies” Gunnar Haglund, Augustus Okpe, Carl Gustaf von Rosen, Willy Murray-Bruce, Martin Land.

The Nigerians were forced to scale back their operations and more relief supplies got through.  Von Rosen also helped modernize the whole relief effort based on his experiences in Eithiopia.

The Biafrans lost their bid for independence and anywhere from one to three million were killed. Von Rosen himself was killed while flying relief supplies to refugees in Somalia in 1977, but among the Igbo of Nigeria, fond memories of  Goering’s nephew remain even today.

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