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M551as1 Sheridan Light Tank, Baidoa, Somalia, 1992

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M551as1 Sheridan Light Tank, Baidoa, Somalia, 1992

 

As already related, the Royal Australian Armoured Corps operated M41 Walker Bulldog light tanks as an intrim vehicle to fulfill it's needs, under the Pentropic Divisional organisation for a Light Tank. When the Pentropic Organisation was abandoned as being too unwieldy and incompatible with allied forces' organisations, the M41s had already been procured. They were then utilised in Cavalry Squadrons to provide integral, increased firepower. The M41as1 lasted in Australian service until 1978 when they were replaced by M551as1 Sheridans.

 

The performance of the M551 had impressed the RAAC when they had observed it in Vietnam. While the M41 had proved adequate, it was felt in the post-Vietnam environment, something better would be required. A preference for an amphibious capable reconnaissance vehicle was strongly in the mind of the RAAC as they had felt the M41's lack of such a capability had severely limited its ability to operate effectively without considerable support resources. While the 152mm gun/missile launcher was seen as being a way for the RAAC to gain access to the latest anti-armour technology. When the Vietnam War ended, the US Army found itself with a large number of surplus Sheridans and were only too willing to sell them to their antipodean ally.

 

The M551as1 replaced the M41as1 on a one-for-one basis. The tremendous increase in firepower meant for the first time light tanks were now the equal (or superior perhaps) of MBTs. Their long-range ATGWs allowed them to engage MBTs outside the range of the MBT's own guns and the largely flat, open terrain of Australia was ideally suited to such long-range sniping. In exercises, the Cavalry Squadrons often found themselves able to account for enemy MBT forces themselves, without recourse to their supporting MBT units. However, their first test on operations was not in war but a humanitarian relief effort in Somalia.

 

Somalia

 

Flanked by the Gulf of Aden in the north and the Indian Ocean, the east African country of Somalia shares its land borders with Djubouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya. During the nineteenth century Somalia’s land came under the colonial control of Ethiopia, Italy, France, and Britain. In 1960 the Italian and British colonies of Somaliland became independent Somalia. Nine years later Major General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a military coup and ruled the country for the next 31 years.

 

Courting the great super power during the Cold War, Siad Barre received Soviet military and economic aid in exchange for allowing them to build military bases. However, in 1977 the Soviets dropped their support of Barre’s military dictatorship in favour of a Marxist government in Ethiopia and during the 1980s the United States instead provided economic and military aid to Somalia. During this time Barre fought both external and internal enemies. In 1978 an attempt to seize traditional Somalia lands in Ethiopia failed while during the 1980s Barre fought a civil war against various clans in the country’s north. These clans were brutally repressed and in one incident in 1988 up to 50,000 people died when the town of Hargeisa was destroyed. As the country slid further into anarchy, Barre’s government was spending five times as much money on the military as it did on health and education. In 1989 the United States withdrew its aid and in October 1990 the main opposition groups in Somalia united to defeat Barre who fled the country in January 1991.

 

Barre’s departure left a power vacuum and Somalia broke down into clan-based militia warfare. This violence coincided with a drought that caused poor harvests and food shortages. In 1992 the international community attempted to provide some relief with an international campaign for aid and the United Nations (UN) authorised an emergency air lift of supplies. However, with no government or working system of law and order, violent gangs dominated the cities and the aid could not be distributed to those in need.

 

In July the first UN personnel were deployed to Somalia as part the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM). UNOSOM was initially formed to monitor a ceasefire between the two main militia groups, one led by Ali Mahdi Mohamed and the other by Mohamed Farah Aidid, who were fighting for control of Mogadishu, the Somali capital. In October the Australian government decided to send a thirty-person Movement Control Unit (MCU), drawn from the three services, to Somalia to coordinate transport for the UN mission. The unit was commanded by Major Greg Jackson and troops began arriving in the country from the end of October.

 

UNOSOM was primarily a monitoring group and did not have the resources to establish stability in the country or even protect food distribution. Most of the supplies the aid agencies had flown into Somalia could not be distributed and few ships were able or willing to enter Mogadishu harbour. The food shortage became a famine in which about 300,000 people died.

 

In November the US government announced it would lead a force to Somalia to enable aid agencies to distribute humanitarian relief. The UN Security Council gave the force, the Unified Task Force - Somalia (UNITAF), the mandate to use “all necessary means” to carry out this task. At its peak UNITAF consisted of 37,000 personnel, 21,000 of whom were American and the rest from twenty other countries. The first American troops arrived in Mogadishu on 9 December.

 

Australia contributed an infantry battalion group to UNITAF. The group totalled 990 personnel and was based around 1RAR, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel David Hurley. In addition to troops from 1RAR, the group included the Armoured Personnel Carriers and light tanks of C Squadron, 3rd/4th Cavalry Regiment; a civil and military operations teamed based on 107th Field Battery; engineers from the 17th Field Troop of the 3rd Combat Engineering Regiment; signallers from the 103rd Signals Squadron; Intelligence personnel; the 7th Electronic Warfare Squadron; and a support unit based on the 3rd Brigade Administrative Support Battalion. There was also an Australian headquarters, with public relations and support staff. Colonel William Mellor, Commander Australian Force Somalia, was located in Mogadishu. He was responsible for the safety of the Australian force and dealt directly with the task force’s American commander.

 

The Australians were based in Baidoa Humanitarian Relief Sector, west of Mogadishu. The Australian contingent in Baidoa had four main roles: maintain a secure environment in Baidoa; maintain a presence in the surrounding countryside; protect aid convoys; and assist in the equitable distribution of aid. Tasks were rotated between the four rifle companies every nine days. The troops also gathered intelligence by talking to the locals and used this knowledge to disarm aggressive groups. There were a number of skirmishes with bandits.

 

It was during these skirmishes that the Sheridans fired their guns for the first and last time in anger. Their massive 152mm guns were devastating against the lightly equipped militias and were guaranteed to destroy any building or vehicle which offered resistance. One such was a Technical whose crew decided their 12.7mm DShK HMG was a match for the 152mm gun of Sheridan call sign three-two, "Chauvel" of C Sqn, 3/4 Cav. Rgt. on the road between Baidoa and the airstrip nearby. Three-two was tasked that day with escorting a convoy from the airport, carrying much needed food aid when it encountered several Technicals. When they came under fire, they responded with a 152mm Flechette round at close range against one of the Technicals, completely destroying it. The other Technicals following rapidly retired. The vehicle commander commented drily afterwards. "It did wonders for their constipation..."

 

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The Model

 

The model is the Academy M551 "Vietnam" model (as against their "Desert Storm" version). It was essentially done straight out of the box with additional stowage added. Painted in standard Australian vehicle camouflage with weathering and markings added from the spares box. It is covered in the thick, red dust typical of the Somali area. It carries it's vehicle name, "Chauvel" (named after the commander of the Australian Light Horse in Palestine, Sir Harry Chauvel). on each side and it's call-sign on "battle boards" (easily dismounted timber boards) on it's stowage racks on the turret.

 

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