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Soviet and Ethiopian Navy in Eritrea (1988-1991)

Soviet cogitations: 259
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 20 Feb 2010, 11:57
Resident Admiral
Post 17 Sep 2017, 15:20
Right before the ends of the Soviet Union, the Navy had the chance to raise the flag and meet enemies on sea.
Such actions went completely ignored worldwide and in the same motherland due the political situation (disengagement from Afghanistan, downfall of communist countries in Europe, Gulf War and eventually the fateful Coup of August 1991 leading the demise of the Union).

The Afghan Conflict absorbed the Soviet military back in late 80s, and the support to the communist Ethiopia was comparably minor and dwindling due the local failure from the communist leadership merged with political unwillingness to engage in a new conflict.
The communist Ethiopia secured a win with Soviet and Cuban support against Somalia during the Ogaden War, but the following decade centered on famine and multiple insurgencies. Ironically, while USA supported such insurgencies, most of armed groups claimed an explicit Marxist ideology.
Coming to the Eritrean front, two different separatist groups battled against the Central government: ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front) and EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front). After infighting, EPLF defeated the rival group and carried on a large offensive to secure the Eritrean cost. Once again, it was sadly ironic how the EPLF claimed itself a Marxist ideology and supported by the Western world (it is worth to mention how this political claim quickly and pragmatically dropped in 1990s, in a similar way to the various victorious Ethiopian rebel factions).

Despite its military power, only few minor units of the Soviet Navy (from Black Sea and Baltic Sea) engaged in the conflict.
This naval campaign can be regarded as the only case when a communist navy obtained a successful result but completely unable to reverse the outcome of the conflict (sealed by the ground war and political decisions). Enemy warships included only small speedboats of civilian origins armed with multiple machine-guns, but sometimes American 106m recoilless-guns or even Grad rocket-systems.At least 24 of the larger units were built in Sweden (through Arabs sponsors), usually operated by 5 men, and could carry 40mm artillery and capable of 40 knots of speed. Some boats had catamaran-hulls.

Sources include the magnificent work done by (c)Alexander Rosin on the russian blog

NOTE: Many events are still unclear and poorly described in English-internet media (including lack of certain date for some clashes or identity of Ethiopian ships involved).


18 April 1988
First significant Eritrean naval action: a speedboat strafed the port of Assab both as propaganda coup and to strike the oil refinery.
5 people were killed and 15 wounded. A ship of the Ethiopian Navy sunk the speedboat.
The oil refinery and the port were not damaged.

31 May 1988
The first recorded attack toward a Soviet vessel.
The military Tanker Olekma (6440 GRT)(Baltic Fleet) received fire from enemy speedboats. The tanker received hits and damages, with the refrigerator chamber and the radio room out of operation.
One sailor, the head of the ship’s radio station Mikhail Novikov died: he was the only fatal casualty suffered by the Soviet Navy during the whole conflict.
After this incident, Soviet warships begun closely escorting the tankers supplying the Soviet Dahlak garrison.
That same day, a group of three speedboats attacked also the Ethiopian merchant Omo Wonz (5535 GRT) (minor damage, two sailor wounded) and one Ethiopian frigate sunk one speedboat, while she was also escorting the tanker Saga Cob.
The Eritrean rebels expressed regrets for the attack and the casualty: this is interesting because until the very end, the EPLF attempted to not stress an openly anti-Soviet policy.

7 September 1988
Merchant Saga Cob suffered an attack by speedboats: she received multiple damages (hull, engine room, radar and control mechanism) and the ship’s owner was wounded.
Ship repaired from 31 October to 9 December in Lisbon. Ship was carrying a cargo of aviation fuel.

During the fall of 1988, Ethiopians deployed Mi-35 attack helicopters in a series of anti-ships missions between 1988 and 1989: sinking an amount of 8 speedboats and preventing further attacks (since Saga Cob’s damaging) until January 1990.

3 January 1990
A quite ironic attack occurred when 3 speedboats attacked the Polish merchant Boleslaw Krzywousty (8146 GRT) with a cargo of cotton and ceramics. The ship suffered damage and grounded: crew of 28 men and 2 women captured by separatists. One attacking speedboat was armed with quadruple-machine guns, one with a recoilless-rifle and the third one with a bazooka. When captured, the Polish learned the Eritreans believed them to be Soviets, and it turned out ironic when they expressed their siding to the Solidarnosc anti-communist new Poland.
(However, the ship was sailing toward Massawa, and thus being involved in commercial activity with Ethiopia, it’s regarded as a loss of this conflict).
On 5 January, a second polish ship (Adam Asnyk) went to investigate and received fire. Later the Polish crew was released and the merchant proved to be a total loss.

10 January 1990
3 Speedboats fired and seized the Yugoslavian merchant Heroj Kosta Stamenkovich (11749 GRT) that was heading to Massawa with a cargo of flour and medical equipment. Eventually they were released after 2 days after ordering to not enter in Ethiopian ports. This time separatists seized a ship from another Communist nation, yet there was no military engagement of Yugoslavia.

8 February 1990 - 12 February 1990
Battle of Massawa
Eritrean separatists launched a large attack against Massawa (main base of the Ethiopian naval forces).
Once the battle was over, EPLF has scored a strategic victory, depriving Ethiopians of a key base and threatening the nearby Dahlak archipelago (home of the Soviet naval garrison).

Ethiopian Navy attempted to land and reconquer Massawa from Dahlak Archipelago on 12 February.
The attack was repulsed with heavy losses.
The Ethiopian naval units heavily engaged in fighting the enemy at Massawa. Soviet Navy took no part in the fighting.
Ethiopian units involved include the old frigate/training ship Ethiopia and the patrol ship P-201 (ex-American) in addition to ships received by Soviets.

Photo of Ethiopia (ex-USN Orca, Barnegat-class: she was the largest ship of the Ethiopian Navy

The Petya-II class light frigate F-1616 was very active, reportedly sinking multiple speedboats.
Eritreans deployed speedboats with modified rocket launchers but also some with 75mm artillery pieces: they claimed to have inflicted heavy losses to the Ethiopians but this is likely false. At first EPLF claimed to have sunk 3 ships, later inflated to 9 ships sunk and 2 captured.
The only confirmed loss for the Ethiopian Navy was the landing ship LCT-1035 (likely lost during the landing attempt), and according some sources she was not sunk but rather damaged and cannibalized to repair other ships.

Despite the local naval superiority, the Eritreans gunnery (including 130mm SM-4-1 guns) and Grad rockets played a key role in securing the victory to the EPLF and the following installation of such weapons from Buri Peninsula covered a range of 28 kilometers, directly threatening Dahlak archipelago.

Near Massawa, Eritreans seized the Danish cargo Svea Atlantic (cargo of food and humanitarian supplies). Ship and crew released on 19 February but cargo was confiscated.

19 February 1990
Soviet tanker Iman (3359 GRT) received incoming enemy fire from Grad multiple rocket launchers. There were no direct hit (nearby rockets exploded at 5 meters), but it was this first event of open warfare for a soviet ship and prompted the sailors to collect fragments of shells on the upper deck. Minesweeper Razvedchik provided escort and released a smoke screen: sailors begun accompanying escorting missions with a famous soviet naval song!. The tanker was evacuating family members of the Soviet Dahlak garrison (21 women and 17 children) heading to Aden.

14 May 1990
A night-battle erupted (past 04.40) when minesweeper Razvedchik once again provided escort-mission, this time to escort the tanker International (13603 GRT). After Grad rocket fire from ground, a group of four Eritrean armed speedboats attacked and opened fire with 106mm recoilless-guns. Razvedchik was the first Soviet warship after the WW2 to receive damage in combat: a collection of minor bullet-holes and other minor damages but without series consequences. One crewmember wounded to the leg (first and only Soviet casualty on a military warship during a combat action after WW2!). During the fight (8 minutes of battle), the minesweeper opened fire with all the weapons (excluding ASW rockets), scoring direct hits on one speedboat and causing its explosion. It was the first victory in direct combat after WW2 achieved by the Soviet Navy (this was a well-known fact for the sailors who were reportedly extremely thrilled for their achievement).
Captain Victor Nosenko commanded Razvedchik.

27 May 1990
The second and most famous engagement of the conflict occurred when the patrol boat AK-312 was carrying a group of 70 sailors and officers to be delivered to the hospital ship Yenisei. While sailing to the rendezvous-point, four armed Eritrean speedboats intercepted the ship. The Soviets decided to breakthrough, and while chased by the enemy, a series of depth charges dropped behind to chase-off the pursuers: one speedboat received a blast on the bow and turned-over and the others stopped.
After delivering the passengers to the hospital-ship, AK-312 sailed back to Dahlak archipelago and met the three remaining speedboats engaging direct battle with gunnery fire.
During the firefight, one or two speedboats suffered hits and sunk, giving the victory to the Soviets (AK-312 suffered no damage or casualties).
Soviet crewmembers received decorations for the action (Captain Nikolay Belyy commanded AK-312).
Some sources regards this fight as the most effective victory ever scored by the Soviet Navy in terms of losses inflicted to enemy armed enemies.
This could be true, if 3 speedboats sunk that night: however if the tally have to be reduced to 2, other Soviet naval units happened to sink 2 enemy units in combat (Bolshevik destroyer Gavril sunk 2 British MTB during the Civil War, and two soviet monitors sunk two Chinese gunboats each during the 1929 conflict). According some Russian internet sources, the enemy boats are identified as Western-Germany built “Jaguar”-class motor torpedo boat, but this is clearly wrong considering Eritreans did not operate such sophisticated ships (their flotilla was composed essentially by small boats of civilian origin).

5 August 1990
Last action of AK-312, covering the Soviet tanker Sheksna (7240 GRT) with smoke screen from enemy ground fire.

From July to October, the Eritrean forces inflicted heavy losses to Ethiopian vessels in Dahlak archipelago.
Several ships sunk and others damaged, including the Petya-II class F-1616 damaged beyond repair.
Two of the units lost were the Turya-class FTB-112 and FTB-113.
It is unclear how many of these vessels were sunk by ground artillery and Grad rocket fire (probably most), how many could have been hit by speedboats (probably few) and how many suffered damages only to be cannibalized or scuttled to prevent capture.

19 October 1990
Soviet corvette Komsomolets Moldavii was escorting a convoy: tankers Sheksna (7240 GRT) and landing ships BDK-14 and BDK-101, alongside minesweeper Paravan.
Eritreans opened fire with 6 artillery shells and 3 Grad rockets prompting the Soviet reaction.
Komsomolets Moldavii opened fire with her 76mm gun, observing the explosion of an ammunition cache.
Crew received awards.
Photo of Komsomolets Moldavii, 1 August 1990
Photo of BDK-58, sister ship of BDK-14 and BDK-101: all Project 775

10 December 1990
On board soviet Minesweeper Paravan occurred an accident with one sailor wounded (lost his sight) due accidental shooting from a machine-gun fire by a sentry, (the previous sentry armed the weapons during his guard, forgetting to disarm the weapon later).

19 December 1990
Six Eritrean speedboats attacked the Soviet tanker Sheksna(7240 GRT) escorted by minesweeper Paravan. Two speedboats sunk and the others retreated.

6 February 1991
Soviet Navy command ordered withdrawing of all assets from Dahlak archipelago and Nokra island.

12 February 1991
The last Soviet convoy departed from the Dahlak archipelago, protected by the hydrofoil boat T-72 (a Baltic Sea’s ship!).
The departure was a bitter day for the Soviets crewmember, observing their Ethiopian allies abandoned due political reasons and the breakup of their own native country (split between Gorbachev’s dreams and Eltsin’s ambitions).
Hydrofoil torpedo boat from same class.

May 1991
EPLF captured Asmara and surrounded Assab, reportedly sinking other Ethiopian vessels.

25 May 1991
The remains of the Ethiopian Navy fled Assab, sailing to exile in Yemen or Saudi Arabia.

29 May 1991
Official end of the Eritrean War of Independence.
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