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Soviet and Ethiopian Navy in Eritrea (1988-1991)

Soviet cogitations: 317
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 20 Feb 2010, 11:57
Resident Admiral
Post 17 Sep 2017, 15:20
The Naval warfare occurred at the end of the Eritrean Independence War was the very last chance by the Soviet Navy to directly engage an enemy in combat.
Indeed, excluding Cold War collision accidents, a single episode of seizures in Guinea and the incidents occurred in Baku in January 1991, the naval operations in Red Sea were the only pure naval warfare experienced by the Soviet Navy since the end of WW2.

Since the downfall of monarchy, Ethiopia turned a communist stronghold in eastern Africa, with strategic implication. Ethiopian Navy was locally significant with relatively advanced assets; however, the outcome of the War was decided by ground combat and political mistakes. Interestingly, Ethiopian Navy was the most active Navy of an African communist nation in terms of battles and victories.

The secessionist Eritrean forces split at first between the ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front) and the self-declared communist EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front).
After infighting, EPFL emerged as the prominent and main force. As soon as EPLF gained control and declared independence of Eritrea it quickly dropped references to communism or socialism and instituted what is considered even by western standard an extremely repressive and brutal dictatorship (not unsurprisingly, while the western world had little interest for the current regime, Israel forged good relationships).
In parallel, the Ethiopian Civil War caused the downfall of the communist government. The same Ethiopian rebel forces while at first declaring themselves communist (a group even labelled itself “Hoxhaist” with Albanian backing!), dropped every reference to communism or socialism after their victory and instituted a multi-party democracy bringing little to no benefit to the population in spite of enrichment of the parties’ leaderships.

The Soviet Navy operated only a minor garrison of small ships (often in rotation) in the Dahlak archipelago naval base. The Soviet leadership fully focused by the Afghan conflict, meaning the Soviet Navy played a marginal role in the overall conflict.

EPLF units 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.
ELF also operated speedboats in 1979/1980 but almost no data survived of their operations.

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


June 1979
Rebels of the ELF attacked and seized an unidentified El-Salvador flagged merchant ship, the Ethiopian Navy intercepted and liberated the vessel, fighting against ELF speedboats (unknown if they suffered losses). Interestingly, it was the first notable Ethiopian naval operation, resulting in a successful outcome (re-seizure of a captured merchant). It was also one of the few known ELF actions

April 1980
Ethiopian patrol boats seized five fishing boats of North Yemen close Zuquar Island. It is unclear if the vessels returned (possibly after fine), or impounded by the Ethiopian government.

9 May 1980
Rebels of the ELF scuttled the Ethiopian merchants Massawa and Assab after seizing them the previous month.

Unclear day 1984
The Ethiopian Navy patrol boat P-202 defected to Somalia. Commander and three crewmembers forced the rest of the crew of 22 overboard, while the vessel was on patrol at the port of Assab (reportedly many of the sailors killed by sharks before reaching the shore). The patrol boat joined the Somali Navy, it was a rare incident of mutiny and defection of a communist nation vessel, defecting to another (nominal) communist nation.

18 April 1988
First significant EFLP 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 EPLF 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
EPLF 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.
EPLF 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, EPLF 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 EPLF 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 EPLF 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, EPLF forces claimed to have inflicted heavy losses to Ethiopian vessels in Dahlak archipelago.
It appears many of the EPLF claims are over-claims, because most of the Ethiopians vessels would just be scuttled later to prevent seizure, however it is confirmed the frigate F-1616 (project 159) damaged beyond repair.
It is unclear how the vessel suffered damages, but it appears it was due rocket-attacks (Grad) from the enemy controlled shore.

19 October 1990
Soviet corvette Komsomolets Moldavii was escorting a convoy: tanker Sheksna (7240 GRT) and landing ships BDK-14 and BDK-101, alongside minesweeper Paravan.
EPLF 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 EPLF 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 Soviet crewmembers, 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.
Soviet sources confirm that some Ethiopian ships indeed sunk by EPLF ground artillery: the patrol ships P-205 and P-208 (both Soviet project1400ME) and two landing crafts of project 1785. Reports of sinking of a project206M is wrong because both scuttled at Dahlak.

The number of Ethipian vessels intentionally scuttled in Dahlak archipelago include both the hydrofoil torpedo boats FTB-112 and FTB-113 (Project 206M) and a single landing ship of project 1785 class.
The hull of frigate F-1616 (project 159), already damaged beyond repair by battle damage, further scuttled.

25 May 1991
The remains of the Ethiopian Navy fled Assab, sailing to exile in Yemen or Saudi Arabia.
Before departing, other vessels scuttled, likely due lack of personal or technical problems and lack of fuel that prevented the full escape of the fleet. Units scuttled included the missile boats FMB-160 and FMB-162 (both project205 EP) the patrol vessel FTB-110 (projet 205ET class), the west-Germany made landing ship LTC-1036, two landing ships of project 1785, the tanker A-502 and the cargo ship Denden.

29 May 1991
Official end of the Eritrean War of Independence.
Soviet cogitations: 317
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 20 Feb 2010, 11:57
Resident Admiral
Post 03 Jan 2019, 12:41
1) Reworked intro
2) EPLF losses are now colored in orange rather than blue (nominal communist-oriented group)
3) Added scarce data on one Ethiopian victory in 1979 (re-seizure of captured cargo)
4) Added scarce data over five seizures of Yemen's fishing boats in 1980
5) Two full losses of Ethiopian merchants (seizures and scuttled) in 1980
6) Added loss (defection) of one patrol boat in 1984
7) Reworked fate of Ethiopian Navy ships lost by enemy ground fire or intentionally scuttled or captured in May 1991.
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