The Battle for Checkpoint Pasta: Precursor to Blackhawk Down

Somalia in the modern era has been essentially ungovernable. Myriad incompatible tribal factions, pervasive corruption, and a perennial tendency to bite the hands that feed them now serve to keep the Somalis isolated, chaotic, and hungry.

What is it exactly about Somalia? The New York Times has described the Somali ethos as “legendarily individualistic.” In 1995 the US General Colin Powell said of Somalia, “Where things went wrong is when we decided, the UN decided, that somehow we could tell the Somalis how they should live with each other. At that point we lost the bubble…”

These skinny little dudes were formidable opponents in the late 19th century.

Somalis were the first people to domesticate the camel some 2,500 years before Christ. Early in the 20thcentury the Somali Dervishes successfully repulsed English military operations four different times, no mean feat at the height of the British Empire. The Republic of Somalia was formed in 1960 by the confederation of a British protectorate and a former Italian colony. 

 Don’t let the formal threads and placid demeanor fool you, Mohamed Siad Barre was an inveterate butcher.

Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in 1969 and ruled as a dictator until he was overthrown in 1991 in a bloody civil war. Barre’s model of governance has been described as “scientific socialism,” whatever that really means. The reality was that it was a quirky mixture of Islam and Marxism with a little Somali nationalism sprinkled over the top for flavor. His was described as “the worst human rights record in Africa.” Considering the competition that is no small accolade.

Somalia is one gigantic self-inflicted wound.

After the ouster of Barre in 1991 Somalia pretty much didn’t have a government. Governance devolved into something fairly feudal driven by clan, religious, and tribal connections. The resulting utter chaos came atop a deadly famine. Ten percent of Somali children under the age of five died of hunger. The world through the UN stepped in to try to help. This turned out to be a really bad idea.

Food relief flowed in from around the world. However, Somali warlords used starvation as a weapon to control the populace.

The planet threw food at these people, but petty warlords armed to the teeth weaponized food shipments to enhance the power of their own little fiefdoms. Under the guise of the UN, governments deployed military forces in an effort at stabilizing the situation enough to mitigate the famine. In response, the Somalis stole stuff, attacked UN forces, and generally made life miserable for everybody.

The Italian Contingent

Unlike the Americans who fought later, the Italians brought ample organic armor support.

The Italians came ready to play. They fielded paratroopers, M60 Main Battle Tanks, armored cars, and tank destroyers. The first serious combat engagement involving Italian forces since the end of WW2, this particular mission was titled Operation Kangaroo 11. 

This is a birds-eye view of Checkpoint Pasta.

The Italian command split their mechanized forces into two columns and pushed into the Haliwaa District north of Mogadishu. Their mission was to search for weapons and attempt to disarm forces loyal to local warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid and his Somali National Alliance. As part of this operation, the Italians set up a checkpoint alongside, appropriately enough, an abandoned pasta factory. The resulting bloodletting has come to be known as The Battle of Checkpoint Pasta.

Somali militia fighters set fires and erected roadblocks to prevent the Italians from getting back to their bases.

Toward the end of their sweep, Somali militia used women and children as human shields and attacked the two columns. The Somalis engaged Italian VCC-1 Camillino armored vehicles at close range with RPG-7 rocket launchers and immobilized some. Meanwhile, Somali militia barricaded the surrounding streets and unlimbered pretty much everything they had. The result was an epic close-quarters firefight over some of the most worthless terrain on the planet.

Italian Weapons

The AR70/90 has served as the primary Italian Infantry rifle for 30 years. Oddly, I don’t recall the soldiers with whom I served looking much like this. 

The Italians wielded Beretta AR70/90 assault rifles and MG3 light machine guns. The AR70/90 has been the standard 5.56x45mm service rifle of the Italian armed forces since 1990. It is currently undergoing a phased replacement by the polymer chassis ARX160. A gas-operated, piston-driven design, the AR70/90 evolved from the previous AR70 first fielded in 1972.

The AR70/90 evolved from the earlier AR70 shown here. The AR70 was a state of the art late-20th century design.

Those early AR70 rifles were initially inspired by a joint SIG/Beretta project to develop the SG530 rifle. The general similarity to the SIG family of weapons is fairly obvious. While a serviceable enough design, the AR70’s stamped steel receiver featured pressed-in bolt guides that could deform under hard use and deadline the weapon. In 1985 the Italian military began testing an upgraded version eventually called the AR70/90.

The AR70/90 was the AR70 nicely upgraded. It has been a dependable and effective weapon.

Those original trials pitted the AR70/90 against the HK G41 and an Italian-made copy of the Israeli Galil SAR. The Colt M16A2 got an invitation as well but was disqualified due to some kind of nebulous legal troubles. The AR70/90 ultimately won the trials and gained acceptance as the new Italian military rifle. 

The four-position selector on the AR70/90 offers a lot of flexibility.

The AR70/90 featured a four-position selector that offered safe, semi, 3-round burst, and full-auto operation. The standard rifle included a fixed polymer stock, while the SC70/90 version sported a folding stock and was intended for Alpine troops. The SCP70/90 was that same weapon with a shorter barrel crafted for use with airborne forces. The AR70/90 weighed 8.8 pounds, fed from STANAG magazines, and cycled at 650 rpm on full auto.

This is a wartime German MG42 remarked as an MG3 after swapping a few parts. 

The MG3 is essentially a German MG42 light machinegun rechambered for 7.62x51mm. The MG3 and MG42 share a high level of parts commonality. While the wartime MG42 cycled at a blistering 1,200 rpm, most modern MG3 variants include a heavier bolt and redesigned recoil spring that slow the rate of fire down considerably. 

The Italians have been building their own MG3 machine guns for more than 60 years.

Beretta, Whitehead Motofides, and Franchi have produced licensed versions of the MG3 in Italy since 1959. These guns include a 1,200-gram bolt that offers a rate of fire of around 800 rpm. The Italians used the weapons on both ground and vehicle mounts.

Somali Weapons

 These weapons were seized by the French Navy on board a ship bound for Somalia. Holy crap.

This part of Africa has been showered with small arms for decades. Somalia was originally aligned with the Soviet Bloc until the late 1970’s when the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre abruptly changed teams and jumped in bed with the West. As a result, Somali arms bazaars are a cornucopia of military small arms from around the world. That means FN FALs, G3’s, M16’s, and AK’s—lots and lots of AKs.

This young stud is packing a curious piece of iron. This is an early milled receiver underfolder AK47 with the stock removed, a later AKM handguard, and a pair of magazines taped together. Note the early slab-sided magazine and excellent trigger finger discipline.

We have discussed the Kalashnikov assault rifle in this venue before. Designed by Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov as a tool with which to defend Mother Russia against aggression from the West, the AK ultimately became the single most influential mechanical contrivance of the 20thcentury. With more than 100 million copies in service, the AK is the most produced firearm in human history.

The PKM shown here is a belt-fed LMG chambered for the archaic rimmed 7.62x54mm round. The gun uses an inverted version of the traditional Kalashnikov action.

You can indeed kill an AK, but it takes a great deal of effort. I used Kalashnikov rifles back when I wore the uniform that had not been cleaned since they left the factory, were employed in combat against US forces and captured, and were then repurposed into American stores yet still ran reliably and well. Everything about the gun is massively overdesigned. The critical bits are chrome-plated for wear resistance in sordid locales. The same basic action found itself into the PK-series belt-fed machineguns as well, albeit slightly modified and upside down.

The Rest of the Story

This unfortunate young man was the first Italian KIA of the engagement.

Once the Somali militia erected their roadblocks and disabled a couple of Italian armored vehicles things started to get real. An Italian paratrooper named Pasquale Baccaro was struck in the leg by an RPG and killed, while the unit Sergeant Major was grievously wounded in the abdomen. A third paratrooper was badly wounded in the hand.

 The B1 Centauro tank destroyer is a relatively lightweight wheeled vehicle that packs a substantial punch.
Orbiting Mangusta gunships like this one provided top cover.

At this point, the Italian commanders unlimbered the serious stuff. A column consisting of eight M60 tanks, seven B1 Centauro tank destroyers, and several Fiat 6614 armored cars proceeded to the checkpoint near the pasta factory and opened up with their organic machineguns. Meanwhile armed Italian UH-1H Huey helicopters along with Agusta A129 Mangusta gunships joined the fray from above. One of the Italian raiders was killed clearing a Somali fighting position with an OD 82/SE hand grenade.

This is the rusting hulk of the Somali Iveco VM 90 taken out by a TOW missile from an Italian Mangusta gunship as it appears today.

The tanks engaged a series of shipping containers used by militia members, graphically educating the Somalis on the salient battlefield differences between concealment and cover while killing several in the process. One of the Mangustas took out a captured Iveco VM 90 vehicle with a TOW missile. 2LT Andrea Millevoi, the track commander of a Centauro tank destroyer, was shot and killed as he leaned out of his vehicle.

This is a photo of an Italian Centauro tank destroyer in action during the battle.

Both sides thoroughly blooded, the Italians took their toys and went home. The Battle for Checkpoint Pasta has since been described as an Italian defeat, but that’s not an entirely fair assessment. Somali militia had the Italian forces cut off and surrounded. In a remarkably chaotic environment, the Italians blasted their way clear and relocated to a position of safety. While they did suffer three dead and 22 wounded, Somali losses were estimated at nearly 200.

Ruminations

The Battle at Checkpoint Pasta helped set the stage for the protracted street fight that involved American forces some three months later.

Three months later, American forces fought the Battle of Mogadishu, the two-day bloodbath that was so graphically depicted in the book and movie Blackhawk Down, against forces aligned with the same dirtbag warlord. In this later engagement, there were nineteen Americans killed against several hundred Somalis. One of the rawest aspects of the American fight was the lack of organic armor support. 

It sure would have been nice to have had a couple of M1 tanks and half a dozen Bradleys on standby when those Blackhawks went down in Somalia. Commanders on the ground had requested armor support, but the civilian leadership in DC thought that might look bad.

Unlike the Italian contingent, the US civilian government under Bill Clinton felt that the inclusion of tanks made for a bad optic. This decision forced our warriors to fight their way out on foot. I’ve had a tough time forgiving Clinton for that.

Mohamed Farah Aidid died from battlefield wounds about a year after UN troops pulled out of Somalia. Interestingly, his son Hussein Mohamed Farrah Aidid emigrated to the US at age 17 and eventually served eight years as a US Marine. Hussein returned to Somalia after the death of his father to take his place leading the Somali National Alliance.

The last UN troops left Somalia in March of 1995. Somalia has subsequently become one of the world’s most ghastly hellholes. For his part, Mohamed Farrah Aidid was shot in battle a year later and subsequently died of a heart attack during surgery. Good riddance.  

There’s a lot that’s not awesome about Somalia these days. This crowd is gathered to watch some poor schmuck get his hand cut off for stealing in accordance with Sharia Law.
Somalia is awash in violent crazy people with guns.

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • alex May 11, 2021, 8:37 am

    man oh man,Chicago is a looking like a bigger shithole than ever!! them brothers know how to welcome new people!

  • Mikial May 10, 2021, 9:50 pm

    The Italian military. I served next to the Italians in Nasiriyah/Tallil in southern Iraq in 2006. The Italian portion of the base was noted for excellent restaurants and little else. The Italian troops on the base were dressed like tourists and I never saw two Italian troops that were in the same configuration of whatever their uniform was on any given day. They did road patrols for a while, but the first time they encountered an IED and lost three troops, they never left their base again. Frankly, we were glad when they rotated out and the Romanians arrived. Those guys went out every day looking for a fight. A tough bunch, they had a big painting of Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Dracul) on the T-walls around their compound.

  • Jimboecv May 10, 2021, 7:58 pm

    Thanks, Will. Again.

  • purnima May 10, 2021, 11:51 am

    Is it just me, or is that a scoped G3 in the one pic of the two Italians(?) running in front of the tank? I don’t believe the Italians issued them (using the BM59 instead), so field-improvised DMR?

    • Big Al 45 May 10, 2021, 4:14 pm

      Agreed, definitely looks like an HK.

    • Will May 10, 2021, 4:35 pm

      I wondered the same thing. Looks like a scoped G3 to me, too.

  • Doug May 10, 2021, 11:26 am

    Of course Clinton denied them armor. He did authorize armor for a bunch of surrounded, starving fringe Christians at Waco. And they used it.
    Clinton and Janet Reno taught them a lesson.
    And people want more government?

  • YankeeDespot May 10, 2021, 11:21 am

    Thanks Will. Good overview, as always.

  • Mike in a Truck May 10, 2021, 11:05 am

    Another shithole country that we have nothing to show for. Vietnam,Iraq, Afganistan, and now we’re back in Africa. Trillions pissed down a rat hole for…nothing. American kids killed and maimed…for nothing. Remember this the next time some asshole politicians wrap themselves in the flag and want to send your kids off to war..for nothing. Im proud of my military service but I counsel these kids to stay out of the military nowadays.You will be sent to foriegn lands to die or lose your legs, balls ,and dick..for nothing.Eisenhower was right about the military industrial complex.

  • Rex May 10, 2021, 9:39 am

    “Somalia is awash in violent crazy people with guns.”
    That description can be applied to Chicago and almost every other city in America.

    • Meeester May 10, 2021, 2:12 pm

      Hmmm… and what is it that they have in common… hmmm… it will come to me

  • Jackpine May 10, 2021, 7:13 am

    Great historic overview, thanks.

  • Nanook May 10, 2021, 6:08 am

    Always a good read from Mr. Dabbs, The US military’s heavy reliance on helicopters to fight an urban action, severely limited our ground forces in Mogadishu. Just plain dumb to not have armor on the ground there…

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