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…”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.