Skip to content

BodEx 2005 - Measurements and observations in northern Chad (Bodélé/Djourab)

Dust Storms, The Cold War and the Battle of Chicha

(by R. Washington)

In February and March 2005, the Royal Geographical Society sponsored the BodEx field experiment which aimed to quantify the conditions leading to the Bodélé Depression, Chad, being the world's leading source of mineral aerosols or dust. BodEx was based at Chicha, on the eastern edge of the Bodélé some 150 km south of Faya. Chicha is characterised as much by fierce dust storms as it is by the proliferation of military equipment which lies abandoned along the edge of the Djourab sand sea and the Bodélé Depression itself. What none of expedition members appreciated at the time was the significant link between the dust storms, the spent ordinance and a key event in the Cold War, centred on Chicha, which took place nearly two decades ago.

Russian rocket launcher. Photo by Richard Washington

Russian rocket launcher. Photo by Richard Washington

Much of the hands-on engagement of the Cold War took place in Africa, notably in south-eastern Angola and Chad. In the case of Chad, western interests, including France and the U.S., backed the southern capital Ndjamena while the north of Chad was essentially occupied by a Soviet-Islamic-Libyan axis with the sixteenth parallel marking the so-called red line dividing the Cold War. Chicha, near 17°N, formed the most southerly Libyan occupied base with Kouba tucked in at the southern edge of the Djourab, just south of 16°N, the most northerly base of the western backed forces. Chicha is strategically located at the western edge of a sand sea where large dunes give way to a fast, flat, narrow, gravel plain rapidly changing to broken lake bed sediments to the west. Water is easily available at Chicha in shallow wells.

Abandoned shell. Photo by Richard Washington

Abandoned shell. Photo by Richard Washington

The early 1980s featured a build up of military personnel and equipment on both sides in Chad but by 1984 France and Libya had formally agreed in a meeting in Crete, to withdraw their respective forces from Chad. While this was honoured by France (withdrawal beginning on 25 September 1984), Libya stayed on, putting France in a difficult position with around 60% of the French public favouring complete withdrawal of France from Chad and home grown criticism of Vietnam style engagement making any direct military action by France impossible. At the same time the shear extent of Libyan and Soviet equipment in northern Chad (as many aircraft as the French airforce had in total with many of these Libyan aircraft French made Mirage!, seven thousand soldiers, three hundred tanks and extended runways at Ouadi-Doum allowing overflights of Ndjamena) meant that engagement would lead to serious loss of equipment and life. Already nine French soldiers had been lost in mine clearing operations in April 1984. Article 4 of the agreement of March 6 1976 between Chad and France made it clear that direct military action by France in Chad was outlawed. The French position thus became one of protecting Chad up to the 16th parallel, rather than removing the Libyans from the north by force. It remained up to ill-equipped Chadian forces of the south, under Habre, to do any of the hard fighting in the north.

GUNT, the Chadian element of the northern forces, launched a two pronged attack on Kouba and Oum-Chalouba on 10 February 1986. With French elections approaching in March 1986, any direct retaliation backed by France had to be carefully considered, especially because involvement with the GUNT based attack would entail French engagement in inter-Chadian affairs, notwithstanding the Libyan backing that GUNT had long enjoyed. By this stage Habre, commanding the southern forces had lost patience with diplomacy and decided to attack Chicha, the Libyan base just north of the 16th parallel. To make such an attack feasible, Habre needed French assistance in the form of aerial cover. Any ground force would be brutally exposed in the vegetation-free desert around Chicha. Habre's position was compounded by the very basic equipment at his disposal which took the form of light machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons welded on the back of Toyota and Land Rover pick-up trucks. Chicha is only 150 km from the runways at Faya and so well within the reach of the Libyan aircraft there. A wind of panic swept through the French forces in Ndjamena who again appealed to Paris to agree to cover from the Mirage and Jaguars. But the French elections ruled this out, Habre was going anyway and was intending to show what could be achieved without the French umbrella. Moving north with his improvised force of poorly maintained thin-skinned civilian cars, Habre took the Libyan base at the Battle of Chicha, capturing numerous Libyans for presentation to the international media. But what about the Libyan aircraft at Faya? How did Habre manage to deal with the lack of air cover? At this point it must be remembered that Chicha marks the windward edge of the world largest source of dust storms. It turns out that mid March 1986 featured one of these vicious dust storms and this prevented the Libyan aircraft from getting off the ground in Faya. Without having to worry about air superiority, the forces from Ndjamena were able to sneak up on Chicha and, with their enhanced Toyota based mobility, rout the Libyans.

Modified pickup. Photo by Richard Washington

Modified pickup. Photo by Richard Washington

The prize for Habre was not Chicha but rather Faya, Fada and Ouadi Doum to the north. These were to be achieved later in 1987 in some of the most remarkable battles of the cold war when, at Ouadi Doum, the Toyotas knocked out or captured 89 T55 tanks, 120 BMP armoured vehicles and killed 1269 Libyans during 25 hours of fighting, leading crucially to the withdrawl of the Libyan from Chad. But the groundwork for Ouadi Doum had been demonstrated back at the start of 1986 when the dust storm at the decisive battle of Chicha gave Habre the break needed to prove the tactics of the Toyota wars and show that direct French support was not necessary.