Australian Force Somalia
1992 - 1993
[Australian Army Campaign Series – 31]
Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2022
Paperback 184pp RRP $19.99
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, February 2023
There is probably no one better qualified to write this hard-hitting account of the force projection of the Australians in Somalia. As Colonel (Operations Analysis) for the Land Commander from 1992 to 2002, Bob Breen was in the perfect position to know the details of this and other Australian projections.
Breen opens with an introduction of the situation in Somalia and the theory of force projection - elaborating on its ten functions. This is followed by an historic account of Australia’s overseas deployments from the 1885 Sudan Contingent, the Boer War, and all theatres up to Vietnam. In all cases our forces were dependent on Allied support to varying degrees. [The AIF arrived in Egypt without tents in 1915] Our deficiencies were still obvious with Morris Dance (the 1987 infantry company deployment to Fiji after a military coup).
The infantry battalion group destined for Somalia (Operation Solace), were alerted during the annual military standdown period in mid-December 1992. Considerable personnel postings across the services were also imminent. Key senior staff officers were not recalled to duty and the administration of the projection was far from ideal. Historically, exercise deployments had involved long lead times and the build-up of accommodation and stores in situ was standard practice.
Not so for the 1st Battalion Group, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel David Hurley (our current Governor General) due in Somalia in January 1993. The Group arrived by Qantas 747 Jumbo jet at Mogadishu airport under fire while their weapons were still in bubble wrap in its hold! Protected by American forces, they then had to establish a secure tented base in the lawless city of Baidoa. There were none of the facilities and comforts that were available to other forces in country. The deployment was to be hamstrung by non-cooperation between the services, and a total failure of the logistics chain. Food, water, and ammunition was supplied by the Americans, but they, naturally, did not carry specific vehicle spare parts. Naval transit of stores saw unlabelled items loaded as they arrived dockside, with critical spare parts being left behind. Neither RAN or RAAF were prepared to even offer helicopter casualty evacuation, and Hurley spent hours on dangerous roads visiting his troops instead of having rotary-wing transport at his disposal. A workable postal service was one item greatly missed by the Force members.
There are detailed accounts of the interactions with the locals trying to survive a famine, and the local thugs trying to profit from their misfortune by hijacking any food and other aid provided by non-government organisations. The 1st Battalion Group navigated the situation with a firm, but fair approach and within a month had established the fact they would tolerate no nonsense.
The four-and-a-half-month deployment was considered a success from the point of the work done by the 1st Battalion Group but revealed that there is still a long way to go in establishing inter-service co-operation and readiness at the level laid down by the Chief of the Defence Force in his 1986 directive. Breen devotes his final chapter, Lessons, and is uncompromising in his comments. A list of 71 ‘Key Issues Requiring Action’ was created from Breen’s book and numerous reports and summaries, with the recommendation they should be implemented by 30 November 1993. The recommendations languished when its author retire in 1994. ‘What we learn from history is . . . ‘ !
This is an exceedingly well-written account of one Australia’s overseas deployment. Logically set out, with a solid background, the inclusion of adequate maps and ample coloured photographs, comprehensive Endnotes and Index, Bob Breen has continued to maintain the very high standard of the Australian Army Campaign Series.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.