Fenkil: The Chess Game

by Mekonen Kidane (Shabay) translated by Yafet Zerou

My colleague Solomon Berhe and I, one particular day went to General Philipos Weldeyohannes and said “we would like you to share your experiences of  Operation Fenkil with us”.

“In that case, why not give me a chance to refer to my notes, refresh my memory and show you the maps of the operation” he replied. We agreed to meet up again five days later.

We had decided to focus on something different, an unusual aspect of  Operation Fenkil, a subject hitherto not raised, when we next met the General. To this end, we wanted to discuss strategies played out with all the intricacies and intrigues of a game of chess. Given the opportunity, it was our intention to let question lead to question, to go around corners following every twist and turn of the narrative in its fullest, to fulfil our quest. The General did not disappoint, he shared all the details we had sought in full and unreservedly.  

The leaders of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) like all the members of the EPLF, have a vast infinite repository hidden deep inside them, that holds the intimate secrets of the Struggle. In spite of this, those who led the Struggle against the Ethiopians, be it as leaders of an entire front or a battle field, those who played out the strategic chess games in the theatre of war, remain adamant that it is yet not time to reveal all. The question is, when will it be the right time? Who knows.

We were curious about the extent the Dergue (Ethiopian government) was blissfully unaware, snoring away in its slumber of the impending danger it faced? Did it not have any inclination that the EPLF was about to streak across the plains of Semhar on its way to liberate Massawa? We asked Tegadali (freedom fighter) Philipos.  

“But it did! They were fully prepared” he replied smiling. It was not a response we were expecting and looked at each other bewildered. We had always assumed that that the Dergue was never aware of the actions of the EPLF until they happened. This was a different intriguing perspective and we wanted to dig deeper to shed light on it.

In war, the element of surprise is paramount for victory, you lose it and your chances of achieving victory is greatly hindered. The lingering question was, how did Operation Fenkil, an operation that had lost the element of surprise manage to succeed? To understand this, we unleashed a volley of questions.

The enemy had snatched the element of surprise from us said the General. The success of the operation was put in jeopardy. But, the EPLF was no novice when it came to playing out the chess game strategies, that is why we were able to turn the tables and restore our element of surprise.

The manner in which they had restored their advantage  in the strategic chess game must have come all come back to him as he gazed towards the ceiling lost in thought. We let him rearrange and contemplate his thoughts and memories.

We pushed him to tell us how they restored the element of surprise to such a large operation. He recounted to us a story that showed the guile and competence of the EPLF leadership and battle readiness tempered with courage of its fighters.

As he started to tell us the story of how they managed to snatch back the element of surprise, and as the story of the strategic chess game unfolded, we listened mesmerised by what we were hearing. The stories took us back to a by gone era, and we felt that the General had transformed back to the fighter of old we knew. Now that the stories  were gushing out, we were careful not to hinder the flow.

By 1990, the EPLF had become a force much bigger and stronger than the EPLF of previous years. It was patently obvious that it had become a force that was led by seasoned and proficient leaders with determined, experienced  and able fighting units to match, explained the General.

In 1988 the EPLF had managed to annihilate one of the most powerful commands of the Ethiopian Revolutionary army stationed in Eritrea, called Nadew.  In wiping out Nadew, the EPLF managed to acquire strategic weapons which had helped it further strengthen and develop its fighting capability. At this point, the EPLF became the strongest that it had ever been in its entire history.

At that time, continued the General, the EPLF was aware that it was now in a position to launch an operation on its enemy, an operation unlike any other, an operation which would be vastly different in magnitude and complexity to the  others that had gone before it,  an operation which would have a lasting  and greater effect on the course of the Struggle. To this end, the EPLF embarked on preparing its fighters and reorganizing itself.

It was decided to name this operation, Fenkil (uproot). It was to be a co-ordinated land and seaborne operation. The purpose of the operation was declared to be an attack on the Ethiopian army which controlled the port city of Massawa from its positions on the plains of Semhar.

The studying and analysis of the fighting capacity of the Ethiopian forces in great detail was deemed to be the first and most important task of the operation. To this end, military intelligence units of the EPLF began to gather information by going to the front, penetrating  deep into enemy lines, intercepting enemy communication, liaising with the local population and using other means they deemed to be effective to achieve their goal.

 The EPLF’s 85th Division at the time was stationed on the eastern front overlooking Semhar near the plains of Sheab. Responsibility for the gathering of the military intelligence needed for the success of the operation was given to the covert operation wing of this division. This unit was capable of penetrating deep into the recess of the enemy and it carried out its mission with the utmost care and determination.

At the time there were more than ten brigades of the Ethiopian army stationed at Semhar, including a special force division called Nebelbal (burning flames) and  five infantry units. They were equipped with more than 110 tanks, additional Ballistic Missile (BM) rocket launchers, various heavy artilleries, modern anti-tank missiles, machine guns and additional mechanized units.

When one takes into account the presence of the 35 year old Ethiopian Navy with its modern weaponry and the air superiority of the Ethiopian forces, it was abundantly clear to envisage the difficulties that would be faced in the battles of Operation Fenkil.

The top level leadership of the EPLF set about sifting through and analysing all the intelligence gathered from various sources, to come up with a strategy for the game changing cataclysmic operation it had in mind. It was imperative that nothing would stand in the way of the success of this operation. This was of paramount importance because the experiences of the battle at Salina in 1977 were still embellished in the memories of the fighters that had taken part then. At the time, the Ethiopian forces had cleared most of Massawa and the EPLF forces were speeding towards the Naval base to try and control it. Unfortunately, as the EPLF forces entered the salt plains of Salina the Dergue was able to inflict heavy losses on them. The gruesome losses at Salina  will forever be indelibly imprinted on the annals of the Eritrean Revolution.

All units that were to take part in the Operation Fenkil were fully engaged in ensuring that their equipment was battle ready and they too were prepared for the physical demands of the operation. Apart from those that were directly involved in the assault, no other fighters were aware of the planned operation, no hint was given about the impending major operation and everything was shrouded in complete secrecy. This was done to maintain that all important element of surprise.

By way of deception

In the conduct of war, the element of surprise is one the most important elements that will determine the final outcome. Your enemy should have absolutely no inclination as to how and where you are going to attack. Strike like lighting and vanish like the wind, is one of the basic concepts of the conduct of war. This message had been conveyed to all those within the EPLF at all levels of the membership. But most importantly, the EPLF fighters were familiar with this concept from the experiences they had acquired during their engagements in the countless successful operations conducted against the Ethiopian army, where they had struck like lighting and vanished like the wind. 

One has to remember that the Ethiopian army was one of the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa at that point. The Generals who led this army were no push overs and could not be simply dismissed as incompetent stooges of the regime.

The hot dry plains of Semhar were set to be the scene where the different land and sea weapons of war, would stoke the fire that would rage in the crucible called Fenkil, where those fighters cloaked in their perseverance would face a third of the Dergue’s army which was equipped with multitudes of tanks, artillery pieces, fighter planes and warships. All fighters of the EPLF, including those that would be braving the sea in boats incapable of withstanding the perils of the sea, were expected not only to be of superior morale than their foe, but it was demanded of them to be well equipped, physically ready, steadfast in their resilience and readiness to overcome the exertions of battle on the dry plains.

One of the divisions tasked with crossing through the searing hot plains of Semhar and set itself up in the centre of Massawa, was the 70th Division of the EPLF. The division was one of the bedrocks of this planned cataclysmic operation. It was deemed to be of paramount importance to prepare the fighting units of this division for the vagaries of battle on the hot plains of Semhar, and the units embarked on a training programme to prepare them for the upcoming operation. It was therefore necessary for the division to leave its entrenched position which stretched from the precinct of Echet Debray (ዕጨት ደብራይ) through Hager Geni (ሃገር ግኒ) up until the River Anseba reaching up to Hal Hal overlooking Keren. The division retreated back to the area of Haberon (ሃበሮን) to commence its training.

The division not only withdrew from its positions but was under strict instructions to maintain radio silence. It was extremely important that the enemy should not get wind of the intention of the division.

The 70th Division withdrawing from its position and disappearing from the air waves caused great consternation amongst the Dergue military hierarchy. The reason being that in the theatre of war, radio silence was taken to be the calm before the storm. Each army has a unit that monitors and deciphers the radio communication of its opponent. The mission of the  monitoring units was not only to monitor in detail the movement of  a Brigade or Division, but to go even further and know exactly where each individual leader or commander was at any given time. The monitoring units of the EPLF would be keeping an eye on the Ethiopian army divisions while those of the Ethiopian army would be monitoring the units of the EPLF.

It was clear that the EPLF division that had withdrawn and was maintaining radio silence was capable of launching an attack on the Dergue at any time and place. It was imperative to the  officers of the Dergue who had been unsettled by the sudden disappearance of the EPLF division, to find out where it had gone and what its intention was through their intelligence network and analysis. An order of the utmost importance was immediately issued to all military intelligence units in the Second Revolutionary Army of Ethiopia, to find out where this division had gone to, by whatever means at their disposal. Fifth column members in the west and spies of the self administration region in the east, set about trying to find the missing division. Officers of the Dergue intelligence units  begun to search for this division in Eritrea and even in Tigray (Northern Ethiopia) with greater haste and determination never witnessed before. The entire divisions (infantry, artillery, tank) of the Second Revolutionary Army which were based in Eritrea, were put on high alert.

Wrong intelligence, right analysis

The plains of Semhar were buzzing from the activities of the undercover EPLF fighters who were striving to uproot their enemy on one hand and on the other by the undercover covert operators of the Dergue trying to find the missing division. Everything was done in stealth. It was inevitable that the paths of these two opposing factions of undercover agents would cross at some point. The laws of military intelligence reconnaissance forbid engagement with the enemy unless the enemy had become a direct threat to the agent as the information gathered would be of greater importance than whatever limited damage any engagement would have entailed. Such is the hide and seek nature of the theatre of war.

The covert operators of the Dergue attached great importance to the purposeful activities of the EPLF agents they had witnessed in the plains of Semhar. The Dergue military experts determined that this activity they were observing was somewhat related to the disappearance of the division from its positions and  radio waves.

The Dergue military experts reached the conclusion that the covert agents of the 70th Division were in the Semhar area because the division was preparing an imminent attack on their positions on the plains, hence the reason why it had vanished. The information they had was wrong, but their conclusion was right. The Ethiopian army in Semhar opened its eyes and ears wide open in anticipation and was placed on the highest alert level. The plains of Semhar were flooded by the Ethiopians with experienced forces, tanks, artillery and other weapons. It was good-bye element  of surprise.

The raising of the alert level of the Ethiopian army was an unforeseen consequence of the decision to hide the 70th Division, it was a major obstacle to the planned operation Fenkil. This was because the biggest factor in achieving victory, the all important element of surprise, had in no uncertain way been lost to the Dergue. To attack an army that had snatched your element of surprise from you and was waiting for you as alert as it could possibly be, was tantamount to going into battle with your eyes closed. Cons of such an attack far outweighed any pros. It was self-evident that a battle under such circumstances had the potential to be a disastrous quagmire with no exit.

A new game of deception

The leaders of the EPLF who were planning Operation Fenkil and had lost their much vaunted element of surprise now faced a big challenge. They were faced with two options, either cancel the operation or restore their advantage by claiming back the element of surprise.

It was not hard to guess which option was the most viable one to them. The operation that whose planning was at an advanced stage and on whose outcome rested so much, could not be cancelled. The  only real option open was to employ guile to restore the element of surprise that had been wrenched from our hands and carry on with the operation that was intended to clear the path for the independence of Eritrea. The chess game of Fenkil resumed with new fervour, the game had to warp the minds of the leaders of the Second Revolutionary Army.

To restore the element of surprise that the Second Revolutionary army had claimed, plots and ploys were set in motion. First and foremost it was decided that the EPLF should play along with the Dergue’s conclusion reached by their military analysts based on erroneous intelligence. As such, some of the radio operators of the 70th Division who had disappeared from the air waves were reassigned to the 85th Division taking with them their own  instructions. They established radio communications with EPLF units in the plains of Sheab. When the radio communications interceptors of the Second Revolutionary Army intercepted their communications, they believed that they had indeed located the 70th Division and immediately informed their superiors. This caused the Dergue’s high command to further strengthen their belief in the information and analysis given by their military intelligence. The commanders of the Dergue army now had great faith in the veracity of their previous analysis. They believed that Shaebia’s element of surprise was safe in their bosom. Truth be told, it did seem that way.

Those leaders of the EPLF who had plotted the game of chess now turned their attention to matters that had been previously planned but had been set aside until a suitable time was found. On checking their records in detail they came across an entry that said Should it be carried out prior or after Fenkil, referring to a plan to carry out an attack within Ethiopia itself. They chose to attack the Ethiopian army stationed in Assoa, Wellega where the Ethiopians least expected an attack. The 70th Division, whose disappearance had wreaked havoc with the minds of the Ethiopian Generals, together with a mechanized unit was to play a key role in this game of chess. Members of the  70th Division backed by their colleagues in the mechanized units finished their preparation for the unexpected mission in record time.  

The commanders of the Ethiopian army were finishing off their preparations for the imminent attack on their positions in the plains of Semhar. The division whose arrival they were going to feign surprise at, the division who was the reason why the element of surprise had slipped away from the hands of the EPLF had to regain that advantage by any means. To this end it had left the tributaries of the river Sahle together with the mechanised units and heavy artillery units heading west perched on the faithful Mercedes lorries.

Commanders of Second Revolutionary Army of Ethiopia were blissfully unaware that it was only a handful of radio operators from the 70th Division embedded in units not their own, that were feeding them false information. The commanders, satisfied with their work, said in their minds “ what deception? What game of chess?”

The operation that would cross through the Sudan and then turn towards western Ethiopia having travelled 1800 Km to launch an attack on Assoa, had to resolve at the very least three issues.

  1. From a military point of view, the EPLF believed that as long as the Dergue’s preferred method of struggle was to employ its military might, it was essential to engage the Dergue on its own territory with the intention to take the necessary steps to severely limit and degrade its  manpower capability in addition to decimating its weapons arsenal.
  2. Helping other armed groups who were engaged in fighting the Dergue, groups like the Oromo Liberation Front was a second aim included in this mantra of weakening the Dergue.
  3. Most important of all, the main purpose of the operation was to restore the element of surprise of Operation Fenkil,that had been wrenched away on the plains of Semhar. There was no doubt, attacking Assoa would restore the element of surprise.

The EPLF fighters who had begun their arduous journey in the latter days of 1989 from their homeland, having crossed the rugged terrain of Eritrea and plains of Sudan in great secrecy, reached the jungles of western Ethiopia on 1 January 1990. They set about getting their tanks, artilleries and all other equipments ready for the planned attack. In accordance with the pre-planned arrangements, the attack on the Dergue’s army, which was quite confident that no entity would dare challenge it on its home turf, was launched on 2 January 1990. The fire of the EPLF was unleashed in the heartland of Ethiopia on the unsuspecting Dergue.

Not in their wildest dreams did the Ethiopians expect to encounter such a ferocious attack within what they believed until then, to be their impregnable fortress. The leaders of Ethiopia were thrown into confusion and turmoil by the turn of events. They were well aware that the Ethiopian rebel forces which they held in great disdain, were incapable of launching an attack of such magnitude.

The radio waves of the divisions of the Ethiopian army went into overdrive, “who are they” was the prevalent question being asked.

“Shaebia” came back the response.

“Which Division?” was the next question.

 “the 70th Division!”, came back the reply that they could hardly believe but nonetheless was true and deeply unsettling to them.

At that point the Ethiopians realised that they had been out witted. They thought that all the shenanigans and intrigue that had unfolded in the dry plains of Semhar was to divert attention to attack Assoa, little did they know what the real reason behind the ploy of the game of chess was. Whether they understood it or not was immaterial, they had no other alternative but play the game of deception, the all important game of chess.     

Reversal of thought

After the attack on Assoa, it was only natural that the commanders of the Dergue army to be overwhelmed with concern. Their unease at the realistic possibility of the presence of an entire EPLF division in Ethiopia and the potential damage it could wreak, greatly increased their trepidation. Their preoccupation about the consequence of the igniting of hostilities in their very own heartland led them to strengthen their forces in Ethiopia and put them on high alert, so that they would be able to thwart any potential attack launched by the EPLF  in their very own back yard.

Shaebia, was not an organisation that got easily distracted from the aims that it had laid out. Having misled the Dergue army officials successfully, the focus of the EPLF was still on carrying out its initial operation. Beyond the initial attack on Assosa, the EPLF had no intention to carry out further attacks in the Ethiopian heartlands. It was in the third week of January 1990, the 70th Division having successfully carried out its lighting strike in collaboration with the mechanised units of the EPLF, gathered its belongings and got back on the swarm of Mercedes trucks that it had used to descend on its target in Ethiopia and headed back on the long tortuous journey back to Eritrea. They reached Eritrea at the end of the same month.

As a result of the 70th Division reinforced by mechanised units, launching a strike in the heartlands of Ethiopia, while the Ethiopians were expecting it to attack on the plains of Semhar, the Dergue’s army was at its wits end trying to figure out where next the wrath of the EPLF would befall it.

Because of the attack on Assosa, the Dergue downgraded the alert level of its army stationed in Semhar. It was obvious to the Dergue that the 70th Division which it had expected at Semhar was no longer in Eritrea and therefore not much of a threat to it on the plains of Semhar. The Ethiopians came to believe that their analysis about the intent of the 70th Division was fundamentally flawed.

The Ethiopians were of the mind that it was highly improbable, actually well nigh impossible, that the 70th Division would return to Eritrea from Ethiopia and launch a meaningful attack any time soon. Instead, they rushed to send divisions of their weaker Third Revolutionary army which were stationed in Tigray and  closer to Assoa, to reinforce their positions in Wellega. The element of surprise  that had been snatched from the hands of Shaebia, now turned its face back to Shaebia.

Who uprooted whom?

The game of chess that was being played out to retrieve the element of surprise, never for a moment caused the preparations for Operation Fenkil to stall. The plans for the units taking part in the operation, which included their entry points into the battle, their aims and goals were constantly revised and refined. It was to the EPLF’s advantage that members of its military intelligence managed to infiltrate the enemy’s 606 Corps and study it until they knew it like the back of their hands.

The EPLF finalised its preparation for its planned operation. All that was left was for the mechanised units and the 70th Division that had been key players in the chess game to regain the element of surprise, to take up their battle positions. With the plans finalised and the preparation completed, members of the military intelligence of the 85th Division, who had drawn up the plans in sand, were ready to carry them out in person. Each and every unit that was to take part in the operation was well drilled as to where and how it would attack the enemy’s positions.

The task force that was to take part in the large scale land and seaborne assault, comprised of;

  • Nine infantry units which were ready for a deadly hand to hand duel with the enemy’s men and machine.
  • Three quarters of the EPLF’s mechanised units, armed with a total of forty-five tanks, heavy artillery and machine guns.
  • About a hundred members of the EPLF naval forces precariously perched on rickety  speed boats which were tossed side to side by the slightest of gales, boats which were primarily designed for fishing and never intended to be used as assault vessels.

Those who by their ferocious attack in Wellega, had thrown the Dergue high command into utter confusion and disarray, upon their return to Eritrea remarkably dived straight back into action after a few days of respite. They dusted themselves off from the dust of Assosa and prepared themselves to be doused by the blessed dust of Semhar. They readied themselves yet again and together with the machine gunners, tank drivers artillery gunners  made their way to the eastern plains of Semhar via Afabet. Where they combined with units from the 61st Division who were stationed at Solomuna, the legendary units of the 85th Division who had slipped through Bade-Eleh to carry out a devastating blow on the enemy, and formed a new division, the 96th Division. This new division was to be the eastern flank of Operation Fenkil and was expected to speed across the plains of Semhar to capture Gerar and the Ethiopian Naval Base in Massawa.

On the dawn of 8 February 1990, those who through their ability and sheer dogged willingness, those that had traversed 3,600 Km, those that had fought unreservedly to get back the all important element of surprise, struck the match that ignited Operation Fenkil. Having destroyed the occupying enemy forces that were stretched from the River  Kensal to their fortifications in Kentibay, they romped on the searing plains of Semhar and the Asmara-Massawa road, like a young calf. It was through their sense of purpose that they had succeeded in the unfamiliar lands of Ethiopia, but here in their back yard, it was a different song. They were the owners of the song, the conductors that controlled and dictated the rhythm and the beat.

Reinforced with mechanised units, they threw themselves at the unfolding titanic grinding clash being witnessed on the dry plains of Semhar. On the plains of Gurgusm, Edaga, Forto, Salina, Gerar, Naval-Base Segalt, Resi-Medri Tewalet they entangled themselves in the battle for Massawa with the men and machinery of the Second Revolutionary Army and with all they had, aimed to dislodge it.

The port city of Massawa for once and for all, fell into the hands of her heroic children. With the liberation of Massawa, Operation Fenkil ended in victory.

The impact of the defeat of the Ethiopian army on Mengistu Hailemariam, the leader of the Dergue, was indescribable. He considered the capture of Massawa as the strangulation of the Second Revolutionary army, and heralded the imminent secession of Eritrea. There was no doubt that the Ethiopian army was shaken to its very core by the cataclysmic operation, which was a result of the convoluted game of chess that was played out. The operation had managed to bring within touching distance liberation, the prize that every fighter, every civilian had longed for and had steadfastly struggled for.  

From the book Fenkil, Chapter Dama, page 55

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