Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Libya's Death Star

On the morning of the 19th of March 1987, the sun began to flood the desert around Bir Kora in northern Chad.  It revealed a parched desolate landscape with no vegetation at all, just reddened or ochre rocks.
It also revealed a Libyan tank battalion resting in Laager.  The Libyans had set out the day before from the fortified camp at Wadi Doum with the mission of retaking the town of Fada.  The Libyans hadn't deployed any scouts overnight, and little did they know the Chadian forces had found them and surrounded them.
Libyan Camp, photographed by French air force in 1986
Fada had fallen to the Chadian forces a couple of months previously.  The planned recapture of Fada was the latest in a series of battles fought between Libya and Chad over the previous 9 years.
Libyan forces had copied the Warsaw Pact doctrine, and purchased all the Soviets latest equipment with oil money.
Set against that you had the fierce, wiry desert tribesmen who were almost untrained. As an example the Chadian armies Special Forces received only six weeks of training.
The Libyan forces had set up a base at Wadi Doum.  The base was heavily fortified around a long runway, which ran between two hills.  On the top of those hills was a Soviet “Spoon Rest” radar system which controlled an entire SA-6 surface to air missile battery.  Over 5000 men were defending this complex loitering in the emptiness of the desert. One US intelligence official described it as equivalent of the Death Star from Star Wars.
French Air force photograph of an SA-6 at Wadi Doum
About 400m from the Libyan T55's lay a rocky hill with its sides covered by sand.  Hidden at the top of the hill was a Toyota pickup truck.  The Chadian soldier in the back was one of the few with a degree of training, as his Toyota mounted one of the latest French supplied weapons, a Milan guided anti-tank missile.
On a signal from their commander the Milan gunners launched a volley at the Libyan tanks.  Some missiles hit and some missed.  When they did hit the missiles easily punched through the tanks armour, often causing the turret to blow off.  The Libyans began to return fire although their rounds had little effect, as they were trying to hit a man sized target at 400m. Their shells peppered and blasted the rocks the Chadians were using as cover.
The Libyan commander ordered most of his forces to shift over to face the direction of the incoming fire.
As they did so the Chadians launched their real attack.  More Toyotas charged towards the weakened Libyan rear flank.  The few tanks left to defend it desperately tried to track their guns round onto the Toyota pickups which were moving at over 70mph across the fine sand.  Some of the T55's managed to get their guns on target, and even a near miss would smash the speeding pickup.  Unfortunately the Libyan numbers were too few to prevent the attack from breaking through the line.
The Libyans tried to shift some of their tanks back to face the threat, but they quickly bogged down in the fine talcum powder like sand.  Rampaging around inside the Laager the Chadians began to engage the Libyans with small arms, LAW’s (Light Anti-Tank Weapon) and RPG’s (Rocket Propelled Grenade).  Some were launched at such close range that the rockets would strike the tanks and the explosion would kill the firer.
The Libyan commander panicked and radioed to Wadi Doum for help, but before the relief force could set out the battle was over with a crushing victory to the Chadians. A few Libyans managed to flee back down the road towards Wadi Doum.

The tactics the Chadians had used were identical to ones the desert tribes had been using for centuries only replacing horses and camels with Toyotas.  Yosko Hassan, Assistant Commander for the force said to reporters later:
"We Chadians, we had nearly nothing. Our army is a young one, with very little means. We tried to act within our means."
 The fleeing Libyans met the relief column 12 miles back up the track, and the relief force took up a similar position overnight with a battery of six 122mm artillery guns.  Further up the track were a number of tanks. On the morning of the 20th the Chadians repeated their attack in almost exactly the same way.  This time the rout was even more pronounced. The Libyans fled with almost no fighting with the artillery not even firing a shot, and eleven T55's were abandoned where they sat, the keys still in the ignition.
The panicked fleeing troops reached Wadi Doum air base, and warned the defenders that the Chadian army was on the way.  The defenders ignored the dire warnings and continued with their daily routine. Some tended the small irrigated gardens which were the only green plants for hundreds of miles.  Others made plaques with passages from Qaddafi's green book or the Koran.  The words were made by gluing stones and pebbles to boards.
They defenders thought they were safe inside two rings of defensive lines and minefields. The approaching dust clouds were thought by some to be their missing troops returning. On the 22nd the Chadians attacked, quickly overwhelming the outer defensive line.
Wadi Doum under French Air attack in 1986
Knowing about the minefields some Chadian soldiers thought their Toyota's could skip right past the explosions unharmed, about 12 Toyotas tried this but were quickly destroyed.  The rest of the Toyotas formed up and charged down the road into the main gate.
The Libyans panicked, and despite having overwhelming numbers and fire-power they fled with no attempt at a coordinated fight.  The Chadians rampaged through the camp, occasionally pockets of resistance would be found and quickly destroyed by the Toyota borne Chadian army.  Within an hour the runway had been captured, and by the early evening the rest of the base was also captured.
Searching the base the Chadian army found massive quantities of weapons.  There were underground storage facilities holding weapons and ammunition, one had twelve brand new unused T2 tanks.  Outside in the vehicle park were the West German Faun tank transporters that had brought them to this base. Numerous aircraft were captured undamaged as well, although the assault had burned some out.  The prize was the full Soviet SA-6 battery, of a new type not known about by NATO.  After French requests the battery was transported to the south and well out of range of Libyan retaliation.
The Libyans began bombing the base in an attempt to destroy some of the $1 Billion worth of equipment captured by the Chadians.  One L39 Albatross flew to low and was shot down by a Stinger missile.  From then on the Libyans flew at high altitude, and although the Chadians fired more Stingers the Libyans were well out of range.  From that high altitude though, the bombing was largely ineffective.

The Libyans had about 1300 soldiers killed, and 500 captured. The Libyan regional commander, Colonel Khalifa Hastar was also captured, and his deputy Colonel Gassim abu Nawar was killed in the assault.  The Libyans also lost hundreds of tanks, APC's and trucks.
The Chadians lost 29 killed and 58 wounded.

But there is more to the story.  The few Libyans that managed to flee the battle, ran to the next Libyan fortification at the town of Faya-Largeau.  This was the home town of the Chadian President.
Some Libyans ran into their own minefields and were stranded and unable to move.  They were captured along with the city by the Chadian army on the 27th.
The forces of Chad didn't need to fire a single shot, as the Libyans ran before they arrived.

This part of the Chadian-Libyan conflict became known as the Toyota War, for obvious reasons.


  1. What an utter pathetic army the Libyans possessed no wonder they fell victim to Western Imperialism, laughable but sad at same time.

  2. Even if I would have read this story on BBC I would have called it a fake.

    You can't call this an army. Even children playing wars would have done a better job. Engaging pick-up trucks with main weapon when the secondary weapon is intended against them ...

  3. So about 6000 Libyan Conscripts in 300 of "all the Soviets latest" T-55s, T-62s and BMP-1s were routed by about the same number of untrained, but combat proven, "fierce, wiry desert tribesmen" equipped with sophisticated ATGMs and MANPADS, about 500 highly mobile vehicles and large amounts of RPG type AT weaponry.
    And all that while the Libyan Air Force was under constant threat from French Air Force CAP and French ground based air defense situated all around the battle areas...

    I am not saying that the Chadians didn't do well in expelling the Libyans, and rightly so, but displaying the "Toyota War" like that is not really doing the whole situation justice. Though it is hard to do the obvious incompetence of the Libyan tactical commanders any justice.

    All this episode showed, just like most "Soviet Style" combat in North Africa and the Gulf, is that if you want to play by the Soviet Playbook then better do it right. And that means to provide your conscripts effective training in basic soldiering, select and train your specialists (armor/artillery/air-crew and SAM operators) in a fashion that they know what their equipment can and can't do. Most importantly and select your unit commanders based on how good they can make and relay decisions when "the game is on" and giving them a broad and intensive training in tactics and operational planning...

  4. Extensive Training >> Dedication / Good Leadership >> Equiment it seems.

  5. great read. I am really enjoying this series of articles by Listy that explore stuff off the beaten track.