The Guns of August: Retaking the New River Triangle by Michael Chan-A-Sue
On the morning of 19 August 1969, before first light, a Guyana Defence Force (GDF) Helio Courier reconnaissance aircraft took off from Apoteri airstrip to establish whether the weather was suitable for an operation code-named Operation Climax. The weather proved adequate and at 05:25 hours two modified De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter utility aircraft of the Guyana Airways Corporation’s (GAC) fleet took off with 22 armed soldiers on board each aircraft. The lead aircraft was piloted by Majors Roland da Silva and Michael Chan-A-Sue and the second aircraft was piloted by Majors Philip Jardim and Anthony Mekdeci.
This was the culmination of weeks of logistical planning and military strategy following the discovery by the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) that an attempt was being made by the Surinamese to construct an airstrip in the disputed New River triangle…
Senior military officers did not believe that the Surinamese would escalate the conflict or that they possessed the wherewithal for such a formidable project.
Prior to this action, the Guyanese and Surinamese forces both maintained camps on opposite sides of the New River. They monitored each other’s movements while the politicians tried to resolve the dispute through diplomacy. In the search for a correct response to this audacious move by the Surinamese, several plans were made and discarded. It was not possible to approach the occupied area either by land or river in any strength, since the terrain was difficult to traverse and the Surinamese controlled the river. It must be remembered that this was in the pre-helicopter days of the GDF, and that an airborne assault was really unthinkable except in the minds of the Minister of Defence and the Chief Pilot of Guyana Airways Corporation.
Major Roland da Silva, the Chief Pilot, was convinced that such an assault could be made onto the unfinished airstrip using the STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) capability of the GAC Twin Otters.
Certain criteria had to be met. The timing of the raid had to coincide with the stage at which the Surinamese would have completed the first three hundred metres of the airstrip; a landing would not have been possible before this. A careful watch was kept on the progress of the airstrip while the planning of the raid continued. As soon as the airstrip approached a usable length, it was observed that the Surinamese blocked it with several 200-1itre metal drums.
Changes had to be made in the plans to cope with this new development. After some experimentation at the GDF’s Tacama Battle School, it was found that the Twin Otters’ propellers easily cleared a 200 L drum standing upright. It was necessary only for the pilot to manoeuvre the aircraft’s undercarriage between the drums to effect a landing. It was decided to demonstrate such an attack at the Battle School onto a 300m airstrip littered with drums. This proved successful and the operation was approved in principle.
Since it was vital that the final decision for the assault remained in the hands of the pilots, they were commissioned into the GDF in the rank of Major. Two companies of handpicked troops under Captain Martin Nascimento commenced a period of intense training at the Tacama Battle School. The interiors of the aircraft were stripped and the nose compartment of the lead aircraft was modified to carry a Light Machine Gun (LMG) and a gunner. Warrant Officer Hartley Liverpool was selected as the gunner. This ingenious modification was done by the GAC Chief Engineer, George Loy.
As the first signs of dawn appeared on the horizon, the two Twin Otters, with their main doors removed, were approaching the Surinamese airstrip at an altitude of 2,133m (7,000 feet). The plan was to approach the airstrip in a low-powered descent from the east, taking advantage of the sun behind us and the rising smoke at the upwind end of the runway. This smoke was produced by the burning of wood that had been bulldozed in the construction of the airstrip. The aircraft broke out of the smoke at 60m (200 feet) high and 800 metres from the touch-down point. Before us was an unfinished airstrip covered with drums, as we had anticipated. The big surprise was that it was also covered with rows of survey poles which our primitive pre-raid reconnaissance failed to detect.
We were now committed and the aircraft touched down among the drums, knocking the poles away with the main landing gear. Reverse power was applied in the landing flare, just prior to touchdown. The soldiers then exited from the open doorway while the aircraft was still on the roll. At this stage, we were rolling uphill when Surinamese soldiers appeared on the rise. The sound of machine gunfire blended into the howl of the engines in full reverse and the smell of cordite filled the cockpit. Only then did we realise that our nose gunner had opened fire. The Surinamese disappeared into the jungle on either side of the airstrip.
The aircraft started to roll slowly backwards down the slope and actually ran over Captain Martin Nascimento who had been knocked to the ground by one of the disembarking soldiers. Fortunately, no serious injury was incurred, because of the low tyre pressure of the balloon-type tyres used on the Twin Otter. As soon as the last soldier was out the door, full power was applied and the Twin Otter leapt off the remaining length of the airstrip. Our troops rapidly cleared a path through the drums for the second aircraft that was right behind us. This aircraft also made a successful landing, discharging its troops on the roll.
As the two aircraft departed into the dawn, the assault troops fanned out and surrounded the Surinamese camp. To herald their arrival, the Guyanese fired into the tops of the buildings in an attempt to force the Surinamese to surrender. The now-alerted Surinamese returned the gunfire and, goaded by their officers, rallied to the defence of their camp. A firefight now appeared to be imminent and the Guyanese troops, in an effort to avoid casualties on both sides, demonstrated their superior fire power by laying down a barrage of mortar fire into the river immediately behind the Surinamese encampment. Realising that any further resistance was futile, the Surinamese fled to their boats and abandoned the camp. Despite all the shooting, the sole fatality was a Surinamese who drowned when the boat in which he was escaping, overturned.
The two Twin Otters returned safely to their base camp at Apoteri and returned to shuttle more troops and equipment into the now reclaimed, but unfinished, airstrip. This airstrip was eventually completed by the GDF and is in use today as the Jaguar airstrip on the New River Triangle.
Here you go Sheik.