A Brief History
On October 3 and 4 of 1993, US Army Special Forces known as Task Force Ranger fought Somali militia men in a frantic battle memorialized in the book (1999) and movie (2001) titled Black Hawk Down. Also known as the First Battle of Mogadishu (obviously more battles were fought there), this action resulted in 18 American soldiers killed and 73 wounded, as well as the death of a Malaysian and a Pakistani soldier allied with the US forces, and 9 of those allied soldiers wounded. This clash was the bloodiest battle US troops participated in since the Vietnam War. The death toll for the Somalis was a staggering 300 to 500 (per UN estimates) killed, with another 812 wounded, and it is possible Somali losses were much higher, as many as 2000 killed and wounded according to the US ambassador to Somalia.
The US was part of a United Nations effort to bring peace to war torn Somalia that was ruled by ruthless warlords and had no central government control. US Rangers and Special Forces were joined by other special units of the US Navy and Air Force and by dozens of UN countries with various representatives in country, although the military force was mostly American.
On October 3, 1993, US forces embarked on Operation Gothic Serpent, a foray into Mogadishu to capture 2 of warlord Mohammad Aidid’s top lieutenants who were supposed to be having a meeting in the city. An operation that was planned to take an hour or less, the US allocated 160 men in 19 helicopters and 12 vehicles (9 Humvees) to penetrate into the city center to make the snatch.
Things quickly went wrong when far greater than expected resistance developed immediately, with the shooting down of 2 US UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters with RPG’s, and 3 other choppers were damaged. The operation’s focus became the rescue of the American soldiers that were pinned down against overwhelming civilian/militia forces. After a hellish night of fighting numerous Somali fighters the American repulsed numerous attacks with help from helicopter gunships. The UN sent a relief and rescue force the next day, consisting of US, Malaysian and Pakistani forces supported by more helicopters gunships. Unfortunately for the soldiers being rescued, the rescue force did not come with enough vehicle capacity (despite about 100 UN vehicles involved, including 4 Pakistani tanks) to carry the Rangers back to safety, and in a harrowing and bizarre operation the convoy returned to safety with the rescued soldiers jogging back to base through enemy fire in a hellish gauntlet, an ordeal later called “The Mogadishu Mile.”
The 2 targets of the operation were indeed captured, but so was an American Black Hawk pilot. The bodies of several Americans killed in the operation were paraded through the city for the world to see, and those bodies were horribly desecrated. Eventually, through threats of serious reprisals, the US recovered the bodies of dead soldiers and the American pilot was returned alive.
Fallout from the operation/disaster resulted in 2 soldiers receiving the Medal of Honor posthumously, and the resignation of the Secretary of Defense, who had resisted calls for the deployment of US tanks and armored vehicles in Somalia prior to the operation. US forces were forbidden from further offensive actions and steps were taken to get the US out of Somalia. US prestige was certainly damaged as well.
Note: Another unsettling result of this debacle was the poor performance of American M-16 and M-4 ammunition against Somali fighters. The bullets used were the “penetrator” variety (M855) with a longer and heavier projectile containing a steel core and weighing 62 grains compared to the lead core 55 grain bullet originally used in the M-16. To stabilize the longer and heavier bullet, US rifles and carbines were given a faster rate of twist in the rifling, which resulted in bullets that would zip through a person without “tumbling” resulting in a much cleaner, less effective wound. Also, the new bullets did not fragment as easily as the old ones, partially due to the shorter barrel M-4 carbine not imparting as much velocity on the round as the older, longer barrel M-16. US soldiers were greatly frustrated by repeatedly hitting Somali fighters without putting the fighters out of the fight. Moral of the story, if you are going to use small caliber ammunition, it better be moving pretty darn fast and either fragment or “yaw” (turn sideways) when it hits people or else those hits will not be terribly effective. The M855 round was developed to improve the performance of American 5.56 X 45 mm ammo against barriers, which it did. This problem is illustrative of how hard it is to get any sort of ammo to be all things to all situations.
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For more information, please see…
Bowden, Mark. Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. Grove Press, 2010.
Scott, Ridley, dir. Black Hawk Down. Columbia Pictures, 2006. Blu-ray.