Are You a Fellow MV Isonzo Refugee?

The evacuation ship: MV ISONZO

The evacuation ship: MV ISONZO

On a hot, sultry afternoon in July 1967, a small Italian freighter eased itself away from the quay at Port Harcourt in Eastern Nigeria, or Biafra as it had become by then. On board were 800 or so expatriates who were being evacuated from Biafra to the comparative safety of Lagos in Federal Nigeria. The ship, the MV Isonzo, was the only way out of the rebel enclave as Federal Nigerian troops closed in on the township for the final assault. There were many nationalities on board including British, American, Dutch, Israeli, Japanese and Italian, all of whom had previously worked in Enugu, the regional capital, or Port Harcourt the region’s major sea port. An account of my adventures in Biafra is detailed in my memoir entitled The Up-Country Man, which is featured on this page. It’s the story of a young British engineer, (me), straight out from England, who was posted to Enugu just as the Nigerian civil war began and the book relates some of the problems and difficulties encountered by a white man living in an enclave of determined indigenous people. Roadblocks, marauding Biafran soldiers, food shortages and the secret police caused many problems for the small contingent of Europeans remaining in Enugu, not to mention the trauma of the final evacuation itself. Since the evacuation, I have only managed to make contact with one or two people who were aboard the Isonzo, or resident in Port Harcourt at the time and I would like to make contact with others if possible. Were you on that small Italian freighter? Do you know anyone who was on that ship? If so, perhaps you would be kind enough to make contact using the comments facility or by means of my e-mail address (top right hand column).

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13 Responses to “Are You a Fellow MV Isonzo Refugee?”

  1. Karen Says:

    There were many American Peace Corps Volunteers on that ship. One of us is found here https://africantales.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/are-you-a-fellow-mv-isonzo-refugee/

  2. Reblogged this on YahgozieMedia.

  3. Calum Johnston Says:

    I was in Onitsha, Biafra until 7 October 1967 when I left via large canoe to Cameroon. I am very keen to find out the date on which the British High Commission in Lagos ordered all non-essential Brits out of The East. Does anyone know where I can get this date?

  4. I was in Enugu when we were ordered out by the Deputy High Commissioner there. It was Saturday the 15th of July 1967. A High Commission chap came to the Enugu club, where we were all having curry lunch, and told us we must leave the following day (Sunday) in a convoy of our cars and Land-Rovers organised by the Deputy High Commissioner. I imagine the order came from Lagos on or just before the 15th July. Several people came in to Enugu from Onitsha prior to the 15th July and travelled down to PH with us. October was very late to get out and I think you were lucky to do so.

    Ken Ryeland

  5. Calum Johnston Says:

    To be more accurate, I left Onitsha on the 5th October headed for Aba. Picked up a Mid-West officer and two men and was arrested along the way as a mercenary, although I had been in Onitsha for 5 years. Was released and on the 7th left through Ikang. We picked up the Deputy H. C. from P.H. and a couple of his people who had been under house arrest and they came with us on our boat. The trip to a rubber plantation in Cameroon took about 12 hours through the creeks and swamps. Why I was keen to know the date of the order to get out was that I decided on a Saturday that all the wives and children from BWA Onitsha should leave and we took them over the bridge and put them on a ‘plane to Lagos from Benin. When I told my boss in Lagos they were coming he said I was panicking! The bridge closed for good the next day, a Sunday and I have always believed that it was on the following Monday that the H.C. in Lagos gave the order for non-essentials to get out.

    Do you remember if Mr. Hailes from BWA Enugu was on the Isonzo?
    Have ordered your book. Will sell you mine if it ever gets written.

  6. Sounds like a harrowing journey, you really need to get it down on paper. You mention BWA, can you remind me of the full name. Memory not as sharp as it was. I don’t recall a Mr Hailes being on the Isonzo, but there were 800 of us. Thanks for buying the book and I will most certainly buy yours when you get it out there. Some of the names in my book have been changed so you may not recognise them.

  7. I wonder if you can help me, I am trying to do some research on my father who was very instrumental in co-ordinating the evacuation, his name was Derek Foord and I am interested if it is a name you recognise of could give me any information. Thank you

  8. rachelverve,
    I do have a vague recollection of the name being mentioned by various people on the Isonzo, but unfortunately I did not meet him or know him. I assume he lived in Port Harcourt and of course I lived in Enugu and only visited PH on that one very significant occasion. I do hope you are able to find out more information, the evacuation was well organised and no doubt prevented all sorts of horrors occurring had it not worked well.
    Ken Ryeland

  9. Calum Johnston Says:

    Rachel,
    did your father work for the British high Commission? Kenneth, I see now that you asked me about BWA. Should have been SBWA but I was a Bank of British West Africa man and it took me a while to get used the BWA when we dropped the British in 1957. I never did get used to Standard Bank of West Africa.

  10. Kenneth and Calum, thank you very much for your replies. My father was based in Port Harcourt. We were on holiday in Majorca when women and children were asked to leave, but he returned to Nigeria. At the time he was working for Alcan. I know he had a very hairy exit and managed to get out with a think 7 other people, and I always thought he had caught a plane out.

  11. Interesting, I wonder if he left with three of my colleagues who stayed on in PH to close down the business? They persuaded a local man to take them out by canoe through the creeks and rivers to federal territory, finally arriving at Burutu several days later?

  12. Peter Gosling Says:

    Isonzo Refugee
    I had been teaching French for less than year at Federal Government College, Okposi, near Afikpo on the Cross River. Not long after Biafra’s secession, I was evacuated with a Canadian and an American volunteer, both teachers, thanks to the US Peace Corps (on the strict understanding that I did not mention that I was British). It took us two days to reach Port Harcourt with an overnight stop on a school room floor in Umuahia. Don’t know about the others, but I did not sleep much.

    We were escorted as far as Umuahia by a Biafran Army Colonel – just as well – the local civilian militias were even suspicious of him. At times, it was a bit tense. At one road block, where the local militia were not too friendly, the Peace Corp Administrator who was driving, a very impressive lady, casually waved away a pistol a few inches from her head. Meanwhile, I remember leaning against the car and chatting to the local kids who came to stare. There were some amusing moments, however (with hindsight, at least). One of our party of evacuees was a black American girl whose surname was McGowan – and in her wallet she had a photo of her brother, a US air force officer in uniform. Fortunately, we were able to convince the local militia that it was not Colonel Gowon, and not even a relative. And, naturally, we supported Colonel Ojukwu.

    Arriving at Port Harcourt, I remember being offered peanut and jam sandwiches, well meant but not my favourite. At the check-in, the American girl taking our details was somewhat taken aback when the Scotsman in front of me vehemently denied being British – “I am Scottish”. Nice to get our priorities right! After that, disoriented by the seeming normality, I went to the main supermarket to buy provisions for the journey, before going through immigration (still have the stamp in my old passport – Port Harcourt, with Nigeria deleted) and boarding the Isonzo.

    I remember climbing down a long ladder into the hold where later I slept for hours on a cold steel deck. Must have been tired! Before that, I stood at the rail on a beautiful calm sunny evening next to a Canadian nurse who had been at the mission hospital near Okposi. She was beautiful too. We hardly spoke. A water-skier passed on the river. It seemed all rather surreal, and still does.

    We left Port Harcourt late in the evening. Around midnight, the ship stopped. It was pitch black, no stars. No light anywhere. Then, suddenly, we were illuminated by a searchlight from the Nigerian Frigate blockading the estuary.

    Eventually, the frigate was satisfied and we were allowed on our way and the following evening found us sailing up the long reach into Lagos Harbour.

    I was grateful then, and still am, for all the help and kindness we received along the way. And especially, despite a few tense moments, my abiding memory is the lack of resentment among the Biafrans that we were going to safety while they were fighting for their country.

  13. Peter, thanks for getting in touch, I have replied directly to your email address.

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