Italian wings in post-war conflicts: Zaire's MB-326s in the conflict against Katanga rebels

(To Manuele Serventi Merlo)

In the short span of time since its entry into service, the MB-326 proved to be an extremely robust and versatile machine, easy to use and maintain, as well as low operating costs. It was inevitable, therefore, that it immediately aroused numerous "appetites" with those medium-small air forces with little budget but with "combat" ambitions of a certain level.

Among these, many belonged to the African continent where numerous conflicts broke out after the Second World War, attributable both to the long process of decolonization from the main European colonizing countries, and to the prevailing logic of the opposing US-USSR blocks.

So it was that Aermacchi obtained some important orders from several states of the Black Continent. Among the most important ones, the order of South Africa is usually quoted, then intensely committed against the pro-Communist armed movements in Namibia supported and financed by different countries of the Bloc of the 'East.

But next to South Africa we can count other lesser-known African buyers of the MB-326. This is the case of the fu Zaire by Mobuto Sese Seko, nowadays more commonly known as Democratic Republic of Congo.

He came to power in 1965 with a coup d'etat skillfully exploiting the serious internal conflicts on an ethnic basis that since independence characterized the life of the new Congolese state and strong Western support in an anti-communist key against the supporters of Patrice Lumumba, advocate of independence of the country in 1960, the new strongman of Kinshasa immediately began a decided strengthening of the national armed forces.

Until then, very little remained and mainly dedicated to anti-guerrilla employments against the fighters of the anti-government and separatist armed formations such as that of the Katanga region, the ff.aa. Zaire began to be equipped with much more powerful war material and suitable for high intensity conflicts with other state entities or the like.

This process of decisive improvement and strengthening could not fail to concern also the local Air Force (named in French Force Aérienne Zaïroise).

Born using the few aircraft inherited from the Force Publique, the colonial gendarmerie of the Congo during the Belgian period, with the advent of Mobutu in power was initially reinforced with the purchase of armed T-6 propeller trainers Texan and T-28 Trojan and U.S. DC-3 transport aircraft together with at least six helicopters Lark SA 318.

Subsequently, however, aiming for positions of regional power in an anti-communist function, Mobuto decided to further strengthen it with the latest generation jets.

Precisely in this context, Zaire acquired seventeen MB 60, locally affectionately called "Sukisa", together with twelve Siai Marchetti SF 260 MC.

The chosen version was the initialed one "GB" suitable for both training and, above all, tactical support.

From an organizational point of view, the newly acquired Italian aircraft should have been classified in the 2nd Group of the Force Aérienne Zaïroise to replace those of US production previously mentioned as "withdrawn" from the US to be reused in the much more famous theater of Southeast Asia.

Despite the continuous foreign technical and training support, however, efforts to obtain good local pilots and technicians for the new planes in adequate numbers had little success. By way of example, of the 720 aspiring pilot candidates at the local aviation academy in 1971, only 20 were accepted and of these just 13 were sent to Italy for training on the MB-326.

In Italy they were trained in Lecce in what was then still called the Aviogetti Initial Basic Flight School (SVBIA).

However, albeit with all the difficulties already reported, the first three MB-326 reached the city of N'Dijili airport on November 24, 1969.

Thus began the operational career under the insignia of Zaire of the MB-326 with the continuous technical and training Italian support also on site with specialists of our AMI and some foreign mercenary pilots.

A career whose fire baptism occurred in March 1977 when the forces of the FLNC (Front de libération nationale congolaise), founded by separatist rebels from the Katanga region, and politically and militarily supported by Angola, infiltrated the country from its southern borders managing to occupy several important urban centers in the region mentioned (which from 1971 to 1996 was administratively named Shaba).

On that occasion the Italian aircraft found wide use by repeatedly attacking from the air to support the Franco-Moroccan ground forces deployed in aid of Kinshasa (Operation Verveine) the positions of the Katangish rebels in Mutshatsha, Dilolo, Kasagi, Sandao and Kisenge together with the Mirage 5M, the spearhead of the Mobuto Air Force, purchased in France.

Operations ended successfully in late May of the same year as FLNC forces retreated to their safe Angolan sanctuaries. However, just a year later, the Katangi rebels would have bounced back under.

In May 1978, in fact, about 2.500 Katangesi fighters who infiltrated Zaire from the border with Angola once again occupied the city of Mutshatsha and then went on to conquer Kolwezi. At the local airport there were then several military aircraft of the Force Aérienne Zaïroise, including some MB-326. Just two of these were destroyed on the ground by the Katanghesi forces when they conquered the airport (military serial numbers FG - 468 and FG-471) while three others were damaged.

The MB-326 still operational were thus again employed in war operations as already happened the year before to support this time of Franco-Belgian troops who rushed to bring the situation under control at the request of Mobuto (editor's note - It is in this context that the famous parachutists of the French Foreign Legion flew over Kolwezi, better known as "Bonite Operation").

Overall, therefore, the MB-326 under the insignia of Zaire flew in the two-year period 1977/1978 about 300 war sorties against the separatist rebels of Katanga. The pilots of the Italian aircraft, however, prove to be quite fearful in using the full potential of the machine also for the supposed presence of the much feared SAM-7 backable antiaircraft systems. All this inevitably reverberated also on the precision of the attacks made. In fact, on several occasions it happened that the designated military target was completely missed and instead unarmed civilians were hit in several villages on the border with Angola and Zambia. For similar "deeds", the chronicles tell, some pilots ended up in front of martial courts.

However, the MB-326 proved to be a good medium even in those latitudes. As proof of this, in 1983 Zaire also purchased the MB-326 single-seat ground attack version "K" six in number.

Three of these were immediately deployed to Chad to support local forces against Libya-supported rebels. However, it was not possible to find more detailed information regarding their operational use in that theater.

However, the operational use of this airplane could now be said to have ended under the insignia of the Aviation of Mobuto. With operations that were significantly undermined by the inability to guarantee a decent maintenance level, the last eight MB-326 "GB" e "K" survivors were put into storage without flying in the early 90s at N'Dijili airport. Shortly before this sad end, however, the Italian aircraft had been used for the pompous parade which intended to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Mobuto's rise to power in July 1986.

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