Australians in the UN missions to Somalia 1992 to 1995
In the 1990s, Australians served in peacekeeping missions to Somalia where hundreds of thousands of people were suffering from famine caused by drought and clan warfare. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) contributed a small movement control unit to the UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM). Later, Australia deployed a 1,000-strong battalion group to the UN-sanctioned Unified Task Force (UNITAF) from January 1992 to March 1993. ADF later participated in UNOSOM II. It was the largest overseas deployment by the ADF since the Vietnam War. We recognise and remember the role of some 1,600 Australians who served as peacekeepers in Somalia.
Drought, famine, civil unrest and war
In 1992, the East African nation of Somalia was beset by famine and civil conflict. There was no central authority. Armed groups were preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid to a starving population.
A small United Nations (UN) technical team was dispatched to Somalia's capital Mogadishu in March and April 1992. They planned for ceasefire monitoring and the delivery of humanitarian aid.
United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM I and II)
The UN deployed an advance party of 50 unarmed military observers who arrived in Mogadishu in early July 1992. Their role was to monitor the ceasefire in Mogadishu, but they could not help with security or humanitarian aid.
By August 1992, it was agreed the UN could deploy 500 security personnel in Mogadishu as part of UNOSOM. Their role was to:
- protect and secure UN personnel, equipment and supplies at airports and seaports
- escort deliveries of humanitarian supplies to distribution centres in the city and surrounding areas.
The first group of UN security personnel arrived in Mogadishu on 14 September 1992.
Also in August 1992, the UN dispatched another technical team to report on the provision of humanitarian aid in Somalia. The team noted lawlessness and lack of security throughout the country. Heavily armed gangs were looting supplies from delivery and distribution points, attacking incoming aircraft and ships, and preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid by overland transport.
In response to these reports, the UN enlarged UNOSOM to help mitigate the widespread starvation in the areas of Somalia most seriously affected by the civil war and drought and to prevent the incidence of hunger escalating in other parts of the country.
When the UN expanded the mission to a total strength of 4,219 all ranks, including the unit of 500 authorised in Mogadishu and 719 for logistic units, Australia offered its support.
Operation Iguana 1992 to 1996
In October 1992, the Australian Government sent an Australian Defence Force (ADF) contingent to Somalia for UNOSOM I. The Australian mission was codenamed 'Operation Iguana'.
Operation Iguana was to provide support for the UN mission to manage its incoming forces.
The first members of the tri-service Movement Control Unit (MovCon Unit or MCU) arrived in Somalia on 20 August 1992.
When the UN authorised UNOSOM II from March 1993 to March 1995, the ADF contributed another contingent.
In total, 211 Australians were deployed to Somalia as part of Operation Iguana in 2 main groups:
- first contingent UNOSOM I from 17 October 1992 to 4 May 1993 (41 people)
- second contingent UNOSOM II from 5 May 1993 to 30 November 1994 (170 people).
Over both deployments, the tri-service force that was raised included:
- Movement Control Unit, or MovCon Unit (MCU)
- Air Traffic Control Unit
- some HQ Staff
- a Ready Reaction Security Team at the Mogadishu airport.
Unified Task Force (UNITAF)
As the situation in Somalia continued to deteriorate, the United States (US) offered a division of troops to a larger international peacekeeping operation. In December 1992, the UN Security Council agreed to a coalition force of UN members under US command.
The goal of the United Task Force in Somalia (UNITAF) was to intervene to protect the delivery of humanitarian aid and restore peace. UNITAF did not replace UNOSOM; the missions operated in parallel.
Operation Solace 1993
The Australian Government contributed naval vessels and a battalion group - over 1,200 people - to UNITAF. The Australian contingent, codenamed 'Operation Solace', included:
- 1 Royal Australian Regiment Group (1RAR Gp, 990 people, Australian Army)
- 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR)
- B Squadron, 3rd/4th Cavalry regiment
- selected components of the regular army
- HMA Ships Jervis Bay and Tobruk with 817 Squadron Fleet Air Arm (220 people, Royal Australian Navy)
- Royal Australian Air Force logistical support.
Before they left, officers were briefed on military intelligence and the rules of engagement. Inspired by the Rats of Tobruk's commandments from World War II, they agreed on a code of values that would guide them on their mission:
Your chief concern is not to endanger yourself or your mates.
Be honest in all your dealings with your mates and with other contingents.
Do not lie or steal.
Do not borrow from your mates unless they offer it to you.
Look professional at all times.
Be administratively self-sufficient.
Never lose your temper.
Keep your emotions in tact and you will retain respect.
Be sensitive to cultural differences.
Never become complacent about security.
Always strive to do your job to the best of your ability.
Never forget you’re representing Australia.
Be hospitable and be courteous, there is a time to be helpful to those who share your adventure. This code knows no rank or exception.
[Stuart Ellis, SAS in Somalia, 1993-94]
Australian operations centred around the town of Baidoa, about 240 km inland from Mogadishu. The 1RAR Group was assigned to security in the Humanitarian Relief Sector. Their job was to secure the perimeter and ensure food and other supplies were delivered to the people who most needed them.
... there was without a doubt, in the contingent, just because of what people had seen in the media and so on, there was a keenness to try and do something for the Somali people as well and I mean they’d gone through a huge amount of starvation, deprivation, civil war. And people were keen to try and offer some assistance.
[Stuart Ellis, SAS in Somalia, 1993-94]
The Royal Australian Navy played an important part in the deployment. Training ship HMAS Jervis Bay and heavy landing ship HMAS Tobruk moved the battalion group equipment, provisions and some troops to Somalia. After rapid work to get both ships ready and 'mission capable':
- Jervis Bay left Townsville on 24 December with 800 t of cargo, including armoured personnel carriers (APCs), trucks and 4WDs
- Tobruk left Townsville on 31 December with over 800 t of cargo, including an APC, trucks, 4WDs and a Sea King helicopter.
After unloading the ship in Mogadishu port on 14 January 1993, the Jervis Bay crew listened to the sounds of gunfire in the city during the night. A sound that became more frequent and intense each night. Jervis Bay returned home to Australia via Singapore on 17 January.
Tobruk arrived in Mogadishu port on 19 January and stayed on to help throughout Operation Solace. The crew was assigned to:
- continuous resupply runs to neighbouring Kenya
- moving building materials and humanitarian aid supplies between Mombasa (a large city in Kenya) and Mogadishu
- supplying coalition ships with water when reserves were low.
After a 5-month deployment, the Australian battalion left in May 1993. HMA Ships Jervis Bay and Tobruk were welcomed home - first in Townsville on 16 June and then in Sydney on 21 June.
Withdrawal from Somalia
In 1994, with Somalia no closer to resolving its civil conflict and little prospect of improvement in the country’s circumstances, the UN peacekeeping operation came to an end. Most of Australia’s last troops left Somalia in November 1994.
After suffering significant casualties and being unable to restore order or peace, the last UN troops were withdrawn from Somalia in March 1995.
The last ADF detachments participating in UNOSOM II did not leave Somalia until 1996.
ADF units that served in Somalia gained valuable experience. Lessons learned on aid distribution, general logistics, medical treatment and security were incorporated into subsequent peacekeeping missions, such as Rwanda 1993 to 1996.
Sadly, the Somali Civil War continued.
Experiences of Australians
Stuart Ellis served with 2nd/4th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (2/4 RAR). He commanded the Australian contingent in Somalia as a 36-year-old Lieutenant Colonel. Listen to a 2004 interview with Ellis.
Duncan 'John' Perryman was a signaller in the Royal Australian Navy. In Somalia, he served as Chief Yeoman of Signals aboard HMAS Tobruk.
Learn more about Perryman's experience in our ebook, Comradeship: Stories of friendship and recreation in wartime.
The Australian War Memorial holds a collection of Perryman's Somalia photographs.
At the time, Somalia was the largest operation undertaken by the ADF since the Vietnam War.
The Australians who served there deployed to one of the world's most dangerous conflict zones. They performed their work with enormous professionalism, risking their own safety to support a civilian population in desperate need.
We pause to recognise and remember their challenging experiences on National Peacekeepers' Day 14 September.
We also honour them on International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers 29 May.
The work of the Australians in Somalia is also commemorated in the book A Little Bit of Hope: Australian Force Somalia by Bob Breen, published in 1998.
- Australians at War Film Archive, interview with Stuart Ellis on 22 July 2004, archive number 1960, viewed 13 January 2022 https://australiansatwarfilmarchive.unsw.edu.au/archive/1960-stuart-ellis
- Australian Government Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal (2010). Inquiry into Recognition of Australia Defence Force Service in Somalia between 1992 and 1995, viewed 11 November 2021 https://defence-honours-tribunal.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Somalia-Inquiry-Report.pdf
- Australian Peacekeeper & Peacemaker Veterans' Association (undated). Operations, viewed 11 November 2021 https://peacekeepers.asn.au/operations/
- Perryman, John (undated). Operation SOLACE - RAN Relief to Somalia 1993, Royal Australian Navy Feature Histories, viewed 11 November 2021 https://www.navy.gov.au/history/feature-histories/operation-solace-ran-relief-somalia-1993
- United Nations (2003). United Nations Operation in Somalia I UNOSOM I (April 1992 - March 1993), viewed 11 November 2021 https://peacekeeping.un.org/sites/default/files/past/unosomi.htm
- United Nations (2003). United Nations Operation in Somalia II UNOSOM II (March 1993 - March 1995), viewed 11 November 2021 https://peacekeeping.un.org/sites/default/files/past/unosom2.htm
- UNSOM: UN Assistance Mission in Somalia, United Nations Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, viewed 11 November 2021 https://dppa.un.org/en/mission/unsom