Largely forgotten today, Uganda (ruled by Idi Amin between 1971-1979) fought a very violent war against Tanzania in 1978-1979. This war, which ended Amin’s disastrous and brutal reign, saw the use of M4 Sherman tanks in one of their final appearances on the world’s battlefields.
The war was centered on Tanzania’s Kagera province, a slice of territory 695 miles² in size, abutting the border and Lake Victoria.
The Tanzania/Uganda border was drawn in the 19th century, when today’s countries were the colonies German Tanganyika and British Uganda, respectively. Idi Amin, who hated European colonialism passionately, publicly claimed that the border was “wrong” and that Kagera was “a natural part of Uganda”. Actually, the real reason Amin was concerned with Kagera was that about 1000 dissident Ugandan troops were hiding there and mounting cross-border raids, seeking to overthrow him.
M4A1 Shermans to Uganda
The Sherman was the first tank ever operated by Uganda, which had achieved independence in 1962. Initially the country had good relations with Israel.
In 1969, the Israelis sold Uganda twelve used Sherman tanks. All were M4A1 variants, and all were armed with the M1A1C 76mm gun. However, they were not all alike and were a mixed bag of modifications done while in Israeli use.
(Ugandan Shermans on parade. The lead tank shows the original WWII-style “split” hatch for the loader in the turret, while the one on the rear appears to have the later style oval hatch. The Sherman in the center is missing it’s steel tow cable.)
Some had the original vertical volute suspension, others had the later HVSS suspension system. Some had French-made smoke grenade dischargers on the turret, some also had turret-side brackets for carrying spare track links. Some of the Shermans had both of these turret modifications, others had one or the other. Some had a third spare track bracket on the hull front. All had been fitted with aftermarket radio antennas by the Israelis. Most had the bow machine gun removed. There were other differences in hatch model, hull fittings, tracks, etc from one Ugandan Sherman to another. All had a searchlight bracket however no surviving photos of the Ugandan M4s actually show them carrying a searchlight, so either the Israelis stripped them off prior to the sale, or they quickly broke and were removed prior to the war.
(This Ugandan M4A1 has French-made smoke grenade dischargers and new radio antenna installed by the Israelis. This Sherman track type is the US Army-standard T54E1 (“steel chevron” style); they were probably manufactured during WWII as the postwar model of the 16 9/16″-width Sherman track (T74) has rubber shoes. Besides quick repairs, the mounted track links provided a bit of extra protection for the crew in the turret. The AA gun is a M2HB .50cal Browning. The arid green canvas mantlet cover is IDF issue. The crewman in the original-style loader hatch is wearing a WWII American M38 helmet, manufactured by Rawlings (of baseball glove fame) and sold along with the Shermans by Israel, while the crewman standing outside the turret has a WWII Soviet E-117 helmet donated by Libya. Finally of course, the general in the beret is Idi Amin himself.)
Uganda’s M4A1 Shermans were repainted in a deep “bronze green” color, and carried a rectangular green/red rectangular ID marking. Serial numbers were in white to the rear, but as there were only a dozen Shermans not really important.
No additional Shermans
The Ugandans were considering making a second request for Shermans from Israel when Amin took power in 1971. His increasingly anti-Israel rhetoric prevented this, culminating on the Israeli commando hostage-rescue raid on Entebbe airport on 4 July 1976 after which the countries completely ended relations. The raid (which also destroyed much of Amin’s air force) cut off any spare parts or training help from Israel. Libya’s dictator Muammar Quadaffi became the main (and eventually, only) ally of Uganda following the raid.
The Tanzanian-Ugandan war
The Tanzanian-Ugandan war seems to have been planned rather suddenly. In 1978, Uganda’s “elite” Malire regiment led a failed coup against Amin, with some plotters escaping south to Tanzania, which infuriated him. Never emotionally stable to begin with, Amin flew off the handle and ordered plans for an immediate invasion of Tanzania’s Kagera province, with the state-run media to begin highlighting Uganda’s claim to the territory. The invasion was codenamed Operation Liberation.
The rushed preparation lasted only about a week. On 10 October 1978, with no declaration of war, Ugandan air force MiG-17s and MiG-21s bombed Bukoba, the Tanzanian army’s main garrison in Kagera province. At the same time, the army crossed the border.
(A relatively rare photo of a Ugandan Sherman on it’s way to the front in October 1978, aboard a tank transporter. Like most mechanized armies, the Ugandans were chronically short of tank transporter. The semi is hard to identify in the blurry picture but appears to be a Diamond TM-20.)
The Ugandans encountered unexpectedly fierce resistance from the small peacetime contingent of Tanzanian troops in the border sector, but with using combined-arms strategy were able to overcome it. The Ugandan spearhead included the twelve M4A1 Shermans, plus ten WWII-era Soviet-made T-34 tanks which Libya had donated to Amin’s army in 1976. The tanks (plus several Ferret armored cars) were backed up by mechanized infantry (Soviet-made BTR-40 and Czechoslovakian-made OT-64 armored personnel carriers, along with WWII-vintage M38 jeeps which had been bought from Israel along with the Shermans. Finally, foot infantry and logistics elements followed.
(Ugandan infantry following the M4A1 Shermans into battle in 1978. They appear to be equipped with a WWII-veteran SCR-300 radio, which is compatible with the AN/VRC-3 radio which may have been carried aboard the Israeli-supplied Shermans.)
By 27 October 1978, the Ugandans had advanced about 20 miles deep into Tanzania and were in control of the important town of Kyaka, on the junction of Tanzania’s north-south highway B8 and a road leading west to the Bukoba garrison. In all, they only held about 700 miles² of occupied territory. Even with this shallow of a penetration, the rushed Ugandan logistical planning seems to have been stretched to it’s limit, as the advance stalled.
Based on surviving accounts of the war, Idi Amin apparently wanted to deliver a lightning-fast blow to the Tanzanians, stunning them so badly that they would accept a small territorial loss rather than mobilize for a long war. But this is not what happened. The Tanzanians regrouped on the southern tip of Lake Victoria and at the same time, began a well-planned, well-executed nationwide mobilization to put the country on a war footing.
The counterpart to Uganda’s Shermans was Tanzania’s Chinese-made T-59A tanks, a clone of the mid-1950s Soviet T-54/55. With thick armor, low profile, and a 100mm gun, Tanzania’s T-59As totally outclassed Uganda’s WWII-era Shermans in every respect. Additionally, the Tanzanians had more of them than Uganda’s M4A1s and T-34s combined.
Between 28-31 October, the Ugandan advance ground to a halt. A thrust to capture a second bridge over the Kagera River failed, and the Ugandan air force had lost a number of planes (including expensive MiG-21 and MiG-17 fighters, and a C-47 Dakota transport) The now-mobilized Tanzanians were bringing their own MiG-21s into play, along with BM-21 rocket artillery and the T-59A tanks.
On 25 November 1978, the Tanzanian army reported that it had completely stabilized the front and was going on the counter-offensive. On Christmas Eve 1978, remaining Ugandan forces in Tanzania retreated back across the border and by 1 January 1979, Tanzanian troops had reached the border. No Ugandan Sherman had been lost during the initial October invasion, however, it’s thought that one or two were destroyed during the November-December Tanzanian counter-offensive. All had been in constant use now for a quarter year with no maintenance break.
Tanzania was now at a crossroads. It could either end the war, or, continue the counter-offensive into Uganda itself. As the mobilization was costing Tanzania $1 million per day, it was decided to push onwards to destroy as much of the Ugandan army as possible before demobilizing.
On 20 January 1979, about 10,000 Tanzanian troops, backed up by T-59A tanks, artillery, and MiG-21 air support, crossed into Uganda.The Ugandans were apparently unprepared and unready, and the offensive turned into a rout. Muammar Quadaffi already had about 3,000 Libyan troops in Uganda and tried to bolster Amin by telling Tanzania that Libya would declare war if they did not pull back across the border. Not only did the Tanzanians refuse to bow to his demand, they actively sought out combat with Libyans wherever they could find them. Quadaffi never followed through on his threat.
In late January the Tanzanians suffered a defeat near the Ugandan town of Rakai (about 16 miles north of the border), but rather than using the opportunity to counter-attack, the Ugandans retreated deeper north. A Libyan soldier later said that Ugandan NCOs seemed more concerned with using supply trucks to move northwards loot which they had plundered in 1978, rather than bringing reinforcements southwards to the front line.
(A rusty Ugandan M4A1 Sherman lost in the 1979 Tanzanian counter-invasion, photographed in the 1980s. The gun is in it’s travel brace so the tank may have been abandoned due to breakdown or fuel exhaustion, rather than battle damage.)
In February, the Tanzanians overran Masaka, the largest city in southern Uganda, crossing the Equator northbound. As Uganda’s remaining M4A1 Shermans were obviously not getting the job done, Quadaffi airlifted about a dozen Libyan T-54/55 tanks to Uganda’s Entebbe airport. These Libyan tanks, along with three Ugandan Shermans and a M38 jeep, planned to attack the Tanzanian 201st Mechanized Brigade. However the two forces, neither of which was scouting ahead, literally blundered into one another on 10 March 1979 in the Lukaya swamps. The combined Libyan/Ugandan force actually won the battle but the next day the Tanzanians regrouped and pushed them back.
This was the last notable engagement of Uganda’s Shermans. The Ugandan army was now in full retreat north to the capital Kampala. In late March, the Tanzanians overran Kalama Barracks, the peacetime base of the M4A1 Shermans. On 7 April 1979, Tanzanian troops captured Entebbe airport, just after a Libyan C-130 Hercules had evacuated Idi Amin into exile in Saudi Arabia. They destroyed what remained of the Ugandan air force on the ground.
On 10 April 1979, Tanzania occupied the capital Kampala. Reportedly one or two Shermans were knocked out in the city’s outskirts. The Tanzanians now decided to completely occupy Uganda. In early May they overran Gula, about 60 miles east of the Zaire border and 50 miles south of Sudan; this was the last remaining Ugandan base. On 3 June 1979, Tanzanian troops reached the Sudanese border, having occupied all of Uganda. The war ended.
Uganda’s remaining Shermans after the 1978-1979 war
In a gesture of humility, the Tanzanian army never released a detailed “kill list” of destroyed Ugandan vehicles. It’s thought that six or seven of the twelve M4A1 Shermans were destroyed during the war. The fate of the remainder is uncertain. The Ugandan army was reformed in 1980 but there was no comment on the Shermans.
(An Australian military adviser to the new Ugandan army poses with a derelict M4A1 in Kampala in 1983. It’s unknown if this tank was knocked out in 1979 or just abandoned afterwards.) (Australian War Memorial photo)
At least one M4A1 was operational again in 1985, when General Tito Okello took over Uganda (the Sherman was knocked out during the coup). A western visitor reported in 1999 that three Shermans still remained in the Ugandan army, more or less operational. There was no corroboration and in any case, by 2015 they are certainly not in use any longer.