The Spanish-Moroccan War
By Jose Santos
DAY 6: JULY 22nd 2002
Midnight: Hercules Transport planes start arriving to Fuerteventura Airport. More planes and fighters will follow in the next hour.
In the north, the Spanish have stopped their advance to reorganize and resupply.
In Tangiers, Spanish troops are patrolling the city, now placed under curfew.
The only places where limited combats are still held are the Moroccan pockets around Ceuta and Ben Ouidane.
In the Tangiers front, the Spaniards prefer to wait for the morning before launching a final attack.
The Principe de Asturias is moving south.
In the Western Sahara, the Moroccans think that the worst has passed. The polisario haven’t been able to take any major city and they are even withdrawing from some positions. The Moroccan commander at the Western Sahara Theater trusts in a fast victory here.
1AM: Although air attacks against El Aaiun have been common for the past 5 days, the Moroccan troops are surprised by the unusual violence of this last one, striking AA positions and communication centers.
After resupplying near Fuerteventura, the invasion fleet heads towards El Aaiun.
At the airports, the Hercules are resupplied while the soldiers prepare for the final stage of their voyage.
4AM: In the north, the Spanish artillery has finished unloading and starts attacking the Moroccan defensive positions without waiting for dawn.
5AM: The first wave of Chinook transports carrying the heavy equipment for the airborne brigade take off from Fuerteventura Airport, while the invasion fleet is waiting off Layoune plage.
5.30AM: The Hercules transports carrying paratroopers take off at Gando and Fuerteventura
A little explanation about El Aaiun: This is the only major city in Western Sahara, at around 100 miles southwest of Fuerteventura island. The city lies next to a wadi or stational river (of no relevance: it will be dry in July), 12 miles off the coast. Layoune-Plage is the El Aaiun’s port, little more than some docks and portuary installations. Both places are united by a single road that goes through a tank commander’s wet dream: a large, unmolested extension of sand. The objectives of the initial attack are the port to safely land armoured forces, and the airport, to land reinforcements for the airborne troops. These troops will have to hold their position until the tanks are unloaded at the port and make their way to the city. Once the port and the airport are in Spanish hands, the Spaniards can start pumping troops via air or sea from the Canary islands. Without El Aaiun, the entire Moroccan army at the western sahara is cut off from the rest of Morocco and in a very dire logistical situation.
5.55AM: In Layoune-Plage, a part of the usual garrison has been redeployed towards Smara to take part in the combats against Polisario. The Moroccans think that an assault from the sea is impossible.
6AM: With the sun rising, the first Hercules approach the West Saharan coast. The Moroccans at Layoune-plage think at first that it is another air attack; but they are surprised to see the big planes approaching from the sea.
6.05AM: The Moroccans realize what is happening when the first wave of paratroopers descends above Layoune-Plage.
A second formation of Hercules flies above the coast. Its objective: El Aaiun airport.
6.07AM: The first Spanish paratroopers land at the port and engage the defenders.
Layoune-plage is not a single village. Actually, it is little more than a bunch of portuary and military installations scattered around 3 miles of coast. The weakened garrison is mostly concentrated at the barracks, far from the docks. The Spanish paratroopers know this and are landing unmolested 1 mile north of the barracks.
6.10AM: El Aaiun is woken up by the roar of plane engines. At 6.12 AM, the first paratroopers land near the terminal of the airport.
6.15AM: With several hundred of paratroopers already in ground, the Spanish advance south towards the Moroccan garrison.
The Moroccan commander at El Aaiun receives a message reporting that Layoune-plage is under attack by Spanish paratroopers.
The first Chinook helicopters arrive to the perimeter controlled by the paratroopers and start unloading light armour, VAMTACs and light artillery.
In El Aaiun Airport, the paras are having a tougher time than their comrades at the port. The Moroccans have bigger troop numbers there and have armoured support. However, most of the Moroccan troops usually deployed in El Aaiun are either fighting the polisario in the desert or patrolling the city.
Fighter aircraft takes off at Gando to support the operation. In Fuerteventura, a second wave of Hercules transports takes off too.
6.20AM: Rabat receives a call from the Western Sahara Headquarters. El Aaiun is under attack. There are airborne troops at the airport. They’re definitely not Polisario guerrillas. Layoune-plage is under attack and the Spanish are disembarking troops [this is not true…yet]
6.30AM: In Tindouf, the polisario government is desperate. Their drive to the sea has failed and the polisario army has suffered great losses and has been unable to take a single city. Then they receive a phone call. King Juan Carlos of Spain is informing President Abdulaziz that Spanish airborne troops have landed at El Aaiun to help the polisario in their struggle against the Moroccans. The call is intercepted by NSA agents.
In Layoune-Plage, the Spanish are advancing towards the barracks while the Chinooks finish unloading their cargo.
Due to the situation in Layoune-Plage, the Spanish command at Fuerteventura decides to give green light to the fleet to approach the port and start unloading the heavy equipment. Some Hercules already in flight are transferred to the Airport, where more paratroopers are already landing.
6.37AM: Western Sahara is a usually hermetic zone to reporters. It is even worse in the event of a war. Thus, the first indication to the outer world that something fishy is going on at el Aaiun is a post at a blog written by a Moroccan student at the El Aaiun university.
In Rabat, the situation is one of confusion and hope at the same time. Confusion because this is totally unexpected and the El Aaiun garrison has been caught totally off guard. Hope because they know that the Spaniards are risking a lot here and that if the invasion here is defeated, Morocco can force Spain to the negotiating table. After all, they have no naval support and only have a thin air support. Immediately, Moroccan troops at Smara and Boukhdour are ordered to proceed towards El Aaiun, even withdrawing from combat against polisario troops.
There is also a large concentration of armoured troops in southern morocco being ready to be sent north. These troops, including the last major tank forces the Moroccans have, are ordered to head south.
6.45AM: Outnumbered and surprised, the Moroccan garrison at Layoune Plage surrenders while the first ships enter the port and start unloading tanks and artillery. The Spanish have accomplished their first objective.
At the airport, the situation is more difficult for the assaulters. Despite the reinforcements and the Chinook helicopters now landing with heavy equipment, they have taken many casualties as the Moroccans outnumber them. At 6.50 AM an air raid by F-18 based at Gando relieves a bit of the pressure on the paratroopers, but now the raid on the airport depends on how fast reinforcements can be brought from Layoune-plage.
6.50AM: In Washington, George Bush’ aide awakens him reporting that it seems that the Spaniards have invaded the Western Sahara.
At 7AM, the Spaniards control the port and are unloading Leopard tanks, with their new desert camo still fresh, artillery, VAMTACs, light armour and more soldiers, preparing to advance on the city. In the airport, the new reinforcements are helping the paratroopers to hold their position, while transport helicopters keep unloading equipment. The Moroccans have lots of infantry and light armour, but lack the necessary AA equipment.
7.30AM: South of Tangiers, the Spanish are resupplying and resting, ready to keep their advance south.
In Ceuta, the Moroccan resistance is slowly crumbling under the constant bombardment.
Only in Tetouan neither side is willing to advance. The Moroccans prefer to keep their defensive positions and the Spaniards don’t want to engage in a street fighting.
In El Aaiun, unloading of tanks and reinforcements keeps going on at good pace while Moroccan prisoners are transported onto the ships. At the airport, the Spaniards are holding their ground and protecting the landing strips from the Moroccan attack. Their situation is relieved by the ill-advised Moroccan decision of sending a troop column towards Layoune Plage.
8AM: A convoy leaves Rota towards the Canary Islands and Western Sahara.
First rumours of an invasion of Western Sahara start to spread in both Spain and Morocco.
At Layoune-Plage, the Spaniards have already disembarked a couple of Leopard platoons. Air reconnaissance reports that the city defenders have no heavy armour. The advance on El Aaiun is authorized.
In Tangiers, the Spanish artillery opens fire on the Moroccan positions.
8.30AM: In a very tense conversation, the foreign affairs minister of Spain dismisses the US proposal of withdrawal from Western Sahara in exchange for a US active intervention that will bring Morocco on its knees.
In Madrid, Spanish officials confirm that a joint amphibious and airborne invasion of the Western Sahara is being undertaken.
9AM: In Spain, the past 12 hours have seen the most excessive displays of patriotism in decades, perhaps centuries. The average Spaniard is used to its army being used in peacekeeping missions and the former military glory of the country is seen as something akin to fairy tales. Then the landings in North Africa and the fall of Tangiers came. And now these impossibly audacious landings in El Aaiun. The Spanish public is now viewing the war with an unknown patriotic pride.
In Layoune-plage, a column of Leopards supported by Pizarros and infantry is now advancing towards the city…
At the airport, the situation is slowly changing to favour the Spaniards, who now have more men in the ground.
Attack helicopters take off from Gando to support the assault on El Aaiun.
At the Souk pocket [the isolated Moroccan troops trapped between Ben Ouidane and the Puyol Beach sector] the situation is desperate for the besieged, who are enduring endless bombardments and are running out of ammo.
In southern morocco, the last Moroccan army is travelling south to try to take the invaders back to the sea.
In Tindouf, hundreds of sahrawi civilians take the streets to cheer for the Spanish help to the sahrawi cause. [which is kind of ironic since the Polisario started out as a guerrilla opposing Spanish rule]
9.25AM: Halfway from El Aaiun, the Spanish tanks avance unopposed through the desert, under a heavy july sun. Reconaissance Vamtacs report about a Moroccan column advancing towards Layoune-plage.
In the Tangiers sector, the Spanish army starts a careful advance south by the N2 road towards the Moroccan base at El Fendek.
In Tangiers proper, the city wakes up with Spanish troops on the streets and military ships unloading supplies at the port.
9.27: The Spanish engage the Moroccan column 5 miles southwest of El Aaiun.
9.31AM: The Moroccan column was made up of trucks escorted by light armour. They didn’t have a chance against the Leopards, but the commander was able to report El Aaiun that there were Leopards on the road before communications abruptly ended.
The Spanish advance towards El Fendek continues with scarce opposition. The Moroccans have been trying to form a defensive line south of Tangiers from where launch a last counterattack, but the unexpected fall of the city and the Spanish breakthrough have destroyed the western half of the line.
Also, Spanish ships start firing on the Moroccan positions around Tetouan.
9.40AM: In Rabat, the news of Spanish tanks in El Aaiun are received with consternation. The Moroccan command supposed this was an airborne attack, not another full-fledged invasion. However, they trust in the street combat situation to cause at least some casualties among the Leopards and deny the commander permission to surrender or withdraw.
9.45AM: The first tanks arrive to El Aaiun airport, setting the battle in spain’s favour.
At the city, the commander is facing a very difficult decision. He outnumbers the Spanish but has no armoured support and many of his men are pinned down patrolling the city. The relief column he sent to the port was annihilated. He can even see the Hercules landing at the Spanish-held airport from his own office window!. He knows that resistance is very difficult and when the Spanish airforce join the battle, he and his army will be toast, way before the promised reinforcements can arrive.
Spanish troops deploy around the port road to protect it in the event of a Moroccan attack.
9.50AM: A Moroccan column driving from Smara to El Aaiun is attacked by Polisario guerrillas. The sahrawis manage to inflict severe casualties to the column.
10AM: King Juan Carlos addresses the nation. He justifies the decision of invading the western sahara as Spain’s historical duty of helping the sahrawi people after abandoning them at the Moroccans in 1976.
In el Aaiun airport, the Spanish have managed to repeal the Moroccan attack and are now ready to advance on the city.
At the Souk pocket, the Moroccan positions are being bypassed and overwhelmed by the Spanish attack.
10.15AM: The first Spanish troops enter El Aaiun driving from the airport road directly to the city centre and avoiding the labyrinth slums of the southern city. They’re met by scarce Moroccan resistance and dozens of sahrawi civilians that cheer them as liberators.
10.20AM: The Moroccan commander sends a message to the Spanish troops expressing his wish for a honourable surrender.
10.30AM: the Spanish reach Roumnane, 15 miles south of Tangiers and only 13 miles north of El Fendek.
Moroccan units at El Aaiun receive orders to surrender their arms to the Spaniards. Some have already done so.
11AM: there are already hundreds of Spanish soldiers in El Aaiun, while a large column of vehicles is driving to the city from the port. Moroccan soldiers surrender to the Spanish troops while hundreds of civilians greet the Spaniards. There are not many reporters, but the Spanish army has brought some cameras to record as much as possible for propaganda purposes.
For the following months, those images of sahrawi people cheering and jumping onto the Leopards to hug the tankmen will be reviewed at Washington with careful attention, even with envy…
At the Souk pocket, Moroccan units are also surrendering en masse. At 11.10, Spanish troops coming from Ben el Ouidane and El Horra make contact at the 8303 road, effectively destroying the pocket.
At 11.15 AM, the first Spanish tanks arrive to the Town Hall, where the city authorities are awaiting them to surrender. At 11.30 AM, 26 years later, the Spanish flag waves again over El Aaiun next to a Sahrawi one.
12PM: The images of the fall of El Aaiun are now being broadcast all over the world. Most arab and muslim viewers are shocked to see fellow muslims welcoming the Spanish troops.
In the North, the Spanish command is about to start a last offensive that will end the war in that front.
In the Ceuta sector, the city defenders are slowly regaining the lost terrain, while the Moroccans, now trapped, have to endure continuous bombing and are running out of ammunition.
In the Tangiers sector, ironically, the Spanish advance is being slowed by the damage 5 days of air and naval bombing have inflicted on the roads. However, the Spanish forces have to do little more than pursuit the withdrawing Moroccan troops.
In the Tetouan Sector, the Spanish offensive starts with an attack towards the airport and the coastal village of Martil. The Spaniards do not want a frontal assault on the city and prefer to surround it.
1PM: In El Aaiun, the Spanish are proceeding to disarm their Moroccan counterparts while reinforcements are brought via sea and air.
In Southern Morocco, armoured units, mostly M60 and M48 with a few of the last remaining Moroccan T72, cross the West Saharan border. The Moroccans are relying in a fast advance through the coast to recapture Layoune-plage. They also expect to surprise the Spaniards still inside the city, denying the Spanish’ tank advantage and forcing them to surrender to prevent civilian losses, just like in Melilla.
In Fuerteventura, troops are being readied for a landing in Boukhdour.
All over the Western Sahara, Moroccan columns try to converge on El Aaiun, under constant polisario and Spanish air attack.
1.15PM: General [nombre], commander of the El Aaiun operation arrives to the city airport to receive the Moroccan surrender and coordinate the city defense towards any Moroccan counterattack.
In Spain, polls reflect a massive support to the Western Sahara invasion.
At Ceuta, the Moroccan lines are beginning to crumble under the Spanish pressure. Some of the Moroccan soldiers have been fighting non stop for 5 days and have been isolated for two. Only the difficult terrain prevent a faster advance for the Spaniards.
At El Fendek, the Moroccan commander is unable to gather troops for the expected counteroffensive. The Spanish broke through the Moroccan positions south and east of Tangiers and are approaching El Fendek. There are already reports of units refusing to fight.
2PM: The Spanish reach the Wadi[nombre] near Seguedla, southern limit of the Spanish advance according to Plan Blue. The spanish’ main advance will now go east, towards El Fendek and Tetouan.
In El Aaiun, the Moroccan General surrenders officially to his Spanish counterpart.
A polisario column finally reaches the ocean at Dakhla bay, just in front of the city.
Attack helicopters arrive to El Aaiun airport. Air support, though, must still be based at Gando and Fuerteventura.
2.15PM: The Algerian army is mobilized.
Satellite reconnaissance shows a large Moroccan armoured force going south towards El Aaiun.
In Tetouan, the Spanish have entered Martil and are advancing towards the airport.
Meanwhile, Spanish units are only 10 miles away from El Fendek.
2.40PM: Satellite data are transmitted to the new Spanish HQ at El Aaiun. Looks like the Moroccans are throwing their last armoured forces against the city in a last attempt.
Despite being outnumbered in a 3 to 1 ratio, the Spanish commander knows that his tanks cannot fight in the city. This final battle will have to be fought in the desert. Immediately, orders are given to reorganize the El Aaiun occupiers and move their armoured forces north to engage the Moroccans. He counts on destroying them before the Moroccan columns advancing from Boukhdour, Smara and the desert can arrive to El Aaiun.
3PM: Spanish mechanized units enter Tetouan Airport.
At El Fendek, the Moroccan command starts evacuating the village.
3.30PM: Spanish troops leave El Aaiun heading north to meet the Moroccan column.
More Spanish reinforcements are being landed at Layoune-plage. They head south towards Boukhdour and east towards Bou Craa and Smara.
The reinforcement convoy is heading towards Western Sahara, including the navy tanker Marqués de la Ensenada, and escorted by the Alvaro de Bazán. With the Moroccan navy and airforce destroyed, they’re navigating unmolested.
In Tetouan, the Spanish capture the airport terminal. The Moroccan position in the city is now in trouble.
4PM: In the Ceuta sector the Moroccans are being driven out of their positions and falling back towards the sea.
In Tetouan, instead of trying to enter the city, the Spaniards cross the wadi south of it using improvised bridges and advance through the perimetral road. Inside the city, the Moroccan soldiers, mostly unexperienced conscripts, fear that they will be besieged like their comrades in Ceuta.
Meanwhile, the Spaniards are approaching El Fendek while the Moroccan defenders seem unable to stop them . Tetouan is about to be surrounded, while the Moroccan line is hacked to pieces.
4.30PM: the Spanish reconnaissance north of El Aaiun reports of Moroccan tanks approaching.
At Ceuta, some Moroccan units are already surrendering to the Spaniards.
The first Spanish tanks enter El Fendek, only a few minutes after the Moroccan command has fled south.
Moroccan intelligence warns Rabat about suspicious troop movements all around Algeria.
4.45PM: What will be known as the Battle of the Sands starts when Spanish helicopters attack a Moroccan armoured column 20 miles north of El Aaiun. The Moroccans are advancing on a broad front hoping to use their numerical superiority to bypass the Spaniards and retake Layoune-plage while trying to either envelope the Spanish tanks in the desert or forcing them into the city.
The Spaniards rely on their tanks’ superiority and their air support, but the Spanish commander fears that his Leopards run out of ammunition in the desert and have to withdraw to the city.
5PM: In Ceuta, the Moroccan position is unsustainable. Many units have already surrendered to the enemy, while others’ positions have been surrounded by the Spaniards. The Moroccan commander decides to surrender to prevent a worse carnage. The biggest, best armed, most experienced part of the Moroccan army is now out of combat.
In the desert, the Spanish tanks advance to meet the Moroccans.
Another Moroccan column is attacked near Bou Craa. The Moroccan redeployment towards El Aaiun is gradually degenerating into a withdrawal. The polisario renew their attack towards Smara.
In Tetouan, rumours that El Fendek has fallen and that the Spaniards are now approaching the city from two directions are now widespread.
5.30PM: The Moroccans expected that the spaniards would try to hold the city by keeping their tanks stationary near it to withdraw towards the city if necessary. They didn’t expect that they would dare to attack their line exposing their flanks to a Moroccan attack. But the Spanish commander knows that his only hope to win the battle is to fully profit from his tanks’ superior mobility and firepower. The Leopards engage the center of the Moroccan advance 15 miles north of El Aaiun.
5.45PM: The Moroccan T-72 were notably inferior to their enemies. In a brief combat, the largest tank battle since the 1991 Gulf War, the Spanish tank contingent has managed to knock out of combat every tank on their range. The center of the Moroccan line has ceased to exist. In the flanks, Spanish helicopters and Pizarros attack the Moroccan columns advancing towards the city and Layoune-plage.
In both Spain and Morocco, people is stuck in front of radios and TV’s, following the latest reports of the battle.
6PM: In Ceuta, the Spanish troops are busy receiving the surrender of the Moroccans and disarming the hundreds of prisoners. News of this catastrophe to the Moroccan arms are being censored in Morocco, but Spain receives the news with joy: Finally, Ceuta is no longer under siege. Anyway, Moroccan censorship is useless as many Moroccans are able to connect to international websites.
6.25PM: The Leopards have arrived to the Moroccan rear leaving a track of wrecked tanks and trucks. Unfortunately, some of them have run out of ammunition and have to withdraw from combat, while the rest turns back to surprise the rest of the Moroccan columns from the rear.
Algeria is starting to concentrate troops at the frontier.
In the Tetouan sector, El Fendek is now firmly on Spanish hands. The two Spanish columns are now converging on Tetouan.
6.35PM: The first units coming from Puyol Beach make contact with the Ceuta garrison at the city outskirts. The images of soldiers running into each other, hugging and cheering are soon being broadcasted worldwide. The Spaniards are now running into a serious problem as there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Moroccan prisoners that have to be taken care off. The prisoner camps built in Cadiz are already near their limit.
In Tetouan, the city garrison knows that they’re Morocco’s last chance, but the news are very demoralizing. The Spaniards have taken the airport and are surrounding the city and penetrating the outer suburbs. In any moment, they may order a massive air attack that reduces the city to rubble. Rumours of a great defeat in Ceuta and the Sahara are widespread, and the morale of the conscript soldiers is already very low.
7PM: The Moroccans managed to arrive to only 2 miles north of Layoune-Plage before being stopped by the Spanish defense. Some 20 miles east of them, the other Moroccan column heading towards El Aaiun has been surprised by the Spanish attack from their rear.
The Spanish command decides to withdraw air support from the almost won battle and use his planes and helicopters to attack the Moroccan columns approaching the capital from Boukhdour, Smara and Dakhla.
7.30PM: The Spanish make a first probe attack towards Tetouan Downtown, being surprised to see that the Moroccans resistance is mostly nominal and that many units choose to surrender.
In Layoune-Plage, the Moroccans are being slowly pushed towards the sea.
North of El Aaiun, the Moroccan spearheads were taken by surprise by the Spanish attack. Attacked from both the front and the rear by Leopards, Pizarros and infantry, they are routed and withdraw in disorder towards Smara.
8PM: Knowing that the battle is lost, and with the main commander of the attack group dead in his command tank somewhere north of the city, the attackers of Layoune-plage surrender after the Spanish counterattack pushes them to the beach.
In Tetouan, some Moroccan units still resist at the Medina, but the Spanish have no desire to start a terrible house-to-house fight in the labyrinths of the old city. Instead, they choose to advance through the downtown accepting the surrender of many scattered Moroccan troops.
As night falls, the Moroccan army is not an effective combat force anymor. Their only forces capable of a sustained resistance are fighting at the desert against the polisario, and now the Spanish airforce can come from its new base at El Aaiun and hack them to pieces from the air. In the north, the expected Moroccan counterattack in the El Fendek-Tetouan line was destroyed before it could even start when the Spanish broke through the Moroccan positions after the fall of Tangiers, and only isolated units keep resisting against all odds. Melilla is defended by 2nd rate units and is vulnerable to another Spanish air landing [actually the Spaniards have run out of paratroopers and are unable to conduct a large scale raid on Melilla, but the Moroccans can’t know this]. Meanwhile, the Algerian army has adopted a hostile stance and can cross the border in any moment…
At 11 PM, the Moroccan ambassador in Switzerland receives a peace proposal from his Spanish counterpart, using the Swiss government as a mediator. The terms are harsh.