Battle of Ocotal

On this day in 1927, the Battle of Ocotal was ignited when liberal troops led by Augusto Cesar Sandino attacked US marine forces and the National Guard at Ocotal in the Nueva Segovia Province of Nicaragua.

Sandino’s manifesto was a call to arms against both the conservative government in power and the occupying US forces. Sandino had formed a rebel splinter group after the leader of the liberal forces, José María Moncada, signed a cease-fire agreement with the US Secretary of State Henry Stimson.

Sandino refused to follow Moncada’s orders, branding him a traitor, and retreated into the hills to gather his troops. Ordered around a core of sixty experienced guerrilla soldiers in the town of San Fernando, ten miles east of Ocotal, Sandino’s army was bolstered by militia armed with rifles and machetes.

Meanwhile, a 40-man garrison of US marines, led by Captain Gilbert D. Hatfield, had taken up station in the Ocotal town hall, expectant of Sandino’s arrival. They were supported by 48 Nicaraguan Guardsmen located in a building near the main plaza.

In the early hours of 16 July, the Sandinistas marched on Ocotal and surrounded the Marines’ base following a night of exchanged fire and street skirmishes between the garrison and rebel snipers.

By 8:00 AM and with the marine forces greatly outnumbered, Sandino demanded Hatfield’s surrender. By mid-morning, two marine aircraft undertook a reconnaissance mission to survey the situation and reported their findings back to Major Ross E. Rowell, who was based in the capital, Managua.

Rowell responded by forming a squadron of five De Havilland biplanes, armed with machine guns and four twenty-five-pound bombs. By 2:30 that afternoon the squadron had reached Ocotal and began dive-bombing the Sandinista forces surrounding the marine compound.

This was the first organised dive-bombing attack in history and was to prove decisive. By swooping in low—sometimes as low as three hundred feet above the city—the US pilots were able to find their Sandinista targets with devastating accuracy.

Sandino’s troops, who were unused to airborne attack, were forced to flee but not before fifty-six rebels had been killed and over one hundred wounded by assault. In contrast, only one of Hatfield’s army was killed and only five were wounded.

Despite the rebel Sandino’s defeat at Ocotal, his forces’ prolonged resistance to US occupation led to President Hoover’s eventual withdrawal of US troops from the country in 1930. Today, Sandino is a revered figure in Nicaragua and was named a national hero by the nation’s congress in 2010.