Football – otherwise known as “soccer” to American readers – is a sport that has a somewhat unfortunate reputation as a game whose fans tend to be on the…stroppy side, shall we say. Without doubt, it is a sport that creates high passions in its followers, and violent confrontations between rival supporters at both club and national levels have been a curse of the game for decades.
But few of these outbreaks are as famous as the “Football” or “Soccer War” fought between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. This four-day conflict followed shortly after violent clashes between fans at the three World Cup qualifier games played between the two countries in June of that year.
Just over two weeks after the final game, which saw El Salvador win and pass through to the next round, El Salvador invaded Honduras on July 14. A rather vicious little war ensued over the next four days which often gets overlooked because of its comparatively small scale.
But the conflict had several incidents, improvisations and impacts that are of interest, which I will explore in this article.
However, probably the biggest fallacy of this episode is the popular name it is remembered by – the “Football War”. So, let’s look at why that isn’t really accurate.
Because the outbreak of the war followed so closely after the violence that took place in the three games, and generally came as a complete surprise to most observers, it was easy for the world to write-off the conflict as simply caused by the passions evoked in both nations by the critical qualifiers.
“What do you expect from hot-blooded Latinos?” – that kind of thing.
This is, for both Hondurans and Salvadorans, pretty insulting. Countries don’t go to war over football qualifiers.
The roots of the conflict between the two countries ran much deeper and older and had their origins in…bananas.
At the turn of the 20th Century, the United Fruit Company (UFC) owned vast plantations in Honduras, primarily growing bananas for export to the United States and Europe. As its power and possessions grew, UFC found that local labour couldn’t meet it requirements and began to import workers from El Salvador. This was initially not a problem, and as El Salvador experienced some internal conflicts and issues over the next few decades, more migrants moved to Honduras. Here they found work in the plantations and generally lived as squatters on land they had cleared.
This situation continued until the 1962, when clamour for land reform amongst Honduran peasants and plantation workers began to represent a significant threat to the fruit companies and other major landowners. They came together and not wanting to give up their landholdings, lobbied the government to redistribute the land lived upon by El Salvadoran immigrants, who now represented more than 10% of Honduras’ population.
The Honduran government brought in legislation intended to do exactly this, causing huge alarm in the El Salvadoran government who recognized that this would cause massive disruption in their own country. There followed several years of wrangling as the two countries governments agreed and broke trade and immigration agreements seeking to mitigate a sudden expulsion of hundreds of thousands of El Salvadorans from Honduras.
It seems that the El Salvadorans began to actively prepare for the invasion in July 1967 – two years before the war. At that point they instituted a new recruitment and training regime to both increase the size of the army and to bring their units up to a high standard for combat. They also created a civilian militia organization intended to support the army for the war and began improving equipment with the frontline units
Both the Salvadoran and Honduran armies operated as predominantly infantry forces with an emphasis on anti-insurgent roles. These were equipped with old equipment.
Both armies used the M1 rifle and M1 and M2 carbines as their standard small arms and old Madsen machine guns as their main support weapon.
In 1968 El Salvador managed to acquire 5000 G3 Rifles, 200 HK21 light machine guns and ammunition for them.
Remarkably, they also managed to keep this purchase quiet.
They also began to build improvised armoured personnel carriers by adding armour, radios and .50 calibre Browning heavy machine guns to 2 ½-tonne trucks.
Over the next two years the Salvadorans prepared for the coming war, the final intention of which seems to have been to seize Honduran territory. In January 1969 the Salvadoran military began advanced preparations for the attack, setting up the command structures for the various fronts and preparing for the moving of troops up to the border.
In April, the buildup began, quietly and carefully.
In the meantime, the wrangling over the issue of Salvadoran migrants in Honduras kept bubbling away, until on June 2, 1969, the first mass deportation began. This overwhelmed the refugee camps and Red Cross facilities that had been set up in El Salvador to cope with the expulsion. It was also soon followed by reports that migrants had been attacked and atrocities committed by the Honduran military against them.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know the truth of these allegations. But the Salvadoran government certainly made great noise about them in coordination with the Salvadoran press.
So, it was not the football games that set the timing of the war; It was the beginning of the expulsions. In fact, the violence at the three football games was a consequence of the growing public anger in each country at the other. This was being stoked by their respective governments’ propaganda campaigns – one to justify their expulsion policy, the other to justify war.
With war decided upon years before, and well prepared, the Salvadoran army was the stronger of the two. Available for the conflict where seven infantry battalions, a commando company, a special forces company and a motorized squadron that used the ersatz-APCs and two M3 Stuart tanks.
These were supported by two artillery battalions equipped with M101 105mm and M116 75mm howitzers and 81mm mortars in the infantry units.
There were also two battalions of National Guard, who were backed up by the civilian militia, which numbered around 6,000 personnel and as was equipped with everything from machetes to M1 Garands.
Against this, the Honduran army was in poor shape. Corruption had been rife throughout the establishment and though on paper the army had six infantry battalion, in fact only one of these was fully combat capable.
Equipment was old, with the infantry having M1 Garands, carbines and some Madsens like the Salvadorans. The single artillery battalion in fact only had a handful of 75mm recoilless rifles and 81mm mortars. They also had no tanks or armoured vehicles.
All these deficiencies would be graphically demonstrated when the storm broke and the Salvadorans swept aside the hastily put together defensive positions on the border that the Hondurans had scrambled to put into place.
The Salvadoran plan called for a four-front war, named the Chalatenago Theater, the North-East theater, the North Theater, and the East Theater.
The Chalatenago Theater and the North-East theater were low-key and primarily intended to support the advances of the main attacks and stop Honduran incursions into El Salvador.
The North was the second primary attack area.
This was composed of two infantry battalions, a battalion of National Guard and the commando company. This had the end goal of seizing Santa Rosa de Copan.
The Eastern theater was the focus of the attack. Here four infantry battalion were concentrated, along with the Special Forces Company and all the artillery. Their goal was to seize the highlands in the vicinity of the Inter-American highway and, if possible, to push as far as Nacaome.
The attack was to begin with a major air attack on key targets in Honduras, intended to knock out the Honduran Air Force. Apparently, the Salvadoran command were greatly influenced by the success of the Israelis in the Six-Day War of 1967 – an event that notably occurred shortly before the Salvadorans began planning their own campaign.
But here the Salvadoran command structure being dominated by infantry officers showed its flaws. While the army was getting money lavished on it for reequipment and training, the Salvadoran Air Force – or FAS – tended to suffer the same issues the Honduran army did. At the start of hostilities, the FAS would field 9 fighter bombers – five FG-1D Corsairs and four Cavalier Mustang 2s.
These were tasked with hitting the Honduran Air Force on the ground in a pre-emptive strike, scheduled for the early evening of July 14. For this they were backed up by several C-47s that were converted to bombers capable of carrying 18 100lb bombs– they did this by the crew launching the ordnance out of the side cargo door.
The Salvadorans also bought into service a host of small civilian aircraft that would be used to attack the Honduran defensive positions. They did this by removing their side doors and having a crew member lob a mortar shell out while the aircraft circled the target.
Though this seems a somewhat desperate measure, the civilian pilots seem to have been the most successful, as the professional air force pilots largely got lost and ended up hitting random towns and villages. This was attributed to the low hours flown by the Salvadoran Air Force and their inexperience with navigation – something the civilian pilots had.
The attack caught the Hondurans by surprise, but they were able to react vigorously mainly due to the effectiveness of their own air force. In sharp contrast to the Honduran army, this branch was well drilled and competent.
They also had stocks of ammunition available, though this caused some issues. Throughout the fighting Honduran Corsair pilots often had problems with their cannons jamming. This was ultimately traced to newly acquired British shells having cases one millimeter too thick. The cases were lathed down and then worked fine.
On July 15 FAH C-47s, similar configured as bombers, struck El Salvador and F4 Corsairs bombed the fuel storage tanks at the port of Cutuco.
This pretty much set the standard of the next few days, with the Salvadoran army gradually pushing back the Honduran defenders, while both side air forces tried to support their respective ground forces. Then on July 17 disaster struck the El Salvadoran Air Force when they lost three fighters in air combat.
If you’re interested in this event, I’ve covered it in a separate article.
More woe was to come as another of their now practically nonexistent fighter force was shot down by friendly anti-aircraft fire later that day. The losses seem to have demoralized the Salvadorans so much that their air force desperately tried to get American mercenary pilots they had recruited to fight into the air. But these, quite sensibly, refused to fly until their aircraft had been modified to a standard that gave them a chance against the formidable Corsairs flown by the Hondurans.
On July 18 pressure by the Organization of American States forced the Salvadorans to agree to a ceasefire. The El Salvadorans didn’t pull their troops out of Honduras until August 2, apparently hoping to still be able to claim some territory but had to relent in the end.
The four-day war saw both countries suffer major economic damage and disrupted the entire region for years. The number of casualties is still uncertain, but it is thought that over three thousand were killed, most of them civilians.
The displacement of the Salvadorans from Honduras also did, as feared, disrupt El Salvador, and played a part in the bloody civil war that tore the country apart ten years later.
Ultimately a peace deal between Honduras and El Salvador wasn’t agreed until 1980, and even as recently as 2013 both countries have exchanged threatening notes on territory claims.
And so that is the Hundred-Hours War, a conflict that is largely misunderstood outside of the countries that were involved, but which was as much of a pointless waste of life and effort as many such wars ultimately prove to be.
As with my article on the air combats fought on July 17, I owe a huge debt of thanks to Mario at the Latin American Aviation Historical Society.
His book “The 100 Hour War: the conflict between Honduras and El Salvador in July 1969”, coauthored with Dan Hagedorn, is in my opinion the best and most thorough examination of the conflict around.
Unfortunately, it is out of print, but Mario has informed me that digital copies are available to those wanting them if they donate to the Society.
Contact Mario at the Society website for details.