Death in the Desert: The Namibian Tragedy

Chapter 20

By Morgan Norval

Copyright 1989 Published by: Selous Foundation Press, Washington DC

ISBN: 0-944273-03-3 Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 89-62602

NOTE Page numbers appear between [square brtackets] at the start of the page. Footnotes appear in red, and appear at the end of the chapter, although in the original book they appear at the foot of the page in question.

[215]During August 1985, the Angolan communist government launched a major dry season offensive against UNITA using massive airpower, tanks and 20,000 troops under the control of Russian General Konstantin Chaknovich. Nor was Soviet involvement limited to him alone. The Soviets were in this offensive up to their eyeballs, exercising tactical control of the communist forces all the way down to the battalion level. The ultimate objective of the offensive was the capture of Jamba, UNITA's capital and the destruction of Savimbi and his movement.

The Soviets knew UNITA lacked air defense and anti-tank weapons and they thought their armor and air power would carry the day. But they miscalculated the fighting abilities of the UNITA forces and the military skill of Savimbi and his officers. UNITA skillfully withdrew their forces in the face of the massive armored thrust, luring the armored columns deep into the bush where Savimbi's forces could attack their flanks.

The battle plan of the Soviets called for launching a two-front offensive on August 15-the first from the towns of Luena and Moxico. The Soviet-directed column from these towns, using Russian T-34, T-55 and newer model T 62 tanks, would move east into the Cazombo salient that juts into neighboring Zambia, capture the town of Cazombo, then turn south and link up with a second offensive column. This thrust was a feint. The true mission of the offensive was given to the second column, which was to move [217] southeast from Menongue to Cuito Cuanavale. There it would split into two prongs and initiate a pincer movement attack upon its objective-Mavinga. The town was important for two reasons: its airfield could be used as a forward air support base and it could become the logistical base for operations against UNITA in eastern Angola. This would shorten the main supply route for FAPLA operations in southeastern Angola. From Mavinga the communist forces would pose a direct threat to Savimbi's headquarters and stronghold in Jamba.

That was the plan. Executing the plan proved to be another matter, as UNITA was determined to stop the attack. "If we don't survive, we die," Savimbi said. "I am bound to survive."

Both arms of the pincers ran into serious difficulties. The right arm slowed in the soft sandy soil, was attacked by several UNITA brigades. The right element quickly called on the left arm for assistance. As the left arm moved to help, UNITA mortar and artillery fire and air attacks by planes of the South African Air Force raked the rescuers. The huge heavy armored vehicles and trucks of the column couldn't maneuver in the soft, sandy tracks and were destroyed en masse. Savimbi, seeing the plight of the FAPLA columns, showed his brilliant generalship: He ordered most of his soldiers defending Cazombo from the northern column to reinforce the defenders of Mavinga. These troops moved rapidly over 200 kilometers and enabled Savimbi to concentrate his forces while the FAPLA forces were still divided. UNITA launched a counterattack on September 26 and after three days of heavy fighting, the Soviet-directed troops withdrew.

The 1985 Soviet-directed offensive by the FAPLA was the strongest challenge to UNITA since the Marxist-Leninist MPLA had seized power. It clearly indicated that the MPLA wasn't about to be "weaned" away from the Soviets by the soothing words of naive diplomats at the State Department.

Instead, the Soviets poured in $3.5 billion worth of military equipment to replace and upgrade that lost during the ill-fated 1985 offensive.1 Meanwhile, the FAPLA replaced its casualties by a press-gang style of conscription that was scooping up 16-year-olds into the Angolan Army.

Retraining and re-equipping the Angolan military required almost two years before FAPLA was ready to try another major offensive against UNITA. The Soviets again poured weapons and ammunition into Angola to back yet another frontal assault launched from Cuito Cuanavale to capture the UNITA stronghold at Mavinga-the gateway to Savimbi's capital at Jamba.

[218] Although the 1987 Soviet-directed offensive was similar in nature to their ill-fated fiasco two years earlier, there were some differences. In 1985, the plan called for a river crossing of the Lomba River prior to the final attack on Mavinga. UNITA successfully repulsed this crossing attempt and its failure precipitated the destruction of the FAPLA force shortly thereafter.

The 1987 communist offensive hoped to profit from the bitter experience of the Lomba River debacle.

In August four brigades of Soviet and Cuban-led FAPLA forces (47th, 59th, 16th and 21st Brigades) moved again from Cuito Cuanavale in a slow methodical advance to the southeast towards Mavinga. The advance was proceeding along the road-actually it was nothing more than a dirt track cut through the bush-from Cuito Cuanavale southeastward to Cunjamba; between the Conzumbia River and Cunjamba the advance would turn south, cross the Lomba River and capture Mavinga. From there the advance would proceed south, capture Jamba and destroy the UNITA movement once and for all. That was the Soviets' plan.

The communists added a new twist, showing they had learned something from their whipping two years earlier. The 47th Brigade was to split off from the main thrust and either work its way south of the source of the Lomba or cross the Lomba much further west near the junction of the Lomba and Cuzizi Rivers. The 47th would then move along and secure the southern bank of the Lomba near the junction of the Lomba and Cuzizi Rivers. This would enable the 59th Brigade and the bulk of the force to cross the river unimpeded to link up with the 47th and march on Mavinga.
The 16th and 21st Brigades were to move into the area between the town of Cunjamba and the Lombo River. Their purpose was to prevent an expected South African/UNITA attack on the flanks of the Cuban/FAPLA forces crossing the Lomba River.

The communist forces advanced slowly and methodically, preceded by a screen of infantry to clear the area of UNITA ambushes. The bulk of the armored vehicles and armored personnel carriers would slowly follow behind the dismounted infantry sweeping the bush. The whole column would advance in this manner for six to eight kilometers per day Each evening, they would stop, and set up a fortified, dug-in defensive position before settling in for the night. The next day they would continue in the same manner, reminiscent of the advance of an ancient Roman Legion-march a certain distance, then build a fortified camp before spending the night.

Caution wasn't the only thing causing the advance to proceed at such a snail's pace. The terrain and the dirt track that passed as a road was slowing the movement of armor and vehicles that were designed for combat on the [220] plains of Europe not the African bush. The non-existent roads in southern Angola took their toll on both men and equipment of the communist forces.

The presence or possibility of FAPLA's 47th Brigade south of the Lomba River was a new and dangerous threat to UNITA's position and Savimbi requested SADF assistance.

The South Africans responded and a mechanized force, led by the veteran of Operation ASKARI-61 Mechanized Battalion-moved over the border from Rundu and headed northwest to intercept FAPLA's 47th Brigade.

The South African force was under the command of Colonel Deon Ferreira. He had received three sets of orders for his force to carry out: (1) to halt and reverse the FAPLA/Cuban advance on the UNITA strongholds of Mavinga and Jamba-Operation MODULAR; (2) to inflict maximum casualties on the retreating enemy-Operation HOOPER; and, (3) to force the enemy to retreat to west of the Cuito River-Operation PACKER.2

Near the junction of the Lomba and Cuzizi Rivers the South Africans met and utterly destroyed the 47th Brigade, removing the communist screening force from south of the Lomba River. The South African attack caught the communists by surprise as they were expecting any attack by the South Africans or UNITA to come from the east in the area between Cunjamba and the Lomba River. This was the area they had sent their 16th and 21st Brigades to defend against the expected attacks. Instead the attack had come from an unexpected direction-the south.

Heavy fighting was also going on north of the Lomba River as UNITA forces repulsed an attempt by FAPLA's 16th Brigade to capture Cunjamba.

After mopping up the FAPLA/Cuban survivors in the Lomba-CuziziConzumbia River area, the South Africans and UNITA went over to the offensive and began pushing the communist forces back towards Cuito Cuanavale-Operation MODULAR.

There were two weapons the South Africans used in Angola-one for the first time-that contributed to crushing the Soviet-directed offensive: the Olifant main battle tank and the G5 and G6 155mm artillery systems.

The presence of Olifant tanks in southern Angola was a first for the SADF while the G5 had been used before in Angola, especially to help UNITA stop the 1985 FAPLA offensive.

The use of the Olifants showed the South Africans had profited from [221] their near disastrous experience with Soviet-supplied armor during Operation ASKARI.

FAPLA armored forces took part in both the 1985 and and the current offensives against UNITA. This made it almost a matter of necessity for the South Africans to use armor to thwart the FAPLA offensive. The best weapon to destroy a tank is another tank and since UNITA had no armored forces, the job fell on the shoulders of the SADF

As the FAPLA armored thrust came towards the Lomba River it was met by the Olifants and the first full-scale tank-on-tank armored battle yet fought in southern Africa began. The result was an overwhelming triumph for the South Africans. All but ten of the seventy-two Soviet T -55s engaged in the battle were either destroyed or captured within the first thirty-six hours. The remaining ten were captured during mopping up operations by the South Africans over the next few days. These tanks were found scattered about in the bush, intact but abandoned by their crews who had fled into the bush.

In marked contrast, the South Africans had two of their tanks temporarily put out of action. One lost a track when it hit a mine, the other took a hit through its engine. Both were repaired in the field and took part in further operations.

Contributing to the success of the South Africans was their undisputed superiority in artillery. The advantage was not measured in numbers of guns -FAPLA and the Cubans actually had more artillery pieces than both UNITA and the South Africans combined. What carried the day for the South Africans was the tremendous technological superiority of their G5 and G6 155mm howitzers.

Most informed military experts throughout the world consider the G5 to be the best 155mm howitzer in the world. Its performance in southern Angola justified that belief. What made the G5 and the G6-the newer selfpropelled upgrade of the G5 system-so effective was their great accuracy at extreme range-approaching 40 kilometers.3 FAPLA/Cuban counterbattery fire was ineffective because they were outranged by the South African artillery. FAPLA's counterbattery radar could determine the bearing from which the shells were coming, but they could never determine how far away the guns were, making locating them impossible. Nor could the enemy's Soviet MIGs find the guns. The Soviet planes searched in vain often [223] thousands of meters short of the actual gun locations.
As the FAPLA/Cuban offensive was stopped, the South African/ UNITA force went over to the offensive ending MODULAR and beginning Operation HOOPER. HOOPER's task was to inflict as much damage as possible on the retreating communist forces. The long, strung-out columns of retreating FAPLA/Cuban vehicles were hounded from the flanks by UNITA's guerrillas. They were pursued by the mobile UNITA units and the South African mechanized forces and pounded unmercilessly by the deadly G5 and G6 artillery fire.

The bulk of HOOPER's activity was to support UNITA's drive towards Cuito Cuanavale and to clear the area east of the town between the Cautir and Chambinga Rivers of all FAPLA forces. On January 13, 1988, they attacked FAPLA's 21st Brigade and sent them fleeing for safety west of the Cuito River. During this battle over 250 FAPLA soldiers from the 21st Brigade were killed and large quantities of arms were captured or destroyed, including fourteen tanks.

On February 14,1988, HOOPER forces launched a second attack against FAPLA's 59th Brigade. The brigade withdrew with 230 FAPLA soldiers killed and nine more Soviet tanks destroyed.

On February 25, 1988, South African and UNITA forces attacked positions manned by FAPLA's 25th Brigade south of the Tumpo River, twenty to twenty-five kilometers east of Cuito Cuanavale. The attack ran into an extensive anti-tank mine field, which stopped the tank-supported South African/UNITA attack with the loss of two Olifants. In spite of this, the intense artillery bombardment and infantry assaults inflicted heavy casualties and pinned down the FAPLA survivors.

Even though some FAPLA forces remained on the Tumpo River the South African/UNITA force succeeded in capturing the tactical highground in the area, the so-called "Chambinga heights." This high ground dominates Cuito Cuanavale and its nearby territory UNITA still holds the Chambinga heights.

At this point HOOPER was effectively over and Operation PACKER was in full swing.

PACKER was on-going with much of HOOPER in that its objective was to drive the FAPLA/Cuban force back across the Cuito River to it west bank. From the South African's last position twenty to twenty-five kilometers east of Cuito Cuanavale, including the Chambinga heights, the G5 and G6 artillery took on the task of chasing the enemy forces west of the Cuito River. They were successful in this mission: "We'd succeeded in dispersing the entire [224] enemy force, save one battalion, to beyond the Cuito River," said Colonel Ferreira.4

Foreign observers were quick to comment on the effectiveness of the South African artillery at Cuito Cuanavale. Janes Defense Weekly said: "Since 10 January, 170 to 200 shells have hit targets in and around the town (Cuito Cuanavale) daily.

"The vital air base close to the town is thought to have been inoperative for some time, with radar and air defense systems destroyed by shelling, the runway craterized and aircraft movements rendered hazardous in the extreme-several having been destroyed on the ground."5

Added Soldier of Fortune: ". . . Cuito Cuanavale is reported to be in shambles; its buildings destroyed and its radar network knocked out. The removal of Cuito Cuanavale from the overall Angolan radar network grid creates a serious gap in the aerial defenses of Angola, a situation which the Soviet Union has spent billions of dollars trying to prevent. Aircraft that were left behind at the airstrip also became casualties of the ongoing battle."

Arm-chair strategists may question the success of the South African action at Cuito Cuanavale because the South Africans failed to capture the town. Such chairborne tacticians miss the key point: the capture of Cuito Cuanavale was not part of the operational plan. The main reason being the geographical facts of life. To capture the town would require an assault river crossing of a two mile wide river. The size of the South African force, never more than 3,000 men, would render such an amphibious attack in the face of hostile fire a risky gamble indeed. To attempt to seize and occupy a town in enemy territory with a two mile wide river between one's forces and one's target would be at best, a fool-hardy venture. In addition, capturing the town would require garrisoning troops there to hold it. Cuito Cuanavale was not a SWAPO base so it made no sense for South Africa to keep troops there. Garrisoning the town with UNITA forces would tie down manpower that could better serve UNITA's guerrilla war elsewhere in Angola. By holding the Chambinga heights it is possible to dominate Cuito Cuanavale without having to occupy the town.

The goal had been to drive the Cuban/ FAPLA forces back over the Cuito [226] River. That was accomplished with the minimum amount of troops and effort.

Even the Soviet officials conceded that their latest attempt to destroy UNITA and punish its South African ally had not succeeded. M. Ponomorov, writing in Krarnaya Zvezda, on May 20, 1988, said: "The people's armed forces for the liberation of Angola have not been able either, even with the help of the Cubans, to decisively defeat the enemy and drive him out of the territory or the country. The result, frankly speaking, was an impasse."

Ponomorov was being circumspect, Colonel Ferreira was a bit more candid: "If defeat for South Africa meant the loss of 31 men, three tanks, five armoured vehicles and three aircraft, then we'd lost. If victory for FAPLA and the Cubans meant the loss of 4600 men, 94 tanks, 100 armoured vehicles, 9 aircraft and other Soviet equipment valued at more than a billion rand, then they'd won."7

The latest communist offensive had come to an ignoble failure, and the battle once again shifted to the political and diplomatic arena.


1 The Economist, November 27, 1987, p.1G.

2 "Cuito Cuanavale: Veil lifted at last," Paratus, March, 1989, p.14.

3 Janes Defence Weekly, March 25, 1989, p.525; see also: Heitman, H-R, South African War Machine, Presidio, Novato, CA, 1985, p.45.

4 Paratus, March, 1989, p.14.

5 Janes Defence Weekly, op. cit., January 30, 1988.

6 Venter, A.J., "Seige at Cuito Cuanavale;" Soldier of Fortune, May, 1988, p.37.

7 Paratus, op, cit., p.14.

@ A Forgotten War
@ No more heroes
@ What happened to the boys on the border?
@ In conflict

@ Death in the Desert: The Namibian Tragedy Chapter 6
@ Chapter 7
@ Chapter 12
@ Chapter 13
@ Chapter 14
@ Chapter 15
@ Chapter 16
Chapter 18
@ Chapter 19
@ Chapter 21

@ Civil supremacy of the military in Namibia



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