Debay, Yves (Text) Source: Raids magazine. No. 44 July 1995 ISSN 0963-1852 PP. 20-23, 41.

Note: The original appears to have been written in French. Some of the exotic spelling remains from the original article.

1975 was a particularly bad year for the western world: Saigon and Phnom Penh fell into communist hands while, after a sudden about-face in western Africa, the Soviets turned away from their Somali allies to back instead the new Ethiopian rulers who had declared themselves loyal to Moscow. Soon, the communist dictators of several other African countries, Tanzania, the People’s Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Guinea, gave the Russians the support bases they needed to take over the dark continent.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic and still reeling from the Vietnam trauma, the Americans led by President Jimmy Carter stood by powerlessly, reluctant to be drawn yet again into a foreign military venture despite the seemingly inexorable communist expansion across the third world. Concurrently, a pacifist movement animated by disenchanted soldiers shook the NATO armies guarding the western border from the 50,000 Warsaw Pact tanks facing them across the Iron Curtain. Apparently unconcerned, Europe looked the other way, ignoring Lenin's prediction 'We’ll sneak in through the African back door.'


South Western Africa was further destabilized in 1975 when, political unrest at home forced the Portuguese to abandon their African possessions. The communists were quick off the mark, soon turning Guinea and Mozambique, two other former Portuguese colonies, into 'people's republics'.

But in Angola the situation was more complex: there, the Portuguese had to contend with three separatist movements: FNLA, UNITA and MPLA. Led by Roberto Holden, FNLA (Frente Nacional de Libertagao de Angola - National Front for the Liberation of Angola) drew its supporters from the Bakongo tribes and its influence reached as far as Zaire. The members of UNITA (Uniao Nacional para lndependencia Total de Angola - National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) were mostly recruited from among the Ovimbundus, the largest ethnic group in Angola. The MPLA movement, on the other hand, was very much a party of radical intellectuals with its main strength divided between the urbanized Angolans living along the coastal zones and half-castes. In the late 1960s, the MPLA was dealt a severe blow when Portuguese secret police made several waves of arrests, resulting in its subsequent leader, Doctor Agostino Neto, a staunch Marxist, being arrested. Predictably, Moscow granted unlimited support the latter faction.

In late 1974, sizeable quantities of arms and ammunition were shipped from the East to the MPLA, shortly followed by 250 Cuban technicians and advisors who arrived in May 1975, just as the country was in the throes of independence. Before withdrawing, the Portuguese tried to persuade the factions to form a coalition government, but their advice went unheeded as none of the parties was willing to make any effort to implement the solution they proposed.

Increasingly concerned about the situation on their northern border, Pretoria deployed troops in South-West Africa 1 and later, posted elements from the 2nd South African Infantry to the large dam at Ruacana in Angola.


A closer look at Soviet strategy of the 1970s helps to understand why the situation in Angola took a turn for the worse before it degenerated into an all-out civil war. In 1975, the west relied heavily on the Middle East for its oil requirements, but as the Suez Canal had been closed to traffic since the Six-Day War (or had become too narrow for modern tankers), traffic had to skirt the Cape of Good Hope, the air and waters around which were practical controlled by the Soviets and their allies from their African bases, Soviet bombers TU-95 Bears and TU-l 6 Badgers - presented a serious threat to the sea routes.

Without question, the Soviets would have derived invaluable strategic and economic advantages from a take-over of South Africa as, further to getting hold of Pretoria's fantastic gold reserves, they could also lay their hands on the mineral wealth of southern Africa as a whole. As a western political observer put it when commenting on Soviet expansion in Africa: 'From Cape Town, the Soviets will, in the long run, gradually control the policy of Europe and preside over its destiny like they're doing in Finland.'

But in 1975, the city of Luanda, Angola's capital was a major obstacle which stood in the way of the Soviets to Cape Town. In a first move, FAPLA (Front Arme Patriotique pour la Liberation de I'Angola - Patriotic Front for the Liberation of Angola) the military branch of the MPLA, secured the harbour so the first Cuban freighter to berth there, the Vietnam Heroica, could deliver the initial batch of advisors, the 'barbudos' (bearded ones) who were to play an increasingly significant role in Angolan military affairs.

Soon, thousands upon thousands of tons of Soviet equipment were airlifted into Angola by aircraft flying regular shuttles between Conakry in Guinea and Brazzaville in Congo. Although supported by mercenaries in the field, the pro-western FNLA collapsed. Lightly equipped, Roberto Holden's men were no match for the communists who were lavishly equipped with artillery, particularly 122mm D-30 and M-46 130mm pieces.

Egged on by Henry Kissinger who urged them to assist Roberto Holden and Jonas Savimbi (UNITA’s leader), the South Africans found themselves, albeit reluctantly, embroiled in the Angolan quagmire. On 24 September 1975, two South African liaison officers, Major Van der Wals and Major Hoitzhausen, were sent by their government to help UNITA. The two officers brought with them a complement of four Land Rovers fitted with French Entac anti-tank missiles which were later used to check three MPLA armoured columns between Lobito and Nova Lisboa on 2 October 1975. In this engagement, MPLA casualties amounted to 100 men killed and one BRDM-2 APC destroyed for the loss only one Land Rover.


South African reinforcements quickly poured in: a squadron of Elands was airlifted by a C-1 30 into Angola, even though the initial aims of this first operation, codenamed 'Savannah', were restricted to recapturing Lobita Harbour and to reopen the vital Benguela railway line, used to bring in copper ore from Zaire. These two objectives were achieved but, in the north, FNLA forces were crushed. By this time, 12,000 Cubans were deployed in Angola against 2,900 South Africans.

Diplomatically, MPLA rulers scored a major success when, spurred on by Nigeria, the Marxist regime of Angola was endorsed by the OAU (Organisation of African Unity). This decision prompted the South Africans to grudgingly pull out their forces just as three task forces (Fox-Bat, X-Ray and Zulu) were within reach of Luanda. Operation 'Savannah' was over. It had cost the South Africans 29 soldiers killed in action plus a further 20 who lost their lives in accidents. Although beaten in the field, MPLA had won a major diplomatic success and soon, Angola became the 27th member of the OAU as UNITA forces withdrew to the south-east of the country. However, South Africa provided active support to Savimbi's fighters as Luanda's regime assisted and provided bases to SWAPO (South West Africa's People Organisation), a guerrilla movement it had created to wage unconventional warfare in South West Africa. Consequently, a covert war, not unlike the Rhodesian conflict, flared up in South West Africa, with ambushes, raids, and horse patrols being the order of the day for years to come.


UNITA had been dealt a number of crippling blows but somehow, gradually recovered and was soon able to raid MPLA rear bases and foster a climate of insecurity within the MLPA controlled zones. In 1977 and 1978, SWAPO intensified its attacks in South West Africa. In retaliation, South African paras led by Colonel Breytenbach launched a massive airborne raid against Cassinga, one of SWAPO's major bases (Operation 'Reindeer), while the famous 32nd 'Buffalo' Battalion attacked several camps at Chetequera. In these two episodes, the South Africans killed more than 1,000 SWAPO fighters, losing 19 of their number in the process.

Three months later, the South African positions at Katima Mulilo's in the Caprivi strip, were shelled by SWAPO fighters and Zambian soldiers firing from over the Zambian border. The guerrillas loosed off 30 122mm rockets and numerous mortar shells which killed 10 South African soldiers. By way of reprisals for this attack, South African aviation launched several air strikes at Zambia while an armoured task force thrust deeply inland, killing dozens of SWAPO guerrillas in the process and destroying huge quantities of equipment.

In early 1979, 250 guerrillas attacked the Nkongo base, killing seven South African soldiers. This caused the peace talks initiated under UN auspices to break down irredeemably. As Pik Botha, South Africa's foreign minister said: 'Not one soldier will be withdrawn from the border as long as SWAPO will maintain its murderous policy and refuse to agree to a ceasefire. In March, two smaller operations, 'Rekstock' and 'Safraan', were conducted across the border as the South African Air Force struck deeper and deeper into Angolan territory.

In 1979, 800 guerrillas were killed but SWAPO has massacred 158 civilians and abducted 450 children back to its Angolan bases where they would be trained in guerrilla warfare. In early 1980, guerrilla and counter guerrilla operations intensified with the South African security forces losing 22 men killed in these sweeps. The most serious clash took place in May 1980 when a South African patrol was ambushed by well trained guerrillas and lost five soldiers killed in the initial exchange of fire. However, the South Africans recovered quickly and counter-attacked, accounting for 81 'terros'.


On 25 May, the South Africans launched 22 Operation 'Sceptic'. Subdivided into three combat groups, including mechanised units, the 32nd Battalion and airborne forces, the task force struck at the city of Chifufua, some 260km into Angolan territory. In this conventional attack at SWAPO sanctuaries, the South Africans destroyed several tons of supplies and armament. Weakened after this severe blow, SWAPO indulged in desultory guerrilla operations until the end of the year. In these actions, the South Africans killed 1, 147 guerrillas, losing about 100 men themselves.

Operation 'Protea' in 1981, a major thrust deep into Angolan territory to destroy the guerrillas' support bases. After beating the Angolans in a four-day battle, the task force pushed on, with a large number of T-34s being lost to the 90mm guns of its Eland light tanks. Supported by UNITA, the South Africans destroyed more than 2,000 tons of ammunition at Xagongo and Ongiva. A second operation, codenamed 'Daisy', consolidated the success achieved by 'Protea'. During these engagements, a Cuban-flown MiG-21 was shot down by South African Mirages. At the end of 1981, SWAPO casualties amounted to an estimated 3,000 men killed while security forces losses stood at 56.


In early 1982, SWAPO guerrillas tried to infiltrate South West Africa through the forbidding Kaokaland desert, but were checked by Operation 'Super'. In this action, some 45 soldiers from the 32nd Heliborne Battalion, supported by two Alouette III gunships, accounted for 201 rebels in a memorable eight-hour battle. In April, Group 'Volcano', a terrorist unit trained in Eastern Europe, tried to infiltrate South West Africa through the Tsumeb mining region. They failed however, losing 76 of their number in the attempt. Meanwhile, para units, recce commandos and 32nd Battalion elite soldiers were deployed to support UNITA. Meanwhile, secret negotiations were underway between the South Africans and the opposing factions: Pretoria was willing to pull out its forces from South West Africa in return for a Cuban withdrawal from Angola. Unfortunately, this proposal was rejected out of hand by Luanda's rulers and, by the end of the year, the communist forces were substantially reinforced as the radar screen protecting Angola was boosted by the addition of SAM-3 and -6 air defence ' missiles. But by late 1983, SWAPO was on the brink of collapsing: its manpower reserves in Angola amounted to only 800 fighters as the severe losses suffered in previous battles, 1,286 men, could not be replaced. The situation had become so critical that 14 newly trained companies sneaked into South West Africa to bolster the deployment. But they too, were crushed in a matter of week in a massive anti-terrorist sweep codenamed 'Phoenix'. In August, UNITA (probably benefiting from South African Air Force support) raided the city of Cangamba in the heartland of Angola. By then Jonas Savimbi's forces controlled more than one quarter of the country, a situation which prompted the Soviets to increase their arms deliveries to their allies. Soon, 10 freighters carrying the latest in military hardware, such as T-62 MBTS, MI-24 helicopters and SAM-8 and -9 air defence missiles, were on their way to Angola.

Aware that the Eastern Bloc's most sophisticated weapons would soon be at the Angolans' disposal and that a 5,000-man reinforcement was to be flown in from Cuba, the South Africans launched Operation 'Askari', a major sweep involving four mechanised combat groups of 500 men each. After clashing with the FAPLA units covering the withdrawal of SWAPO, the task force engaged the 11th FAPLA Brigade which was reinforced by two Cuban battalions on 3 January 1984. In this battle, the South Africans destroyed 11 T-55s but lost one Ratel. Communist losses amounted to 324 men killed while the South Africans suffered five casualties. But the violence of the Cuban-Angolan reaction boded ill for future battles.

Soon afterwards, negotiations resumed at Lusaka as SWAPO maintained its pressure in South West Africa, even though its ranks had been thinned by South African retaliatory strikes. In 1984, 584 guerrillas were killed (this figure includes the losses sustained during Operation 'Askari’) by the South Africans who lost 39 men themselves.

At the onset of the 1985/86 rainy season, 700 SWAPO guerrillas supported by the 'Typhoon' group, a unit specializing in deep penetration, infiltrated Ovamboland where they soon clashed with security forces. But the bad weather also proved to be an asset for UNITA fighters who dealt a few hard blows to the Angolans, particularly in the north of the country, where they shot down several aircraft with Stinger missiles (probably supplied by the Americans). In September 1985, and for the first time, South African units were rushed into the fray when UNITA was threatened by a large force of Cubans and Angolans.


Confident in the superiority of their air force and artillery, South African commanders were satisfied that they did not have to provide any infantry to support Savimbi's soldiers who, left to their own devices, managed to repel the enemy near Mavinga. From then on and over the next three years, the same scenario repeated itself during the monsoon season, so that in the engagements fought in the first four months, SWAPO lost 283 fighters killed in South West Africa. Stringent measures were called for and so, the Russian General Konstantin Shagnovich decided to take over command of all Angolan and allied forces. By that time, more than 1,000 Soviets served in headquarters as 2,000 East Germans took care of signals and communications. In the field, 15,000 Cuban soldiers supported 20,000 FAPLA soldiers, themselves reinforced by 4,000 SWAPO guerrillas and 900 ANC fighters. On 27 May 1986, Shagnovich launched and directed personally the sweep against UNITA. Organized into three armoured columns, the Angolan force converged towards Mavinga from their Luena and Cuito Cuanavale departure bases. Slowly but inexorably, the UNITA soldiers were forced back but recovered near the city of Cangombe. From there, they struck back on 9 August and pushed on towards Cuito Cuanavale, backed up by the South Africans who supported the assault with their artillery protected by the 32nd Infantry Battalion. But UNITA had bitten off more than it could chew, and failed to capture the city even though South African G-5 and G-6 guns scored some successes by destroying the air base, its radars and a few MiG aircraft.

By the end of 1986, both sides had reached a status quo: UNITA had lost ground but had regained some strength thanks to the South African intervention. Losses then stood at 645 SWAPO elements and 33 security forces soldiers killed.

In 1987, the South Africans were again involved in numerous anti-guerrilla sweeps across South West Africa. On 26 February, SWAPO losses amounted to 272 men killed as General Shagnovich was issuing his last directives for the winter offensive (dry season). The major blow was to be directed at Mavinga, the stepping stone from which the Angolans planned to seize the city of Jamba, UNITA’s capital. In a further move, the Angolans would reopen the Benguela railway line to help restore the country's economy. In July, the Russians activated an airlift to deliver the sophisticated equipment needed for the oftensive.

In early August, the communists attacked with five brigades, driving back UNITA forces from their positions until the South Africans launched Operation 'Modular' to support their allies: one 127mm rocket launcher and one 120mm mortar battery supported by an infantry detail were consolidated within each UNITA column. Even though this artillery inflicted considerable losses on the Angolans, it proved insufficient to check the 47th FAPLA Brigade which paved the way for the 59th and 21st FAPLA Brigades as they swept along the river Lomba. Armour reinforcements arrived on 1 0 September and, in the major engagement which ensued, the South Africans wiped out a FAPLA battalion and destroyed three T-55s.


Two days later, the South African 101st Mechanised Battalion checked and then repelled a FAPLA thrust, destroying another three tanks with its Ratels. On 16 September, the South Africans took on the 47th Brigade and destroyed six of its tanks. By then, Angolan losses amounted to more than 800 men. On 3 October, the remnants of the 47th Brigade, caught in open ground by the 61st Mechanised Brigade's G-5s and G-6s, lost or were forced to abandon 18 tanks, five APCs and several armoured vehicles (SA-8 and SA-9). In another engagement fought near the source of the river Chambinga, FAPLA 16th and 21st Brigades reinforced by elements from the 59th clashed with 4th SAI Ratels and Olifant MBTs as they were deploying towards Mavinga. This was the Olif ant's baptism of fire in Angola. On 9 November, the Angolan forces were forced out of Cuito Navale, leaving behind 525 men and 33 tanks. 'Modular' was a total victory for Pretoria's forces.

Smarting over his defeat, Fidel Castro deployed reinforcements to Angola, spearheaded by 50th Division elements and T-60 MBTS. Meanwhile, concerned about the losses among their conscript army, the South Africans pulled out most of their units, leaving G-5 and G-6 pieces to mercilessly pound the Cubans. Flushed with success, Savimbi intensified his action in central Angola. In 1987, 3,000 FAPLA soldiers and 757 SWAPO rebels were killed. South African losses amounted to 27 soldiers while UNITks probably ran into the thousands.


Throughout January, fighting went on unabated when UNITA and SADF forces attacked fortified positions defended by the 21st Brigade at Cuatir. Soon, both sides dug in, resorting to static warfare tactics. The raids launched by Cuban MiG-23s were followed by South African artillery barrages. But in spite of the support they were getting, UNITA infantry was rolled back more than 12km by FAPLA 21st Brigade which had been recreated in the meantime. On 14 February, a combat group led by Major Mike Muller and comprising elements from the 61st Mechanised Brigade took on the FAPLA 59th Brigade at Tumpo, some 20km to the east of Cuito-Cuanavale, while the 32nd Battalion attacked Menongue. The Angolans pulled out in good order, even launching a counter attack which failed disastrously with the loss of 230 men and a sizeable quantity of equipment (including SAMs and BM-21 s). This engagement cost the South Africans four men, one Ratel and two damaged Olifants. Again, Task Force Muller attacked Tumpo but was checked by a combination of minefields, Angolan artillery barrages and numerous air strikes by Luanda's ground attack aircraft. In this final assault, which marked the end of Operation 'Hooper', South Africa's final sweep in Angola, the task force lost three men killed while two Ratels and two Olifants were damaged.

South African total casualties in Operations 'Modular' and 'Hooper' amounted to 43 men killed, two Mirage F-1s, one Bosbok light aircraft, three Olifants and four Ratels. But the Cuban toll was heavier: 4,768 men killed, 94 tanks, eight MiG-23s, four MiG-21s and dozens of APCS.

The third battle of Tumpo started on 23 March. Its aim was to clean up the eastern bank of the River Cuito, but this time the objective was well defended. Soon, three Olifants were disabled by mines. Their crews were saved but the MBTs were captured by the Angolans before they could be destroyed. In late May, more than 40,000 Cubans were deployed in Angola, particularly in the south of the country, with 105 MBTs (including T-72s) and one air defence regiment equipped with state of the art SAM anti-aircraft missiles. Soon, three battalions codenamed 'Zebra', 'Tiger' and 'Lion' were deployed some 60km back from the border. Well provided with armour and artillery, each unit numbered 200 Cubans and 200 SWAPO fighters.

Air activity also increased with MiG 21s and -23s roaming freely the South African air space, aware that Pretoria's defence forces lacked the radar and air defence missiles needed to check their high altitude incursions.


This massive build-up clearly indicated that a major assault was in the offing. In an incident, a Cuban foot patrol clashed with SADF soldiers only 12km from the Ruacana dam as in South African 1,000 Citizen Force reservists were hastily called up. On 20 July 1988, a major battle took place between South African forces and three Cuban columns advancing towards the Calueque and Ruacana dams under the protection of SAM-6 air defence missiles. Major Mike Muller's task force was ordered to check them and soon, a storm of fire and steel from G-5 pieces pounded one of the columns. The Cubans lost several vehicles but resolutely pushed on, threatening to outflank Major Muller's men and eventually forcing them to pull out. Major Muller reorganized his forces, deploying his armour in front of the central column. Meanwhile, South African artillery took on the western column and destroyed eight of its vehicles before forcing it to pull out. The South African task force then fell back in good order towards Calueque but came under attack from eight MiG-23s.

By a fluke, one of the aircraft was shot down by an obsolete 20mm gun but 12 soldiers were killed by a bomb. The battle was over. According to African sources, Cuban losses amounted to 300 men.

Magnified out of all proportion by Havana propaganda, this mitigated success enabled Fidel Castro to pull out his forces from Angola without losing face. After tense negotiations in New York, the UN endorsed Resolution 435 which stipulated that Cuban forces were to be deployed above the 13th Parallel on 1 August 1989 while the South African contingent in South West Africa was restricted to 1,500 men.


On the eve of the cease-fire, SWAPO launched a last ditch raid. At night, some 300 guerrillas sneaked into South West Africa in blatant disregard of UN directives and soldiers. As the South African soldiers were confined to barracks, the SWAPOs took on and achieved several objectives. A climate of insecurity prevailed until the rebels were flushed out by the 101st SWADF Battalion which had to be reactivated for the occasion. No fewer than 289 rebels had been killed when the sweep ended on 29 April.

However, none of this prevented SWAPO from winning the political victory and from being voted into office as the South African soldiers returned home to a new challenge: the advent of their own democracy.

The red flag will never fly over Cape Town but the price was high: 715 South African soldiers fell in the bush and deserts of South West Africa. (About 11,000 Angolans were killed.)

@ 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 20
@ Chapter 21

@ Civil supremacy of the military in Namibia


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