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ANGOLAN War Summary

The African scene.
Communism opportunism.
Communism's plans.
The war year by year.

To understand why South Africa became involved in war outside it's own borders, one needs to look back to World War I where they occupied the German colony of Sud-West Afrika, and then administered it as a mandate until after World War II when South Africa annexed the territory. In 1966 the Marxist South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) guerrilla group launched a war of independence for the area that was later named Namibia. Basic map of Southern Africa SWAPO's military wing 'Peoples Liberation Army of Namibia" (PLAN) conducted a shadowy war of terror and intimidation of the villagers and then either melted into the local population, or slipped back into the safe sanctuary of Southern Angola.

As the South African Defence Force (SADF) became more successful at counter-insurgency operations and intelligence gathering, SWAPO was forced to rely more and more on crossing the border into Angola to evade capture or elimination. The SADF's policy of crossing into Angola when in "hot pursuit" of insurgents was poorly received by the MPLA, and may also have precipitated Russia and Cuba's involvement. As SWAPO expanded (by abducting school children from SWA) and began establishing large training bases in southern Angola, the strategy of "pre-emptive strikes" was developed to debilitate the movement and reduce terrorist activity in SWA.

Initially, the MPLA avoided contact with the SADF, however as their weaponry was updated, their support of SWAPO and ANC (African National Congress) terrorists expanded and in the later stages or the war, large-scale conventional battles with tanks and Infantry support were the order of the day. As the human cost mounted, the war became more and more unpopular in South Africa and Cuba, and Russia (Reagan's arms race and other wars like Afghanistan) and South Africa (internal terrorism and international sanctions) were feeling the financial cost. But it was not until 1989 that South Africa agreed to end its administration of SWA in accordance with a UN peace plan for the entire region and independence came to Namibia in 1990.

The year 1975 was particularly bad for the Western world: Saigon and Phnom Penh fell into communist hands, Southern Africa was further destabilized when political unrest forced Portugal to abandon their African colonies. The communists were quick off the mark, and soon turned Guinea and Mozambique into 'people's republics'. 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 into another messy foreign war despite the obvious 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.'

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 drew its supporters from the Bakongo tribes and its influence reached as far as Zaire. The members of UNITA were mostly recruited from among the Ovimbundus, the largest ethnic group in Angola. The MPLA movement drew it’s support from the urbanised Angolans living along the coastal zones and half-castes.

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 none of the parties were 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 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 quickly 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 practically 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 and eventually, the mineral wealth of southern Africa as a whole. But in 1975, the city of Luanda, Angola's capital was the first order of business in the Soviet’s march to Cape Town, FAPLA, 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). 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.

The War year-by-year.

Operation 'Savannah' In South Africa’s first operation in Angola (Operation 'Savannah'), reinforcements were quickly poured in: a squadron of Eland armoured cars was airlifted by a C-1 30 into Angola with the initial aim of recapturing Lobita Harbour and reopening the vital Benguela railway line.

The South Africans and UNITA advanced to within reach of the city of Luanda when they were dealt a diplomatic blow. The Marxist regime of Angola became the 27th member of the OAU(Organization of African Unity). This development, and The West’s stance of disassociation from the cause prompted the South Africans to withdraw to a line just north of the Angola-SWA border in January 1976. UNITA forces withdrew to the south-east of the country. By this time, 12,000 Cubans were deployed in Angola against 2,900 South Africans. 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.

North of Luanda, the FNLA (supported by a small SA team and mercenaries in the field) had advanced to within 30km of Luanda. However, the FNLA were pushed back to the Zaire border and the pro-western FNLA collapsed. Lightly equipped, Roberto Holden's FNLA was no match for the communists who were well equipped with artillery, particularly 122mm D-30 and M-46 130mm pieces. Fearing retribution from their enemies the MPLA, hundreds of FNLA members fled southward to escape the firing squads they believed awaited them. SA formed a new unit called 32 Battalion to absorb these "homeless" Angolan soldiers. (32 would go on to record the highest number of "kills" of any unit involved in the conflict.)

However, South Africa continued to provide active support to Savimbi's UNITA 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 patrols being the order of the day. (Incidentally, Rhodesia terrorists were also receiving training and weapons from Russia (ZANU) as well as China (ZAPU).)

In 1977 and 1978, SWAPO intensified its terrorist attacks in South West Africa and in retaliation, operation ‘Reindeer’ (August 1978) was aimed at the main SWAPO training and support base known as Moscow at Cassinga, some 250km inside Angola, while 32nd Battalion attacked several camps at Chetequera. The SWAPO camps nearer the border were dealt with by the Combat Group Juliet mechanized force (61 Mechanized Brigade ), which made first operational use of the new Ratel-20 ICV.

In these two attacks, the South Africans killed more than 1,000 SWAPO fighters, losing 19 of their number in the process. It took SWAPO years to recover from this loss.

Three months later, the South African positions at Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi strip, was 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 by the UN to be abandoned. In March 1979, two smaller operations, 'Rekstock' and 'Safraan' were conducted across the border. This took the form of air strikes and raids by helicopter borne troops on SWAPO camps situated near Cahama in Southern Angola. The forces consisted of two infantry combat teams, each of six platoons, as well as small Special Forces element. The camps were however, mostly abandoned.

In 1979, 800 guerrillas were killed but SWAPO had 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 and patrols.

On 25 May 1980, the South Africans launched Operation 'Sceptic'. Subdivided into three combat groups, including mechanized units, the 32nd Battalion and airborne forces, the task force attacked a SWAPO base complex code-named ‘Smokeshell’ near the city of Chifufua, some 180km into Angolan territory on 10 June 1980. The terrorist base was manned by Russian commanders, Cuban officers, and FAPLA and SWAPO troops. This conventional attack on SWAPO sanctuaries developed into an extended operation as more and more SWAPO weapons caches were discovered in the territory. Operation Sceptic also saw the first serious clashes between the SADF and the mechanized elements of FAPLA. SWAPO lost its forward base facilities and 380 terrorists were killed. Several hundred tons of equipment and supplies as well as many vehicles were captured by the security forces. 17 members of the SA forces were killed.

Weakened by this severe blow, SWAPO indulged in desultory guerrilla operations until the end of the year. In the year 1980, the South Africans killed 1, 147 guerrillas, losing about 100 men themselves.

Intelligence indicated a larger than usual SWAPO build-up in southern Angola. The Angolans had also deployed elements to protect SWAPO bases, including and air defense radar system which begun to warn SWAPO of SAAF aircraft movements. Operation 'Protea' (? 1981) started with air strikes on the key elements of the Angolan air defense system. A mechanized force then attacked Xangongo. The mixed SWAPO and Angolan defenders of Xangongo were evicted after an intense battle against dug-in tanks and infantry around the town. In further action towards Mongua and Ongiva, several Soviet officers were killed and a warrant officer was captured. The SADF lost 10 men killed, whilst SWAPO and FAPLA lost 1000 killed, 4000 tons of equipment and more than 200 vehicles, including tanks.

Intelligence gained during Op Protea led to Operation 'Daisy' (? 1981), led to the attack , in support of UNITA, of the SWAPO HQ at Bambi and the camp at Cheraquera - almost 300km north of the SWA border. Several SWAPO transit camps were also attacked. The Angolan forces generally stayed clear, however 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 Battalion, supported by two Alouette helicopter gunships, accounted for 201 rebels. In April 1982, Group 'Volcano', a terrorist unit trained in Eastern Europe, tried to infiltrate South West Africa through the Tsumeb mining region and lost 76 cadres in the attempt.

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 SAM-6 air defence missiles.

By late 1983, SWAPO was on the brink of collapsing: its manpower reserves in Angola amounted to only 800 fighters due to their severe losses suffered in previous battles. 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 weeks in a massive anti-terrorist sweep codenamed 'Phoenix'.

In August 1983, UNITA raided the city of Cangamba in the heartland of Angola. 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 5 casualties.

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 1985/1986 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. In the north of the country, UNITA shot down several aircraft with Stinger missiles.

In September 1985 for the first time, South African units were rushed to support 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 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 and 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. Organised 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 1986 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 radar system 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 1987, 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, and then the Angolans planned to seize the city of Jamba, UNITA’s capital. In a further move, the Angolans planned to reopen the Benguela railway line to help restore the country's economy. In July 1987, the Russians activated an airlift to deliver the sophisticated equipment needed for the offensive. Operation 'Modular'

In early August, the communists attacked UNITA at Mavinga with five brigades. The South Africans were concerned that this offensive might open the 650km border to SWAPO and deployed artillery protected by 32 Bn in support of UNITA. This light deployment was insufficient to stop a strong mechanized force. Operation 'Modular' began on 10 September 1987 when SA deployed 61 Mech. together with 32Battalion's anti-tank squadron, which destroyed 9 T-55. s and 382 men. The SAn's lost 8 men, a Ratel-90 and 2 Caspirs. This reinforcement was supported by a battery of G-5. cannons with their 40km range which dominated the battle scene. in the major engagement which ensued, the South Africans wiped out a FAPLA battalion and destroyed three T-55s.

In another engagement fought near the source of the river Chambinga, FAPLA’s 16th and 21st Brigades reinforced by elements from the 59th clashed with 4SAI Ratels and Olifant MBTs as they were deploying towards Mavinga. This was the Olifant tank's baptism of fire in Angola. On 9 November 1987, 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 UNITA’s probably ran into the thousands.

Throughout January 1988, 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.

Operation 'Hooper' began on 14 February 1988, a combat group 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, with the loss of 230 men and a sizeable quantity of equipment (including SAMs and BM-21 s). 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. 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.

In late May 1988, 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 the South African air space freely, 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. 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 was created 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. The Soviets and Cubans agreed to a phased withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola. And the South Africans agreed to UN-supervised elections for a new government in South West Africa.

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. A climate of insecurity prevailed until the rebels were flushed out by the 101st SWADF Battalion which had to be reactivated for the occasion. More than 289 rebels had been killed when the sweep ended on 29 April 1990. SWAPO then went on to win the election in the new independent country of Namibia. The leader of SWAPO, Sam Nujoma was inaugurated as President on 21 March 1990. (Note as of 2002: Nujoma is serving his third term in office, after the constitution regarding term limits was "amended". Another President for life?)

As the South African soldiers returned home they would have to face a new challenge: the advent of their own democracy. In 1994 democratic elections were held and on 10 May1994, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa. (Note as of 2002: Mandela stepped down after serving his second term in office and was replaced by President Thabo Mbeki)


61 Mech motto: "Mobilitate Vincere" - Destruction of the enemy through mobility.