In 1974 Admiral H.H. Biermann, then Chief of the SADF, declared in a statement that the SADF "would never commit its forces to internal struggles in Mozambique and Angola", but the following year a radical change took place in the overall strategic situation in Southern Africa which was to force South Africa to play an active role beyond its borders.
The hasty withdrawal of the Portuguese from Angola left the country in a turmoil of confusion, with 3 major guerrilla movements, all equally ill-prepared to form a government, jostling for power. Eventually, with the help of the notoriously pro-Communist Vice-Admiral Coutinho, the new Governor-General, the MPLA was hoisted into the saddle of power. More Cuban military "advisors" were brought into the country to help prop up the new rulers. As Steenkamp points out, these were not the first Cubans to be stationed in the country:
"For years SWAPO and MPLA sympathisers inside and outside South Africa have claimed the Cubans started arriving in Angola only in late 1975 to combat South African aggression, but in fact there was an old relationship between Neto and President Fidel Castro, and Cuba had been providing Neto with instructors and a personal bodyguard since 1966".
The chaotic situation in Angola and the discovery of Cuban weapons dumps near the SWA border, combined with clashes between South African troops and Angolan insurgents at the Calueque pump station - an important site in a combined South African-Portuguese hydro-electric project - convinced the South Africans to enter into the fray, with the covert backing of the USA, to assist the anti-MPLA movements - UNITA and the FNLA.
The resulting campaign, 'Operation Savannah', was to firmly establish the fighting reputation of the SADF. Two of the four battlegroups involved, named 'Foxbat' and 'Zulu', advanced rapidly into Angola, scattering the opposition before them, and reaching as far as the area of Luanda, the capital. The FNLA, however, after going against South African advice, launched an ill-conceived attack on Luanda itself and was defeated. American support for the campaign had by now evaporated, and the South Africans decided to withdraw their forces in an orderly manner which would allow Savimbi's UNITA to consolidate its positions and still benefit from the gains of Op Savannah.
One of the last engagements of the campaign (which the MPLA claimed as a victory) was the 'Battle of Bridge 14', involving battlegroup Foxbat:
"Faced with a substantial Cuban/MPLA force at Katofe, Kruys's sappers built a log bridge across the Bahla River while under heavy enemy fire. Then, under cover from 5.5 inch guns, the infantry and armoured cars went bald-headed for their opponents, losing four dead but killing an estimated 400 Cuban and MPLA soldiers (the exact number will never be known because the bush was so thick that enemy dead and wounded were being found for days afterwards, while the BBC reported at the time that loads of corpses and wounded men had been ferried away by the MPLA). The victory was so complete that Kruys had difficulty in restraining some of his more junior armoured car commanders from chasing after the fleeing enemy..."
On the negative side, Operation Savannah had shown that, contrary to the claims from Luanda that a "major invasion" by South Africa was taking place, the SADF was not adequately prepared for extensive operations across its borders. There was a manpower shortage and the SADF was short of everything "from maps of Angola to wheel-spanners for its vehicles".
In the following years, however, this situation was to change decisively - the SADF would bring new weapons into service, improve transport in the form of mine-protected vehicles, and establish new units of specialist forces which included Bushman trackers, cavalry units and elite units such as the "Recces" and "Pathfinders". Black units were also formed and few could have foreseen at that time that the remnants of the FNLA force which failed so badly at Luanda would later, under the leadership of the renowned Col. Jan Breytenbach, form one of the most feared units of the entire war - "32 Battalion", also known as the "Buffalo Battalion". The standard of training of the Angolan Army also improved significantly under the influence of the Cubans, however, and they provided a haven on the Angolan side of the border for SWAPO.
External or cross-border operations by the SADF against both SWAPO and FAPLA became commonplace, and almost every year saw a new major operation take place.
In addition to the shooting war, Steenkamp illuminates many aspects of the propaganda war, setting the record straight with regard to a number of alleged atrocities. An example of SWAPO disinformation concerned the so-called massacre by the SADF of an entire village in Namibia in 1972. A gullible Swedish television cameraman was manipulated by Andreas Shipanga of SWAPO into reporting the "atrocity". The Swede was taken to a village in Angola, which had been attacked by the Portuguese Army, and introduced to one Haingula, presented as the only survivor:
"In due course Sanden and his crew were taken into Angola, blissfully ignorant of the fact that they had crossed the border, shot reels of film showing the ghastly remains and interviewed a well-primed Haingula, who displayed his wounds and explained that he was the sole survivor of the massacre. Shipanga then showed the film to foreign journalists and produced Haingula, who repeated his bravura as sole survivor. It caused an enormous international storm which drowned out the South Africans' genuine protestations of innocence: 15 years later Shipanga gleefully related the story to Foreign Minister Pik Botha. It was one of the first SWAPO disinformation stunts, and one of the most successful".
On another occasion in 1985 the South Africans themselves blundered by denying involvement in an attack on an oil refinery in Cabinda in Northern Angola. The Angolans triumphantly produced a prisoner named Captain Wynand du Toit, and the South Africans were forced to admit that small groups of commandos were active in Northern Angola!
In the epilogue to the book Steenkamp concludes that contrary to popular opinion abroad, Angola was never South Africa's "Vietnam", but rather the Cuban's. South Africa at no time committed large numbers of troops to battle and their losses were minimal due to their better training and organization, whereas the Cubans lost thousands of men. The superiority of South African planning and tactics was demonstrated time and again by their victories against greatly superior forces and the overwhelming quantities of arms and equipment that they were able to capture intact. This was the first book to attempt a complete history of the border war and the author has succeeded in producing an ordered, chronological account of a long and confusing war. The hundreds of good-quality photographs illustrate in detail the hardships and daily life of the fighting men of both sides in the war on South Africa's borders.