HOW SOUTH AFRICA TOOK ON CASTRO'S INVADERS

by Robert Moss

The Communist invasion of Angola posed a challenge to the West. Would anyone take it up? Or would Cuban troops and Soviet guns enable a Marxist movement with only minority backing in the northern part of the country to set up a dictatorship?

The prospect was far from palatable to most of black Africa. Moderate or pro-Western leaders like Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Mobutu of Zaire or Senghor of Senegal had no desire to see a new Soviet puppet regime set up in Angola. Zambia and Zaire, both dependent on the Benguela railway, feared that the Communists would then use economic pressure to change their own policies, and that Angola would be turned into a base for subversion.

Equally, Angola's mineral wealth (especially in diamonds, iron ore and the oil from Cabinda) and its strategic position made it of vital concern to Western Governments. But Angola mattered in a deeper sense, as a place where the Russians had set out the capacity of post- Vietnam America to respond to Communist aggression in far-flung places. Before the end of the conflict, most Western nations - America, Britain, France, West Germany, Italy, Spain and Israel - had contributed their mite to the anti-Soviet forces in Angola.

There was a CIA operations officer in Silva Porto, UNITA's headquarters, throughout the war. British Intelligence and private interests - especially Tanganyika Concessions and Lonrho, which loaned UNITA its pilots - remained in close liaison with UNITA and arranged delivery of smaller items such as radio equipment. UNITA leaders frequently came to London for medical treatment and to lobby British MPs. When the South Africans withdrew their instructors from Silva Porto, French "mercenaries" working for SDECE (the French MI6) took over; in many ways, the French were more adventurous than any other Western power. The Spanish provided a safe base in Europe for the white Portuguese fighting with the FNLA, who were given false papers by the police.

Intelligence officers from all these countries met - sometimes at remote airstrips - to compare their inventories, and to check that they were not duplicating arms supplies.

It was left to South Africa to shoulder the heaviest burden, by providing instructors, advisers and finally an armoured column in a desperate bid to lower the odds against the black nationalists, who were fighting a losing battle against Cuban troops and big guns from Russia. No one thanked the South Africans for what they tried to do. On the contrary, it earned them a smack in the teeth from the UN Security Council on March 31, 1976, months after their combat troops had withdrawn.

Guarantees from the Americans

Yet, as South Africa's Defence Minister, Mr. Botha, pointed out in a speech to Parliament, his country was at least a part of Africa, unlike Cuba, and presumably had some right to concern itself with events across its borders.

But the key fact about South Africa's intervention was one that neither Mr. Botha nor any other senior official in Pretoria has ever been prepared to discuss. It is that when South Africans went into Angola, they went in with the private blessing of many Western and black African Governments, and at the urgent invitation of the black nationalist movements in Angola. At one stage, for example, President Mobutu of Zaire actually implored the South Africans to bomb northern MPLA positions. The UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi, flew to Pretoria at a critical stage in the war to beg Mr. Vorster to keep his troops in Angola. The South Africans also went in with the encouragement of Dr. Kissinger, who offered American guarantees that, in the event, he was unable to fulfil.

How did the South Africans get sucked into a black civil war? The story begins in March, 1975, when a senior South African intelligence officer met Jonas Savimbi in a European capital. At a meeting in Lusaka on April 14 Savimbi asked for small arms and cash to enable his movement to contribute to the joint black army that was supposed to be set up under independence, and so help to establish a military balance that could force the pro-Soviet MPLA to agree to hold elections.

The South Africans - like other Western Governments - were worried by the jealousies between UNITA and its rivals of FNLA, the third black faction in Angola, and urged Savimbi to establish a formal alliance with Holden Roberto, its leader. Savimbi was reluctant, complaining of gangsterish behaviour and "anti-white" attitudes among the FNLA chiefs. The South Africans rejected his request and allowed contact to lapse for several months. (Savimbi found other backers in the meantime - including the Chinese, who supplied seven tons of arms in the first half of 1975.)

The South Africans had also been approached by Holden Roberto, through Portuguese intermediaries such as Colonel Santos e Castro, a respected former counter-insurgency fighter who had been a provincial governor in Angola and was to become a key figure in the anti- Communist movement in both Portugal and Angola. Their first meeting with Roberto took place in Kinshasa in July. On the strength of Roberto's undertaking to consolidate an alliance with Savimbi the South Africans agreed to give the FNLA a shipment of mostly second-hand light machine-guns, rifles and mortars, which arrived in August.

A third meeting towards the end of August, in UNITA-held territory inside Angola, when a senior South African army general was present, set the scene for South Africa's entry into the war. The South African Army agreed to provide instructors. Two training camps were set up: one for UNITA at Calombo, south of Silva Porto, another for the FNLA forces loyal to Daniel Chipenda at Mpupa, in southern Angola. Crash courses at these camps enabled the anti-Soviet movements to put 6,000 trained (or at least partly trained) men into the field in six weeks.

A platoon of South African soldiers had already been deployed inside Angola, around the Calueque hydro-electric works on the Cunene River on August 9. But this was a purely defensive exercise, intended to guard the Cunene Dam and hydro-electric scheme, which supplied energy to the major towns of southern Angola, from marauding gangs. The South Africans later claimed that their intervention here had had the tacit approval of the Portuguese.

Dr. Hilgard Muller, the South African Foreign Minister, later said that South Africa's entry on to the battlefield had had "a limited objective" - that of gaining time for the rival forces in Angola, with the catalyst of diplomatic pressure from black Africa, to achieve a political settlement.

The army's instructions were to assist Savimbi's and Roberto's forces to regain control of the areas of southern and central Angola where they enjoyed traditional ethnic support, and above all to help UNITA to hold on to its capital, Nova Lisbon, which was threatened by the Cuban and MPLA forces. The hope was that, if the anti-Soviet forces were seen to be in a position of strength on November 11, the day of independence, the MPLA and its sponsors would be forced to make a treaty with them and abandon their plan for outright conquest.

'Brothers' for the UNITA troops

As it turned out, the astonishing military success of the tiny South African column in Angola offered the chance of something more: an outright military victory over the Communists. But the chance was rejected.

Even for a black leader who was as consummate a politician as Jonas Savimbi, the relationship with the South Africans was uneasy at first. After all, he had been fighting the Portuguese in the bush for years, only to end up with the country whose apartheid policy was the focus for the hatred and resentment of black nationalists everywhere as his ally. But he soon found a close friend and confidant in the young fair-haired paratroop colonel who landed in Silva Porto on September 21, 1975.

The South African was no newcomer to Angola. He had served as a military attache with the South African embassy in Luanda between 1970 and 1973, and spoke fluent Portuguese. Savimbi's men took to calling the South African Commandant Kaas (which means "Commander Cheese") because of his fair complexion and the fact that he came from a Dutch family, and Kaas called Savimbi "the Docter" or simply "Doc".

The major had arrived with a team of 18 infantry corps instructors, who were soon described in the UNITA camps simply as "the brothers". Their orders were to provide training in conventional warfare for UNITA troops, and to help UNITA establish a holding position in central Angola.

The South African team arrived at a moment when the pro-Soviet forces had seized control of all the major towns in Angola except Nova Lisboa, Silva Porto, Luso and Holden Roberto's capital, Carmona, in the north, and Daniel Chipenda's capital, Serpa Pinto, in the south-east. The Communists held all major ports, and were driving deep into the Ovimbundu tribal areas traditionally controlled by UNITA.

Commandant Kaas found himself in charge of a disused Portuguese gaol and 1000-odd enthusiastic UNITA recruits, mostly aged between 14 and 20. He set up a two weeks' training course, working the recruits day and night. His personal headquarters were at the airfield outside Silva Porto.

UNITA was desperately short of weapons, and the shortage was made worse by sheer disorganisation. It was not until after independence day, for example, that Commandant Kaas discovered a cache of 600 light machine guns that someone had hidden away in the bush and then forgotten. All UNITA's weapons and explosives were piled up together in a few mud huts in Silva Porto, and UNITA commanders as far away as Pereira d'Eca would have to trek north to be resupplied. The explanation was political. Savimbi was well aware that one way to prevent remote subordinates from developing into unruly warlords was to leave them in no doubt about where their next bullets would come from.

UNITA had other foreign helpers, although they were of uneven value. Agents from most Western Powers bobbed up in Silva Porto throughout the campaign, and were put up in relatively palatial former Portuguese residences, or in the former monastery. President Mobutu of Zaire not only sent six old Panhard armoured cars (whose electric clutch defeated inexperienced drivers) but 120 smartly turned out soldiers as well.

Pretoria's Order: 'Hold Back'

Their appearance, however, was no guide to their combat potential. They spent most of their time preying on the local girls, and when real fighting was in the offing, they took to removing the steering wheels from the armoured cars overnight in order to prevent any offensive being launched. Savimbi and Commandant Kaas managed to stop this practice by making it plain to the Zairean major in charge that his men were not expected to do any actual fighting. Although Savimbi was pressed to send the Zaireans back, he prevaricated, unwilling to offend Mobutu. However, UNITA took great care to lock up abandoned shops and warehouses and guard them against possible looters.

The crucial mission of the South African advisers with Savimbi was to stop the Communist forces from advancing on Nova Lisboa down one of the three main roads that were open to them: from Luanda to the north, and from Benguela and Lobito to the west. A UNITA column under Savimbi's command set out on October 4 to ward off a reported Communist thrust from the west, and clashed with the Cubans and the MPLA three days later.

After the battle the UNITA forces set up defensive positions to the west of Nova Lisboa and Commandant Kaas radioed an urgent request for reinforcements. He was sent a squadron of 22 armoured cars, airlifted to Silva Porto on big C-130 transports. It was tempting to strike north to the Cuanza River with this new force, but the orders from Pretoria were to hold back. Word had already come of the arrival of another South African force in the south of the country.

One evening in late October, Major Chindondo, the UNITA Chief-of-Staff, arrived breathless and excited at the training camp. He had come to alert Commandant Kaas, to reports that the enemy was advancing towards Nova Lisboa in great strength from the north, and was massed in the Quibala area.

Commandant Kaas assembled most of his armoured cars and a UNITA battalion in a column, code-named Foxbat, which struck north and eventually took up defensive positions in the Cela area. It was here, on November 7, that the UNITA forces bagged one of their biggest quarries. The MPLA advance was being led by a senior Cuban officer, driving a black Citroen. A South African gunner fired at his car with a 106mm gun, and he was killed.

The Foxbat column was ordered to hold a line about 30km north of Nova Lisboa until independence day - although in military terms it would have had little difficulty in advancing to the line of the Cuanza River, 270km further north. The political directive was that the South Africans should not go beyond traditional UNITA territory, and should be ready to withdraw on November 11.

Meanwhile, another South African column drove over the border of South West Africa into Angola on October 14. The code-name given to it by the South African high command was Operation Zulu, which apparently confused the Cubans. There were, indeed, more black South Africans than white in the columns, but there were certainly no Zulus.

The officer in command was a stocky colonel in his early forties, an Afrikaner from the Cape Province who had graduated from the military academy in Saldanha Bay and had volunteered to serve in Angola at the beginning of the month. He was to earn the nickname "Rommel" from his comrades because of the extraordinary speed of the column's advance.

He was alerted at 9.30 p.m. on October 9 that he should get ready to leave Pretoria for the operational headquarters at Rundu, on the Angolan border, on a 7 a.m. flight the following morning. At Rundu he discovered that his force was to consist of two battalions: a Bushman battalion, mainly recruited from the Caprivi strip, and including many Bushmen who had fought for the Portuguese as skirmishers and trackers, together with Portuguese ex-army officers; and a black FNLA battalion consisting of about 1,000 men divided into three companies and commanded by a mulatto, Commandant Businha.

The FNLA men were followers of Daniel Chipenda, the warlord whose headquarters was at Serpa Pinto. Chipenda had broken away from the MPLA a year before and his loyalty could never entirely be taken for granted by his new allies.

"Rommel" had only six South African officers and seven N.C.O.s to help him command his force. From the outset they had a language problem. Half the Bushmen spoke Portuguese; the other half (recruited in South West Africa) spoke Afrikaans. So orders would be issued to their Afrikaner commanding officer in Afrikaans. He would then repeat them in English to the Portuguese officers, who in turn would translate them into Portuguese. It was a process that would have been merely tedious on the parade-ground, but on the battlefield it presented the risk of fatal confusion and delay.

"Rommelís" orders were to capture all the important centres along the coast that he could reach before independence day on November 11, within the ethnic areas where support for the UNITA and the FNLA was strongest. He was to make it clear to the civilian population that his was a UNITA/FNLA column; some Portuguese settlers wrongly imagined that they had come to restore the old order.

A shoot-out in the bar

When the column crossed the border at Cuangar on October 14 it included only civilian vehicles - lorries, vegetable trucks, private cars and a few Land-Rovers. The first target was the southern town of Pereira díEca, which had already changed hands several times. The column ran into light resistance from MPLA ambush parties using RPG-7 anti-tank rockets along the road (and also from UNITA foragers who had not yet been notified of Operation Zulu) but when it got to the town, most of the defenders fled into the bush.

This was to become the pattern throughout much of the campaign. MPLA soldiers took to wearing civilian clothes under their uniforms so that, once driven out of their positions, they could drop their rifles, whip off their military gear, and merge into the civilian population.

The column occupied Pereira díEca so quickly that MPLA troops on the outskirts were not immediately aware that the town had changed owners. Commandant Businha was having a celebratory drink in a local bar when two MPLA soldiers came in. He whirled around, took one look at them, and gave the MPLA salute (two fingers up). When they responded, he fired from the hip with his F.N., killing both.

The condition of Pereira díEca gave a glimpse of what the South Africans were to find in the bigger towns, gutted by a black civil war. Most of the buildings had been sacked; the shops looted down to the floorboards. Local UNITA forces were brought in to restore basic services.

From Pereira díEca the column swung north-west towards Rocadas where it was joined on October 20 by four troops of armoured cars (about 20 in all) and half a platoon of 81mm. mortars, sent over the border from South- West Africa. The column also gained some more exotic recruits at Rocadas. It was met by a band of 47 Portuguese led by a small dapper captain with a twirled moustache called Aparicio, who proudly announced that he and his followers were members of the Portuguese Liberation Army (ELP) and that they intended to drive the Communists out of Angola before carrying the crusade to Portugal itself. Aparicio quickly acquired the nickname "Garibaldi" with the South Africans. Unfortunately his group proved to be bolder in promises than in deeds, and never went further than Sa da Bandeira.

Two days later, the strengthened column, now led by a Land-Rover with a machine-gun mounted on top, swept into the town of Joao de Almeida. This was more vigorously defended; it had been used as a major MPLA storage depot, and large quantities of food, equipment and propaganda materials were captured.

Now the road was clear for the assault on Sa da Bandeira, the capital of Huila province, which was still believed to contain a sizeable white population. "Rommelís" main worry now was that the MPLA would pull back inside the town, putting the civilians at risk, but the defences turned out to be concentrated at outlying positions, especially a hill called Monte Cristo Rei because of the large statue of Christ on its summit.

The Zulu forces struck first at the airfield (standard procedure throughout the offensive since the column was basically air-supplied) and then sent troops to scale the Monte Cristo Rei by stealth on the night of October 24. They found that the MPLA had already withdrawn, together with their big guns. This again was part of the pattern of the campaign so that as Zulu drove farther north it ran into even heavier firepower.

Ambush from rocket-launchers

It was left to Captain Garibaldi and his Liberators to clear Sa da Bandeira. Joined by another troop of Panhard armoured cars and another half-platoon of 81mm. mortars, the South Africansí next target was the major southern port of Mocamedes. On the way the column came under fire from 122mm. single-tube rocket-launchers, an ideal weapon for ambush, very light, easy to handle, and capable of being fired from an ordinary car.

The column managed to fight its way through and occupied the harbour of Mocamedes on the evening of October 27. There was an interesting variety of shipping bobbing at anchor, including a Portuguese navy corvette and Portuguese, Greek and Italian merchant vessels. The South Africans believed that these ships had been bringing arms - and probably Cuban troops as well - to Mocamedes, and were now being loaded up for a mass evacuation. They also knew that Nord-Atlas aircraft, allegedly owned by Frelimo in Mozambique, had been flying troops and equipment out of Mocamedes in advance of the Zulu offensive.

As the sun set over the harbour roads, a red Fiat coupe with a white flag fluttering from its bonnet drove out of the town towards "Rommelís" improvised command post. It had two occupants: the Portuguese captain in command of the 150 paratroops in the town, and a naval officer from the corvette. They requested that the ships in the harbour should be allowed to leave, on the grounds that they were evacuating refugees. The captain also insisted that his paratroops wanted to have nothing to do with the war. "We are neutrals," he insisted. "My role here is to guard the lives and property of the refugees."

It was later discovered that he was not telling the whole truth. Unknown to the Zulu force, the communications centre at Silva Porto had already picked up an urgent radio signal from the Portuguese command in Mocamedes to Luanda, requesting that MPLA reinforcements should be sent at once. It was also confirmed later that at the time Zulu arrived, a Soviet vessel had been waiting outside the harbour, bearing more arms and ammunition.

Pulling out without a fight

Although he could see barges laden with MPLA men plying back and forth between the harbour and the ships at anchor, "Rommel" decided to grant the vessels permission to leave. He also told the navy officer that if the corvette had not left by dawn it would be blown out of the water - pure bluff, since the South Africans had no means of blowing it up.

By first light on October 28 the corvette had gone. Although there had been intensive fire the previous night, when MPLA and Cuban forces occupied a ridge outside the town and kept up an intensive and accurate fire with 122mm. rockets, there was little resistance inside the town itself. Advance units reached the airport (south of the city) too late to prevent the take-off of a Nord-Atlas carrying MPLA leaders, Cuban advisers and some heavy weapons. Although no Cubans were actually sighted during the fighting around Mocamedes, the precision firing was the clue to their presence.

After local UNITA forces were established in control of Mocamedes, the column turned back to Sa da Bandeira to regroup for the main assault on the north. There were reports that the MPLA was probing south from its positions at Benguela and Lobito - a primary objective for the South African operation as the countryís second port and its most important railhead.

The rainy season was beginning, flooding rivers and turning the lowland areas farther north into swamp. From now on, the campaign was to centre on bridges and river-crossings. Control of all-weather roads became the key to victory or defeat.

On the road from Sa da Bandeira to Benguela, the Zulu column ran into a series of extremely well-prepared MPLA positions. The influence of the Cubans - who showed themselves in the war to be well-trained in preparing and holding static positions, although inept fighters when things failed to go according to plan - was now obvious at every stage along the way.

The first major clash on the road to Benguela took place at Caporolo at the end of October. Here the Cubans and MPLA had set up their guns on a hill overlooking a bridge. "Rommel" sent his Bushmen westward along the river to look for a ford they could cross in order to take the enemy by surprise from behind. The Bushmen went too far, missing the ford. In the meantime, one of the Panhards nosed too far forward along the main road, disclosing the columnís position.

To the South Africansí astonishment, the enemy forces simply picked up their equipment and ran - but not before trying to blow up the bridge. The explosive charges had all been set, but the last man who had checked the circuit on the detonator had forgotten to reconnect the wire. The South Africans drove on across the bridge, and pushed on to Catengue, where the roads from Benguela and Nova Lisboa intersect. It was time to take stock and find out where the enemy was.

A party was sent eastward on the Nova Lisboa road, where MPLA units were reported to be advancing towards Catengue. A South African lieutenant called Jan, blackened from many months in the bushveld along the South-West African border, and with flowing hair and beard, drove in the leading Land-Rover. He drove straight into an advancing MPLA convoy, led by officers using Mercedes-Benz and Citroen cars "borrowed" from the Portuguese.

He was saved by the fact that the MPLA took one look at him and imagined he was a Cuban. "Donde estan los companeros?" someone asked. Jan grunted, waved behind him down the road, and put two fingers up in the approved MPLA style. The MPLA grinned and drove by - and Jan opened up on them with a .50 Browning machine-gun.

He subsequently set up an ambush post on the road from which he was able to knock off no fewer than seven MPLA cars in succession with a 90mm. gun. They just kept coming on like moths into the flames, without any prior reconnaissance.

Three MPLA men were captured and made to strip and dig graves for the next victims of the ambush. Jan bore the nickname of "the Cuban" for the rest of the campaign.

Meanwhile, reconnaissance parties established that a major Cuban/MPLA force had dug in a few kilometres farther up the Benguela road, with 15 or 20 mortars. The mortars sowed terror among the troops when the Zulu column tried to break through on November 2. The black troops refused to face the mortars, and the column was pinned down for six hours, under a ferocious concentration of fire. The black FNLA gunners, for their part, returned the MPLA barrage by firing off their own mortars so rapidly (25 rounds a minute instead of the normal two) that their guns burned out and the barrels grew so hot that when a round was inserted, it would ignite immediately. There were many severe burns. The road was finally cleared after scouts from the Zulu force found a trail winding round the south of the enemy position. An advance group was sent to try to cut off the MPLA line of retreat but, as before, the enemy beat a hasty retreat.

Once again, luck saved the bridge for the Zulu column. Cuban engineers had run a wire back from the bridge for some 2,000 metres to the detonator. Everything was set for demolition, and the South Africans were astonished that the bridge did not go up in flames. By a fluke, one of their mortar rounds had cut the wire.

At the Catengue battlefield, the South Africans picked up another clue to the Cuban presence: an intelligence map marked in Spanish. They captured seven prisoners, who told them that there was a large camp outside Benguela with some 350 Cubans.

After Catengue, the MPLA and their Cuban friends bolted north, leaving neatly-dug trenches and even big ammunition dumps in their wake.

Just south of Benguela, the column found another camp, which turned out to have been the main Cuban base in the area.

The Zulu force was now ready for the assault on Benguela. It numbered about 150 white South Africans with their Panhards, together with the loyal Bushmen and the FNLA battalion, reduced to some 450 blacks and 80 white Portuguese. The attack began on November 4, just a week before independence day, and the airfield to the south-east of the town was seized without resistance.

But now something happened that the South Africans had feared all along: the MPLA and the Cubans pulled their forces back into the city itself. Simultaneously, they opened up a murderous barrage with half-a-dozen rocket launchers, dug in on the other side of Benguela, as well as intensive small-arms fire from the native huts on the outskirts of the town. The column was pinned down at the airport for 26 hours.

For the first time during his almost uninterrupted advance, "Rommel" was faced with a dilemma. His mortars had a maximum range of only about five kilometres, while the enemy batteries were at least 7-8km. away, and the Soviet-made 122s had a range of up to 14km. He could not risk firing into the town, nor could he advance with his armoured cars and allow the enemy to snipe at them from close range. Meanwhile, the deafening thud of the enemy rockets was terrifying his men.

From his command post in the airport control tower "Rommel" finally hit on a solution. He sent his mortars round the eastern outskirts of the town, gambling on getting them within striking distance of the enemy positions before the Cuban rangefinders could get a fix on them.

He succeeded because the enemy imagined that he had: when the South African mortars opened up, they were still several hundred metres too far away from their targets. However, the enemy commander must have concluded that the South Africans were merely ranging in, because the Cubans and their rocket-launchers pulled out immediately. The mortar companies inside Benguela followed suit.

The battle for Benguela had offered a warning: good soldiering could not always make up for the disadvantages of being outgunned, least of all in a war where the black troops on both sides showed a marked preference for fighting as far away as possible from the enemy lines. "Rommel" radioed back to Rundu with an urgent request for field artillery to match the MPLAís longer-range weapons.

On November 7 the Zulu force drove on to Lobito. The population was largely pro-UNITA, and the Cubans and the MPLA pulled out without fighting. After Lobito had been seized by the pro-Soviet forces, UNITA had been able to keep in close contact with its cadres inside the town by telephone; no steps had been taken to cut off the most obvious form of communication.

The Zulu force stayed at Lobito until independence day. "Rommel" expected to be recalled on November 11, in accordance with his original orders. But the orders were changed. Bloodier fighting lay ahead.

Next: The battle for Luanda

(The Sunday Telegraph, February 6, 1977)
Part 3 - Battle of Death Road

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