Battle of Death Road

by Robert Moss

The last representative of the Portuguese empire in Africa, Admiral Leonel Cardoso, the High Commissioner of Angola, decided not to stay for the country’s independence celebrations on November 11, 1975. He watched the Portuguese flag being lowered over the 16th-century fort of Sao Miguel in Luanda, declared that "Portugal is departing without a feeling of guilt or shame" - and scuttled to the safety of the frigate riding at anchor in the harbour.

Five centuries of colonial rule ended as MPLA troops swarmed into the admiral’s palace. Portugal, he said, had handed over power to "the six million Angolan people."

While the Marxists in Luanda hailed Agostinho Neto as Angola’s first black president, the supporters of the two anti-Soviet movements, UNITA and the FNLA, danced in the streets of Nova Lisboa (renamed Huambo) and Ambriz. The MPLA was quickly able to boast the diplomatic recognition of the Soviet bloc, the Marxist African states and capitalist Brazil. Meanwhile UNITA and FNLA proclaimed their own State, the "Peoples’ Democratic Republic," and claimed that they controlled 11 of Angola’s 16 provinces.

With the South African column code-named Zulu waiting at Lobito for its marching orders and with FNLA forces threatening Luanda from positions less than 19 miles to its north, the anti-Communist forces enjoyed clear military superiority. But their advantage was rapidly eroded after November 11 by the continued build-up of Cuban combat forces and Soviet weaponry, and the failure of the Western Powers to respond to it.

One glittering opportunity had been lost on the very eve of independence, in a savage battle for the capital. While South Africa’s "Rommel," the colonel commanding Operation Zulu, was striking north to Benguela and Lobito, the FNLA was pushing south in a desperate attempt to seize Luanda before independence day. The FNLA had been driven out of the capital in July, when the MPLA launched a surprise attack, in which Portuguese pilots - flying civilian airplanes of the Portuguese-Angolan airline, TAAG - had flown reconnaissance missions. But by early November, the Marxists’ position in Luanda was no longer secure.

Fighting around Dondo to the south, where the hydro-electric plant that supplied the capital’s electicity is located, resulted in blackouts. Luanda’s water supply was also cut off for days. Further, the anti-Soviet forces had managed to isolate the capital from its food supplies; the richest farming lands were securely in UNITA hands. There seemed to be a chance that the defenders of Luanda could be starved into submission.

Meanwhile by November 6 a column of some 800 black FNLA troops, reinforced by 130 white Portuguese led by Colonel Gilberto Santos e Castro and Major Cardoso - a brilliant irregular fighter and a former officer of Salazar’s secret police, the PIDE - and three Zairean battalions led by a Zairean colonel had advanced as far as Caxito, a strategic crossroads 31 miles north of Luanda. Holden Roberto, the mulatto leader of the FNLA, his eyes permanently masked by dark glasses, had taken personal charge of the column and was poised for an assault on Luanda. It was timed for November 10, the eve of independence.

But from the start of the attack things went wrong. The FNLA column had advanced to the area of the Bengo river, and was supposed to strike across the bridge over it at first light on November 10. But the orders got garbled, officers overslept, and the attack did not start until 7.45 a.m.

It was the direction of the attack rather than its timing that doomed it from the start. Facing Holden Roberto’s men, on the other side of the Bengo river, was a force of some 800 Cubans. The MPLA soldiers with them were commanded by Cubans right down to section level.

The Cubans were well-armed. They had jeep-mounted rocket-launchers, heavy mortars, the huge 40-barrelled "Stalin organs" that terrified black troops, and plenty of machine-guns and anti-tank guns. They had dug themselves in on hilltops at Quifangondo with their guns commanding the only road to Luanda from the north, now bordered by swamp because of the rainy season.

When the Portuguese commanders suggested that the main offensive down the exposed road should be supported by flanking movements on foot through the swamp, the black FNLA officers refused to send their men out, complaining that the swamp was full of crocodiles and "man-eating snakes." The South African and American advisers with FNLA were alarmed by the planned offensive, and it was suggested that Roberto should attempt a broad encircling movement from the east. But Roberto, burning with impatience to plant his flag in the capital before independence day, insisted on taking the direct route, down Death Road.

The South African brigadier who had arrived at the little port of Ambriz to act as liaison officer with Roberto’s forces afterwards complained of another reason for failure. In the days before the attack on Luanda, the C.I.A. had organised an emergency airlift of weapons for the FNLA. Mortars and light infantry weapons were flown into Zaire in big C-141 transports and ferried on to Ambriz by Zairean air force planes and the FNLA’s own Fokker Friendships, expropriated from the old civilian airline.

The weapons included 10 new 120mm. mortars and some 106mm. recoilless guns. But according to the South African brigadier, the weapons arrived without handling instructions or sighting equipment. There was no time to prepare the FNLA or Santos e Castro’s Portuguese to use them.

This account is disputed by American sources, who claim that there was no failure on the side of the suppliers and that there must have been a mix-up on the ground. This, in turn, might well have been related to the political climate in Washington. Because of the legal requirements that had been imposed on the CIA to report its operations to Congress the officers assigned to liaise with Holden Roberto were pulled in and out of Angola like yoyos. Although the Americans were the principle armourers for the FNLA (which had, however, benefited from many other sources, including China, which had earlier provided several hundred instructors to train FNLA troops at Kinkuzu in Zaire) they failed to provide continuous or effective tactical advice and logistical supervision on the ground.

American instructors for the 120mm. mortars and the 106mm. recoilless guns turned up in the end - after the battle for Luanda had been fought and lost. Even when they did turn up, they came without the range tables for the guns.

FNLA troops bogged down in marshes

So the column that rolled forward at breakfast-time on November 10 was in no way matched to the enemy in waiting. While the Cubans were bristling with brand-new Soviet hardware, all that the FNLA could boast were second-hand rejects from its Western (primarily American) sources, together with odds and ends picked up from black market arms dealers. Holden Roberto had only one gun that was capable of ranging in on the Cuban positions, a 130mm. Korean artillery piece. His men carried sidearms of almost every conceivable origin, including Russian-made weapons (mostly supplied by Rumania in August, 1974). Their only armoured vehicles were a few old Panhards manned by Portuguese whites.

The outcome of the battle on Death Road was a foregone conclusion. The Cubans sent up a tremendous barrage of rocket and artillery fire as Roberto’s troops approached the Bengo river bridge. Then some of the Cubans drove forward in jeeps from which they fired off Soviet-built rockets at the exposed FNLA troops, by now bogged down in the marshes. Most of Roberto’s Panhards were knocked out within an hour. The FNLA abandoned the field within three hours. Five of the Portuguese whites had been killed; black casualties may have run into hundreds.

Some of those present still feel very bitter. Colonel Santos e Castro and the South African brigadier maintain that Luanda would have fallen to the FNLA if the Americans - or other Western sources - had supplied a bit more hardware, and the know-how to put it into the field.

If the South Africans had been able to despatch a second Zulu column to northern Angola, they could easily have forced their way through to Luanda. Indeed, the Foxbat column could have penetrated the natural defences of Luanda from the south before November 11 by swooping across the Cuanza river - if it had been given the order to do so. But how would it look to the world if pink-faced young Afrikaners were photographed driving into a black African capital in their armoured cars?

It was the desire not to get too far out on a limb that had led to the initial decision in Pretoria that South African troops in Angola would be withdrawn immediately after independence day, November 11. The decision was reversed. One reason has been kept deeply secret until now.

Jonas Savimbi, the UNITA leader, flew to Pretoria on November 10. He met Mr. Vorster, South Africa’s Prime Minister, and implored him to keep his troops in Angola at least until the summit meeting of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), then due to convene in Addis Ababa on December 9. He told Mr. Vorster that moderate black African leaders - including Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, who was regularly meeting Savimbi - were deeply concerned that the anti-Soviet forces should sustain their position in the field until a vote on Angola could be taken by the OAU.

The other former Portuguese colonies, all under Marxist control, were about to recognise the MPLA Government in Luanda, together with the rest of Russia’s friends in Africa: Guinea- Conakry, Somalia, Algeria, Congo-Brazzaville, Mali and Mauritius. But most of black Africa was sympathetic to the MPLA’s rivals, especially UNITA, despite Russian diplomatic pressure.

Amin’s rage at Soviet ambassador

One target for the Soviet diplomatic offensive was the unpredictable Idi Amin, that year’s chairman of the OAU. The Russians had given him a squadron of MiG-21 jet fighters, but the hamfisted Soviet ambassador in Kampala, Alexei Zakharov, pushed Amin too hard for support in recognising the MPLA. Amin exploded, accusing the ambassador of acting "as if he were vice-president of Uganda," and Zakharov was hastilly recalled. The Russians followed up by withdrawing all their embassy, military and technical personnel. Although this finally induced Amin to make a mollifying statement, he remained neutral for the time being on Angola’s civil war.

So the point that Jonas Savimbi had to make in Pretoria was a highly pertinent one. He told Mr. Vorster, in effect, that if South Africa could ensure that the anti-Soviet forces could at least hold their own in the major towns outside Luanda, it might be possible to get a majority vote at the OAU in favour of a tripartite settlement in Angola. Similar pleas were reaching Pretoria from other sources.

The South Africans were later begged by the Zaireans and the FNLA, for example, to lend air support to a renewed assault on Luanda from the north. The discreet liaison maintained by the Bureau for State Security (BOSS) with black African leaders was producing similar appeals for the South Africans to hang on in Angola. The same request was coming from senior American officials, although Dr. Kissinger - who was a hawk on Angola but was extremely nervous of Press and Congressional efforts to expose American connections with South Africa - had taken steps to isolate himself from direct contacts with South Africans.

Secrecy was still all-important, both to the South Africans (who had maintained a total blackout at home on Press reports of their involvement) and to the Governments and black nationalist leaders who now depended on them but could not afford to admit it. At Silva Porto, which had begun to be visited by journalists invited by UNITA, as well as by a wide range of African delegates, secrecy was an obsession from the start.

But the South Africans assigned to UNITA were more worried about running into SWAPO guerrillas than reporters. SWAPO (South-West Africa People’s Organisation) is one of South Africa’s deadliest enemies. It had also collaborated with UNITA over a long period, and had used UNITA-controlled areas of Angola as bases for its raids into South-West Africa. Now, without SWAPO’s knowledge UNITA had called in the South Africans as its allies. The South African advisers had spent years of their lives fighting the SWAPO guerrillas and had no wish to meet them socially on neutral ground - where they might easily find themselves greatly outnumbered.

There was a narrow escape just before Savimbi’s secret visit to Pretoria, when the South African advisers in Silva Porto were asked to leave town in haste in order to avoid being spotted by a big OAU delegation that was due in. The UNITA commander said he would send for them as soon as the OAU dignitaries left. But after a couple of days no message had arrived.

Commandant Kaas, itching to get back to the war, decided to drive back to town. He arrived at the UNITA headquarters at six o’clock, and ordered a bleary guard to send for the commander at once. He turned up badly hung-over and wide-eyed with alarm. "Don’t you know they haven’t left?" he hissed. Fortunately the OAU delegates were all sleeping off the last night’s revels in the former monastery used as a UNITA guest-house - which gave Commandant Kaas plenty of time to beat an orderly retreat back into the bush.

Sketchy Press reports about the South African presence had begun to appear, but they were sufficiently vague to be ignored. No journalist had been anywhere near the zones where the South Africans were fighting. But when the Cubans managed to take some South African prisoners, their presence could no longer be shrugged off - and the Communists, lobbying for black African support, made full propaganda use of their captives, the undeniable proof that the "racists" had "invaded" Angola.

Both the military and the political war escalated after November 11. On independence day, "Rommel" received orders to push further north from Lobito. His new orders were to advance to Novo Redondo and other towns around the line of the Queve river - Porto Amboim, Gabela, Quibala.

Reinforcements for ‘Rommel’

The South Africans suffered their first heavy casualties (heavy, that is, in relation to the tiny size of the Zulu column) on November 12, when Cuban gunners dug in six miles south of Novo Redondo dropped a mortar bomb in the midst of the column as it was crossing an exposed stretch of muddy road between flooded marshes. Eighteen South Africans were wounded, and the fact that only one died was due solely to the speed with which they were got to an airstrip under cover of darkness and whisked back to a field hospital at Rundu.

But "Rommel" was about to receive vital reinforcements; a battery of 25-pounders was dropped at Benguela the same day, and the guns were brought forward overnight and placed in new positions. The surprise factor was enough to win the battle. The Cuban gunners on the other side started firing their rockets into the positions the South Africans had occupied the previous day when "Rommel’s" guns opened up at first light. Then they withdrew, unable to blow the bridge behind them because the flooded river had risen so high that they were unable to fix explosives to the pylons.

Novo Redondo was occupied on November 14. Here the Zulu column halted, although units were sent out to link up with the Foxbat column farther east, in the area of Santa Comba. "Rommel" sent out patrols to reconnoitre the roads farther north, and found that the Cubans and MPLA had blown all the bridges over the Queve river and set up formidable defences on the other side.

The road to Porto Amboin looked like another Death Road. It was impossible to get within four-and-a-half miles of the town cross-country because of the flooded swamps. For the same reason, it was impossible to get off the road. The road to Gabela looked easier, but scouts reported that the positions on the other side were "all manned by whites." The prospect of trying to rebuild a bridge under intensive fire from the Cubans’ "Stalin Organs" was not exactly appetising.

"Rommel" radioed back to Rundu requesting that a paratroop company should be dropped behind the enemy positions at Gabela. His request was refused. Frustrated by his relative lack of firepower and the lack of any means to get across the Queve river, he then asked for permission to pull back to Lobito. He was told to wait. At last, he was told to move east and establish a new headquarters near Cela, in an area where the Foxbat column had run into formidable opposition.

"Rommel" was recalled on November 26. He could console himself for the disappointment at the Queve river with the thought that, during the 33 days the Zulu column was no the move, it covered 1,974 miles - an average of some 60 miles a day.

The bloodiest battles of the war remained to be fought. On the central front, near Quibala, the Cubans were massing. The South Africans were compelled to move in 140mm. guns and to form yet another battle group, code-named "Orange."

Cubans hurled into combat

It was in no-man’s land north of Santa Comba that the celebrated “Battle of Bridge 14” took place. It raged for three days, from December 9 to December 12, and an entire battalion of Cuban troops were hurled into the combat. By the end of the battle, four South Africans and an estimated 200 Cubans had been killed on the eastern front, where the South Africans had responded to a UNITA request to help them to recapture Luso and to clear the Benguela railway right up to the Zambian border. Savimbi’s calculation was that if UNITA could establish its control over the whole length of the railway line it would guarantee the permanent support of land-locked Zambia by offering it a secure outlet to the sea for its copper and other exports.

By this stage there was, of course, no secret about the extent of Kaunda’s commitment to UNITA. Like other visitors to UNITA who travelled via Lusaka, I had found myself received by Jorge Sangumba, UNITA’s ubiquitous Foreign Minister, on the airport tarmac at the end of October, whisked through immigration and customs formalities, and subsequently put on to Savimbi’s personal Learjet (flown by Lonrho pilots) at the Zambian mining company’s airstrip for the flight to Silva Porto.

But Savimbi’s accurate calculation was that the mood could easily change, and that control of the railway would ensure that UNITA’s most vital black African friend would stay friendly.

As it turned out, UNITA never gained control of the entire railway. Luso, which had changed hands several times in the course of the fighting, was taken by a column, code-named "X- Ray," on December 11. This column had been stiffened by another two troops of South African armoured cars, but the advance father east was halted about 12 ½ miles short of Teixeira da Sousa, up against the Zambian border. The problem, once again, was the state of the bridge. A very large bridge had been blown, and South African engineers estimated that it could take up to three months to repair. Savimbi was told that at that stage it was not worth taking.

Before December 9, the day the OAU was supposed to meet, the Cubans had a stroke of luck which they were to turn into a major psychological warfare victory: they captured four South African mechanics who had been sent forward to repair a vehicle north of Cela and accidentally drove on too far into enemy-held territory. They were subsequently displayed in Luanda. The attention of the world media was now rivetted on the South Africans. The Cubans did not admit their own involvement in Angola until December 22.

The South Africans were by now intensely worried about the danger of fighting a lone battle against Communism in Angola. The heavy weapons that they had expected the Americans to supply were not arriving. The power of the U.S. Congress - and notably, of the House of Representatives Committee on Intelligence - to demand and get information CIA operations had led to the disclosure, and subsequent leakage to the Press, of five separate programmes, all of which had to be at least partially abandoned. And now South African prisoners were being posed for the cameramen in Luanda.

A secret war had become embarrassingly public, and there were now strong pressures within the Government for an immediate withdrawal. The date had already been fixed: it was to coincide with the OAU summit. But the OAU meeting was suddenly set back; it would now take place on December 18. Should the South Africans wait? The question became acute after December 18. On the last day that Congress met before the Christmas recess, the Senate voted to cut off all further covert assistance to UNITA and the FNLA.

The vote followed the revelation through Congressional hearings of the full extent of covert support for the anti-Soviet movements in Angola, including details of the airlift of light infantry weapons and rocket launchers to Zaire, and the provision of five Zaire-based spotter planes piloted by Americans. After the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 7-0 against military aid to any faction in Angola, an extraordinary coalition of liberals and conservatives voted in the Senate to impose a total ban.

The ghost of Vietnam was stalking Capitol Hill. The distrust of Government secrecy and the fear of embroilment in a potential Third World quagmire now ran so deep that even some of the Senate’s most notable hawks voted for the ban.

The news came to Pretoria as damning evidence of South Africa’s growing isolation in the struggle to determine Angola’s future. The mood of doubt deepened as news came in of heavy casualties around Quibala - and of a further postponement of the OAU meeting until January 9.

Demands of diplomacy

Some frenzied backroom diplomacy took place, involving numerous trips back and forth between black African capitals - notably Lusaka - and Pretoria. There were renewed pleas for South Africa to hold the ring for a bit longer. But Kaunda expressed his concern, on New Year’s eve, that the South Africans should leave before the OAU meeting opened or, at the latest, before it wound up. The British and French Governments both expressed concern that the South Africans should withdraw before the UN Security Council meeting scheduled for early January. While it was understood that the military position of the anti-Soviet forces in Angola could rapidly become untenable if the South Africans left, the Governments that had been discreetly sympathetic were now alarmed by the political and diplomatic situation.

South Africa’s ambassador to the UN, Mr. Pik Botha, darted home for urgent consultations, and met with the Prime Minister, senior Cabinet ministers and defence chiefs at Oubosstrand at the end of December. It may have been at this meeting that the decision on the final withdrawal was taken. The stage was set for the final denouement. On the eve of the OAU’s weekend summit in Addis Ababa, the MPLA paraded another three South African prisoners for the benefit of the world media. (The MPLA is still holding all seven South African captives.) The only thing that the black African leaders who assembled in Addis Ababa were able to agree on was a blanket condemnation of South Africa.

But the depth of black African distrust for the Angolan Marxists and their friends was made plain by the fact that, instead of voting overwhelmingly for a pro-MPLA resolution, the conference split right down the middle. A total of 22 states supported a document drawn up by Senegal’s President Senghor, calling for a "government of national reconciliation" in Angola. The same number supported an alternative text produced by Nigeria’s Brigadier Murtala Muhammed, which called on the OAU to recognise the MPLA as the legitimate Government of Angola.

This was the end of the road for the South Africans. To have stayed on in Angola would have required a new injection of men and material, with no assurance of adequate backing from any major power, but with the certainty that a continued South African presence would be used by the Marxist lobby in the OAU in the bid to get a new vote that would commit the organisation to the MPLA, and in accelerated efforts to isolate South Africa within international bodies like the U.N.

Their losses had been remarkably light - 33 South Africans killed, as against an estimated 2,000-plus Cubans.

The withdrawal of South African forces came on January 22. They pulled back to a line just north of the Cunene river. It is significant, in view of the Cubans’ propaganda claims of heroic victories in Angola, that it took them more than two months to occupy the vacuum left behind by the departing South Africans.

UNITA forces held on to the Salazar bridge, over the south-eastern bend in the Cuanza river, for weeks after the South Africans had gone. When the Cubans finally came inching south, Soviet-made spotter planes were sent ahead to check for any signs of remaining South African forces. The Cubans and the MPLA did not finally reach the border with South-West Africa until April 1, 1976, a week after the South Africans withdrew from their last remaining positions defending the Cunene hydro-electric scheme.

Mr. Vorster said at the time the withdrawal began that the fact "that an acceptable government of unity has not been established in Angola is not the Republic of South Africa’s fault. The Republic was not prepared to sacrifice its last man in a war on behalf of the Free World." I cannot quarrel with that statement.

South Africa was fighting many other people’s battles in Angola. The background will probably never be fully explained by the South Africans themselves for fear of destroying their remaining hopes of detente with black Africa.

Their refusal to go it alone was influenced by other factors. The most crucial was the possibility that the Communists might escalate the war by putting MiG fighters into the air. French intelligence sources (who maintained an excellent listening-post in Brazzaville throughout the war) reported that 12 MiG-21 fighters were uncrated in Pointe Noire in October, 1975, and assembled by Cuban technicians. American aerial surveillance subsequently established that these planes and a further 10 MiG-17s, were brought to airfields inside Angola in December. Big aircraft fuel dumps were established at the eastern diamond mining town of Henrique de Carvalho, which remained in MPLA hands throughout the war.

These planes were not used during the course of the South African campaign, nor (to the best of my knowledge) was there ever a direct threat from the Russians to intervene if the South Africans pushed farther north, or refused to depart. But the presence of the MiGs was a silent threat.

Their deployment would have presented the South Africans with the choice of committing their own Mirage fighters to an aerial battle over Angola - which might in turn have produced a further Communist escalation - or of watching superior hardware win the war for the Cubans. Even without planes, the Cubans (whose strength was up to 15,000 by mid-January) were exploiting their colossal superiority in armaments. No one intervened to stop the shipment of arms and men to Luanda during the campaign.

If there had ever been hopes that the Americans might attempt a blockade, they collapsed after the Senate vote on December 18. Meanwhile, the Soviet navy showed the flag by shadowing East European merchantmen en route to Angola.

Then there was the manpower problem. There were never more than 2,000 South Africans in Angola, as against almost 10 times as many Cubans by the end of the campaign. The troops South Africa deployed in Angola were the national servicemen who could be spared after security requirements in South-West Africa had been fulfilled, led by professional officers and N.C.O.s.

To increase the South African presence, it would have been necessary to to mobilise citizen forces, and that would have meant going to Parliament, with consequent publicity.

Marked lack of solidarity

Iko Carreira, the MPLA Defence Minister whose special contacts with Moscow were discussed in the first article, remarked in an interview in May last year that the victory for his movement in Angola was "in no way extraordinary, since proletarian internationalism exists." He was saying if effect that there will be more Angolas.

One thing the West did not take into account, he added, was "the militant solidarity of our friends, and in particular the Cubans." Sadly, the West showed precious little solidarity when it came to the crunch, let alone "militant" solidarity. How much confidence can Africa or Third World countries that are also targets for Soviet aggression feel after Angola - especially now that Mr. Carter’s newly-appointed ambassador to the U.N., Mr. Andy Young, has said that he does not view Communism as a danger in Africa, and that the Cubans are a force for stability in Angola? Angola’s shadow may prove to be as long as Vietnam’s.

Next: Angola's lesson: Setting the Soviet-Cuban pattern for Africa

(The Sunday Telegraph - February 13, 1977)
Part 4 - Moscow's Next Target in Africa

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