Feature: Was Cuito Cuanavale an SADF objective?


There has been renewed interest in the final phase of South Africa’s involvement in Angola 30 years ago, but it has been mired in controversy and confusion.

There are many reasons for the confusion. First, the National Party government did not allow soldiers to talk about their experiences. Then the changes in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the USSR changed the international political landscape, removing the potential threat of Communist takeovers of South West Africa/Namibia and South Africa. South Africa also became democratic, but the new ANC government did not encourage the veterans to talk, either.

Meanwhile, Cuba claimed there had been a vast battle which it had won. The ANC and Left-Wing academics have picked up this claim, but South African veterans don’t know about any major defeat they were supposed to have suffered. Some wondered where were the thousands of SA prisoners, where was all the South African Defence Force (SADF) equipment that they reportedly abandoned?

So, the question is, what actually happened? Was there a decisive battle like that of Stalingrad or Waterloo, which sent the South Africans fleeing and brought their government to the negotiating table or not? And if not, what did happen?

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale is contentious as it has variously been described as a defeat of the SADF, a tactical withdrawal by the SADF or a stalemate. It was one of the biggest conventional operations of South Africa since the Second World War, and was fought on the banks of the Lomba River near Cuito Cuanavale between SADF ally UNITA and the Angolan army (FAPLA) aided by Cuba and the Soviet Union. The battle is regarded by some as initiating the first round of negotiations that ultimately resulted in the withdrawal of South African and Cuban troops from Namibia.

A recent M.A. dissertation by Janet Szabo has investigated this problem from original SA Department of Defence (DoD) archive documents. It became clear that Cuito Cuanavale was not an SADF objective at all. Therefore, the entire idea of FAPLA/Cuba/USSR “defending” a place the SADF was not attacking is simply not correct.

An article by an academic following the Cuban/ANC version appeared in the Daily Maverick on 17 January, 2018. Dr Oscar van Heerden wrote:
“The SADF and its allies sent close on 30 000 troops to Angola and unleashed all its fire power to try to quell the progressive forces.” He later adds: “Approximately 70,000 military combatants engaged in this battle, which would either cement the dominant military power of the apartheid government or spell its demise. The stakes were that high.”

Firstly, the SADF could not possibly have projected a force of 30,000 soldiers outside its borders. 30,000 men would be two to three full divisions! South Africa only ever had three (nominal) divisions in WWII!

Second. The reason for the SADF incursion needs to be understood. The SADF needed UNITA which was based in south-eastern Angola’s Cuando Cubango Province. The MPLA had repeatedly tried to capture UNITA’s base at Jamba and needed the airstrip at the small town of Mavinga to build up its forces to take Jamba. This would have destroyed UNITA. However, UNITA was protecting hundreds of kilometres of the South West Africa (SWA) border and if destroyed, the SADF/SWATF (South West Africa Territorial Force) forces would have to watch this section of border as well. This was the reason for the SADF incursion. No more, no less.

Within Cuando Cubango Province, Cuito Cuanavale was an important town because it was on the only road and had an airfield and a bridge over the wide Cuito River. The campaign, called “Salute to October”, started in June 1987, with four FAPLA (MPLA’s armed wing) brigades heading for the Lomba River north of Mavinga.

They had about 6,000 men and 80 tanks facing UNITA who had no tanks or heavy equipment and no air force. UNITA appealed to the SA government for help.

The FAPLA brigades (16th and 21st, 47th and 59th) reached the Lomba and the 47th skirted it, directly threatening Mavinga. The SADF hurriedly raised 20 Brigade, comprising 61 Mechanised Battalion Group, 32 Battalion, 20 artillery regiment and two companies of 101 Battalion, SWATF as well as UNITA elements (about 5,000). The SADF operation was named “Moduler”.

Here the SAAF had air superiority as it was inside its radar envelope and the Cuban/Soviet air elements were far away. Initially, the SAAF bombed FAPLA’s 47 Brigade and the artillery regiment pounded their position. 59th Brigade then threw a TMM bridge over the river but was hit by Mirage F1As and G-5s so could not cross. When 47th Brigade tried to join them, it resulted in the Battle of the Lomba, a stunning SA victory, which is studied by Australian, British and American militaries. FAPLA’s 47th Brigade was destroyed and UNITA was saved.

The SADF then debated whether to leave it at that but decided to follow up the attack to prevent FAPLA renewing it, as it had in 1985 and ’86, when the SADF had briefly taken Cuito Cuanavale and destroyed its infrastructure during Operation Alpha Centauri.

A declassified document in the South African National Defence Force Archives states that the high command planned “om FAPLA uit Cuando Cubango te baklei”, or to “battle FAPLA” out of the UNITA-held province and inflict such losses that they would leave Jamba alone for years.

The pattern of the Lomba battle continued as the SADF sought to fight the FAPLA forces, who retreated to the Chambinga River, where another series of engagements was fought, with similar results, and to the Chambinga Heights opposite Cuito Cuanavale. Finally, under operations Hooper and Packer, the SADF, as one formerly Top Secret Operation Order States, aimed for:
“III). Preparation of defensive positions E of Cuito River and establishment of Cuito River as credible obstacle.

IV). Movement across Cuito River (bridge or crossing) and occupation of Cuito town if enemy withdraws.”

The formerly “Top Secret” document shows clearly that Cuito Cuanavale was not an objective for the SADF. Also, much earlier, they sent in a Special Forces attack against the Cuito bridge in August 1987. Why would they want to destroy the bridge that lead to Cuito Cuanavale if they wanted to take it?

Their attempt to make the Cuito River a “credible obstacle” to further FAPLA attacks on UNITA led to Operations Hooper and Packer, to force the remnants of FAPLA forces from East of the river.

It was here that the SADF suffered reverses. In Hooper, they attacked the Tumpo logistics base, which was on the east side of the river. This had, however, been very well prepared by Cuban soldiers with Soviet advisers as well as FAPLA. The Cuban heavy artillery (122mm) could hit any direction of attack from over the river and this close to Menongue, the Cuban/Soviet/Angola air forces had an advantage being inside their own radar protection.

The SADF, with heavy artillery and air support, attacked the base three times, suffering minimal casualties but losing three tanks in a minefield (but saving all the crews). UNITA suffered more, but unknown numbers. Eventually realising Tumpo could not be taken without deploying many more troops, the SADF stopped the attack.

It did not however, withdraw. Operation Displace followed the end of Operation Packer on 30 April 1988 and lasted until the SADF withdrew from Angola on 1 September 1988. This was a “deception operation” which was aimed at fooling the enemy into thinking large numbers of SADF/UNITA forces were still in place.

It seems the deception worked, as the Cubans and Angolans deployed 12 brigades and beefed up defences around Cuito Cuanavale and Menongue, fearing a full-scale South African “onslaught”. This is no doubt where the exaggerations and misunderstandings come from. Still, the SADF tied down over 12,000 troops with 1,500 allowing UNITA to fight elsewhere in Angola. (Castro’s deployment of his 50th Division was in Cunene Province and doesn’t form part of the Cuito Cuanavale history.)

Dr Van Heerden’s claim that: “The battle spanned from August 1987 till March 1988”, is untenable, because the battles on the Lomba River or the fighting at the Chambinga Bridge cannot be conflated into one big “Battle of Cuito Cuanavale”.

Military historians speak of different levels of war. This was a “campaign”, including multiple engagements, and to pretend they were all the same battle is inaccurate and misleading.

Only the three Tumpo battles could be called “Battle of Cuito Cuanavale”, but neither the total campaign nor the fighting there included anywhere near the astronomical numbers (70,000) that Van Heerden quotes.

The archives show South Africa had 82 Mechanised Battalion Group (about 2,000 men and 24 tanks) and FAPLA had elements of six brigades (6,000-8,000) and the Cubans had some 150 men and as many as 10 tanks as well as some Soviet advisors. Fidel Castro sent his best pilots to Menongue, north of Cuito. UNITA numbers are unknown but could have been as many as 5,000. That adds up to a little over 15,000 which is nowhere near 70,000!

It should also be noted that no South African Liberation Movements actively fought at Cuito Cuanavale.

Van Heerden adds: “Remnants of the battle can still be viewed today, if you visit that part of Angola, with SADF equipment still there – abandoned by their young white occupants.” In fact, the SADF made a point of always bringing back its men and its equipment. The T-34, T-54 and-55 tanks, the BMP and BTR personnel carriers and BRDM reconnaissance vehicles that litter the countryside were never used by the SADF but are Soviet-built and were used by either FAPLA or Cuba during the Cold War.

In summary, then, it can be said that there was a Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, but it was not decisive nor was it particularly important, and resulted in a stalemate after numerous SADF successes.

Researched and written by Janet and Chris Szabo.

Map copyright DoD Documentation Centre.