The fog of war: How Cuito Cuanavale became a legend


One of the interesting aspects of researching the fighting in southern Angola in 1987/88 was finding how different the recorded facts were to popular narratives, of which there are many. It would be worth discovering how some brigade-sized engagements near Cuito Cuanavale, which ended in a stalemate, came to become, in the eyes of some, a decisive battle that brought about a historic change in the history of all Southern Africa.

It is understandable that after the ANC was elected to power in 1994, they would want a heroic story. Commenting on this, Dr Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation, wrote, “The Namibia-Angola agreement linked, too, the end of SADF support for UNITA with …. the closure of the ANC’s Angolan bases. But this is relegated to a footnote in history by the liberation movements in their appraisal of the events in and around Cuito in 1987-88, which has become the stuff of legend. After all, all sides need at least one military victory to cement their credentials.”

Some 30 years after the events, it is high time to establish what did happen. In an earlier article, it was found that there was no great battle, only numerous brigade and battalion-sized engagements which tended to favour the South African Defence Force (SADF) except when they tried to take the FAPLA logistics base at Tumpo. The aim was to secure the Cuito River as an obstacle to prevent further attacks on UNITA by Communist forces, mainly FAPLA and Cubans. (Incidentally, this succeeded when in 1990, FAPLA tried to wipe UNITA out again and failed.)

In early 1988 (February 14) the first SADF-Cuban tank-against-tank clash took place during a UNITA/SADF advance aimed at clearing the Chambinga Heights of enemy forces. UNITA losses are unknown, but SADF losses included a Ratel that was thought to be a victim of fratricide (the correct term for “friendly fire”) with the SADF losing four men and 11 wounded.

The Cuban counter attack was carried out by 10 tanks, supported by an unknown number of FAPLA tanks. Numbers vary, with the SADF claiming 15 tanks and 11 vehicles destroyed and 500 Angolans and 32 Cubans as casualties. As a result, two more FAPLA brigades withdrew across the Cuito River Bridge. While this is a serious engagement, it is hardly comparable to the tank battles of WWII, which had hundreds of tanks on each side.

After three failed SADF attacks on Tumpo it was decided to fence in the area with minefields and keep a token force on the Chambinga Heights (opposite) as a deception, under Operation Displace. Meanwhile, the South African Air Force (SAAF) continued to try destroying the bridge with a new guided bomb, the H2, hardly proof that it wanted to capture the town.

This force, Combat Group 20 (about 1,000 men) starting in April 1988, was tasked with tricking the forces in and around Cuito Cuanavale into thinking that there was still an SADF brigade in the area. As a deception operation, it could be that it succeeded too well, launching the legend of the “decisive” Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

According to recent research, the force tied down some 12 FAPLA brigades (between 15,000 and 18,000 men), numerous air defences, hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles.

Strangely, there is no record (at least in South African intelligence sources) that there were ever more than about 150 Cubans at Cuito Cuanavale itself. There were some 1,500 at Menongue, 200km north-west on the Old Portuguese Road but these were not moved south.

Just how much the Cubans were trying to stay out of the fighting around Cuito Cuanavale is revealed by Dr Piero Gleijeses, a scholar who has had some access to Cuban archives. He quotes a communication from Major General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, the Cuban commander in Angola, to Raul Castro on 14 November 1987: “I will continue to resist these pressures (from the Angolans and Soviets) so that our troops are not directly involved in Cuito Cuanavale, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that we should do everything we can to prevent the town from falling into enemy hands.”

It was at this point that President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, after conferring with his Soviet advisers, who apparently gave him little encouragement, turned for help to Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Later, Castro would tell Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that the Cuban leadership had to respond to “The desperate requests of the Angolan government and the Soviet military mission that we send our troops to that remote place.”

Castro also told Gorbachev that if the SADF took Cuito Cuanavale, they would annihilate the best FAPLA brigades and even threaten the Cuban defence line in the south of Angola. This was the Namibe-Menongue railway line some 700 km long. Namibe is a port, so ideal for local resupply of the Cuban forces. As SANDF Documentation Centre documents have now proven, nothing like this was planned by the South Africans and their numbers were far too small to attempt such an operation.

FAPLA Chief of Staff, General ‘Ndalu’ António Dos Santos França, also believed if the South Africans were victorious at Cuito Cuanavale, the road to the north would be open to them. He also assumed they were planning to go north. They weren’t.

Castro then sent Jorge Risquet, a senior member of the ruling Communist Party and diplomat to Luanda with a letter assuring Dos Santos of Cuba’s assistance.

It is possible that the kernel of the myth that later developed about a titanic battle was born around this time. Dr Gleijeses research shows that Angola’s MPLA was “desperate”, while other sources show that the Angolan MPLA leadership were convinced that the SADF was planning to capture some or all of southern Angola. Further, that they wanted to create a UNITA state based either on Menongue or even on Huambo, further north. Precisely where these ideas about UNITA come from is not clear, but both towns lie on railway lines. There is no documentary evidence to support this idea.

Meanwhile, the USSR was in a financial crisis in 1987. There was increasing dissatisfaction with the war in Cuba. East Germany was worried about the pro-democracy ferment, while South Africa was struggling with sanctions, the financial cost of the war, as well as the length of the deployment of SADF forces in Angola, plus the unrest in the townships. As a result, by the end of 1987, all the foreign powers involved in Angola wanted to leave. The question was, how?

Fidel Castro’s flamboyant personality and the eventual collapse of Communism in the East Bloc gave the answer. The Cuban leader, instead of quietly withdrawing from Angola, decided to up the ante and increase the Cuban presence by a whole division (15,000 men) and threaten or even attack the territory of South West Africa (now Namibia). A declassified psychiatric study of Castro by the CIA considered him “neurotic” and “extremely narcissistic”. His actions in 1988 underline the claim of the study that said: “Castro has a constant need to rebel, to find an adversary, and to extend his personal power by overthrowing existing authority. When he is winning, he must control the situation himself without delegation of authority and he must continue to seek new areas of authority to overthrow.”

He also “sought to overthrow” the area known as the “Shallow Area” or “Area in Dispute”, which was a shallow half-circle around Ondjiva. By opening a new front, 700 to 900 kilometres from Cuito Cuanavale, he upped the ante and took a major gamble. However, he was not spoiling for a real fight. In late March 1988, he said to his generals: “The strategic objective of this war is to free Angola from the South African occupation…It is not to wage a decisive battle with the South Africans in which many precious lives will be lost.”

All the evidence indicates that this operation, Maniobra XXXI Aniversario was organised by Cuba alone without much direct Soviet assistance. But they were not happy about it and they warned Castro that if his forces crossed the Angola/SWA border, he would be on his own.

The first of these Cuban troops arrived in Angola in January and included the elite 50th Mechanised Division. By March a combined Cuban/FAPLA/PLAN army moved carefully south. The sheer size of this Cuban-led movement surprised the SADF. But they recovered quickly and sent out the biggest call-up of reservists since WW II.

Following some skirmishes, the SADF realised there were many more enemy troops in Cunene Province, far to the west of Cuito Cuanavale, than had been suspected. They began intensive reconnaissance operations and decided on Operation Excite, which was a reconnaissance in force, carried out by elements of 32 Battalion, 51 Battalion, SWATF, 61 Mech and 10 Artillery Regiment. Some 15,000 Cubans were thought to be in Cunene along with FAPLA and about 10,000 SWAPO fighters.

There were some skirmishes, including one in which Sergeant Johan Papenfus was captured, a fact widely aired in South African media. (Later he was exchanged for 12 FAPLA and three Cuban soldiers.)

On 24 June, a Cuban force left the now-reinforced town of Xangongo for Cuamato, near the SWA border, but were stopped by a South African battalion. Two days later, the SADF tricked Cuban missile positions into revealing themselves and thereafter bombarded positions outside the town of Techipa for five hours. The next day, three Cuban mechanised columns, supported by 35 tanks, left Techipa heading for the hydro-electric scheme at Calueque. In a fight that lasted most of the morning, the Cubans lost two tanks, two armoured vehicles and eight trucks, while the SADF lost two Ratels. Interestingly, despite their numerical superiority and local air power, the Cubans withdrew.

This was followed by a Cuban air strike at the Calueque dam, which damaged the infrastructure and killed 12 South African soldiers. The MPLA government in Angola sent the SA government a diplomatic note washing their hands of this attack.

And then, instead of the great battle everyone expected, quiet descended on southern Angola, both in Cunene and Cuando Cubango provinces.

Negotiations meanwhile, continued, but the guns had fallen silent. The SADF still felt such a large group of Communist forces some 20 km from the SWA/Namibia border was a major threat and launched operation Hilti.

If this operation had been carried out, it would likely have led to a massacre of Cubans. The plan was once they had invaded SWA, to lure them into the so-called “Death Triangle” deep inside the Namibian desert, then carry out an outflanking manoeuvre while Operation Magersfontein, using paratroopers and naval forces, was to have captured Namibe from the sea and prevent supplies from reaching the Cuban/SWAPO forces.

Exercise Magersfontein was held at Walvis Bay to stand in for Namibe, from August to October, 1988, using the SA Navy’s Strike Craft and the Parachute Brigade for the phases of the exercise. The exercise, unusually for the SADF, was also widely publicised.

After the ceasefire, senior Cuban soldiers told their South African counterparts that this realisation, that the SADF could not only defend itself on the ground, but also cut off their supplies, helped them decide to end the fighting.

Perhaps the best summary of the fighting, including that around (but not in) Cuito Cuanavale, comes from a contemporary Soviet source, which cannot be accused of being pro-SADF. This is a quotation from Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), the Soviet military newspaper, written by analyst M Ponomarev on May 20, 1988: “The People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola have not been able either, even with the help of the Cubans, to decisively defeat the enemy and drive him out of the territory or the country. The result, frankly speaking, was an impasse.”