Book Review: Bush War


Nearly all accounts of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, in English, to date, are one-sided South African accounts. Shubin and Tokarev’s Bush War – The road to Cuito Cuanavale – Soviet soldiers’ accounts of the Angolan war is still one-sided but provides a Soviet view through the diaries and memories of a small group of advisors assigned to the Angolan Armed Forces (FAPLA) over the period 1986-1988. Most were interpreters, placing them in an unique position to understand and follow events, literally at the other end of the G5 muzzle.

Soviet advisory teams assigned to FAPLA brigades – mostly at 45% strength – generally numbered 15, with a colonel in command and at least one interpreter. Most of the latter had studied Portuguese at Moscow’s military university, but quickly found this was literary Portuguese, not what was spoken in the country… In any case, most Angolans did not speak the language. Gestures, shouting, clouting and swearing in many cases filled the gap. The interpreters also learned “on the job”. Additionally, Soviet specialists were assigned to air defence missile units.

The biggest contribution to the book, which, alas, is a slim-ish volume, is Lt Col Igor Zhdarkin, aka Geronimo, who served with 21 Brigade. He provides a vivid day-to-day account, written under fire, of life with FAPLA during and before the Cuito battle. In particular diary entries and situation reports (Sitreps) to the Advisor of the Military District Commander (their headquarters) is reprinted for the period early October 1987 to late December. Vital weeks for both sides…

In these entries Zhdarkin speaks his mind. Of interest is that many of the Sitreps, written by the brigade commander’s adviser, do the same. Telegram 91 on November 11, for example: “The enemy hits each brigade separately and nothing is being undertaken to inflict a blow collectively. Thus all the brigades will be killed off one by one. There are very few military personnel in the combat units. Commanding officers of all ranks are scared. They are scared to start counteractions against the enemy.”

Adds Zhdarkin that day: “Such are the conditions of the war. UNITA is conducting partisan activities with guerrillas wandering all over the place, attacking and bombarding from all sides. The South Africans, for their part, don’t hesitate to attack frontally, and strike along our flanks and rear. The South African artillery and air force move with impunity at all times, while our own air force is afraid to show itself and, if it does so at all, it’s only at high altitude. And despite all this, orders and instructions continue to stream out from the district military command to occupy defensive positions, to create a strong reserve (but out of what?) for confronting the flanks and rear of the enemy, etc., etc.”

This, without fear of contradiction, is a valuable addition to the Angolan war literature, a gem of a book and a fine read.

Bush War – The road to Cuito Cuanavale – Soviet soldiers’ accounts of the Angolan war

Gennady Shubin & Andrei Tokarev (editors)

First published in Moscow, in Russian, in 2007, 2008

English edition by Jacana Media