Book review: Operasie Savannah


It takes the (re-) reading of an official history of Operation Savannah to realise how scratch an exercise it was. The forces involved were pathetically small for the objectives being pursued – not that these were all that clear all the time. Goals shifted and an obsession with secrecy meant much of what information there was that should have been shared was not. On at least one occasion a South African-led task force ran headlong into another with neither knowing the whereabouts of the other – until they met. Another irony was how – at the height of Apartheid – events forced white South Africans to work not closely but intimately with black Angolan troops of the FNLA and UNITA movements.

Operasie Savannah, Angola 1975-1976 by Prof FJ du T Spies as assisted by Lt Col SJ du Preez, lifts the veil on this and more – alas, only in Afrikaans, making the book inaccessible outside a small circle. Operasie Savannah is a book that deserves to be read. It explains how and why apartheid South Africa became involved in the affairs of Angola. The grand idea was to keep SWAPO away from the Angola-Namibia border, especially the Ruacana water scheme, then nearing completion. This would require a friendly power in charge in Angola after the Portuguese withdrawal. This power could have been anyone, but UNITA and FNLA showed interest and promise. At first, all they needed was some arms. France, SA, Zaire and the CIA provided this. Then there were calls for fuel, ammunition and instruction to offset that provided by Russia and Cuba to the MPLA. This was provided. Then it became clear UNITA and FNLA needed assistance with planning and logistics and the indigenous troops needed trained leaders to take them into combat. These were provided. Soon, it was found the Panhard/Eland armoured cars needed South African crews and the mortars South African fire leaders. Then it became clear that artillery was required and national service infantry was sent along to protect the few 25 pound (89mm) field guns and 5.5 inch (140mm) medium guns deployed. Then more troops were required and by early 1976 elements of the citizen force was mobilised.

Staffing on the South African side was as haphazard as the fighting and the general organisation. Initially, officers were drawn from units already along the border, under command of Brigadier Dawie Schoeman’s 1 Military Area. Then troops, officers and experts were drawn from national service units in South Africa and at Walvis Bay. Next, as matters escalated, permanent force leaders and citizen force experts from reserve formations were mobilised. This is how Colonel Koos van Heerden, OC 73 Motorised Brigade, was placed in command of combat groups A (Lt Col Delville Linford) and B (Lt Col Jan Breytenbach) that became part of Task Force Zulu under his command. Each was about a battalion strong, with Linford’s including Angolan Bushmen and Breytenbach’s FNLA troops. These two combat groups later gave rise to the SA Army’s Bushman Battalion (31, later the SWATF’s 201 Bn) and Breytenbach’s 32 Battalion. Brigadier Ben de W Roos, OC 8 Armoured Division, was sent to advise FNLA leader Holden Roberto in northern Angola. Later Major General AJ van Deventer, GOC of 1 SA Corps was appointed to head Task Force 101, by then put in charge of the Angolan adventure.

Contact between South Africa and UNITA first took place in late 1974, with FNLA in February 1975. By July 1975 South Africa was providing arms and by September training. By the last days of September the first “allied” (SA-UNITA) combat group had been created to stop the MPLA’s march on the Huambo plateau in the country’s centre. At the time the MPLA controlled the coast and a stretch of land from Luanda to Saurimo in the country’s north-east. The north-west, north of Luanda, was under FNLA control and the southern interior of the country was nominally under UNITA and FNLA control. This force operated from Silva Porto in the centre of the country (where the SA Air Force made use of a former Portuguese air base) and was meant to defeat a MPLA advance from Lobito, moving inland along a road connecting the two cities. The first clash occurred at Norton de Matos where the combat group, under Major (later General) LJ Holtzhausen ran into a FAPLA defensive position on October 5. The group included three SA-crewed armoured cars (the UNITA crews were still being trained and time was fleeting, Independence Day was set for November 11, by which time the operation had to be completed). Three SA Army anti-tank missile jeeps also accompanied the force. A Land Rover armed with twin 12.7mm Brownings accompanied the force. UNITA contributed a “battalion” with machine guns, mortars and a 106mm recoilless gun. FAPLA brought mortars, recoilless guns and 122mm rockets to the battle, where the latter quickly impressed the “allies.” The latter retired when FAPLA troops led by Cubans attempted to outflank them. UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was disappointed with the outcome. FAPLA was better armed and led than expected and made good use of their weapons and the terrain. For the South Africans it was also clear UNITA could not fight FAPLA unaided. The mere suspicion that Cubans were present ahead of them was enough to instil panic. From small beginnings…

Operasie Savannah, Angola 1975-1976

Prof FJ du T Spies and Lt Col SJ du Preez

SADF Directorate Public Relations