Book Review:  Ratels on the Lomba. The Story of Charlie Squadron

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Military historian Dr. Leopold Scholtz wrote Ratels on the Lomba to remember the National Servicemen [NSMs] of the then South African Defence Force (SADF) who fought a forgotten battle against great odds in Angola. The government of the era ordered the veterans not to speak about it and the new government following the end of Apartheid did not want to hear about it.

Scholtz and the veterans believed the story should be told, and the author used a combination of archive research and interviews with the veterans to tell a fascinating story.

The book gives a brief background on South Africa’s largely successful COIN (Counter-Insurgency) campaign in South West Africa/Namibia after 1975 and how this led to an alliance with the pro-Western National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) which in turn pulled the country into the Angolan Civil War. (1975-2002).

By 1985, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was effectively the government of Angola. It was fully supported by the Soviet Union and was officially Communist. 40,000 Cuban soldiers supporting the MPLA scattered around the country in garrison duties together with East German electronic warfare specialists and Soviet military advisers. The MPLA’s military, the People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) was based totally on Soviet doctrine and was equipped with Soviet weapons. This made the struggle a part of the worldwide Cold War as well.

FAPLA had destroyed the pro-Western National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and kept the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) at bay. The only Angolan force that could challenge it was UNITA. Its headquarters were in Jamba, in the extreme south-east corner of the country. In 1985 and the following year, FAPLA had tried to capture the town of Mavinga, north west of Jamba, to fly in supplies and men for a final assault on UNITA, making its domination of the country complete.

But UNITA, which had secret US assistance, called on South Africa. In 1985 and ’86, FAPLA’s efforts had been defeated by combined SADF/UNITA forces. Now, in 1987, FAPLA was massing eight brigades equipped with the latest Soviet technology brought back from Afghanistan, for Operation Salute to October, named in honour of V.I. Lenin’s October coup that had toppled the Russian interim government of Alexander Kerensky in 1917. The operation began in June of 1987, with four combat brigades reaching the Lomba River north of Mavinga by mid-August.

Scholtz describes the lead-in by a small South African force using G-5 155mm howitzers and Valkiri Multiple Rocket Launchers. This, however, was not enough to prevent the Angolan brigades partially crossing the Lomba River. The strongest, the 47th Brigade, had rounded the source of the river and posed a direct threat to Mavinga, and therefore UNITA.

The story of how Charlie Squadron, equipped with Ratel-90 armoured cars spearheaded the attack against this brigade equipped with 28 T-54 and T-55 tanks, and destroyed it, is the heart of the book.

The author severely criticises the South African military authorities of the day for not supplying tanks to fight tanks. Apparently, despite an international arms embargo, SA had some 200 Centurion hulls, with over 100 upgraded to Olifant Mk 1A standard available for use, yet only 12 had trained crews! Those who paid for this oversight were the cavalrymen of Charlie Squadron, 61 Mechanised Battalion Group.

Scholtz uses e-mails, interviews and letters from veterans along with archive material to reconstruct the terror of the battle and the emotions of losing comrades and seeing death, including that of the enemy.

The author succeeds in detailing both the hard facts of the battle, as well as the emotion of at least the South African and Russian participants (other sources not being available). He also succeeds in telling the story of a small group of men fighting in a hot part of the Cold War, one that does not suit the current political elite in South Africa, but which helped the West win the Cold War and needed to be told. In telling the simple story of essentially simple men up against great odds, both in battle and in the struggle to be remembered, the book does both scholarship and the reading public a much-needed service.

The book’s weakness, such as it is, is precisely this lack of official Cuban, Angolan, UNITA, Russian and East German sources. German sources could now be accessed, but the others are locked tight and only the South African archives can be researched. Another minor criticism could be the use of the expression “Storm Pioneer” for “Assault Pioneers”, an Afrikanerism common in the SA Army, but possibly confusing to non-South African readers.

The book adds an important contribution to the growing literature on the Cold War in Africa, which has either consisted of memoirs or simple propaganda, with several notable exceptions such as the books by Dr Vladimir Shubin. The fact that Dr Scholtz has used both archival sources and interviews with the veterans, as well having the use of their old photographs, adds credibility to the book.

Battle on the Lomba. The Story of Charlie Squadron is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg (2017).

227 pages



ASIN: B0747VXMSF