By MSW Add a Comment 16 Min Read

1983 opened on a stage of intense international diplomacy
over the crisis. The sheer weight of international thought and effort being
applied to the matter of ending the war in Angola and introducing some mutually
acceptable roadmap toward Namibian independence seemed, at times, to be so much
more than the sum total of its parts. Bilateral talks had been underway in Cape
Verde since December and seemed, by January, to be yielding the possibility of
a ceasefire based on a South African proposal that Cuban and other foreign
troops be withdrawn to above the 14th parallel, about 150 kilometres north of
the border. This, however, would have left the MPLA more or less unsupported
against UNITA in the key southeast of the country. (UNITA was not party to the
proposal.) The Angolans countered with the suggestion that a demilitarized zone
50 kilometres deep be created that would, by extension, have had to include
UNITA for it to be effective. Rumours continued to circulate, generating some
degree of cautious diplomatic optimism, but only some. In reality, the military
option remained the most attractive to both sides, with each grappling for some
definitive advantage on the battlefield to improve their negotiating position.

Therefore, at times in secret and at times very much under
the full glare of international perusal, the war went on. Far beneath the
surface, however, as far as Pretoria was concerned at least, was the growing
interdependency of South Africa and UNITA. While there may have been
considerable official secrecy surrounding this policy, in practical terms it
had become more or less common knowledge.

As the year progressed and as international diplomacy limped
from one blind alley to another, press speculation began to dwell more
frequently on the extent of combined operations underway between the SADF and
UNITA. The Angolan news agency Angop claimed on 12 August 1983 that eight SAAF
aircraft – four Canberras and four Impala ground-strike fighters – had
repeatedly bombed and destroyed the small but strategically important rail and
communication centre of Cangamba in the southeast Moxico Province. Although
little more than a scattering of thatch and iron-roofed buildings some 500
kilometres north of the South West African border, Cangamba included a functional
airstrip that was seen by both UNITA and the MPLA as being of vital strategic
importance, and from where the Angolans were tactically able to launch air
assaults against Savimbi’s main force concentrations in the southeast. At the
time, the MPLA was defending the settlement against a determined and bitter
effort by UNITA to gain control of it.

The SADF dismissed the Angolan claim as fanciful but the
Angolans persisted, speculating further that SADF troops still garrisoning
Xangongo and Ongiva had been massively reinforced, and repeatedly claiming that
South African troops were active in Moxico Province in eastern–central Angola
in direct support of UNITA. And while all of this had a clear histrionic ring
to it, there was no doubt that something was afoot in the region – a region
that South Africa obviously had no direct strategic interest in – and no less
clear that somehow or other South African was involved.

UNITA certainly had by then grown into a significant force
in east and southern–central Angola. This gave it practical control about 25
per cent of the whole country, almost the entire southeast quadrant, with an
additional operational presence on a more or less continuous basis in another
50 per cent. This fact, even at the time, was tacitly acknowledged by the
central government in Luanda and broadly acknowledged elsewhere. By then, UNITA
claimed to have some 35,000 trained and semi-trained fighters in the field. It
was well supported by such African states as Zaire and Zambia and, of course,
South Africa, with more covert but nonetheless influential support emanating
from the United States.

Direct South Africa military support for UNITA – military
advisers in the wonderfully opaque political language of the time – offered a
clear and tangible strategic benefit for South Africa. In the first instance,
UNITA’s military adventures diverted and preoccupied FAPLA and, to an
increasing degree, SWAPO too, relieving the SADF of the need to directly defend
the Eastern Front, or the long Caprivi–Kavango border region. In certain
quarters it was speculated that perhaps South Africa now needed UNITA more than
UNITA needed her.

This fact was not, of course, lost on Savimbi, who certainly
did capitalize on it frequently by petitioning Pretoria for material and
military assistance. Such requests would usually be followed by the SAAF
providing VIP air transport for Savimbi to visit either Pretoria or Cape Town,
which would then be further followed by a top-secret signal to the SADF
detailing the practical assistance that was to be provided.

In the matter of the battle for Cangamba there have been
many conflicting reports on the extent to which South Africa was involved.
According to UNITA’s own version, after six months of starving out the 3,000
MPLA defenders, Savimbi began the battle on 3 August 1983 by shelling the town
with some of the Sovietmade 76mm artillery pieces that had been captured three
years earlier. He then sent in several battalion-strength detachments of
semi-conventional troops as well as irregulars and ‘commandos’. Over eight days
of heavy fighting UNITA suffered serious losses from mines and strafing from
MiGs and Mi-8 attack helicopters operating from Luena and against which UNITA
could offer little in the way of practical defence. But by mid-August, the
defences of Cangamba had been so comprehensively compromised that more than 100
surviving Cubans were airlifted out by helicopter. Cangamba was finally taken
on 14 August at a heavy cost in UNITA and MPLA/Cuban lives.

Although no mention of the fact is made in the preceding
account, according to Brigadier-General Dick Lord, Savimbi did indeed request
active South African assistance in the battle, claiming that, although the area
around the town had been cleared, the MPLA HQ itself remained occupied and
functioning and that without immediate help the likelihood was that UNITA would
soon need to withdraw. Bearing mind that the scene of this battle lay
significantly outside of SWAPO’s and South Africa’s sphere of activity, the
request was received with caution. Direct South African involvement could
hardly have been construed as anything other than an overt intervention in the
Angolan civil war. A meeting of high-level South African sectorial commanders
was quickly convened and the matter subjected to much discussion.

Huyser [Brigadier ‘Bossie’ Huyser, commander of Western Air
Command] attended this meeting and listened to all the arguments for and
against. When negotiations reached stalemate Huyser jumped into the whirlpool
with both feet and said, “Give authority to the SAAF for one airstrike and
UNITA will take Cangamba!” Silence greeted his career-jeopardizing announcement
but, after consideration, the authority was given.

With this, the reputation of the SAAF was on the line as, no
doubt, was the personal reputation and future career prospects of Brigadier
Bossie Huyser himself. However, with minute planning and the hope of a fair
wind behind it, Operation Karton went into effect early in the morning of 14
August, utilizing Buccaneers and Canberras from 3, 12 and 24 squadrons. The
attack succeeded in what has since come to be regarded as one of the most
effective and well-executed operations of its kind undertaken at any time
during the war. Within a few hours, the final walk-in took place and Cangamba
was in UNITA hands. The negative result – for there always seemed to be one of
these, often the same one – was an immediate and significant escalation in the
amount and sophistication of Soviet replacement weaponry shipped to Angola and
channelled to the front, as well as the arrival in the country of an additional
investment of several thousand Cuban troops.

In the short term, however, the UNITA position in the
southeast had been buttressed and the SADF could return its attention to
dealing with a new arc of SWAPO/FAPLA brigade positions established north of
the Shallow Area since the completion of Operation Protea, and located
variously at Cahama, Cuvelai, Caindo in the north of the Cunene Province and
Mulondo in the adjacent Huila Province. Intelligence soon began to seep south
that PLAN intended to launch its heaviest infiltration thus far into South West
Africa as soon as the 1983/84 wet season commenced. To counter this, the SADF
began planning for Operation Askari, a follow-up to Operation Protea and
perhaps one of the most important major combined external operations of the

Operation Askari was earmarked for launch in mid-November
1983, unusual timing, bearing in mind that it would correspond more or less
with the onset of the wet season and all the difficulties associated with
mounting a mechanized operation in southern Angola in the teeth of the annual

It is worth noting in this regard that the cycle of war in
the region tended to correspond more or less with seasonal variations of
rainfall and drought. The tropical/subtropical weather system of southern
Africa follows a pattern of summer rainfall – often in a short and a long phase
– occurring annually between late November and February/March and a dry winter
season that peaks between the months of June and September. During the wet
season, heat and humidity levels tend to be high while veld conditions are lush
with rich ground cover and heavy tree foliage, and with a tendency also for
there to be large expanses of shallow standing water in alkaline pans known
locally as shonas.

Since the earliest days of European activity in the region,
it has always been understood that the dry winter season is the time for
warfare and ambulation. Wheeled transport is feasible on untreated road
surfaces only at this time, while cool conditions and a paucity of
disease-carrying parasites such as mosquitoes and tsetse flies render human and
animal movement much more practical. During the wet summer months, however, the
opposite has always been true: bushveld conditions become impossible for the
movement of livestock and wagons, and in later years motor vehicles, while high
levels of humidity and rain tend to see correspondingly high levels of
lethargy, discomfort and disease, particularly among non-natives.

It therefore made perfect sense for SWAPO units to disperse
into the countryside and begin the long overland journey south from its forward
bases as the rains set in. For them the principal hazard was malaria, but
certainly not limits on vehicle transport, since a bulk of the journey would be
undertaken on foot and, besides which, any limitations on SADF capacity to
mobilize would always be an advantage. Perhaps a greater advantage than this
was the large expanses of standing water scattered across the bushveld, without
which long-distance deployment over an otherwise parched and arid landscape
would have been suicidal. Flooded shonas also offered the opportunity for small
groups of guerrillas moving through any given area the opportunity to obscure
their tracks by hopping from one flooded pan to another, with the additional
advantage of regular downpours washing away what tracks they did leave.
Moreover, thick savannah woodland of the type common throughout southern Angola
would usually be bare of foliage in the dry season, but heavily canopied during
the rains which helped in the matter of concealment both from ground patrols
and from the air.

Conversely, for the SADF, large mechanized columns became an
utter liability in the rough and undeveloped conditions of southern Angola
during the wet season, which meant that the style of operations during this period
was likely to be limited to containment, tracking and follow-up foot patrols in
the border area.

At the onset of the dry season, however, most SWAPO units
would be recalled from the field for what was termed ‘rehearsals’ which saw
them concentrated in bases, perfect circumstances for the launch of large-scale
offensive operations to deal with them in numbers.

The planning for Operation Askari also went ahead against
these and other difficulties, among them international pressure, as well as a
great deal of concern in Pretoria regarding another bout of re-armament in
Angola in the aftermath of the most recent destruction wrought in Cangamba. The
arrival in Luanda had been observed of at least ten Russian cargo ships packed
to the gunwales with everything from T-62 battle tanks to helicopters and
high-altitude anti-aircraft missiles. In addition, Cuba shipped over 5,000
fresh troops, bringing the total based in Angola to a South African estimate,
probably conservative, of 25,000.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version