SAAF ASSISTANCE TO UNITA AND OPERATION ASKARI Part II

At more or less the same time, United Nations Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar undertook a lightning familiarization tour of the affected countries, spending two days in Pretoria before flying north to Luanda where he was personally received by Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, and later introduced to Sam Nujoma, whom he referred to on the steps of the presidential palace as “the representative of the Namibian people”. This, of course, all combined to increase the sense in Pretoria that the entire negotiated process was stacked against South Africa, which was probably not the case in practical terms but in moral terms it certainly was.

Likewise, the threat of a more direct Soviet intervention on the side of Angola appeared to be growing as the scale and severity of South African operations grew. Demands for the removal of the semi-permanent garrison of South African troops in Xangongo and Ongiva were also frequently being heard, not least from the Americans who, as much as they did not want to commit troops to the theatre themselves, also did not want the Soviets to have any excuse to do so. It was impossible, of course, to hide the fact that the South Africans were planning something. The pace of air reconnaissance flights over any given area in Angola could always be regarded as fair warning of that, and as South African aircraft began to appear with greater frequency in the skies over southern Angola in preparation for Operation Askari, Moscow issued a quiet warning to Pretoria that an expansion of the war, such as might be about to take place, would carry with it a significant risks for South Africa.

The warning came in the form of a written dispatch handed to South African diplomats – the precise venue for this is not known but it was probably in Washington or at the United Nations – by their Soviet counterparts, to be passed on to the government in Pretoria. While it was stressed in the dispatch that the contents of the message should not be regarded as a threat, it was nonetheless pointed out that the continued occupation of Angolan territory by South Africa and ongoing support for UNITA were unacceptable to Moscow. Moreover, it was stated that the desired withdrawal of Cuban troop from Angola as a precondition for the extraction of South African troops from South West Africa would not take place. The USSR, it was pointed out, was tied to Angola by an agreement of friendship and cooperation and could be expected to provide what support was required by Angola for the protection of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Needless to say, Pretoria rebuffed this threat, which it clearly was, while the final planning and preparation for Operation Askari went ahead. The South Africans were nonetheless rattled by the exchange. The offensive aspects of the plan were as a consequence modified, with the main objective once again being to disrupt and destroy SWAPO’s logistics, deployment and supply capability, but this time the emphasis was placed on a strategy of isolating military strongpoints and applying threat and attrition in the hope that enemy forces would suffer a collapse of morale and desert without the necessity of a full confrontation. The operational plan was finally approved in four phases:

Phase 1: Deep penetration Special Force reconnaissance followed by SAAF air assault on the Typhoon/Volcano base located near Lubango, taking place between 1 November and 30 December 1983;

Phase 2: Offensive reconnaissance operations and the isolation of Cahama, Mulondo and Cuvelai, extending from 16 November 1983 to mid-January 1984. The aim of this was to cut off enemy communication and logistic lines in what was known as the Deep Area, or all areas of Angola which were of operational interest to South Africa but not within the defined Shallow Area. This, it was hoped, would demoralize and terrorize SWAPO defenders to the extent that they would abandon their positions and withdraw northward;

Phase 3: Commencing at the beginning of February 1984, to establish a dominated area from west of the Cunene River, through Quiteve, Mupa, Vinticette and eastward through Ionde;

Phase 4: The final curtailment of hostile incursions into South West Africa, internally if required.

The three principal targets of Operation Askari were located in a wide arc within what was classified by FAPLA as its 5th Military Region. Cahama, one of the main proposed targets, lay 150 kilometres northwest of Xangongo on what at the time was a good road, while Mulondo, another key target, was located a little farther than this, perhaps 200 kilometres from Xangongo, but also on an accessible arterial route. Cuvelai lay farther north still but was considerably more remote on the eastern perimeter of the derelict Parque Nacional da Mupa.

A heavy Special Force reconnaissance insertion, one of the largest so far in the war, was done at a number of points behind enemy lines in order to gather the necessary tactical intelligence on enemy strengths and dispositions upon which detailed planning could be made. What was reported back in general terms was that FAPLA was at brigade strength at Cahama, Mulondo and Cuvelai – with a brigade in this context being somewhere between 600 and 1,000 men. In addition, each town was well defended by an extensive network of bunkers as well as a great deal of razor wire, minefields and artillery. Of particular concern to the flying crews were the well-integrated anti-aircraft defences that included a brace of SA-8s and SA-9 missile systems as well as 14.5mm and 23mm guns. However, the entire configuration, in keeping perhaps with the Soviet doctrine that inspired it, was clearly defensive in intent, suggesting that there was only a very limited potential for any direct offensive action on the ground.

What was also ascertained – although separate reports differ on this fact – and notwithstanding a handful of Cuban and Soviet advisers in situ, was that no meaningful foreign element to PLAN/FAPLA forces was in place. A Cuban regiment was based at Jamba, however, and a second at Matala, both in the Huíla Province north of the main focus of SADF attention.

Offensive action against Cahama began in mid-November with an initial deployment of Special Force reconnaissance teams to cut logistics and communication lines and to generally attempt the isolatation of Cahama while the SAAF carried out strikes against identified targets within the defensive perimeter. The strategy was to rattle and exhaust defending forces prior to the additional psychological stress of realizing, with the arrival of the main mechanized force, that a major South African attack was imminent.

This preliminary softening-up had a limited effect, as Brigadier-General Dick Lord commented in his history of the SAAF in the Border War, From Fledgling to Eagle, because a garrison such as that entrenched in Cahama, fortified by the sense that it had beaten the Boere back on previous encounters, was hardly likely to be overawed by the offensive efforts of a handful of Recces and the attentions of the SAAF against its well-constructed trench and bunker system. It was not until the forward advance of Task Force X-Ray, comprising mainly 61 Mechanized Battalion and attached artillery, and with a SAAF MAOT attached, appeared in mid-December that the real pressure began to be applied. (See appendix for a first-hand account of a SAAF officer serving as MAOT for 61 Mechanized Battalion during Operation Askari.)

In this regard, it is worth noting that Cahama had been heavily and consistently bombed during earlier operations – particularly during Operation Protea – although it had never been targeted with a view to being taken or occupied, which had always tended to be interpreted by the enemy as a tactical loss, with much subsequent propaganda mileage being made out of this fact by the defenders who consistently claimed that they had driven off the Boere.

Another point worth mentioning in regard to the assault on Cahama is the fact that it was known prior to the launch of Askari that among the anti-aircraft armaments deployed around the target was the vehicle-mounted and radar-supported Soviet SA-8 missile system, a highly mobile, low-altitude, short-range, tactical surface-to-air missile system that until then had not been deployed outside of the USSR. The capture of one of these was the objective of a high-priority side operation codenamed Fox. This operation involved coordinated ground and air bombardments undertaken in such a way as to force the southward movement of the mobile batteries in order that an SA-8 could be isolated by ground forces and snatched. The operation failed, although an older SA-9 system was captured in Cuvelai which, even though not precisely what was hoped for, was nonetheless an important acquisition and of significant intelligence interest.

In the meanwhile, prior to the advance of Task Force X-Ray, comprising mainly 61 Mechanized Battalion and attached artillery, on the outskirts of Cahama, it successfully overran the small defended town of Quiteve against almost no resistance. This prompted an unsuccessful probe north by a detached company of Task Force X-Ray to begin the process of isolating Mulondo. This caused some grumbling from SAAF command as it required the unscheduled diversion of air resources to support the advance which reduced the cover available elsewhere. Brigadier-General Dick Lord:

This diversion of the original Askari plan had repercussions on the air plan. Support had to be flown for ground forces in that area, thus utilizing aircraft hours and weapons set aside for the Cahama and Cuvelai battles. It had a further tactical disadvantage in that the element of surprise we had hoped to gain from our attack on Cahama was lost. After our Mulondo strikes the entire air defence system of southern Angola was placed on the highest state of alert.

Cahama, meanwhile, was now subjected to an unrelenting artillery bombardment during the day and night/day aerial attacks delivered by Impala and Canberra formations that lasted throughout the second half of December. In the midst of these raids a flight of Buccaneers was diverted briefly to attack SWAPO/FAPLA forward training and logistics bases near the town of Lubango on the main road north of Cahama.

The combined effect of weeks of intense attrition applied to Cahama certainly did affect morale among the defenders, as had been hoped, with radio intercepts confirming this fact, and had the operation been allowed to continue it would certainly have succeeded. However, all SADF operations around Cahama were abruptly ordered to cease by 31 December, largely as a consequence of international pressure being brought to bear against the South African government to withdraw its forces from Angola. This had the melancholy effect of allowing the FAPLA 2nd Brigade in Cahama to observe one morning, to their unutterable relief, the mighty SADF 61 Mechanized Battalion breaking the siege and leaving the area, with the predictable result that yet another defeat of the Boere was hailed by FAPLA. Similarly, the combined offensive plan against Mulondo was discontinued.

In the midst of the Cahama siege, however air assets were once again diverted when a Sector 20 SADF deception force was attacked and five members killed during an unscheduled diversionary strike at a position close to the town of Caiundo, more than 200 kilometres east of the main combat zone. The SAAF had not been informed of this aspect to the operation and therefore had not factored in any contingency for dealing with this sort of emergency. Air activity was now spread even more thinly, with attack aircraft being diverted to Caiundo from both Cahama and Mulondo in the midst of the campaign to suppress both. Caiundo remained a focus of air activity for the remainder of the life of Operation Askari, itself ultimately not being captured and contributing to the similar marginal failures at Cahama and Mulondo.

At 14h05 on 27 December 1983, the aerial bombardment of the final key target, Cuvelai, north of Xangongo, began. This followed a week or more of photo-reconnaissance flights which had warned the defenders of the town well in advance that something big was imminent. The aerial attacks continued for the next few days, after which Task Force Delta-Fox, a battle group comprising mainly territorial Citizen Force soldiers, was sent in to engage a SWAPO HQ and logistics base located five kilometres northeast of the town. To its horror, the group came under attack from the FAPLA 11th Brigade, reinforced by two Cuban battalions, and utilizing T-54/T-55 tanks for the first time in their correct mobile role. Task Force X-Ray was immediately reassigned to assist and in a mere 16 hours was extracted from its activity around Cahama and redeployed overland to the outskirts of Cuvelai. This epic forced march is described in part by Captain Charlie Wroth in the appendix. There a combined ground and air assault commenced on 3 January 1984.

Supporting air operations began with a determined and coordinated series of strikes aimed at all known AAA and artillery sites. The first wave comprised ten Impala jets followed by four Canberras. The combined load of bombs delivered on the target was 60 120kg bombs, 18 350kg bombs, two 460kg bombs and 600 deadly anti-personnel alpha bombs, followed by a second wave of Impalas dropping 32 250kg bombs. Each pilot was equipped with an up-to-date aerial photograph of his intended target and a high degree of accuracy was achieved.

This was confirmed on completion of the air attack by an intercepted radio call from the Angolan commander pleading for help from his HQ in Lubango, claiming that 75 per cent of his artillery had been taken out by the SAAF. If this was even partially so then this certainly would have ranked highly among SAAF actions during the war. Dick Lord, remarking on this fact, commented that: “This airstrike, together with the Cangamba attack, ranks arguably as the two most successful airstrikes flown by the SAAF throughout the history of the war.”

During the air operation an Impala piloted by Captain Joe van den Berg was clipped in the tail by an SA-9 missile, completely destroying the right side tail-plane and elevator. A combination of skilled piloting and controlled elevation loss allowed the aircraft to land safely at the recently resurfaced airstrip at Ongiva.

The SAAF, meanwhile, continued to fly in support of ground troops moving in on Cuvelai, with Alouette pilot Captain Carl Alberts winning the Honoris Crux for marking gun positions under heavy fire, evading, so the story is told, four simultaneously fired RPG rockets. After labouring through the extensive minefields surrounding the town, and losing a Ratel to a T-55 hit that resulted in the death of ten men, ground forces entered Cuvelai to find that both SWAPO and FAPLA had fled, later running into 32 Battalion stop groups positioned south of Tetchamutete where a handful were killed and many more captured. Eleven enemy tanks were taken out during the battle, with an estimated 324 Angolan and Cuban lives lost.

It need hardly be said that Operation Askari stirred up a ferment of hyperbolic but hardly exaggerated pleas on the part of the Angolans and gales of outrage from the international community. All of this the South Africans deflected with as much stone-faced denial as was possible, but with, nonetheless, a finger on the pulse of the wider international reaction to gauge the point at which the operation would need to be brought to a close.

Mopping up was still underway in Cuvelai when news reached Pretoria of a dispatch between SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma and UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar, pleading for the latter to arrange a direct ceasefire between the SADF and his own forces in order to “contribute meaningfully to an early ceasefire agreement”.

This was obviously done under pressure from the reeling Angolans and as such was something of a red herring. There had been throughout the liberation period in recent African history many similar incidences where pleas such as this were simply used as an opportunity for rearming, regrouping and the reoccupation of territory defined as demilitarized by any ceasefire agreement. It was simply a fact of the times.

Phase 3 of Operation Askari, the establishment of a dominated area between the Cunene and Cubango rivers and as far north Tetchamutete, had been achieved, although the area west of the Cunene remained broadly hostile. The success of Phase 4 – the halting of the annual SWAPO incursion – is subjective, and can be measured only in terms of insurgent and SADF deaths in the area of border operations in the weeks and months that followed. An incursion in 1984 did take place, so SWAPO activity was certainly not halted, although it was undoubtedly a less ambitious penetration than had originally been planned.

By 15 January, the last of the raiding forces had crossed back into South West Africa where the planners and commanders of the operation could step back and ponder what really had been very mixed results. On the whole, however, Askari was deemed a success, in particular when measured using the yardstick of enemy losses and the accumulation or destruction of astronomical quantities of war booty. (It was frequently remarked, obviously, but not wholly fallaciously that, under a general and increasing arms embargo, the Soviets remained the largest supplier of arms to South Africa. Indeed, South Africa did make practical use of many articles of captured hardware in the form of vehicles, artillery and some aircraft.) Also, of course, another significant blow had been delivered to the logistical and deployment capability of SWAPO which, although diminishing the organization’s short-term effectiveness on the battlefield, it did nothing to significantly alter the overall trajectory of either the situation or the pace and intensity of the war.

In fact, the South Africans had much to reflect upon as 1984 dawned that must at the time have seemed quite depressing. South African troops in the battle for Cuvelai had for the first time encountered tanks used in their correct mobile capacity and, although still not deployed with quite the level of skill necessary to defeat a force on a par with the SADF, it still marked a turning point on the battlefield that would no doubt develop further. It was also evident that Angolan, Cuban and Soviet commitment to the defence of Angolan territory had been markedly more aggressive during this operation than at any previous time which again could be expected to increase as the situation unfolded. Lastly, there remained a residual unease occasioned by the Soviet threat of robust intervention should the South African presence in Angola ever become more overtly threatening than it had been hitherto, unease that remained strong with the ongoing South African occupation of Xangongo and Ongiva.

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