Portuguese Air Power in Africa

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Portuguese Air Power in Africa

The need for a replacement for the Portuguese bomber
and close air support fleet in Africa during the Colonial War, composed of the
PV-2 Harpoon and of the F-84G Thunderjet, led to the procurement by the
Portuguese Air Force of a new bomber in the mid-sixties. But it would prove difficult
to acquire new aircraft because of the United Nations arms embargo then in
force against Portugal, so special methods had to be used. In late 1964, with
the decision made to acquire the B-26 Invader a contact was established with an
arms broker in order to try to obtain 20 B-26 Invader aircraft.

Noratlas N.2501D, Esquadra de Transportes, Forca Aerea

By the early 1960 Portugal’s surviving colonial possessions
in Africa began to reject Portuguese authority, the first armed rebellion
emerging in Portuguese Guinea Fighting broke out in August 1959 with the PAIGC
(Partido Africano de Independencia da Guine e Capo Verde). At first only a
handful of T-6 Texans of the FAP (Forca Aerea Portugesa Portuguese air force)
were available to deal with the emergency until supplemented by Republic F-84G
Thunderjets in 1963. FAP presence increased to match the rebel activity and in
1967, Esq. 121 ‘Tigres’ with eight G91R-4s was set up at Bissalau, along with
additional T-6s and Do 27 liaison aircraft. The G91s flew in support of
Portuguese troops and against the PAIGC’s supply trails near the Senegalese and
French Guinean borders. Five of the type were lost to enemy action at least two
of them shot down by SA-7 missiles In May 1968 General Antonio de Spinola was
appointed governor and he ordered 12 Alouette III helicopters , which were
essential for operations in a country that was comprised largely of marsh and
soft terrain . The Alouette Ills were part of Esq. 121, as was a flight of Nord
Noratlas transports which undertook all local supply flights

By 1970 the campaign had taken on a much tougher approach
and the FAP was using napalm and defoliants against PAIGC targets The PAIGC
received limited air support from a number of diverse sources . Conakry-based
Nigerian MiG-17s were used for reconnaissance flights, while Soviet-supplied
Mi-4s carried out supply flights in the east of the country . Several FAP
aircraft were lost to SA-7s and AAA fire : PAIGC claimed to have shot down 21
aircraft in seven years The PAIGC declared an independent republic in September
1973 . Seven months later the military seized power in Portugal in a nearly
bloodless coup and established a provisional military government which
installed Spinola as president. As a result, independence was granted to
Guinea-Bissau on 10 September 1974. The FAP undertook the withdrawal of most
military and civilian personnel by 15 October


While the situation in Portuguese Guinea was worsening. trouble
flared up farther south in Angola. The actions of the Marxist Movimento Popular
de Libertario de Angola (MPLA) forced the stationing of FAP C-47s and PV-2
Harpoons at Luanda to support the army. Several major towns soon came under
MPLA siege and the small Portuguese army element in Mozambique was stretched to
breaking point. A number of civilian aircraft, such as Piper Cubs were pressed
into service as light transports to resupply outlying settlements, while DC-3s
and Beech 18s were used as makeshift bombers. These and the other FAP aircraft
were joined in June 1961 by F-84Gs. A substantial paratroop – dropping effort
was sustained, first by the C-47s and later by Noratlases, to relieve several
towns under siege. Fighting continued mostly in the north of the country and
the Noratlas detachment made regular parachute drops with the 21st Battalion of
the Regimento de Cacadores Paraquedistas to garrison towns.

Although Portugal was the subject of a US arms embargo due
to its African conflicts, seven B-26s were sold to the FAP in 1965 to
supplement the PV. These helped to compensate for the F – 84G losses, which
stood at five (mostly through accident rather than action) and growing Soviet
support for the MPLA. Yet another guerrilla group materialized. In 1966, when a
breakaway MPLA group established itself as the Uniao Nacional de Independencia
Total de Angola (UNITA), under the leadership of Jonas Savimbi. FAP aircraft
maintained constant attacks against the MPLA. which was advancing Inexorably
westward towards the capital.

The arrival of G91R-4s in 1972 (some coming from FAP units
stationed In neighbouring Mozambique) boosted the FAPS combat power.
Helicopters also became an increasingly important part of operations. The
Alouettes were used to move troops rapidly to trouble spots and by 1969 they
had been joined in country by the first Pumas, F-84Gs, B-26s, T-6GS and even
armed Do 27s which kept up a constant cycle of air attacks on rebel positions.

However, the strain of fighting across Africa was proving
too much for Portugal. The coup heralded the end of Portugal’s involvement in
Angola, which was offered independence on 1 July 1974.


The third chapter of Portugal’s African wars concerned
Mozambique. Following the other colonies, struggle for independence Mozambique
saw the rise of Eduardo Mondlan’s Frente de Libertacao de Mocambique (FRELIMO)
movement in 1962. Again only small numbers of FAP C-47s and T-6s were on hand
when serious trouble broke out in 1964. In a short space of time, 16,000 troops
had arrived in the country and additional T-6s, PV-2s (eight) , Do 27s (12) and
some Alouette III’s were despatched to support them FRELIMO operated from bases
in Tanzania and later Zambia

The FAP commitment to Mozambique became larger than that in
either Guinea or Angola, although combat operations did not begin in earnest
until 1968. A network of new air bases was set up as a result at Beira (T-6Gs,
PV-25 Auster D.5s and Noratlas transports) and at Tete (T-6Gs, Do 27s, Auster D.5s,
Alouette IIIs and G91R-4s). Additional G91s were based at Nacala. Nova Freixo
was occupied by T-6s, Austers and Alouettes while C-47 transports were based
Lourenco Marques.

Now under the command of amora Machel (later to become
president), FRELIMO began vigorous operations against the Portuguese from 1970.
South African-registered crop-sprayers were used to spray herbicides over FRELIMOs
border strongholds. in an attempt to deny them food. These aircraft departed
the country prematurely, after AAA fire shot down escorting T-6s and one of the

Once again Portugal found itself fighting a losing battle
with a conscript army. The G91s returned to Portugal in 1974 in anticipation of
an offer of full independence Mozambique gained independence. On 5 June 1975
and took possession of several T-6s and Noratlases for its own use.

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“
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