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Into the Heart of
Darkness

Cold War Africa: Part 2, Angola

Angola was, as one author described it, the "last hot battlefield of the defunct Cold War." From 1975 to May 1991, the U.S. and the Soviet Union waged war by proxy in this former Portuguese colony in southwest Africa.

By richard k. kolb

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Members of South Africa's elite 1st Reconnaissance Commando carried out covert operations in Angola. A multi-racial force formed in 1972, the "Recces" also reportedly included a few Americans in their ranks. In 1987-88, Recce teams served as forward artillery observers far behind enemy lines.


Portugese colonists called it Terras do Fim Mundo -- "Land at the End of the Earth."

To those who fought there, southern Angola was indeed an inferno. For 16 years, this "burning relic of the expiring Cold War" consumed the precious resources and lives of five nations -- Angola, Cuba, Soviet Union, South Africa and the U.S.

It seemed an unlikely theater of East-West conflict. By the summer of 1975, the Washington Post was describing Angola as the scene of the "bloodiest, most ferocious civil war on the African continent in modern times." But once the Kremlin accelerated its weapons deliveries to the Marxist government, the tribal-based civil war was transformed into an ideological struggle between the superpowers.

Daniel Spikes, author of the Politics of Intervention, put the conflict in perspective: "It had been years since the Cold War felt so hot. Indeed, Moscow's move into southern Africa in 1975 had heralded this century's last, great crusade of imperialist expansion. Brezhnev's [Soviet leader Leonid] campaign in Angola, as it turned out, was the first swell of a wave of Soviet intervention.

"After Angola, it rolled across Africa to Ethiopia, then crossed into Asia, where it was about to crest and break against the stony ramparts of the Hindu Kush [a mountain range mostly in northeast Afghanistan]" in the 1980s.

Operation Feature
America was introduced to Angola in the fall of 1975. That nation gained independence in mid-November. Three warring factions, with loyalties based primarily on tribal-regional ties, were already at each other's throats. The factions were identified by the Portuguese acronyms MPLA, FNLA and UNITA. MPLA -- the Marxists -- held power in Luanda. The latter two were backed by the West.

Professor Jiri Valenta, an expert on the conflict, concluded: "The massive Soviet military supplies to the MPLA reached Angola in March and April [1975] several months before U.S. shipments of military supplies began to reach the FNLA through Zaire."

In response, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) launched Operation Feature to assist the FNLA. CIA stations in Angola, Zaire, Zambia and South Africa were beefed up with 83 officers supporting the effort. U.S. military personnel were not permitted on the ground in Angola. But some may have been there.

"Instructions supposedly prohibiting Americans from working inside Angola were disregarded by an Army mobile training team at FNLA headquarters in Ambriz, and by CIA communications instructors and observers with both FNLA and UNITA," according to John Prados in Presidents' Secret Wars.

American volunteers, however, were encouraged. Approximately seven U.S. mercenaries ended up in Angola. George Bacon III, a Green Beret vet of Vietnam and a CIA vet of Laos, was killed in action on patrol. Three other Americans were captured. One was executed; the other two remained in prison for 16 years until released in a South African POW exchange for two Soviet airmen in late 1982.

CIA's operation was cut short. The Tunney Amendment, effective Feb. 9, 1976, banned all U.S. aid to any Angolan faction during 1976. This ban was later made permanent by the Clark Amendment in June of that year.

Moscow acted predictably. It immediately resumed its airlift of arms to Luanda. That airlift would eventually eclipse the Soviet aerial effort made during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war in October by 50%. And in an "unprecedented Soviet operation in the South Atlantic" in early 1976, the Kremlin sent additional tracking and intelligence-gathering ships and aircraft to the waters off Angola.

South Africa Takes on Cuba
While the CIA carried out its covert mission, South Africa overtly intervened in the war. With no desire to commit U.S. troops, Washington was more than willing to allow Pretoria to serve as its proxy on the ground. Jonas Savimbi, leader of UNITA, was too.

When asked why he would do so, Savimbi replied with an African parable. "If you are a drowning man in a crocodile-infested river and you've just gone under for the third time," he said, "you don't question who is pulling you to the bank until you're safely on it."

Savimbi had little choice since Cuba had come into the civil war in full force. Devoted Communist Fidel Castro put his entire country on a war footing. Even CNN's Cold War series admitted that Castro's "ambition to spread communism around the world played a crucial role in extending the Cold War into Africa from the mid-1960s onward."

This set the stage for what proved to be the biggest land battle in black Africa since fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1936. During October and November 1975, the 2,000-man South African force cut through Angolan territory with remarkable speed. By mid-December, its troops found themselves in the largest action of the campaign.

Near Cela along the Nhia River, a South African task force clashed with 1,000 Cubans for three days in the Battle of Bridge 14. Some 200 Cubans were killed versus only four South Africans. Cuba suffered its heaviest casualties in any single battle of the war, including losing expeditionary force Commandant Raul Diaz Arguelles. An additional 50 Cubans were killed on Dec. 14.

What was South Africa's most important battle since Italy during WWII was for Cuba a self-declared "biggest setback of the whole war." The South Africans reached to within 200 miles of Luanda, but politics interceded and the advance was halted.

Operation Savannah cost the South Africans 33 KIA, 100 WIA and seven POWs. South Africa held a 60-mile-wide swath of land in southern Angola as a buffer zone through March 1976 and then withdrew its troops back into South West Africa, now Namibia.

Cross-border raids against guerrillas seeking independence for Namibia over the intervening years occasionally brought South African forces in contact with Cuban units. In 1978, for example, they ran into a Cuban armored column, killing 16 and wounding 63 of Castro's men.

In the summer of 1981, South Africa launched its largest military operation since WWII -- one that surpassed in intensity even the 1975 incursion. Some 4,000 troops charged across the Angolan border, running headlong into a Marxist force complete with 30 Soviet advisers. When four Soviet advisers were killed and one captured, it provided concrete evidence of Moscow's role at the tactical unit level.

Some of these operations proved costly. On Aug. 12, 1982, South Africa sustained its single largest loss of the border war. A Puma helicopter was shot down, killing 29 crew men and soldiers.

Then on Jan. 3, 1984, the "Springboks" (the nickname for South African soldiers) engaged a Cuban mechanized combat group near Cuvelai. In putting the two Cuban battalions to the chase, they knocked out 11 tanks and killed 324 Cuban and Angolan troops. But two South African troop carriers were hit by tank shells, killing many of the 21 men lost on Operation Askari -- the 12th major incursion into Angola.

Death of Americans
Within a month of Askari, an agreement was signed with the government in Luanda that required Pretoria to cease military incursions into Angola. A Joint Monitoring Commission was created to oversee the withdrawal of forces still there. The U.S. set up an office in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, to maintain contact with the commission.

As part of that liaison staff, Dennis Keogh and Lt. Col. Ken Crabtree were on the scene to observe the withdrawal. On April 16, 1984, they stopped at a gas station near Oshakati. As they approached the pump, a Soviet TM-45 limpet mine placed in a cardboard box was detonated by SWAPO guerrillas. Crabtree, a Special Forces veteran, was killed immediately. Keogh died of wounds in the hospital.

The agreement was negated the following year when the Marxists launched a major offensive against UNITA. This was the first of four offensives undertaken after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took power in March 1985. Military aid to the MPLA increased sharply and the Cuban presence doubled. Between nine and 14 Soviet advisers were attached to Angolan battalions in the field.

Nevertheless, this first offensive along the Lomba River was blunted. South African intervention was decisive. The South Africans achieved a special victory in shooting down an enemy transport. Among the dead were 10 Soviet advisers. By year's end, Moscow had decided to command all operations in Angola.

By then, the Clark Amendment had been repealed by Congress. The U.S. refurbished the former Belgian air base at Kamina, Zaire, to serve as the main depot to filter armaments to UNITA. U.S. Stinger and TOW missiles began to arrive in Angola in late spring 1986. UNITA soldiers affectionately dubbed the Stinger "a Cuban in a coffin." Alluding to the missiles, Savimbi later declared: "I would say the U.S. is playing a decisive role in the war."

Great Land Battles of 1987-88
Gorbachev's "democratic reforms" obviously did not apply to the Third World. Major Angolan offensives encouraged and aided by Moscow prompted South Africa to once again intervene openly on behalf of its ally UNITA.

Though Pretoria's contribution was limited to 3,000 troops on the front, total men mobilized on both sides constituted the largest armies to go into action in southern Africa since the Boer War (1899-1902). This time, South Africa's stay in Angola lasted a full year, from August 1987 through August 1988.

Interestingly enough, at least one historian categorized this as primarily an artillery war, at least from the South African perspective. Yet the heaviest fighting involved mechanized units at short ranges in confined terrain.

Ferocious battles occurred in the fall along the Lomba River. But early November 1987 garnered the greatest newspaper headlines. Tank-on-tank battles raged in the African bush for nearly a week. Of the 72 Soviet T-55 tanks committed to battle, 62 were knocked out in the first 36 hours. A few days later, the last 10 were captured intact. It was a crushing MPLA defeat.

Though enemy operations were directed by Soviet Gen. Konstantin Shagnovitch and 2,500 Soviet advisers (some guiding platoons), the Marxist triumvirate suffered a severe defeat. Angola's 47th Brigade (2,000 men) was annihilated. Cubans reportedly ran away. "The Cubans always withdraw when they are confronted by South African forces and leave us to fight alone," said a captured Angolan officer.

Castro was clearly worried. Cuba airlifted nearly 10,000 more troops to Angola in December. Cuban Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez (who was later exceuted on Castro's orders) complained: "I have been sent to a lost war so that I will be blamed for the defeat." Things got even worse.

In mid-February 1988, the Cubans lost 17 tanks and 32 killed in action. "The catastrophe of Feb.14-15 finally snapped Castro's patience," wrote Helmoed Heitman in the War in Angola. "General Cintra Frias was sent to Cuito Cuanavale to direct control of the forces there." According to one source, even North Vietnamese officers had been flown in to provide advice on resisting a siege.

Frias arrived just in the nick of time for the Angolans. At that stage of the campaign, they held their last toehold around the eastern end of a bridge across the Cuito River at Tumpo. Three South African attempts to dislodge them bogged down in minefields and artillery fire supported by MiGs. Mike Muller, commanding officer of the 61st Mechanized Battalion, commended the Cuban defense. "The enemy is strong and clever," he said.

Much was made of this action in the Western press. But the fact remains that South Africa's objective was achieved. The MPLA's offensive was decisively defeated and its forces were driven back across the Cuito River.

The village of Cuito Cuanavale was of no strategic value. Besides, by then, South African artillery had reduced it to rubble. While the Soviets called it "Angola's Stalingrad," a French reporter on the scene more aptly described it as "Angola's Verdun" because it lay in ruins.

Havana and Moscow now knew it was time to negotiate. On May 20, 1988, a Soviet official admitted that the Angolans "have not been able either, even with the help of the Cubans, to decisively defeat the enemy and drive him out of the territory or the country. The result, frankly speaking, was an impasse."

South Africa's War Ends
During the negotiations, 12,000 Cubans moved to within six miles of the Namibian border. This face-saving exercise prompted Pretoria to announce a limited call up of its Citizen Force reservists in early June. Some 3,000 South Africans manned a buffer zone inside Angola backed by 8,000 more just across the border in Namibia.

Such provocative posturing inevitably led to bloodshed. On June 27, a recon force of the 61st Mechanized Battalion collided with a Cuban-Angolan armored unit, which took a beating. It lost more than 300 men killed, of whom perhaps 150 were Cubans. A dozen vehicles were destroyed, including two tanks. That same day, a Cuban air strike on Calueque Dam killed 10 South African infantrymen.

The next day, the New York Times reported a bizarre incident that occurred the previous April. Apparently, the Cubans shot down one of their own planes because it was allegedly carrying defectors to South Africa. A Cuban general and 26 officers were killed.

On Aug. 8, 1988, a cease-fire took effect. All South African troops were out of Angola by month's end. The year-long campaign cost the South African Defense Force (SADF) 67 killed, two missing and one POW. The allied South West Africa Territorial Force lost an additional 16 men. The entire border war (1966-89) claimed the lives of some 750 security force members. At least 200 of the SADF soldiers died during operations in Angola.

'gray ghost' flights
A peace treaty between South Africa, Cuba and Angola was signed that December. In March 1989, elements of the U.S. 22nd Military Airlift Squadron and the 9th Military Airlift Group airlifted U.N. contingents to Namibia in support of the U.N. Transitional Advisory Group. Its job was to supervise the withdrawal of South African forces from Namibia, which was part of the peace agreement.

Beginning in 1989, Washington assumed complete responsibility for aiding UNITA. Though the U.S. filled the logistics gap, the Bush Administration halved weapons deliveries. But Moscow escalated the conflict, sending $1.5 billion worth of armaments to the MPLA in 1988-89 alone. Thus encouraging the Soviet-directed yet unsuccessful "final offensive" launched Dec. 23, 1989.

A few weeks before, on Nov. 27, an L-100 transport flying from Kamina Air Base -- hub of the secret CIA supply pipeline to UNITA -- crashed while attempting to land at Jamba, Angola. Neither the cause of the crash nor the number of casualties was revealed. The CIA spokesman would only say, "As a matter of policy, we never confirm or deny such reports." The New York Times reported four Americans killed. The CIA Memorial, however, contains only one star for 1989.

During 1990, the CIA began supplying additional weapons to UNITA using Tepper Aviation, based in Crestview, Fla. These so-called "gray ghost" flights became a daily routine. By June, three C-130 Hercules were taking off from Kamina Air Base for Jamba every day. According to one account, "The CIA furnished advisers who operated the military equipment."

Despite the rhetoric from Gorbachev, the Kremlin kept fueling the fire in Angola. A March 12, 1990, Wall Street Journal editorial entitled "Keeping the Cold War Warm" said it all: "The Soviets may be in retreat in Europe, but in Africa they still are pursuing the vestiges of the Cold War. The Soviets are pouring in $800 million a year in military aid to Angola, a rate that outweighs U.S. supplies to UNITA by 20 to 1." By the time Moscow pulled out, it had given $8 billion in military aid to its client state vs. $300 million in arms from Uncle Sam.

The final provision of the December accord was implemented May 25, 1991, when the last 116 Cubans departed Angola. Some 300,000 of "Moscow's Latin Hessians" had rotated through the country by then. Their strength probably peaked at 55,000. Castro admitted to 2,100 dead. Other estimates place the figure at 4,000 killed among 10,000 total casualties between 1975-1991.

According to Constantine Menges in his book The Twilight Struggle, "The Castro regime required the MPLA to pay an annual fee of $17,000 to $22,000 for each Cuban soldier in Angola. From 1976 to 1988, Castro probably earned about $7.4 billion for his troops."

Cold War Ends
That May 31, the MPLA and UNITA signed a peace treaty. Washington and Moscow ceased all military aid. Seven months later the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The Cold War was finally over. South Africa's all-white government was replaced by a multi-racial one in April 1994.

So between the East-West rivals, who came out on top? In their 1996 book Alien Wars, authors Gen. Oleg Sarin and Col. Lev Dvoretsky had this to say about Angola: "Soviet participation in this and other parts of Africa brought the Kremlin leaders no political gains. The loss of our military equipment and the lives of our servicemen who were sacrificed on the altar of unbridled ambition hurt the Soviet Union in many ways that are still with us."

Former Reagan Administration officials no doubt agree. "A strong policy toward the Soviets [in Angola]," wrote Peter W. Rodman in More Precious Than Peace, "instead of provoking an escalating Cold War conflict, magnified the incentives for compromise. Another misbegotten Soviet adventure from the 1970s ended."

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Last Modified: Thursday, 27-May-99 08:56:10 CDT