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Central, Eastern, & Southern Africa Database

Angola since 1961
By Tom Cooper, Pedro Alvin, and Troung
Sep 2, 2003, 09:29

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In our days, Portugal is a small country, but it should be remembered that once before it was both, the first and the last of the great European colonial powers. Discoveries inspired by Henry the Navigator in the 15th and early 16th Century turned Portugal in what was for several centuries the world’s third largest empire, which military fought numerous wars, most of which are forgotten in t he English-speaking world today. Although the Portuguese sources are extensive, they are usually (and quite understandably) written in Portuguese, and thus inaccessible to the outsiders.

While there is no intention this article to discuss the Portuguese colonial politics, for orientation purposes several basic facts should be described. For example, from the early 1950s the Portuguese colonial doctrine was that the overseas territories were not “colonies”, but rather integral parts of Portugal, or “overseas provinces” – with special laws suited to their particular level of development, but ruled from Lisbon. It should also be mentioned, that at the time Portugal was ruled by Dr. António de Oliveira Salazar: although he was always denying that his regime was totalitarian, today all authoritative sources have little doubts about Salazar’s right-wing and authoritarian posture, about the fact that there was only a show of a national assembly in Lisbon, as well as that all the opposition was suppressed by the secret police (Polícia Internacional de Defesa do Estado, or PIDE).

Nevertheless, the Portuguese prided themselves on their racial tolerance – and to some degree degree this claim was justified: even if there was a kind of racial segregation there were no such official laws like the Apartheid regulations in South Africa. All African provinces retained their own customs, languages, and religions, and had a considerable number of so-called “assimilados”, Africans who had learned Portuguese, accepted Christianity, shown that they could provide for themselves and their families – but also signed the declaration of loyalty: as such, they were granted all the privileges and liabilities of Portuguese citizenship.

For such reasons, as well as due to the fact that during the 500 years they were in Africa the Portuguese experienced revolts and even invasions but always won through in the end, when a series of uprisings developed in their overseas provinces in the early 1960s, they were slow to recognize the signs of the time. Namely, it was exactly these “assimilados” who became aware of what was happening in other African colonies, and who became sympathetic to the cause of the African nationalism, especially as the Portuguese colonies increasingly became surrounded by independent countries: the Portuguese were to need 13 years to realize what was actually going on.




The modern history of Angola, Namibia (former South-West Africa) and South Africa is closely related, then these countries were – in one way or the other – involved in a war that lasted for the better part of the last 40 years. The conflict in question was based on the development of anti-colonial movements in response to suppression of native African population, but was eventually to see a massive involvement of foreign powers as well.




Angola became a Portuguese colony already in 1655, and was in 1955 declared to an overseas province. The country was huge, and immensely rich on natural resources. The capital, Luanda, was a small, but well-developed city with an important port and a nearby airfield, full of merchants and well-functioning small businesses, and considered one of the most beautiful cities in whole Africa.

The local population was considered equal to the colons and many Africans were integrated in the Portuguese society, however, in the light of widespread anti-colonial movements in the whole Africa of the time, many intellectuals did not feel very honoured by Angola being declared an overseas province. Years would pass, however, before any kind of an armed conflict became possible – foremost after Great Britain and France have left several neighbouring countries into independence, in the early 1960s.

In 1957, at the time Ghana was granted independence as one of the first African colonies, the first significant nationalist movement came into existence in Angola: the Marxist-oriented group was grandiosely called Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA). Only a year later the second organization followed, the conservative Uniao das Populacoes de Angola (UPA), led by Holden Roberto. These two organizations initially did little but published requests for independence of Angola from Portugal. With the time, however, they started gathering armed sympathisers and organising own militias. The Portuguese reacted swiftly at first signs of trouble: they arrested Dr. Agostinho Neto, the MPLA leader, and put down all the riots in Luanda without much problem, leaving the party in great disarray. In early 1961 also an uprising by disaffected peasants was put down as well, but only weeks later a new revolt rose in the north of Angola, and this time the Portuguese troops could not react as swiftly everywhere this was needed in a country as huge, but with poorly developed infra-structure.

Map of Angola with most important Portuguese airfields as of early 1970s. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003 software)





FAP in Africa, 1960

The Portuguese Air Force (“FAP”) was officially founded as a separate branch of military in 1952, and played a crucial role during the wars in the Portuguese-Guinea, Angola, and Mozambique.

The basic unit of the FAP at the time was a wing = Esquadra. With few exceptions, each Esquadra flew a different type of aircraft, but later in the 1960s, several wings equipped with various types were organized as well. The most important Esquadras of the 1950s and 1960s were:

- Esquadra 10, Republic F-47
- Esquadra 11, Republic F-47
- Esquadra 20, Republic F-84G and Lockheed T-33A
- Esquadra 21, Republic F-84G Thunderjet
- Esquadra 31, North American T-6, Dornier Do.27, and Auster
- Esquadra 32, Junkers Ju-52, Nord 1505 Noratlas
- Esquadra 33, Aerospatiale SA.316B
- Esquadra 61, Lockheed PV-2 and Lockheed P2V-5
- Esquadra 62, Lockheed PV-2
- Esquadra 51, North American F-86F
- Esquadra 52, North American F-86F
- Esquadra 81, C-47
- Esquadra 82, DC-6
- Esquadra 91, Lockheed PV-2, Douglas B-26, Fiat G.91R-4
- Esquadra 92, Nord 1505 Noratlas
- Esquadra 93, Republic F-84G
- Esquadra 94, Aerospatiale SA.316B

During various wars in Africa, squadron-sized detachments were established at several airfields in Angola, Guiné and Mozambique. Various references designate these as Esquadras or Esquadrons. The most important such units of the 1960s and 1970s were:

- Esquadra 101, PV-2s in Beira, Mozambique
- Esquadra 102, Noratlas in Beira, Mozambique
- Esquadra 103, PV-2s in Beira, Mozambique
- Esquadra 131, DC-6s in Portela, Portugal
- Esquadra 132, Boeing 707-3F5C, in Portela, Portugal
- Esquadra 121, Do.27s in Bissau/Bissalanca, Guiné, later Fiat G.91s
- Esquadra 122, SA.316Bs in Bissau/Bissalanca, Guiné
- Esquadra 123, Noratlas and Do.27, in Bissau/Bissalanca, Guiné
- Esquadra 501, T-6 and Do.27 in Nacala, Angola
- Esquadra 502, Fiat G.91R-4 in Nacala, Angola
- Esquadra 503, SA.316B, in Nacala, Angola
- Esquadra 701, T-6s, Do.27s and Cessna 185, in Tete, Mozambique
- Esquadra 702, Fiat G.91R-4 in Tete, Mozambique
- Esquadra 703, SA.316B and SA.330B Puma, in Tete, Mozambique
- Esquadra 801, C-47s in Lorenco Marques, Angola

Exact history of each of FAP units might be quite problematic to track – at least on the basis of English-language literature only: the FAP had a very flexible structure, and was deploying whole Esquadrons and, even more so, detachments (Esquadrillhas = Flights) from various Esquadras at relatively different airfields as available and necessary at the given point in time. Airfields and bases were spread over very different parts of the metropolitan and overseas territories; units and their detachments were shifted from one place to the other at short notice. It did happen several times for a single squadron to have flights deployed on three or even four of territories over extended periods of times. Correspondingly, the organisational structure of the air force appears complex.

The basis of the entire designation and organizational system was the nomenclature of main Portuguese airfields. On the top of this hierarchy were “Basas Aereas” – fully developed military airfields, with permanently-based FAP units. These were:

- BA.1 Lisbon Sintra, Portugal
- BA.2 Ota, Portugal (given up at an unknown date)
- BA.3 Tancos, Portugal (given up at an unknown date)
- BA.4 Lajes, Azores
- BA.5 Monte Real, Portugal
- BA.6 Montijo, Portugal
- BA.7. S. Jacinto, Portugal
- BA.8 originally planned to be built at Beira, in Mozambique
- BA.9 Luanda, Angola
- BA.10 Beira, Mozambique
- BA.11 Beja, Portugal
- BA.12 Bissau/Bissalanca, Guiné

Next most important were so-called “Aeródromo Base”: intermediate airfields, not built for, but used (also) for military purposes. In the 1960s and 1970s, these were:

- AB.1 at Cabo Verde, Guiné
- AB.2, Bissau/Bissalanca, Guiné, transformed to BA.12
- AB.3, Negage, Angola
- AB.4, Henrique de Carvalho, Angola
- AB.5, Nacala, Mozambique
- AB.6, Villa Cabral, later Nova Freixo, Mozambique
- AB.7, Tete, Mozambique
- AB.8, Lorenco Marques, Mozambique
- AB.9, Luanda, Angola, later BA.9
- AB.10, Beira, Mozambique, later BA.10
- AB.12 Bissau/Bissalanca, Guiné

None of the three airfields in Angola was operational as of 1960, however. In fact, when the insurgency began, the FAP has had not a single dedicated air base in the country (nevertheless, some first units of parachutists were organized, so that at least these were ready to mount counterinsurgency operations).

By 1960, Angola came under control of the Aerial Region 2, which included São Tomé de Principe, and was set up back in 1956. In October 1960, the construction of a new large airfield – the future BA.9 – began, and this became operational in May of the following year. In February 1961, construction of the next main airfield, AB.3, began as well. However, when the war began, the FAP still had no squadrons (Esquadras) stationed in the country: there were several detachments of military aircraft on temporary assignment. One of these had seven P2V-5 Neptunes, and another a few C-47 transports. Theoretically, these were based in Luanda, but practically they operated from the airfield of the provincial civilian aviation company Direccao dos Transportes Aéros (DTA), near Luanda. The DTA has had a few Beech D-18s and Lockheed L-18 Lodestars stationed there. None of these was armed, but they were sometimes deployed for transport duties in support of the military.

No specific units were originally assigned to airfields in Angola: detachments that operated from local airfields early during the war – like the PV-2 detachment in Luanda (deployed there since 24 November 1960), or T-6s and Austers at AB.3 – usually had make-shift designations, such as “Operational Group/Squadron” or “Mixed Squadron”. When AB.4 was declared operational, in June 1963, the Squadrons based there were correspondingly designated Esquadras 401, 402, and 403, even if none ever reached their full authorised strength.

Finally, there were transit airfields, Aeródromo de Transito (ATs), and forward airfields, Aeródromo de Manobras (AMs), about which much less is known. Through the 1960s, the Portuguese have constructed a number of AMs in Angola, including Maquela do Zombo (AM.31), Toto (AM.32), Portugália (AM.41), Camaxilo (AM.42), Cazombo (AM.43), and Cabinda (AM.95), all of which have had paved runways. Dirt strips existed in Cacolo, Santa Eulália, and Vial Teixeira de Sousa. Maquela do Zombo and Toto were used by units deployed at AB.9, while Portugália, Camaxilo and Cazomob were used by units from AB.4. Each airfield was guarded by a squadron of the Policia Aérea – FAP military police.

The service history of various types in FAP is full of interesting anecdotes and usually quite problematic to reconstruct. Some of units operated the same type of aircraft during the whole war; other rearmed with aircraft obtained from very different sources: most were closely associated with their bases – down to their designations.

Most of Portuguese aircraft were venerable – but effective – types of US origin. By 1960, the FAP had more than 20.000 men and 150 aircraft in Africa. These included North American T-6 Harvards, Lockheed PV2 Harpoons, and Lockheed P2V Neptunes, but there were also more modern Republic F-84 Thunderjets and North American F-86G Sabres. The transport air arm operated some 66 Nord 1505 Noratlas, Douglas C-47s and C-54/DC-6s, and Boeing 707 transports, as well as a small number of Austers and Do.27s. Although it is frequently said that some 140 Aerospatiale SA.316B Alouette II and SA.330 Puma helicopters were under the Army control, they actually belonged to the FAP as well, yet the air force worked in close and direct cooperation with the Army, functioning much like the Luftwaffe during the WWII.

Aside from aircraft and helicopters, the FAP included also Paratroopers in their structure – much to the dislike of some in the Portuguese Army. The “Caçadores-Paraquedistas” (literally “Hunter-Paratroops”) were an élite force used as the ground arm of the Air Force, deployed in detachments on each air force base. At the beginning of the war in Angola they were dropped from transports such as the Douglas C-54 Skymaster or the Nord Noratlas but as the Alouette III helicopters became available in larger numbers they began to work as heliborne troops. With the Alouette III having five seats the standard companies of Cacadores-Paraquedistas were based on groups of 25 men, that were carried in five helicopters. The heli-attacks of Paratroopers were made in close coordination and co-operation with other FAP units, with support jet and propeller aircraft. Another form of air support was given by specially equipped helicopters known as “heli-cannons” or “Lobo Mau”: these were Alouette IIIs equipped with a 20mm cannon mounted on the port side of the fuselage, where the left doors were removed. Heli-cannons worked as cover and close-support for the Allouette IIIs used as transports.

Uprising in Angola

The Portuguese were not taken by surprise by the outbreak of the fighting, but they underestimated the seriousness of the seriousness of subsequent developments.

The first sign of an armed revolt was an attack by a small group of MPLA against the San Joao prison, on 4 February 1961, in which several Angolan nationalists were held. Soon afterwards additional similar actions followed, against other prisons, but also a police-station in Luanda. Only now were the Portuguese security forces to react; however, their actions caused only more resentments in the Angolan population. In fact, on order of semi-fascist Portuguese dictator Salazar, who was firmly rejecting the idea of Angola (and Mozambique for that matter) becoming independent, the following actions of the Portuguese police caused an outright popular uprising, on 15 March 1961, during which several UPA groups put a number of towns and villages north of Luanda under their control, where many Europeans and Africans were massacred. 48 other towns and villages were put under siege or isolated from Luanda by the actions of the rebels.

Faced with this development the Portuguese had to realise the seriousnes of the situation. They could, however, not react swiftly enough, then no significant forces were available for any kind of larger counter-insurgency operations. Besides, Portugal was at the time one of the poorest nations in Europe, and could never support a sizeable military deployment indefinitely. But the Portuguese strode tall, as they did for five centuries. While the local settler militia was resisting the rebels, the FAP flew some first air strikes, while DAT’s DB-8s and Beech 18As – together with several Piper Cubs, Austers and Voyagers required from local pilots and rushed into service with the FAP in Luanda (in this way, the basis for the later “Formacoes Aéreas Voluntárias 201” [Voluntary Aerial Formation] was set up, which came into being several years later: the formation of FAV was ordered per decree on 31 May 1962, and the first commander took charge in January of the following year). In the days after the shocking uprising of the UPA these aircraft flew a number of sorties in support of different besieged settlements, in which their crews has frequently no other means of opening fire against the rebels but dropping hand-grenades through open windows.

Portugal acquired a total of 12 Lockheed P2V-5 (P-2E) Neptunes from the Royal Netherlands Naval Air Service, which previously operated them for only four years. Several of these aircraft were based at Luanda (BA.9) when the war broke out, in 1960. They were equipped with eight rocket-rails under each wing. (All artworks by Tom Cooper)


A Slow COIN War

The FAP went into the war already before the first two regular battalions of the Portuguese Army were disembarked in Luanda, on 1 May 1961. Reaching back on three PV-2 Harpoon liaison and patrol aircraft, equipped as make-shift bombers (and later formed into Esquadra 91), and P2-V Neptunes, the FAP flew a number of attack sorties against various rebel concentrations. Already at this stage, the Portuguese began using Napalm-bombs: when Lt.Col. Diego Neto (with Capt. Paolino Correia as co-pilot) attacked the rebels at Mucaba, in late April 1961, flying one PV-2, he deployed machine-guns and several napalm bombs calibre 90kg.

FAP PV2 Harpoon 4605 of No.91 Esquadra, as seen at Luanda in the early 1971s. Note the unit insignia (black panther on yellow shield outlined in turquise and with a turquise diagonal strip, as well as red "91"), applied on nose. This aircraft was obviously armed with machine-guns, carried in the large fairing bellow the nose at some point, but these were removed by the time the photograph on the basis of which this artwork was prepared had been taken. FAP Harpoons were used extensively as light bombers during the war in Angola. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


In July 1961, the FAP in Angola was reinforced by addition of F-84G Thunderjet fighter-bombers from Esquadra 21, which were - immediately upon their arrival – put under control of the newly-established Esquadra 93, based in Luanda. Together with PV-2s, Thunderjets were soon in action – foremost against rebels in the Deubos hills – using machine-guns but also napalm bombs. Another FAP asset that saw action early during the war were four Broussards. These remained in the country for only a relatively short period of time: one (“3302”, c/n 280) was destroyed after receiving hits in the engine, and crashing during emergency landing in Nambuangongo, already on 24 August 1961; one was transferred back to Portugal, and two were destroyed in non-combat related landing accidents. Thus began the actual deployment of the Portuguese Air Force in a COIN war that was to last for the following 14 years.

The numerically weak and not perfectly equipped Portuguese troops needed almost three months to secure the Luanda area, before becoming able to move out and – on 11 August 1961 – attempt to break the siege of Quipedro. Some 14 days later they advanced on Serra de Coanda: breaking into the city the Portuguese swiftly overwhelmed the rebels, causing these to scatter into the surrounding hills. Although the actual success was of a rather limited scope and the two Portuguese Army companies were rather isolated, they continued advancing and by the end of October contact was established to all the besieged settlements. It was now on the rebels to realise that they were neither trained nor equipped to confront a conventional army in direct engagement. In a series of grim battles they were heavily defeated and survivors forced to flee across the Congolese border.

Despite the setback the UPA remained the strongest insurgent organisation in Angola, while the MPLA needed years to recover. UPA’s following actions, however, were limited in scope, mine-laying and setting up ambushes for Portuguese supply convoys becoming its favourable modus operandi. Once in exile in Congo, Roberto showed little interest in sending his troops back into Angola, even if his organization was soon to build up a substantial strength. Such politics had very negative effects on the moral of his troops and this was to hit back very hard on the organization in the 1970s.

The Portuguese convoys were bringing an increasing number of additional troops and weapons into whole northern Angola; simultaneously, the FAP was also increasing its presence through the first Nord Noratlas and Do.27 transports, as well as few Alouette helicopters. These were finally reinforced by a number of requisitioned civilian DC-6A and DC-6B aircraft. By the spring of 1962 the number of FAP aircraft in Angola was increased to a level where the local commando structure had to be reorganised. On 1 June the FAP formed the Basa Aérea 9 (BA.9) in Luanda, where also the local air force headquarters were stationed. In addition, the BA.3 was developed in Negage and BA.4 in Henriques de Carvalho. All these airfields were run by the personnel of the Grupo Operacional 901. In addition to Harpoons of Esquadra 91 and F-84Gs of the Esqadra 93, the FAP now had also Noratlas of the Esqadra 92 and Alouette IIs of the Esquadra 94, based in Haquela do Zombo. The last two units were almost exclusively used to support deployments of the 21 Airborne Battalion of the Portuguese Army. At the time, most of the COIN operations were undertaken in Armiz, Damba and Bembe areas, and it was during these operations that the FAP suffered a loss of five F-84Gs in different incidents and accidents in the following three years.

This ex-Beglian Air Force F-84G was operated by the Esquadra 93 from Luanda, in the early 1960s, and is known to have been lost in a crash, on 23 June 1962, near Vale do Loge, in Angola. (all artworks by Tom Cooper)


The Portuguese also needed some time until they learned how to make best use of their Alouettes. Originally, they would overload their helicopters, regularly squeezing five of six armed troops aboard, in addition to the crew of two, and despite the fact that the Alouette III was build to carry only four passengers. This placed especially the gearbox of the helicopters under strain, causing quite some maintenance problems in return. After the French technicians assigned to FAP instructed the Portuguese to be more careful, the practice was changed and the number of troops usually transported reduced. This was causing some problems especially if there were casualties to recover, but there was no way around. The lack of facilities for evacuation of casualties (CASEVAC), however, was one of the main reasons for the low morale between the Portuguese soldiers. Any young conscript soldier injured had to be brought to an airstrip from where he would be evacuated by an aircraft. Although the FAP was eventually to build no less but 200 such airstrips, Angola is so large, that the average distances to these were immense. There were also massive problems with motivation and fitness of Portuguese troops: arriving from the metropolis they neither understood Africa nor wished to be there – in the first place. They could not march any distance without frequent rests, usually came from poor backgrounds and were barely fit or strong enough to meet the fairly rigorous demands of their officers. There were exceptions, of course, then several professional Portuguese units like Flecha (“Flecha” means “Arrow” in Portuguese; these units were named this way because they mainly consisted of bushmen, best-known of their bows and poisoned arrows; later on, they were “reinforced” by few captured terrorists, turncoats and local recruits paid bounties for their kills and held together by draconian discipline), parachutists and black commando regiments were excellent operators in the bush, vastly superior to insurgents. The FAP personnel was also highly praised and most of the successes during the war in Angola were achieved either by elite units or the air force. However, the Portuguese pilots had no means to communicate with ground troops: even the most elementary equipment – like smoke-grenades for marking targets, and mirrors – was not available, and the troops were not trained to communicate with pilots.

The independence of Zambia, in 1965, allowed the MPLA to establish bases in that country. This was to prove crucial, then now the Marxists were able to build up their strength, and then establish themselves in eastern Angola. In the same year Neto met Che Guevara and his organization began to receive Cuban instructors and Soviet and East German help. This was of almost no concern for the Portuguese at the time: lack of initiative on the part of higher officers, and lack of experience and equipment for COIN warfare prevented them also to attempt any kind of serious operations against what became known as “Agostinho Neto Trail”, along which all the supplies for the guerrilla deeper inside Angola began to flow.

By the late 1966 it became clear that the Portuguese were not undertaking enough to bring the situation in Angola under control. In fact, while most of the Portuguese operations were extremely brutal against the rebels and the rebel-supporting local population, they were too small in scope and not undertaken intensively enough. Consequently, no durable results were achieved. On the contrary, the MPLA and UPA have got even more time and space to grow in strength and bring ever larger areas under their control, even if they were frequently fighting against each other as well. By early 1967 the Portuguese were in fact left in control of only the areas around larger towns and along the most important communications. It was actually only the disunity of the MPLA and UPA that enabled the Portuguese to remain in Angola for any longer at the time.

Foreign Influence

The poor situation of the Portuguese in Angola soon became a matter of concern for a number of foreign powers, or a reason for interest and involvement of the others. The USA, for example, were concerned with the possibility of a Marxist regime being established in Luanda and they started supplying weapons and ammunition on the UPA, which meanwhile grew considerably and was re-named into Frente Nacional de Libertacao de Angola (FNLA). The leaders of the FNLA were, however, not satisfied with the US support, consequently their “foreign minister”, Jonas Savimbi, established good connections to China, from where even larger shipments started arriving. Despite their support for the FNLA-rebels, concerns about the support for the Marxists from Cuba and the USSR caused the USA to grant the company Aero Associates, from Tucson, Arizona, a permission to sell seven Douglas B-26 Invader bombers to Portugal in the early 1965. The aircraft were flown to Africa by a specific Mr. Hawke – reportedly a former RAF-pilot – who on the start of one of the flights to Angola flew so low over the White House, that the USAF forced him to land and he got arrested. In Mai 1965 Hawk was indicted for illegally selling arms and supporting the Portuguese, but, eventually, he was not imprisoned for longer than a year. Eventually, the B-26s were not to see deployment in Angola until several years later.

Portugal acquired only seven B-26 Invaders. "7104" was the ex 44-34726, purchased in July 1965. After a long service with the FAP in Angola, it was eventually written off due to corrosion problems. The fuselage and other sections are now stored with Museu do Ar at Alverca, in Portugal. It is seen here early during its career, in what was then the standard colour pattern for FAP aircraft. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Meanwhile, in 1966 a strong fraction within the FNLA – led Jonas Savimbi – split and formed a new movement, the Uniao Nacional Para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA). UNITA had its main base in distant south-eastern Angolan provinces, where the Portuguese and FNLA influence were for all practical purposes non-existent, and where there was no war at all. This was to show as a highly important factor then this movement had therefore enough opportunity to develop a net of bases within the country, all of which were out of a reach of the potential enemy. Besides, the UNITA was right from the beginning far better organized and disciplined than either the MPLA or the FNLA. Its fighters also showed a much better understanding of guerrilla operations, and became especially active along the Benguela railway, repeatedly causing damage – not only to the Portuguese but also to Congo and Zambia, both of which used the railway for transportation of their exports to Angolan ports.

Aside from the USA, two other African nations became involved in this war as well. These were Rhodesia and South Africa, both of which were ruled by the white minority, and the regimes of which were concerned about their own future in the case of the Portuguese defeat. Rhodesia and South Africa initially limited their participation on shipments of arms and supplies. However, by 1968 the South Africans begun providing SA.316B Alouette III helicopters with crews to the FAP, and finally several companies of South African Defence Forces (SADF) infantry were deployed in southern central Angola. However, contemporary reports about them guarding the iron mines of Cassinga were never confirmed.

Finally, there were reports that a number of Rhodesian pilots were recruited to fly FAP helicopters: however, when the first Portuguese unit was equipped with Aerospatiale SA.330 Puma helicopters, in 1969, its crews were almost exclusively South African: Rhodesian pilots were considered too valuable by the RRAF/RhAF to be deployed in support of the Portuguese, while the SADF has had pilots and helicopters operating out of “Centro Conjunto de Apoio Aéreo” (CCAA – Joint Air Support Centre), set up in Cuito Cuanavale, in 1968.

In the late 1960s also the USSR became involved in the war in Angola, albeit almost exclusively via the MPLA. Namely, while the FNLA received only very limited arms shipments from the USA, and the UNITA was getting hardly any support from outside the country, the Marxist MPLA developed very close relations with Moscow and was soon to start receiving significant shipments of arms via Tanzania and Zambia. Long before Angola officially became independent, in 1969, the MPLA agreed with the USSR that in exchange for arms and supplies delivered to it the Soviets would – upon independence – be granted rights for establishing bases in the country. Consequently, by the early 1970s the MPLA developed into the strongest Angolan anti-colonial movement and the most powerful political party.

Like in Guiné, the FAP deployed a large number of SA.316B Alouette IIIs in Angola, and used them for all possible purposes. All the helicopters of this type were operated by Esquadron 94 and were camouflage in overall green colour, similar to the US Army's "Forrest Green", and wore only simple national markings and a four-digit serial (the example depicted here, 9306, was seet at Luanda IAP, together with a Fiat G.91R, in the late 1960s). The camouflage would soon be quite worn out to different shades of olive green due to the sun, sand and rain. In some operations also a piece of tarpauline with a large number 1, 2, 3, or 4 was applied on the lower window of the cockpit doors. Several Rhodesian and South African "advisers" supported the Portuguese COIN operations, but these never succeeded in goading the Portuguese into employing some of effective Rhodesian combat tactics.


FAP in Trouble

As the war slowly spread into the eastern and southern Angola the Portuguese Army became increasingly dependent on support from transport aircraft and – especially – helicopters. The Portuguese also increasingly deployed cavalry for operations outside areas where there were any kind of “roads” (usually only dirt-strips through the bush), and – in cooperation with helicopters – started developing their own art of COIN-warfare, largely depending on mobility over vast distances. However, the Portuguese military leadership was already at the time not especially convinced about its chances of quelling the uprising and it continued with half-hearted efforts only. It was not before the late 1960s that any serious and intensive efforts were undertaken against any of the Angolan rebel organizations.

At the time the FAP operated in Angola so to – on the first sign of some combat developing in a specific area – start deploying Army troops with the help of transport aircraft and helicopters. Once on the ground the troops would be supported by B-26s, newly-deployed North American T-6Gs, and Do.27s. The 21 Airborne Battalion (BCP.21, short for Batalhão de Cacadores Pára-quedistas 21) of the Portuguese Army was a true “fire-brigade” in Angola, the most important intervention asset, and the unit was involved in hundreds of such reactive operations. Only two of these, however, included actual combat jumps: both occurred during the Operations Ouipedro and Canda, undertaken already back in 1961, and saw paras jumping from C-54 Skymasters. At later times, Noratlas transports were to be used for para-drops, but none were undertaken: instead, other operations saw BCP.21 being deployed on foot or vehicles, and – in the late 1960s – with help of helicopters.

In April 1968, the Portuguese finally launched an offensive into eastern Angola, in preparation for which two new “DC” airfields (DC stood for “Destacamento de cooperacão”) were established at Cago Coutinho and Cuito Cuanavale (both were constructed already the previous year). Supported by T-6Gs and Harpoons, the Army operations were conducted very slowly, despite a considerable mobility of units, and little was achieved. The FAP was now faced by reinforced anti-aircraft capability of the rebels, foremost the machineguns calibre 12.7 and 14.7mm, which were not only effective against the infantry and light vehicles, but also aircraft and helicopters. On 9 June 1967 a Do.27 was shot down by such weapons – only the second FAP aircraft shot down during this war, and in the following years also several Alouettes were lost as well.

Except for F-84Gs, T-6Gs and Do.27s, the FAP also continued the use of makeshift bombers for offensive purposes, even if these usually proved not especially effective. In September 1968, for example, several Do.27s bombed a MPLA-field hospital near Mine, causing numerous losses. The F-84Gs, on the contrary, were suffering foremost due to their very short effective range, as well as the fact that they needed paved runways, and consequently mainly operated out of Luanda.

In the late 1960s, in a final attempt to save what was left of their authority in Angola, the Portuguese changed their strategy once again. The FAP was now increasingly deploying herbicides and napalm-filled fire bombs to destroy forests and bush along the roads to isolated and besieged settlements, as well as along the railway lines. This method decreased the vulnerability of Portuguese communications to a small degree; however, it could never produce any significant results then the area over which the war was fought was simply too huge. Simultaneously, the local Governor was introducing measures through which the “hearts” of the local population were to be won, like building of schools and hospitals. Meanwhile, over one million of Angolans was re-settled into “strategic villages”, of which over 150 were built between 1961 and 1964. These were heavily defended by the Portuguese military, in order for the local population to be brought out of the contact to the guerrilla. It was too late, however, and such measures were actually to result in even more support for the rebels, especially the MPLA.

The Lockheed PV-2 Harpoon played a prominent role early during the COIN war in Angola. Initially used for liaison and transport, the type was eventually also used as makeshift bomber. (Tom Cooper collection)


New Tactics

By the time the FAP had some 21.000 personnel and 150 aircraft in Africa, but these were distributed in no less but three widely-separated overseas provinces, Guiné, Angola and Mozambique. The structure of the FAP was reorganized in so far that the units responsible for operating and keeping all the main airfields in overseas provinces became actually separate commands to which flying and ground support units were assigned. Correspondingly, the FAP organization in Angola between 1962 and 1974 was as follows:

Grupo Operacional 901
- Formacoes Aéreas Voluntárias 201, DB-8 & Beech 18A, Luanda
- Basa Aerea 9, T-6G, Auster D.5, Do.27A/O, C-47, BA.9, but also AB.3 and AB.4
- Esquadron 91, Harpoon & P2Vs & B-26B/C: Luanda/BA.9
- Esquadron 92, C-54 & Noratlas: Luanda/BA.9
- Esquadron 93, F-84G & R.91G-4: Luanda/BA.9
- Esquadron 94, Alouette II/III & Puma: Luanda/BA.9
Grupo Transporte, DC-6A/B & Boeing 707: Lissabon/BA.1

On 10 June 1970 the Portuguese launched the Operation “Zaga”, with intention of forcing the rebels out of the Moxico Province. Although better organised and executed than any similar actions previous, only limited objectives were reached, like during the Operation “Zuombo”, in July 1970, in the Bie Province. Even the largest Portuguese offensive, the Operation “Attila”, launched in February 1972 and involving almost 20.000 troops and 50 aircraft and helicopters, ended only in a very limited success. In fact, neither of these offensives caused serious losses to the rebels, and their actual failures only lowered the morale within the Portuguese officers, and caused many resentments.

At the time, the FAP has had 70 aircraft and 45 helicopters in Angola, including four hopelessly obsolete F-84Gs, 38 Do.27s (of which 26 were operational), four C-47s (two operational), four C-54s (all operational), 12 PV-2 (six operational), ten Noratlas (seven operational), eleven SA.330 Pumas and 34 SA.316B Alouettes (of which 26 were operational). Despite all the possible problems they were confronted with, the Portuguese still controlled over 90% of the Angola. In fact, by 1973, they overran the MPLA’s “Ho Chi-Minh” camp and then delivered a major defeat on the Marxists, forcing Neto and his remaining 800 guerrillas to flee to Congo-Brazzaville. The party fell into disarray in the face of the blow, with several fractions separating from it and the USSR stopping supplies of arms, while the Chinese turned to FNLA.

This was in part possible because the FAP attempted to increase its effectiveness in Angola, foremost through deployment of the additional Fiat G.91R-4 fighter-bombers of the Esquadra 707 as well as all the seven available B-26B Invaders to BA.9, where they replaced worn-out Thunderjets. The Invaders entered service with the Esquadra 93.

B-26B 7101 was the first Invader delivered to FAP, in June 1965. The aircraft was former 44-34535, and seen here in the camouflage pattern applied to all the Portuguese Invaders shortly after their arrival in Luanda (the entire FAP Invader-fleet was deployed only in Angola during the Portuguese colonial wars, and all reports about their deployments in Guiné are wrong). The colour was Olive Green and anti-radiation by nature, making aircraft less vulnerable to IR-seeking missiles. In Angola, the B-26Bs replaced the surviving few F-84Gs of the Esquadra 93. No B-26s were lost in combat: on the contrary, six of them were abandoned at Luanda after the Portuguese left, in 1974. Eventually, three of these were to form the nucleus of the future Angolan Air Force. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


But, meanwhile it was the Portuguese economy which could not support a large war over such a distance from the country, like the one in Angola – especially not in combination with two other wars Portugal had simultaneously to fight in Guiné (today Guinea-Bissau) and Mozambique. In fact, by the time the FAP was so starved of funds that it started losing an increasing number of aircraft in accidents caused by technical malfunctions. In 1972 alone six Alouette helicopters crashed (including one that came down over Congo-Brazzaville), while “only” two were shot down by the rebels. For the same reason in the summer of 1973 the last surviving F-84s were taken out of operations and replaced by six additional B-26s purchased for the re-established Esquadra 91.

Together with Alouettes, the T-6 Texan bore the brunt of the COIN warfare in Angola. Most of FAP T-6Gs in Angola were operated from Basa Aerea 9, near Luanda, but they sometimes deployed also to BA3 and BA4.


Collapse of the Portuguese Rule

The history was meanwhile about to seal the fate of the Portuguese rule over Angola, then the long and bloody wars fought in Africa by Lisaboa was causing lots of resentments at home as well. Although the rebels were – for all purposes – completely defeated by the late 1973, the situation was to change completely in Portugal. Peter Abbott and Manuel Rodrigues probably delivered the best summary of what happened in their book “Modern African Wars 2: Angola and Mozambique” (Osprey, 1988):

Most outside observers were taken by surprise by the sudden and dramatic collapse of the Portuguese regime in April 1974, but in reality the coup had been brewing for some time. The immediate cause was a 1973 decree designed to persuade miliciano officers to become regulars by allowing them to count all their previous service towards seniority. Middle-ranking regulars were enraged at the prospect of being leap-frogged by conscript captains, and this proved much of the motive power behind the development of the Moviment das Forcas Armadas (MFA), which was initially a kind of career officers’ association.

Faced with government inflexibility, the MFA began to move towards the left; many of the younger regulars had begun to be recruited from relatively underprivileged backgrounds after Dr. Salazar abolished tuition fees at the Military Academy in 1958, and others had been influenced by their Marxist opponents. At this point, Spinola (later a general and Deputy Chief of Staff) published a book entitled “Portugal e o Futuro”, which argued that the government should seek a political solution to the war before its strains led the country into revolutionary disintegration. Spinola had long been convinced that the war in Guiné was unwinnable, and had already tried unsuccessfully to persuade Dr. Salazar’s successor, Dr. Caetano, to open negotiations with the PAIGC (see: .....)

Caetano promptly dismissed Spinola, and tried to ban the circulation of his book in the overseas provinces. Indignation boiled over, and the MFA realized that a coup would be welcomed by most of the population. It duly took place on 25 April 1974. The MFA Committee then invited Spinola to take over as president. He hoped to negotiate a form of home rule for the overseas provinces within some kind of federal framework, but almost everyone else – including the officers, the milicianos and the civilians – wanted an end to the war. In July Spinola was forced to agree to negotiations over the transfer of power, and a few weeks later he resigned. While this power struggle was going on in Lisbon, Portuguese units in the field simply retreated into their barracks, negotiating local ceasefires and ignoring official orders to continue fighting. They refused to support an abortive right wing settler revolt in Mozambique. Meanwhile, the increasingly left wing MFA junta negotiated independence treaties with Guiné’s PAIGC and Mozambique’s FRELIMO. It tried to negotiate an agreement with the warring Angolan fractions as well, but this proved an impossible task....


The appearance of the SA-7 MANPAD on the battlefields of Portuguese colonial wars in Africa, necessitated the aircraft to be camouflaged in a special olive green colour, which decreased the IR-emissions from the aircraft. Most of the markings were considerably decreased in size or even completely removed as well, and a standard roundel 20cm in diameter introduced on all FAP aircraft. The plane depicted here, 4621 (BuAerNo. 37475) was seen at Luanda, in 1973 or 1974. The Portuguese have left several PV2s back in Angola, but there are no reports about these being operated by the Angolan air force. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


The 1st Angolan Civil War

Eventually, in July 1975 Angola was offered independence. This offer, however, only caused the outbreak of a fully-developed civil war between the MPLA, FNLA, and the UNITA, which immediately started fighting against each other - instead of the Portuguese. Within the shortest period of time it was perfectly clear that Angola would fell into anarchy as soon as the Portuguese would leave. The MPLA came out as the strongest power, and its leadership were to participate in the final negotiations with the Portuguese, according to which Angola was to become officially independent on 11 November 1975. As soon as this agreement became known in the public a mass exodus of the Europeans began: over 300.000 left the country by November, most of them evacuated aboard TAP Boeing 707 transports. The RAF also lent a hand sending VC.10 transports to evacuate 5.700 refuges as well.

In the last months of the Portuguese rule, the FAP was shifting one unit after the other through Angola. In 1974, eight Fiat G.91R-4s of the Esquadra 702 were deployed in Luanda, including aircraft 5415, 5421, 5426, 5430, 5432, 5433, 5436, and 5438. These were integrated into Esquadra 93, and became operational in January 1975. Barely a month later, however, all eight were withdrawn to Portugal (six were packed – in dismounted condition – into Noratlas transports, and two into FAP Boeing 707-3F5Cs), where they formed the backbone of the Esquadron 62, based at Montijo AB.

With the collapse of the Portuguese authority in Angola the MPLA was able to fully use the advantage of the Soviet support. The Soviets, however, were not interested in getting directly involved in the war. Instead, they agreed to ship arms and supplies to the MPLA – mainly via the Maya-May IAP; NEAR Congo-Brazzaville, but these to be used by Cuban troops, which were to reorganize the MPLA guerrilla into a conventional army, but also help it fight against the FNLA and the UNITA. The first out of eventual 36.000 Cubans arrived in Angola already in February 1975, and by March there were already 350 Cuban advisors in the country, some of which were pilots. With their, but also the help from some Portuguese and also other foreign personnel, the Angolans were able to start organizing also their own air force.

Originally, this had only a handful of Do.27s left behind by the FAP at the former BA.9, but, by July 1975 additional aircraft left behind by the FAP were overhauled and rushed into service. The first unit of the Angolan Air Force was the Esquadra 11 (11th Squadron), that operated three B-26 bombers (plus two used as sources o spares), five refurbished F-84Gs (plus three used for spare parts), seven T-6Gs (plus four used for spare parts), and seven SA.316B Alouette III helicopters (plus three used as sources of spares). According to contemporary US intelligence reports, this unit acquired also ten Fiat G.91R-4s (plus two used for spare parts) from the Portuguese. However, it remains unclear what was the basis for such reports: the FAP has withdrawn all of its Fiats from Angola already by February of 1975, and none are known to have been left behind – despite countless reports of the contrary. It is only possible that these “Fiats” were actually Cuban-delivered MiG-17s. The problem remains, however, that the Esquadra 11 became operational already in May and June 1975, well before Angola was officially independent, eight months before the Angolan Air Force was organized as a separate command, and five months before the first deliveries of MiG-17s from Cuba were reported.

These aircraft were flown and maintained by miscellaneous crews, including seven ex-FAP pilots, three ex-French Air Force pilots, two ex-Spanish Air Force pilots, and three native Angolan fliers. Once the Angolan Air Force was established as an independent military branch – under the official name of Forca Aérea Popular de Angola – Defesa Anti-Avionies (FAPA-DAA), most of the personnel were Cubans, with some Soviets and technicians from several other Warsaw Pact countries. Its second unit, Esquadra 12, was to be established only at a later stage, in mid-1976, and equipped with two ex-FAP C-47s (plus one used as source of spares), two Noratlas (plus two for spares) and two newly-purchased Fokker F.27s. Nevertheless, this rag-tag air force was to soon get much support from Cuba and the USSR and to become influential in the subsequent fighting against the FNLA.

Indeed, the MPLA needed the support from the air badly: during the vicious street fighting in July 1975 it forced the FNLA-units out of Luanda. The FNLA was repeatedly hit by the MPLA aircraft while on retreat, and then came also under pressure from a unit of Cuban T-34 tanks that arrived only a short while back. Suffering considerable losses, outmanoeuvred and outgunned, the MPLA retreated towards north, requesting the USA for help.

Only half-heartedly, the CIA organized and air-bridge to Zaire, in which Lockheed L-100 Hercules of CIA’s front companies and USAF C-130 transports were used to fly in weapons and equipment from the CIA-depots in San Antonio, Texas, to Charleston AFB, in South Carolina. The consignments were there re-loaded into C-141B transports of the 437th MAW USAF, and then flown – via Robertsfield, near Monrovia in Liberia – to Kinshasa. As usually, the CIA organized this operation on the basis of so-called “profit-centers”, so the USAF used the opportunity to bill the agency $80.000,-- for each single flight! Once in Kinshasa, the arms and supplies were re-loaded into trucks and sent to Angola. By August 1975 the CIA had also a small air wing in Angola, including one Piper Aztec, one each of Cessna 172, Cessna 180 and Cessna 310, one Rockwell Turbocommander, one Mooney, three F.27s, and one Alouette II. The C-130s and DC-4s of the South African Air Force were used to fly supplies to different points, together with different aircraft from Rhodesia and Zaire. The CIA also transferred $32 millions to different FNLA accounts, mainly in Switzerland, part of which ended also in the pockets of the notorious and corrupt Zairean dictator Mobutu Sesse Seko.

The whole effort, however, was useless, the air bridge came too late to help the FNLA. By September 1975 the Cubans and the MPLA drove deep into Angola. After an additional Cuban brigade of 1.500 troops was disembarked in Pointe Noire, in Congo-Brazzaville, the FNLA found itself fighting on two fronts. Sensing the emergency the CIA attempted to speed up the air bridge to Kinshasa and from there to FNLA bases in Angola, and started using even civilian aircraft, including a number of Cessna 172, 180 and 310, Turbo Commanders, Fokker F.27s, and Alouette III helicopters. Even the Forces Aériennes Zairose (Zaire Air Force – FAZ) became involved, deploying own C-130s and DC-4s for transporting supplies to FNLA. The FAZ deployed five brand new Mirage 5M fighter-bombers – apparently flown by foreign, foremost Egyptian, mercenaries (in turn causing reports that Israelis were deploying their Mirages to Zaire) to Kamina AB airfield, from where these were to fly combat sorties over Angola, but it remains unknown if any such operations were ever undertaken.

Finally, a decision was taken to deploy Zairean troops as well: on 11 September 1975 the paras of the 4 and 7 Zairean Commando battalions were deployed to Amriz with help of Forces Aériennes du Zaire (FAZA) Lockheed C-130 Hercules transports. After a flawless landing the Zairians moved out to support the FNLA: they were not able to help it capture Luanda, however, even if on 17 September they claimed to have shot down one of MPLA Fiat G.91R-4s. It remains unknown what kind of aircraft this should have been, then the Marxists should have received no Fiats at all. Of course, it is possible that the Zairians encountered one of newly-delivered, Cuban-flown MiG-17s, known to have flown some strike sorties in the area.

The subsequent operations of the Zairian contingent were overshadowed by controversy, with their commandos leaving a wide trail of violence, massacres, raping, and looting. Clearly, it did not took long until they managed to turn the local population against themselves. The advance of Zairian contingent was therefore slow, and then it encountered unexpected resistance: the Cubans deployed several batteries of BM-21, 122mm calibre multiple-launcher rocket system (MLRS), which was outranging the two Zairian M-46 pieces, and several 5.5in howitzers they have got from the South Africans. Consequently, the MPLA and Cubans have also got enough time to redeploy their forces against the new threat and on 11 November 1975 they attacked a combined force of the Zairian 4 and 7 Commando and the FNLA near Quifandongo. The Zairians were utterly defeated: both of their battalions were routed and scattered, and less than 40% of their commandos managed to flee back over the border. The few that were not killed or captured deserted and were never seen again.

What actually saved the Zaireans from a complete annihilation was the fact that the MPLA and Cubans were slow to give them a chase. Consequently, even if the FNLA and the Zairians were so poorly trained that they could not properly look even for their most basic weapons, they managed to fled back to Zaire. Another reason was that the MPLA and the Cubans were already facing another threat from the south. Consequently, instead of mopping up the area between Luanda and the Zairian border, they hastily set-up a government, taking great care this to be officially recognized by as many other countries as possible. Then, in the meantime the Communists were to face a greave crisis....

South African Intervention

The defeat of the FNLA or the Zairians was not yet obvious when the South Africans have already brought a decision to intervene in Angola. In fact, initially, they were foremost interested in turning UNITA into a capable military body that could start a guerrilla war against the Communists, but then this initiative was turned into an outright intervention against the emerging MPLA-regime in Luanda.

Already on 21 September 1975 the C-47s of the SAAF landed a group of instructors and their equipment on the airfield near UNITA’s HQs, in Silca Porto, while meanwhile several South African officers were organizing and training groups of Portuguese and Angolan refugees, together with a number of South-West African bushmen, into a unit that was to fight in Angola. On the airfield in Silca Porto also a single Learjet was based, supplied to Savimbi for his needs, as well as a single HS.125 of the Trader Airways, which was used for shipping weapons from Zambia.

After establishing a base and training camp for the UNITA, and training sufficient additional troops - mainly in guerrilla-style warfare, the South Africans reinforced their contingent and then started reconnaissance operations towards north. On 7 October 1975, near Matos, one of their reconnaissance columns clashed for the first time with Cubans, which were supported by several T-34s. After a short but sharp battle in which neither side suffered significant losses, the South Africans pulled back. However, this incident showed Pretoria that the Cubans and the MPLA were deploying into southern Angola and a military intervention was needed in order to prevent this.

The preparations for the war against the Marxists, named “Operation Savannah”, lasted barely a week. Within this time the SAAF C-130s flew-in 22 armoured cars to Silca Porto, together with additional support and transport vehicles, and troops that formed the so-called “Task Force Foxbat”. Simultaneously, in South West Africa near the border with Angola another force was formed, the “Task Force Zulu”, also leaning on armoured cars, but strong in mechanized infantry (including a group of former FNLA-fighters) – transported by Buffel wheeled-APCs, specially developed for the fighting in the African bush – as well. In total, the South Africans eventually deployed some 2.000 SADF troops in four task forces, including Task Force Alpha, Task Force X-Ray, Task Force Zulu, and Task Force Orange. Two additional task forces, including the Task Force Bravo, were formed around non-SADF troops. Namely, while the mechanised elements of these task forces were entirely South African, and equipped with a total of 36 Panhard AML-90 and 40 Panhard AML-60 armoured cars, some 100 Panhard M-3 armoured personnel carriers, over 100 Buffel wheeled APCs, jeeps with 106mm recoilless rifles and Entac anti-tank guided missiles (on request the SADF could also deploy a battery of 25prd howitzers), a majority of troops was not South African. For example, the Task Force Bravo consisted of the South-West African Territorial Force 201 Battalion, reinforced by up to 2.000 Portuguese and Angolan refugees, mixed with South-West African Bushmen, trained by the SADF in guerrilla warfare. In total, up to 7.000 non-South African troops were to become involved in the coming operation on SADF's side.

The South Africans and their allies were now about to encounter an increasingly strong enemy. Although in October there were only few hundred of Cubans in Angola, by November Havana initiated the Operation "Carlota", in the frame of which the number of Cuban troops was increased to 36.000 by April and May 1976. The MPLA also had around 25.000 troops - even if most of these were still busy mopping up north-east of the country from remaining FAPLA and Zairian formation. Simultaneously, the Soviets and the Cubans shipped huge amounts of arms to Angola. According to the book "The Soviet War Machine", published in 1976, by February of that year the MPLA received over 30.000 automatic rifles, 290 machine-guns, 1.100 RPG-7s, 2.700 recoilless rifles and 82mm mortars, 80.000 hand grenades and 40.000 mines, 240 communication sets, as well as 30 T-34s, 80 T-34-85s, 68 PT-76s, 74 BTR-60PAs, 20 BRDM-1/2s, 100 BM-21 launch ramps, 25 heavy AA-guns, and a total of 300 ZSU-23-4, ZSU-57-2s, and BTR-152-14.5. At least 12 MiG-17s and 12 MiG-21MFs were to be sent from Cuba, while the Soviets shipped a similar number of aircraft of the same type, but these were not to arrive before late spring of 1976.

Of course, when the South Africans started their operation these troops and equipment were not yet all in position, but their number was permanently increasing. With other words: the South Africans and their allies needed to advance swiftly, as they were swift to learn that meanwhile thousands of additional Cuban troops were to arrive in Luanda and Pointe Noire, and it was imperative to secure the Angolan capital before these could influence the outcome of the war - a task that would otherwise be impossible to accomplish with the limited force prepared for the following operation.

Operation Savannah

The Operation Savannah was launched on 14 October 1975, with the Task Force Zulu driving from Rundu into Angola and then swiftly advancing over Pereira d’Eca and Rocadas, where it was reinforced by additional armoured cars and some mortars, flown in by SAAF transports. On 22 October the Task Force reached Jao de Almeida, and five days later Mocamedes. During their advance towards the north the South Africans were always attacking the nearest airfield: once this would be captured their columns were replenished with the help of SAAF C-47 and DC-6 transports, and then the local towns were taken as well. After the fall of Mocamedes, some of the fleeing MPLA fighters were evacuated by Angolan and Mozambiquan Noratlas transports, as well as a corvette of the Portuguese Navy.

While their troops were fighting in Mocamedes area, the South Africans had short negotiations with the USA, and a decision was taken not only to establish permanent presence in Angola, but also to continue the advance on Luanda.

On 2 November the Task Forces Zulu and Foxbat reached the suburbs of Catenque, where the MPLA was waiting in a well-laid ambush. This was swiftly broken and by 5 November the South Africans captured Benguela as well. The reported composition of the Task Force Zulu on 6 November was apparently a classic example for the formation of "South African" advance into Angola at the time: namely, this Task Force consisted of some 150 SADF troops, which mainly manned their AML armoured cars and some Buffel APCs, and were supported by a battalion some 450 FNLA fighters and 80 Portuguese. Another of the "Task Forces", the one that advanced on Caxito on 6 November, had not a single South African solider, but consisted of 800 FNLA fighters, a company of 130 Portuguese commanded by Col. Gilberto Santos e Castro and Maj. Cardoso (former member of Salazar's political police), and three battalions of Zairian Army.

Despite their composition, and certainly immense supply problems, these forces still functioned very well and six days later the leading SADF troops entered Novo Redondo, as their columns came under fire from 122mm multiple rocket launchers: they were now about to clash with the Cubans. The units manoeuvred swiftly around the enemy flanks, but could not entirely evade the enemy fire and were finally forced to call-in support from a battery of 25pdrs, deployed to Benguela on board SAAF transports. The effective artillery fire broke the Cuban resistance and the advance was continued.

By early December the SADF and allied forces were approaching Luanda. But, their advance was meanwhile much slower, then on their retreat the MPLA and the Cubans started planting mines, which hit a number of South African armoured vehicles and trucks. Besides, the Cubans and the Soviets were meanwhile using all available means to haul men and material to Angola: immense amounts of weapons and ammunition were reaching Luanda and Pointe Noire every day. The arriving Cuban units were immediately deployed to the new defence line along the Queve and Cuanza rivers, as well as in the areas of Bandeira (Lubango), Lobito, Amboin Port, Luanda, Santa Comba, Quibala and Dondo. The main South African thrust meanwhile developed along the axis Santa Comba-Casamba-Catofe-Quibala. When the SADF troops attempted to capture Ebo, on 23 November, they suffered their first defeat - even if exact details about this battle are still scetchy.

Regrouping, the SADF Task Forces turned around and attacked towards the Bridge 14, some 14 miles south of the strategically important village of Catofe, where between 9 and 12 December a major battle developed, during which the SADF assaulted Cuban positions with artillery support right from the start. Their attack hit a Cuban brigade, causing it some 200 casualties and forcing it to retreat with a heavy loss of equipment. The South Africans, however, advanced only five kilometres before being stopped again - by regrouped and reinforced Cuban troops. It was the fierce and stubborn Cuban resistance that brought the lightning SADF advance of the Operation Savannah to a standstill.

Meanwhile, a third SADF Task Force, “Orange”, was deployed towards Quibala, while a fourth one, “X-Ray”, supported a FNLA attack on Luso. These operations were not supported by the SAAF combat aircraft, but only by transports and helicopters, as well as by CIA-supplied Do.27s, based in Zaire after they were flown in to Kinshasa on board USAF C-141 transports.

Eventually, extensive minefields and Cuban artillery enabled the Communists to establish stabile frontlines, by 18 December. SADF spearheads, some of which reached points only 20km outside Luanda, were pulled back and a classic battle of attrition developed, in which neither side could score any significant gains, even if on 21 December 1975 a SAAF SA.330 Puma helicopter was shot down by Cuban air defences, killing seven.

Map showing the area some 200km south of Luanda, in which the Cubans managed to finally stop the South African advance, in December 1975. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003 software)


So far, the South African intervention in Angola cached little attention from the media outside Africa: however, if they were to capture Luanda, this was certainly to change, then the SADF and allies were meanwhile facing a heavily armed Cuban force of a similar size to the combined South African and allied forces engaged on the battlefield: in order to win a much larger involvement was needed. That would make the South African invasion of Angola an “official” one. Pretoria was already under severe pressure from the Western powers and the UN, which, only a year earlier, imposed an international embargo on arms supplies on it, because of the racist “Apartheid” laws in the country. An occupation of Angola could neither be supported by South Africans politically nor by military means. Consequently, additional negotiations with the USA were opened, with Pretoria requesting the US support for their following actions. But, already under the shock of the recent blamage due to the catastrophic collapse of South Vietnam, the US administration was not to openly support the South Africans. Consequently, despite an immense success on the battlefield, the Operation Savannah was abandoned only days short of a complete victory.

Cuban Advance

The SADF advance into Angola was thus stopped for several reasons, including fierce resistance of an increasing number of well-equipped and motivated Cuban troops, insufficient own force in the field, international pressure as well as a lack of outside and domestic support for an outright invasion of Angola. Through January 1976, the SADF troops first left the FNLA, Portuguese and other groups to take over their positions, and then started pulling out towards the south. The FNLA, already heavily defeated by the Cubans and the MPLA during the battle at Quifandongo, on 11 November, was unable to hold out for any longer even if reinforced by significant contingents of Portuguese and Zairian troops, especially not in the face of immense reinforcements in weapons and manpower the Communists were now to throw into the battle.

In early January, namely, the Cubans and Soviets were finally so far to deploy a squadron each of MiG-17Fs, MiG-21MFs, and (Soviets) MiG-21F-13s. The MiG-17Fs and MiG-21MFs were flown by Cubans, while the MiG-21F-13s were flown by Soviet and Romanian pilots. They became operational by 21 January 1976, the day the Angolan Air Force was officially founded. On 25 January the MiGs flew their first combat sorties, striking FNLA bases in Redondo and Nea Lisboa. The communists now had an advantage the South Africans and their allies could not match: that of air power.

One of early MiG-17Fs supplied directly from Cuba, as seen in 1979, at Luanda, while in service with the 14 Squadron FAPA-DAA, together with MiG-17s serialled C-26, C-27, and C-27, and an ex-FAP C-47 of the 5 Squadron Angolan Air Force. The MiGs were used intensivelly during the early campaigns of the I Angolan Civil War, albeit it is unclear how effective they proved.


Soviet-supplied Angolan MiG-17s were all camouflaged in this way, and were flown by a mix of Cuban, Soviet, East German, Romanian - and even Angolan pilots, a small number of which became available from late 1976 onwards.


The FNLA and UNITA have actually also attempted – with CIA support – to organize own air arms already in August 1975, but never came very far in dong this, then the flow of supplies by the Americans was simply too slow. The CIA attempted to acquire two AC-47 Gunships at a price of $200.000 each from the USAF, but was unable to bring them to Africa, one of the problems being the fact that their appearance in Angola would be a direct confirmation of US involvement. Four Alouette II helicopters were purchased for the FNLA but there were no pilots for them, and they were eventually abandoned at Kinshasa. All the attempts to recruit crews that would be ready to fly for the FNLA failed, and no other aircraft were purchased any more, especially after the CIA – in the light of the US pull-out of support for the South African intervention – was on 29 January 1976 ordered to stop all of its operations in Angola. Consequently, when in early February the Cubans and MPLA attacked the main FNLA at Negage, this was overrun and nobody was supporting the Angolan conservatives any more. The MPLA and the Cubans, however, have learned some painful lessons during the fighting against the SADF in October and November 1975, and were unwilling to risk further battles with them. Consequently, they turned their attention on completely demolishing the FNLA. On 9 February Huambo was captured and Benguela – meanwhile vacated by the SADF – fell four days later. With the later city the FNLA has lost its last large airfield inside Angola and was now actually unable to re-supply from the air.

With no reaction from the SADF, the Cubans were encouraged to start a new offensive, this time turning southwards. On 19 February Cuban MiG-21s attacked the airfield near Nea Lisboa, used by light transports for bringing supplies to the UNITA. Several small aircraft were destroyed or damaged on the ground and none of the MiGs was hit by fierce anti-aircraft fire. The SAAF was still operational over Angola, however: on 23 February for example, the South African C-130s flew the last Portuguese citizens from Pereira d’Eca. In the following days, the FNLA collapsed completely: its remaining fighters fled to Zaire.

Above and bellow: the Cuban contingent deployed to Angola in late 1975 included also 12 MiG-21MFs. These were stationed at Luanda IAP, and became operational in early 1976. Interestingly, although only reports about their air-to-ground operations are known, all the photographs show them with rails for R-3S (AA-2 Atoll) missiles. Of interest is also the camouflage patern on the fin: it is possible that the two large fields of Dark Olive Green were used as an identification marking - then these MiGs wore no national insignia or any other markings except their "bort" numbers! Sadly, no details about camouflage or markings of MiG-21F-13s supplied directly from the USSR are known yet.



By 13 March the Cubans and the MPLA reached the border to Zaire and Zambia, and then turned towards south, cautiously probing UNITA’s positions. On the same day the Cuban MiG-21s attacked the small airfield near Gago, where an AirCongo F.27 – that brought food-supplies from Rhodesia – was destroyed on the ground. In fact, the MiGs, deploying unguided rockets, needed two passes to destroy the Fokker: in the first pass only one rocket hit the plane, while another hit in front of it; in the seconds the two remaining rockets finished it off. Several more passes were made over the airfield, but after they found no other targets the MiGs then flew away and attacked a ground convoy that was underway several kilometres nearby. The Zairean dictator Mobutu was so angry about the loss of the aircraft, that he requested the CIA to pay him $2 million for the damage or deliver a brand-new Boeing 737, threatening to change sides if his request would not be satisfied. The CIA group assigned to support the FNLA lacked sufficient funds to satisfy Mobutu - even if a new F.27 could have been obtained for around $500.000. Consequently, a CIA-intermediary, "Mr. Martin" was sent to negotiate with the Zairean dictator, and he eventually agreed a payment of $600.000.

During this attack a French mercenary contracted by the UNITA fired at least two SA-7s against one of the MiGs that was making its second pass over the target. Both MANPADs missed and fell back to the ground. These were the first SA-7s to be used by the UNITA in Angola, and their source was Israel. Namely, the CIA was interested in supplying the rebels - or, better said, mercenaries working for FNLA and UNITA - with MANPADs, but could not deliver US-made MIM-43A Redeyes to them, then this would indicate a direct US-involvement. Consequently, they requested Israelis to supply 50 SA-7s captured from the Arabs, and replaced them by 50 newly-built Redeyes. However, as delivered by the Israelis, most of the SA-7s were in such a poor condition that even if all were spent in 1976 none scored a hit.

The last SADF troops have left Angola by 27 March 1976: instead of them, the southern Angola was now held by UNITA. Lacking heavy weapons, however, this was completely unable to face the communist advance. Reinforced to 15.000 in the meantime, the Cubans now felt strong enough to attack UNITA: in a series of operations by the end of May they drove the rebels far into the south-eastern “corner” of Angola, where Savimbi and his followers retreated into an isolated area, named “The Land on the end of the World” already by the Portuguese, where there were actually no roads, nor even hardened strips. And advance with available communist forces into this area was out of question already due to their overstretched supply lines. Consequently, the MPLA and Cubans had to satisfy themselves with the captured of the Benguela railroad and the important diamond mines along the border to Zambia.

In the end, the UNITA escaped and survived – to no small degree because it could also hold several diamond mines, important as secure source of income. But, from June onwards Savimbi had to reorganize his fighters and change the strategy again – starting a guerrilla war against the communist regime in Luanda.




Additional information and updates for this feature were kindly provided by Jose Matos, Pedro Alvin, and Patrik.

Extended excerpts from this article were published in the book "African MiGs", SHI Publications, Vienna (Austria), 2004, (ISBN: 3-200-00088-0).

Except for own research and materials kindly supplied by contributors on ACIG.org forum, especially Mr. Tom N. and Mr. Pit Weinert, the following sources of reference were used:

- "MODERN AFRICAN WARS 2: ANGOLA AND MOZAMBIQUE 1961-74" Osprey's "Men-At-Arms" Series No.202, by Peter Abbott and Manuel Rodriguez, Osprey 1988, 1989, 1995.

- "MODERN AFRICAN WARS 3: SOUTH-WEST AFRICA" Osprey's "Men-At-Arms" Series No.242, by Helmoed-Römer Heitman and Paul Hannon, Osprey 1991.

- "THE WORLD IN CONFLICT; Contemporary Warfare Described and Analysed, War Annual 7", by John Laffin, Brassey's, 1996 (ISBN: 1-85753-196-5)

- "THE CHOPPER BOYS", by Al J. Venter, in association with Neall Ellis and Richard Wood, by Ashanti Publishing Ltd., Gibraltar, reprinted by Greenhill Books, UK (ISBN: 1-85367-177-0)

- "AIR WARS AND AIRCRAFT; A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present", by Victor Flintham, Arms and Armour Press, 1989 (ISBN: 0-85368-779-X)





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