Several clashes between the South African Defence Force (SADF) and the Angolan army (FAPLA, from Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola), took place during the final phase of the Border War in the south-eastern Angolan province of Cuando Cubango in 1987–1988. Two of these clashes took place on 9 and 11 November 1987.
Having stopped the FAPLA offensive to knock the Angolan rebel movement UNITA out of the civil war in a series of battles at the Lomba River, the SADF started a counteroffensive. The two battles of 9 and 11 November formed part of this counteroffensive.
These two clashes provide material for a professional military analysis which could be used as case studies in officers’ training courses. The article starts off by briefly explaining both sides’ order of battle: Whereas the South Africans had three battalion-sized combat groups, organised in a mechanised brigade (20 Brigade), FAPLA had four brigades. (Here it should be explained that FAPLA was organised on Soviet lines, which meant that their brigades were smaller than the SADF’s. Also, one of the FAPLA brigades involved in the offensive had been destroyed during the Lomba battles, leaving five in the vicinity.)
The article explains in detail how the South African battle plan was designed by the SADF’s second-in-command, Colonel Roland de Vries, at the time one of the most brilliant minds in the South African military. De Vries approached the battle expressly by carefully taking into account the internationally agreed principles of warfare. According to his memoirs, he was influenced by two of the most influential military writers of the 20th century, namely the German General Erwin Rommel (commander of the famous Afrika Korps in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia) and the British strategist Sir Basil Liddell Hart, one of the fathers of modern mechanised warfare.
He carefully selected FAPLA’s 16 Brigade, which was in a fairly isolated position, as the target, thereby transforming the SADF’s numerical inferiority into a local numerical superiority at the point of attack. The majority of the FAPLA forces were pinned down in the south of the broad battlefield by a feint by the least potent of the South African combat groups (Combat Group B, consisting of elements from 32 and 101 Battalion, both relatively lightly armed motorised infantry).
Furthermore, he sent the weaker of his two mechanised combat groups (Combat Group A, consisting largely of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group) in from the south-east in a feint to draw the Angolans’ attention to that side. Then the strongest combat group (Combat Group C, consisting chiefly of 4 South African Infantry Battalion, including a squadron of Olifant tanks), attacked them from the north-east, achieving complete surprise.
De Vries had therefore designed the battle in a way that virtually guaranteed success even before a shot had been fired. Victory was sure to follow. However, through a combination of factors, the victory was less total than envisaged. Therefore, the SADF resolved on a second attack two days later.
This time De Vries’s plan was a mirror image of the first attack. While FAPLA’s attention was drawn to the north-east by another feint, the attack force with the tanks was sent around the Angolans’ rear for an assault from the south-east. Surprise was not as complete as during the first attack, but the Angolans were nevertheless severely pummeled. Their casualties were severe, while the South Africans’ losses were relatively light.
Previous analyses of the two battles held that the commander of the main attack force, Commandant Leon Marais, was not vigorous enough, and that this allowed the enemy to escape. New information from a published and translated Soviet source, however, indicates that 16 Brigade had been so damaged that it could no longer function as a coordinated formation under a single command. According to military definitions it had been destroyed, albeit not annihilated. It is interesting to note that the brigade henceforth vanished from the FAPLA order of battle, indicating that it was either disbanded or pulled back to be reconstituted from scratch.
In other words, the accusations levelled at Marais were not justified.
The battles of 9 and 11 November played an important role in driving FAPLA back from the Lomba all the way to Cuito Cuanavale, where the SADF advance was finally brought to a halt in March 1988.
The article concludes with two tables in which the SADF and FAPLA are measured according to the 14 principles of warfare to which the SADF subscribed during the height of the war in the 1980s. Points are given, from 1 to 9, to indicate to what extent both sides satisfied the principles. From the tables it becomes clear at a glance that the SADF’s tactical handling was vastly superior to that of FAPLA. This explains why the South Africans won these battles and the Angolans lost.
The article is based largely on original archival research in the SANDF Documentation Centre. FAPLA and Soviet sources are firmly closed and could not be consulted at all.
Keywords: 4 SAI; 16 Brigade; 61 Mech; Angola; Roland de Vries; Deon Ferreira; Fapla, Border War; Olifant tank; Ratel armoured car and infantry fighting vehicle; South African Defence Force (SADF).