This is the second volume of Helion’s Africa at War series looking at the long conflict in Angola following the withdrawal of Portugal in 1975. The first, “Angolan and Cuban Forces at War, 1975-1976” (also reviewed on Armorama) covered the two years in which the rival nationalist parties and their armed wings fought to rule the suddenly independent nation. Other nations became involved in the conflict, most notably Cuba, which deployed ground troops and aircraft to Angola, and South Africa, which invaded with a supposedly covert but significant force in late 1975.
This volume picks up from the point at which, by April 1976, the MPLA had effectively taken control of Angola, having militarily defeated and scattered the armed wings of the rival nationalist parties, the FNLA and UNITA, while the South African Defence Force had withdrawn. The situation in the country was dire. The war had devastated much of the critical infrastructure. Until 1975 Portuguese nationals occupied virtually all leading administrative and business positions, but now they had mostly left Angola. 90% of Angolans were illiterate, and the leadership of the MPLA were largely distrustful of those elite Angolans who had been trained by and worked with the Portuguese colonisers. By 1976, only 50 qualified doctors are said to have remained in this country of 7 million people, covering an area double the size of France.
The challenges were evidently hugely formidable: the need for foreign investment and expertise to help build up native Angolan capabilities was recognised by the MPLA leadership, but their reliance on the USSR and Cuba in winning the war of independence made it difficult to court the involvement of Western capitalist nations; indeed, the USA regarded the new state as a Soviet satellite. Although Cuba helped to get vital healthcare services up and running and implemented campaigns to improve literacy rates, over-ambitious or inappropriate economic initiatives were often chaotic, with poorly qualified and inexperienced management attempting to lead an uneducated workforce. At the same time, internal MPLA factionalism lead to a coup attempt in 1977, followed by purges and some thousands of executions. The resulting disruption within the MPLA was a major diversion from the imperative to rebuild the country, and as the MPLA leadership struggled under these burdens, the rival UNITA party was able to begin reasserting itself in its traditional areas of central and southern Angola.
Chapter 2 describes the organisation of the new Angolan state armed forces as they transitioned from the small guerrilla force of FAPLA, the armed wing of MPLA, to the 100,000 strong People’s Army of Angola (EPA). Similar problems of organisation, leadership and training impeded progress in the military sphere as it did in the civilian. Cuban and Soviet advisors provided training and strategic guidance, with their advice often at odds, with Soviet military wisdom being founded on the experience of WW2 Europe, the Cubans’ on their island war of liberation. Both however reported that the Angolan officer class suffered from widespread corruption and a lack of respect for their troops.
We are then introduced to the resurgent UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi, and its armed wing, FALA. Regarded by the MPLA as a South African proxy, UNITA however managed to draw support by various means. Its core support came to be drawn from the Ovimbundu ethnic rural areas, and while it appealed to and exploited traditional local beliefs and customs, it also professed itself to be Christian. Similarly, while Savimbi had trained in China in Mao’s People’s War Doctrine, he also claimed to be fighting for liberal democracy. Thus UNITA was able to position itself as fighting the godless communists of the MPLA. South Africa ramped up its support for UNITA from 1977 and 1978, providing both arms and training. While the USA were barred by an act of Congress from supporting UNITA directly, Western aid was channelled through the anti-communist “Safari Club”, as well as money and weapons shipments organised by gulf states, chiefly Saudi Arabia. With money to pay soldiers and large quantities of weapons flowing in, everything was in place for an upsurge in violence, which inevitably followed, as UNITA’s armed wing, FALA, with SADF assistance, went on the offensive in 1979.
The Soviets advised the MPLA to prioritise conventional army units against any risk of direct invasion by another nation, the main risk being South Africa. The main resources of the army were therefore not deployed in counter insurgency operations against UNITA, much to the frustration of the Cubans. There follows highly detailed accounts of the ebb and flow of the struggle, as UNITA / FALA tried to take control of a large area near the southern border. With the SADF fighting SWAPO to the south of that same border, fighting was spilling across on either side, with the SADF pursuing SWAPO units taking refuge in Angola. In 1981 South Africa attempted to eliminate SWAPO’s forces and destroy MPLA units in the border area. Despite well-prepared and resourced ground defences, the South African Air Force was able to overwhelm the Angolan and Cuban forces with far superior air power. In the aftermath of this operation, more Cuban troops were deployed to Angola so that by 1983 their numbers were back at the levels they had been during 1976.
Once in control of the southern border area, UNITA started expanding its operations towards the more populated and economically vital central region. In destroying economic targets, infrastructure, and kidnapping foreign workers, UNITA were attempting to inflict as much damage as possible on the economy of the already struggling nation. The ensuing warfare is a story of battles along the railway, attacks on government supply convoys, and assaults by UNITA / FALA units on towns garrisoned by government troops. With the Angolan army obliged to garrison everywhere at once, UNITA / FALA were able to concentrate their troops into areas of their own choosing, and indeed in the main zone of conflict, the insurgents were starting to outnumber the MPLA / Cuban forces.
The final chapter deals with the battle at Cangamba, as UNITA bid to take control of the central province of Moxico. The 1,200 regulars with 92 Cuban advisors that garrisoned Cangamba had constructed defences, but seemingly failed to realise the scale of the build-up of UNITA forces, numbering over 3,000 by July 1983. On the 2nd August UNITA launched its attack with an artillery barrage followed by an infantry assault across the partly cleared mine fields, in the hope of prevailing within the day. Instead the battle raged for ten days, with a handful of Cuban MiG-21s strafing and bombing the FALA forces, and Antonov An-26s and Mi-8s resupplying and reinforcing the garrison.
With the UNITA / FALA forces seemingly defeated, the Cubans evacuated their troops from Cangamba, recommending the Angolans do the same, as the battle had left it too vulnerable to further attack. Contrary Soviet advice was to reinforce the town to launch a counter-offensive, which led to prevarication on the part of the MPLA command. Savimbi travelled to South Africa to plead for further intervention to rescue his offensive, and as a result South African Buccaneers and Canberras carried out a single devastating raid on Cangamba, completely destroying the fortifications. Although having suffered great losses, UNITA was now able to expand its hold on Moxico province, and the battle was a preface to further escalation in the war.
As with Volume 1, this book features over 100 rare photos from private collections, many of which are excellent. There are also six pages of colour profiles of combat vehicles and aircraft, such as the T-54, BRDM-2 and BTR-40, and also the rare Egyptian built Wallid Qadr, and Cuban armoured Ural-4320 trucks. As with the previous volume, I found the maps could be frustrating, with some of places referred to seemingly not appearing on the map in the same chapter.
This book is written very much from the Cuban and Angolan perspective, with the author pointing out that there has been very little available in English from that point of view, while there are already a good number of books and resources available from a South African viewpoint. Adrien Fontanallez has written this volume solo, unlike volume 1 on which he collaborated with Tom Cooper, and the language is sometimes perhaps a little inelegant, but it seems equally well researched and I found it actually quite a gripping read, with the fascinating background of the politics and smouldering conflict building up to the frenetic and bloody climax at Cangamba. All quite grim, and one cannot help but reflect on the waste that is the result of the utter ruthlessness on all sides in such conflicts, and the inevitable result of outside parties fuelling the flames with weapons and money.
Highs: A highly researched and detailed account from a rarely heard perspective. Well illustrated with colour plates and many rare photos. Lows: Maps occasionally missing the detail I wanted.Verdict: A fascinating, gripping, and sometimes pretty grim read, with good pictures and even more combat detail than volume 1.
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About Matthew Lenton (firstcircle) FROM: ENGLAND - SOUTH EAST, UNITED KINGDOM
Earliest model memory is a Super Sabre my grandmother bought for me around 1972. Have always dabbled in painting and making things, and rediscovered doing that with plastic in 2008. Vowed then to complete the 30 year old stash, and have made some progress. Hobby goes hand in hand with BBC Radio 3...