Those over a certain age may remember Angola was regularly in the news in the 1970's and 80's when it was a hot battleground in the cold war. The long civil war, which lasted on and off until 2002, had its origins in the independence of the new country from Portugal in 1975. This volume deals with the slim but crucial two year period that followed Portugal abruptly ceasing its military control, in which the competing nationalist independence movements fought for dominance. Many external parties gave support to the various factions, from the open deployment of Cuban forces, the also direct but supposedly covert involvement of South Africa, to the funds, weapons and training from China, USA, USSR, Yugoslavia and many other nations, as well as mercenaries recruited from Portugal, Britain, France and elsewhere.
An introductory chapter provides background to the violent birth of Angola. A large country (double the size of France) on the Atlantic coast of southern Africa, it is rich in mineral resources including oil and diamonds, with a population of only around 25 million. Portugal’s first foray was in 1483, and it exploited the area over the next few centuries by exporting an estimated three million slaves across the Atlantic. Little actual colonial settlement occurred until the 19th century, with the area only being fully brought under Portuguese control in the early 20th century. The 1950s and 60s saw a concerted expansion of European settlement with around 400,000 Portuguese colonists arriving. By 1961 a guerrilla war for independence had commenced, but the nationalist movements behind it were kept weak by the Portuguese military’s counter insurgency operations, and virtually from the start were split into the rival parties that would fight each other following Portugal’s exit.
We are then introduced to the rival nationalist parties and their respective armed forces, and this is where, to begin with at least, the story is quite hard to follow, mainly because of the continual flow of acronyms for each organisation, particularly the MPLA and their armed wing the FAPLA, the FNLA whose armed wing is the ELNA, and UNITA, which is easier to remember, except their armed wing is the FALA. A list of abbreviations tells you what each stands for, but it would have been useful had it also provided a few details around their leadership, and from where they drew their main support both inside and outside Angola. At one point it was particularly confusing when the “FPLA” is referred to, which doesn’t exist, and was presumably a typo for FAPLA (and not FALA or FNLA…), and it can also be hard to follow when the narrative refers to a grouping sometimes by its political party name and other times its military name. However, things improve as you read on, mainly due to familiarity, partly greater consistency in use of terminology, but also because the whole narrative becomes clearer once the MPLA are consistently identified with their Cuban backers and are using familiar Soviet equipment, while the FNLA and UNITA are fighting together (sometimes) with the aid of South African troops and are using equipment that is recognisably from “western” nations.
The main part of the book concerns the relatively rapid and mobile operations fought by the initially quite small forces over the large area of this country. Put over-simplistically, the FNLA operated mainly from the north, UNITA from the south, while the MPLA’s base was the coastal capital, Luanda. The conflict escalated as foreign backers supplied progressively more money, weapons and equipment, advisors and training, and then eventually troops. The various Angolan forces by themselves were small, poorly trained and lacking experience and equipment. The Marxist-Leninist MPLA received materiel and logistical support from the USSR, which did not however wish to become directly involved on the ground. The USA supported the FNLA and UNITA as a means of resisting a communist victory, but also would not become directly involved, instead channelling arms via Zaire. Cuba however was providing more direct support to the MPLA through its “Mision Militar Cubana En Angola”, starting with around 500 men, which appeared at first to reinforce the MPLA’s seeming ascendancy. However, the surprise invasion and rapid progress of a South African / UNITA / mercenary force in late 1975, with experienced officers, high mobility and heavy weapons, caused panic among the MPLA leadership, and in Havana it was decided that there must be a massive step up in involvement, so that by March 1976, there were 36,000 well-equipped Cuban troops in Angola, partly thanks to logistical support from the USSR.
There is some quite gripping narrative as these battles ebb and flow, particularly the clashes between the SADF (South African) and the MMCA (Cuban) forces. Much of the story is told in incredible depth, including many named personnel at all levels, not just the leadership, and many individual actions are described in great detail, not just the broader tactical movements. Some account is given of the mercenary group led by the notorious “Colonel Callan” (actually a former corporal in the British Army who did time for a Post Office robbery), their actions seemingly combining atrocity and farce.
Of particular interest for readers on this site is the continual references to the equipment in use. In terms of armour, AML-60 and 90 armoured cars, their South African derivative Elands, and Panhard M3s, on one side, with T-34/85s, BTR-60s, BTR-152s, PT-76s, BRDM-2s, on the other, with colour plates being provided for many of these vehicles (see the sample of the Eland Mk.7, with the Panhard M3 and Eland 60 shown here blurred). The BM-21 multiple rocket launcher sounds like it was used very effectively and in large numbers (see the photo).
In terms of air power, the anti-communist forces used some Alouette helicopters and various light aircraft, including Beechcraft Barons, while the South Africans at one point deployed Canberra bombers, and the Zambian Air Force carried out some strikes with Yugoslavian built SOKO G-2 Galebs (a colour plate illustrates the Galeb). Otherwise the air was pretty much dominated by the Cubans, utilising their own Britannia 318s and DC-3s (both illustrated with colour plates) and the inevitable Antonov AN-12 and 22s of the USSR for logistics. Mil Mi-8 helicopters, one MiG-15, nine MiG-17s, and a larger number of MiG-21s, were all piloted by Cubans, these aircraft also being illustrated in colour, with Angolan colours on the rudders, and the 21s in camouflage.
As well as the plates there are over 100 photographs throughout, as can be seen on a couple of example pages shown here, and although some are not of great quality, let us remember the time and circumstances in which they were taken, and they still provide plenty of interest and possible modelling inspiration. Many of them are clearly from the private collections of individuals that the authors have interviewed, and so some have quite possibly not been published before. Several maps are provided, some in colour, which while looking good, could have been improved with more details, keys and scales; for example one map uses red and black arrows to represent opposing forces, but as they’re not labelled it’s not immediately obvious which is which, and some unexplained symbols are also used.
The authors have clearly done a great deal of original research in putting this book together, and it is written in a very readable style, despite the number of acronyms and a handful of errors that a sub-editor should perhaps have picked up. One aspect of the authorship that I found particularly admirable was the presentation of a strictly neutral view point at all times: my feeling about what is described in this book is that none of the parties involved come out of the story with any moral credit whatsoever. While there may be some respect for the professionalism and expertise of some participants, and a great deal of pity for others, particularly the non-combatant casualties and naïve young Angolan soldiers, this was a terribly bloody transition from colony to independence that unfortunately then lingered on for almost another thirty years, and perhaps unsurprisingly has resulted in a state that suffers from corruption and violence.
This book might especially interest wargamers looking to create scenarios based on these campaigns, as there really is a lot of useful detail. Modellers looking for context for 1970s cold war equipment may well also find some inspiration, and of course those with a general interest in military history, cold war politics and conflicts, African liberation struggles, and so on, may also find it appealing.
Highs: Highly researched and detailed. Well illustrated with photos and colour plates. Lows: Mapping could be improved. All the acronyms can be confusing at first. Verdict: A quite complex, sometimes gripping, and ultimately tragic read with lots of combat detail and pictures.
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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...