There as been requests that I post more info on South Africa's last campaign in Angola in 87/88. I will try and post a piece on each of the battles which made up this campaign which lasted almost a year as frequently as possible. The plan is not to discuss the why but the who, how and where.
The first part of this bloody campaign starts in September of 1987 on the Lomba river in Angola and has passed into history as the:
The First Rumble on the Lomba
Arrival of the actors.
Early in March 1987 Recces deep in Angola detected the movement of Cuban and Angolan troops from the centre of the Country to the south-east in a repeat the Fapla offensive of 1985. The movement was aimed at building up a force which would cross the Cuito river (scene of heavy fighting later in the campaign) and strike out first for Unita’s vital logistical hub at Mavinga with it’s important all weather runway and thence on to Jamba, Unita’s capital. By early August elements of 5 brigades had crossed the bridge over the Cuito.
In late June, in the light of the growing enemy force, South Africa decided to commit troops to stop the impending offensive much as they had done in Operation Alpha Centauri back in 1985. The first unit to be committed, as in 1985, was the South African Army’s version of a fire brigade namely 32 Battalion. A small force of 32 along with their organic Valkiri 127mm MRLS moved into Angola in mid July and set up base at Mavinga. Their primary task was to stop the offensive as far as possible while keeping their presence unknown as far as possible. This movement heralded the start of what was to become known as Operation Modular.
By late August the long awaited Fapla advance kicked off and pretty soon it was obvious that the small elements of 32 deployed at that stage would be unable to counter them. Permission was given to deploy a battery of the much vaunted G5 155mm Howitzers which had wrought such havoc in 1985. 61 Mechanized Battalion was also alerted for possible deployment, which they shortly there after did. In another escalation Mirage F1AZ fighter bombers and English Electric Canberra’s were committed to pound the advancing Angolans along with the MRLs and the G5s.
By early September Fapla’s 21st Bde was poised to cross the Lomba river 35 km away from the Lomba and it was this brigade that the South African commander, Col Deon Ferreira (he passed away sadly a few years ago from cancer), to tackle being the most dangerous and as the 4 other brigade, the closed being 47 Bde moving around the source of the Lomba, could be halted using air strikes and artillery
The Rumble Starts
Due to the distance that 21Bde was from its main logistical base at Tumpo, about 125km away, the advance had slowed noticeably. The South Africans figured that the brigade wouldn’t attempt a crossing in the near future as it was probably waiting for elements of 47Bde to reach them from the west in their advance around the Lomba source. Once the units had linked up a crossing would be made and a combined advance made. Under heavy bombardment from South African guns, 21Bde had broken up into its constituent battalions and dispersed, further reinforcing this view.
The South African’s estimated that the brigade would cross to the west of the confluence of the Gombe (running north to south) and the Lomba (running from west to east). There wasn’t a bridge, but Fapla had been well supplied with TMM mobile bridges and a crossing here would put them 35km away from Mavinga in almost defendable terrain.
To guard against this, Ferreira deployed Commandant Robbie Hartslief’s (he tragically took his own life in 2006) Combat Group Bravo to a position a few few kilometers into the treeline south-west of the Gombe-Lomba confluence on the 8th of September. Hartslief’s force consisted of two companies of Owambo infantry mounted in Casspir APCs drawn from 101 Battalion (a SWATF COIN unit so it was strange that this unit was committed) and 32 Battalions Anti Tank Sqaudron under the command of Maj. Hannes Nortmann (he was to win himself everlasting fame in the SADF for the actions that transpired on this day and in subsequent battles being rewarded with a Honoris Crux in one).
Hartslief sent Nortmann ahead and followed with the rest of his force. Nortmann arrived at the suspected site in the early morning hours of the 9th and on inspection found that the flood plain was to marshy for vehicle crossings.
However Fapla was to surprise the South African when word came from Unita’s 3 Battalion early on the morning of the 9th of September that a 450 strong battalion of 21Bde had crossed the Lomba on foot at a small abandoned village, Cariata, about 16km west of the South African position, and that vehicles were visible on the north bank.
Hartslief immediately dispatched a force consisting of one of the 101 Bat companies and a troop of Ratel 90s from the Anti Tank squadron. As this force reached the high ground to the south of the crossing they saw a BTR 60 crossing with more infantry. The BTR 60 was quickly shot out by a Ratel 90 with heavy fire from the G5s being brought down on the infantry. The company commander tried to organize a joint attack with the Unita forces in the area to drive the bridgehead back but this failed due to liaison difficulties.
Fapla had in the mean time reacted with heavy counter fire from artillery on the north bank and Hartslief now ordered this company to withdraw about 6 kilometers and await the rest of the force for an attack on the bridgehead the next morning.
He ordered Nortmann to move up with the remaining 101 battalion company and the rest of his squadron (one of his troops was with the other 101 Bat company) and drive the bridgehead back. Nortmann arrived in the area after a hairy night march at around 01h30 and had completed his final approach by 06h00. He ordered the force that had been in battle the previous day to deploy to his right facing west while the rest of his force was deployed in the treeline facing north across the flood plain.
The west facing force immediately came into contact with the battalion of infantry from 21Bde and was subjected to a barrage of rockets and small arms fire. Two vehicles were hit immediately but due to the short range the RPGs failed to arm. The battalion was supported by 122mm D-30 guns, 82mm mortars and 122mm BM 21 MRLs from the north bank but the company from 101 bat held its own and drove the battalion back across the flood plain to the crossing site to the north west.
Nortmann now ordered his Casspirs to deploy in the treeline from were they inflicted massive casualties on the retreating infantry. The 120mm mortars of Sierra Battery also joint in the fray to add to the carnage. On the coverless anhara it was like a duck shoot with hundreds falling to the mortars and guns of 101 bat. Some bodies fell into the Lomba and were to pollute the water supply of 16Bde downstream as they started rotting.
By now 21Bde had cottoned on that something was happening on the south bank and start a well oiled immediate action drill. This drill was to attack with tanks as soon as possible. It worked well against Unita who tucked tail and ran at the sight of tanks but they weren’t facing Unita.
By this time this time the G5s of Quebec Battery and the 127mm MRLs of Papa Battery was also engaged, firing at targets on the north bank. They were under the direct control of Theo Wilken (a stalwart artillery officer who was to play a leading part in much of the campaign). The G5s hit targets on the north bank, while the MRLs rocketed the high ground to the north and the 120mm mortars added to the carnage on the anhara. One of his forward observers, Koos Breytenbach, was engaging mortar positions on the north bank when he spotted a number of T54 tanks breaking cover and racing for the TMM bridge which had by now been spotted. He warned Nortmann and placed fire from the G5s on the bush from which they had emerged. This resulted in two vehicles being set on fire, but due to the distance and bush he was unable to identify them. Infantry also now emerged as the first tank reached the bridge and moved up in support of the tanks.
The commander of the nearest Anti Tank troop had been hit in the eye with a shell fragment and Northmann raced over and took command. At this stage only one of the 4 pre-production Ratel ZT3s he had under his command was operational and this was the vehicle he mounted. His Ratel 90 tank destroyers had meanwhile taken up the fight, but at the extreme range they were firing they weren’t having much effect although they were registering hits.
(The ZT3 is a locally developed laser guided ATGM. It has a range of 5km and can penetrate upwards of 1000mm of RHA (rolled homogenous armor). By the time it was deployed the missile had not even completed its acceptance trails and it was rushed to Angola to test it in actual combat conditions. A grand total of 4, the only 4 in existence at that stage, specially converted Ratels, designated Ratel ZT3, were deployed and manned by employees of the company manufacturing the missile and members of the South African Armored Corps. Most of the Armored Corps members had never fired the missile before and this was to become apparent later in the battle.)
Hannes by now was ready and fired the first of his 3 ZT3 missiles, it went out of control after 200m and pulled up vertically. The second missile did the same and the third didn’t even fire. He ordered his Ratel 90s to maneuver to the flank of the advancing tanks while he withdrew to reload .
His Ratel 90s again took up the fight, one of them registering 3 hits on one of the tanks stopping it momentarily. All though they were having no effect the Ratel 90s were buying Hannes precious time to reload and return to the battle.
He now fired his forth missile which hit the lead tank in the track idler which stopped it. The fifth missile finally destroyed the tank. The over excited gunner now shifted his aim to the second tank, which had tucked tail and was retreating to the river, but missed as the missile hit the ground just in front of the tank. Hannes quickly brought him back to earth in a time honored way of many a commander: a sharp crack to the back of the head. This calmed him down and the sixth missile hit the tank on the rear plate blowing the turret about 25 meters away.
Hannes again withdrew to reload and then maneuvered into a new firing position to fire at the last tank which was still advancing. He hit it with two missiles. He fired his last missile at what appeared to be a tank on the north bank (it turned out to be the GAZ bridge layer) but it was stopped short by a Fapla soldier who stood up at the wrong time. The rest of the tanks and infantry now withdrew.
In the meanwhile the guns of Quebec battery had been shelling the crossing site and suspected gun positions on the north bank and apart from damaging the TMM bridge silenced the guns with several direct hits on the positions and ammo dumps.
During the day 21Bde tried two further attacks but were stopped short by fire form Quebec and Sierra Batteries. By evening the situation had stabilized and 21Bde was hunkering down to lick it’s wounds.
(Hartsliefs Ratel ZT3 as used during the first Rumble on the Lomba with its kill markings on the side of the turret. This vehicle is in the School of Armor Museum in Bloemfontein)
For the next few days 21Bde probed from the north bank trying to find a crossing point but was stopped in each case by Ratel 90s, Ratel ZT3 and artillery fire.
During the period running up to the 22nd of September a new worrying development was an increase in Russian chatter on Fapla’s Artillery net. One specific voice was directing the whole net and it became apparent that Fapla, under the tutelage of the Russians, were preparing to strike back with vengeance.
On the 22nd a radio message was picked up that Fapla had decided to use gas against the South Africans. Ferreira immediately evacuated his positions 15km east after checking the wind. His junior subordinates, Hartslief and Nortmann, were upset at what they saw to be an unnecessary retreat.
The retreat was however a wise move, because as soon as the South African vacated their position and completed the move a bombardment started which would last four hours and was to include airstrikes.
Soon after the bombardment stopped another radio message was intercepted in which a Fapla commander reported that the South African had left. Ferreira wanted to move his forces back to the crossing point as quickly as possible but the danger of gas still existed.
He had special chemical detection teams, but at this stage they were to far away to be of use. He passed the buck to 32s reconnaissance group to scout the area and report the presence of gas. Two men were taken in a Ratel and then dropped to walk to the evacuated trenches which stretched for almost 3 kilometers in the tree line. They were astonished to find Unita soldiers calmly sitting in the trenches smoking. They had survived unscathed and reported not feeling sick at all.
On receiving word that the area was cleared, Ferreira ordered the position reoccupied. As Hartslief’s combat group was moving into the trenches, he saw three columns of vehicles flanked by infantry form up and start to cross the river by yet another unsighted bridge.
Hartslief waited until the infantry was stretched out across an anhara, about three to four kilometer wide, (a flood plain) to the south of the river. Darkness was rapidly approaching and he held his fire as long as possible. Then on his word a 192 127mm rockets burst above the heads of the advancing infantry scything them down. The rockets were soon joined in the fray by the G5s and 120mm mortars plowing into the open plain. The Ratel ZT3s and 90s started taking on the tanks and other vehicles knocking them out one after the other. The heavy shelling even succeeded in knocking out a few tanks by shredding the external fuel tanks setting the vehicles alight.
The infantry started retreating in panic across the marshy plain and Hartslief’s let loose the 30 Casspirs of 101 Bat and the Ratels of 32 Bat to complete the slaughter. The troops sprayed the area with 7.62mm machine gun fire from the Casspirs and 20mm cannon fire from the Ratels while the troops added to the slaughter by firing through the portholes with their personal weapons. The vehicles also further added to the carnage by running over those trying to hide in the long grass. During this time the G5s destroyed the TMM, cutting of the Fapla troops on the south bank thus completing the slaughter.
At the end of the short but violent battle the South African counted more than 300 dead on the flood plain with wrecks of destroyed equipment scattered every where. Apart from the slaughter on this day the South Africans estimated that 21Bde had lost between 400 to 600 dead in all of the encounters off September. On the South African side one man slightly wounded by shrapnel. Thus ended the first Rumble on the Lomba.
It seems my primary source had a few things wrong will update and re-post. The next installment will be about the so called Second Rumble on the Lomba in which a battle group from 32 and 101 got mixed into an old Unita log base with 21Bde. It was in this action that Northman and Sargeant Ruping (spelling) got their HCs.
He fired his last missile at what appeared to be a tank on the north bank (it turned out to be the GAZ bridge layer) but it was stopped short by a Fapla soldier who stood up at the wrong time. The rest of the tanks and infantry now withdrew.
they did not tuck tail ran because their mate was splattered over them. The veracity of that part of the story is a bit in doubt but if it had happened it would have been the saddest waste of a missile and a real bad day for that poor bastard
The first unit to be committed, as in 1985, was the South African Army’s version of a fire brigade namely 32 Battalion. A small force of 32 along with their organic Valkiri 127mm MRLS moved into Angola in mid July and set up base at Mavinga
very interesting thanks
but the famous 32.Battalion "Buffalo" has its own mentionable story http://www.32battalion.net/ ! After the end of the white regime in South Africa the members of Battalion Buffalo , were the core of the PMC Executive Outcomes.
Don't think that is quite that. I believe they felt that the unit was a cerdible threat to their plan to make the coutry ungovernable if the Codesa negotiations went south. Another problem was that they never could quite convert them to their cause, the 32 boys being angolans.
The whole sdu issue was a bit staged in the opinion of many after the fact.
Thank you for bringing this (for me unknown) part of history up.
Its very worth reading and I never heard about SA Military Operations
One of the best Topics (with olifant topic) i ve rad for a while.
Do you have some links with websites which are dealing with this topic or even photo collections of Kit etc?
Can we consider the SA war in angola as an episode of the Namibian (SWA) conflict??
In my opinion, SA government never tried to change the Angolan government or conquer the country. Their support to The UNITA was more.. how to say, Try to stop SWAPO from entering in Namibia.. Am I correct??? Excuse me if my english is not correct, but being spanish is quite difficult to explain my ideas.