South African Military History 


Newsletter No 65 Febuary/Nuusbrief Nr 65 Febuarie 2010

Richard Tomlinson devoted the ninth talk in his series on British fortifications of the Anglo-Boer War, which started the meeting on 11 January, to the blockhouses which he termed the 'one-offs', designs of which only one example is known. First up was Warmbaths, where a curious hybrid comprises a tower (like a Standard Pattern), but with a crenellated parapet around a 'flat' roof (like a Magaliesberg), which was altered by extending the walls up to provide a third storey with a steep pyramid roof and angle galleries. Krugersdorp has a rectangular 2-storey blockhouse with cut-off angles flanked by single-storey bastions at diagonal corners, recycled as an electrical sub-station. Prieska's hexagonal blockhouse sits on a lofty koppie commanding the town, the walls being of bulbous profile, loopholes set high up, an umbrella-shaped corrugated iron roof and loopholed parapet above. Noupoort's idiosyncratic circular blockhouse is shaped like and probably converted from a tower windmill, 8.5m diameter at the base and tapering to 7m in its 7m height, covered with a circular 'umbrella' roof, which has a gable on one side housing the entrance. Jacobsdal has a single-storey blockhouse with footprint the size of a Standard Pattern, the lower part of the walls thickened inside for perhaps a firing step to reach the high loopholes and a restored observation turret with ladder access on the gabled roof. These buildings show a wide variety of designs, indicating the considerable latitude given to Royal Engineer officers.

The curtain raiser and main lecture were combined in Fred Oelschig's presentation on the UNITA contribution to the results of the RSA operations Modular, Hooper and Packer in South East Angola in 1987. Much has been written about these SADF operations, but very little about UNITA's contribution. This is strange, because if UNITA had not been there in the first place, the RSA presence would not have been needed.

After the withdrawal of its forces from Angola in 1976, the RSA Government made a strategic decision to give military support to Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA movement, thus enabling UNITA to increase its area of influence in Angola, which contributed to the security of SWA and the RSA. This greatly frustrated the MPLA government and their supporters, Russia and Cuba. The MPLA was advised by the Russians to eliminate UNITA by capturing the UNITA capital of Jamba. The 1985 and 1986 MPLA offensives against Jamba were defeated by UNITA with RSA support.

At the beginning of 1987, intelligence indicated a significant build-up of MPLA army (FAPLA) forces at Cuito Cuanavale. Three SADF liaison teams under Fred's command were deployed to this front, where they were involved in preparing UNITA forces for the forthcoming offensive. UNITA commenced harassing operations against the deployed FAPLA forces dug into defensive positions East of the Cuito River. These actions delayed, but did not stop, the FAPLA build-up. Eventually FAPLA became strong enough to advance. FAPLA was overwhelmingly strong and included East Germans, Russians and Cubans. The advance was extremely slow (2km per day) due to successful harassing actions by UNITA. FAPA (the Angolan air force)'s air superiority with Mig 21 and 23 and Su 22 fighters and Mi 8 and Mi26 helicopters, restricted UNITA to night movement only. The negative air situation improved after the deployment by UNITA of US supplied Stinger ground-to-air missiles.

FAPLA advanced on three fronts with 10 brigades, estimated at 25000 men supported by tanks and artillery. The many vehicles required large amounts of fuel and logistic lines were of paramount importance. It became evident that UNITA would require additional support. The bridge over the Cuito River was destroyed by SADF special forces. The delay caused by this allowed for the deployment of additional SADF forces along the Lomba River. The FAPLA advance was opposed by approximately 7000 UNITA combatants and 6000 from the SADF. There was never any intention to attack and hold Cuito Cuanavale. The objective was to force FAPLA west of the Cuito River. This proved impossible because the partialy repaired bridge could take limited traffic and at night only, as day movement was prevented by constant artillery observation and fire. FAPLA losses were considerable. At one stage, UNITA soldiers mounted on SADF tanks ran into a well prepared FAPLA position, strongly supported by ZPU 23 guns. About 400 UNITA soldiers were killed and were buried a mass grave nearby. This grave has now been unearthed and accusations leveled at the SADF for not disclosing its cauaualties. An overwhelmingly strong FAPLA force with Russian and Cuban support was prevented from achieving its aim of capturing Jamba. Note: The book by Helmoed Römer Heitman "War in Angola - The Final South African Phase" gives an accurate description of events.

Dave Lardner from Colesberg is welcomed as a SAMHSEC member. Bruce Steele-Gray from Kenton-on-Sea has indicated that he will not be renewing his membership.

SAMHSEC is to tour Hofmeyer, Norval's Pont and Colesberg from 28 to 30 May 2010. Further correspondence is to be forwarded to SAMHSEC members. Others are welcome to join the tour and should contact Malcolm on John Stevens & Pat Irwin's roles in initiating the tour are acknowledged with appreciation.

Notice is given of SAMHSEC's AGM to be held at the Eastern Province Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth at 1930 on 8 March 2010.

Members are reminded that membership subscritions for 2010 are now due. Sholuld a member not have renewed membership by 31 March, it will be assumed that there is no intention to do so.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on Monday 8 February 2010 at the Eastern Province Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. After Richard Tomlinson's series on British Fortifications of the Anglo-Boer War, the curtain raiser will be by Peter Duffel-Canham on his uncle's WW2 service. The main lecture will be by Ian Copley on Medicine and Surgery during the First Crusade.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

South African Military History Society /