South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 10 July was member Brig-Gen Dick Lord, SD, SM, MMM SAAF (retd.), whose topic was Operations Modular, Hooper and Packer - The Truth about Cuito Cuanavale. Gen Lord introduced his lecture by pointing out that two very well-known politicians as well a South African Schools history set book describe the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale as a victory for the Cuban, Russian and FAPLA forces in Angola. Neither of the politicians had served in Angola and our speaker's aim was to set the record straight. The talk is an extract of Gen Lord's forthcoming book called From Fledgling to Eagle - The SAAF in the Border War, due to be published in October of this year.

Gen Lord explained that "people's revolutionary war" can only take place in densely populated areas. In South West Africa (now Namibia) two-thirds of the population lives in the northern part of the country and, of these, the largest part live in Ovamboland in the middle of the northern border area. This was the area where the 23-year-long Border War began. Most of the fighting took place there but there was also action in the Kaokoveld and Caprivi areas. Later the war zone spread into Angola, when the Russians decided it was the right time to move to a conventional war.

Gen Lord described the phases of revolutionary warfare. In the initial phase the revolutionary movement is established, personnel and foreign supporters are recruited and the strategy to be followed is planned. Then comes the second phase during which, in South West Africa, headmen are murdered, children are abducted and those people who would not join the "movement" are intimidated. In the third or guerrilla phase, the SWA Police were ambushed and attacked. SWAPO decided to commence the guerrilla warfare phase in 1965. The first shots were fired in the following year.

In the final phase of the Border War FAPLA, the Cubans and the Russians with their other allies waged a conventional war against Unita and the SADF, using the most modern weaponry available. In Gen Lord's opinion the Russians were waging a war of attrition against South Africa in which they hoped to destroy as much of the SADF's irreplaceable weaponry as possible and then to attack the SADF and defeat it.

Gen Lord explained that Operation Modular was started early in 1987 because of the serious enemy threat to Mavinga, a place of great importance to Dr Jonas Savimbi, the Unita leader and the home of an airstrip used by the SAAF to fly in supplies. The enemy wanted to use it as a stepping-stone from which to mount an attack to destroy the Unita headquarters at Jamba.

Gen Lord showed us maps of the Border war zone prepared by the Joint Air Reconnaisance Centre at AFB Swartkop from aerial photographs taken by SAAF Canberra crews. He noted that, at the start of the Border War, the only maps available were Michelin road maps! The Russians on the other hand had excellent maps prepared from satellite imagery.

Gen Lord indicated on a map the location of the enemy's main air bases at Serpa Pinto and Cuito Cuanavale. He also pointed out the main SAAF bases at Rundu and Grootfontein, explaining that both sides were equidistant from the combat zone. Both sides could use their radar installations effectively and in combat the advantage lay with the side that had the better pilots - in this case the South Africans.

Savimbi was deeply concerned about the FAPLA, Cuban and Russian threat and flew to Cape Town to seek help. The South African Government agreed to provide limited assistance. The enemy advanced on Mavinga in a two column pincer movement as per the Russian staff manual. Gen Lord showed us pictures of the dense Angolan bush in which the enemy, 47th Brigade, was situated. It was completely hidden from the air and Gen Lord pointed out the roads which ended at the bush and also the many pathways which indicated the presence of a large number of troop concentrations.

He described the air attack on this camp by SAAF Mirages, Canberras and Impalas. He noted that the British and American bombs which were used in other wars were useless in the sandy soil of Angola. New pre-fragmented bombs containing steel balls with a diameter of 8.75mm which burst 6 metres above the ground were used. The camp was also bombarded by South African G5 guns and initially there was no indication that the target had been destroyed. In fact, the attack was a great success and the brigade's vehicles were immobilised. The survivors then abandoned their vehicles. The survivors of both pincers retreated to Cuito Cuanavale.

Gen Lord pointed out that Operation Modular was a very well-planned joint S A Army / SAAF operation. All aspects of the operation had been meticulously planned including the logistics. When Genls Geldenhuys and Meiring saw how successful it had been, they decided to pursue the retreating enemy. Gen Lord, who at the time was a Colonel, pointed out the disadvantages of the new unplanned operation named Operation Hooper.

The chief of these disadvantages was that the SAAF fighters would need to operate so much further from their bases. Their flying time from their bases to the combat area would now be 42 minutes with another 42 minutes for the return journey. This left them with only two minutes of combat flying time over the target! Tanker aircraft could not be used because of the enemy's radar network and the possibility of the tanker being intercepted by enemy fighters. There were obvious disadvantages if they had to break off an engagement to head for home because of lack of fuel and being at risk when doing so.

This situation was very similar to Napoleon's predicament in Russia when he outran his supplies once he reached Moscow or Rommel when he reached Alamein. Both had a very long and slow supply line from their bases to the front and over-reached their supplies.

Gen Lord described the enemy weaponry and equipment captured during Operation Modular, which included a complete and intact SAM 8 Missile system never before seen in the West. This was shipped off to Pretoria for detailed examination by the "boffins" there. He described this operation an undeniable victory for the South Africans.

He then described the aircraft and other weaponry used by the enemy. This included the MiG 23 which was superior to our fighters. He recalled that one of his young pilots had remarked during a briefing session that what they were being called upon to do was tantamount to playing with a lion's testicles. A somewhat vivid but accurate description!

Gen Lord described the hardships endured by the pilots and ground crews. The heat was particularly unpleasant for the pilots on standby, sitting in their cockpits in full flying gear under the blazing African sun. Very little protection could be provided. While they waited, they must often have thought of the sophisticated enemy weaponry awaiting them. There was the added stress of knowing that, in addition to watching the enemy, they must always remember that they could remain in the battle area for no longer than 2 minutes. The other major disadvantage of the new operation was that they would not be under radar cover because of their distance from their base and the low altitude at which they flew.

Gen Lord praised the pilots and crews of the C130B Hercules aircraft who flew vital supplies into Mavinga at night, using its sandy runway illuminated by hand-held beer cans containing burning paraffin! Despite the hazards they faced, there were no accidents at all during the seven months of the operation. The aircraft would land, taxi down the runway, turn, open their rear cargo ramp, off-load their well-padded cargo without stopping (by means of parachute extraction) and fly back to base.

The bridge over the Cuito River at Cuito Cuanavale was of vital importance to the FAPLA forces deployed to the east of the river and the SADF decided to destroy it during Operation Coolidge. A two man team from 4 Reconnaissance Regiment did the feasibility study and Maj Fred Wilke and his twelve-man team from were sent to blow it up on the night of 25-26 August 1987. Before they could complete their mission, they were detected in the shallow river. Despite heavy enemy small-arms fire and exploding hand grenades which could have caused their explosives to detonate prematurely, the team continued their hazardous work. Shortage of oxygen forced them to withdraw, swimming on the surface, and two of the team were wounded. They were pursued and shot at and during the withdrawal Major Wilke and Staff Sgt Anton Beukman were attacked by crocodiles. Major Wilke had the tip of a flipper bitten off and Staff Sgt Beukman was bitten from behind over the buttocks and lower abdomen but was very lucky to escape from this situation and not incurring fatal injuries. He escaped by stabbing the crocodile in the eye with his knife! All members of the team returned safely to base and were awarded the Honoris Crux medal. Their explosives damaged the bridge but did not destroy it.

A second attempt was made by the SAAF, using a TV-camera-guided H2 glide bomb still in the developmental stage. The bomb was dropped and guided by a Buccaneer aircraft standing off a safe distance from the target. The navigator of the Buccaneer had a monitor which was used to guide the bomb onto its target, by means of a joy-stick control. In this attack the bridge was so badly damaged that it could not be used by armour or heavy vehicles for the rest of the campaign. By showing a real-life video clip of the actual attack, Gen Lord lent so much more impact to the talk.

Gen Lord described the loss of a Bosbok two-seater spotter aircraft and suggested that this may have resulted from the Artillery observer ordering the pilot, a mere Second Lieutenant, to fly into an area fraught with danger, well within range of ground-to-air missiles. He showed colour photographs of the SAAF camouflage colour scheme used during the Border War and explained why the relatively bright yellow colour initially used, was later changed to a more effective and lighter "Sand" scheme.

Although the enemy's aircraft, radar and missiles were superior to the ones used by the SAAF, the SAAF fighters established such a good combat reputation that the enemy pilots were reluctant to engage in aerial combat with them. Gen Lord was of the opinion that they were "nervous"!

He explained the very effective measures take in the offensive against the enemy 47 Brigade. Loudspeakers were used to broadcast demoralising propaganda to the Angolans and this kept them awake during the night. Helium-filled balloons with aluminium strips attached to them were sent up. The aluminium strips created a "blip' - not dissimilar to that of the image of an approaching aircraft - on the Angolan radar sets and many costly missiles were fired at them.

Although the SADF had successfully engaged Russian tanks with their Ratel 90s and armoured cars, they realised that if 47 Brigade was to be decisively defeated, South African Olifant tanks would have to be used.

On 9 November 1987, South African tanks were in action for the first time in 42 years and, within two minutes, two Russian T-55 tanks had been destroyed. But, during Operation Packer, on 23 March 1988, three Olifant tanks were so badly damaged by mines at Tumpo that they could not be recovered and had to be abandoned. This gave the enemy a propaganda victory as they flaunted these as evidence of their victory over South Africa.

Gen Lord showed and compared the detail of the losses suffered by the opposing forces (as contained in the attached table). He noted that the able and popular Cuban commander Gen Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez was executed on trumped-up drug charges on his return to Cuba - hardly the way to treat a victorious military commander and national hero if that is what he really was.

The defeat of FAPLA and the Cuban/Russian forces in Angola was an important setback for the Russian plans to take over South Africa and the Cape Sea Route and also led to the collapse of Communism. The South African victory resulted in the negotiated settlement which ended the war and brought independence to Namibia.

Our vice-chairman, Johan van den Berg, thanked our speaker for an informative and enthralling talk. He reminded Gen Lord that he is the victim of his own doing in that he set a standard of quality that he himself is being judged against. That his talks always attract a good number of members and visitors attest to this fact and the audience's response clearly showed that he lived up to the standards set by himself! The Society also presented him with the customary gift.



We welcome Messrs M Ferreira and D de Villiers who joined our branch in the last month. We wish them a long and happy association with us in the years to come.

We are always interested in new members. If you know of anyone who might be interested in military history or who are interested in joining the Society, please bring them along and suggest to them to join. They will be most welcome. This seems to be the most effective way of attracting new members, if combined with good speakers! We seem to have had some success in this.

Only some 20 members have not yet paid their Subscriptions. Please let us have these as soon as possible. Remember that full members will not receive their copies of the Military History Journal if they have not paid their subscriptions. The June issue of the Journal has already being mailed to paid-up full members.

If any member has a speaker or subject that he or she thinks would be of interest to members, please speak to a committee member and let us know.


Television Series

The TV series on the Border War is currently showing on Sunday evenings at 20:30 on DSTV, Channel 111. This is a very well-produced series and worth watching.