South African Military History Society

NEWSLETTER -- APRIL1996

Owing to unforseen circumstances, the curtain raiser scheduled for the 14th March meeting did not materialise.

This did not, however, spoil the evening for those members attending because the main lecture, Portugal's War in Angola, delivered by Dr W S van der Waals, formerly Brigadier, was comprehensive, informative and thoroughly enjoyable.

Van der Waals is a former infantry officer and paratrooper who was seconded to the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1970 and served as South Africa's vice consul in Luanda until 1973. Later, when the Portugeso empire had collapsed and the insurgency had developed into a civil war, he served as an adviser to Unita leader Jonas Savimbi.

During his military career he embodied his experiences and researches in a doctoral thesis, and after his retirement in 1992 he published his book, Portugal's War in Angola 1961-1974, now occasionally on sale at CNA and other leading bookshops and soon to be published in Portugese.

In 1951, when the post-war dissolution of the West's colonial empires was beginning to gather momentum, Portugal defied the trend by changing the status of its colonies to that of provinces of the home country. In the next 10 years considerable economic development took place, particularly in resources-rich Angola, and a large number of white settlers flooded into the country.

This was the "Golden Age" of Portugese African history. National development plans were implemented with vigour. New roads, factories, railways, airports and harbours were built, and Angola became Portugal's prize possession.

While turmoil was growing in the rest of Africa, Angola and Mozambique had become veritable havens of peace and prosperity by 1961, when insurgency in Angola began. It was prompted partly by the spirit of independence from colonial rule that was growing throughout the world in the wake of World War Two, but mainly by discontent among native Angolans at the continued rigidities of Portugese rule.

The storm broke on 4th February 1961 in Luanda when an attempt was made at urban insurrection. It was followed on 15th March by the bloody Bacongo incident in northern Angola, after which armed insurgency rapidly spread throughout the eastern regions. The two main "liberation" movements were the FNLA, which acquired a monopoly of bases in Zaire, and the MPLA, which was subsequently based in Zambia and also enjoyed strong support in the region around the capital city of Luanda.

A third movement, Unita, was confined to the centre of the country, with no foreign base and, initially, little popular support.

Portugal recovered quickly from its initial shock and its reaction was both adequate and highly effective. At the height of the war, and per head of its population, Portugal's military commitment to Angola easily exceeded that of the USA in Vietnam. Moreover, its troops, although mostly conscripts, were well equipped and competently led.

The FNLA was unable to make headway owing partly to the spirited resistance of the Portugese and partly to the deep tribal divisions among the population from which it was recruiting. Finally its efforts petered out altogether and its leaders retreated to the comparative comfort of their bases in Zaire.

Communist support was concentrated on the MPLA which, although remaining strong in the Luanda area, was unable to turn its seasonal incursions into eastern Angola from Zambia into permanent occupation. UNITA was still confined to its base in the middle of the country and offered no effective resistance.

By 1974, therefore, the Portugese had virtually won the military war and were facing little resistance from a population that was largely indifferent to the outcome.

However, the extent of Portugal's military effort in its overseas provinces, coupled with the growing divisions and dissensions in governing circles in Lisbon, had come to impose unbearable strains on the country's political fabric. Also, important factions in the military were becoming disaffected. Particularly destructive was the bad feeling that developed between the professional officers and their junior conscript colleagues, many of whom were straight from university and had developed left-wing leanings.

The publication of General Antonio de Spinola's book "Portugal e o Futuro" in early 1974 served as the spark in the tinder box.

The collapse began in April 1974 when it became obvious that the war in Portugese Guinea could not be won. After the military coup of that year Angola's future became uncertain, and in the November President Francisco da Costa Gomes, formerly commander-in-chief in Angola, and the man who had virtually completed the Portugese military victory there, ordered the country to be left to its fate. Twenty years of bloody civil war were to follow.

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NEW ZEALAND ARMY DISTINGUISHING PATCHES 1911-1991. This book, co-authored by Malcolm Thomas and Cliff Lord is in two parts available only as a set from P.O. Box 12328 Thorndon, Wellington, NZ. It contains more than 1 500 photographs, illustrations and diagrams. Price is NZ$89.95 plus six dollars postage and packing. Cheques should be made payable to Malcolm Thomas.

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Grant Christison, of Grant Christison Books, publishers of books on all aspects of Africana including military history, would like it to be known that he is willing to send any society member a free copy of his catalogue on request. His address is P.O. Box 100245, Scottsville, 3209, or tele: 0331 64745, or fax; 0331 68809

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The one-day tour of the western buttress of Kommando Nek and the four forts of Klein (Pampoen) Nek, which was announced in the March newsletter, is scheduled for 28th April. It will start at 08h00 at Lincolnshire Lodge, new home of the Copleys, and finish there around noon. Details and directions can be obtained from the Copleys on 01211-30496.

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COMING LECTURES

Johannesburg:

11th April
Annual General Meeting
ML - Marjorie Dean - The Battle of Culloden, 1746

9th May
CR - Louis Wiidenboer - General Erwin Rommel
ML - Terry Leaver - Battle for Crete, May 1941

Durban

11th April
Dr Bisley - German U-boats off the Natalcoast in WWII

Cape Town

11th April
Maj H Heitman - SAs Angolan Campaign

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George Barrell
(Scribe):

(011) 787-1524


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