Operation Cabinda

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Operation Argon aka Operation Cabinda
Part of South African Border War
Location Angola
Operation Cabinda is located in Angola
Malongo
Malongo
Luanda
Luanda
Operation Cabinda (Angola)
Objective Raid on Gulf Oil installations
Date 13–21 May 1985

The Operation Argon (sometimes called Cabinda Operation) was a controversial and high-profile military operation carried out by the South African Special Forces ("Recces") during the South African Border War. The aim of the operation was the destruction of the oil facilities at Cabinda Gulf and disrupting the foreign exchange received by Angola from the sale of this oil.[1]

Background[edit]

On 13 May 1985 a South African Navy strike craft carrying a Recce team as well as a back-up team left Saldanha Bay and travelled to a spot some way off the Angolan coast near its border with Zaire. The mission was to confirm the existence of African National Congress (ANC) bases and South-West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) bases near Cabinda. The area contained oil storage installations run by the Angolans and Gulf Oil, and because of this, several large military bases were also in the vicinity. Speculative reports had mentioned U.S. veterans and ex-SAS guarding the installations.

The Recces landed on the coast at night on 20 May following an advance scouting party sent to gather intelligence on the beach where the party would land. Under ideal cloudy skies, the Recce team's trip had been slowed by the need to launch their boats further from shore than anticipated. The longer journey, as well as rough seas, threw off the precise timing of the mission. Near shore, Captain Wynand Du Toit noticed a small fishing vessel in the area of the landing zone and that the occupants were on shore around a fire. This forced the team to wait offshore until the boat left the area. They were now three hours behind schedule, and the danger of being detected grew.

Upon landing the boats were hidden and a rendezvous point set up. The men climbed a bluff and followed a route that skirted a small village and led to a road. They miscalculated the distance to the road and turned back, losing an hour of valuable time. Du Toit decided to continue and reach the lying up position (LUP) in a densely wooded area within the two hours prior to dawn. South African Intelligence and aerial photographs showed an uninhabited area, but in fact it was surrounded by camouflaged People's Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) bases. The hide was finally reached as day broke. This proved to be far from ideal as a hiding place, as it was not part of the jungle, but an island of dense growth some distance from the jungle. The Recces hid in the undergrowth and spread into a defensive perimeter, one man at an observation post several yards to the north with a view of the course they had travelled.

As dawn broke, the features of a well-hidden FAPLA base became clear some 1,000 yards (910 m) from the LUP. A few hours later, a small FAPLA patrol could be seen following the tracks they had left the night before. The team watched as the patrol withdrew, and then came back with a larger patrol which passed the hide. At 17.00 a three-men patrol followed the team's trail directly to the thicket where the Recces were hidden. They stopped short of entering the brush, and returned to their base. Meanwhile a second patrol approached the hide from the other direction, and opened up heavy fire on the hidden position. As rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) struck their position, Captain Du Toit ordered the withdrawal of his troops. They had no choice but to double back on the trail that brought them to this position the previous night. Two of the men were wounded as they exited the trees. FAPLA troops deployed 50 yards (46 m) west of the site opened up with RPD machine guns, RPG and many AK-47s. The team turned north, pursued by FAPLA soldiers. Another group of Angolan soldiers advanced from the west, flanking the Recces so that they could only go east now. They could see a group of trees, but needed to cross 40 yards (37 m) of waist-high grass to get to this cover. Du Toit took two men and made his way through the grass as the rest of the team hid in the thicket. The small team drew fire as over 30 troops moved onto the exposed position. One Recce, Corporal Rowland Liebenberg, was killed as his two comrades fought on. The fighting continued for a full 45 minutes. The two men started to run out of ammunition and were both wounded, Sergeant Louis van Breda later died and Du Toit nearly so.

The contact was over and two South African soldiers were dead. While Du Toit lay on his stomach, FAPLA soldiers approached and, thinking he was also dead, stripped his equipment – only then did they realise he was alive and shot him again through the neck. He remained awake with wounds in his neck, shoulder and arm as the FAPLA soldiers began to savagely beat him. The soldiers thought that he was a mercenary, though Du Toit tried to explain that he was in fact a South African Army officer. After being severely roughed up, he was finally taken to Cabinda for medical treatment then to a Luanda hospital. The remaining six Recce soldiers carefully made their way north, where they regrouped and were eventually picked up to be returned safely to South Africa. Their escape was due in part to being ignored after the Angolans captured Du Toit.

Aftermath[edit]

Captain Wynand du Toit was finally to be released in 7 September 1987 after some 837 days of solitary confinement in an Angolan prison in a complicated prisoner exchange arrangement. The exchange took place in Maputo, Mozambique were Du Toit was swapped for two ANC members and a 133 Angolan soldiers.[2]

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