Battle of Cuito Cuanavale

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Battle of Cuito Cuanavale
Part of the Angolan Civil War
and the South African Border War
Battle of Cuito Cuanavale is located in Angola
Cuito Cuanavale
Cuito Cuanavale
Battle of Cuito Cuanavale (Angola)
DateIntermittently between 14 August 1987[2] – 23 March 1988[1]
(7 months, 1 week and 2 days)
15°09′50″S 19°10′23″E / 15.16389°S 19.17306°E / -15.16389; 19.17306Coordinates: 15°09′50″S 19°10′23″E / 15.16389°S 19.17306°E / -15.16389; 19.17306
Cuito Cuanavale, Angola
  • South Africa and UNITA defeat a major FAPLA offensive towards Mavinga, inflicting heavy casualties on FAPLA and preserving UNITA's control of southern Angola.
  • Remaining FAPLA units survive a South African and UNITA mopping-up attack near the Tumpo River.
  • Withdrawal over several months of most South African and UNITA troops from Cuito Cuanavale under Operation Displace[4]
  • Round One of Tripartite Accord talks commences[1]

National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)

South Africa South Africa

Angola People's Republic of Angola

Cuba Cuba

South West African People's Organisation

African National Congress

Commanders and leaders
Arlindo Pena Ben-Ben
Abreu Kamorteiro
Demosthenes Amos Chilingutila
South Africa Magnus Malan
South Africa Andreas Liebenberg
South Africa Deon Ferreira
South Africa Piet Muller
António França
Soviet Union Petr Gusev
Cuba Ulises Rosales del Toro
Cuba Arnaldo Ochoa
Cuba Leopoldo Cintra Frías
28,000 militants[5]
37,000 irregulars[5]
24+ T-55 tanks[5]
South Africa:
700 combat troops[1]
(later up to 3,000)[6]
13 Olifant tanks[4]
120 Ratel infantry fighting vehicles[4]
1 battery of Valkiri[4]
2 batteries of G5 howitzers[4]
1 troop of G6 howitzers[4]
12 multirole fighter aircraft[4]
4 bomber aircraft[4]

6,000 combat troops[1]
(later up to 18,000)[5]
150 T-55/62 tanks[1]
~97 BRDM-2 scout cars[1][6]
80+ armoured personnel carriers[5]
~43 BM-21 Grad[1][6]
96 multirole fighter aircraft[4]
8 bomber aircraft[4]
300 advisory personnel[1]
3,000 combat troops (February, 1988)[1][7]
32 T-55/62 tanks[8]

Auxiliary support
  • Soviet Union:
    1,000 advisory personnel[2]
  • East Germany:
    2,000 advisory personnel[2]
  • PLAN:
    7,000 guerrillas[1]
  • MK:
    900 guerrillas[1]
Casualties and losses
3,000 dead[5][9]
 South Africa:
86 dead
90 wounded[10]
5 tanks lost (2 recovered)[2]
5 Ratels lost[2]
6 other armoured vehicles lost[4]
2 aircraft shot down
1 aircraft crashed[4]
4,768 dead[6]
10,000+ wounded[5]
94 tanks lost[2]
65 APCs lost[6]
12 aircraft shot down[5]
42 soldiers dead[7]
7 pilots dead[3]
3 pilots POW[3]
70 wounded (UNITA claim)[5]
6 tanks lost[1]
6 aircraft shot down[3]
 Soviet Union:
3-4 dead[11][5]
31 wounded (UNITA claim)[5]

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale was fought intermittently between 14 August 1987 and 23 March 1988, south and east of the town of Cuito Cuanavale, Angola, by the People's Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) and advisors and soldiers from Cuba, USSR, Vietnam, ANC and SWAPO against South Africa, and soldiers of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) during the Angolan Civil War and South African Border War. The battle was the largest engagement of the Angolan conflict and the biggest conventional battle on the African continent since World War II.[12] UNITA and its South African allies defeated a major FAPLA offensive towards Mavinga, preserving the former's control of southern Angola. They proceeded to launch a bloody but inconclusive counteroffensive on FAPLA defensive positions around the Tumpo River east of Cuito Cuanavale.

Following a number of failed attempts to take the settlements in 1986, eight FAPLA brigades mustered for a final offensive—Operação Saludando Octubre—in August 1987 with extensive auxiliary support from one of Angola's closest military allies, the Soviet Union.[13] The FAPLA offensive took the form of a two-pronged, multi-divisional movement southwards towards Mavinga, a major UNITA stronghold and logistics centre.[13] Once Mavinga was in its hands, FAPLA intended to expel the remaining insurgents from Moxico Province and pave the way for a final assault on the UNITA headquarters at Jamba.[13] The Soviet Union supplied FAPLA with over a billion dollars' worth of new military hardware for the purpose of this offensive, and between 4 and 9 Soviet advisers were attached to each FAPLA unit on the brigade level.[14]

South Africa, which shared a common border with Angola through the contested territory of South West Africa (Namibia), was then determined to prevent FAPLA from gaining control of Mavinga and allowing insurgents of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) to operate in the region.[15] Saludando Octubre prompted the South African Defence Force (SADF) to underpin the defence of Mavinga and launch Operation Moduler with the objective of stopping FAPLA's advance. After weeks of preliminary skirmishes, the two armies met at the Lomba River on 6 September.[16] Throughout September and October, the SADF repulsed several FAPLA attempts to cross the Lomba and destroyed most of the latter's vital bridging equipment.[13] Repeated counterattacks by the SADF's 61 Mechanised Battalion Group resulted in the annihilation of FAPLA's 47 Brigade and the loss of its remaining bridgeheads, sending the remainder of the FAPLA units reeling back towards Cuito Cuanavale.[17][18]

During the second phase of the campaign, the SADF and UNITA made several unsuccessful attempts to encircle and destroy the surviving FAPLA forces before they could establish new defensive positions east of Cuito Cuanavale, an initiative known as Operation Hooper.[19] However, FAPLA succeeded in concentrating its forces within a cramped perimeter between the Cuito, Tumpo, and Dala rivers known as the "Tumpo Triangle".[13] Here they were protected by the terrain and by extensive minefields. They were also reinforced by a number of Cuban armoured and motorised units, who had become more directly committed to the fighting for the first time since the beginning of Cuba's military intervention in Angola in 1975.[20] The SADF and UNITA launched six heavy assaults on the Tumpo Triangle under the auspices of Operation Packer, inflicting serious casualties on FAPLA. Despite suffering significant losses, the defending FAPLA and Cuban troops held their lines in the Tumpo Triangle.[21] The SADF and UNITA disengaged in March 1988, after laying a series of minefields southeast of Cuito Cuanavale to dissuade a renewed FAPLA offensive.[21]

Both sides claimed victory.[22][23] The Cuban and FAPLA defenders had interpreted the SADF's Tumpo Triangle campaign as part of a larger effort to seize the town of Cuito Cuanavale itself and presented their stand there as a successful defensive action.[21] The SADF maintained that it had achieved its basic objectives of halting the FAPLA offensive during the Lomba River campaign without needing to occupy Cuito Cuanavale, which would have entailed unacceptable losses to its expeditionary force.[24][25][16]

Today, the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale is credited by some with ushering in the first round of trilateral negotiations, mediated by the United States, which secured the withdrawal of Cuban and South African troops from Angola and Namibia by 1991.[26]


Soviet advisers planning military operations in Angola, early 1980s

The Angolan Civil War played out against the backdrop of the Cold War struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States. Both superpowers tried to influence the outcome of the civil war through proxies.

For 13 years until 1974, three armed groups fought for Angola's independence from Portugal: the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) (with its armed wing FAPLA), led by Agostinho Neto; the conservative National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA), led by Holden Roberto and supported by Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaïre; and UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi.

After the Carnation Revolution of April 1974 in Portugal, the new revolutionary government of Portugal let go of Portugal's African overseas possessions, including Angola. The Treaty of Alvor comprised a series of agreements between the three rebel factions and Portugal that were to pave the way to independence. Under its terms, a transitional government was formed, elections were scheduled for the end of the year, and 11 November 1975 was slated as Angola's independence day. Fighting between the three rebel factions started soon after the transitional government took office on 31 January 1975, with each movement gaining control of their traditional areas of influence by mid-1975: the MPLA in the capital and central Angola, the FNLA in the north and UNITA in the south.[27] The FNLA was defeated in the 1970s and the struggle for control continued between the Soviet-backed MPLA forces and the United States- and South African-backed UNITA movement. The MPLA government of Angola and SWAPO were supported by Cuba, the Soviet Union, and other communist states, while UNITA and FNLA were supported by capitalist states (albeit clandestinely), foremost among them the United States and South Africa.[28]

Between 1975 and 1976 Cuban and South African troops participated in the fighting on behalf of the MPLA and UNITA, respectively. According to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the presence of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces in Angola was in accordance with an "internationalist mission" to combat colonialism and "defend [Angolan] independence".[29] For its part, South Africa perceived Cuban and Soviet interference with the Angolan conflict as an example of regional communist expansionism.[30]

After the Cubans had helped the MPLA gain power in 1975 they considered it necessary to stay in the country until conditions stabilized. The Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries supplied FAPLA with armament, advisors, and specialized technical staff. UNITA managed, with South African and US support, to continue posing a military threat to the MPLA government. UNITA received backing from the US, most notably in the form of Stinger missiles that helped repel the air superiority of the FAPLA forces.[31] South Africa also provided UNITA with arms and training.[5]

South Africa had governed South West Africa (Namibia) under an expired League of Nations mandate since annexing the territory from the German Empire during World War I.[32] In 1966, the South West African Liberation Army (later known as the People's Liberation Army of Namibia) launched an armed struggle to free the territory from South African rule.[33] Following the MPLA's ascension to power, SWAPO gained its support and began operating from sanctuaries inside Angola.[34]

The South African government's strategic concern was thus to ensure continued UNITA control over regions bordering South West Africa, so as to prevent the SWAPO guerrillas from receiving Angolan support and gaining a springboard in southern Angola from which to launch attacks into South West Africa. Its security strategy was shaped by the doctrines of pre-emptive interventionism and counter-revolutionary warfare. Following the South African Operation Protea in August 1981, in which it temporarily occupied 50,000 square kilometres (19,000 sq mi) of Cunene province, UNITA took effective administrative control of most of Cunene in January 1982.[35]

Operação Saludando Octubre/Operation Greeting October[edit]

Because of the UNITA insurgency, the central government never managed to gain control of the whole country; UNITA had control of much of southeastern Angola. Whenever it was threatened, South Africa intervened on its behalf. South Africa kept the whole southern border in Angola and at times up to 50,000 km2 (19,000 sq mi) of Cunene province occupied and conducted invasions and raids into the country.[35]

In 1987, as part of the Angolan government campaign against UNITA and for the control of south-eastern Angola, the Angolan army launched campaign Operação Saludando Octubre to drive UNITA forces from their stronghold cities of Mavinga (a former Portuguese military base) and Jamba in the southeast of the country, north of the Caprivi Strip.[18] As in previous campaigns, planning and leadership was taken over by the Soviets and the higher ranks in the units were taken over by Soviet officers. Major-General Ryabchenko would command the Angolan forces in the battle.[36][unreliable source?] Soviet command did not include the Cuban forces in Angola and the Cubans initially did not engage in combat but took over support functions.[37] FAPLA's equipment was upgraded, including 150 T-55 tanks and Mi-24 helicopters. The Soviets dismissed the advice of the Cubans, as in the campaigns before, who warned that the operation would create another opportunity for a South African intervention. It was decided to commence the attack from Cuito Cuanavale.

Taking notice of the massive military build-up, South Africa warned UNITA. The Angolan campaign was initially successful and made considerable gains into southeastern Angola. The South African government became aware that UNITA would not be able to withstand the onslaught. On 15 June it decided to intervene and authorised covert support.[38] On 4 August 1987 the SADF launched Operation Moduler which was to stop the Angolan advance on Mavinga to prevent a rout of UNITA. The SADF 61 Mechanized Battalion crossed into Angola from their base at the border town of Rundu.

Objectives and outcomes[edit]

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale was part of the Angolan Civil War, itself a proxy war in the Cold War.[39] The FAPLA strategic objective was to destroy UNITA, win the civil war and thus take sole control of the entire country. As part of that process FAPLA brigades advanced south-east from Cuito Cuanavale to attack UNITA at Mavinga.

The South African strategic objective was to prevent SWAPO from using southern Angola to launch attacks into South West Africa. To achieve this the SADF supported UNITA in southern Angola, and when FAPLA advanced from Cuito Cuanavale to attack UNITA at Mavinga, the SADF intervened to protect UNITA by stopping that advance.

The FAPLA attack was comprehensively smashed by the SADF intervention, with FAPLA and its Cuban allies suffering heavy casualties. The SADF objective was thus achieved, in that the FAPLA advance was halted outside Cuito Cuanavale, and was abandoned shortly thereafter.[17] The Cuban/Angolan objective was thereafter reduced to securing the town of Cuito Cuanavale on the west of the river from capture.[17][18] The SADF had a political imperative to avoid casualties wherever possible. There was never an attempt made to capture the town of Cuito Cuanavale, and the SADF had orders to avoid the town unless it fell into their hands without a fight.[24][25][16]

Although the SADF achieved its objective of stopping the advance and protecting UNITA, FAPLA/Cuba also claimed victory in the battle.[23] In a speech to the Cuban people delivered while visiting Cuba in 1991, Nelson Mandela repeatedly reiterated this view, and claimed that the battle of Cuito Cuanavale "marked an important step in the struggle to free the continent and our country of the scourge of apartheid."[40] This perspective locates the outcome of the battle within the context of the withdrawal of the SADF from Angola and the independence of Angola.[20]

The Battle opened the window of opportunity for a negotiated settlement in South Africa as well as the implementation of UN Resolution 435 that brought independence to Namibia.[39] It was thus a strategic watershed event with regional and even global significance.

The UNITA strategic objective was to survive, and ultimately to rule the country. They succeeded in surviving, and they continue to contest elections, but have never won a parliamentary majority.


Also known as the Battle of the Lomba River, this battle took place near the town of Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola. To the South African Defence Force it took the form of four phases, which ran consecutively as a single overall battle. These were:

  1. Operation Moduler – The aim of which was to halt and reverse the FAPLA advance on the UNITA strongholds of Mavinga and Jamba.
  2. Operation Hooper – The aim of which was to inflict maximum casualties on the retreating FAPLA forces after they had been halted, to ensure there were no further attempts to resume the advance.
  3. Operation Packer – The aim of which was to force the FAPLA forces to retreat to the west of the Cuito River, and to provide UNITA with a sustainable self-defence.
  4. Operation Displace – The aim of which was to maintain a deterrence to any resumed advance against UNITA, while the bulk of the troops and equipment were withdrawn.

Operation Moduler[edit]

Angolan Air Force MiG-21

On 4 August 1987 the SADF launched Operation Moduler, which was to stop the Angolan advance on Mavinga to prevent a rout of UNITA. The SADF 61 Mechanized Battalion crossed into Angola from their base at the border town of Rundu.

In August FAPLA's 16th, 21st (both light infantry), 47th (armoured) and 59th (mechanized) brigades, about 6,000 men and 80 tanks plus artillery and support vehicles, departed from Cuito Cuanavale to cross the Lomba River. They received air support from the airbase at Menongue, including MiG 23s deployed in ground attacks.[14] Four more brigades were kept to defend Cuito Cuanavale and its approaches.[41]

Facing them were the UNITA forces composed of the 3rd Regular, 5th Regular, 13th Semi-Regular and 275th Special Forces Battalions,[42] supported by about 1,000 SADF troops with armoured vehicles and artillery. On 28 August FAPLA reached the northern banks of the Lomba River en route to Mavinga, where they were engaged by the SADF.

Map of the FAPLA offensive

In a series of bitter fights[43] between 9 September and 7 October, SADF and UNITA achieved their primary objective of preventing the FAPLA from crossing the river. The Soviets withdrew their advisors and left the FAPLA without senior leadership, and FAPLA forces crumbled and ran. FAPLA suffered heavy losses, with all four brigades losing about 60–70% of their strength. Throughout the battle, FAPLA had lost 1059 dead and 2118 wounded, along with 61 tanks, 83 armoured vehicles and 20 rocket launchers. The SADF lost 17 killed and 41 wounded, plus 5 armoured vehicles. The SADF also captured a highly sophisticated SA-8 anti-aircraft missile system – the first time the weapon had fallen into western hands.[44] The Angolan army headed into a retreat over 190 km back to Cuito Cuanavale, which it desperately held on to.[45]

Chester Crocker, who was the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during the Reagan Administration, said that: "In some of the bloodiest battles of the entire civil war, a combined force of some 8,000 UNITA fighters and 4,000 SADF troops not only destroyed one FAPLA brigade but badly damaged several others out of a total FAPLA force of some 18,000 engaged in the three-pronged offensive. Estimates of FAPLA losses ranged upward of 4,000 killed and wounded….Large quantities of Soviet equipment were destroyed or fell into UNITA and SADF hands when FAPLA broke into a disorganized retreat... The 1987 military campaign represented a stunning humiliation for the Soviet Union, its arms and its strategy. ... As of mid-November, the UNITA/SADF force had destroyed the Cuito Cuanavale airfield and pinned down thousands of FAPLA's best remaining units clinging onto the town's defensive perimeters."[46]

On 29 September, South African and UNITA forces, having gained the upper hand, launched a counter-attack. The objective was to inflict a crushing blow to the FAPLA, so that they would not consider another offensive in the following year.[24] The restrictions previously placed on the SADF by their political masters were lightened, and the SADF committed tanks for the first time. The 4th SA Infantry Battalion was added to the mix, bringing the SADF strength up to about 3,000 men – the biggest of the entire campaign.[47]

During this phase the SADF units were supported by heavy artillery and air strikes. The airstrip at Cuito Cuanavale was extensively bombarded, causing the Cubans to withdraw their aircraft to Menongue and to abandon the Cuanavale airstrip.[47]

The SADF tactics were based closely on the tactics used by the German commander Erwin Rommel in World War 2, when he crushed the British at Gazala.[48]

Map of the South African - UNITA counteroffensive

On 9 November the SADF attacked the FAPLA 16th brigade. Air strikes and artillery were used, and tanks went into battle alongside the armoured vehicles. UNITA infantry also participated. The 16th brigade was mauled, and withdrew in disarray back across the river. The battle ended after half a day, when the SADF vehicles ran low on ammunition and broke off the attack. FAPLA had 10 tanks destroyed and 3 captured, various artillery pieces destroyed or captured, and 75 men killed. The SADF had 7 killed and 9 wounded, plus one armoured vehicle destroyed, one damaged and a tank damaged.[49]

The second attack, on 11 November, again targeted the 16th brigade. Again 16th brigade escaped annihilation by crossing the river, but this time they lost 14 tanks and 394 men. The SADF had 5 men killed and 19 more wounded, with 2 armoured vehicles destroyed and one tank damaged.[50] The recovery, under fire, of a crippled tank and the subsequent re-entry of a minefield where the tank was extracted from to rescue a wounded soldier, earned Captain Petrus van Zyl and Lieutenant De Villers Vosloo of 32 Battalion both Honoris Crux decorations.[51]

The FAPLA 21st brigade withdrew rapidly across the river, and was pursued. On 17 November they were engaged again, and suffered 131 casualties, along with 9 tanks destroyed and about 300 other vehicles. The SADF suffered 6 casualties and 19 wounded, plus 4 armoured vehicles. A final attack on 25 November bogged down in heavy bush, and was eventually abandoned.[52]

Operation Moduler achieved the objective of halting the FAPLA advance against UNITA, and inflicted heavy losses on FAPLA.

Operation Hooper[edit]

South African Ratel-90 combat vehicle. Its large cannon allowed it to be employed against FAPLA T-54/55 tanks at Cuito Cuanavale.

By November, the SADF had cornered the remnants of three FAPLA units on the east of the Cuito River, across from the town itself and was poised to destroy them.[20] The quite demoralised 59th FAPLA motorised infantry brigade, 21st and 25th FAPLA light infantry brigades, in positions near Tumpo and east of the Cuito River, were effectively cut off due to SADF artillery control of both the bridge and airstrip and to UNITA guerrilla control of the road from Menongue, which they had mined and were prepared to ambush.[53][54] With no functioning armour or artillery remaining, the FAPLA units faced annihilation.[55]

On 15 November, the Angolan government requested urgent military assistance from Cuba. In Fidel Castro's view, a South African victory would have meant not only the capture of Cuito and the destruction of the best Angolan military formations, but, quite probably, the end of Angola's existence as an independent country. Thus, Castro responded immediately by sending – in what was called "Maniobra XXXI Aniversario de las FAR" — materiel and 15,000 elite troops, retaking the initiative from the Soviets.[54] The first Cuban reinforcements in Cuito arrived by helicopter on 5 December with about 160[56]–200[57] technicians, advisers, officers, and special forces.[58]

General Arnaldo Ochoa, a veteran of the 1976 Angola campaign and of tank battles in Ethiopia, was made overall commander of the forces on the government side. Ochoa and Castro were to have serious disagreements in the conduct of the war in Angola. These tensions were to have repercussions both during the war where Castro's interference with defence plans may have cost the Cubans dozens of lives[59] and in the aftermath of Angolan hostilities a year later when Ochoa was arrested, tried and executed by firing squad after being found guilty of treason.[60] General Cintras Frias was made commander at Cuito Cuanavale. The Cuban's initial priority was securing Cuito Cuanavale, but while reinforcements were arriving at the besieged garrison they made preparations for a second front to the west of Cuito Cuanavale in Lubango where the SADF had been operating unhindered for 8 years.[61][62]

On 25 November the UN Security Council demanded the SADF's unconditional withdrawal from Angola by 10 December, yet, without threatening any sanctions.[63][64]

The SADF units received fresh troops and equipment, but the units were reduced to about 2,000 men and 24 tanks for the rest of the operation. The new arrivals had to be acclimatised first. The SADF objective was defined as being to destroy the enemy east of the river or at least to drive them back across the river, inflicting maximum casualties but suffering minimum losses of their own. The river crossings were to be fortified and handed over to UNITA, and the SADF were to withdraw from Angola as soon as that was achieved. The order was that the town of Cuito Cuanavale would not be attacked unless it fell into SADF hands almost without a fight.[25][16]

The bombardment started on 2 January 1988, with a mix of artillery and air strikes, and a UNITA infantry attack that failed. On 3 January the SADF destroyed the important bridge across the Cuito River using a Raptor glide bomb.[65][66][67] The Cubans managed to construct a wooden footbridge in its place which they baptised Patria o Muerte (fatherland or death).[68] They partly buried disabled tanks so that their turrets could be used as fixed artillery pieces.[69]

32 Battalion and elements of other units harried the road convoys for weeks, destroying several hundred tanks and other vehicles, and inflicting an unknown number of casualties.[70]

FAPLA or Cuban T-55 tank. A number engaged a force of Olifant Mk1As in the counter-attack against SADF advance units on 14 February.

On 13 January the SADF attacked the 21st brigade, starting with air strikes and artillery bombardments. Over two days the FAPLA unit was driven out of their positions, and lost 7 tanks with 5 more captured, various other vehicles destroyed and captured, and 150 men dead or captured. UNITA lost 4 dead and 18 wounded, and the SADF had one man wounded and one armoured vehicle damaged.[71] However the SADF was again unable to exploit the momentum, due to a shortage of reserves and supplies. UNITA occupied the captured positions, and the SADF withdrew, but UNITA lost the positions later to a FAPLA counter-attack. A large Cuban and FAPLA column was on the way from Menongue for the relief of Cuito Cuanavale, but progress in the rainy season was slow due to the need to clear the UNITA minefields and guard against possible ambushes. They did not reach Cuito Cuanavale in time to take part in the first engagement.[53]

The next attack was only on 14 February, against the positions of 21st brigade that UNITA had lost, and the neighbouring positions of the 59th brigade. They were counter-attacked by Cuban tanks. Both 21st brigade and 59th brigade were forced to withdraw. The FAPLA lost 500 men and a further 32 Cuban soldiers, along with 15 tanks and 11 armoured vehicles. The SADF had 4 killed and 11 wounded, plus some vehicles damaged.[72] FAPLA withdrew to the Tumpo (river) triangle, a smaller area east of the river and across from Cuito Cuanavale. The terrain was ideally suited to defence, and they laid extensive minefields.

In a skirmish on 19 February a FAPLA position was disrupted, and it resulted in the FAPLA 59th brigade being withdrawn across the river. However the SADF had two vehicles damaged in the minefield. In the following days the Cubans stepped up their air attacks against South African positions. On 25 February another assault on the bridgehead ran into a minefield, and bogged down. FAPLA lost 172 men, plus 10 Cubans, and 6 tanks. The SADF lost 4 killed and 10 wounded, plus several vehicles damaged. However the bridgehead survived, and the objective of driving the enemy across the river had still not been achieved.[73]

This concluded Operation Hooper.

Operation Packer[edit]

Fresh troops and equipment were brought in, designated 82 Mechanised brigade of the 7th South African Infantry Division, and yet another attempt was made on 23 March to drive the FAPLA back across the bridge. Once again it bogged down in minefields. Although the SADF suffered no losses, UNITA was taking heavy casualties, and the assault "was brought to a grinding and definite halt".[20][61][74] Artillery fire was mounting and air attacks were intense, so to avoid casualties the attack was called off. Several damaged SADF tanks were abandoned in the minefield, and were subsequently captured by the Cubans. This provided a huge propaganda victory for Castro.[75][76] The SADF equipment, men and supplies were exhausted, and the SADF command determined that destroying the small FAPLA force remaining on the eastern bank of the river was not worth further casualties. The objective of protecting UNITA was deemed to have been achieved, and Operation Packer ended.[77]

There was no actual battle at Cuito Cuanavale itself. The SADF never launched a major attack on the town, and the Cuban defenders never attempted to counter-attack and drive the SADF away from the town. The Cubans did however succeed in establishing air superiority over the area with their new Russian aircraft, and the defenders did manage to hold onto a bridgehead east of the town, with the aid of extensive minefields.[78] After the comprehensive defeat of their attack on UNITA, and seven months of heavy losses, FAPLA and the Cubans claimed victory.

Operation Displace[edit]

Rear view of a G5 howitzer.

A small SADF force continued to harry the FAPLA in the Tumpo region, to create the impression that the full force was still present, and to prevent the FAPLA from resuming their advance against UNITA. For months it continued to shell Cuito Cuanavale and the airstrip across the river using their long-range G-5 artillery from a distance of 30 to 40 km.[61][74][79][80][81][82] This continued until the end of August, after which all SADF troops returned to South West Africa.[83][84]

The Cuito airstrip was kept in repair, but since it was under constant observation by the SADF artillery and air force it could not be safely used by fixed wing aircraft.[85]


The SADF used a mix of British, French, Israeli, captured Soviet and domestically developed weaponry. Their allies, UNITA used a mix of Soviet and South African-supplied weaponry. The United States covertly supplied UNITA guerillas with Stingers for anti-aircraft defence.[86] The South Africans were hampered by United Nations Security Council Resolution 418, an international arms embargo that prevented them from acquiring material such as modern aircraft.[87] The Cubans and FAPLA were armed with Soviet weaponry.


Before and during the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, US-brokered peace negotiations were in progress to remove all foreign belligerents from Angola. This was linked to the attempt to secure independence for Namibia. After the battles all sides resumed negotiations.[88]

Eventually Cuban troop strength in Angola increased to about 55,000, with 40,000 deployed in the south. Due to the international arms embargo since 1977, South Africa's aging air force was outclassed by sophisticated Soviet-supplied air defence systems and air-strike capabilities fielded by the Cubans and Angolans and it was unable to uphold the air supremacy it had enjoyed for years; its loss in turn proved to be critical to the outcome of the battle on the ground.[89]

While negotiations continued, Cuban, FAPLA and SWAPO units under General Cintras Frías opened a second front to the west at Lubango with a force of 40,000 Cuban troops and 30,000 Angolan forces,[90][91] and with support from MiG-23 fighter bombers. Various engagements took place over the next three months, starting near Calueque on 15 March 1988. This eventually gave rise to Operation Excite/Hilti and Operation Displace, in which skirmishes took place in Donguena, Xangongo, Techipa and other cities. The battles in the Southwest front ended on 27 June when Cuban MiG-23s bombed Calueque Dam, causing the last South African loss of life in the conflict when they killed 12 soldiers from 8 SAI. Just before the air attack over Calueque, a heavy combat happened in the area when 3 columns of the FAPLA/FAR forces advanced towards Calueque dam. SADF forces, composed of regulars, 32 Bn and SWATF troops, halted the Cuban offensive inflicting approximately 300 casualties among the enemy forces.

The Cubans claimed to have killed 20 SADF troops, but the clash discouraged the Cubans from undertaking further ground engagements. On 8 June 1988, the South African government issued call-ups to 140,000 men of the Citizen Force reserves, however when hostilities ceased the call-up was cancelled. Following the battles the South Africans recognised that further confrontation with the Cubans would unnecessarily escalate the conflict and with all risks considered then retired the combat groups still operating in Angola back to Namibia. On the other side, the Cubans were shocked at the heavy casualties suffered and placed their forces on maximum alert awaiting a revenge attack from the South Africans, which never came. With the withdrawal of the SADF into Namibia on 27 June (The SWATF, 701Bn, A-Coy, Platoons 1 and 2, who were dug in, in defensive positions on the hills North East of Calueque, finally withdrew over the small lower, Calueque bridge on 29 June, and at Ruacana the last elements, 32Bn and tanks, withdrew on 30 June) the hostilities ceased,[92] and a formal peace treaty was signed at Ruacana on 22 August 1988. A peace accord, mediated by Chester Crocker, was finally signed on 22 December 1988 in New York, leading to the withdrawal of all foreign belligerents and to the independence of Namibia.


The battle was tactically inconclusive, but both sides declared victory. FAPLA and its Cuban allies declared victory because they were able to hold their defenses around Cuito Cuanavale. UNITA and its South African allies declared victory because the initial FAPLA offensive had been shattered and the participating enemy brigades had suffered immense losses which could not be easily replaced.

Fidel Castro claimed that "the overwhelming victory at Cuito Cuanavale...put an end to outside military aggression against [Angola]," asserting that South Africa had suffered such a catastrophic setback as a result of the battle that it "had to swallow its usual arrogant bullying and sit down at the negotiating table".[93] On a visit to Cuba, Nelson Mandela told the Cuban people that the FAPLA-Cuban "success" at Cuito Cuanavale was "a turning point for the liberation of our continent and my people" as well as the Angolan civil war and the struggle for Namibian independence.[94]

Soviet foreign policy expert Peter Vanneman stated that no decisive victory was won by either side.[95] In his analysis of the campaign, Fen Osler Hampson, Director of Global Security Research at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, concurred with this perspective.[34] Hampson asserted that "although there was no decisive battle at Cuito Cuanavale, Cuban president Fidel Castro successfully exploited the situation for propaganda purposes".[34] Hampson criticised Cuban sources for painting the battle as a single decisive engagement, asserting instead that the battle was better described as a prolonged stalemate in which two modestly sized opposing forces kept each other in check for nine months.[34]

A summary of the battle in Krasnaya Zvezda, the official periodical of the Soviet Ministry of Defence, noted that the FAPLA-Cuban coalition had failed to "decisively defeat the enemy" and described the end result as "frankly speaking, an impasse".[96]

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale is commemorated in several countries in southern Africa. The 20th anniversary in 2008 was especially celebrated in Namibia.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n George, Edward (2005). The Cuban intervention in Angola: 1965–1991. London: Frank Cass. pp. 195–212. ISBN 0415350158.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Mitchell, Thomas G. (2013). Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc. pp. 94–99. ISBN 978-0-7864-7597-1.
  3. ^ a b c d e Polack, Peter (13 December 2013). The Last Hot Battle of the Cold War: South Africa vs. Cuba in the Angolan Civil War (illustrated ed.). Casemate Publishers. pp. 66–83. ISBN 9781612001951. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Scholtz, Leopold (2013). The SADF in the Border War 1966–1989. Cape Town: Tafelberg. pp. 235–427. ISBN 978-0-624-05410-8.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Weigert, Stephen L. (25 October 2011). Angola: A Modern Military History, 1961–2002. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 85–153. ISBN 978-0-230-33783-1.
  6. ^ a b c d e Holt, C. (2005). At Thy Call We Did Not Falter. Zebra Press. pp. 1–18. ISBN 978-1-77007-117-9.
  7. ^ a b Stapleton, Timothy J. (2013). A Military History of Africa. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. pp. 258–267. ISBN 978-031-339-570-3.
  8. ^ Tokarev, Andrei; Shubin, Gennady, eds. (2011). Bush War: The Road to Cuito Cuanavale: Soviet Soldiers' Accounts of the Angolan War. Auckland Park: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd. pp. 128–131. ISBN 978-1-4314-0185-7.
  9. ^ Marcum (1990), p. 135. "UNITA and the SADF pursued retreating MPLA forces to the advanced air base and provincial capital of Cuito Cuanavale. There they laid siege to what became known as the Stalingrad of Angola, from December 1987 to March 1988. Caught in a conventional action for which it was ill-prepared, UNITA suffered some 3,000 battle dead from among the ranks of its best units."
  10. ^ Polack, Peter (13 December 2013). The Last Hot Battle of the Cold War: South Africa vs. Cuba in the Angolan. Casemate Publishers. pp. 168–170. ISBN 978-1612001951. The SAAF casualties for the Battle from September 1987 to May 1988, were four killed and one severy wounded with SADF casualties being seventy-five including five accidental deaths for a total of 79 South African dead. There was a increase to eighty-one with the death of two unnamed soldiers in G5 explosions reported by Dick Lord. There are additional unnamed casualties reported by Helmoed-Römer Heitman book, which added together make it eighty-six deaths.
  11. ^ "Clash of Armour II". Key Publishing. 3 September 2021. Archived from the original on 21 July 2022. Retrieved 22 September 2022.
  12. ^ Mills & Williams (2006)
  13. ^ a b c d e Stapleton, Timothy (2010). A Military History of South Africa: From the Dutch-Khoi Wars to the End of Apartheid. Santa Barbara: Praeger Security International. pp. 169–185. ISBN 978-0313365898.
  14. ^ a b Vanneman (1990), p. 76.
  15. ^ Kanet, Roger (1987). The Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the Third World. Cambridge University Press. pp. 44–46. ISBN 978-0-521-34459-3.
  16. ^ a b c d George (2005), p. 214.
  17. ^ a b c Scholtz (2013), p. 253
  18. ^ a b c Walker (2004), p. 177.
  19. ^ Scholtz, Leopold (2010). "The South African Strategic and Operational Objectives in Angola, 1987–88". South African Journal of Military Studies. 38 (1): 81–97. Archived from the original on 27 January 2017.
  20. ^ a b c d Gleijeses (2007)
  21. ^ a b c Baines, Gary (2014). South Africa's 'Border War': Contested Narratives and Conflicting Memories. London: Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 105–108. ISBN 978-1472509710.
  22. ^ "Replaying Cuito Cuanavale". History Today. Retrieved 4 August 2014.
  23. ^ a b Professors Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley. "2". The Opening of the Apartheid Mind. University of California Press.
  24. ^ a b c Scholtz (2013), p. 279
  25. ^ a b c Scholtz (2013), pp. 316–319, 338–339
  26. ^ Brittain, Victoria (1998). Death of Dignity: Angola's Civil War. London: Pluto Press. pp. 32–38. ISBN 978-0-7453-1247-7.
  27. ^ Jaster (1990), pp. 8–11.
  28. ^ Lulat, Y.G.M. (1992). United States Relations with South Africa: A Critical Overview from the Colonial Period to the Present. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Incorporated. pp. 210–211. ISBN 978-0820479071.
  29. ^ Saney, Issac (September 2006). "African Stalingrad: The Cuban Revolution, Internationalism, and the End of Apartheid" (PDF). Latin American Perspectives (first ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications. 33 (5): 83–84. doi:10.1177/0094582X05281111. S2CID 144553335. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 December 2013. Retrieved 21 December 2016.
  30. ^ Mashiri, Mac; Shaw, Timothy (1989). Africa in World Politics: Into the 1990s. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan. pp. 208–209. ISBN 978-0333429310.
  31. ^ Turton, Anthony (2010). Shaking Hands with Billy. Durban: Just Done Productions Publishing (published 1 December 2010). pp. 239, 453, 459. ISBN 978-1-920315-58-0. OL 22656001M. Archived from the original on 9 October 2014. Retrieved 13 October 2014.
  32. ^ Louis, William Roger (2006). Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez, and Decolonization. London: I.B. Tauris & Company, Ltd. pp. 251–261. ISBN 978-1845113476.
  33. ^ Herbstein, Denis; Evenson, John (1989). The Devils Are Among Us: The War for Namibia. London: Zed Books Ltd. pp. 14–23. ISBN 978-0862328962.
  34. ^ a b c d Hampson, Fen Osler (1996). Nurturing Peace: Why Peace Settlements Succeed Or Fail. Stanford: United States Institute of Peace Press. pp. 53–70. ISBN 978-1878379573.
  35. ^ a b Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1988), Chapter 2, pp. 42–61.
  36. ^ "Table of Contents" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 July 2011.
  37. ^ George (2005), p. 183.
  38. ^ George (2005), p. 201.
  39. ^ a b Turton, A.R. 2010. Shaking Hands with Billy: The Private Memoirs of Anthony Richard Turton. Durban: Just Done Publications.
  40. ^ "Nelson Mandela on How Cuba "Destroyed the Myth of the Invincibility of the White Oppressor"". Democracy Now!. 11 December 2013.
  41. ^ Scholtz (2013), p. 265
  42. ^ Davies, R Mark. "UNITA Forces In The 'Border War' (Angola & South West Africa), 1980 to 1989L UNITA TO&Es (v.1.0) For 'Modern Battlefront'" (PDF).
  43. ^ Martin & Broadhead (2004), p. 16.
  44. ^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 268–277
  45. ^ George (2005), pp. 206–208.
  46. ^ Crocker (1992): .
  47. ^ a b Scholtz (2013), p. 288
  48. ^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 290–291
  49. ^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 292–297
  50. ^ Scholtz (2013), p. 301
  51. ^ Nortje (2003), p. 88
  52. ^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 304–309
  53. ^ a b Niddrie (1988), p. 2.
  54. ^ a b Vanneman (1990), p. 79.
  55. ^ Bole-Richard (1988), Le Monde's Johannesburg correspondent reported that these units had been without resupply for three weeks. See also Benemelis (1988), cap. 18.
  56. ^ Bole-Richard (1988)
  57. ^ Ricardo Luis (1989), p. 6.
  58. ^ Barber, Simon in: Castro explains, why Angola lost battle against the SADF, 27 July 1989
  59. ^ George (2005), p. 218.
  60. ^ George (2005), p. 215.
  61. ^ a b c Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1988), p. 59.
  62. ^ George (2005), pp. 210–212.
  63. ^ Gleijeses, Piero: Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976 (The University of North Carolina Press) quoting: Secretary of State to American Embassy, Pretoria, 5 December 1987, Freedom of Information Act
  64. ^ "Resolution 602". Retrieved 4 August 2014.
  65. ^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 320–321
  66. ^ "South African missiles/rockets/PGM's". Retrieved 3 December 2019. Images of the attack on the bridge
  67. ^ "Raptor 1 Glide Bomb (H-2)". Retrieved 2 December 2019. Buccaneer [414] successfully launched 'H2' and destroyed the Bridge at 10h31Z
  68. ^ Ricardo Luis (1989)
  69. ^ Holt (2005), p. 84.
  70. ^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 334–337
  71. ^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 321–324
  72. ^ Scholtz (2013), p. 332
  73. ^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 341–345
  74. ^ a b Stührenberg, Michael in: Die Zeit 17/1988, Die Schlacht am Ende der Welt, p. 11
  75. ^ George (2005), p. 227.
  76. ^ Scholtz (2013), p. 357
  77. ^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 345–350
  78. ^ Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991, by Piero Gleijeses, pg 425
  79. ^ George (2005), p. 234.
  80. ^ "Cuito Cuanavale revisited | Analysis | Analysis | Mail & Guardian". Retrieved 4 August 2014.
  81. ^ Trainor (1988)
  82. ^ Pazzanita (1991), p. 105. "The SADF and UNITA had relaxed the siege of the town by May, 1988, although at least several hundred South Africans remained on the outskirts."
  83. ^ Scholtz (2013), p. 358
  84. ^ McFaul (1990), p. 126. "...Castro boldly responded that Pretoria was "no longer in a position to request anything south of Angola. Instead of attacking inside Namibia, however, the Cuban forces moved east along the border to cut off the South Africans still camped near Cuito Cuanavale. By August 1988, the strategy had worked, leaving some 400–500 South African soldiers completely surrounded for several months".
  85. ^ Maier (1996), p. 31.
  86. ^ Payne, Richard J., Opportunities and dangers of Soviet-Cuban expansion: Toward a Pragmatic U.S. Policy, State University of New York Press, (Albany 1988), p. 182
  87. ^ Crawford, Neta; Klotz, Audie (1999). How Sanctions Work: Lessons from South Africa. Macmillan Press. pp. 63–66. ISBN 9780312218560.
  88. ^ "The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale". Paratus (SADF Magazine). March 1989. Archived from the original on 2 July 2016. Retrieved 8 April 2011.
  89. ^ Cock & Nathan (1989), p. 23.
  90. ^ Benemelis (1988)
  91. ^ Some estimates say only 10,000–20,000 Cubans: Gleijeses, Piero (May 2007). "Cuba and the Independence of Namibia", Cold War History, Volume 7, Issue 2. pp. 285–303., and Jaster (1990), p. 22.
  92. ^ George (2005), pp. 243–246.
  93. ^ Castro, Fidel; Ramonet, Ignacio (2006). My Life: A Spoken Autobiography. New York: Scribner. pp. 326–334. ISBN 978-1416553281.
  94. ^ Kasrlis, Ronnie (23 March 2008). "Turning point at Cuito Cuanavale". Independent Online. Retrieved 6 February 2015.
  95. ^ Vanneman, Peter (1990). Soviet Strategy in Southern Africa: Gorbachev's Pragmatic Approach. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press. pp. 41–44. ISBN 978-0817989026.
  96. ^ Szabo, Chris (27 March 2018). "The fog of war: How Cuito Cuanavale became a legend". Defence Web. Retrieved 2 January 2020.


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