The SAAF fights 2 African wars ... and our love is placed on hold
                   (Shown below are actual pictures of the SAAF planes that 
were used in those wars)

In 1974, South Africa still administered German South West Africa in terms of its mandate received after the first world War, when Germany had to give up it's colonies to the allies. The South West African Peoples Organization (SWAPO) became increasingly militant from 1959 onward and it's military wing, the Peoples Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) was formed in 1962. By early 1966 the first Russian trained SWAPO insurgents were based in Zambia. Their first incursion into SWA occurred in September 1965, the second in March 1966. The first major clash between a South African unit, supported by SAAF helicopters, and SWAPO occurred on 26 August 1966. And so began the 23 year long 'Border War' and by the time I was drafted, it had been waging on for some nine years already.

Late in 1966 Unita entered the struggle in Eastern Angola against the colonial Portuguese powers, who where then already fighting both the MPLA and FNLA in northern Angola. SAAF helicopters were sent to support the Portuguese in Angola against Unita in 1967. In May 1968, the number one Air Component was established at Rundu to coordinate the operation. The helicopter crews, flying the French built Allouette III  bore the brunt of the increased activity. Their main role was to back-up Counter Insurgency unit tracker teams. They operated in pairs, ranging ahead looking for insurgents for the tracker teams, maintaining separation from the other Allouettes, talking on the radio and watching for ground fire. The larger French built Pumas were then used to quickly transport troops to the hot-spots for the ensuing fire fights. We were now involved in Angola too ...

Although not in the spotlight as much as their chopper brothers, the crews of the light aircraft flew really difficult missions in the bush and were never lacking in spirit. The tandem seat Bosbok was used as a general visual reconnaissanc missions as well as for seven hour long night flare dropping sorties - used to disturb sleep in the SWAPO camps, and often followed by helicopter gunship borne commando raids which generally saw 100's of SWAPO fighters killed and their camps annihilated. The Bosbok pilots stayed at tree top height and, when flying along a road, they would fly between the trees.

The South African built Kudu was used as a light transport and the Cessna 185 was employed in a Skyshout role.

Angola achieved independence from Portugal on 11 November 1975 and by 29 February 1976 the last of the now long dormant colonial Portuguese forces had withdrawn. Cuban forces (acting as Russia's proxies in the cold-war) began to move into Angola in April 1975 to support the communist backed MPLA (people's liberation army) and to help them to gain power in the post-colonial power vacuum created by the Portuguese agreeing to leave Angola. Suddenly South Africa faced the prospect of communist state bordering SWA. Now South Africa, with the covert assistance of the CIA, began assisting the pro-western factions, Unita and the FNLA - whom they had formerly helped the Portuguese oppose. The conflict had changed from a struggle against colonial powers to a cold-war conflict between the Russians and the West.

In the latter half of 1975 South Africa entered Angola during Operation SAVANAH and within thirty three days had covered Southern two thirds of Angola, stopping within artillery range of the Angolan capital of Luanda. They had also landed paratroopers north of Luanda and were poised to move into the capital. Now the very real danger of a major broadening conflict loomed. The Russians with their Cuban side-kicks were about to be dealt a major humiliation - their first in the Watergate era, and there was no knowing how they would react - or perhaps over-react. At about this time the US congress found out about the CIA's support of South Africa and forced them to stop doing so. South Africa, who by then had beaten back the Cubans and the MPLA, no longer viewed the Cubans as such a threat. Just before Christmas 1975, the decision was made not to enter the Angolan Capital but rather to scale back the operation from a full scale conflict to one of creating a buffer zone and defending the bottom one third of Angola - the part bordering on it's territories. This is almost identical to what Israel did in Lebanon.

Helicopters, light aircraft and transports were used, while jets flew photo reconnaissance missions. Wasp helicopters, operating from SAN frigates (protected by the SAN French built Submarine force) cruising off the Angolan coast near Luanda, flew many difficult missions to retrieve the South African paratroopers now stranded north of Luanda. Unita (the pro-western faction) was now supported only to the extent of ensuring that the MPLA and Cuba could not establish bases in the bottom one third of Angola and also so that SWAPO did not establish bases in southern Angola from which to launch incursions into Namibia.

The jet squadrons of AFB Waterkloof (where I was stationed) saw their first major action (since the Korean war) at Cassinga in Angola. Canberras of no. 12 Squadron and the Buccaneers of no. 24 Squadron softened the target before paratroopers were dropped from C-130's 
and C-160 Transalls  

 

 

 

When Cuban reinforcements threatened the SA forces from the south, No. 2 Squadron Mirage III's stopped the two dozen or so armored cars before the Buccaneers destroyed the T-34 tanks that were threatening the South African troops and their helicopters.

Impalas were permanently deployed to provide a tactical reconnaissance and ground attack capability. 

Whenever there was major operation, Mirage F1 AZ's were brought in for ground attack and F1 CZ's and Mirage III CZ's for air superiority.

 

 

Mirage III's and Canberras were used for reconnaissance. Buccaneers were only used for special roles, such as very low level bombing runs using guided weapons

 


Impalas (now permanently based at Rundu) engaged Mi-25 and Mi-17 helicopters on two separate days, destroying six helicopters.  Maj. Johan Rankin, flying No. 3 Squadron Mirage F1 CZ's, holds the unique distinction of shooting down the only two fighters (Cuban MiG -21's) that were downed in the War. Here is a picture of these two old foes from that war - reunited for a photo-op at AFB Swartkops in Pretoria - many years later.

AFB Waterkloof's large transport crews showed exceptional skill and bravery by landing in impossibly small airstrips, hacked out of the bush - in the pitch black of an African night. The aircraft would land, off-load their cargo and then take-off again, all before the first rays of sunrise appeared.

From the early 1970's the SAAF participated in almost all military operations across SA borders into Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique. It was inevitable that South Africa would become involved in the conflict between Unita (the pro-western faction) and the communist backed MPLA forces assisted by Cuba, which were equipped with the latest Soviet air defense weapons.

With the UN arms embargo now preventing the SAAF from acquiring more modern combat aircraft, Angolan airspace was becoming an increasingly dangerous place to operate in and the SAAF was now restricting it's operations to those which posed the least risk of losses.

Following operations Modular and Hooper in 1987 and 1988, negotiations (which had started just before Christmas in 1975) finally paved the way for peace in SWA (Namibia) and a possible peace in Angola - which still seems to elude them despite South Afica, the CIA, Cuba and Russia no longer being involved on any side. The final withdrawal of SA troops from Cuito Cuanavale in Angola was completed on 30 August 1988 and in 1989 the SAAF withdrew from Namibia. All in all the Angolan war, in all it's various campaigns, lasted for 13 years.

Three rival factions struggled to wrest control of Angola from the colonial Portuguese for many years. Civil war has been the norm in Angola since it's independence from Portugal in 1975. A 1994 peace accord between the Russian and Cuban installed and supported government (The MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), provided for the integration of the former (pro-western) UNITA fighters into the government and armed forces. A national unity government was installed in April of 1997, but serious fighting resumed in late 1998, rendering hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Some 1.5 million lives may have been lost in fighting over the past quarter century. 

Today my family lives safely in Canada, far away from all that fighting. That war almost cost me my chance at happiness and my family. I'm sad to have been a part of all of that needless bloodshed. These Angolan people were no sooner free of colonialism when they were caught up in the cold-war and used in the 'chess game' between Russia and America ... so was I. The cold-war is over and Russia's great communist expansionist dreams are history. My family and I have long since put all this behind us and managed to get on with our lives, but these people just cannot seem to put the past behind them and the factional power struggles continue - as does the killing and the misery. Why? Well lots of reasons really, but one of them is that The Cuango Basin has turned out to be a most prolific source of diamonds and the Luremo area, in particular, has yielded large and very good quality gems from alluvial production and is believed to have excellent potential. Then there are the vast amounts of oil in the 'stranded' northern province of Cabinda.

The excerpts (below) taken from de-classified Soviet files from that era, shows how (clearly) we really were fighting communism's spread. Reading the following excerpt really shows just how deeply the Soviet Bloc was involved in the region:

USSR AMBASSADOR TO THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF ANGOLA /s/ V. LOGINOV
[Source: TsKhSD, f. 5, op. 75, d. 1148, ll. 71-75: translated by Sally Kux; copy on file at National Security Archive.]


" ... Then the Secretary of the CC MPLA-PT raised the problem of Namibia. He informed us that, in appraising the aggression of the Republic of South Africa toward Angola at Cassinga, immediately following the important victory of SWAPO [Southwest African People's Organization] in the UN, the Angolan leadership came to the conclusion that the aggressive actions of the Republic of South Africa were made in pursuit of the following goals: to weaken SWAPO and force it to accept the plan of the five Western powers for Namibia; to gain time, in order to create in Namibia a puppet political force which would be able to counter SWAPO; to scare the People's Republic of Angola and weaken Angolan support for SWAPO.  

P. Luvualu remarked that events had fully confirmed the correctness of this appraisal of the Angolan leadership. For example, in the present time in Namibia, the Republic of South Africa has created the so-called democratic party with the help of the renegade [Andrea] Chipanga and the so-called National Front of Namibia. Vorster feverishly attempts to prepare elections, which are falsified from the very beginning, and to achieve an internal settlement on the model of the internal settlement of Rhodesia with the aid of puppets like Chipanga. 

The Secretary of the CC MPLA-PT declared that the People's Republic of Angola will continue to support SWAPO. The Angolan leadership, he said, considers that for the peaceful resolution of the Namibian problem the Republic of South Africa should: officially define a deadline for the transfer of Walvis Bay to the authorities of Namibia, after declaring the independence of that country; for a period of transition draw off its troops, which are now concentrated on the border with Angola, to bases in the South of Namibia; immediately liberate all political prisoners in Namibia. 

P. Luvualu likewise remarked that Angola concurs with the proposed role of the UN in the transitional period in Namibia. In conclusion P. Luvualu underscored that the maneuvers of Western countries around Angola will not succeed in forcing the MPLA-PT to turn from the path it has chosen. We, he declared, have made a firm and final choice of friends. This is the Soviet Union, Cuba, and other socialist countries. With the assistance and support of socialist states, and first and foremost of the Soviet Union and Cuba, Angola will follow its chosen path. 

[I] thanked the Secretary of the CC MPLA-PT for this information. From my side I handed him the text of the Declaration of the Soviet Government on Africa (in Portuguese). I underscored that this is an important political action in defense of the independence of African governments, in the solidarity of the USSR in the struggle of the peoples of the continent against the imperialist interference in their affairs. I noted that the appraisal contained in it of the situation in Africa coincides with the position of the People's Republic of Angola. Then I gave him a translation into Portuguese of the Pravda article regarding the external policies ofthe USA. 

I handed [him] a film on the first congress of the MPLA-PT and the sojourn in the People's Republic of Angola of the Soviet party delegation headed by Comrade A.P. Kirilenko.   P. Luvualu expressed his gratitude to the Soviet government for its unflagging support of progressive forces in Africa. He said that he would immediately bring the text of the Declaration to the attention of the leadership of the People's Republic of Angola. He likewise expressed his gratitude for the gift of the CC CPSU. In the course of our exchange of opinions on international problems P. Luvualu asked that I give information about the situation in South Yemen after the unsuccessful government coup. Embassy advisor S. S. Romanov was present during this discussion".

It is interesting to note that both Namibia and Angola were held 'in check' by South Africa until the collapse of the Soviet empire. After 23 years of keeping SWAPO (fighting to take over control of Namibia) at bay, and 13 years of keeping Cuba and the MPLA (who were wanting to extend the reach of the Soviet empire throughout the region) at bay, they now simply negotiated a conclusion to both conflicts and withdrew all of their forces - seemingly happy in the knowledge that communism was now not likely to spread and/or contaminate their homeland, or the region any further. Did they do so just to satisfy only their own interests? Not likely! 

No doubt they were being asked to do so (and helped) by the western powers (Great Britain, the USA, France, and others). How successful was the western effort in containing the Russians, Cubans and the MPLA in Angola as well as SWAPO in Namibia. Well here is transcript of a telegram sent by the Russian Ambassador in Havana to the political masters in Russia. (By the way, Raul Castro is Fidel's brother, in charge of the Cuban military and widely rumored to be the person to replace Fidel when the time comes). I think you will see that they were a bit demoralized. It contains signs of obvious sniping and infighting that had begun to take hold.

Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Meeting, 18 October 1979 (excerpt) [...] 9. Telegram from Havana Spec[ial]. # 741 and 744

" SUSLOV: Comrades, you have read these telegrams. In one of them a question is raised that in a conversation with our ambassador, Raul Castro told about difficulties that had emerged with regard to replacement of the Cuban troops in Ethiopia. In the second conversation Raul Castro said the Angolans in all probability would appeal [probably to us] with a request to take over the maintainance [i.e., costs, transportation etc.] of the Cuban troops in Angola. Secondly, he said that the Angolans treat the Cuban representatives rather tactlessly. The next question concerned the assistance with arms to SWAPO. He remarked, that Soviet comrades assist SWAPO with arms but the SWAPO men absolutely do not fight and do not want to fight. Then one wonders, why we should help them with weapons[?] In one word, there are a number of very important principled questions which we should consider. I think that we should order the Defense Ministry and the International Department of the CC to consider these questions advanced in these telegrams, taking into account the exchange of opinions that took place at the meeting of the Politburo, [and] the proposals will be introduced to the CC. ALL. Agreed".

[Source: TsKhSD, f. 89, per. 25, dok. 6, ll. 1-1; copy obtained by David Wolff; translation by Vladislav M. Zubok.]

For a map of the region (with all the place names mentioned above identified) click here

To gain some insight into the 'Chess game' I referred to, and to see just how deeply Russia was involved in trying to wrest the entire area from western influence, take a look at this site dedicated to documenting the COLD WAR and search their virtual archives by typing in ANGOLA - In particular take a look at USSR policy in Africa and take a look at this article (Obtained after the collapse of the former Soviet Union) and also this one.

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