Overlord'S Blog: Alphabet Soup
The Angolan Civil War was the usual nasty bush war you get when various factions are supported by larger countries. In this particular case it was another war by proxy between the Communist and Western countries. However not all the Western nations supported everyone of the factions. As we'll be talking about a large mechanised battle in this war it seems like a good idea to have a look at the factions involved.
MPLA: Communist government of Angola supported directly by Cuba, and semi directly by the Soviet Union.
|Cubans in Angola
FAPLA: Army of the MPLA
UNITA: Supported by both the South Africans and the United States. These were Anti-Communist guerrillas who had fought alongside the MPLA against the Portuguese before Angolan independence. The US crucially supplied UNITA with Stinger missiles. Of course due to the UN arms embargo they wouldn't support South Africa.
SADF: South African Defence Force, armed with weapons from France and home grown weapons.
Also involved, but not appearing in this article:
FNLA: supported by the West, sort of.
SWAPO: A large group of communist guerrillas, from Nambia. The MPLA allowed SWAPO to use bases in Angola to launch attacks on South Africa.
The civil war was a bloody affair that kept flaring up into large scale battles and it lasted from 1975 until 2002, although by the late 80's most of the large backers were no longer involved, apart from cash injections. But just before the ceasefire and withdrawal there was a series of large mechanised battles where the SADF and UNITA took on the Cubans and FAPLA. One of these occurred on 3rd of October 1987.
It all started when FAPLA launched a sweep of mechanised forces through the UNITA heartland trying to wipe them out completely. The FAPLA units were backed by armour with about 150 T-54's and a smattering of ancient T-34/85's. SADF and UNITA infantry forces backed by aircraft and pinpoint artillery fire slowed and then eventually halted the advance. One SADF trick to make the FAPLA waste expensive Soviet supplied modern SAMs was to tie tinfoil strips to balloons and release them over the enemy lines.
With the grand offensive halted, the FAPLA forces fell back across the Lomba River. The SADF decided to concentrate on destroying the FAPLA's 47 Brigade before it made it back across the river. To get there the battalion had to cross a marshy area. To facilitate this the 47 Brigade created a road with wooden logs. Unfortunately for them SADF observers were in position to direct artillery onto the log road. This road was finished by the 2nd of October.
The first of 47 Brigades vehicles started across the log road. They were a pair of SA-9 Gaskins. The SADF observer managed to score a direct hit on the second moving vehicle with a G-5 155mm round, blocking the path to safety. Several other attempts were made to shift the wreck, however the artillery opened fire whenever movement was spotted.
The next morning the joint SADF and UNITA forces mounted entirely in Ratels arrived. Most of the Ratels were armed with 20mm cannons, but some were fire support versions with 90mm guns. The approach of the column caused some panic amongst the 47th Brigade's soldiers. Suddenly three armoured recovery vehicles burst from cover, using these like Churchill ARK's from the Second World War they quickly formed an improvised bridge. Several 47 Brigade vehicles made it across, however two collided in a scramble to reach safety, and blocked the makeshift bridge.
With UNITA forces blocking any escape route 47 Brigade was now forced to fight. They turned and sent their T-54's to attack the Ratels. Although the Ratel crews were not happy with being forced to take on the T-54's they had no choice. The FAPLA forces were used to the UNITA forces breaking contact at the sight of tanks advancing on them, so they were really surprised when the thinly armoured Ratels charged at their tanks. The Ratels had no stabilization to their guns so they couldn't fire on the move, however, they were lighter and faster than the tanks. This mobility along with the higher silhouette gave the Ratel's an advantage in the thick brush. The Ratel crews could stand on the hull of their charges, and see the dust plumes of the lumbering T-54's. Then they could either avoid them or get into a better position to destroy them. The Ratel would race towards the T-54, then slam on the brakes and halt almost touching it, then start to fire its 90mm at point blank range into the sides and rear of the tank, before racing off again at full speed into the bush. Some of the T-54's were destroyed from a range of just 15 metres.
|This vs a T-54...
Even the Cuban air support failed to hit anything, although the MIG's flew around sixty missions they were afraid to drop to low altitude because of UNITA's US supplied Stinger missiles. And so consequently their bombing accuracy was woeful.
The Ratel's suffered one man killed when a T-54 fired at his speeding vehicle. The round hit the ground and ricocheted up into the turret severely wounding the commander, whom later died. Several more were wounded.
On the FAPLA side the 47 Brigade all but ceased to exist, with a vast list of equipment captured by the SADF forces. Included in this haul was one of the Soviet Union's newest and most secret weapons, an SA-8 Gecko. This was captured intact with all documentation. However this didn't end up in the hands of the west as one might expect. Remembering how the US treated them and some other actions in the region the South Africans kept the Gecko for their own and used it in their weapons research programs.