X-RAY in Angola, circa 1975/76

Written by Johann Olivier, exPTI and Platoon Sergeant, `74-`76.

At the height of the Cold War, in July 1975, huge numbers of Cuban troops were introduced into Angola, a south west African state, at the request of the Soviet Union. They were placed there during the brutal civil war in Angola. There were 2 main rivals: one was the MPLA, a Communist backed movement, and UNITA, a movement backed by the US and the West.

At the time, the South African military was the strongest in Africa, and at the secret request of the US, was asked to thwart Soviet plans in Angola, a country 1/3 the size of the continental US, excluding Alaska.

So it came that volunteers were sought for a dangerous mission into Angola in October, 1975. I was one of those volunteers. We were flown to a staging post in Namibia, Grootfontein, where we received our equipment for the campaign. Due to international sensibilities, our cover was that we were 'mercenaries'. We were also told that in case of capture, we were on our own. We were encouraged to grow beards and look as piratical as possible, to further enforce the notion that we were mercenaries, and not a regular military force.

We were flown by C130s from northern Namibia to the central Angolan highlands. We drove our fully loaded vehicles right into the rear of the aircraft. After a flight of many hours at treetop level, to avoid SAM missiles, we landed at a city then known as Silva Porto, which was in 'friendly' hands. Here we were introduced to Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the UNITA faction. He shook our hands and presented us each with a dagger, which ironically was US Marine Corps dagger from 1943 - US military surplus, probably supplied by the CIA, which was very active in this theatre of war.

Here we became known as column X-ray, consisting of about 200 men, which included a battalion of infantry, 2 batteries of dated WW2 artillery, 3 Eland armoured cars, fuel trucks, an ambulance and supply vehicles. We formed a self-contained flying column. We were on our own and would have limited access to futher provisions or aid.

Our objective was to secure central and north east Angola. Accordingly, we struck out across the endless bush towards the border of Zaire, which lies to the north and east of Angola.

Our challenges were many: there are barely roads to speak of, very little water, dramatic thunderstorms and flooding, insects, parasites, a variety of dangerous animals, as well as diseases like malaria. In addition, we were involved in frequent skirmishes with our enemy, the MPLA and Cubans.

Due to our excellent training and preparation, most resistance was fairly easily overcome, and we progressed at a good pace, until we reached the regional capitol, Luso, a fairly large city with a modern airport, which was vital to both sides.

We fought a 3-day pitched battle, which included infantry assaults and artillery duels. The most unusual battle was fought with a huge, converted bulldozer, known as the Monster of Luso. It had recoiless rifles and many machine guns built into the blade, which was welded into a fixed position. It came towards us, firing. Our armoured cars engaged it, and we saw at least 4 shells strike home, but the bulldozer just kept on coming, though it had ceased firing. We kept up withering fire, but it seemed impervious. Just as it seemed we would have to abandon our position, it ground to a halt. Once we had secured the city and airport, we found that the first couple of 90 mm rounds from the armoured cars had killed the crew, but missed the motor entirely. The bulldozer then simply continued forward, until it got stuck in a ditch.

We remained at Luso for 5 days, secured the airport perimeter, and made that our base. It was a dreadful sight when we moved in. Hundreds of dead lying all over the airport, with shattered vehicles and aircraft, a testament to the destructive power of artillery, even if antiquated. However, most of the runways and buildings remained intact.

After our sojourn, the column continued on its way towards the NE corner of the country. Resistance was weak and ineffectual.

After a 2-week spell at a bush encampment, on a sandy, tree-studded plain, the column was recalled to South Africa, due to geopolitical considerations. We celebrated Xmas during this 2-week period. It was a poignant time for all of us. We were thousands of miles from home, in hostile territory. On Xmas eve there was a full moon, and the light of the moon on the white, sandy plain, created a snow-like tableau, which enhanced the Xmas atmosphere. Of course we were in the tropics, so the evening temperature was about 80 degrees. In addition, we had some old radios that we had found en route and could pick up weak signals from various international broadcasts, so we listened to Xmas music on the silent white plains under the large moon. Everyone was very quiet and introspective. We enjoyed the best meal we could from our ration packs, and thought of a distant home and loved ones.

Shortly after Xmas we hastily decamped for northern Namibia. We drove across 2000 kms of mostly crude tracks and roads, often requiring the entire column to be winched over sections of track. We kept a wary lookout for Migs, which had been introduced into the country, and made frequent stops to avoid detection. Our vehicles were so well camouflaged, that they looked like moving bushes. We faced one brief attack from the air, which was wide of the mark.

We arrived back, where it had all started many months before, at the beginning of February, 1976. We had suffered no fatalities, only a small number of wounded.

Incredibly, the war in Angola, which started in the '70s, just recently ended, when the UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi, was killed in an airstrike. The poor people of Angola have suffered 30 years of strife!

Published: 16th January 2003.

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