Battle of Cuito Cuanavale 1988

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Image: A Cuban Artillery unit during the battle at Cuito Cuanavale, Angola, in December 1987. [Source:]

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale was an important event of the Cold War and the Angolan Civil War. It comprised a series of engagements between the Cuban-backed Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) on the one side, and the apartheid-era South African Defence Force (SADF) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) on the other side. It took place near the important military airfield of Cuito Cuanavale and the adjacent small town of the same name. Following a number of failed attempts to take UNITA’s primary operating bases at Jamba and Mavinga in 1986, eight FAPLA brigades mustered for a final offensive—Operação Saludando Octubre—in August 1987 .[2].
The government of Angola counted with extensive auxiliary support from one of its closest military allies, the Soviet Union, and a number of Cuban armoured and motorised units, who had become more directly committed to the fighting for the first time during Havana’s lengthy intervention in the civil war.[10] Soviet weapons deliveries to FAPLA were also accelerated, including over a hundred T-62 tanks and strike aircraft seconded from the Warsaw Pact‘s strategic reserve.[1] On the other side of the battle, White Supremacist South Africa, which shared a common border with Angola through the contested territory of South-West Africa (current Namibia), was then determined to prevent FAPLA from gaining control of Jamba and allowing insurgents of the Marxist-Leninist South West African People’s Organization to operate in the region.[11]. Saludando Octubre prompted the South African military to underpin the defence of Jamba and launch Operation Moduler with the objective of stopping FAPLA’s offensive. The Angolan government and its Soviet advisory personnel had failed to make contingency plans for South African intervention, despite advance warnings from Umkhonto we Sizwe of an imminent SADF counterattack.[1]

The campaign which followed culminated in the largest battle on African soil since World War II,[12] and according to some accounts, the second largest clash of African armed forces in history. FAPLA was poorly disciplined yet well equipped, and Cuban air power proved to be a decisive advantage over the SADF. Nevertheless, the advancing FAPLA forces were frequently encircled and destroyed in running clashes with the much nimbler South African armoured cars.[13][14] The FAPLA offensive was halted with heavy casualties, and abandoned shortly thereafter.[15][15][16] As the SADF had a political imperative to avoid casualties wherever possible, and had orders to avoid the town unless it fell into their hands without a fight, it therefore made no attempt to follow up on its advantage and to capture the town.[17][18][19] Both sides claimed victory.[20][21]

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale is credited 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.[22]

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Image: Weapons training for Cuban and MPLA soldiers. [Source:]


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 (a former Maoist who broke away from the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA), later sponsored by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and South Africa).

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.[23] The FNLA was defeated in the 1970s and the struggle for control continued between the Soviet backed MPLA government 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 some countries of the Eastern bloc, while UNITA was supported by the West, albeit clandestinely, foremost the United States and South Africa.

After the Cubans had helped the MPLA gain power in 1975 they considered it necessary to stay in the country until conditions stabilized in favour of the MPLA. The Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries supplied the Angolan army (FAPLA) with armament, advisors and specialized technical staff. UNITA managed, with South African and US support, to pose a 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.[24] South Africa provided UNITA with military support in the form of occasional cross-border missions from South West Africa (modern Namibia).

Despite the termination of the League of Nations mandate by the UN General Assembly in 1966, which South Africa refused to recognise, South Africa had continued to govern South-West Africa (Namibia). 1966 saw the beginning of the armed resistance by the SWAPO and South African counter insurgency operations. After Angola’s independence in 1975, SWAPO gained the support of the Angolan government and operated against the South African forces from bases in Southern Angola. The South African government’s strategic concern was thus to ensure continued UNITA control over regions bordering Namibia, 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 preemptive interventionism and counter-revolutionary warfare. Following the South African Operation Protea in August 1981, in which it temporarily occupied 50,000 km² of Cunene province, UNITA took effective administrative control of most of Cunene in January 1982.[25]

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Image: Soviet and East Bloc military advisors in Angola, 1983 [Source:]

Operação Saludando Octubre/Operation Greeting October

Because of the UNITA insurgency, the central government never managed to gain control of the whole country; UNITA had control of much of south-eastern 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 of Cunene province occupied and conducted invasions and raids into the country.[25]

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 just above the Caprivi Strip.[16] 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.[26][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.[27] 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 south-eastern 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.[28] 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.

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Image: Map of Angola showing the position of Cutio Cuanavale. [Source:]

Objectives and outcomes

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale was part of the Angolan Civil War. The MPLA strategic objective was to destroy UNITA, win the civil war and thus take sole control of the entire country. As part of that process their army (FAPLA) 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.[15] The Cuban/Angolan objective was thereafter reduced to securing the town of Cuito Cuanavale on the west of the river from capture.[15][16] 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.[17][18][19]

Although the SADF achieved its objective of smashing the advance and protecting UNITA, FAPLA/Cuba also claimed victory in the battle.[21] 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.”[29] This perspective locates the outcome of the battle within the context of the withdrawal of the SADF from Angola and the independence of Angola.[10]

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.

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Image: his picture seems to be from the days when FNLA was stronger, before the civil war and even before the 25th of April. [Source:]


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.

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Image: Searching for Water. [Source:]

Operation Moduler

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.[30] Four more brigades were kept to defend Cuito Cuanavale and its approaches.[31]

Facing them were the UNITA forces composed of the 3rd Regular, 5th Regular, 13th Semi-Regular and 275th Special Forces Battalions,[32] supported by about 1,000 SADF troops with armoured vehicles and artillery. On 28 August FAPLA reached the northern banks of the Lomba River on route to Mavinga, where they were engaged by the SADF.

In a series of bitter fights[33] 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.[34] The Angolan army headed into a retreat over 190 km back to Cuito Cuanavale, which it desperately held on to.[35]

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.”[36]

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.[17] 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.[37]

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.[37]

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.[38]

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.[39]

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.[40] 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.[41]

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.[42]

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

File:C-340 Mikoyan Mig-21 Angolan Air Force (7689981124).jpg

Image: Angolan Air Force MiG-21. [Source:]

Operation Hooper

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.[10] 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.[43][44] With no functioning armour or artillery remaining, the FAPLA-units faced annihilation.[45]

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.[44] The first Cuban reinforcements in Cuito arrived by helicopter on 5 December with about 160[46]–200[47] technicians, advisers, officers, and special forces.[48]

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 defense plans may have cost the Cubans dozens of lives[49] 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.[50] 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.[51][52]

On 25 November the UN Security Council demanded the SADF’s unconditional withdrawal from Angola by 10 December, yet, without threatening any sanctions.[53][54]

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.[18][19]

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 smart bomb.[55] The Cubans managed to construct a wooden footbridge in its place which they baptised Patria o Muerte (fatherland or death).[56] They partly buried disabled tanks so that their turrets could be used as fixed artillery pieces.[57]

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.[58]

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.[59] 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.[43]

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.[60] 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.[61]

This concluded Operation Hooper.


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

Operation Packer

Fresh troops and equipment were brought in, designated 82 Mechanised brigade, 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”.[10][51][62] 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.[63][64] 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.[65]

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Image: 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. [Source: Creative Commons]

Operation Displace

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.[51][62][66][67][68][69]This continued until the end of August, after which all SADF troops returned to South West Africa.[70][71]

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.[72] 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.[73]


Image: Rear view of a G5 howitzer. [Source: Creative Commons]


The SADF used a mix of British, French, Israeli, captured Soviet and indigenously 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 defense.[74] The South Africans were hampered by United Nations Security Council Resolution 418, an international arms embargo that prevented them from acquiring materiel such as modern aircraft.[75] The Cubans and FAPLA were armed with Soviet weaponry.

Type Angola (FAPLA), Cuba (FAR) South Africa (SADF), UNITA
AFVs T-34-85, T-54B, T-55, T-62, PT-76, SU-100 World War II vintage self-propelled guns were not used. Olifant, Ratel IFV, Eland Mk7
APCs/IFVs BTR-40, BTR-152, BTR-50, BTR-60PB, BRDM-2, BMP-1 and MT-LB (tracked light-armoured towing vehicle) Buffel, Casspir
Artillery Zis-2 (57 mm),ZIS-3 (76 mm), D-44 (85 mm), D-30 (122 mm), ML-20 (152 mm), D-1 (152 mm), M-46 (130 mm) BM-21 Grad (MLR) and BM-14 G5 howitzer, G6 Self-Propelled Gun, Valkiri 127mm Multiple rocket launcher, Ordnance QF 25 pounder
Aircraft MiG-23ML, MiG-21bis, MiG-23BM Dassault Mirage F-1, Blackburn Buccaneer, Dassault Mirage III, English Electric Canberra, Impala,
Transport Aircraft AN-26 AN-12, AN-22, IL-76 C-130B Hercules and C-160Z Transall
Helicopters Mi-8/Mi-17, Mi-24/Mi-35 Super Frelon, Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma, Westland Wasp, Aérospatiale Alouette III, Atlas Oryx
Reconnaissance/observation MiG-21R, Antonov An-30 Bosbok, UAV‘s
AAW 2K12 Kub/Kwadrat, 9K33 Osa-AK, S-125 Pechora, S-75 Dvina, ZSU-23-4 Shilka, ZU-23-2 Zeushka, Strela-2M, Strela-3, Strela-10, Igla, ZPU-4, ZPU-2, ZGU-1 Cactus, Tigercat, Bofors 40 mm, Ystervark self-propelled 20 mm AA vehicles, FIM-92 Stinger (used by UNITA)[74]
Infantry weapons and anti tank support AK-47, AKM, AKMS, RPK, RPD, PK, PKM, DShK, DShKM, KPVKPVT, 9K11 Malyutka, RPG-7, B-10 recoilless rifle, B-11 recoilless rifle Heckler & Koch G3, R1, R4 assault rifle, FN MAG, M2 Browning, M40 recoilless rifle, RPG-7, ENTAC, MILAN and ZT3 Ingwe anti-tank guided missiles
Air-to-Air Missiles K-13, R-60 Matra 530, V3B, R.550 Matra Magic

Trucks used by FAPLA Engesa-15, Engesa-25, Engesa-50 (Brazilian) Mercedes (West Germany) Pegaso (Spain) IFAW50 (GDR) GAZ-66, ZIL-131, URAL-375/URAL-4320 GAZ-51 and GAZ-63 (were used by Cubans outside Cuito) KAMAZ and ZIL-130 (civil trucks): ZIL-157 (all were used outside Cuito)

Jeeps UAZ-469 UAZ-69 (GAZ-69) (used by Cubans outside Cuito) Niva Land Rover 109 Land Rover 110 Land Rover Defender

Miniubuses RAF-2203 and UAZ-452

Pistols Walther P38 TT-33 (TT) MP (Makarov) APS (Stechkin) Beretta 92.

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Image: Soldiers of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. [Source:]


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.[76]

During that process 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 a 30,000 of Angolan forces,[77][78] 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 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,[79] 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.

On a visit to Cuba, Nelson Mandela told the Cuban people that the FAPLA-Cuban “success” at Cuito and in Lubango 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.[80]

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

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Image: Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. [Source:]


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  4. ^ Jump up to:a b c d e f g h i j k l m Scholtz, Leopold (2013). The SADF in the Border War 1966–1989. Cape Town: Tafelberg. pp. 235–427. ISBN 978-0-624-05410-8.
  5. ^ Jump up to: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.
  6. ^ Jump up to: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.
  7. ^ Jump up to:a b Stapleton, Timothy J. (2013). A Military History of Africa. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. pp. 258–267. ISBN 031-339-570-5.
  8. Jump up^ 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. Jump up^ 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. ^ Jump up to:a b c d Gleijeses (2007)
  11. Jump up^ Kanet, Roger (1987). The Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the Third World. Cambridge University Press. pp. 44–46. ISBN 978-0-521-34459-3.
  12. Jump up^ Mills & Williams (2006)
  13. Jump up^ Mannall, David. Battle on the Lomba 1987: The Day a South African Armoured Battalion shattered Angola’s Last Mechanized Offensive (2014 ed.). Helion and Company. pp. 48–92. ISBN 978-1-909982-02-4.
  14. Jump up^ Johnson, David E. In the Middle of the Fight: An Assessment of Medium-armored Forces in past military operations (2011 ed.). RAND Corporation. pp. 73–81. ISBN 978-0-8330-4413-6.
  15. ^ Jump up to:a b c d Scholtz (2013), p. 253
  16. ^ Jump up to:a b c Walker (2004), p. 177.
  17. ^ Jump up to:a b c Scholtz (2013), p. 279
  18. ^ Jump up to:a b c Scholtz (2013), pp. 316–319, 338–339
  19. ^ Jump up to:a b c George (2005), p. 214.
  20. Jump up^ “Replaying Cuito Cuanavale”. History Today. Retrieved 2014-08-04.
  21. ^ Jump up to:a b Professors Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley. “2”. The Opening of the Apartheid Mind. University of California Press.
  22. Jump up^ Brittain, Victoria (1998). Death of Dignity: Angola’s Civil War. London: Pluto Press. pp. 32–38. ISBN 978-0-7453-1247-7.
  23. Jump up^ Jaster (1990), pp. 8–11.
  24. Jump up^ 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.
  25. ^ Jump up to:a b Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1988), Chapter 2, pp. 42–61.
  26. Jump up^ Table of Contents Archived 15 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  27. Jump up^ George (2005), p. 183.
  28. Jump up^ George (2005), p. 201.
  29. Jump up^
  30. Jump up^ Vanneman (1990), p. 76.
  31. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), p. 265
  32. Jump up^
  33. Jump up^ Martin & Broadhead (2004), p. 16.
  34. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 268–277
  35. Jump up^ George (2005), pp. 206–208.
  36. Jump up^ Crocker (1992): .
  37. ^ Jump up to:a b Scholtz (2013), p. 288
  38. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 290–291
  39. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 292–297
  40. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), p. 301
  41. Jump up^ Nortje (2003), p. 88
  42. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 304–309
  43. ^ Jump up to:a b Niddrie (1988), p. 2.
  44. ^ Jump up to:a b Vanneman (1990), p. 79.
  45. Jump up^ 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.
  46. Jump up^ Bole-Richard (1988)
  47. Jump up^ Ricardo Luis (1989), p. 6.
  48. Jump up^ Barber, Simon in: Castro explains, why Angola lost battle against the SADF, 27 July 1989
  49. Jump up^ George (2005), p. 218.
  50. Jump up^ George (2005), p. 215.
  51. ^ Jump up to:a b c Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1988), p. 59.
  52. Jump up^ George (2005), pp. 210–212.
  53. Jump up^ 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
  54. Jump up^ “Resolution 602”. Retrieved 2014-08-04.
  55. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 320–321
  56. Jump up^ Ricardo Luis (1989)
  57. Jump up^ Holt (2005), p. 84.
  58. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 334–337
  59. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 321–324
  60. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), p. 332
  61. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 341–345
  62. ^ Jump up to:a b Stührenberg, Michael in: Die Zeit 17/1988, Die Schlacht am Ende der Welt, p. 11
  63. Jump up^ George (2005), p. 227.
  64. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), p. 357
  65. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), pp. 345–350
  66. Jump up^ George (2005), p. 234.
  67. Jump up^ “Cuito Cuanavale revisited | Analysis | Analysis | Mail & Guardian”. Retrieved 2014-08-04.
  68. Jump up^ Trainor (1988)
  69. Jump up^ 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.”
  70. Jump up^ Scholtz (2013), p. 358
  71. Jump up^ 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”.
  72. Jump up^ Cock & Nathan (1989), p. 23.
  73. Jump up^ Maier (1996), p. 31. “some observers estimate that 500,000 people have died in the fighting and the famine and disease it has provoked.”
  74. ^ Jump up to:a b 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
  75. Jump up^ Crawford, Neta; Klotz, Audie (1999). How Sanctions Work: Lessons from South Africa. Macmillan Press. pp. 63–66.
  76. Jump up^ “The Battle Of Cuito Cuanavale”. Paratus (SADF Magazine). March 1989. Retrieved 8 April 2011.
  77. Jump up^ Benemelis (1988)
  78. Jump up^ 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.
  79. Jump up^ George (2005), pp. 243–246.
  80. Jump up^ Kasrlis, Ronnie (2008-03-23). “Turning point at Cuito Cuanavale”. Independent Online. Retrieved 2015-02-06.

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Image: FAA soldiers raise the Angolan flag at Cuito Cuanavale anniversary ceremony. [Source:]

Bibliography and Further Reading

Benemelis, Juan (1988). Las Guerras Secretas de Fidel Castro. Fundación Elena Mederos. ISBN 978-1-890829-21-6.

Bole-Richard, Michel (23 January 1988). “Angola: une importante garnison gouvernementale serait sur le point de tomber aux mains de l’UNITA”. Le Monde(in French). p. 5.

Cock, Jacklyn; Nathan, Laurie (1989). War and Society: the Militarisation of South Africa. New Africa Books. ISBN 978-0-86486-115-3.

Crocker, Chester A. (1992). High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighborhood. W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-03432-5.

George, Edward (2005). The Cuban Intervention in Angola, 1965–1991. London, New York: Frank Cass. ISBN 978-0-415-35015-0.

Gleijeses, Piero (11 July 2007). “Cuito Cuanavale revisited: analysis”. Mail & Guardian Online.[permanent dead link]

Holt, C. (2005). At Thy Call We Did Not Falter. Zebra Press. ISBN 978-1-77007-117-9.

Jaster, Robert S. (1990). The 1988 Peace Accords and the Future of South-western Africa. Adelphi Papers. 253. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. ISBN 978-0-08-040974-0.

Maier, Karl (1996). Angola: Promises and Lies. London: Serif. ISBN 978-1-897959-22-0.

Marcum, John (1990). “South Africa and the Angola-Namibia Agreement”. In Owen Ellison Kahn. Disengagement from Southwest Africa: The Prospects for Peace in Angola and Namibia. New Brunswick: University of Miami Institute for Soviet and East European Studies. ISBN 978-0-88738-361-8.

Martin, James W.; Broadhead, Susan Herlin (2004). Historical Dictionary of Angola(2nd ed.). Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-4940-2.

McFaul, Michael (1990). “Rethinking the “Reagan Doctrine” in Angola”. International Security. 14 (3): 99–135. JSTOR 2538933.

Mills, Greg; Williams, David (2006). Seven Battles that Shaped South Africa. Cape Town: Tafelberg. ISBN 978-0-624-04298-3.

Niddrie, David (1988). “Angola: The siege of Cuito Cuanavale”. Africa Confidential. 29 (3).

Nortje, Piet (2003). 32 Battalion. Cape Town: Struik Publishers. ISBN 978-1-86872-914-2.

Pazzanita, Anthony (1991). “The conflict resolution process in Angola”. Journal of Modern African Studies. 29 (1): 83–114. doi:10.1017/s0022278x00020759. JSTOR 160994.

Radu, Michael; Arnold, Anthony (1990). The New Insurgencies: Anticommunist Guerrillas in the Third World. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-0-88738-307-6.

Ricardo Luis, Roger (1989). Prepárense a vivir: Crónicas de Cuito Cuanavale. Havana: Editora Politica.

Scholtz, Leopold (2013). The SADF in the Border War 1966–1989. Cape Town: Tafelberg (NB Publishers) (published 15 May 2013). ISBN 9780624054108. Retrieved 13 October 2014.

Trainor, Bernard E. (12 July 1988). “South Africa’s strategy on Angola falls short, enhancing Cubans’ role”. The New York Times.

Treaster, Joseph B. (28 July 1988). “Castro faults Soviet tactics in war in Angola”. The New York Times.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission (29 October 1998). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (PDF) (Report). 2.

Vanneman, Peter (1990). “Soviet foreign policy for Angola/Namibia in the 1980s: a strategy of coercive diplomacy”. In Owen Ellison Kahn. Disengagement from Southwest Africa: The Prospects for Peace in Angola and Namibia. New Brunswick: University of Miami Institute for Soviet and East European Studies. pp. 69–94. ISBN 978-0-88738-361-8.

Walker, John Frederick (2004). A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope. Grove Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-4068-5.

Polack, Peter (2013). Last Hot Battle of the Cold War. Casemate. ISBN 978-1612001951.

Gennady Shubin; Andrei Tokarev, eds. (2011). Bush War : the road to Cuito Cuanavale : Soviet soldiers’ accounts of the Angolan war (English ed.). Jacana Media. ISBN 9781431401857.

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Image: Government Ministers and Army Generals at Cuito Cuanavale minefields. [Source:]

Online Links:


Cubans soldiers over a T-55 in Angola

MiG-23UB FAPA I-21 . Foto de Vasco Enrique, Air International


Fidel nelson3








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