Bridgland's first book on Southern Africa was JONAS SAVIMBI, A KEY TO AFRICA, which gained wide critical acclaim.
THE WAR FOR AFRICA covers the 1987/88 operations in which the South African Defence Force faced Cuban and Angolan troops in what was to become the biggest war in black Africa's history, costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars worth of weapons and equipment.
The war involved only 3,000 South African soldiers and about 8,000 UNITA
guerrillas against a total of some 50,000 Cuban and FAPLA troops, directed
by Soviet officers. The more flexible Boer War style tactics of the South
African and UNITA forces, together with a much higher level of training,
enabled the SADF to largely control the progress of the war, despite their
small numbers and the huge amount of sophisticated military hardware thrown
into action against them. Also of considerable importance was the support
that UNITA enjoyed from the population and their higher morale and motivation
in fighting the war. Bridgland points out that without UNITA:
South Africa would have faced a large Cuban force on the Namibian border demanding liberty for the territory with wide international support. The South African government had already concluded that Namibia's independence was inevitable, but that it would not come at the behest of Havana, whose military dictator Fidel Castro was demanding for Namibians and South Africans the kind of freedoms he denied his own fellow Cubans. Much as South Africans desired an end to their pariah status in the international community, they were not so soft-headed as even to consider succumbing to this kind of hypocrisy. They knew what the consequences would be of a militarily and ideologically confident Cuban force sitting on the Namibian border free of any challenge from within Angola.Equally, UNITA was totally dependent on the SADF to add conventional muscle to their guerrilla operations - without it they could not hope to withstand an all-out determined frontal assault by the Cuban forces. The extent of the forces ranged against them showed the degree of seriousness with which the Soviets regarded them. In 1985 Soviet General Shaganovitch took over control of the Angolan forces, the highest ranking Soviet officer ever posted on active service outside Europe or Afghanistan. Under him served some 950 Soviet and 2,000 East German military "advisers".
What they lacked in numbers and equipment the South Africans made up for in quality and initiative. Their "Recce" units, for example, were special forces units, easily the equal of the British SAS. They were given the toughest and most dangerous tasks of the war, usually behind enemy lines. Many of their operations were carried out at night, in contrast to the UNITA guerrillas who regarded day-time as the time for fighting, and the nights as a time to relax!
The difference in tactics became obvious in September 1987 when the
Angolan troops of 21 Brigade tried to cross the Lomba River and were caught
in the act by troops of the South African 32 "Buffalo" Battalion and 101
Battalion. Calling in artillery fire from the new G5 guns, the bridge used
by FAPLA was soon destroyed. Bridgland relates that:
At the end of the short encounter, the South Africans quickly counted more than 300 dead on the battlefield from 21 Brigade, but estimated the enemy's total losses in all the September encounters at 400 to 600 dead. The SADF had suffered only one man slightly wounded from shrapnel. 21 Brigade, although partly emasculated, continued to make desultory efforts to cross at the same point, but were easily repulsed by Battle Group Bravo. Ferreira, well acquainted with the inflexibility of Soviet military doctrine, nevertheless marvelled at the futility of the exercise: 'It is unbelievable that a tenet can be so rigid that it can force people to commit suicide all the time.After particularly heavy fighting on the Lomba in October, both UNITA and the SADF profited greatly from the wealth of equipment they were able to capture. The SADF found itself in possession of a complete SAM-8 missile system, the first time the West had captured one, and UNITA was able to supplement its armoury with T54/55 tanks. SADF men taught the guerrillas how to drive the metal monsters and for some time the area was decidedly unsafe as tanks careered off in unexpected directions, vanished into the bush and reappeared from the opposite direction...
Much of the credit for the SADF victories must go to the G5/G6 guns, which proved their worth time and again. Manufactured by South Africa, they were extremely accurate and regarded by most foreign experts as the best in the world. The guns were in action almost non-stop, day and night, and often their targets were relayed to them by UNITA units. The G5 gunners exhibited the equivalent of Boer machismo by refusing to use European- style shell carrying cradles (4 men to a cradle) and instead using brute strength to hoist each shell in their arms.
In October South African-made Olifant tanks joined the conflict, the first time that South African tanks had been used in battle since World War II. In their first action against the Angolan 16 Brigade the Olifants destroyed 5 T54/55s and captured one intact for the loss of one damaged track. The technical superiority of the Olifants was demonstrated by the fact that not once was their armour penetrated by enemy fire. By November, on the other hand, over 90 Angolan tanks had been destroyed.
Although the Angolan Air Force claimed superiority in the air, it was largely a result of the fact that the SAAF was reluctant to risk losing any of their valuable aircraft unless it was absolutely necessary to commit them to battle. Despite Angolan propaganda claiming over 40 "kills" of Mirages, a tally that was widely accepted by the Western media, Bridgland confirms that throughout the entire campaign only one Mirage of the SAAF was shot down. It happened while four Mirages were "toss-bombing" a convoy at Cuatir on 19 February 1988. The toss-bombing technique was developed by the SAAF and was the opposite of accepted tactics. Instead of flying into enemy territory at great height and then diving at great speed to deliver the bombs, the Mirages flew in to their targets at a height of 50 metres above the ground, then rose up steep and fast while seven or eight kilometres away from the target, releasing the bombs and thus "lobbing" them onto it and then immediately returning to a height of 30 metres for the return journey. During the Cuatir attack the Mirage piloted by Major Every was hit by Angolan anti-aircraft fire and went down. By nightfall the wreckage was swarming with Cuban troops looking for documents. The South Africans gave them time to reach the site and then fired 96 rockets onto the position of the wreck, destroying it completely and killing over 150 Cuban and Angolan soldiers at the same time.
Although the Angolan planes were flying up to 60 sorties per day, they were largely ineffective and on at least 6 occasions bombed their own infantry positions. Their tally at the end of the war was four SADF men killed.
Towards the middle of 1988, Castro, who had taken personal control of the war, wanted to withdraw from Angola and discussions began on how this could be accomplished without losing face. One of Castro's top generals in Angola had already tried to defect and Moscow was pressing Castro to reach a settlement. The Cuban leader adopted an aggressive stance and threw more Cuban troops into the front line in order to lend weight to his negotiating position in the peace talks. General Del Pino, who also defected to the West, pointed out that it was pure bluff on Castro's part and that he feared defeat was imminent.
Cuban forces, integrated with SWAPO units, nevertheless pressed on to within 12 kilometres of the Namibian border. Facing 11,000 Cubans and perhaps 2,000 SWAPO was a force of 500 battle-hardened men from 32 "Buffalo" Battalion, the only available troops at the border until reinforcements could arrive. They held the line until tanks and artillery could be moved up. Cuban MiG-23s joined the fray and one was shot down. As the South African forces prepared to move North to engage the Cubans in what promised to be a Cuban nemesis, the Cubans signed the New York peace accords and avoided disaster.
The Cubans immediately claimed victory, which Bridgland points
out was 'nonsense', but that:
the Cuban story was taken at face value by Castro's sympathisers in the Western press and repeated so many times that it became received truth. The Cubans were helped by the South Africans' own clumsy efforts at propaganda, which amounted to saying as little as possible about the full-scale war they fought in Angola.The SADF at no stage had wanted an all-out war that would take them to Luanda as conquerors. Their objectives had been to fight a limited war in support of UNITA and prevent the Cubans from capturing UNITA's strongholds. The SADF had succeeded in this and was content to let the Cubans take the limelight. As Bridgland points out in his final summary of the war:
The War for Africa and the New York accords provided Cuba with pretexts for slipping out of a commitment that had become too hot and too expensive to handle. In 1975, when the Cuban adventure in Angola began, the 'scientific socialist' and 'internationalist' tide running from Moscow looked unstoppable. By 1988 it was a faded dream. Despite 13 years of Cuban support, the Angolan economy was ruined. The Marxist MPLA was in utter disarray and was trying desperately to shed its 'scientific-socialist' past... Castro's dreams of a Marxist revolution spreading from Angola to encompass the whole of Southern Africa had become a poor music hall joke...