How Fidel Castro's 15,000 Cuban invaders of Angola, armed by Russia, won a victory by default over the anti-Communist forces is told in detail for the first time in an exhaustive study, which begins on this page today, of this largely secret war.
The author, Robert Moss, shows that the United States, having begged South Africa to put troops in to offset the Communist intervention, lost its nerve and failed to stop the great build-up of men, guns and aircraft from across the seas, which had started, trucked right across the African continent, way back in 1964.
The Russians' motives were far from ideological. They were after oil, diamonds, minerals - and naval bases.
Only now, when the war is nominally over but guerrilla resistance continues, does the truth of this extraordinary adventure begin to emerge.
The pro-Communist forces outnumbered the anti-Communists by 10 to 1 in weaponry. Ten times as many Cubans as South Africans went in. But it was failure of will which determined the issue in the end.
New details gathered in South Africa, Washington, Barbados, Lisbon, Paris, Madrid, Jerusalem and the States neighbouring Angola show how the plot was hatched, the war fought and the political capitulation of the West ensured. The captured diary of a Cuban soldier vividly recreates what it was like for these interlopers in a black civil war.
On the morning of October 7, 1975, a company of teenage soldiers from Jonas Savimbi's anti- Soviet UNITA movement was heading west through central Angola. The men belonged to one of three black guerrilla movements which had been promised a share in Angola's independence from Portugal, then only a month away. Their mission was to intercept a column of pro-Soviet MPLA forces that was reported to be striking east towards Nova Lisboa, Angola's second biggest city.
The UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) column had started out from its base in Silva Porto with two old Panhard armoured cars (a gift from President Mobutu of Zaire) but one had broken down along the way. Its other weaponry was not impressive: three jeep-mounted anti-tank missile launchers, two 106mm recoilless guns, and four .50 Browning machine-guns. But at this stage that was virtually the full inventory of UNITA's hardware.
The column included 14 South African infantry instructors acting as advisers, led by a major. They were tough professionals who had volunteered to go to the aid of UNITA in what had so far been a losing battle against superior Soviet-supplied weapons. They wore UNITA uniforms.
Some four-and-a-half miles outside the village of Norton de Matos, the little column reached a bridge. Scouts were sent forward, and reported that the enemy was not in sight. But then a spotter plane appeared overhead, and one of the black soldiers opened up on it with a machine-gun. This was the signal for all hell to break loose. From over the brow of the hills beyond the river the concealed MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) forces opened up with recoilless guns, light artillery, air-burst mortars - and five Soviet-built T-34 tanks with Cuban crews joined in.
The South African major's jeep was knocked out from under him by an armour-piercing projectile from one of the tanks, but he escaped uninjured. UNITA's young soldiers - who had had only two weeks to prepare them for war - scattered in confusion. But UNITA's solitary armoured car, commanded by a South African lieutenant, swung forward and lobbed a 90mm shell into one of the Soviet tanks, which disappeared in flames. The South Africans managed to knock out a second tank with one of UNITA's 106mm guns. After this the other three Soviet tanks pulled back.
While the enemy mortars kept up an intensive fire, the South Africans, ducking and weaving, slammed six anti-tank missiles towards the hidden positions, without any certainty of hitting anything. But a UNITA patrol subsequently claimed that 116 of the enemy had been killed. There were no South African casualties.
This skirmish at an obscure spot in central Angola (never before reported) was the first armed confrontation between the Cubans and the South Africans, the prelude to an extraordinary war in which one of the most brazen land-grabs that the Russians and their satellites have attempted proved to be successful - not because of victory on the battlefield, but because of the political failure of the United States to deliver sufficient support to the anti-Soviet guerrillas.
The Communist invasion of Angola is one of the most decisive, and most sombre, turning- points in the whole period since 1945. It is the story of how more than 15,000 troops from a sugar-cane republic in the Caribbean were transported 6,000 miles across the Atlantic to serve as the Gurkhas of the Soviet Empire, and how a pro-Communist Government in Lisbon, and a number of Third World Governments, smoothed the way for that invasion.
It is also the story of how the South Africans - supposedly pariahs - were begged by the United States and by moderate black African leaders to put troops into Angola to offset the Communist intervention. By the end of a lightning armoured offensive the South Africans came within a hair's breadth of securing a total military victory for the anti-Communist black movements of Angola. Why that victory was thrown away is the most complex story of all. But the most damning factor was the failure of nerve in Washington.
In an age of televised battles, the war for Angola was a remarkably secret war, and the truth of what happened is only slowly beginning to seep out. The Cubans have just produced their authorised version, in the form of a book-length article published by the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the Mexican magazine Progreso. In the midst of a wealth of factual detail, his account is littered with distortions and plain untruths.
For example, Garcia Marquez states that the decision to send Cuban combat soldiers into Angola was taken on November 5, 1975. But Cuban troops were on the battlefield months before then. He gives the impression of a triumphal Cuban march to the south in the early months of 1976, but does not mention that it took the Cubans more than two months to occupy the territory that the South Africans vacated after they took the political decision to withdraw.
But there are two basic truths in the Garcia Marquez account. The first is that the Cuban invasion was encouraged by the belief that the Americans, after Vietnam, Watergate and the witch-hunt against the CIA, were in no shape to respond effectively to Communist aggression. The second is that the Cubans were confident that, if they ran into real trouble, their Russian sponsors would not allow them to fail.
I cannot profess to write the secret history of the Angola war in full, but this narrative (based on authoritative sources in several non-Communist countries) will tell a great deal that has never been told before. First, there is the Communist invasion of Angola and how it was achieved; then the course of the war, including the battle for Luanda, the capital; and then the United States' capitulation, which has brought, in President Kaunda's chilling phrase, a "plundering tiger and her savage cubs" to the gates of Rhodesia, South Africa, and the moderate black African States.
The Russians had been deeply involved in Angola since the early 1960s. In 1956 the rigidly pro-Soviet Portuguese Communist Party had helped to found the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, in which Dr. Agostinho Neto - a mulatto who had helped to set up a clandestine Communist group during his student days in Oporto - emerged as the dominant figure. In the early 1960s the MPLA established its first contacts with the Cubans, who were helping to run a training camp for African guerrillas at Dolisie in Congo-Brazzaville. A number of MPLA cadres also received training in Cuba during this period.
In 1964 the Portuguese Communist leader Alvaro Cunhal set up a meeting for Agostinho Neto with the Soviet leaders in Moscow. This was the trigger for a more ambitious Soviet support programme. The Russians began shipping consignments of arms and food to Dar-es- Salaam, from where they were trucked to the MPLA via Zambia. Soviet merchant vessels laden with small arms, AK-47 rifles, RPG-7 rocket launchers, and mortars became a familiar sight in Tanzanian waters. The Russians also began doling out a cash subsidy ranging between $150,000 and $300,000 a year.
Most significant, perhaps, the Russians began to receive a regular intake of MPLA recruits for training at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism (for aspiring commissars), at the army camp at Simferopol in the Ukraine (for rank-and-file soldiers), and at the Frunzi military college (for officer material). One of the graduates of Frunzi was Iko Carreira who, as the MPLA's Minister of Defence, was to play a critical role in the secret talks that led to the Cuban invasion of Angola.
Soviet aid to the MPLA diminished between 1972 and 1974, apparently as a result of the movement's miserable performance in guerrilla operations against the Portuguese. There was a sharp renewal of interest in the MPLA, however, just before the coup in Lisbon on April 25, 1974, that set the scene for the decolonisation of Portuguese Africa.
The Portuguese Communists were deeply involved in the coup, and the Russians had at least six weeks' forewarning of it. But for the Russians the key strategic objective was not Portugal itself, but Portugal's African possessions - above all Angola, rich in oil, diamonds and other minerals, and occupying a vital geopolitical position. UNITA sources have claimed that as early as 1969 the Russians concluded a secret treaty with the MPLA leader Neto under which they undertook to guarantee continued support in return for a pledge that, if the MPLA succeeded, it would allow Russia to set up naval bases in Angola.
The Portuguese announced their plans for decolonisation in August, 1974. In the second half of that year, the Russians shipped arms valued at $6 million to the MPLA via Dar-es-Salaam. They also opened up a new route for arms deliveries via Congo-Brazzaville. Weapons were either shipped to the Congolese port of Pointe Noire, and then smuggled into the Cabinda enclave by truck, or flown into the Maya Maya air base, outside Brazzaville, and ferried into Angola by small vessels plying the deserted north-western coast or by small cargo planes.
At this stage, the Portuguese High Commissioner in Angola was Admiral Rosa Coutinho, the "Red Admiral", notorious for his pro-MPLA sympathies. Sources close to the leaders of the rival National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) claimed that the bitter hostility that Rosa Coutinho displayed towards the FNLA and its leader, Holden Roberto, was connected with the indignities inflicted on him when, as a young colonial army officer based at Santo Antonio de Zaire, he was captured by FNLA troops and imprisoned in Kinshasa for six months. Holden Roberto's brother-in-law is President Mobutu of Zaire.
It fell to General Silva Cardoso (who was abruptly sacked in July, on the pretext of "physical and psychological exhaustion") to preside over the disintegration of the political formula for Angola's future that had been agreed on at a conference at Alvor in Portugal and signed on January 15, 1975. The three Angolan guerrilla movements were to have striven in a transitional Government to prepare for a general election on October 30, and independence on November 11. They were also supposed to provide 8,000 men each for a national defence force.
But the MPLA and its backers had no intention of sharing power with anyone, still less of holding general elections in which UNITA - because of its political base among the Ovimbundu peoples, the largest ethnic group in the country - would almost certainly have swept the board. Between April and August, 1975, Soviet-bloc arms flowed in through the ports of Luanda, Dar-es-Salaam and Pointe Noire, and the Russians also embarked on a major airlift of arms by Soviet military transports landing in Brazzaville.
The MPLA was being equipped for conventional war with rocket-launchers and with T-54 and T-34 tanks and field artillery. In contrast the FNLA and UNITA were still equipped with sidearms and little else. Although the CIA was authorised to spend $300,000 in covert support for the FNLA in January, 1975, supplies started to trickle through in significant quantities only in July - partly the result of holdups in Kinshasa, where the local officials are not famed for their efficiency or incorruptibility.
But it was no good supplying weapons without teaching the MPLA how to use them. In December, 1974, a large contingent of MPLA officers and NCOs had been flown to Russia for intensive training. But early in 1975 a more momentous decision was taken: to put Cuban instructors into Angola.
Cuba's Deputy Foreign Minister, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, publicly admitted (in a speech in December, 1975) that there were already 230 Cuban military instructors in the MPLA in the spring of 1975. Some may have been transferred around this time to the fort of Massangano. On July 25 another 50 Cubans arrived by plane in Brazzaville to help assemble arms stocked at Pointe Noire.
Left-wing Portuguese officers who had visited Havana in July had undertaken (according to the Garcia Marquez version) to secure formal Portuguese approval for Cuban aid to the MPLA. In August the MPLA Defence Minister, Iko Carreira, visited Moscow and asked for Soviet troops to support his movement. The Russians immediately rejected his request, no doubt fearing American intervention, but it was suggested to Carreira that he should put the same request to the Cubans. Soon afterwards Carreira met three senior Cuban advisers in Luanda, and it became their task to sound out Castro.
Despite the involvement of the Cubans in other parts of Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean, some well-placed Western sources believe that Castro did not immediately become fired with enthusiasm for this new prospect of ideological derring-do. His main fear was that the Americans would retaliate - possibly by direct action, or at least by a blockade, against Cuba. The pitiful state of the Cuban economy and the slender defence budget (a nominal $300 million a year) might have been another disincentive. But the Russians made it clear that they would be footing the bills, and are said to have offered secret assurances that they would enter the Angolan conflict directly in the event of American intervention.
At the same time, a series of radical black African Governments, including Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Mozambique, and the Congo-Brazzaville, plus Algeria, pressed Castro to send in troops.
On August 16, 200 more Cuban instructors reached Luanda, where the MPLA was now in uncontested control. During August UNITA sources reported that some of the Cubans transferred south to Lobito and Benguela, where the Cubans established a training camp and a supply base. In the bitter fighting in which the MPLA seized control of Lobito, a traditional UNITA stronghold, that same month, "yellow-faced men who spoke Spanish" are said to have fought with the MPLA. In September, on the northern front, the FNLA found the bodies of two Cubans in a burned-out armoured car.
From late September, the arrival of Cuban troops steadily accelerated. As with the arms shipments, Congo-Brazzaville was the key transhipment point. President Marien Ngouabi was promised his reward for services rendered when he visited Havana in mid-September. Fidel Castro promised him some expensive military assistance, including the gift of six Soviet-built patrol boats (the Congo republic had only two), Soviet MiG fighters, and training in Cuba for Congolese commandos.
Then La Playa de Habana docked on October 12 with another 500 troops. The previous day 270 Cubans, including pilots, had reached Brazzaville by air. On October 14 a Cuban Communist Party delegation turned up in Brazzaville and assured the MPLA that Cuba would provide the pilots to fly the MiG-21s and MiG-17s that were being supplied by Russia. That was the day that a South African armoured column crossed the Angolan border from its base headquarters at Runtu.
On October 16, Russian transport aircraft landed another 800 Cuban soldiers at Brazzaville. These and subsequent Soviet flights made use of landing rights at Algiers and Conakry. On October 18 and 19 the 500 Cubans who had sailed in La Playa de Habana were flown to Angola in Soviet military planes. The following day another 750 Cubans were landed at Novo Redondo, south of Luanda, by coastal vessels. On October 26, 160 Cubans landed at the Maya Maya air base and left the same day for Angola.
As Castro's men continued to arrive, the quantity and quality of the Soviet war material shipped to Pointe Noire increased spectacularly: MiG-21 jet fighters in parts (to be assembled in Congo-Brazzaville), tanks, armoured vehicles, rocket launchers and small arms. Many of these weapons were transferred to huge arms depots set up inside Angola, at Porto Amboin and Quicama, ready to be used by the Cuban reinforcements as they came in.
By Angola's independence day, November 11, there were at least 4,000 Cuban troops based in Angola. Some 2,500 of them were stationed in Luanda and on the Quifangondo front, where their presence enabled the MPLA to fight off the FNLA's drive towards the capital. Hence it is nonsense to make out that Cuba's decision to send in major combat units was taken only in early November, after South Africa's intervention.
In the two months after independence the strength of the Cuban forces in Angola was increased to over 15,000. Some of the troops came from the special infantry of the Interior Ministry (the equivalent of the KGB's special troops, who are experts in internal repression), but more were "volunteers", drawn from the ranks of former national servicemen, who were offered substantial pay increases to make the trip. Not everyone was told that he was going to war.
Sergeant Esequiel Mustelier, a 23-year old small farmer from Oriente province, who was captured by the South Africans in the Cariango area on December 10, claimed that he had left Angola on what he believed to be a peaceful mission, to build schools in Angola.
Carlos Maru Mesa, and Roberto Morales Bellma, taken prisoner on December 12, claimed they had left Cuba believing that they were being sent on a political course in Russia.
It is not clear whether the Barbadian Government gave the green light. But the then Prime Minister, Mr. Errol Barrow, conceded in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph that there may have been as many as 50 flights before he was forced to lodge a formal protest with the Cubans on December 17. Other observers say that at the height of the airlift there were between 10 and 15 flights a week, and as many as five in a single night. It is impossible to believe that Mr. Barrow's Government did not know from very early on about these mysterious planes.
American pressure finallt stopped the flights, although there was a wrangle within the American Embassy at the time over how much pressure should be applied. The black American Ambassador, Theodore Britton, was accused by the head of his political section of trying to "ingratiate" himself with Barrow.
This official, William Diedrich, has claimed that Mr. Britton failed to take a firm line on the troop movements. Diedrich was moved from Barbados after what he calls "a difference of opinion" with the Ambassador.
He maintains that it was clearly a military airlift, but the Barbadian authorities prevaricated by telling the Americans they were investigating. Diedrich also says that the Ambassador was "not taken in" but rather than show greater firmness he appeared to accept what Barrow told him.
Barrow told The Sunday Telegraph that he was unaware of the true nature of the Cubana flights. He also insisted that the Cubans had never made any kind of approach to him seeking permission to send their troop planes through Barbados.
What does not seem to be in dispute is that each plane carried about 100 men. They were wearing civilian clothing but were carrying briefcases containing weapons. The baggage holds of the aircraft reportedly carried loads of small arms, light artillery, small cannons and mortars.
After the Barbados connection was cut off, the Cubans turned to Eric Williams, the Prime Minister of Trinidad, for the same facilities. But he refused, on the ground that he was not ready to back foreign intervention in Angola. However, the Cubans soon found more amenable countries.
The Portuguese played a key part in getting the Cubans to Angola around Christmas, 1975. Britannia-31s flown by Cubana de Aviacion were allowed refuelling facilities at the airbase on the island of Santa Maria in the Azores. The pattern was the same with five flights in the last days of December: the Cubans would land at night with their internal lights dimmed, and without declaring their cargo. No passengers would disembark.
But Portuguese military intelligence officers established that the flight from Havana on December 20 contained 94 passengers en route to Guinea-Bissau. Another 259 passengers were on four succeeding flights.
Senior Portuguese officers say that American pressure finally persuaded the Portuguese to cut off refuelling facilities, which had been initially granted on the personal authority of the then President, General Costa Gomes.
The tremendous logistical exercise that was mounted to get the Cubans and their equipment to Angola went virtually unreported at the time, and Western intelligence services were sometimes slow to pick up definite news of some of the key items that were being smuggled in. But the Cubans ran into plenty of snags along the way. Some of the small coasters used to trans-ship arms and men from the Congo republic into northern Angola were sabotaged: two were blown up by Portuguese agents in contact with the French intelligence service, and at least three more were blown up by South African commandos.
What was life like at the front for a Cuban gunner or rifleman - typically, a farm labourer or textile worker of 22 or 23 who had started his national service at the age of 16? The diary of a young soldier who was posted to an area near Quibala, the scene of the biggest battles that took place in Angola in December 1975, gave some insights.
He left Havana on "a huge plane" on November 4 (the day before Castro - according to his apologists - gave the order to invade Angola) and his flight took 28 hours. "They forbid us to take any documents or any proof of our identity," he noted in the first entry in the diary, "but everyone knows that there are Cubans in Angola."
One of the first things that struck him was the quantity of arms and ammunition stockpiled for the invading force. "I was fascinated with all the weapons that were lying around there, without belonging to anyone. It's just unreal, the amount of money which is wasted in war, and just for peanuts." Unlike many of his colleagues, it seems that he was a Christian, since he was shocked by the discovery in "a small deserted church which was abandoned by the Portuguese" of "a lot of English magazines with naked women."
Within a week or two of his arrival, he was complaining about the poor fighting quality of his MPLA allies. On November 21 he noted that "this morning, two of our armoured cars and a truck were unexpectedly destroyed by the enemy, while they were on patrol. These Angolans are really careless."
Two days later he was complaining that the blacks were unwilling to dig foxholes at night, even though the enemy guns were dug in nearby. The following day, the Cuban/MPLA forces suffered heavy losses: "38 killed, hundreds of prisoners, eight armoured cars destroyed and many people wounded."
As the campaign progressed, food, hygiene and wild rumours about the savagery of the enemy became nagging preoccupations. "These past few days, the food has not been sufficient for us, but thanks to God there are a lot of cattle around here. I found a bow and arrow, so I used it to hunt just like the primitive tribes used to do." Since UNITA controlled the richest agricultural lands in Angola throughout most of the campaign, the MPLA and its Cuban allies often went hungry - although the fact that the Cubans received airlifts of such delicacies as Hungarian sausage and East German pickles was a constant irritant for their black comrades.
Like any front-line soldier, the Cuban was soon worrying about hygiene. On December 1 he noted, "While in bed I killed 52 fleas. Yes, I counted them because they are like wild beasts, and they bit." By this stage, he had at least acquired a black girl to bring him coffee and other comforts.
On November 29 he was worrying about rumours that 18 Cuban prisoners had been eaten alive by black soldiers on the other side. "The news came from two or three of our troops who managed to escape." Similar stories had currency on both sides throughout the war. As the Cuban's diary indicates later on, the Cubans found it expedient to circulate rumours about enemy savagery in order to prevent their black auxiliaries from running away.
It was a war in which there were few creature-comforts, apart from the occasional cache of Angolan wine put away by some white settler who had taken flight. But the Cubans, officer and man, had one luxury: a weekly ration of 20 Havana cigars or cigarettes if they preferred.
The Cubans took some very hard knocks. At the Battle of Bridge 14, in the area north of Santa Comba on December 9, they lost 90 men. At a battle near Quibala on December 14 another 50 Cubans were killed. The seriously wounded Cuban soldiers were flown out to East Germany for treatment - apparently in order not to demoralise the people at home. Stories were current among the men in the field of refrigerator ships that were sent to take away the bodies of Cuban dead.
The Cubans' combat performance in Angola did little to create a Vietcong-type of myth of invincibility - at least among those who know what the fighting was really like. Nor did the propaganda talk about "revolutionary solidarity" or Castro's efforts to make out that there was some special affinity between the Angolan and Cuban peoples ("African blood runs in our veins") enable the expeditionary force to avoid friction with the people it was supposedly helping. Cuban prisoners were forthright in their views about their Angolan allies.
Standard complaints were that the MPLA were poorly trained and "a band of cowards." MPLA prisoners said many Cubans were "racists" who insisted on privileges denied to the black troops and who ruthlessly shot any black soldier who tried to retreat after his officers had already fled. Such tensions are still simmering. There was a report earlier this month of a clash in a barracks in southern Angola in which 10 Cubans were killed by the MPLA.
Castro's African safari has not ended with Angola. He made that plain in a speech on July 26, 1976, in which he declared that "Cuban military units and the necessary weapons have remained in Angola... This will continue as long as necessary...And Cuban soldiers will fight shoulder to shoulder with the Angolan people again." In Rhodesia? In South West Africa? In South Africa, the primary target of Communist aggression in the African continent?
A fresh effort is now under way - through articles, books and films - to depict the Cuban troops in Angola as conquering heroes fired with love of the cause, before whom the enemy lines opened up like the Red Sea.
The truth, as succeeding articles will show, was somewhat different. The Cubans outnumbered the South African forces in Angola by 10 to one. Thanks to Soviet largesse, the pro-Moscow forces outgunned the anti-Communist forces by more than 10 to one, and had MiG fighters available to boot. Yet the Cubans "won" only in the sense that South Africa felt politically obliged to withdraw, while black anti-Communist guerrillas fight on.
It was a victory nonetheless. It taught us that in the great world conflict for which Angola was only one of the battlefields, victory or defeat depends on political will.
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